. Conversations at the Edge (CATE)

An Interview with Andrew Lampert

Posted by | George William Price | Posted on | November 7, 2014

Andrew Lampert sits down with SAIC graduate student Elizabeth Metcalfe to talk about his interest in archiving, current inspirations, and his unique approach to improvisation.

Andy Lampert

Andy Lampert

Lampert joined CATE on October 9th 2014 and turned his attention to the Gene Siskel Film Center in a site-specific performance created especially for the evening. The performance was accompanied by a series of Lampert’s shorts, including El Adios Largos (2013), an inspired reconstruction of Robert Altman’s 1973 feature The Long Goodbye from imperfect source material.

Elizabeth Metcalfe: How did you become interested in film archives and what role does the archive play in your artistic practice?

Andrew Lampert: When I was 18 I was hired by an organization called the New York Underground Film Festival of which I eventually became the Director of Programming. The festival itself happened at Anthology Film Archives, where I had previously been a patron. Through my role in the festival, I was hired to work at the archive as the Theater Manager, which I did for a number of years. And of course, at Anthology it’s very much focused on exhibition and preservation but it wasn’t until there was an evening in which they had a special private event to celebrate the tenth anniversary of a particular artist’s death and the preservation of one of their works. I attended this event and they were talking a lot about preservation and of course this was a word that I had heard thrown about quite a bit and I had never at that point asked myself, “Well, what IS preservation? What does it mean?” so I asked the person sitting next to me who was an archivist for a particular filmmaker and he said, “There’s a school for that! It’s the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at the George Eastman House Museum.” It was the first program in the United States specifically for film preservation. Generally speaking, film preservationists and archivists previous to this program were filmmakers and film geeks or de-facto librarians but not film preservation trained specialists. Then, I realized that Anthology, which has the most prominent collection of experimental, avant-garde films in the country, did not have an archivist and hadn’t had an archivist for a period of ten years because it wasn’t in the budget. So Anthology’s founder and director at that point, Jonas Mekas, was de-facto the archivist. Realizing that, I inquired about the school and I made a deal with Jonas that if I was accepted and went to the school, he would find the funding to bring me back as an archivist. So I went to school but my reason for going to the school was not a desire to preserve all films like Casablanca or Gone with the Wind for generations to come. I don’t care about preserving those films because I don’t have to. There are other corporate and commercial concerns safeguarding those films. But who’s looking out for the films that made a strong, aesthetic, cultural and emotional impact on MY life and the lives of many others? So I wanted to work with this particular collection. I went away, I trained, and Jonas brought me back as the archivist and for ten years I served as the archivist until my title was changed to Curator of Collections. My title changed because in those ten years, we managed to build up the archive so that now there are three employees: an archivist, a digital archivist, and myself.

In my own work, archives rarely play a role. Adios Largos, a restoration of Robert Altman’s Long Goodbye, is a project that began in 2002 before I was an archivist. I couldn’t accomplish the project originally because I didn’t have the knowledge or funds to work with that project. However, my training as an archivist gave me the knowledge to know how to work with that project later on. Aside from that work, I have two other pieces that deal with found footage: All Magic Sounds and Benetton. Benetton is a series of films constructed from a $20 flea market purchase made in 2003 of two and a half hours of raw, unedited footage from a Benetton ad campaign in the mid 1990s. Today, we’ve made at least 14 different pieces from the footage. Eventually, I want to use every single frame of the footage and repurpose the frames into works. The frames alone don’t behave like Benetton commercials and what fascinates me about the footage is thinking about its original, primary use in commercials. I’m interested in how the footage wouldn’t be used, outside of a commercial context. When I have no money or little time, I go back to that project since I consider it to be a lifelong project.

All Magic Sounds is an E-bay purchase of all of the footage (outtakes, retakes, mistakes etc.) from a Christian children’s adventure film about some kids who get washed up on the beach only to be saved by a Jesus-like character who appears with a magical donkey. With that footage, my goal is to use every single frame of the footage and to not edit it. The footage is on several three-minute camera rolls, but my editing process is not to take shots from different rolls and juxtapose them but instead to use the rolls in tact, using them as building blocks. For a while, I would re-edit the order of the footage every time I showed it. It becomes this series of flash-forwards, flashbacks, and constant presence in time.

Besides from those archival-based projects, I shoot and edit my own footage. I’m pretty compartmentalized in thinking about archival concerns and what I’m interested in. That said, my latest series of photos and videos is made for an exhibition currently on view in Texas called Don’t Lose the Manual. The starting point for that project is thinking about old people using new technology and new people using old technology. That idea doesn’t relate to the archive so much to me as transitions in technology and the necessity of adaptation to survive.

Still from El Adios Largos Y Mas (Andrew Lampert, 2013). Courtesy of the artist.

Still from El Adios Largos Y Mas (Andrew Lampert, 2013). Courtesy of the artist.

EM: What are some of your favorite films and what inspires you?

AL: Lancelot du Lac by Robert Bresson, Kitch’s Last Meal by Carolee Schneeman (I only came to know that film through preserving it; it’s a Super 8 double projection blown up to 16 mm, which is incredibly poignant to me), Duck Soup by the Marx brothers…However, I always say when giving these sorts of lists that I’m only listing my favorite films on this day of the week at this hour as I conclude this sentence, and if you ask me tomorrow that list might change. I do keep coming back to works by Ken Jacobs and Michael Snow, whose films, upon re-watching, inspire new experiences and new thoughts. Michael Snow’s Wavelength exposes a new relationship to me each time I watch it. But as much as I show and preserve experimental, avant-garde films, I increasingly am not so into them. In my opinion, the best film of the last five years was Daddy Longlegs, an indie fiction film by Josh and Ben Safdie, which I probably would have hated ten years ago. Also, Blades of Glory with Will Ferrell is an absolute masterpiece. You must see it!

EM: Can you talk a little bit about what role improvisation plays in your work?

AL: Improvisation is key to my work. Improvisation is something I brought into my practice via musical improvisers and thinking through the work and experiences I’ve had with composers like John Zorn. He was creating compositional structures, which then created parameters around what musicians played. The structures didn’t dictate note for note what musicians should play. The pieces were like games and the musicians created the music that is always attributed to John Zorn. I always found that to be an interesting and problematic relationship. What I like to do is create structures that then get filled in by my participants and collaborators. I’m not ceding authorship, direction, or editorial control, but I like the truth that lies within improvisational structures.

My interest in improvisation is also why I almost always cast non-actors in films. If I’m filming a film about a teacher, I would want to hire a real teacher rather than hiring an actor who pretends to be a teacher. I like to think of people, who they are, what their skill set is, what their natural presence is, and how they would act in a given situation, and then create a structure around that. I typecast. I want people to use their natural skills. I don’t want to work with professionals.

As an example, I once made this film called Etka and Masha: Teenagers of the Old World. I worked with two young women, who we dressed up in ridiculous Old World clothing (or at least the Old World of my imagination) and set in ancient Russia (which looks like upstate New York). The general parameter of the film was that the women were Old World teenagers having an Old World “Yo Mama” fight. I casted the people I did because they are some of the most vibrant, funny, fast-witted people I know and I wanted to see what would happen if I put them in this context where they had to use fake Russian accents and make jokes about horse carts and cholera. They improvised within the set parameters to fill in the content and I really like that because every work that I make starts from an idealized point but things change when the conceptual idea is realized. I’ve found that if you try to set up a situation where you can’t fail or lose, or at least set up a situation that gives a lot of permissions, it creates more engaged responses.

Still from Jazzy for Joe (Andrew Lampert, 2013). Courtesy of the artist.

Still from Jazzy for Joe (Andrew Lampert, 2013). Courtesy of the artist.

EM: How do you engage people in your site-specific performances?

AL: A film goes out in the world: it can play in California or it can play in Croatia and I don’t have to deal with it. But a performance, to me, is a one-time event. If you try to do something twice, it never comes out the same way. Theater has little idiosyncrasies each night but it is primarily about repetition. I find myself completely bored if I try to recreate something because I know more or less what will happen and at that point it becomes theater. When I am invited to do a performance in a space, I want to learn about the dimensions of the space and engage with the staff of the facility to learn about available equipment and the possibilities of the room. With that starting point, I work backwards. I have the container—now what do I want to put in it? Whether it’s the restaurant at the Whitney Museum, the Art Gallery of Ontario, or the Gene Siskel Center in Chicago, I think about the general use of the room and how that use can be disrupted so that audience expectations are thrown into disarray. We have this idea about performance or cinema that you sit in a chair and look in front of you. But the cinema can do different things. At the Siskel, it was only through dialogue with the head projectionist about my limitations that I could think about how to engage the space. The room is a classic theater so it is hard to imagine how to use it in other ways. However, knowing what is permissible and what is restricted gives me a framework to work with and also lets me know what to push against.

I also like to surprise people I use in performances. In contrast to people I cast in films, I will not always tell people what I am going to do in a performance. Many years ago I was invited to do a performance piece at Penn University. I engaged a theater friend of mine who has stage management experience. He can stand in front of people without being nervous, which is why I asked him to participate. I gave him tons of information beforehand about what he should do in the performance, but as we drove to Philadelphia, I told him that I was changing the performance. He then got a little nervous. The night of the performance, right after I was introduced, I told my friend that everything was changing once again and he should just do everything I told him to do at the moment I told him to do something. This shock produced extremely candid and natural responses because his expectations were thrown. In all performances, I never disclose what the performance will look like to all of the people participating. I only inform people of their unique roles, so that part of the performance is genuine reaction. Practice makes perfect but practice can also lead to stasis. I want honest reactions that can’t be anticipated. I don’t want to even anticipate what I am going to do next. I would love, when I’m 80, to look back on my life and see one hundred films or videos that seem like they were created by one hundred different artists or filmmakers. I recognize that a common tone is important within a body of work is important. However, I would rather feel as though I had made a big mess of life instead of a tidy package.