Outside the Text:
An Interview with Mary Helena Clark
By Dan Browne
Orpheus (outtakes) / Mary Helena Clark
I first met Mary Helena Clark in Rotterdam, where our films screened together in 2013. While our respective projects could not have been more different in numerous regards, to my surprise and delight we had both sampled portions of the same archival shortwave recording. In 2014, Clark visited Toronto for a residency at Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto (LIFT), and presented a programme of her work at Early Monthly Segments that included After Writing (2008), Sound Over Water (2009), Orpheus (outtakes) (2012), and The Dragon Is the Frame (2014). Clark’s films encompass a wide range of techniques including collage, performance, and direct observations of the natural world. Their subtle nature invites viewers to collaborate in seeking out meaning from mysteries that have been forged from a diversity of elements. While each project develops a unique lexicon based on its context and intent, themes of inscription, mediation, and the spectral tensions between presence and absence that invariably haunt all forms of recorded language, are consistent throughout her work. This centering of what was once marginal – of representations that seem to emerge from a focus on what is peripheral, of the significance of outtakes and obsolete fragments, of moments that lie between moments and meanings that are formed between meanings – generates modes of liminal experience that both embrace and challenge the nature of decaying forms, an approach that can be read as a broad metaphor for the status of analog moving images today.
This interview was initially recorded over brunch at Aunties and Uncles in Toronto, and revised collaboratively through many subsequent discussions in intervals over the following year.
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Dan Browne: Sound seems to wield a substantial influence in your work. How do you go about gathering sounds as opposed to images in your filmmaking practice?
Mary Helena Clark: Typically I collect sounds at the same time I’m collecting images. Sometimes I have a particular sound in mind that feels like a productive trigger. I try to produce slightly incongruous rhymes with sound and image that suggest a traditional sync sound relationship, but aren’t simply causal. In The Dragon is the Frame (2014), there is a flagpole recorded by contact microphone, and that sound resonated with me in such a specific way that I knew I wanted it in the film. The flagpole sound is paired with foggy shots of the Golden Gate Bridge, then a hand-processed image of a rope harness. The sound creates an emotional landscape and echoes the pulsing texture of the hand-processed film.
Browne: Based on the diversity of approaches in your films, it seems each project has had its own genesis and inspiration, and the particular style comes from that. Is that a fair characterization?
Clark: Yes, I like that. I don’t feel beholden to any one style. There’s preoccupations that recur in my work, but if I’m returning to a concept, I try to address it with a style that clarifies something new.
Browne: I really appreciate that approach as well, but it also can have the potential to generate a lot of self-doubt. Does trying something new ever cause anxiety for you? That it won’t fit with your established body of work?
Clark: It used to, but now that I have enough work to fill a program, I’ve been pleased to see a continuity in thinking, even though the films are radically different in approach.
Browne: Does intuition play a large role in gathering material for your films?
Clark: Definitely, yes. The conceit of The Dragon is the Frame was almost like an instruction piece for the film, where I’m playing Scottie Ferguson, a depressive detective, and a not very effective one. To think of filming as collecting clues and with this film, to take on the impossible task of puzzling out loss. I knew I wanted to shoot the Golden Gate Bridge and conjure the feeling of that space, but not show it in full. It’s such an iconic, deceptively simple image. How do you film a place that’s photographically exhausted but still conjure the experience of being there? The sound of the traffic moving over the rumble strips became surprisingly central to me — I wanted the sound to pull more weight than the image, a way of recasting the cliché, the dead image.
Browne: The Dragon is the Frame is very much about trying to pull life out of “dead” images, which is a theme of your films — they seem to consistently return to the notion of absence and its relation to different forms of writing, as well as spaces between discarded texts. In fact, they often give a sense of being almost entirely composed of discarded elements. Maybe that is why it is hard to pinpoint a center, because it exists in an ambiguous space between fragments that shift, depending on the subject.
Clark: Yeah, I suppose it’s my natural position. By Foot-candle Light (2011) circulates around the idea of the cinema space, and Orpheus (outtakes) (2012) occupies the negative space of hi-con film, thinking about what it would be like to have a film set in the underworld. I often play with what you can and can’t see and then use sound to suggest something else. I’m interested in what can happen in transition, perceptual shifts and their renewals.
Browne: Like the black circle that the film enters at the beginning — it’s a striking image, yet hardly an image at all. Can you explain the genesis of Orpheus (outtakes)?
Clark: I wanted to continue with a tactile approach to filmmaking — optical printing, hand processing, photograms, but to have those techniques be baked-in with the content. I decided to make a false artifact; original outtakes for Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950). I was also interested in the volume and spatial potentialities of hi-con film processed as negative. The film started as a series of live action recreations of cartoon tropes, like the playful treatment of a hole in Bugs Bunny, as something that can be moved around, handled, and then entered and that being an analog to the material of film.
Orpheus (outtakes) / Mary Helena Clark
Browne: In your introduction to the film [at Early Monthly Segments] you mentioned being amazed by hearing Buster Keaton’s voice on the TV gameshow What’s My Line, and that this formed the genesis of using him as the protagonist. However, the actual recording of his voice isn’t even used in the film at all!
Clark: I know. [Laughs.]
Browne: Even after knowing that, and seeing Orpheus (outtakes) for the second or third time, it still felt like a new experience for me, with shots I had no memory of, such as the diagonal lines.
Clark: It’s a weird movie because, being structured as “outtakes,” it’s disjunctive by design. I’m sometimes surprised by the lines, the rain sequence too. There are sections of applause in the game show I sampled, and it’s a very tinny recording that I thought sounded like rain. I liked the idea of developing the incidental markings of the hand-processed film into the barely representational marking of a rainstorm. I’ve always loved cartoon rain scenes, where the animators are clearly cycling through a limited number of cels, and how cheap, mass-produced cartoons can economically represent something. Orpheus is about exploiting the smallest marks to create figuration and feeling.
Browne: The idea of reduction through industrial processes is very interesting. One of the results of that approach is that your work engages strongly with the embodied aspect of cinematic spectatorship: the shared experience of the audience, the proscenium, light falling upon a flat screen. In watching By Foot-candle Light at home I didn’t feel that I had actually seen it at all, because the fact that it plays with and emulates an embodied experience of the cinema is such an important aspect.
Clark: It does something very interesting when it’s shown in a proper theater: when the spotlight comes across the screen and shows the red curtain, it really does feel like it’s carving out a different architectural space, and it can be surprising. When I’m designing a soundtrack, the idea of embodiment, of simulated liveness, and Foley for the audience are all things I’m thinking about.
By Foot-candle Light / Mary Helena Clark
Browne: And the staring person in that film, he is very frightening, I thought! I could only imagine how an audience would experience his gaze looking down from a large screen.
Clark: Some people laugh and others are frightened.
Browne: I thought it was funny at first, but then it starts to get frightening. Maybe it’s both — comedy and horror sometimes overlap.
Clark: Yes, I agree!
Browne: It was definitely unexpected. Was he some kind of professional staring contest person? Because he is doing it for a really long time — much longer than I could look back.
Clark: I held an open casting call, and I filmed the actors that came in for the role of the hypnotist. Paul Russell, the actor in the film, auditioned, and we clicked. And while the tone of that scene can be interpreted as funny or scary, it was intense to film. I was exhausted afterwards from operating the camera and directing him at the same time. And the audio of what I was saying to him is actually weirdly sexual out of context. We were dancing around the studio together. My collaborators Mike Gibisser and Andrew Mausert-Mooney were also in the studio, and when the actor left, our eyes were the size of saucers. It felt like we had gone through something significant with a total stranger.
Browne: It reminds me of a Lynchian aesthetic.
Clark: That movie is. I would never say he is an influence, but there are commonalities — twisty dream logic, the red curtains and spotlight, the hypnotist, a sense of detachment from the body…
Browne: Do you have any influences you would cite? Or, perhaps more importantly, how did you start making movies?
Clark: I learned about the optical printer and shooting with a Bolex from Robert Todd at Emerson College. I filmed a friend in a nursing home, and when I got the footage back it was really raw and intimate and painful to work with. Right around that time I learned the optical printer, which became essential to mediating this footage, to bringing in my hand as a filmmaker. That was the first step in developing how I approach filmmaking. One reason I’ve shied away from using video is that everything feels like a construction when you are working on film, and in the darkroom in particular. The labor of the medium aligned with my idea of world-building. I’ve never been interested in straight up documentation. As for influences, I love Leslie Thornton’s films, and it’s work that I always return to. Anne McGuire’s videos use performance and diaristic elements in really amazing ways. But I don’t feel like I am brave or charismatic enough to make work like her.
Browne: Do you consider yourself primarily as an artist or as a filmmaker?
Clark: I like showing work in the cinema and in the gallery. The cinema is ideal in many ways, but installation offers useful challenges — looping films, multiple screens and sightlines, space-specific acoustics. The palm at the end of the mind (2015) was an exhibition at Document in Chicago that centered around Palms (2015), a largely abstract film in four parts. I think of each section as a movement away from a human subjectivity. The piece is driven by this idea of monocularity, of an anxious eye perceiving the world in such a limited way that it challenges the notion of sentience. In the gallery, before the viewer would encounter Palms, they would see two monitors looping footage of actors at the Meisner Technique Studio. The actors cycle through extremes of feeling, falling in and out of character. I’m attracted to the actor’s studied relationship to feeling and human experience. That distance feels very familiar to me, and the exhibition was thinking through that alien state. Soundtracking the room was a recording of an alto-soprano singing a text that serves as “the voice in your head.” The sound component is another instance of de-centering — it washes over all the work in the room and serves as this sort of forced interiority.
The palm at the end of the mind / Mary Helena Clark
Browne: Do you shoot other material independently of the projects you are actively working on?
Clark: I only shoot one project at a time. I take pictures on occasion, but it’s mostly a kind of note taking. Around the time I was shooting The Dragon is the Frame, I kept taking pictures of the backs of people’s heads on subway cars. They’re not good pictures, but they are the kernel for a shot that’s in the final film.
Browne: Is that person somebody you know?
Clark: That was me in a wig. I taught my partner Josh how to use the Bolex and had him film me on the bus from behind. This shot, and the one of the cross section of the tree in Muir Woods, are the most literal re-enactments from Vertigo (1958). It didn’t occur to me until after the film was finished, but appearing in your film surreptitiously is also a very Hitchcock thing to do.
Browne: When I was watching your films together I started thinking about writing itself, specifically Jacques Derrida’s statement “there is no outside-text” (“il n’y a pas de hors-text”), and it struck me that, in a way, your films are all outside-texts. It’s interesting because that links up with anxiety for the medium of analog film itself becoming an outside-text, where all that is left of this once dominant format are bits of outtakes and personal fragments, yet that is also how it is continuing to survive — in more personal, artisanal relationships to images. The way that form of referencing manifests in The Dragon is the Frame also has several notable precedents, such as the sequence in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) where he traces the steps of Vertigo in a similar fashion.
Clark: Citation and fragmentation are some of those consistencies in my work. Though I may execute it in a variety of ways, I find myself creating work in a constellation of meanings, characters, and spaces in mind, some borrowed. It’s a kind of filmic shorthand. I remember I had trouble describing the concept of Dragon to people, thinking, “I can’t do this, it’s been done,” but still feeling a compulsion to make the piece. Vertigo is a really bizarre and perverse film. There’s this audacious plot, but in the midst of that there’s a listlessness. I was interested in the multiple identities, the repetition, the depression and longing that are all in there. There were just too many parallels for me in my own life that I felt it would have been a great denial to not go there.
Browne: Can you elaborate how you were drawn into it? You moved to the Bay Area after knowing Mark Aguhar from Chicago, where you had studied together.
MHC: Yes, grad school is such an intimate time. We became fast friends, and we had studios down the hall from each other. I had Vertigo in my mind before I moved to the Bay area, and before Mark died — I had created a diagram of all the doublings and performed identities in the film on my studio wall, so it was there already. And then after Mark died, and I moved to the Bay, I was a stranger in a city that was, for me, defined by Vertigo. And I would walk around and get snagged by these signs that seemed to conjure Mark. I began to film these signs, stringing them together. What would I find? What could other people see? Moving between the analysis and experience of depression, the pursual of a missing person, and an attempt to capture the strange melancholy of sunny California, I made the film.
Browne: The images you took from Mark’s work, are they processed by you? I wasn’t sure if the doubling effect is yours, or is in the original.
Clark: It’s in the original. It’s called WHY BE UGLY WHEN U CAN BE BEAUTIFUL? (2011). It’s a great video and it seemed like the right introduction for Mark. The lyrics of the Talking Heads song that soundtrack the piece call out, “You don’t even know who I am.” I wanted to be explicit of who I was thinking about, and cut directly to Mark. The rest of the film is very coded and it felt important to have Mark represent herself in the film. Mark was a very bold, fierce, and wonderful person. I wanted the viewer to be introduced to her work as well. The YouTube videos are only one part of her practice but I think they’re brilliant. When I first cut them into the film, they weren’t working at all, but once I transcribed them to 16mm and included the computer in the room and my shadow, the film began to work. The texture from the 16mm made them more elegiac — which I have mixed feelings about, because I’m not trying to define a person by their death. Mark meant so many things, and still does, to so many people. In a film about returning and retracing, it felt important to include the technology that gives us a sense of her conjuring to the present moment.
Browne: The film feels very contemporary for it. Each shot in the film seems to have its own surrounding space that impacts its meaning, down to the scrolling text. The viewer is strained while reading because the shot is accompanied by speech that does not directly correlate, another act of simultaneous writing and unwriting. As a result, what comes through most are the affective qualities of how the words appear, and the sound of the voice. What was your association with that particular text?
Clark: There is an artist named Isaac Richard Pool who wrote that text and had a performer recite it in a series called Transfer Progress (2010). In the original video, there’s a woman reciting the text on a pile of clothes in a very deadpan forceful way: “I like fashion because it’s my way out…” Mark reinterpreted the video through retelling, speaking to the camera, setting up the scene, and taking out any sort of gender distinction/pronouns, and that’s how I first encountered Pool’s text. I liked the idea of showing the text on a teleprompter, so each audience member is reading it —saying these words in their head, inscripted into the performance. Having Mark’s voice come in and describe a scene you can’t see creates, for me, a productive tension between the absent and the present. The film operates on modes of reinterpretation, so it was fitting for Mark to introduce this way of working before the film re-performs elements of Vertigo. And the writing introduces a politic, and I wanted it to charge the images that follow — the houndstooth, the sequins, the attention to surface.
Browne: Surfaces come up in a lot of your work. Can you explain the pinhole camera that is utilized in After Writing (2008)?
Clark: I had my dentist drill a small hole into the body cap of my Bolex, so I could film without a lens. My equipment was limited then — I had one 20mm lens and it was broken — but I’ve always responded to the grain and vignetting produced from pinhole photography.
Browne: And the writing is transposed directly onto film from the textbooks?
Clark: It’s pixelated shots of the last words that are written, either from kids who had been in there and the graffiti they had written, or the words that had been on the chalkboard when the school closed. The other material was text taken from the leader of the film reels that I found in the space, that were sometimes just optically printed, and other times optically printed and double exposed on textures from the chalkboard, because they were beautiful green peeling planes. I tried to transpose the scraps left of the language on the filmstrip to those textured planes.
After Writing / Mary Helena Clark
Browne: Sound Over Water (2009) also deals with decay through hand-processing. Was that your first exploration of surface that was directly tied to the chemistry of film?
Clark: I made Sound Over Water right after attending Phil Hoffman’s Film Farm. In After Writing, I’m using a lab and a printer — I didn’t have the technical skills to deal directly with the film at that point. With Sound Over Water, I bucket processed and hand dyed all of the footage. I’d shot the film of the starlings the previous summer, and my friend had given me the sequence of photos of a whale watching trip.
Browne: You weren’t there with the whale?
Clark: No, those pictures are from my friend on his ninth birthday. He was given a camera and went whale watching, and that was his first roll of film. He says he doesn’t really have a memory of it, so I decided to make this movie, with the beginning part as sort of an experiential accompaniment to these photographs he’d forgotten.
Browne: That’s funny because I assumed it was an important moment for you. It’s very interesting that it’s not!
Clark: I wish! I’ve never been whale watching, I’d love to go.
Browne: Can you tell me about the building in The Plant (2012),with the person waving the white fabric? How did you decide to photograph it?
Clark: Many years ago, I was in Los Angeles, and saw this modernist glass building with one window open, and a curtain from inside was flying out. It was the one aberration of the geometric plane and it always stuck with me… I just love the idea of a wonder taken as a sign, and so I started to think about it in terms of an accidental spy film — picking up on a stray transmission. I knew I wanted to recreate that experience so when I met a man who lived at the top of the Marina Tower, I got to work. The repeating zooms are intended to be literal double takes. The gesture of the man waving the flag is isolated and can’t be decoded. We don’t know what it means, or if it’s even intended for us. It’s a matter of not trusting our own eyes.
The Plant / Mary Helena Clark
Browne: There’s quite a buildup of this restless, scanning camera that is continuously looking around, a partial reference to a surveillance camera, but one that is actively pursuing something.
Clark: I’m fond of the zoom lens as a means of pointing. And I was interested in using a kind of bad Foley as a way of animating street photography, and playing with an implied narrative to footage that was just “of the world,” and so I got the same man who was in By Foot-candle Light to walk around the city and I filmed him—
Browne: Wait, the staring guy?
Clark: Yeah, he’s in The Plant. My friends teased me at the time; they would call him my muse. The man we follow on the street, who puts on glasses and begins to act like a blind man in The Plant — that’s him.
Browne: Was he surprised that you only used his audition performance in By Foot-candle Light? Was the audition supposed to be for something else?
Clark: It was this convoluted movie about a hypnotist that was never made. And by the time of the casting call, I knew that movie was never going to get made, and that it was more about the audition and the screen tests. I do have some other outtakes of the hypnotist audition that are really great. Maybe one day there will be a redux.
Browne: I also want to ask about the genesis of And the sun flowers (2008) — it sounds like a motivational speaking video, yet it is paired with a very abstracted single image.
And the sun flowers / Mary Helena Clark
Clark: My bedroom in Baltimore had this really intense floral wallpaper that inspired the piece. I knew I wanted to use the form of a guided mediation, but to re-edit the audio so that it says bizarre and surprising things, taking you to places you wouldn’t want to go. I like untrustworthy narrators. All in all, it’s a simple video about permeable surfaces, and historically wallpaper has always been a kind of psychologically rich site — I’m thinking of [Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s] The Yellow Wallpaper (1892) and the Bergman film Through a Glass Darkly (1961).
Browne: What are you currently working on?
Clark: I’m currently editing a film called Delphi Falls. Though it’s wildly different from Palms, the project grew out of research and conversations around Palms, in particular Roger Caillois’ Mimicry and Legendary Psychasthenia. In the essay, he lists off examples of organisms mimicking their environment to suggest that this phenomenon surpasses a basic instinct for self-preservation. He riffs on this idea that a butterfly resembling a bellflower, for example, is rooted in a “temptation of space,” a refusal of higher consciousness. He uses this blurred distinction of organism and environment to speak to the experience of psychological disorder. To make a film that explores the separation of body and thought and dispersed sentience, I needed to work with people and in a more narrative mode.
Browne: Your last few projects have been on film, and some of your earlier work is digital. How do you navigate your choice of medium?
Clark: It’s usually simple. I ask myself what fits the project conceptually and logistically. If 16mm film is available, I want it to be a part of my practice. I can’t imagine giving up the medium now when its future feels precarious.
I think it’s important to reevaluate what you’re making and how you’re working as an artist. Shooting Dragon on 16mm brought into focus the question of medium. Shooting film, you have to consider it to be a part of the subject matter, which can be good and bad. I’m not interested in film as a patina, but I am interested in its ability to transform an image into an object, in a way that video does not. Delphi Falls didn’t need the mediating distance of film. It’s concerned with simulation. After production though, I did feel the desire to make a slow film on my Bolex, but that drive is more about a speed of working that syncs up with a way of thinking than a fetishization of the medium. By the time I think up and shoot an image, and by the time it comes back from the lab, it's metabolized and I’m ready to pursue what’s next.
Browne: A necessary interval?
Clark: Yeah. Until recently, I’ve never been a person who had principal photography and scripted things out. But an ambition to make more complicated things requires that sort of premeditation. And there’s something invigorating about trying to know something inside and out before it's made.
Browne: What are your thoughts about medium hybridity? You’re not outputting to film from a digital source often, with the exception of a few shots in The Dragon is the Frame, which was specifically called for in working with Mark’s images…
Clark: I like foregrounding collage and format shift does that. I typically use video in a film when appropriation seems necessary to the project. Different textures can bolster meaning too. For Pool’s text in Dragon, I used an old TV to output the text in order to get scan lines and the bend of the monitor. I wanted the teleprompter monitor to register visually. By Foot-candle Light uses the most formats — original HD video and 16mm, promotional VHS tapes, and YouTube clips. There was a conscious effort to make the film feel piecemeal. It’s about spectatorship and locating yourself in different spaces as an audience.
Browne: What about photograms? Have you used them aside from Orpheus (outtakes)?
Clark: I’d love to work with them again but I haven’t hit on an appropriate project. With Orpheus the photograms were a clear way to tap into a surrealist tradition. They’re very psychological and simple — an object’s shadow creating its own photographic representation. The section of the chain was mostly improvised. It wasn’t until I processed the film that I realized the direction I twisted the chain determined it’s movement on screen — whether it was ascending or descending or even hovering. The process was a kind of puppetry.
Browne: Do you ever shoot when you travel?
Clark: I typically have a predetermined idea of what I want to film and it usually requires returning to a place that I’m already familiar with. The first image I shot for Palms — headlights of a car negotiating a dead end street — was a recreation of the view from my kitchen window. Those mundane, small moments are usually the ones that are ripe for me. It’s difficult to be attuned to those moments when you travel and everything is spectacle.
Browne: I got the sense watching The Dragon is the Frame that it seemed like you were traveling a great deal with the camera, because the locations are so varied and some of it seems so improvised, such as the shadow of the walking person, or the multitude of landscapes, from the urban spaces to the distant hills.
The Dragon is the Frame / Mary Helena Clark
Clark: All of Dragon is filmed around the Bay Area. Most was shot in specific locations I scouted or encountered daily. The first shot was at the intersection on my walk to work. Filming there helped me to sort out the specificities of the site and what moved me about it in the first place. Is it the sonar-like sound of the crosswalk, the clashing reds of the blooming tree and stoplight, the unseen buildings’ shadow that cuts across the foliage, or the decision I’m actively making to stay safely out of traffic?
The man’s shadow was filmed in the Tenderloin in San Francisco. I went with the intention of filming a placard that memorialized the Compton’s Cafeteria Riot, a pre-Stonewall LGBTQ action. It was late afternoon. The light was beautiful and the sidewalk was sparkling. I filmed the placard, then followed a passerby for as long as I could. It felt very performative, back into my detective character. I flipped the shot on my optical printer. It was the last image I made for Dragon.
The hills were near Hayward, and it was a sequence I knew I needed from the beginning of the project. Their shape reminded me of large reclining bodies. It’s like the movie is a test of what can be legible to someone else if you’re using a very particular image language, one that is hyper-specific to you. On its own associative terms, the film has communicated to people. I’ve been surprised by the willingness of people to come along with me. And that makes me want to keep making movies.
Browne: And yet that thing itself can’t necessarily be put directly into words, but it can be evoked?
Clark: Yes, a film takes its form, the externalized idea and crystallized experience, and we see it on its terms. Even the impenetrable parts tell us something we don’t know.
Mary Helena Clark in Toronto, 2014 / Photo by Dan Browne
Published October 10, 2016
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dan Browne is a filmmaker, photographer and multimedia artist based in Toronto. His works have screened at numerous festivals and venues worldwide and have received several awards, including the 2016 Trinity Square Video Award at Images Festival. Browne is currently a PhD Candidate in the York/Ryerson Joint Graduate Program in Communication and Culture, where he is writing a disseration on decay as an aesthetic strategy of critique in experimental cinema.