HOUSTON — The exhibition’s name — Sound Speed Marker — gets at the essence of Austin-based artist-duo Hubbard/Birchler’s work. As moving-image artists, Dubliner Teresa Hubbard and the Swiss Alexander Birchler make self-reflexive film: film about the elements of film.
Syncing sound with the speed of the film, which is on average twenty-four frames per second, is one action among several that are essential to filmmaking’s construction of reality. The trilogy of films in Hubbard/Birchler’s exhibition at the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum — Grand Paris Texas (2009), Movie Mountain (Méliès) (2011), and Giant (2014) — engage in the back-and-forth between the universal and the particular, subtly unpacking the space-time basics of film technology according to a precise site-specificity: wet, lushly arboreal East Texas and rugged, tall-skied West Texas.
Making film from film’s self-dissection is a process shared by a motley crew of artists and directors alike, from Guy Debord, Andy Warhol, and such Structural filmmakers as Tony Conrad, Michael Snow, and Hollis Frampton, to Dziga Vertov, Werner Herzog, and Woody Allen. Hubbard/Birchler’s moving-image art bears the clean, high production values of Hollywood; the cerebral realism of documentary; and the disinterested picture-making of video art. Because their work draws from a wide range of moving-image types, it is a category buster. Yet the speedy bombast implied by the word “bust” does not do justice to their work. “Defiance” is more apt. They defy pigeonholing while carving out space for the rarefied and new. Like Matthew Barney coming from the art side of things and Wim Wenders from narrative film, their work strikes a profound and rich in-between.
Each of the films that make up the trilogy at the Blaffer works something like a spatio-temporal feedback loop. The collective message here is that watching a film draws on memories of the past while creating memories for the future; contemporary film bears its past within its technological mortal coil. And this circle of memory, space, and time appears in ever-greater monumentality at the Blaffer, with Grand Paris Texas, a single-channel piece projected on one screen; Movie Mountain (Méliès), a two-channel projected on two screens; and Giant, a three-channel projected on three screens.
Grand Paris Texas unfolds around an old, rotting theater in the East Texas town of Paris. In 54 minutes, it documents the theater’s rise and decline, from the glorious era of silent films, accompanied by orchestra and organ, to the big box-office draw of Super Man in 1978, followed by its rapid decline starting in the early 1980s, At the time of Hubbard/Birchler’s filming, it had become a crumbling dereliction and a giant pigeon coop. In seamless though nonlinear fashion, residents’ memories of the theater are intercut with other Texas Parisians recounting their understanding of Wenders’ film Paris, Texas (1984).
Wenders plays an important role in Hubbard/Birchler’s general aesthetic. Their shots, like his, are quietly elastic, ponderously loaded, and deliberatively unhurried. Wenders and Hubbard/Birchler untether the existential, in contrast to the utilitarian, side of mechanical time. Theirs is the emotional time of the moving image that has no narrative home. This untimely time is beautifully set in relief by Wenders’ road trilogy from the 1970s (Alice in the Cities, 1974; The Wrong Move, 1975; Kings of the Road, 1976). Birchler/Hubbard’s focus on the tumbledown Grand Theater echoes the storyline of Wenders’ Kings of the Road, the third in his trilogy, which follows a projection-equipment repairman and a hitchhiker along the Western side of the East German border as they go from town to town, repairing movie projectors in theaters with dwindling audiences. Like Hubbard/Birchler, Wenders is interested in the slow existential time of the machine (car and camera alike) and the obsolescence and supersession of celluloid film.
Paris, Texas, film critic Toni Clem (who is the mother of New York/Paris-based conceptual artist Chivas Clem) strikes an unpredictable and rare cosmopolitan presence in Grand Paris Texas.She recounts Fox Picture’s begrudging willingness to give Wenders’ film a special opening in the city, and the audience’s tittering response to the film’s setting in a dry desert somewhere far from the rainy green landscape of the real Paris, Texas. A young college student tells of her experience watching Wenders’s film on VHS with friends. She missed the ending not because of somnolence, but because it had be been recorded over with part of King Baggot’s silent Western classic Tumbleweeds (1925). This vicissitude in the form of a redacted VHS tape is the subject of photographs on view at the Blaffer. It also bears impromptu resonances in the next film in the cycle, Movie Mountain (Méliès).
Movie Mountain (Méliès) and Giant take place on the opposite side of the state in West Texas and focus more overtly on the construction of sound in film. Scenes of cattlemen and women herding cows stream across two screens in Movie Mountain (Méliès), while a train rumbles through Texas flatlands along the three screens of Giant.The narrow gaps between the large projection surfaces creates visual disjuncture, which Hubbard/Birchler poetically smooth over through painstakingly precise field recordings of clattering hooves, wooting cowboys, and stridulating grasshopper legs.
Movie Mountain (Méliès), 24 minutes in length, is about the artists’ search for the origin of the name “Movie Mountain,” a low, flat-capped elevation in the small town along the Texas-Mexico border, Sierra Blanca. Interviews with townspeople provide vague memories of a silent cowboy film made in the area a century ago. This footage is intercut with clips from another interview — a ruggedly handsome rancher-cum-script writer whose bygone Hollywood ambitions strike a sense of deflated machismo and melancholia.
The intermittent shots of sound recordist Ben Lowry climbing through dry, craggy terrain, carrying buffered microphones and an audio mixer to capture the velvety sounds of the Southwest desert, reveals the stuff of film-in-the-making as if it were the sutures of a suit or the entrails of an organism. The origins of the name of the mountain remain ambiguous in the end, but the descendants of the participants in the long-ago film stutteringly sound out the name of “Méliès,” suggesting that Movie Mountain was named for the film work in the area by Gaston Méliès, the brother of celebrated French filmmaker George Méliès.
Hubbard/Birchler’s Giant, at 30 minutes, shifts between clips of documentary and narrative film. We see footage of Hubbard making sound recordings in Ryan, Texas, around the remains of Reata, the ruinous set of the Victorian mansion from the 1956 epic Hollywood film of the same name, which starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean. Hubbard/Birchler’s Giant smoothly moves between documentary images of Reata’s remains in the twenty-first century and close-up shots of an old Underwood typewriter in action at the fingertips of an actress playing the role of a Warner Brothers secretary in February 1955.
Her faceless boss hovers over her. Pristinely dressed, quaffed, and maquillaged, she translates notes in shorthand to contracts addressed to landowners in the area, whose property will be used as sets for Hollywood’s Giant. One sentence reads, “[T]hese sets are to be held intact.” The nesting of memory overlaps with the nesting of filmmaking as viewers see shots of Birchler filming sound recordist Diane Zander Mason with her microphone under the creaking remains of the old set. In this layering, 1950s-era gendered stratification meets the 1920s recursive film tactics of Dziga Vertov, making a tour de force of time folding and travel.
The film trilogy is the powerful centerpiece of the show at the Blaffer Museum, showcasing the singular talents of these artists. Photographs of the bowdlerized VHS tape of Wenders’ Paris, Texas and a sculpture-installation of a lamppost bearing a flier for a lost cat named “True Foe” (a wink-wink, nudge-nudge reference to French New Waver François Truffaut) located in the courtyard are fun but ultimately ancillary. Hubbard/Birchler’s memorable films turn the contrivance of cinematic reality on its head, exposing the myths of myth-making and the complex contradictions undergirding them.
Teresa Hubbard / Alexander Birchler: Sound Speed Marker continues at the Blaffer Art Museum (4173 Elgin St, University of Houston, Houston, Texas) through September 5.