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Experimental films often subvert our understanding of cinematic surfaces, with complex layers of sound and vision. The media arts organization The Flaherty is currently in the midst of presenting Flaherty NYC, a sprawling series of short film programs with the unifying theme of “surface knowledge.” The opening night program, Electric Narcissus, featured a Q&A with veteran filmmaker Joan Jonas and drew a sold-out crowd at Metrograph — a noteworthy feat for a selection of often puzzling but aesthetically rewarding little films. Electric Narcissus marked a strong start for the series, which runs through December. Jonas’s 1972 films Left Side, Right Side and Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy were standouts of layered black-and-white self-portraiture. Asked about her artistic process, Jonas quipped, “Frankly, I smoked a lot of grass” — a perfectly succinct encapsulation of an artistic era.
Surface Knowledge doesn’t just look to the past. The series has an admirable scope, showing films from the 1920s to the present. Each program has a distinct theme, such as the environment (The Face of the Planet), geopolitics and trauma (Prisoner’s Cinema), and intellectual inquiry (What the Greeks Call—). Curated by Courtney Stephens and Mathilde Walker-Billaud, the series aims to look at “a different mode of epistemology and means of grasping the visible world, from optical systems of classification to the reflective pool of Narcissus.”
This heady mission statement might be daunting, but many of the films are surprisingly approachable, making use of familiar imagery culled from video games, advertising, or selfies and twisting them into uncanny new forms. With selections from the US, Brazil, France, Iran, Morocco, and elsewhere, and a variety of interpretations of what the cinematic surface can do, there’s something for every cinephile. While Stephens and Walker-Billaud’s vision is admirably diverse, it also feels deeply idiosyncratic, and raises questions of what “surface” in this context even means. It’s unlikely that most moviegoers would attend all six nights, and one wonders if some of the curatorial vision might end up lost as a result. The majority of the films, even the ones shot on 16mm or 35mm, are projected digitally. While this may be due more to the difficulties of tracking down original prints than anything else, it does seem to add one more facet to the programs’ interests in palimpsest.
One of the standout programs is Seductive Surfaces, featuring films which “celebrate artifice, glamour, and ‘thing-ness’ while revealing uncomfortable, painful, and sometimes violent points of intersection.” The focus on glamour is a welcome change from the seriousness and aesthetic inscrutability often associated with non-narrative film, and each one pokes holes in how we typically think of seduction. In addition to experimental films, the eclectic series includes an audiovisual lecture by historian Daniel Paul on the highly specific topic of late-modern mirror glass architecture from 1970 to 1985. What the Greeks Call— features a 45-minute live performance by artist Ellie Ga. Stephens and Walker-Billaud’s presentation of surfaces expands beyond the screen, branching into what they call “performative interventions.” In a cinematic landscape increasingly fueled by the garish spectacles of 3D and 4DX, it’s exciting to see art made outside of the mainstream be reaffirmed as a part, however esoteric, of experiential moviegoing.
Seductive Surfaces includes artist Sara Cwynar’s Red Film, a clever take on consumer culture that features a gloriously lush palette and juxtaposes images of makeup with a highbrow voiceover reading lines from the great thinkers. The imagery is arresting — shots of made-up women posing in colorful tableaus recall glossy fashion magazine photography — but as the film progresses, things feel increasingly off, as Cwynar, seen onscreen, hangs upside-down and the monotone voiceover builds a vague sensation of claustrophobia. Many of the films in the series are made by women, and there’s a frequent focus on the conflict between real and fake — a dichotomy long associated with feminist discourse. Sondra Perry explores this tension with creepy precision in Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Work Station, in which the artist’s head appears as a disembodied avatar that seems all-seeing. Jonas’s Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy, made decades before Cwynar or Perry’s films, uses mirrors and a plastic mask to explore the slipperiness of feminine identity.
Stephens and Walker-Billaud’s curatorial vision feels optimistic. The program notes describe Surface Knowledge as a series of “cross-generational conversations.” The screenings provide ample space for these conversations to echo one another and evolve, and the viewer is welcome to become a part of the dialogue. These surfaces both conceal and reveal, enthralling us.