. Conversations at the Edge (CATE)

Intelligent Wounds: An Interview with Mike Hoolboom by Abina Manning

Posted by | Conversations at the Edge | Posted on | December 1, 2009

Mike Hoolboom at work. Courtesy the Artist.
Mike Hoolboom at work. Courtesy the artist.

Abina Manning: In October, 2009, you were in Chicago for Conversations at the Edge and showed your latest feature, Mark (2009, 70 minutes).  Can you tell us a little about it and your process of making it?

Mike Hoolboom: Mark is a portrait of my friend and former editor Mark Karbusicky. Political vegan, caretaker of feral cats (and his own brood of more than a dozen felines), still punk after all these years. He was a large man who had the presence of someone half his size, able to melt into the smallest shadow of his former self, his smile stretched across everything he couldn’t find words to say. His voice was pitched just above his voice box, a nearly French sounding sing-song, which he must have picked up from his partner of ten years, the Quebecois MTF Mirha-Soleil Ross. He was a master of those skills usually not considered skills at all. Listening, waiting, understanding, being present. Everything he ate was politics, and while this occasionally showed itself in demos and office break-ins, it was more often carried in his day to day. His employment, for instance, was housing advocacy for ex-psychiatric patients, and before that caretaking physically disadvantaged folks. He might have unlearned the art of complaining at the punk collective, Who’s Emma. Along with the word ‘no’ which he was reluctant to pronounce, no matter how often we sat facing computer silence at the video co-op. He navigated our treacherous communal shareware in between his real jobs, which usually meant not sleeping. If you put a needle into his finger he would have bled coffee.

On the last day I saw him alive, he came to my apartment with a shining new edit program, and installed it on my computer, and booted it up not once but twice, and even guided me to digitize clips and lay them on a timeline. It was a typical Mark performance: thorough, meticulous, and free from any worried fussiness. He had been urging me for years to work at home, even though that would probably mean leaving Mark as an editor. I didn’t realize then that this was his way of saying good-bye. He was dead less than two months later. His feet hovering an inch or so off the steps that separated upstairs from down. There was no room for error in his death, and it was no cry for help. Like everything else in his life, it had been researched, deliberated, executed. He didn’t leave a note.

For me, for many of his friends and family, his death came as a sudden and terrifying shock. He was just thirty-five years old, healthy and beautiful and filled with a geek know-how that faced down every new glitch with a fascinated and easygoing determination. Perhaps not so easygoing in the end. The movie is a way to say hello and good-bye, to introduce him to strangers, to run my fingers over his pictures. Along the way, I visited with his old childhood friend Andrew Vollmar who lived, up until last year, in the very same apartment they both grew up in. And Lauren Corman, who has just become Canada’s first animal studies prof. Kristyn Dunnion aka Miss Kitty Galore is a queercore punk novelist and member of all-girl metal band Heavy Filth. Lorena Elke is a political vegan, trained in the Celtic Faery Tradition of witchcraft and an animal rights activist. Mark’s life partner, Mirha-Soleil Ross, is a media/performance artist and activist, a slightly larger-than-life speed talker and working class mega donna. Each makes their own approach to Mark, and they are knit together to create a mosaic of intimate distances.

AM: I hear that you will be making a new edit of the film.  Did you take anything from the Chicago screening that you will utilize in the editing process?

MH: Digital media resists traditional closure, which might mean: no more monuments or heroes. Though I have to admit a weakness for recutting. Behind the impulse to make every movie, there is some infantile wish to go back and fix the past. Sharpen conversations, fine-tune punch lines and interludes. Next week, for instance, I will begin recutting Tom (2002, 75 minutes), which will likely shrink by fifteen or twenty minutes. There are no plans to air out this new version; it will simply make me sleep better.

What my work presents is a temporarily optimal arrangement. Much of it is available as free online downloads, and in place of a copyright warning, there is a note urging viewers to steal as much of the movie as they please, and revise according to their own necessities. Insofar as the Chicago screening went, the fact that Mark worked as my editor was unclear until the very end of the movie, an ambiguity that was quickly corrected by changing a single line. Further sound level and color adjustments have occurred, and additional picture layerings in soft areas. The work continues.

AM: One review of the screening says, “The film traces the life of a man you end up knowing less about in the end than you did to begin with. It is an odd portrait in that it seems to capture more the periphery of his life than actually attempting to memorialize the man himself.” (Lauren Vallone, http://badatsports.com/2009/mike-hoolbooms-mark-the-gene-siskel-film-center/). Would you agree with this analysis?  And if you do, was this a conscious decision on your part to avoid a more typical filmic portrait?

MH: How curious that this review grants such weight to the moments before and after the movie. A chance remark made by way of introduction, or in response to a stranger’s query, becomes part of the movie, as foreword and footnote, a frame as absorbing as its picture.

Because Mark was not more famous than his neighborhood, it seems unlikely that the reviewer, or anyone else in the audience, would know anything about him. So it’s a stretch to write that by the movie’s end, these strangers know less than nothing. There are childhood friends and intimate testimonials, his mother, his stage appearances, dinner at home, an afternoon with his niece and nephew. But at the same time, Mark was rarely at the center of his own life; he wasn’t the one taking the bows or chasing the limelight. Instead, his preferred place was always behind the scenes, pulling focus, putting up the scenery. Forever busy. His endless rounds of feral cat feedings, or animal rights organizings or daily housing advocacies were all done quietly, and nearly invisibly. He had the lightest of all possible touches, as if he were never quite in the room, already dematerializing. How do you make a picture of the background? How do you keep the movie turning about this emptied center without filling it with false promises, or the worshipful hagiography that follows nearly anyone’s death?

For the past ten years, I have been working on questions of the portrait. It began with Tom (2002, 75 minutes), which married two incongruous genres: the biography and the found footage movie. It proceeded with a reworking of the home movie in Jack (2003, 15 minutes), which became the central figure of the next feature, Imitations of Life (2003, 75 minutes). The following year, Public Lighting (2004, 70 minutes) examined the “seven types of personality,” offering portraits of Madonna and Philip Glass, amongst other luminaries. And then, Fascination (2006, 70 minutes) replayed iconic video artist Colin Campbell as a cold warrior. Mark was my editor in most of these travels, so it seemed only too likely that the first movie I would make with the software he left behind would be about him.

AM: You are an artist who is incredibly interested in, and supportive of, other artist’s work. You have produced two books of interviews, written scores of reviews, published monographs, essays, along with your work as a curator. What drives this interest?

MH: In the past two years, I have released, co-authored or co-edited eleven books, many of them available for free download on my website. Most of this work is about individual media artists. It is a field which continues to be underrepresented in print, for reasons which escape me. It is possible to press a small CD release and count on half a dozen well-considered reviews on the web. And there are magazines like The Wire, which doesn’t think it strange to mix-master prog dinosaurs King Crimson, drone symphonist Ben Frost, and New York’s Sensational – Freak Styler. But the words swirling around artist’s film and video are mostly in a state of live quarantine at the screening itself.

Jean Perret, genius director of the Swiss doc fest in Nyon, said that there are two kinds of filmmakers: the ones who search and the ones who find. The ones who already know what they are looking for, and the ones who set off to find out. I share an anthropologist’s interest in my fellow searchers, as we move together in the dark, each in our own way. Because we are busy trying to open to the next necessary and impossible emotion, when I speak to them, they are packed to bursting with deviant myths, border crossing insights, and intelligent wounds. Is it too awful to admit I find them irresistible?

AM: What are your current influences?  What are you reading and watching?

MH: I’ve just finished reading Frida Kahlo’s diaries in preparation for a new movie, and J.M. Coetzee’s devastating The Lives of Animals. I’m looking forward to Jon Davies’ Trash (A Queer Film Classic), and Jayce Salloum: History of the Present, a mid-career monograph about this genius multi-media artist. In between episodes of Grey’s Anatomy, anything by Steve Reinke is essential viewing, including his latest punk rock collaboration, Disambiguation, and the sterling chops of Frédéric Moffet in Jean Genet in Chicago. Amy Goodman and Democracy Now, whatever Naomi Klein is writing about and Dani Leventhal’s post-diary video: absolutely. But what influences me most of all is hanging around friends and their kids. I have never seen people work so hard, and with such selfless patience. I have a score of new friends, maestros every one. All of my most important teachers are not yet ten years old.

This interview was conducted via email during November 2009.

Note: Many of Mike Hoolboom’s works are available through the Video Data Bank, and can be viewed at VDB’s on-site screening room in Chicago.