Interviews

The Experimental Cinema of This Year’s Whitney Biennial Film Curator

Director Sky Hopinka talks to Hyperallergic about depicting language and landscape in his shorts.

From Fainting Spells (2018) (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

A rising talent within experimental film, the work of Sky Hopinka has made the rounds of many festivals in recent years. His short films find new ways to flip perspective on familiar landscapes and landmarks. Of Ho-Chunk and Pechanga descent, his films often deal with themes around indigenous life and history, as well as human relationships to the spaces around them.

The first retrospective of Hopinka’s work in Los Angeles will be screening on May 2, hosted jointly by LACMA and Acropolis Cinema. Having previously had his work featured in the 2017 Whitney Biennial, he is now one of the curators of the film program for the 2019 iteration. Hyperallergic caught up with Hopinka on the phone ahead of his trip to LA for the LACMA screening to discuss the particulars of depicting both language and landscape in film. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Dan Schindel: What have you put together for the Whitney Biennial?

Sky Hopinka: This is a program that I’ve been working on for the last two or three years. The title is What Was Always Yours and Never Lost. It includes the work of Thirza Cuthand, Caroline Monnet, Adam Khalil, Zack Khalil, Jackson Polys, James Luna, and Colectivo los Ingrávidos. I’ve programmed some of their work before, partly because of how different it is, but also because of how they relate to each other or spark different conversations, formally as well as conceptually. It provides an expanse of different questions about indigeneity, and what it is to claim something that is maybe lost, but maybe not.

DS: One prominent recurring element in your shorts is the use of language, especially ones like Wawa, where you juxtapose spoken word with different subtitles, and Venite et Loquamur, which is about a spoken Latin retreat. What draws you to this subject so often?

SH: It’s the different possibilities of how we ingest it, or how we experience language. Wawa is focusing on this mediation between the subtitle and the contents, and the translation of meaning and the different options of meaning. And Venite et Loquamur is also trying to carve out a different space where there are no texts. The edits are very straightforward, and it’s just about experiencing language that you’re hearing. What does it sound like? And don’t necessarily focus on understanding it. Like, what’s the song of a language? What’s the flow of it? What’s the intonation? Latin is one of the roots of modern English. It’s a heritage language, so what does it mean to participate in that? Or to understand Latin just a little bit, these words and phrases? I’m isolating these different approaches to semiotics.

From Venite et Loquamur (2015) (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

I would even argue that Latin’s not a dead language, because people still speak it. It’s just fallen out of common usage, which is interesting. Especially the relationship between that and indigenous language revitalization efforts. Those are languages that have like 50, 60 speakers. How do you approach saving a language? I like finding those parallels between that and the spoken Latin community. There are very similar concerns, even though there are different relationships to the languages. It’s still about practicing it and making space for it.

DS: Do you see your own work as part of this revitalization effort?

SH:  I like to. I do a lot of different things. Whenever I can, I make more straightforward videos — teaching materials for my tribe or other organizations I work with. I would take on a lot of these different projects when I was living in Portland and just learning how to make films. They were ways to practice and try things out and think about writing. When I got my first proper camera, the first thing I shot was a language lesson between me and my teacher. And I still consider that part of my work, even if it’s not experimental film. It still informs how I approach my experimental projects. I may run with some of the different ideas that I pick up while working with languages.

DS: Do you think your educational work has had an effect on your experimental films?

SH: Oh definitely. I especially consider it in terms of what it means to have an audience, what it means to be an educator, how to help a student learn how to speak a language and not make them feel ashamed. And then you use these tools to question the whole pedagogical process they’re participating in, and give them the means to define their own path of learning. It’s similar to how I think about working with audiences. Who am I trying to communicate to? What is it important for them to know right now, or later, if ever?

My favorite part of learning languages is when you’re learning without actively trying to, when things happen naturally out in the real world. Similarly, it’s important for me to think about how to interact with people who are participating in my films. And to not make it just about one singular idea, but where can it go from there.

From Wawa (2014) (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

DS: What about the opposite? Has your experimental work impacted how you make your educational materials?

SH: I’m not sure. With my video work, I’m very aware of my presence behind the camera and how that creates a sense of authority around the construction of something. But when I’m working with languages, I’m trying to get out of the way and not be present at all. It becomes less about the medium and more about trying to relay information. It goes back and forth, how I think about these works.

DSAnother major recurring element in your work is landscape. You continue to toy with perspective so much, through framing and filters and editing. When you shoot, do you think in terms of how you might play with it? Or do you shoot whatever strikes your interest and then focus on changing it?

SH: Mostly just I think about the abstractions and manipulations of the images after I take them; I never think about those when I’m shooting. It’s going to the footage and seeing what’s possible with it. But when I’m shooting, I’m often trying to find a different horizon line than the one gravity defines, and thinking about how you relate to the landscape. In the moment, I focus on simple composition qualities like light, time of day, what’s an interesting angle. And then I think about how it appears onscreen, and how color correction can affect the legibility of it, and what details were not immediately obvious when I was shooting it, and how it interacts with other spaces that I’m shooting.

If I’m going to a location I’m really familiar with, I know what to expect. But often, I just have my camera with me on a train or on a road trip, and I’ll just stop and pull over, or shoot out the window if I see something that I think it really amazing. And then I go through and work with that material and try to formulate a film after that.

From Jáaji Approx. (2015) (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic)

DS: Some of your films incorporate both landscape and language. Jáaji Approximately plays audio of your father speaking Ho-Chunk over images of places you’ve been to. It sort of links culture to location.

SH: It’s a way of looking at how people have moved through these different spaces, what it means to connect with people and how that then serves as a bridge with history. And the land does and doesn’t change along the way. Something that this has led me to think about more deliberately is what it means to be on the road, traveling this infrastructure that dissects and divides these different tracts of land. Something that my father talked about a lot was just being on the road, the time between powwows. There’s this liminal space full of possibility for community to be established. And it’s maintained by people traveling from powwow to powwow around the country. That relationship to land is more about what happens in these spaces than the spaces themselves.

DS: In many ways, film is a medium built for liminal spaces. It can change a landscape just through how you depict it, without the landscape changing at all.

SH: Yeah. I mean, it’s always strange going back to these different places that I’ve shot and seeing them at different times of day. But at the same time, it’s just me that’s different. The land doesn’t care whether I’m there or what I think about it. There’s this poem that I’ve been going back to by a friend of mine. It ends with this line: “Why write poems about the land? It describes itself.” It’s just these different ways of listening to that description. How you’ll hear it is based on the background you have, your language or culture. So you have to think about how to ingest that description the land is generating for itself, and at the same time be aware that it’s still a reflection of who you are.

LACMA (5905 Wilshire Blvd, Los Angeles) will screen The Ethnopoetic Cinema of Sky Hopinka on May 2. What Was Always Yours and Was Never Lost will play as part of the Whitney Biennial in September.

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