“My Filmmaking is a Child of Mark Zuckerberg”: Wayne Koestenbaum on The Collective, Pandemic Exhaustion and Taking Up Filmmaking
“So abundant were the apples, we left them on the ground to rot. We regret the rot, but not the abundance.” These lines close “Tortoise,” one of the “fables” collected in Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Cheerful Scapegoat, the most recent of the 21 books he’s published across the last three decades. His written output—which ranges the terrains of prose and poetry, fiction and criticism, theory, memoir, and styles not yet named, typically collapsing as many of these terms as possible in a given sentence (his métier)—would alone qualify as an abundance. That he has, in more recent years, supplemented this body of work with excursions into painting, drawing and comic improvisations for voice and piano, leaves us toeing the line of the self-contained cosmos.
Perhaps it was inevitable that he would turn to movies sooner or later (they can hold so much), a turn he’s undertaken over the last few years with typically prodigious energy. Having begun with short videos scaled to the visual and temporal dimensions of Instagram (at the time of writing, 130 such works live on his Vimeo page), he quickly elaborated a visual style every bit as singular as his voice, unmistakable syntax and diction. A palette on the far side of tertiary unifies collages of original and found material, images still and moving, into dense bon bons. Having seen scores of them, I’ll confess it never occurred to me that he would have any interest in longer durations. And yet now arrives The Collective, running a feature-length 53 minutes. Shot over the course of a single afternoon onsite at UnionDocs, where it will have its world premiere this Thursday (the bill also includes the world premiere of a 20-minute erotic musical, Shadows of the Soirée), the film stars Kyle Dunn, Gia Gonzales, and Patrick Ljubi Gallagher as a trio of “fragile characters,” steadily modulating across a series of scenes drawn from sources including Robert Walser, Deleuze and Guattari, and Trog, Joan Crawford’s final film. The style is cold in comparison to Koestenbaum’s miniatures. Here he’s taken up a mixture of transparency and high artifice not seen terribly often since Warhol’s productions left the Factory, which of course means it’s still hotter than anything you’re likely to find on a New York screen this month. We met at his studio in Chelsea where, surrounded by dozens of paintings and what seemed thousands of drawings, we discussed his history with the movies, his reverence for performance and the absolute importance of nudity.
Filmmaker: Given the themes of parenthood and family at the beginning of The Collective, I thought I’d start with a question that might get back to childhood: do you have a clear memory of the first time you ever picked up a camera with the intention of making art?
Wayne Koestenbaum: I will back-date the honorific “art” onto the following experience. I had a Super 8 camera early in my life, fourth grade. First, I had a Super 8 silent film projector with silent films bought from Blackhawk Films, which I idolized. My dream was to go to Davenport, Iowa and wander the aisles. So, I had Chaplin and Fatty Arbuckle. But then I got a Super 8 camera and made movies with it. The one that’s most interesting to me in retrospect is, when my family was vacationing in Mendocino in northern California, we happened upon a film in the process of being made. It turned out to be Summer of ’42. My parents let me hang out on the street for two days and watch the crew shoot the film. I filmed their filming one scene in which the heroine meets the hero. They’re outside a variety store and the woman drops her bag of groceries. I marveled that they spent the whole day taking and retaking that scene, and filmed that process. So, it’s appropriation art, almost.
Filmmaker: Do you remember how much of their camera was in your footage?
Koestenbaum: I don’t remember their camera at all, which is strange. I remember my distance from the actors, across the street. And I remember that they were repeating this trivial scene again and again and again , and it seemed like nothing was happening. My little Super 8 film wasn’t consciously art, but it’s right before the Pictures Generation, so perhaps I was making a kiddie version of a Sherrie Levine.
Around that time, I took a summer workshop on animation at Montalvo in Los Gatos in the Bay Area, where I’m from. I made a Super 8 stop-motion animation film with paper cutouts. I created a cutout of Mae West. All I remember is that she walked across the screen, which took the whole summer.
Filmmaker: To bring us up to the present: what made you want to start picking up a camera again for slightly more public consumption this time around?
Koestenbaum: In common with everybody else in this mediated age, it was when I finally got a smartphone, an iPhone, and discovered that it had a remarkable capacity as a video camera. And so, like everybody else, I started making use of it.
Filmmaker: And everything is with the phone? I was curious if some of the shorter videos were made with the camera on a computer.
Koestenbaum: No, the stuff I’ve done is all on my phone, except for some Super 8 reels which I usually edit in camera. This week I have two rolls of film that I made of a talented young photographer and performer, Marc Ludwigsen. I also have video footage of him, and I’m thinking for the first time of trying to work with Super 8 and video together.
Filmmaker: Bringing up the iPhone gets us to one of the salient features of the film, its vertical aspect ratio. At what point in the process was that decided upon? It’s both structuring and signifying in certain ways.
Koestenbaum: I’d say half the little microfilms I’ve made, though filmed on an iPhone, while editing I change the aspect ratio to a compromise between square and full widescreen. I don’t like widescreen as much because on Instagram or on a phone—unless you tilt it to the side, and it doesn’t always work when you tilt it to the side—you get too reduced a view. So, I filmed The Collective in the usual vertical format with the intention that I would edit it later and probably have a 4:5 ratio, something wide enough to allow bands of color on either side of the players. But then, when I began to superimpose layers of imagery on top of or next to the performers, I discovered that the intricacies of their performances would be lost if I added too much color layering. And if I isolated the performers somewhere within a wider screen, it seemed to me that the delicacy of their performances might be diminished. I’m not partial to the vertical format. I prefer the old-school TV size ratio, or Hollywood’s original 35mm ratio.
Filmmaker: I found it quite interesting because the ones that I’ve experienced through your Instagram I think of as very square. Having this one be tall accounts for your absence from in front of the camera in some way, because we feel you holding something that we can visualize extremely specifically.
Koestenbaum: There’s always the issue of the hand of the artist, and a film is a more mediated form of art-making than drawing, or even lithographs. The question is, where do you feel the hand of the filmmaker except in the cut, or in framings or compositional decisions that articulate themselves as decisions? If the camera’s wobbly—which I don’t like, because it makes me nauseous—then you feel the presence of the artist’s hand. Even though I love Jonas Mekas, his later style just got too vertiginous for me.
Filmmaker: Thinking of your particular way of placing things, specifically in your let’s say, fiction-adjacent prose, one of the things that I think of as a particularly Wayne move is turning a proper noun into an adjective. And I wonder if you see any connection between that and the placement of the quotations here, which become adjectives or adverbs, inflecting the scenes they lead into.
Koestenbaum: I don’t know if it’s true, but I would love it to be true. I think a lot about adjectives, and when I revise, I try to make the adjectives more odd.
I like your notion of filmic adjectives. A recited quotation is a burdensome thing to attach to a film, but if we consider quotations to function in the sweetly extraneous fashion of adjectives, we turn a quotation into perfume or aura rather than encumbrance.
Filmmaker: Something that can be walked through in its way.
Koestenbaum: I was very grateful that the performers, all of whom I had worked with before, were skilled enough at play to understand instantly how non-literally they needed to take the prompts, or how literally.
Filmmaker: Maybe you could describe the process by which those prompts were delivered. Were the performers just given these quotes as sort of resonant notes?
Koestenbaum: Yes. Either the night before or the afternoon before, maybe a full day before, I sent them the prompts and said, “We’ll go through as many as we feel like. These are just suggestions.” But as I continued to plan, I grew more attached to the idea of us staying faithful to the list of quotations and not jettisoning them in favor of a looser form of play. It seemed that having a structured thing for us all to do together would prevent anarchy and distress. We had a limited amount of time, and I wanted to use people’s energies judiciously. So, we did the filming session like a class, going through the prompts one at a time. I skipped or conflated a few. I set a timer for five minutes per interlude, so we wouldn’t feel lost within the improvisation, and so we would feel the comforting presence of closure.
Filmmaker: And the order that we see them in is the order in which they were both originally arranged and performed?
Koestenbaum: Pretty much. I changed a few things, but nothing too drastic.
Filmmaker: Since you used the word play, thinking about the “Tropisms” section, either right before or after the passage you quote, there’s a bit about play being exhausting. So, I wonder, after this particularly exhausting 18 months we’ve all lived through, what your relationship to exhaustion is in the current moment?
Koestenbaum: For me, one of the things that is exhausting about this historical moment has been the foreclosure of the future. The future has never been knowable and it has always been surrounded by apocalyptic fantasies and premonitions, but there are various ways that both the cessation of the future as a category to be hoped for and any predictability about the tempo of the non-future arriving at our doorstep has been tampered with or damaged. So, in terms of aesthetic play and the process of being an artist, writer—whatever, a person who makes things—the foreclosure of many of the venues where one’s work goes, the disappearance of a sense of audience or of destination, I have found exhausting.
Being prolific as a creator is not exhausting. It’s exhausting to experience diminution of expectations and hope. So, I’ve used filmmaking during the pandemic as a way to keep unexhausted. Last summer, I learned Premiere Pro rather than doing all the editing on my phone. Editing on Premiere Pro is time-consuming and exhausting, but it uplifts me. It kills my eyes, but it regenerates my spirit.
So, I would say, play is not exhausting, but it’s exhausting to feel that the fruits of play’s labor have no destination. You could say that when there’s no audience, no library, no home for the made thing, the dispiriting sense arises that one is writing or making into the void. And that is exhausting. So, the playfulness involved in this particular movie, The Collective and its collaborative aspects, was anything but exhausting because it was collaborative and a matter of friendships. And because the people at UnionDocs are lovely and friendly, I always felt a revivifying sense that the process of play—of filmmaking—was being received and responded to.
Filmmaker: Was there always the understanding that the film would premiere at UnionDocs, in the space that it was made?
Koestenbaum: A couple of years ago, we were originally talking about me doing a program on the essay film. When we got back in touch, they offered me the chance to shoot a film there. And then I said that instead of planning a formal program on essay films, we should just screen what became The Collective. The catalyst was their generous offer to lend me their space and resources (lighting, in particular) for filming.
Filmmaker: Well, since you mentioned the essay film, which The Collective is at least adjacent to, in its way: I think of you as one of our sharper catalogers of genre and type. So I wonder, do you have feelings about what type of film The Collective is?
Koestenbaum: It resembles to me, not in mood, intent, or attitude, the Warhol Factory films and George Kuchar films, like I, An Actress, in that they’re site-specific, made in spaces that look like UnionDocs. They involve a cast of characters who are clearly friends with the director or in cahoots with the concept. They’re improvised, but also staged and melodramatic. And they’re do-it- yourself in technique, and unfussy in editing.
Filmmaker: There’s a line in the piece you wrote about the Warhol screen tests that seems apt here, that Andy’s Bolex legitimizes and authorizes excess.
Koestenbaum: Yes. So my film is in the mode of Chelsea Girls, but I hope minus the sense of abuse hovering over everything. A different kind of Chelsea Girls, but with the same attitude: these players are given latitude to experiment with postures of grandeur and abasement that might not be in their usual repertoire.
Filmmaker: Maybe this is asking you to betray too much. Do you feel closer to any of the characters than others?
Koestenbaum: You mean in my movie?
Koestenbaum: I have different relations with the three of them, of varying lengths and sources. I’ve worked several times with Pat. Kyle, I’ve worked with once, and Gia, I’ve worked with once. I also know and admire Gia as a poet. She’s the managing editor of Nightboat Books, where I’m publishing a book in February 2022. So, we’ve collaborated in that editorial context.
Filmmaker: That’s not so surprising, because my feeling is that there is a certain closeness to Pat’s various characters, not least because of certain physical resemblances and his kind of complicity with the camera at various moments. It all feels as though it carries histories.
Koestenbaum: I’m glad to hear that. For me, one of the pleasures and surprises of watching the film is how generally free the three of them seem to be with looking at me and how responsive they seem.
Filmmaker: How early in the process did you know that you would not be in front of the camera at all?
Koestenbaum: I think I knew all along that I wouldn’t be visible. Originally though, because Jenny Miller and Christopher Allen at UnionDocs told me that they were also going to film the proceedings, I had the idea that I would include some of their footage as well in which I might appear. But I did the editing relatively quickly, and Jenny and Chris had gone to Lisbon, and I had already finished editing the film by the time they returned. So, I didn’t get any footage from them.
Filmmaker: Since we talked about Warhol, one thing that’s interesting to me is that, as often and insightfully as you’ve written about performers, you’ve written quite a bit less frequently about the people behind the camera. Besides Warhol, one of the other pieces that comes immediately to mind is the essay on Ryan Trecartin. There’s a wonderful line toward the end of it: “new forms of storytelling may thrive in talkative guerrilla cooperatives that eschew utopian promises.” This feels close to what you had to say about the foreclosing of the future earlier, and the film itself shares a fair amount with his work.
Koestenbaum: I really, really love Ryan’s videos, but my immersion in his work precedes my immersion in my own filmmaking or videomaking. I haven’t consciously made the connection to Ryan Trecartin and I haven’t gone back and watched his work to see resemblances. But I see the link.
What I love about his films is the way that new social spaces are created by new editing techniques. Take Chelsea Girls and put it through the Mixmaster of Premiere Pro or whatever Ryan uses, and you can come up with new layerings and intimacies. That discovery has been very grand for me as a human being. Editing can alter emotion. The process of editing is, in a sense, haptic, and it produces warps and transformations in the texture of reality.
Filmmaker: Could you talk a little bit about what that editing process is like for you? In The Collective, what I now think of as the look of your short videos is kept to these contained little bursts, which are composed almost entirely of still images. Was there a point where the textures we get in those interstitial pieces could have been prominent?
Koestenbaum: The decision not to do more vigorous and playful superimpositions was simply fear of upsetting whatever alchemy seemed to have been created through performance and through a more sustained dramatic tempo. A tempo of interpersonal stillness or suspense or attraction or guardedness. In their performances, I could sense psychological durations, which didn’t require optical legerdemain. And that contrasts with the way I’ve edited my shorter films, which has been fastidiously second-by-second. I consider something boring if it’s the same for two seconds.
In my micro-movies, I’m radically, stringently, dictatorially demanding of interest level being kept to a height, optically, second by second. And in The Collective I gave up that intensity. I said, “What’s interesting here is waiting for Pat’s eyes to pivot.” And it was fun to have the non-Instagram space to experiment with longer, slower interludes and interactions. I didn’t have to make it all razzmatazz in 30 seconds. I had a home for this film at UnionDocs and players who were invested in their own performances. So. it was gratifying to enjoy the accidental flowerings of visual magic that happened without the intricate layerings made possible by Premiere Pro, r without a sense that I was intending to make a film-painting. Most of the other films I’ve made, I consider them paintings. They’re films, but I think of them literally as moving surfaces that I’m painting on top of, like an animated slide-show of paintings and kaleidoscopically mutating or images.
Filmmaker: Do you have any interest in showing things in gallery spaces where there is a very different relationship between the work and the audience? A film like The Collective, given conventions at the current moment, might seem more naturally like something that was destined for a gallery.
Koestenbaum: I agree—not because I believe that certain products belong in different cultural spaces, but because I think of my films as extensions or elaborations of painting. I’ve never intended to make the kind of movies I go to in the theater. I love the notion of my films being in galleries, either as installations or screenings. I don’t know what direction my films will now take—whether I will do pieces that seem more narrative and less visually replete with bric-à-brac, or whether I will kind of go back to doing more dizzyingly visually-patterned stuff.
But the stuff that is more loaded with patterns and juxtapositions seems an extension of drawing and painting, where the kind of attention solicited is a private attention, not necessarily a group attention—a process of focused attention in which individual viewers monitor their own moods and constitute themselves as active participants and creators in sculpting the significance of what’s being seen. Not that filmgoers don’t sculpt significance, too, but in traditional theatrical contexts there can be more passivity and surrender to narrative arcs.
Filmmaker: Awareness of one’s own moods feels like very much the sort of thing one hears from improvisers. Maybe that can get us to your music, which is only briefly in The Collective and very prominent in Shadows of the Soirée, as it is in so many of the miniatures as well.
Koestenbaum: In these new films, the order has been: come up with the actors, come up with the prompts, do the footage, then add the music, if any. This is different from the earlier films, where I often had a piece of music, an improvisation, that’s, say, 45 seconds, and say, “I’m going to make a 45-second film.” Or, I make the film, then improvise a text (dictating it onto my phone) while watching the film, transcribe that recording, edit the words and reread it out loud. Because I discovered that it never works simply to dictate, in real time, while the film is going, without making alterations to the text afterward. Watching the film distracts me from properly managing the flow of my own emerging words.
The secret agenda of one of my mini-movies may be a series of still photographs I’ve taken and that I want to transform into a movie. Or the catalyst may be a a recording I’ve made of Sprechstimme improvisation, or a poem I want to have an occasion to write. A movie is my way of finding a little container for a “thing” (a moment, a curlicue, a progression, a portrait, a phrase) I want to create and lend a drop of legitimacy to, a happening or manifestation for which there would otherwise be no destination, home, permission, venue, or proscenium.
Filmmaker: This returns to the very beginning of the film, the Lydia Davis story you quote from, which is putting quite a lot of stress on the idea of what would constitute a legitimate story unto itself. I wonder what lets you know when the scale of something is adequate to be an object unto itself. For example, what about material of The Collective felt like something that could be sustained across 55 minutes?
Koestenbaum: I tend to like short forms within any media I’m working in. The paintings and drawings I make are small-scale. I write poems and short essays that are composed of fragments. My longer books are composed of fragments. So, I can take comfort and pleasure in sculpting groups of shapes, words, that are perceivable at a glance. I’m comfortable as an artisan or craftsperson with short fields in which to exercise my husbandry and tilling.
Filmmaker: Some of the paintings have gotten quite large.
Koestenbaum: I’ve made three that size. Honestly, if I had room for more, or find a destination for paintings of that scope, I would work on a larger scale, but it’s inconvenient on several levels.
Filmmaker: Do you feel like that convenience also factors into the films?
Koestenbaum: Yes. Like it or not, my filmmaking is a child of Mark Zuckerberg, in that it is absolutely dependent on the niche of creative making made possible by those firms and capitalist interests. That is a given. I will say, in my defense, that I have not succumbed to certain other capitalist inducements. It’s somewhat off-brand of me to plunge headlong into the filmmaking made possible by Instagram, but I enjoy that “high” of instant receptivity, and my filmmaking ambitions could for a time be accommodated by what social media fosters.
If, when I was a kid, I’d had a smartphone video camera, my life would be totally different. Or maybe filmmaking would not have had the romance it acquired for me when it seemed an inaccessible medium and I assumed that my role would always be that of spectator. By making mini-movies, I’m going back to a largely unconscious aesthetic prehistory of mine. I grew up in the Bay Area in the sixties and seventies, the world of George Kuchar, Bruce Baillie, Canyon Cinema, James Broughton—think of all the energetic experimentation that was going on around me. It makes me very happy to think that I was responding not just to Hollywood in my love of movies and my Super 8 camera, but in a weird way, to the underground filmmaking I sensed around me and that I remember reading about. When I was ten years old I got a book called Film 67/68, a gathering of essays from the National Film Critics Circle. I remember in that anthology an essay about underground film. I was impressed by the ubiquity of nudity in the new radical cinema. Nudity and cinema and aesthetic do-it-yourself adventurism have always been linked for me. That’s factual. It’s not a concept I’m cooking up.
Just to put in a plug for Doris Wishman, since I’m now belatedly discovering her magnificent work: Wishman’s films don’t overtly signal artfulness or traditional aesthetic ambition, but the nudity and the do-it-yourself atmosphere make her films art. Consider, and admire, the meagerness of her resources, sets, actors, situations. The grain of that meagerness reads as the highest artfulness.