Interview with Kelly Gallagher
By Kelsey Velez
Kelly Gallagher’s collage animations engage topics ranging from stories of personal histories, to feminist calls to arm, to legacies of radical resistance against white supremacy. After completing her MFA in Cinematic Arts at the University of Iowa this past spring, Gallagher currently teaches courses in media arts at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. The following interview took place both in person, in Chicago, before a screening of her films at The Nightingale Cinema on November 14, 2015, and via electronic mail.
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Velez: Tonight’s program is called “Animation as Resurrection.” Is this part of a tour, or is it a one-off screening?
Gallagher: I’m not touring consistently, but I showed this program in Denver in October, and in December at Saul Levine’s MassArt Film Society in Boston. I’ve been excited about my last film, From Ally to Accomplice (2015), and I realized that I now have a long enough body of work to start screening this program. I thought I would do a couple of shows when I had a moment here and there during the semester. Christy [LeMaster] contacted me about showing in Chicago; I had known of The Nightingale and have been a fan of it for a while now. I did my MFA at the University of Iowa, just a few hours away, so I was very aware of the amazing curatorial work that Christy’s been doing. When she contacted me asking, “would you ever want to do a show here?” I was like “yes!” I think her curatorial work is incredibly important, so I was excited and humbled that she got in touch with me.
Velez: About the name of the program, was that your idea?
Gallagher: I did my undergrad in film at Penn State, and afterward, I moved to New York with friends. I met Martha Colburn through a mutual friend, and I started working as her assistant for a little while. I learned more about experimental animation in the six months working with Martha than I did in my four years at college. I’m a huge fan of her work, and the way she uses animation to explore dark and political themes.
In an interview that she once did, she mentioned that animation is like resurrection because to animate is to bring something to life. A lot of my work deals with different histories and moments of resistance, so I like this idea of animation as resurrecting these important historical moments, and looking at these movements of resistance, and reflecting on what things we can learn from them today. This was my inspiration for the title “Animation as Resurrection.”
Velez: What got you into filmmaking?
Gallagher: I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker ever since I was kind of young. When I was 16, I begged the local Blockbuster to let me work there, even though you had to be 18. I begged them so much that they hired me. It wasn’t until I got to college when I really started to get interested in more experimental forms. I remember seeing Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) for the first time. Of course it just blew me away. At Penn State, it was mostly narrative film happening there. When I saw Deren’s work I was so moved; I immediately delved into whatever experimental cinema I could get my hands on.
There was a touring program that came through that had some really wild experimental animations, stuff I had never seen before. By the time I got to my senior year, I decided I wanted to make my first animation. But the school had no animation classes. My advisor was supportive, but animation was not his area. So, I was very self-taught, which I think shows through in the animation that I do. The first real animation I ever made was The Herstory of the Female Filmmaker (2011). I was frustrated that most of my classes focused on the academic canon of mostly white, cis-male-identifying filmmakers. My 22-year old revolt against that was to make my senior thesis this experimental animation all about women filmmakers. I was aware of Terry Gilliam’s cutout animation work and it seemed kind of accessible to someone who is not trained as an animator. It was very much just me figuring this out and new light bulbs going on constantly throughout the process. I had so much fun animating! Herstory is a wildly frantic film. It’s sort of all over the place in terms of animation styles because I was just so excited to be learning that I wanted to try everything. That’s when I really started to get interested in animation. Then, I was lucky enough to meet folks like Martha Colburn, Jeff Scher, and Richard O’Connor in New York City. I learned from all of them. That’s where it kind of started.
John Brown, depicted in From Ally to Accomplice / Kelly Gallagher
Velez: The subject of your most recent film, From Ally to Accomplice is a small group of abolitionist militants in Iowa. Can you talk about its genesis?
Gallagher: I feel like the stories that my more recent films explore, histories of resistance to white supremacy and racism, are especially important to be discussing in today’s present political moment. With From Ally to Accomplice, I was fascinated by the story of John Brown’s men training in this small Iowan Quaker community as they prepared for [the raid on] Harpers Ferry. The town where this all happened was the birth place of Herbert Hoover, so everything was named Herbert Hoover this and Herbert Hoover that. But there was no large public acknowledgment of this very, very radical, brief but important historical moment with John Brown and abolition.
While living in Iowa, my partner was substitute teaching in this area, Springdale/West Branch. One day he came home and was like, “I stumbled onto this wild history site and I feel like you might like this research that I found about John Brown having spent time here.” We started doing more research and I visited the spot. All that’s there to show anything even happened there is a tiny rock with weeds growing around it, and a very small and simple plaque, for such a momentous moment in history, where these men were training, hoping to catalyze a slave revolt. This story has these important ties and connections to larger moments in history, but it’s so hidden in this small town.
In general, for other movies, like Pen up the Pigs (2014), I certainly don’t think I’m uncovering anything new. I’m just trying to continue to keep the spotlight on folks like Assata Shakur, Fred Hampton, and Mumia Abu Jamal. Their stories are all so important in today’s political moment.
Velez: What motivates strategies like single-framing and collage for illustrating moments of political resistance?
Gallagher: I’m interested in handcrafted animation because I think it’s an inherently radical aesthetic, which I argue for in my written work. I’m interested in the politics of accessibility. From my own experience of being able to see something and then recreate it, I feel like the more we make filmmaking accessible to more people, and more voices, the more interesting kinds of films we’ll see. There is something important about accessible filmmaking practices, and opening filmmaking up to more people who aren’t “classically trained.” The fact that you can see a film and figure out how to make it, its process is inherently demystified. I think there’s a lot of value and power in that. I also think handcrafted filmmaking, or handcrafted animation makes labor visible. When you see a movie like Nightmare Before Christmas (Tim Burton, 1993), a claymation, sometimes the first thing we think is: “I wonder how long it took to make that?” There is something about the kinds of films that are made by people’s hands that prompts the question. It points to the fact of the labor behind the film, that there’s a filmmaker behind it. Not just an artist, but also a laborer, a worker. That’s an interesting aspect that I enjoy about handcrafted animation.
Assata Shakur, depicted in Pen Up the Pigs / Kelly Gallagher
Velez: Is there a relationship between wanting to make the labor of a film visible and then also the politic that you’re illustrating in these films?
Gallagher: Absolutely. I’m a huge fan of the former Black Panther Minister of Culture, Emory Douglas. He is an amazing artist, and he talks about how, with his art, it was really important that it was accessible to the people. I feel like it’s imperative that radical work becomes accessible to the masses, so that people can see this work and feel like, “this is something I can do,” or “this is a way of storytelling I could employ myself.”
Velez: You’ve mentioned that you see making your videos available for free online as a political act. How has the Internet contributed to your project of making your work accessible? And, is there a more populist way of disseminating these pieces, in your imagination?
Gallagher: For sure. There’s an openness that I want to create around them that exists outside of the fact that they’re online as well. Oftentimes I’ll get e-mails from a small anarchist bookstore, or community spaces, or community voices against police brutality, letting me know that they’ve screened one of my films. It’s imperative for me to be engaged in actual political struggle on the streets and outside of the art I make. I don’t see the films I make as my political work. I see them as my art. My political work is the actual work I do within my community. Through community networking and the various modes of organizing I’m involved in, these films get disseminated in other ways, through human connections, through organizing, and being embedded in these very struggles. Having the videos online is one small aspect of trying to create a broader culture of accessible practice for radical artists, filmmakers, and audiences. It’s one small step.
I think that all artists should absolutely be paid for their labor, but I also can’t shake Emory Douglas’ theory of radical art being radically accessible for folks. If it’s not within their everyday purview, then what good is it? That’s why I don’t have a distributor for my work. When I was a grad student a great touring program came through my university. One of the 16mm films in the program was of the amazing Black revolutionary, Queen Mother Moore giving a speech to an audience of family members of incarcerated people at Green Haven Federal Prison in the 1970s. It’s a beautiful, incredibly powerful film. I was really affected by it, which led me to make Pearl Pistols (2014). I couldn’t wait to get home to share it with my community and friends. I looked for it, and found that you can rent a DVD copy through an institution for like, $800. I was just so heartbroken, and confused and angry. But I was able to locate a different copy through our institution and I video recorded some of the speech, and then made an animation to it. I felt like this [document] needed to exist as something more available to the masses. It’s a difficult question. There are so many different ideologies within the experimental film community about how accessible people make their work, or why they choose not to make it accessible. It’s an important conversation to have. At least when it comes to politically radical work, we need to be thinking of ways of opening up the experimental cinema community to other communities, to not be so insular.
I feel strongly about the necessity of bringing experimental cinema to students and community spaces. Whenever I get the opportunity, I like to do direct animation workshops. Being able to, within a community space, introduce children, teenagers, their parents, non-filmmakers to cinema practices — this is another way that animation inherently lends itself to this kind of work. Experimental cinema needs to be more open, and our community needs to fight this tendency of being insular and out of reach.
Velez: What goes into making a film about mass incarceration, or a small group of militant abolitionists in Iowa?
Gallagher: With most of my longer pieces, I have an initial, heavy-duty, pre-production research stage. I Google all kinds of photos, thinking about cutouts and all the rest. Then I start to work on the film. My longer films are usually in chapters. I kind of research the first stage or chapter, then animate, then research for the next. I have an outline of what I’m thinking, but I sort of break it up as I’m going along. A lot of the materials come while I’m in the process of animating. I go to a lot of craft stores and see something I am innately excited about, or I stumble through bookstores and find unexpected gold. Sometimes I’m looking for specific images, and sometimes I come across [unexpected] images and I’m like, “I need to use this!”
Glitter is something that has made its way into a majority of my work. I enjoy working with the media, which sounds crazy because it can be really annoying. I find a sort of tactile and enigmatic joy while working with it. Thinking more theoretically, I’m interested in exploring, or détourning ideas of feminine imagery and then subverting them with intense militancy. There is glitter in Pearl Pistols, there are beautiful flowers, and pearls, and this intense story of Queen Mother Moore recounting a moment when she and the rest of her group were standing up to police. They were armed and they pulled their guns on police, because the police didn’t want Marcus Garvey to speak at an event. I’m interested in using what is often seen as feminine imagery and subverting that with militant women, militant stories.
In From Ally to Accomplice, there’s a theme of nail polish that kind of comes through. In the first act, I was using nail polish as part of the bleaching process. Then you see my nails in both the second and third acts. I think there’s a little bit of glitter in that film as well. I’m wearing a dress and holding a gun. In From Ally to Accomplice, Marilyn Buck is mentioned at the beginning and the end. Even though it seems like a film about John Brown, I’m trying to gesture outward by having myself in the film, and by bookending it with Marilyn Buck. I’m very interested in stories of women resisting militantly and radically.
From Ally to Accomplice / Kelly Gallagher
Velez: By moving into the frame you’re kind of mobilizing the politics of your other films. You’re not just the omnipotent hand of god, moving these pieces around and clicking the shutter.
Gallagher: That was sort of my thinking. If I’m going to draw these hard lines and take these stances politically, I need to be out there, in it, myself. That’s very much where inserting myself into the frame came from. I was just on the heels of Pen up the Pigs and I thought I absolutely had to be in this next film, From Ally to Accomplice.
Velez: What are some of the challenges of illustrating moments in black history as a white maker? I wonder what sort of questions you confront when you make these films.
Gallagher: I feel strongly about the need for white accomplices in struggle to put in the work of researching these powerful and important stories of black radical resistance and history, to not expect to be told or handed these histories. It’s imperative for white folks to be accomplices in struggle, and in art, by engaging in production that harshly critiques racism and white supremacy. We need to decolonize our art practices. This is an important question, because I do think white artists making work about race need to be explicitly taking the correct stance politically, and for me that’s one that’s radically against white supremacy and colonialism, and one that celebrates revolutionary movements of resistance that fight against this racist, capitalist, and oppressive world. I feel it’s important for me to put in the work of researching these imperative stories and histories, and that it’s important for me to live my life engaged politically in these struggles. I make films and art, and though they are political, they are not my political work. As I mentioned earlier, being actively engaged in struggles on the ground and in my community is where the most important political work I do takes place.
I think inevitably there are moments when it feels fraught to make hyper-political work, because when you draw harsh political lines, you are going to lose some audience members. Drawing sharply left, incendiary political lines within a film is not easy. It takes courage. But that is the goal – to make people uncomfortable, and to offer sparks of revolutionary hope to those who are already on your side.
Velez: Can you talk about your brand of radicalism, which in my understanding espouses militant protest as opposed to pacifism for combatting racism?
Gallagher: I believe in a diversity of tactics. Different situations call for different ways of fighting back and resisting. I find it so important to bring more militant or violent modes of resistance into dialogue, because they’re so often shunned, especially by white, pacifist, liberal folks. It’s sort of like the importance of Malcolm X existing at the same time as Martin Luther King, Jr. We have to rethink our ideas about the term “violence.” The most egregious violence is the everyday existence of a society constantly perpetuating and upholding white supremacy through its policing and racist incarceration rates. I’m interested in how we define violence. Inevitably, when you fight back against that society and those racist systems in some serious way, you’re fighting against a system that’s already violent to you, so there’s this clash. It’s much more comfortable to share pacifist tactics and stories, but it’s imperative that we force ourselves to really think about and look at why there are these other tactics that exist outside of pacifist reactions.
Velez: I’m curious about your idea to abolish the police. It’s got some Utopian implication. I wonder if there isn’t a certain optimism about human nature at work here.
Gallagher: Yeah, abolish the police! I think there are ways that communities take care of each other. There are models that communities have practiced in the past of caring for one another that could absolutely be employed in the absence of police. I think police are really problematic because it’s not just an issue of intention. Some people argue that there are folks who are well intentioned that become police. But inevitably, systematically, policing has become such a violent force against people of color that the whole idea of intentionality means nothing when there’s a larger structure of racism that’s happening. The police originated out of actual slave patrols. Their existence is borne out of a literal agenda of white supremacy. In Philadelphia, where I’m from, the very first police department came out of groups of white supremacists wanting to organize and patrol the black neighborhoods, to keep them in check. Its literal lineage comes from horrific practices of racism and perpetuating white supremacy. What’s happening is the genocide of people of color at large. I absolutely think our society would survive without police. Removing them is one major step in the fight against white supremacy. It’s inspiring to see growing movements of mobilized people fighting to disarm, disempower, and disband the police. Every time the national dialogue turns to gun regulation, I always think, wouldn’t it be great if we could remove the guns from the police first?
Velez: You’ve got a couple of publication endeavors: Now!: A Journal of Urgent Praxis and the Facebook page, Femmeworks. Care to talk about these?
Gallagher: Yeah, so Now! is this great project I’m doing with Travis Wilkerson and Alex Johnston; both are amazing political filmmakers. It came out of a desire to bring more attention to radical cinematic and political film work that’s happening as a result of our current political moment. Right now there’s a lot of work centering around police brutality, for instance. We have a screening at Interference Archive in New York on December 19th, in preparation for the re-launching of our online journal. The idea is that the journal is an online space for radical film and writing on these political film practices to exist. There’s an immediacy to it: we can publish things as people make them, and also write and reflect on the specific political moment that we’re living in right now. I think the way Travis originally described it was [as an equivalence to] the old radical film newsreels. Things would happen in the world, people would quickly make films about them, and then share these newsreels. So we’re looking forward to collectively working with other filmmakers interested in responding to our present political moment and sharing and discussing how it’s affecting our film production.
And then, yes, Femmeworks! Are you familiar with Frameworks [an email listserv for experimental film]? I hadn’t been on it for very long, maybe for a couple of years throughout grad school. I was using it as a way to hear about calls for new works or whatever else, and was shocked that every now and then there’d be these hyper-sexist moments. People would say really misogynistic things. The space was very problematic as a result, obviously. There were a handful of different blow-ups. I was so sick of the misogyny there that me and many other women that I know talked amongst ourselves and were just like, “we’re getting the hell out of here. This doesn’t feel conducive to our practice anymore. It just isn’t worth it.” Me and Talena Sanders, another great filmmaker, were talking about it and thought, wouldn’t it be great if there was an explicitly anti-sexist, anti-racist space for the experimental film community? We could share calls for work, interesting films, new filmmakers, whatever, and focus on highlighting women and people of color. Immediately, within this 10-minute conversation, we made the Facebook page. Jing Niu, an experimental filmmaker on the west coast, mentioned wanting to get in on it, so the three of us maintain the Facebook page, and will hopefully soon be making a Tumblr that connects to it. We often think of the experimental film world as a more progressive community, when in fact there’s actually a lot of sexism and racism. No film circle escapes these problems, and the experimental film scene certainly has sexism and racism. So, we wanted to create an online space that was explicitly anti-racist and anti-sexist. It’s important that we always continue to fight to create and maintain these imperative spaces within our experimental film community.
Published December 18, 2015
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kelsey Velez received a Bachelor of Art from the University of Florida, where she studied English literature, philosophy, and linguistics. She is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in Film at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.