Going on one year now, Josh Guilford has been enriching film culture and community in the Pioneer Valley through the curation and presentation of his experimental film series ‘X (Unknown Quantity)’. His programs from month to month are unified by a goal of exposing viewers to some of the more evocative and less-commonly-seen forms that cinema can take. And these aren’t one-off screenings where the films play, the viewers leave, and the films quickly dissipate from the mental space; Guilford often hosts filmmakers and guest curators for post-screening discussions and seminars in the classes he teaches at Amherst College. Because being immersed in a film is great, but why not try to unpack what you felt after you watch it with other captivated folks?
We talked with Josh about what he sees in his series, issues in film curation, and about the effects of experimental film in general. If you’re out in W. Mass. tonight (Tuesday), we heartily encourage you check out the latest installment of X at Amherst–a slate of films by Ephraim Asili exploring his relationship to the African diaspora. Paired with the touring program Black Radical Imagination Wednesday night at Smith. Both free and open to ze public.
Boston Hassle: Could you describe the genesis of X? Did you feel like there was a void in terms of access to experimental cinema in Western Mass.?
Josh Guilford: I started X (Unknown Quantity) when I moved to the Pioneer Valley to begin teaching at Amherst College last fall. I had been involved with experimental film organizations in New York and Providence before coming to the Valley, and knew that I wanted to continue programming. I was interested in creating something on the model of a series, rather than a microcinema, in part because of the different time commitments these entail. If X were a microcinema, a venue with a material exhibition space, my priority as a programmer would be openness: opening a space for local and visiting artists and curators to show work. One of the benefits of those types of venues is their constancy. If you work hard, you can remain constantly open to screenings as they pop up. A series isn’t constant; it occurs intermittently, a number of discrete events spaced out over time. Because I devote most of my time to teaching, the temporality of the series is more manageable.
When I started X, I wasn’t looking to fill a void in the Valley film scene. I wasn’t really sure what the programming landscape was like here, but I was certain that there was an audience for experimental media. The Valley has a lot of artists, students, and other sorts of people invested in alternative culture. But I like to think that you can find audiences for experimental work all over. I grew up in suburban Michigan and didn’t see my first experimental film until I was in college at Michigan State. One of my professors screened a print of Stan Brakhage’s Sirius Remembered. I realized pretty immediately that I was into it. I think that’s one of the reasons I like programming. I want to work to create spaces for those sorts of encounters.
BH: How do you engender these transformative kinds of encounters with experimental cinema?
JG: Part of it is just showing films, and doing all the work required to help people see them. But when you talk about facilitating an encounter with film, I think more goes into it. For a while now, I’ve been thinking of curating as a way of utilizing film to create pockets of space that, for a period of time, can facilitate modes of thinking and feeling that differ from what we typically experience in a given day. So the exhibition becomes a reminder that there are other ways of living. Creating occasions for that sort of experience takes a lot of effort. You have to think about the work you’re showing, the way you’re presenting it, the venue you’re partnering with, how to design publicity to reach particular audiences… Some of the most important work that goes into curating happens in that sort of “offscreen space.” There’s the film you’re showing, and that’s important. But there’s also all of the work you do to foster a particular experience with that film, or even to get an audience to show up in the first place. People can watch films, including experimental films, just about anywhere at anytime. So curators have to work to create a context for the material they’re showing, to help people see why it’s worth coming out.
This is one thing I value about microcinemas: their emphasis on curating as a way of building community. Within the experimental film world, I think the communal dimensions of curatorial practice come to the fore more immediately. Screenings are occasions for collaboration and exchange as much as they are occasions to view work.
BH: You’ve invited a couple of folks outside of Amherst to curate a particular X show last semester. Do you think about balancing your own control over what gets shown on screen with wanting to let things unfold without your direction?
JG: Yeah, I want to open the series to outside perspectives. The third and fourth screenings were curated by Tomonari Nishikawa and Irina Leimbacher, respectively. Those were incredible shows, and I loved that I was able to bring other people to present works that I had never heard of, and which are outside of my area of focus. This coming season, I’m collaborating with a couple of local film people by co-sponsoring screenings that they have been developing. Hope Tucker, a filmmaker who teaches at Hampshire, is doing a show related to the election cycle at a little museum called Historic Northampton. And Andrew Ritchey, who teaches in the area and does great programming, is organizing another event as part of the touring program, “Black Radical Imagination” on November 1st.
BH: What new perspectives on film curation did Tomonari and Irina bring into your orbit?
JG: With Tomonari, we talked a lot about cultural representation. He showed a program of contemporary films and videos from Japan, but was careful to explain that the program was not representative of Japanese cinema. It was a set of works that he felt were in conversation with each other. They circled around issues of memory, and he was really focused on the connections between individual films, whether they were thematic, formal, emotional, or something more elusive, something that he felt or saw but which the audience might have missed.
Irina had really interesting things to say about the problems of curating around a theme, like how individual works can get lost when a program has too much thematic coherence. She visited my curating class the day after her screening, and had this great quote — it was something like, “Thematic categories both focus attention and blind you.” Which is to say, if you’re developing a thematic program, particularly with experimental film, a theme can do a lot to make the work you’re showing accessible to the viewer, providing a sort of interpretive lens. But it can also be restrictive, reducing the richness and complexity of a work to a single interpretation or keyword.
A filmmaker I brought to Amherst last month, Joel Schlemowitz, has written about a similar problem before. He calls it the “Goldilocks theory” of film programming. Essentially, the curator of a shorts program has to avoid two equally disastrous paths: on the one hand, too little thematic coherence between pieces, so that the program is not a program, but a hodgepodge of films; on the other, too much thematic coherence, so that each new film on the program seems redundant, like a repetition of the last. Putting together a shorts program is a balancing act, and I’ve definitely been both of those disasters. But for me, it’s harder to avoid excessive similarity. When I’m assembling a program, it sometimes feels like I have to put a set of works together, because the connections are so strong. But then at the show, as I’m watching from the audience, it fails completely. A sort of panic comes over me. I want to get up and leave the room.
BH: Is it important to you that the films are shown at Amherst Cinema, and not in say, a small screening room on campus or in the basement of someone’s house?
JG: Amherst Cinema is a great venue. The theater, the equipment, the staff… It is, in many ways, an ideal space to see film. And I think it’s important to make room for experimental film in that sort of traditional, theatrical context, because experimental film has so frequently been relegated to marginal exhibition spaces that weren’t built for screenings. A classroom with uncomfortable seats, a warehouse with no heat, a music venue with light pollution and noise from the bar… We’ve all been to those shows, and the results vary. Sometimes, the aesthetic quality of the work gets lost, and you wonder if you even saw the films. Presenting programs at Amherst Cinema is one way of respecting the work. But then, traditional theatrical spaces are not neutral, and they have their own limitations. Most of what I’m doing this season is happening in a little theater on campus. I think that smaller spaces can facilitate a sort of intimacy that is hard to duplicate in a big theater. You do lose something in terms of aesthetic quality and campus events tend to appeal to a smaller subset of the public. But sometimes, smaller spaces can provide a more impactful experience with a film, or a more communal atmosphere for a post-screening discussion. There’s less of a division between artist and audience.
BH: What has the response been like from the Amherst community and from your students after seeing some of these experimental works?
JG: The response has been really positive. The arts community in Western Mass is very smart, engaged, and appreciative of unconventional work. Some people were a bit disturbed by Daïchi Saïto’s latest film, Engram of Returning, which screened on Irina’s program, “Uncanny Landscapes.” There are a lot of flicker effects in that film, and it has an intentionally loud, maniacal soundtrack. I love that style and thought Engram was excellent. But I completely understand when people are bothered by films with an aggressive aesthetic. I think you need to build an appreciation for that sort of work over time.
There was another screening that I programmed, “Radiant Matter,” that produced a similar response in some of my students. There were a lot of flickering, pulsing, kinetic films, and works incorporating hand-painted or hand-processed imagery. For the ninety-odd minutes of the program, the screen was like a constantly shifting, pulsating field of visual complexity — perhaps an example of a program with too much aesthetic coherence. A few of my students said that the program hurt their eyes, or gave them a headache, or just made them feel weird. For me, that’s a valid complaint. But when we talked about the program in class the next day, I tried to get my students to specify what they were experiencing, and why they didn’t like it.
We happened to be reading an article where Ken Jacobs talks about wanting art that creates “life-and-death challenges to the psyche,” or which takes him beyond what he understands, into the unknown. It helped me formulate a few questions for my students, such as: Can we have those sorts of experiences without feeling some sort of discomfort or disorientation? Is disorientation always a bad thing? Do we go to the movies to feel comfortable, and if so, why? Sometimes, when you have a sustained conversation about these sorts of questions, a student who disliked a particular film will walk away from class thinking, “Maybe that wasn’t so bad,” or even, “Actually, that film was kind of incredible.” Other times, they’ll still hate the film, but I think it’s important to ask them to clarify why.
BH: I wonder if watching films like this over time could actually develop some kind of ocular fitness so as to experience more gradients of light, color, movement, just experience more in life. I want to believe in something like that, but I’m not sure that I do. What do you think about experimental film’s potential to influence the viewer’s experiential life outside of film?
JG: I believe in part of it. I mean, I definitely believe that cinema impacts sensory experience, and modifies the way we perceive things. But to me, this sort of impact feels very fleeting, like something you have to work very hard to prolong or renew. You walk out of a screening feeling changed, but then routine creeps in, habit takes over. This is one reason we need more screenings, more occasions to think and feel differently.