“Out of necessity I become an instrument”: An Interview with Leslie Thornton

07/12/2012 1:55 PM |


This Sunday, July 15, Joan’s Digest, a feminist film quarterly edited by the L contributor Miriam Bale, and the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center for Feminist Art present “Mirrors: Experiments in Portraiture,” a film screening and panel discussion at the Brooklyn Museum. The experimental filmmakers Amy Granat, Leslie Thornton, and Marie Losier will be on hand to discuss their experiences as experimental filmmakers, and the representations of themselves and other artists in their shorts. Thornton, the pioneering video and media artist, talked to us about a highlight of the Brooklyn Museum program, a rare 16mm screening of her first film, the groundbreaking structuralist short X-TRACTS (Thornton is pictured in the still from the film at right), as well as her history in painting, and the hard-to-shake habits of experimental film exhibition as it was established in the 1970s and continues today.

So you made your first film X-TRACTS in 1975, with Desmond Horsfield. How did you come to make this film, from your background in painting?
I was painting these grid-like things, tending towards white, many layers, quite deep canvases, in a way that combined aspects of a gesture with a kind of pushing back of that gesture, burying the gesture. The gesture would be seeping out around edges. It was reductive, and moving more and more towards an absence of paint. I hadn’t planned on going to graduate school, but after I left Buffalo, I got a letter from Paul Sharits, who had become a friend and a mentor, and he was impressed by the school and said apply—so I ended up at the Hartford Art School.

For an MFA?
Yes, an MFA. Which was a really good thing! Because it made possible to teach. Because I really thought I was just going to be painting, when I left undergrad. So I enrolled at that school, and was expected to be “the painter” in a small group of grad students, in what was at the time considered a conceptual art school, along with Nova Scotia. I was very involved with avant-garde cinema, as a spectator, at Buffalo, and I was taking all the courses with filmmakers, and hanging out with them, because it was the early 70s and there was a kind of breaking down of hierarchy. I took courses with Hollis Frampton, and Brakhage and Peter Kubelka—in fact, that was one course that all three of them taught. And even in high school, I was watching experimental films: strangely the minister of a Unitarian church in Schenectady, New York was showing these films for the community on Sunday afternoon in the church. So I was seeped in this. And when I got to Hartford, I already knew that if I kept painting I was going to end up at this zero point, if I was honest to this trajectory that I established aesthetically. I had to empty the painting out completely. And also, it was a very private activity, and I was a very shy person.

So if you kept painting in the way you were, eventually you’d have to stop painting?
Yeah. And I started making films because it was the opposite, this funnel that would open on the world, that it had endless possibilities. That it required me to be more aggressive and outward-oriented was part of the appeal. Recording in the world meant there was endless potential.

So, when I was studying painting at Hartford, I met another graduate student, Desmond Horsfield, who was a British sculptor, and he was already making films. So we made X-TRACTS over the course of the first year. And I don’t remember what his interest was exactly, except, Let’s make a film. But we wanted to establish a structure for organizing the shots ahead of time. We weren’t in any way talking about a script, but we were talking about how the camera would relate to the subject. And the subject would be a person in the world. So we made this grid and worked out time intervals, and the way the camera or the subject could move in relationship to one another. We would have six shots in a row—I don’t know why six, that was fairly arbitrary—in which the same kind of movement would occur. And we wanted also to work with sound, so I had a high school journal of embarrassing writing, and I thought why don’t I destroy this, but I’ll read from it, and then we’ll cut that up and make another score or grid for handling sound. We started with longer shots at the beginning of the film, and shorter sounds, and then we moved in the opposite directions. And that was the structure. So then we thought, well, we’ll just shoot me around the house. Because Desmond was the one who knew how to shoot, and I was more excited about editing.

For me, it was a translation of what I did in painting, in that it was a combination of structure and excess flourishes that just happen. It was a combination of form and content. Partly because of this exposure that I’d had to so much good work from the early days of American avant-garde cinema, I just thought of it as another medium for practicing art. I wasn’t happy when it got separated from the art world—by these men, actually—into its own ghetto. It was separated from the art dialogue, and it was done deliberately.

Well, my perception of it was Mekas had a lot to do with it, but he’s not the only one. From what I saw, these people, and it was Brakhage in particular, could be quite exclusive about it. There was a sense that it was a new art form, and that it needed special consideration. It wasn’t something that people had gotten yet; they didn’t understand it. They didn’t think it would live well, was my understanding, in the already established art context. They wanted to create another place for it, so they started film centers, like Anthology. Which, it was my understanding, would grow into a museum of experimental cinema, separate from art museums. Also, this first generation, the founding sages, were—well, the egos were big, and they had a lot of support, and they really did like to talk about their work. So the formula set into place at these new film centers involved the filmmaker always being present to talk about the work. And that also meant that usually it would only happen on a single night. So all of this was set into place fairly quickly in the 70s, and as a model it dominated. And it really held things back.