Jeff Preiss, ‘STOP’, 2012, 16mm transferred to Digital Media, 120 min. Courtesy the artist

‘The most productive space for me is one of doubt’ – in conversation with Jeff Preiss – Reflections #24

Issue no3
June - July 2022
Make Friends Not Art

Jeff Preiss’ show at Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam showcases his intuitive, diaristic style of filmmaking. Weronika Trojanska interviews him about his working methods.

Jeff Preiss, acclaimed American filmmaker, is mostly known as the cinematographer of the Chet Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost (1988), director of music videos for Mariah Carey, Iggy Pop and R.E.M., and his feature-length movie Low Down, based on the life of jazz pianist Joe Albany. In the New York City art scene he is also known as one of the founders of experimental exhibition space ORCHARD (2005-2008), and as author of masterfully edited showpieces of experimental cinema, such as STOP (1995-2012). We met on a sunny autumn day in Warsaw, where he came to discuss his next project, to talk over freshly brewed coffee about his current show at the Stedelijk Museum, where for the first time his works STOP (1995-2012) and 14 STANDARD 8 mm REELS 1981–1988 (2018) are presented together in one installation.

—Weronika Trojanska Is this really the first time STOP and 14 REELS are exhibited in the context of an art museum or gallery?

—Jeff Preiss It’s the first time it’s been exhibited in this form. STOP was originally made as an installation for the exhibition Blues For Smoke at MOCA in Los Angeles, but that was a very different piece (with eight channels) made specifically for that context. Making that led to me finishing a single channel version, which turns out in the end to be the version I’d ultimately like people to see. When Karen Archey contacted me about showing the single channel at the Stedelijk Museum in a gallery designated for the moving image, I had very recently finished another film, 14 REELS. She agreed we should show both, but I wanted to find a new way of addressing the problem of the installation. No matter how cinematic you make an exhibition space, which is what they intended to do at the Stedelijk, there is something that changes when the audience is invited to come and go at will. It changes the contract the audience makes with the work and alters it completely.

—Weronika Trojanska Actually, it was very interesting for me to see people watching STOP and 14 REELS, as if they were in a cinema. No one was looking at their phones.

—Jeff Preiss That’s wonderful to hear. You can’t imagine how happy I am to hear that.

—Weronika Trojanska The only moment when people took out their phones was in the breaks between the parts of the films.

—Jeff Preiss It may be the nature of the installation. The Stedelijk Museum had established a standard, very large screen size in proportion to the gallery’s dimensions. Because we needed to change the aspect ratio from their prior exhibition from 16:9 to 4:3 anyway, I had them step down to a 4:3 screen, smaller than what the room could contain. I wanted to maintain a connection between the projected image and the limits of the material that produced them on 16- and 8mm film. The contained scale produces a particularly cinematic immersion, one that splits your attention between seeing the image as all-consuming and being objectively framed. That edge is essential to me. It’s the edge I try to feel through the viewfinder. My idea was to make a new installation including both STOP and 14 REELS that would be cinematically theatricalized. The experience of viewing it would be one thing and the experience of approaching it would be another.

—Weronika Trojanska I think it’s an interesting decision to combine those two films, to project the movies not on separate screens but in succession.

—Jeff Preiss Yes, it is a screening of 14 REELS followed by a screening of STOP, and both are synchronized with a new four-hour sequence played on a small monitor at the gallery’s entrance. This second channel is made up of various graphic timelines that map the structure of the two films. It’s like a synchronized wall text that stays in real time with the moving image. The three together make a single work with the title More Than I Looked For.

Jeff Preiss - 14 STANDARD 8mm REELS 1981-1988 (2019), courtesy the artist 

—Weronika Trojanska Do you think that the reception of these movies is different when they are shown in a cinema setting or as an art installation?

—Jeff Preiss Absolutely, but the importance for me isn’t so much the reception. It’s in relation to my imagination of these receptions. In a way this new work allows me to distance myself from that.

—Weronika Trojanska As the person behind the camera, what’s the difference between shooting your personal life and the lives of others?

—Jeff Preiss The problem with this question is that it requires me to define what shooting is –and ultimately I don’t know. It involves looking and framing, but how this produces autonomous meaning escapes me. The most productive space for me is one of doubt. And even though cinematography is also my trade, when I am in that context, the doubt is equally productive. It’s part of my job to remain uncertain about how everything is operating. And in that way there is no difference.

—Weronika Trojanska How did 14 REELS come about?

—Jeff Preiss For 17 years I shot 16mm with my Bolex every day. That run was interrupted by making a feature narrative, Low Down (2014), which was all consuming for well over a year. Afterwards I didn’t know how to find my way back. I was slightly panicked about what to do next. I wanted to go further towards abstraction before considering another narrative and it occurred to me that I could return to what I shot before STOP and before any professionalism had seeped into my method. All this film was standard 8mm, the format that preceded Super 8, and there were virtually no options to make high resolution scans, none that I could afford at least. By luck this was precisely when I became included in a preservation project by Anthology Film Archives and The Andy Warhol Foundation that focused on 8mm from the 1980s.

Jeff Preiss - 14 STANDARD 8mm REELS 1981-1988 (2019), courtesy the artist 

—Weronika Trojanska Have you ever thought of transitioning to digital?

—Jeff Preiss That is also a difficult question. Not that it’s complicated, it’s just mysterious. I could say a lot but ultimately I really don’t understand. I’ve only finished one digital work. It stands there alone with no point of intersection. I shoot on my phone all the time, but not to make work, although I’ve shot enough film that way too.

—Weronika Trojanska When did you realize that this material could be used as something more than some sort of diary?

—Jeff Preiss My films fall into the diary genre, but they’re really home movies which is a kind of universal thing. I started making films because of a childhood fascination with projection. Shooting came later, but it wasn’t shooting as an isolated thing. It was also the slow feedback of receiving the results and playing them back with a beam of light. I started shooting STOP when I was so busy as a director of photography I had no time for my own personal filmmaking. It took having a kid to feel an obligation to film. I took some 16mm footage that I didn’t process for nearly a year. But when I did and I watched it, the vivid immersion in my prior senses just shot me back into filming – but not quite filmmaking. The first time I considered doing something with the accumulating footage wasn’t until I had shot around 80 rolls. I was asked to propose a book of still frames, and what it took to isolate the shots that might work, ended up being a film in itself. It was included in a show by Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2000. From then on, I made films mostly in retrospect, by discovering something in old material. When I realize I’m working toward a specific idea for a film it makes for all kinds of problems. A few cycles of this purpose-no purpose go by in STOP and map my inner dialogue about film and the gradual changes in my personal life.

—Weronika Trojanska Do you think people can relate best to this personal aspect of your work?

—Jeff Preiss I hope people can relate. The personal and conceptual can both fade in and out of legibility. But there are also established tendencies in personal filmmaking that have become a kind of code. It’s pretty clear who my influences are. Marie Menken, Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, and more formatively Warren Sonbert and Bruce Bailey, who were my teachers. So to be personal also meant departing from my role models. The space that seemed most open was in montage and I worked towards that. Even rudimentary questions like, why frame a shot?, are only resolved in the cutting. One of the ideas in cutting STOP was to balance the shot and the cut so every collision is equal to the image in expressing meaning.

—Weronika Trojanska While watching my perception changed. From the visual, recognizing places and admiring beautiful images, to paying more attention to the editing itself - finding little details that lead from one scene to another. Do you think the length of the piece allows for this change?

—Jeff Preiss There is a musical aesthetic to the cuts. They also produce a kind of extrasensory language. Each shot in its duration sets the context of the next incoming one, and as they snap from one to the other the exchange rings a bell, and is held as a kind of inner thought. You’d think these sudden changes would disrupt the immersion, but they have the opposite effect and push the picture further into a physiological space. Sound is a parallel layer and things get even more complicated. I think that the sound is a very organic part of this movie. Sound really changes things. The filmmaker Leslie Thornton, who one of my 14 REELS is dedicated to, believes that the experience of her films is transmitted almost entirely through her sound. I’m trying to use sound so that both the resistance to and importance of silence can be understood. Film, by which I mean the analog material, is silent by definition. Sound is an autonomous channel. These two processes are complete opposites. My sound tries to expose the contradictions by amplifying them. I construct very detailed diegetic fragments that come and go intermittently at the cut points. The effect of the sound is that the image suddenly possesses more veracity while really it’s become more abstract, and when the sound drops out entirely there’s a heightened sensitivity to the visual rhythms.

—Weronika Trojanska To what does the title More Than I Looked For refer?

—Jeff Preiss The title is from comments by Marie Menken that she made in an interview with P. Adams Sitney in 1966. When she was asked ‘Who is your audience?’ Menken, who was before anyone else working in what would become the lyric diary mode, answered, ‘My friends’, as if the work was so personal it could only be understood by an inner circle. Then she added: ‘…but sometimes I get more than I looked for’, and explained that anyone who brings an openness to receiving her work, despite its radical intimacy, became by logical extension her friend.

—Weronika Trojanska Watching STOP made me think that filmmaking is prone to showing the personal aspects of one’s life.

—Jeff Preiss Filmmaking has the ability to inscribe a personal narrative, whether problematic or not. We invite this in certain categories of art and keep it wisely at a distance in others. I’m interested in the forces of attachment. I think emotional attachment is one of the basic cinematic tropes, like the railroad or voyeurism or vampires, because it’s functioning is connected to mechanics of film language. But film is frightening in the way it can move the audience to suspend its will and be subject to these forces. Moving an audience emotionally comes with a very serious responsibility regarding the content and method of the manipulation. I was very aware of the problem in structuring STOP. If you see it from beginning to end, its structure doesn’t suggest the final emotional effect, while the effect wouldn't have been unjustified or even legible without the structure.

—Weronika Trojanska I have been reading Tarkovsky’s writings. He writes ‘If an author is moved by the landscape chosen, if it brings back memories to him and suggests associations, even subjective ones, then this will in turn affect the audience with particular excitement.’

—Jeff Preiss Landscape is a very open idea. The landscape expresses the horizon and the horizon is made of vanishing points that radiate space back to us through the lens. Any movement of the eye or the lens is met with the identical counter-radiance from the horizon. That push-pull of perspective is what makes the image seem like a container of thought. When I was shooting the 8mm film that became the material for 14 REELS I thought it didn't matter what the circumstances were. I could be anywhere, as long as there was space and light to shape abstractly. Going back to it, now the important thing to me is how I was making a social landscape.

Jeff Preiss, ‘STOP’, 2012, 16mm transferred to Digital Media, 120 min. Courtesy the artist

—Weronika Trojanska More Than I Looked For is very painterly in a way. How does showing this work in Amsterdam, with its long history of old Dutch masters, work for you?

—Jeff Preiss There’s actually a moment in STOP of Isaac at the Rijksmuseum. He looks lost. It’s sort of funny and also alarming. The sense of who Isaac is rings out of this image like he was born into some relationship to light and the camera. There’s a Reichian idea that says the face is an organ of expression.

—Weronika Trojanska Your son Isaac is an important character in your movie. It’s in a way a document of his struggle with gender.

—Jeff Preiss It’s surprising we haven’t gotten to gender sooner, but I had also hoped the film would make it a topic that does not require discussion. The struggle that Isaac went through could be framed in a lot of ways. Social attitudes have completely changed since then too. Isaac was able to advocate for his identity from age eleven, which was 2006. He was very alone then. I tried to match his inner life of body fit/non-fit in the editing, particularly in the presence and absence of sound. There’s a part in the film where you can see a kind of masculine-feminine projection oscillate like a wave. It’s hypnotizing and maybe the audience, taken in by it, doesn’t expect the emotional turn.

—Weronika Trojanska How does Isaac relate to that?

—Jeff Preiss He’d have to answer, but we’ve expressed a lot of closeness to each other through the film and the process of making it. My cutting room adjoined his bedroom and we’d sit together while I worked like we were watching TV. I wanted his collaboration, and I gave him absolute veto over any image he didn’t like of himself. When he asked me to take something out, it was always excellent advice. He’s said recently that now the film seems almost as if it’s his actual memory.

—Weronika Trojanska The strength of the film is that you didn’t shoot it or didn’t intend to make it for the purpose of showing the transition or problem with gender, it was just a natural process throughout the shooting. I was aware of what was happening to the main character, but it was equal to all the other components.

—Jeff Preiss STOP had to take the position of not making Isaac’s identity the subject in order for it to be one. The main subject is identity itself, and the way film language operates along the lines of its formation. Cinema is something like the mirror stage in the age of mechanical reproduction. We project ourselves through the viewfinder and inscribe our thoughts by matching them to the light that returns through the lens as if it’s its own witness. This I think is where the language of film exists.

Jeff Preiss - More Than I Looked For, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 5.10.2019 until 5.1.2020

Weronika Trojanska
is an artist and art writer

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Metropolis M Magazine for contemporary art No 3 — 2022