Frequencies: an interview with Jason Boughton
Mike Hoolboom
Here is a first person protest against the foreign ventures of American empire, a demonstration of video rooted in the body, as a body, walking into funeral grounds and across streets where his kind has been before, slowing things down so he can understand, and hear at last the voices which sound from these places, the phantoms which are clamoring to be heard, singing, wailing, the soldiers from Vietnam and Iraq, the embassy personnel, the empty promises of presidents past and present. His practice begins with a long troll through the internet, he is a virtual pirate, a gluttonous fan (is there nothing he is not interested in?), searching for pictures the empire has left behind. In place of the camera, the internet, and once they have come home, regathered their digital parts into movies that he pulls apart and then together, he searches for a way to make them visible again. It isn’t simply a question of re-presentation, of some clever reframing. Instead, he tries to close the door, he looks for a way for these pictures to refuse the viewer, to keep their mystery and demand our approach. Jason’s battleground of pictures refuses the survey look, the pan that maps out territory, the aerial view that designates targets. How very necessary this work is, particularly now, when the divisions of form and content seem larger than ever, when the documentary belongs to television and formal experiments to the art world. So many state terrors have become visible, but few can be seen, except in those instances when time has been re-introduced into the act of looking, when there is time above all to wait for these pictures to unfold, and lay bare the dark secrets that produced these everyday catastrophes.

MH: How did you find the title for The Frequency of the Sun (10 min, 2005)? Does naming come first, as something to gather thoughts around, or does it occur as an afterthought?

JB: Until recently, I worked by accumulation; images were added to or subtracted from other images until some sense emerged, or until they articulated an argument. Frequency started with a sequence of outtakes from Why We Fight, the American propaganda films made by Frank Capra. Some of those images are still there, but the first assemblies contained many more.

The name came along soon thereafter, when I found a source online for radiographic videos from NASA. There were audio clips as well, low-frequency solar radiation played through a radio receiver. That noise is under almost all of the tape, though it’s mostly inaudible. After the name was fixed, it became litmus for the other material: did it fit the name, which was also the name of all the parts as well as the whole...

This was during the American war in Afghanistan, and even then the Iraq war seemed a foregone conclusion. It was clear that all of this real and impending violence was totally impractical, that is, it would fail to address whatever the “problem” was, people seemed to want it to happen because it might be satisfying, not because it would be useful. This was the atmosphere while I was collecting material, and the goal of the video was always to make an argument about the American obsession with ritual violence, this enormous cliché, without actually engaging in the frustrating, spectacular, greatest-generation clichés.

MH: The opening shot is a bravura track through what appears to be a Midwest cornfield, though the preceding title has clearly identified this landscape as Iraq. It is a striking juxtaposition, and carries with it a sense that us and them are somehow the same. Where did you find this shot and why is it so long? Is duration an issue for you?

JB: The misidentification of the first shot is a trick I resort to fairly often, and is less a proposal of equivalence than an opportunity for confusion, like a small pin-prick opening made in the known, through which disorientation can spurt. A large part of my goal in any of these little videos is to sow confusion among the faithful, though I doubt the faithful are ever in a position to see my work.

That first shot is the opening of Oklahoma!, a cold-war era musical about the taming of the American mid-west. The final shot is its evil twin, from Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. I needed long shots, deep focus, broad horizons, limitless possibilities, and the fact that these two came from major motions pictures at opposite ends of the cold war was an added bonus.

MH: How did you decide on the music?

JB: The music in Frequency is there mostly because it's awful and beautiful at the same time, and I wanted the structure of the video to be ‘musical,’ that is, taken from a musical form. I picked the Motet, early small ensemble vocal arrangements, which usually had a sacred function. The lyrics were almost always bits of poetry rather than verses from the bible or sections of the mass. They have a very loose rhythm and an episodic structure, with each vocal stanza given individual (if interrelated) melodic treatment. They (as well as lots of other things) are associated with early polyphony. The key piece of music in Frequency is Vivaldi's setting of 'Piango, Gemo...' an anonymous poem which describes a heart so broken the only hope for rest is that another greater pain might come destroy the speaker completely. But all three are about powerlessness: the speakers describe their own total brokenness; they surrender to it with very little expectation of mercy.

We came of course under the cover of darkness, the terrain was level and open; it kind of reminded you of a field in Kansas, a farmer’s fields. It was wide open, gentlemen were out there herding cattle and sheep and women were gathering up wood and children were playing. Then we began to hear the voice of children carrying on and talking back and forth… and it was of some concern to me but I really didn’t feel that we were in danger… forming up after the night… that changed suddenly. I got on the radio and called back and told them that we’d been seen. And as we’re on the radio talking, I caught something out of the corner of my eye and there were some children moving along the canal, further back… I think I’ve been seen… These children to the east of us back away from the highway even further behind us, beginning to maneuver on us, and walking in the field around us… migod… There were two girls and a small boy with silenced weapons and the girl screamed. As they came in they would give out a yell, a battle cry like OOOOOO. And the girl screamed, it was terrifying but I can remember feeling inside myself my gosh we’re all going to die here. (voice-over from The Frequency of the Sun)

MH: Who is speaking and where did you find this testimony?

JB: It is taken from a BBC radio documentary about the first Gulf War. The soldier is describing a reconnaissance team which was dropped at night in northwest Iraq just after the war began, quite a bit off target, so that when the sun came up they found themselves more or less surrounded by small farms. It is a fairly well known incident; they were pinned down by small arms fire for about twelve hours, until they were able to get air cover (the cluster bombs) and helicopters in to rescue them. The helicopter pilots described hundreds of bodies of Iraqi farmers and soldiers, burned out trucks and more. When I heard the story I had a kind of retching, “gain the world, lose your soul” kind of response. Twelve marines, with only the weapons they could carry plus air strikes, spend half a day killing hundreds of Iraqis and then split without a scratch on them. Wow, this is amazing... but not the story you hear in Frequency. In that one, the Iraqis win, sort of. It is my revenge fantasy because I want my soul back.

MH: Why do we see pictures from the Battle of Britain where England/London was bombed by the Germans during World War Two? What is the relation between this imagery and the cluster bombs of the Iraq war, which is described in the voice-over?

JB: The black and white material was taken from Why We Fight. The shot in question is from a camera mounted in the nose of a dive-bomber, run in reverse and slowed down quite a bit.

My stepfather was a child in the Battle of Britain. His hobby was airplane identification; he won some sort of trophy for correctly identifying German planes by their undercarriages. He also spent some time in the tube, waiting for the impacts to stop, and came home one day and found a big hole where his house had been that morning. Later, after having been evacuated to the country, he watched a V2 vaporize the house behind his garden. So in my mind I'm not really comparing the American war machine to the Luftwaffe so much as I am comparing this old man to some Iraqi kid, watching the cluster bombs come down.

MH: America is presently at war (again), this time in Iraq (overtly), and busy organizing hostilities in many other countries. Your movie is, amongst other things, part of a motion picture protest, a venerable tradition in itself, though it is rare that works on the fringe take up overtly political themes. Why is this? And isn’t the exhibition of this work reserved for avant safe houses where it can be sure to play to the converted?

JB: What are the pillars of this tradition? Groupe Medvedkin or Jack Smith? Maybe it is difficult to make political films because the first fight is always against the authority of film itself, the all-consuming eye, the viscous empty spectacle... Godard spent years undermining his own authorship, but he outlived even that.

Any discussion of “center” and “margin” is political; it's my guess that you coined the term “fringe” by way of reintroducing a political logic into the kind of artistic production you like, as against the neutral and positivistic “experimental.” This sort of thing was called “avant-garde” not very long ago. I understand, though, that the limits of that protest tradition are contested; if Chris Marker’s SLON is one of its pillars, does that mean Jack Smith isn't? Smith's work is simultaneously a shattering critique of capitalist desire-production and the production of a shattering desire all its own. I want to imagine a wild and valuable politics at every stage of this kind of making; without help or money, showing it to people who may or may not pay, insisting on the value of something which is productive of nothing, which is without exchange value.

I'm just not sure about the safety of the avant house. Is everyone in there in love with the useless? Video at least has little credibility—no one even notices when it lies, or if they do they don't revere the lie as much. I'm bold enough to think that few audiences are already on my side, and once they've seen the videos, most wonder exactly which side is mine. That’s the goal, anyway.

MH: A Halter of Strongly Twisted Rope. (17 min, 2005) opens in the New York subway, a picture of “home,” but seen through the wire scrims of an electrical conveyance, and the windows of an adjacent train that move past, offering isolating glimpses of a trapped and framed humanity, each of us locked into our own compartment, dreaming alone. Then a woman appears sleeping by the window. Oh, it was only a dream. If there is a central character to be found in this movie, here she is, though she never speaks, and appears in sidelong glances, or at an angle whose particular kind of awkwardness can come only out of intimacy.

JB: Most of the shots in Halter are from a vacation video I took in Egypt, including the train shot, the busted up cars, the hotel, the bedroom, the cemetery. The woman is my girlfriend Gretchen. It's a travel movie, and those are the things we saw, and those are the people who saw us when we went to Egypt: this tautology is more or less intentional. We learned nothing from the French architecture, we had no experiences in the Coptic cemetery or the Muslim necropolis, the Socialist-era transit system was invisible to us, the radical, post-colonial collapse of signifiers left no impression. It was pretty intense.

MH: The second movement returns us to the cemetery. You walk through it with your camera; it is an American body moving once more through the spaces where foreign nationals are lying dead. Everything trembles as if in response, surfaces ripple; the usual physics no longer apply. Voices accompany this passage, hysterical screams, US soldiers talking about familiar spaces becoming instantly dangerous. Then you present a hazy scene of catastrophe; people are running but from what? In the background a large menacing cloud slowly fills the screen. Reporter Carl Phillips tries to describe the moment but his narration is similarly abstract and indistinct. This scene reminded me of Morley Safer’s rap about embedded reporters and live coverage. He insists that live reportage is useless because reporters don’t have any way of knowing instantly what is going on. “It adds heat but it does not add light,” Safer quipped. At the very end of this scene we see a New York police car, and realize that this catastrophe is not happening “over there,” in other countries, where American violence is a commonplace, but “over here.”

JB: That might be the least expensive link in the chain of association the video tries to build. Carl Phillips is the reporter from Orson Welles's original broadcast of War of the Worlds, and it is the only accurate voice-over attribution in the piece. Carl Phillips knew exactly what was going on, was attuned to that emptiness, to the uncanny (the shock of the thing which is both familiar and terrifying). Is this moment in Halter making some sort of claim about how truth works, its strange structural relation to fiction? Or is it seeking an equivalence between the fear of the Other, which Welles exploited and the one Mohamed Atta enacted? Is that moment a dramatic re-creation of the terror of the Real, the unrepresentable, which can only be described through the fog of the Symbolic? This much is obvious: by the end of that sequence, nothing is clearer, no image more defined than when it started. And the thing Carl Phillips saw rising out of the pit went on to destroy everything in sight.

MH: The third movement finds us in New York: where are we, and why is the image slowed down? Is it significant that your shooting describes a circle? Once again the audio is sourced separately from the picture, which is one of the ways in which “politics” is produced, the sound/image relation is reimagined “politically.” Can you talk about the audio that accompanies this scene and why you used it?

JB: The voices over the Empire State shots are American pilots circa 1992, talking about the massacre of Iraqi troops between Basra and Baghdad, which is known as the Highway of Death. The shot itself was originally recorded in the summer of 2001, for use in a corporate recruiting film, some sort of impressionistic reveling in the glories of the big city. It was never used; postproduction was slated to start in late September, and by that time there were no longer any World Trade Center buildings in the distance, much less investment bank recruiting videos.

The voice at the beginning of section three is Robert McNamara in the mid-1970's, explaining that the bombing of North Vietnam was ethically acceptable because we could have nuked those little villages, and that would have been worse, right? Bin Laden clearly made the same sort of calculations, about how much force would be enough force, when he was planning the Trade Center attacks, but I hope the video does something more than make this comparison.

I think there is something basically wrong with Halter, a sort of misunderstanding between me and the material, between how I wanted to experience the present and what was, or is, representable. What I mean is, the dislocation produced by the motion effect is too small, too familiar, fails to ask a question. I no longer wonder if something in particular is revealed in those attenuated intervals, rather, I wonder if there is anything to reveal at all. Aren't the motion effects a mystification of that emptiness? Wouldn't it be better to see the tourists looking, and then see the camera looking? There is no image I could record that would ever be an image of a thing, more than a thing itself, so all that manipulation seems to obscure what was actually there—a building before the building was gone, a mass of anonymous desires, the slow grinding of the auto-zoom, all looking. I've started hunting around for the source material—maybe it will be revised entirely, same shots in the same order, in real time, the voice-over and music trailing out over black.

We had a phone conversation a few weeks ago—it was late and raining, and I had just finished fucking up yet another freelance editing job. We talked about Ken Jacobs' epic Tom Tom, the Piper’s Son. You suggested that the point of all that temporal atomization hung on some mystery revealed. Did I understand that correctly? Is there more than just the physical effect; wouldn't just staring at landscape passing from a train window produce the same value? And is that enough? My point is: I no longer wish to transport any viewer to a place of contemplation.

I guess you need to see my flicker movies. They are fucking punk rock, the farthest from formal things, flailing acts of psychic violence, horrible frontal-lobe-burning, cock-thrusting death fantasies. This is my way of approaching the Godard/Farocki demand: to enact metaphysics rather than just speak them, and then speak under meaning instead of at it, without presumptions of authority, in weakness.

Just back last night from the long holiday adventure back in the northwest. My giant family is wonderful, a mess of labor and difficulty and sincere trying to be together. The cost of this is enormous to them, free flowing bitterness and resentment, but the results are good, they are like a tribe of savages adhering to ancient rules even as the forest is burned down to make way for condos and strip malls. Being with them, every time, is so intense, their presence and love and interest is so aggressive. I don't know for sure that I could live among them, but the older I get the greater the feeling of loss every time I leave, the more certain I am that my exile is self-imposed.

Since then I have been making things pretty quickly, short segments of limited ambition, exercises. Almost all are made with footage of various conflicts in the Middle East, all found on the internet. I have spent hours dredging the web, on bit torrent sites, streaming news pages, bulletin boards, YouTube, etc. There are a few sites dedicated to tracking and collecting war footage of all types, especially the soldier-produced camera/phone footage and the trophy shots of roadside bombs exploding, shot by the paramilitary fighters who plant them.

During all this searching I found eight days worth of selects from a single source, a cameraman embedded with a marine unit during the first siege of Fallujah in 2004. For various hard to explain reasons, most of the location audio is unusable, and like most web video the picture is extremely compressed, but the footage is pretty amazing. It is at once tense and dull, violent and abstract because the enemy has been removed. During six hours of footage only six living Iraqis appear: two women in a basement apartment who are frightened but unharmed, and four men of various ages who cross a street on the fifth day, waving a white flag. None of the soldiers get injured, but every day the city is more fucked up. Debris piles up on the roads, more doors are smashed in, more smoke in the distance. I had the material for upwards of two years before I could think of what to do with it.

So far the soldier footage has turned into three short videos. Empty (6 minutes 2007) is a montage of long, static landscape shots, the sort of thing that might be used as establishing shots, moving closer into more defined spaces and then back out. Most of the audio is room tone from an effects library, and for the most part it doesn't match the shot in any way. The action in the shots is more a lack of action—sometimes there is smoke in the distance, or trees moving in the wind, or darkness increasing between one shot and the next. Sometimes the surface of the shot seems to be moving, but this is a mirage, it's just the compressed pixels rearranging themselves from one frame to the next. Otherwise the action is in the visible results of something that has already happened. The city is ruined, walls have fallen, something has burned or is burning, but the fire itself is invisible.

The second piece is called Home (20 sec, 2007). This is a silent, twenty-second sequence of action shots showing soldiers kicking in, shooting out or blowing up the doors of various buildings. The shots are extremely short, featuring only the moment of impact or explosion.

The longest soldier footage thing is called Movement (16 min, 2007). Unlike the other two pieces it loops and has no title card. I began work on Movement by stringing out all six hours of footage, and then I deleted all the material without soldiers, or whenever the camera was static or moving sideways or backwards or panning or zooming. That left the camera moving forward—even the slightest pause was cut. Through ruined streets, into broken gates and doors, up stairs, through homes, down stairs, back out into streets, running or walking, always in a long line of soldiers moving forward. The original audio is replaced with slick production sound effects of anything that might make a noise on-screen, mostly footsteps on sand, gravel, tile floors or concrete streets, but also doors opening and closing, metal scraping on metal, and occasionally the sounds of hands adjusting automatic rifles. Once you see a truck drive by and once a tank, so you hear those as well. There is no speaking, no ambient tone, room tone or wind.

MH: The missing enemy, the ruined city, the perpetual war machine marching forwards. How many times have pictures from this war lit up broadcast screens around the world, and how seldom does any sense attach itself to these public communions? Your movies feel like they have been set inside the mirage of “coverage,” but why the abstract sound treatment, allowing us to hear the Foley artist at work, generating appropriate (if incomplete) aural accompaniments to these bloody imperial designs?

JB: The embedded shooter made many precise decisions, with results that are experienced as much as known. The static wide shots look just like landscape painting, the set-up shots of forced entry, the endless POV traveling shots are all created for serial digestion. The shots are so well built, there seemed nothing more fact-like than the decisions on the surface; here was a useful, awful contradiction. The added audio work was driven by a similar need for awful contradiction. The surface texture is extremely degraded (because of compression), so it needed a noise that would fight with it in the subtlest way possible. I collected as many footsteps sound effects as I could find, recorded some of my own, spent days and nights placing them and still it isn't perfect. For the first minutes it is hard to tell the sound is fake. Then you think you know, and then you're not sure. It's unsettling, maybe just a little horrifying, a little!

Got a new tattoo, A huge northwestern native sea monster on my right shoulder reaching round to my back. A wild angry monster, an agent of chaos, the blessing of unpredictability. It still hurts.