The Unseen World:
An Interview with Jake Barningham
By Sara Freeman
Portrét I / Jake Barningham
I fell in love with Jake Barningham at first sight when I was 18 years old. He was sitting in the corner seat of the back row of a large auditorium in Chicago. His hand was covering his mouth, thumb tucked under his chin, index finger curled below his nose: his signature thinking pose. An hour later, during our first conversation, we discussed the films he wanted to make in 20 years’ time, and if I would marry him the next day. In the nine years since then, we did get married, and Jake gave up film for video. During this period, I’ve had the incredible pleasure to watch him grow as an artist and a person, to experience his discoveries, and to help him make videos during icy afternoons in the Czech Republic. His work moves me beyond words and thoughts, leaving me swimming in a whirlpool of deep feeling and tremendous contemplation. You can view some of his videos at: vimeo.com/jakebarningham
Sara Freeman: Your videos seem incredibly spiritual to me. They are ghostly, almost Gothic in nature. Do you consider yourself and/or your work to be spiritual?
Jake Barningham: I think the root of spiritualism, or at least that which allows spiritualism to endure as it has, is faith. The idea of that which we do not understand giving our lives meaning. Video lends itself very well to that search. The search for the kinds of things that are unseen but that we want to see, if that makes sense as spiritualism or as spirituality. Am I spiritual? That doesn’t matter so much to me. It’s not something I think about.
SF: Is that idea related to the “garden” I often hear you muttering about?
JB: Yes, for me, the garden is the unseen world. I don’t conceive of video as a series of images. I consider them to be something else: maybe a series of natural repetitions, loops, impulses, maybe just an electrical current that runs under all of us. I think of video as spirals of energy that expand further and further outward or constrict deeper and deeper inward.
This garden changes constantly – it’s an environment that I try to pull or tease images out of. I’m trying to grow a garden. In the process, if I see a weed, to carry this metaphor through, i.e. an image where I think “oh God this throws everything into horrible chaos,” I don’t edit it out; I delete the video and start again, which is frustrating sometimes. People will say “oh I loved this cut!” but it’s not a typical cut in the way we normally think of it. It’s a cycle, a variation. So, I conceive the unseen world of video as a lush garden. My work isn’t image “making,” it’s almost conjuring, almost gardening. We should come up with a completely different vocabulary for this as far as I’m concerned. I’m not an editor; I’m a landscaper or a video-scaper. This is the totality of my conception of video. I want to build a palpable world for people’s thoughts to exist in. I want it to be so crystal clear that you can nearly touch it, smell it. That’s what I want. That’s what the garden is.
SF: How do you feel about your editing?
JB: I’ve always had a problem with editing. When people see my movies they will often say “oh that was edited really well” and I’ll have no idea what they’re talking about. I’ve never approached a video piece with ideas of “editing” it. This is a really alien concept to me. Because, if at any point, I find myself in a position where I have to make an edit, literally remove a portion of images, I delete the video. I say portions instead of frames, because in video you only have portions of images; it’s not as precise as with film. You can’t cut out one frame and know that this 1/24th of a second is missing forever and never have to worry about it again because it’s gone. At least with some of the lo-tech consumer stuff I use… Unlike film, with video, you don’t have a viewfinder or indexical reference – an objective strip of plastic that you can inspect, frame by frame, with a looking glass, or hold in your hands and say “these three frames are out of here.” So, I avoid that kind of thinking when I’m making videos. I don’t edit or create images really; I create an environment. I foster a world where images grow and change.
SF: How do you feel about video as a medium? Why do you prefer it to film?
JB: Video is an unusual medium. It goes back to what I was saying about the seen and the unseen. One of the things that filmmakers like Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, and Peter Kubelka used to emphasize was that film, as a material, is something you can see. You can actually see it! You can take developed film out of a case and unspool it and you can see the images and read it in a similar way to a piece of poetry. Marie Menken pointed that out to Brakhage as I recall, and one of Brakhage’s early breakthroughs was when he discovered that he could actually read the film in this way. Some may recall the widely circulated photograph of Peter Kubelka standing in front of his film [Arnulf Rainer (1960)] displayed as a physical object, as sculpture. This isn’t possible with video. Video exists as a blanket term because we’ve now had dozens of video formats over the years of varying degrees of quality and commercial success, and with varying communities of artistic activity built around them. One example is the PixelVision camera used by Sadie Benning and other practitioners. There was a little movement built around that kind of work, a lo-fi aesthetic which I’m aligned with but share little enthusiasm for. Video as a technology has moved too fast for us to keep up with, so a large amount of my time is spent working with archaic video devices mixed with some newer technology, to investigate their distinct visual properties.
Each video camera or format seems to me to be kind of snowflake. If I unspool a mini-DV tape and hold it up to the light, I don’t see anything but a reddish tint and whatever light happens to shine through the magnetic tape. You need an image processor to analyze the magnetic field on the tape. Fundamentally, this remains unchanged. We can’t define video in the same way that we define film. I’ve said it many times because it needs to be said many times. As many times as possible! It seemed logical to me that I had to develop a completely unique system for making video. I began to rely less and less on editing rhythms and flickering lights, though flicker in the video context has a completely different feel to it – a pearlescent dimension that I really like.
Over time, if I began to see qualities in my work that were drawn back to some sort of cinematic influence, I would delete the video and start again. I wanted to strip away all references to what we now know as “cinema,” another blanket term. Conceptually, film and video are two completely different things, and the vocabulary we use to distinguish them is so important. I don’t appreciate being called a filmmaker, I don’t appreciate submitting to film festivals. Much of what I’ve been doing has been designed to remove the connotation of “film” from my work, to separate it from that.
It’s extremely important to me to completely re-contextualize what it means to be an image-maker right now. A huge river of digital media technology has been flowing under us for many years, but only a tiny, tiny portion has been explored for its unique visual properties, for those properties that make the perceptual experience of video distinct from the film viewing experience.
SF: You mentioned your equipment earlier. What do you shoot and edit with?
JB: Right now I shoot exclusively with a Flip minoHD 720p camera. I used to edit – I use that word reluctantly – with QuickTime but when my MacBook stopped efficiently handling video I started using an inexpensive program for Windows. The point being, it doesn’t much matter what programs that I use. I don’t use the tools that people typically use to make videos these days. I use what’s available to me, out of necessity.
SF: Things like…?
JB: Well, I don’t often shoot my own footage. I use what has been referred to in the past as stock footage or found footage, except that with the Internet we have access to such a high volume of such material that it’s almost impossible to work through. I spend a lot of time going through video files on websites that I find interesting, like www.wunderground.org. It’s an amateur meteorologist website where you can find short, 1-2 minutes clips of time-lapsed footage taken from all over the world. That was available to me years ago and I started making what I consider to be some of my better videos using this footage in ways that I don’t believe had been attempted before in video.
SF: What about your latest videos, what are you using for those?
JB: PtákBásně I and II (2013), which screened at Onion City [Experimental Film and Video Festival in Chicago] this year, was one of the first I’d ever made just shooting live, in public. I videoed, for the first time in my life, things that were happening on the street, at a park that I really like, close to where we live. So, again, I was using what was available to me, in terms of subject matter, but I don’t think it was all that different from how most people operate.
narrative, glimpse / Jake Barningham
SF: Tell me about your Narratives (2013) project.
JB: The Narratives are a curiosity. I’m building them with photocopied still images that I fix to the floor of my apartment with scotch tape. I then set my laptop next to them and open up a website that has a flash-based strobe light program on it. The site allows for very controlled and precise manipulation of the light. I tilt my monitor down slightly so the hazy video-light bounces off of it, which I then video record in a dark room. I usually do this twice and tease the resulting footage in such a way that it seems like the light is being drained from one image into the next. It’s no longer a matter of the illusion of movement, one image followed by another. The idea is that it makes the viewer more sensitive to her own sensory biases and perceptions of time, such as how we perceive the earth’s history as one moment after the next instead of being much more variable. This seems to me to be the best promise of these videos; the effect is really striking.
SF: That sounds great, but I still want to hear more about your current projects.
JB: Okay. Fair enough. I’m working on two projects right now, one is quite enormous and one is smaller and is part of the other project. Narratives is the bigger project. It’s an attempt to completely re-imagine the way we tell stories and communicate the idea of story and what a story is; how that has developed over the past thousands of years. The idea behind the Narratives is to introduce things in our world to the unseen world. As I mentioned, they’re built using two still images that are overlaid with varying degrees of light interruptions and flowing lights, with light bouncing off of these physical things. A lot of what people are doing digitally now involves completely virtual environments, which is a wonderful thing into itself, but what I’m doing is moving the physical into this unseen, non-physical world. The Narratives embody that idea, of introducing one world into another world, to create a new saga. There are about twenty of them so far; there could potentially be thousands. I think of the project as a chronicle of the world around us, but one that we don’t normally pay much attention to, such as the old telephones that are still on our walls, but unused; the old lamp that we can’t throw away. Things we put a great deal of ourselves into without even realizing it. The Narratives are an assemblage of that particular unseen world.
The other project is an actual feature length narrative fostered within this process.
SF: Is it really a narrative or is it narrative in the way Lewis Klahr’s work is narrative?
JB: I will only tell you that it’s set in ancient Greece and will be about an hour, or maybe a bit longer.
SF: The process that you’ve described seems like it would result in a lot of footage. Is that accurate?
JB: Less footage than possibilities! The way the images grind against each other in these videos is, to me, quite evocative. They evoke spirits and unknown worlds! Other things, too. This process has opened up for me an idea that combats the notion of the perfect object, belonging to a specific time and place, of the single ideal version. I have several versions of almost every video I make because the process creates at least six or seven really interesting variations with the same set of images. In a strange way they feel complete in their incompleteness. Like historical excerpts, which historical contexts have to be built around, except instead of a historical context we need a psychological one. New psychological contexts that help us re-see the concept of narrative and re-build it.
SF: I'm going to ask a clichéd question because I know I won't get a clichéd answer: What types of art influence your work most? Who are your influences?
JB: I think my influences start with my parents. They’re extraordinary people. My dad went to college for a while and my mom went to community college, so they’re not uneducated, but they’re just really practical people. This type of upbringing was extremely valuable to me. One of my most distinct memories is being in my bedroom at the age of ten and realizing my friends’ bedrooms had paint on the walls and mine didn’t. Mine had this plaster because we were always getting ready to paint them, but we could only buy a little bit of paint at a time. So, our house always had a room or two where the walls were exposed. In my bedroom, all of the walls were exposed and you could see the sealant we used to cover up the cracks in the really old sheetrock. I remember my dad coming into my bedroom one day, looking around and saying “oh, you’re a lucky boy to have all these clouds in your bedroom. So many boys don’t have clouds in their bedroom. Here you have all these clouds to look at.”
It was just little touches like that. I don’t know if I fully understood what he was driving at, but my dad and my mother and other working class people in similar positions have this way of processing the world that helps them navigate it in creative ways. My dad probably came in and told me about these clouds to make himself feel better about not having the money to paint the walls. In this way, my parents helped me recognize how everything around me can be transformed and how everything that was available to me – my bedroom walls, whatever random tools I found laying around in the garage, parts of machines I didn’t understand, rotten body parts of the dead animals in the woods behind our house – could be used in a way that other people, from different backgrounds, couldn’t conceive of, because they didn’t have to.
Later on as I became self-consciously aware of my interests, more aware and closer to what one would call an identity, it was the obvious names: Stan Brakhage helped me, Ken Jacobs helped me. I think my biggest influence, though, has been Kyle Canterbury and his superlative video work. He doesn’t do too much anymore, but I remember what I was thinking the first time I saw one of his videos. It was: “holy fucking shit why didn’t I think of this?!” It was total green-eyed, blinding jealousy that eventually turned into a sort of love. I revere Kyle now. He is one of my closest friends and his influence is still keenly felt even though he doesn’t make many videos anymore.
Kyle really showed me how sensitive the video image could be. Seeing his work was like seeing video for the first time. I don’t want to talk about the history of video art, which I still have a lot to learn about, but his work seemed so sensitive to the needs of video, so attentive… I’m making video sound like it’s a lover, but in many ways it is. I had never seen work like that. It seemed to explode and at the same time remained completely solid. It moved, it trembled, it thought, it lived and seemed to have a whole interior psychology based around an idea that film hadn’t gotten around to about the irreducibility of images and the kind of way we use technology to frame our ideas which speaks, of course to how we use history, and other things to frame our world.
His video Fragments from a Room (2006) is both abrasive and incredibly calming. It’s a video that’s searching inside a very structured and planned room but longing for the world outside: this beautiful kind of green world that can’t possibly be reduced or understood by man. In our daily life we pretend to understand and his videos were the first cinema, if I can use that term, of any kind that I had seen like this. It crystallized my sense of purpose at the time, to continue on with this work. Yoel Meranda’s videos had a similar impact. He seemed to know and feel this world beyond in the same way that Kyle did. When I watched their work together for the first time I was humbled, because I knew I was off-track and that I wanted to be closer to where they were.
My work that came after developed from the desperate need to discover this world beyond, to get to that place. I began by adapting some earlier videos – one was a portrait called Primordium (2010), another was called 2 (2010) – all of which came from found footage, into a really streamlined process. Once I connected these video images into a greater kind of process, that is to say something of a working method or a workflow, which took as its basis for completion and for perpetuation, not the mechanical processes that seemed to have risen out of what is typically referred to as the golden age of cinema. I began thinking of it less and less in filmmaking terms, as a series of photo-chemical images, each frame comprising 1/24th of a second, and more as a flowing world which could only be excerpted from, not a whole world that could be completed and handed over to someone, but part of a world that someone could play in. I don’t know if this sounds like madness, but it’s what I began years ago and what I continue to do now, very much so.
Fred Camper is another huge influence. In addition to his legacy as a writer, curator and teacher, he is, in my opinion, one of the greatest living artists. His artwork is prolific.
SF: How did you meet Fred?
JB: Criterion had just released a DVD anthology of Stan Brakhage’s work. At that time I fancied myself a cinephile, but I’d never heard of Brakhage before. This was in 2003, so how old was I?
SF: You would have been 17 or 18.
JB: 17? Really? Well, I thought I knew everything like every shithead does at that age. I thought the Brakhage films would be interesting as a psychedelic novelty. I’d developed a taste for outrageous imagery that was nursed by Fellini and other films from the 60s, psychedelic stuff. The first Brakhage film I saw, on DVD, was The Dark Tower (1999), on a 32” tube TV. I knew from that moment on that nothing would ever be the same again for me. I had seen a person, working individually, create an entire universe using just the materials around him in the same way I’d been taught by my parents. My mother, a church cleaner, and my father, a truck driver, taught me how to see in the very practical meaning of that word.
Here, too, was Brakhage, who hadn’t been taught in the traditional way that a lot of artists were. He wasn’t an outsider artist, but kind of in that matter of thinking. I played those DVDs over and over again, thousands of times, and eventually wrote to Fred Camper, who had contributed the liner notes for the release. In his essay he wrote about how to view Brakhage’s work and what the best context for approaching it was. I wrote to Camper and asked if there was another DVD coming out. He wrote back almost immediately and said “yeah, maybe, but don’t worry about that. The best way to see these movies is on 16mm film.” I thought “huh, that’s strange” and asked why. He explained that Brakhage had developed his vision specifically in tandem with his ideas about film’s potential as an art form and more specifically with the physicality of cinema and what cinema was and how unique cinema could be as an image making system, for lack of a better term.
That was in 2003 or 2004. I’ve since developed what I consider to be a close friendship with Fred, which continues today in correspondence form. He is a great inspiration to me. His e-mails, no matter how familiar, always include some sort of great philosophical nugget, which I must work to unpack. That’s how I met Fred Camper.
SF: What about music?
JB: As an influence? It’s my greatest influence, period. And another thing I have to thank Fred for: introducing me to new music, to composers I never would have heard about otherwise. Music clarifies the world for me in a way that cinema simply hasn’t been able to. This is especially true of Bach’s music. Bach may be, in my opinion, the greatest composer who’s ever lived. Perotin and Leonin have also been important to me, and modern composers, like Conlon Nancarrow – he is especially relevant to what I’ve been talking about.
JB: He composed music for player pianos. They had a paper roll that they would read and play music from. Nancarrow wanted to compose music that only these machines could play and he ended up with his own language of counterpoint! His own world! Harry Partch, too. All heroes.
Crawl / Jake Barningham
SF: What role does color play in your videos?
JB: That’s interesting because I usually don’t trust video color at all. I often try to drain as much color as I can from my images. But color has this way of naturally occurring in video, even when you’re trying to mute it or strip it away. In the process I described earlier, for the Narrative pieces, the photocopies that I’m using are not in color. The office where I work doesn’t have a color copier, so I am limited to making black and white images. But the light from my laptop somehow imbues these black and white copies with amazing colors – milky blues and greens, that are, like I said earlier, really pearlescent. Like in nature. I’ve started using color more and more as a musical element, as a way to counter and emphasize the varying speeds of the loops and gurgling repetitions.
SF: Why are most of your videos silent?
JB: Typical Brakhage reasons. He argued that if you put any type of sound on any type of image, the sound ends up becoming the dominant experience. I don’t believe sound is an aesthetic error like Brakhage did, but I don’t believe it fits my work.
I’ve seen sound used quite well in many, many films, especially in narrative films. We recently watched The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1947) and I would argue that its dialogue is an essential part of the mise-en-scène. I would argue that the same is true of Howard Hawks’ work. Many films can be watched on mute or without subtitles and the power still remains, which means the soundtrack doesn’t play as important a role as it does in other films. That’s not a criticism; it’s just something I’ve observed. If you mute a Howard Hawks film, particularly one of the ones he did with John Wayne, the power of the film is almost halved. It’s really remarkable. Rio Bravo (1959) on mute is absolute torture. The dialogue and the sound are such an intricate part of the movie – the baroque, John Wayne speech rhythms, with their emphatic pauses, like when he says, “hurt your… self?” His pauses, being juxtaposed with these great ensconced architectural Hawksian compositions, these kind of perfect visual ideas that seem so crystal clear and repeating and so infinite in their possibilities of the way the body moves. To watch it without that sound seems like a sin and I can’t imagine it.
I consider music and dialogue to be almost the same thing in a strange way. Video has a silence to it that film doesn’t. Brakhage’s work was meant to be viewed silently only insofar as the projector remained silent. With a video projector, you’ll sometimes hear a high-pitched whine, or something similar, but the ear quickly becomes accustomed to it. The machinery of 16mm projection, on the other hand, formed a baseline rhythm for most of Brakhage’s work, most certainly his hand-painted work, and his images bounce off of that in a really beautiful way, which he was aware of, of course.
After all, I’m not sure my videos are completely silent. There’s always ambient noise which can create a unique tension in any number of different directions: creaking chairs, coughing, whispers, the occasional cell phone ring and whatever remains of the video experience after the audience gets over the ring tone was. I think these things could, in a way, constitute a soundtrack. It was my choice not to provide one. I’ve never had access to a soundproof screening room. Another way to think about it is that the garden I mentioned earlier is a world of vision, not of sound. These images would erode, wash away with a whisper, let alone music and the complexities that come with it.
Jake Barningham – Videography
narrative, pyramid variation 2 (5m30s)
narrative, pyramid variation 1 (6m30s)
narrative, the cave and the tree (6m)
for sophie (6m15s)
to constrict (2m30s)
to break away (2m)
narrative, glimpse (5m45s)
čičmen barevně (5m45s)
narrative, pro čičmena (5m45s)
narrative, the navigator (4m15s)
narrative, dimly, poem (3m30s)
narrative, kept (5m30s)
narrative, this way (3m30s)
narrative, in the midst of things (3m15s)
Glyphs 1-4 (30m)
Portrét I (7m)
Pták básně I a II (9m15s)
Glyphs 4 (4m)
Glyphs 3 (9m30s)
Glyphs 2 (7m45s)
Was it Written? (3m30s)
Glyphs 1 (3m)
Arrangements 3 (4m15s)
mountains, colors (6m15s)
everyday, colors (9m45s)
treetops, colors (4m15s)
Arrangements 2 (1m30s)
Arrangements 1 (3m)
Buster Keaton (5m)
Fun with Fred! (5m30s)
I hear strange laughter (6m)
sometimes at night (6m30s)
wood cart (5m15s)
and again (3m)
view from a cemetery (3m45s)
back yard (4m30s)
color copy (2m45s)
a pass (1m45s)
and houses (2m45s)
night, day (7m)
giving, taking (1m30s)
concerning flight (1m30s)
and oceans (1m45s)
Cinema Poetics 3 (4m15s)
Cinema Poetics 2 (3m30s)
Cinema Poetics 1 (2m)
Lola Lane Listens (5m)
Primitive 2 (1m15s)
Primitive 1 (1m45s)
Published April 5, 2014
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sara Freeman is an American writer based in the Czech Republic with Jake Barningham and their sixteen-year old Dachshund, Libby. She is one of the Vulgarians at The Vulgar Cinema and has previously contributed to MUBI, La Furia Umana, and Women and Hollywood.