CROSSING OVER AT SUNDANCE: MELISSA AUF DER MAUR By Alicia Van Couvering
Doesn’t it make sense that every professional artist would have ideas in between mediums, would collaborate across categorical boundaries and make new and different work as their vision expands over their lifetime? It would seem to make perfect sense, but it doesn’t happen as often as it could. This year at Sundance, though, there are several artists who wouldn’t necessarily call themselves “filmmakers” on their tax returns, and who are showing work that one is more likely to catch in the pages of Rolling Stone, Art Forum and National Geographic than Variety. Below, we profile three of them, all of whom are traveling to Park City for the first time this year.
Two out of the three filmmakers interviewed below will see their work programmed in the New Frontiers section of the festival. The title encompasses a category of feature and shorts programming, and its custom-designed Main Street space is also a venue for panels and media art exhibitions. “We’re trying to create a space that engenders and brings together film, art and media technology,” says Shari Frilot, the series curator. “As much as artists and filmmakers love each other, they don’t really talk to each other that much. There’s even tension sometimes, partially due to a lack of understanding. But what’s really interesting and innovative is what’s coming out in our culture right at the crossroads of these worlds.” New Frontiers installations and films includes work from known video artists like Sharon Lockhart, Omer Fast and Maria Marshall; feature-length films that are exploring the very essence of film experience, like James Benning’s casting a glance, or multi-media and fractured narrative, like Ry Russo-Young’s You Wont Miss Me. There are also installations by scientists and computer programmers whose creative projects are using and talking about media in new ways.
As we enter the hangover phase of a decade when commerce became a greater and greater threat to art, when the power of hype seemed omnipotent and the value of new ideas increasingly trite, it is nice to focus on the edges of Sundance; the margins where the Institute’s mission for diversity is allowed to live free.
We’ll speak to three of these artists. This first installment profiles musician Melissa Auf Der Maur, whose Out of Our Minds plays in the New Frontiers section. Next will be gallery and installation artist Charlie White, whose American Minor is also in New Frontiers. And finally we’ll visit photographer Louis Psihoyos, whose The Cove plays in the Documentary Competition.
Melissa Auf Der Maur, Out of Our Minds (New Frontiers)
Both famous and fawned over for playing bass in the bands Hole and The Smashing Pumpkins, Melissa Auf Der Maur’s film Out of Our Minds is just the latest manifestation of an idea created amidst a life devoted to art-making. “My mother enrolled me in cross-disciplinary art schools,” Auf Der Maur recalls. OOOM is an elegant and wild 28-minute Witch/Viking fantasy journey through time and reality, filmed in the Vermont woods and scored with wall-to-wall music by celebrated avant-garde rock group The Entrance.
Auf Der Maur conceived of OOOM the movie as just one element of a larger project, which is centered around a new 12-song album and an accompanying comic book. When a friend invited her to a rough cut screening of a movie about Vikings, she jumped at the chance — “I had always credited Vikings as part of my inspiration for rock music,” she says – and halfway through the screening she knew she had found the only possible collaborator for the project. Tony Stone (Severed Ways: The Norse Discovery of America) became the film’s director, and over two seasons at his family’s off-the-grid Vermont cabin, they assembled a witch’s lair, bleeding trees and a car crash. The physical demands of filming in those conditions – “charging our cameras with solar power, downloading P2 cards and literally not knowing if anything was being stored, shitting in the woods, sleeping in the freezing cold” – was transformative for Auf Der Maur, a self-described city girl who had only really been to the woods for compulsory school trips.
“There’s not too many differences to me between the power of music and the power of nature,” she says. “Making music is extremely collaborative, like film, but mentally and emotionally it’s more of a cerebral spiritual zoo, where you sit in a circle and do this communal thing. Music isn’t real, you can’t hold it in your hand — it’s this invisible powerful force of nature that we just live in. What’s amazing about film is it’s got everything: you’ve got sound, the music, the story, the knock-your-socks-off visuals, and it’s a very very real thing. It’s not magic itself, it’s like a vessel to hold magic. You can use it to actually see and hear magic, somehow.”
Auf Der Maur is a strident proponent on interdisciplinary artmaking. She was brought up in art schools, where she found photography, sang in the choir, acted in plays, and played the trumpet. “Life was all one huge opportunity to express yourself,” she says, “and when I fell into rock music I was amazed at how music-centric the musicians were, how they didn’t seem to be interested in movies or other art.” She always took pictures, and soon was ready to show them publicly. “People would say, ‘Oh, a musician photographer, how will you get anyone to take you seriously?’ Some people are very sacred about devoting yourself to one thing.”
“There is, of course, something to be said about craft,” she continues. “A writer has to write for thousands of hours, has to do it every day, to be good – it’s the same thing with being a musician,” she points out. “I couldn’t wake up tomorrow and be a painter, but if I were to decide to devote three years to studying how my hand moves on canvas…”
Why play the film in festivals at all if the film could easily be promoted as an accompaniment to the album and comic? “I wanted film festivals to be oone of the outlets for people to hear this message – it’s about getting one theme out there in as many different outlets as possible.”
Perhaps most exciting to her is the collaborative aspect of this new form. “Music is collaboration as much as film, especially if you play rock music. It is a thousand percent about collaboration. Communing with the audience is also in some ways about collaboration and exchange. I just want to commune with people.”