Ghost Stories: an interview by Sammy Roach (May 2016)


Sammy: The title of your screening is “Ghost Stories.” What does that title mean to you?

Mike: For the opening of Bill Copley’s 1953 painting show in Paris, Marcel Duchamp designed square candy wrappers that were dished to guests. Each was inscribed with the words: A Guest + A Host = A Ghost. Duchamp of course is a well-visited ghost, he continues to haunt art schools around the world, along with artistic imaginaries. So perhaps I’m not alone in spending so much of my libidinal energy in the ghost world. The sentences of dead authors like James Baldwin or Marguerite Duras continue to feel more like headlines than offerings on the newsfeed.

Sammy: Why is experimental cinema the best medium for telling these stories?

Mike: When I was a child in the adult world of fringe media, most assured me that what distinguished the fringe from the unwanted cinema mainstream (who are we, if we don’t know what we are against?) is that it refused storytelling. The so-called avant-garde has long been distinguished by its negativity, and artist’s media was no exception. Peter Gidal argued against representation itself, and insisted at the very least that artist’s movies should have no people in it, because the act of identification was the beginning of fascism. While these judgments might appear quaint today, I continue meeting fringe artists who refuse to make pictures of people, perhaps they are providing room and board for the ghosts of Mr. Gidal and his structural/materialist fireworks.

I worked for many years on the signifier, the materials of cinema. But one by one these slowly dissolved. Who actually shoots video anymore? Well, there are a few hold outs, but mostly the dizzying succession of formats (regular 8, mini-dv, beta sp…) have given way to a series of always changing digital standards. And on the other side of the chemical/electronic cinematic divide, the film labs have closed, most of the film stocks have been discontinued (imagine if you were a painter, and the colour blue was no longer available), and projectors are in increasingly short supply at screening venues (universities, long the mainstay of fringe media, have mostly stopped purchasing artist’s movies, and many no longer show film of any kind). There remains a global flourishing of emulsion fetishism in micro-climates, a last bouquet perhaps, but for the most part tech gravity invites today’s media artist to glean the materialist lessons of the past and ask: what can we do with these tools? In other words, we are left with questions like the one you are asking, about storytelling. What kinds of stories are worth telling, and whose lives could be granted a voice? Perhaps there are experiences, subjectivities, intensities, that cannot be folded into a three act dramatic structure, perhaps there are ways of living that cannot be conveyed in soundbitten talking head testimonials. This is the hope at least, that the fringe could make movies that are more like our lives. Or more like someone’s life.


Sammy: Many of your films involve repurposing and remixing footage. What is your motivation to take control of these images and give them new meanings?

Mike: The movies that I’m going to show in London were shot by me, one of them on film, the other on digital video. I never stopped making recordings, but when I started making videos in the late 1990s, I discovered the brave new world of found footage. Video, and its more than worthy successor digital media, is made to be copied. Or to quote the glib postmodern maxim that used to be currency: the copy is the original. And if there is no more original, if there is no originating gesture, then how can we sustain the theology of the self? The subject, or this thing I call myself, newly appears as a field of borrowed language and social customs, an archive of state dictates and deep cultural grooves. The picture of the self that emerges from the new media is a network. As if each of us were fundamentally connected to everyone else, all the time. The Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh names this “interbeing.” It’s a tough call after watching your entire family and village being erased by American bombers. I am this bomb, this killer, this village.

The pictures of our past are also ghosts, and sometimes they can turn us into ghosts, like the picture of Dorian Gray. If only I were as real as my pictures. I might read your question this way: much of your life involves repurposing and remixing footage. What is your motivation to give these images new meanings? Perhaps the way we allow pictures, sounds and language to inhabit us, is what we name as our personality. Remixing pics is a common enough routine on Facebook or Tumblr blogs, though it was still possible, in a movie like Blade Runner, to conjure the “off world” as a place where “replicants” or living pictures, could reside, today, our lives and the life of our pictures are more crisply intersecting than ever before. As Heidigger put it: The Age of World Picture.

When I began working with stolen pictures, I was also undertaking a long project of portraiture. In the movies these are often named as biographies. What does it mean to marry the biopic and the found footage assemblage? How can a movie that narrates the roots of a singular individual proceed via stolen fragments of picture and sound? What does that say about the entire project of biography, newly contaminated by anti-authorial strategies of collage? By opening the bodies of these subjects, and allowing some of the picture world to pour into them, could different forms emerge, ones that might be helpful as guideposts in the present day media deluge? In the catastrophe of our too muchness?

Sammy: In your own words, Buffalo Death Mask “returns us to a pre-cocktail moment, when being HIV+ afforded us the consolation of certainty.” What was that consolation? What has changed?

Mike: The “us” refers to Toronto artist Stephen Andrews and I, the movie features a chitchat between us that wanders across a few topics, but is mainly related to the moment after being diagnosed HIV positive, many years before any treatments were available. The “consolation of certainty” was the assurance that without treatment, we would die. Stephen was on the way out when the cocktail arrived, and I probably had another year left on the clock. What has changed? Well, the drugs changed everything for those who could afford them, or could get access to them soon enough. The drugs posed a new and sometimes impossible question: how do you go on after your certain death? Some had emptied bank accounts, taken a last trek round the world, blown the lot on drugs and a final good time. Now what? What story would be compelling enough to motivate a second life, when so many have difficulties navigating only one? We had learned to live with the certainty of our dying, could we now learn to embrace the new uncertainties that lay after death?

Sammy: Is it challenging to make a film such as Buffalo Death Mask that is so intimately tied to your own personal experience? Do you find the process therapeutic?

Mike: Hahaha. Does mining the most intimate materials of my life make me feel good? Perhaps it even replaces the need for doctors and serotonin-enhancing drugs? Not exactly. But it’s necessary for pictures to have roots, that’s what gives them strength and clarity. And I think those roots come out of the experiences of your life, whatever those might be. I don’t believe that movies need to be a direct, one-to-one expression of what has happened to you, but something in the subject needs to sing with one’s own urgencies and complexities. In other words, movies are made with the whole body. As a friend put it once, if there’s nothing at stake for the artist, then what is at stake for me as a viewer?

What’s been interesting for me to see is how artists have aged, and what that has done to their practice. Particularly because the computer has stolen time from all of us. No one has time any more. How do you sustain a practice after that initial flowering of intensity has spent itself, when the reasons you stepped through the door are gone, what then?


Sammy: When I think of films about cities, I think of the frantic, fast-paced city symphony films of early avant-garde filmmakers, such as Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera. The approach you’ve taken with Incident Reports, featuring minute-long shots of Toronto, is its own type of symphony. What happens when you slow the pace?

Mike: Each morning I put on my coat and walk very slowly to the lake. I try to feel every footstep, every breath, every bit of wind and bird song. Walking meditation is a way of changing speeds, and when I can reduce the intake I start to feel more. As soon as I engage in what people like to call “thinking” (a random jumble of impressions that belong either to the past or the present, and which are quickly overlaid with developmental grooves riven with fear and a myopic, almost psychotic self emphasis, as if the world had been arranged so that I could experience it) the world disappears. It’s been so interesting. When I start “thinking” the sun and shadows disappear. The experience of living in a body disappears, and with it all feeling. Instead, I jump into the descriptions of feelings, or anticipations of feelings, or rehearsals of future scenarios, or replays of the not so greatest emotional hits of the past. But as soon as I stop narrating the story of myself, the world appears, in all its infinite complexity.

Incident Reports emerged out of a daily meditation practice. Instead of the heady rush of the modern city that you are describing in Vertov’s revolutionary love letter to machines, there is a steady procession of pictures. The project emerged out of restrictions, how else to be free if we can’t feel our knots and boundaries? The rules: one minute per shot, no camera movement, camera always on a tripod. No added lights. Sometimes I would head out to a location and hang out for a day, set up the camera and wait to see what flowed into the frame. Sometimes I would venture out with a pal. Several book stores closed during the months of shooting, so those were a natural draw. Everywhere I went I joined a legion of picture makers that were already there, and they became another subject of the movie. The voice-over opines: “The difference between an artist and a tourist is that a tourist photographs everything they see, while an artist makes a record of the tourist photographing everything they see.” I kept an ear open for various public events, whether it was the nude bicycle race, war reconstructions, street runs, first nation dances, kite flying exhibitions. Once the frame of the project was set, experience seemed to flow into it. Animals were an important companion, one of the primary subjects of the movie were the many forms of non-human life that the city hosts. Though in order to find and receive them, it was necessary to slow down, and look past my usual human-centric focus, so that I could reframe the city, trying to include some of those who are too often left out.