Michael Snow

A Conversation with Michael Snow: Elizabetta Fabrizi (Head of Exhibitions, British Film Institute) and Chris Meigh-Andrews, National Film Theatre, London. 14/12, 2008

Michael Snow performing at Tate Modern, Feb 2019.

Elizabetta Fabrizi: I want to start with the film “Side Seat Painting Slide Sound Film” (1970) because it summarizes a lot of issues in your work. You have been celebrated for your film work, but perhaps not everybody knows that you have had in parallel an important career in the visual arts. What were your reasons for starting to use film and what did you feel as an artist that film could give you?

Michael Snow: I started playing music when I was in high school and I started to play more or less professionally jazz and stuff like that, but for some reason I was given the art prize in high school and so it seemed to me that I should study art. I went to the Ontario College of Art and design and became interested in painting. To make a long story short I went to Europe with $300 on one of those “trying to find oneself” trips. I hitchhiked around and I was almost a year in Europe on that $300. I played in bands occasionally but I also did a lot of drawing.

When I came back to Toronto I had an exhibition of these drawings and received what turned out to be a very important phone call in my life. This man, who I didn’t know, said he seen the exhibition and he liked it very much and he thought that whoever had done those drawings was someone who was interested in the movies. I had to say that I wasn’t in particular, that my interest was jazz and painting and sculpture. He said, “Well I’d still like to meet you”. So I met him and it turned out that he had a film company that specialized in animation and he asked me if I wanted a job. I really did want a job. I was trying to find a way to make ends meet and here was a job where I learned animation. He hired people who were fine art draftspeople, not people who had necessarily an advertising background, because he thought of animation as a fine art. So we were doing commercials of different kinds for beer and whatever, but he was really inspiring. And he said that if we wanted to do something on our own and the animation camera was free and the cameraman was free we could also do things on our own.

After I’d been there a while I made my first film ”A to Z” (1956) which is an animation. The company eventually collapsed because of hiring people like me. This man turned up in England; his name is George Dunning. He was the director of the Beatles film “Yellow Submarine” (1968). When I saw it I recognized some things that I knew he had been working on and he’d shown us. So in answer to your question this is how I got involved in film.

I heard things in music that really moved me and I wanted to do something like that, and the same thing in painting, it was definitely a reaction and the desire to do something in my own way but I didn’t have that at all with film; I was introduced to it by seeing what it is as technology: because we were doing animation and I learned how the whole thing is made of one frame after another and how you can alter what happens between this frame in that frame I became interested in it from that point of view.

Chris Meigh-Andrews: In relation to making film, was it an issue where the film would be shown or how it would be experienced by anybody else?

MS: I made the film just the way I would make a painting or a sculpture. I thought that maybe somebody would look at it at Graphic Films where I was working, but I didn’t think of having any kind of public show. I just wanted to make a film.

CM-A: So that would be quite distinct from painting, where you were clear you were making paintings that would be shown in the painting context?

MS: No, it’s similar because I didn’t know what to do with the paintings either!

I’d like to say a little bit about “Side Seat Paintings Slide Sound Film”. The intention is that you really can’t judgementally see the paintings. Even if it was a slideshow, the voice said it’s 4 feet by something or other, so with each one of them there’s this juggle between what you’re seeing or actually hardly seeing at all…
But the point of it is really to see the film, it’s not to see the painting, or the slide, in the sense of seeing them in any in-depth way. They are used to make a movie which uses slowing down and speeding up and certain things that are only possible with this medium, but it’s interesting in that it’s one medium eating another medium. I did this in 1970 and since then we’ve seen a lot of mediums eating mediums! So it’s a very pertinent film in a way.

EF: In relation to “Wavelength” (1967), a seminal work, there’s been a lot written about the technique behind it, in the gels and the filters that you’ve used it seems to me that there’s a sensibility which is very painterly.

MS: Before I made “Wavelength” which was shot in 66, finished in 67, I had made a number of sculptures that used transparencies, gels, and it was party because of thinking about film that I used it in “Wavelength” in the spirit of adding another transparency through which light went. Sometimes they were filters and sometimes they were sheets of plastic or gels. But I had already worked with them to a certain extent before I made “Wavelength”.

CM-A: I was thinking about “Wavelength” in terms of duration. Something you said connects to this business of working with sculpture and then moving to film and then going to painting and so on. You were talking about an equivalence, and you were saying that for you duration was the equivalent to mass in sculpture. I wonder if that’s something that’s common when you move from one medium to another, if you are looking at the equivalence between things.

MS: Not really. It’s specifically to do with “La Region Central” (1971), which is three hours long- which in certain circumstances is a long time. I wanted to stress that, as one of the things one has as kind of material in making films, which can be thought of as equivalent to weight in sculpture, especially in relation to “La Region Central”. I emphasize that because other uses of duration might call for another metaphor or simile. I think this is particular.

CM-A: It’s just that for a lot of people even 45 minutes could seem like something substantial. It does trigger certain kinds of responses, and so I’m wondering if there’s a sculptural sensibility at work there when you’re using time.

MS: With “Wavelength” one of the sculptural equivalents was that I wanted to make a shape over a period of time in the spectator’s mind, and that shape is the shape of the projection beam. I think it does happen because as you move through it the past is back there and the future is here. I believe that art is made by the phenomenon that you’re in. Maybe some people don’t agree, but that was one of the reasons for making “Wavelength” because -this is odd l in a way because I’m involved in completely improvised music- I felt opposed to a certain shapelessness that some films had where they involved a kind of collecting of passages , and the arrangement didn’t necessarily matter that much. With a narrative film you can have a shape in mind, and that will be the passage that you go through on experiencing the story, but I’ve never been interested in telling stories, except short stories. It’s about shape, making a shape in time.

EF: Would you like to tell us about how Jonas Mekas came to your help?

MS: Between 1961 and 1967 all the work that I did used a Walking Woman, this cut-out shape, or silhouette shape; in everything that I did, in many different mediums. I was just coming out of that into a new stage of my work, and that was exemplified by “Wavelength” .

So it did have an importance even before it was seen by anyone. I was living in New York, and there were experimental film screenings. The most important ones were organized by Jonas Mekas. It was called the Filmmaker’s Cinematheque.: he would rent a particular theatre, and these screenings would take place there for a few months, and then they might be somewhere else. So when I made “Wavelength” I thought that’s where I would show it. I didn’t have any particular ambition to show it elsewhere because I thought that the only places that anyone would look at these things were in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art sometimes, and there were two or three others but I really didn’t have any idea anybody anywhere else in the world. And about 20 core people came to the screenings, so that the most it might be five or something like that. When I’d finished the film I thought I’d like to show it to certain friends of mine, they might dig this. I started by asking Jonas if one of these theatres was available one night if it wasn’t being used for other screenings. So the first showing of it was a bunch of friends. They liked it a lot, and Jonas said, “There’s a festival coming up in Europe. and I think you should send this film there.” When I made the film originally there were three different levels of sound; one of them is the street sound and then there’s some other stage sounds, such as the breaking in of the man that dies and the phone calls, that’s one level of sound that I had mixed onto one tape. But the sound, which is 40 minutes long, I recorded on quarter inch tape, and I thought I would like to play it, or that each time it was played I could do something different with it I would at least have control over what it sounded like in a particular space. I thought that if this film was ever shown again I’d be there, so I could play this quarter inch tape. But then I realized that probably someone else would do it and wouldn’t do it right at all, so I said to Jonas, “That sounds interesting, but I think I can make a new track”, which seemed a bit dotty because I was a really poor at the time, and he said, “OK I’ll pay for it”. He was super poor at the time so it was an amazing gesture. It was sent to the festival at Knokke-le-Zoute in Belgium and it won the Grand Prix, which was $5000. That was quite a lot of money, and it changed things quite a bit.

EF: After that point, film and other filmmakers inspired you, so that when you moved to New York your experimental film knowledge came from what Jonas was doing.

MS: I really didn’t know that there was such a genre or an area of film, and it was being in New York that introduced me to it. I was married to Joyce Weiland that time, a wonderful filmmaker and a very good artist. We started going to lots of screenings and getting involved and meeting other people Going to those screenings were various other people who we gradually found we shared some attitudes with, so it was definitely a case of going from the provinces to the capital, because that’s where there were a lot of strong things being done, and it was something that made it possible for me to think: I favour that, I don’t like this, I want to do it that way. It was a very interesting scene, but it was mostly very separate from the art world.

CM-A: Did that include looking back at any earlier traditions in avant-garde film? Was there an awareness of that earlier work in the group, and an interest in that, that you connected to or was it very much of the moment?

MS: It was of the moment in the sense that it was a flowering of a bunch of varying talent. Maya Deren was someone who did work that was provocative, and who opened up different ways of doing things for a lot of people; Stan Brakhage, for example, would relate to her films as to a kind of awakening. And it was a lot of that sort of thing. I was going to say that the only time there was any art world connection at the screenings that Jonas put on was when Warhol showed.

CM-A: So there were a number of different camps, even within the avant-garde filmmaking world?

MS: Warhol brought a gang with him, and it was the fashionable gang at the time. But those people were never there at other screenings like Hollis Frampton, or even Jack Smith, for that matter. Shall I tell another story? It’s about “New York Eye and Ear Control “.it was done in 64, I think, so 64, 65. was it’s first screening in New York. It was on a programme with a work in progress by Andy Warhol; it had a title of some kind, but it was in process. So all these people came. My film “Eye and Ear Control” is 32 minutes long, and these people hated it. They threw stuff at the screen, and booed and hissed, truly incredible! But the thing that’s really fabulous is, when Ear and Eye Control was finished Warhol and Gerard Malanga ran back to the projection booth very excited and said, “Who did that? This is amazing! It’s wonderful!” So his feelings didn’t coincide with the gang.

WF: In a documentary film about Richard Serra he was asked about his beginnings in New York and the people there. He talked about several visual artists, and then he mentioned Michael Snow. is there anyone from that world making work who was inspirational to you?

MS: When I first saw Richard Serra’s work I was really impressed. I think he’s a wonderful artist. I don’t know where there’s any influence that way, I don’t think so really. I was making quite a lot of sculpture at the time, but it’s work that has some relationship to the camera; these are sculptures that are involved in directing one’s attention. One of them is called “Scope” (1967) and it’s a great big stainless steel periscope. There’s another one called “Blind” (1970) that’s a bit like fading out or focusing on different planes. So I was very influenced by the camera, but they didn’t have anything to do with anything that Richard was doing.

After “Wavelength” was shown for the first time in New York I got a letter from Steve Reich, who I didn’t know at the time, and it was just that he was so knocked up with the film when he got home he wrote about it, and then he decided to share that with me. We became pretty close friends because my studio- where I shot “Wavelength”- was it 300 Canal St., which is off Broadway and he was just up the street, on Broadway.

CM-A: What date are we talking, 1967?
MS: No 68, I guess. 67 or 68.

CM-A; At that time Reich was working with tape loops, presumably, and starting to experiment with phasing and there is clearly stuff like that going on in “Wavelength” and presumably that’s why he was so enthusiastic.

MS: At that time I hadn’t heard anything of his. But people were already working with loops, so it was in the air.

CMA: You were having conversations with Hollis Frampton about ideas about art. Did you have this kind of discussions with Steve Reich; did you have exchanges?

MS: Maybe more with Richard Serra, although he astounded me, and I still feel astounded. We would be in a bar and he would talk about his work, and say,” I’m going to do this, I’m going to put this up against this, and that against this, what do you think of it?” He wanted me to comment on this, and I thought it was really amazing. He actually asked me over to his studio to look at stuff and talk about I,t which I thought was amazing too.

EF: You said that “Back and Forth” (1969) was very important because it was a sketch.

MS: Yes, I got interested in trying to do something with panning, in the way that I’ve done something to zooming in “Wavelength”, so this was just trying out things. It’s a home movie. It’s quite short, it’s only 11 minutes I think, but one thing about it that I’m proud of is, the soundtrack is me playing the radio, and it’s done totally separately, and since then I’ve used playing the radio in “Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen”, I’ve also put out some recordings; there was a cassette and it’s coming out as a CD as well, called “Two Radio Solos” which is playing a short wave radio.

CM-A: You talked earlier about one medium eating another. The works in the foyer are all digital, and, given what you’ve said in the past about using mediums for what they can do, I’m interested in where that puts you in relation to the digital, as a proposition, as a way of working, as a tool. Do you feel there is something particular about the digital that you find effective or maybe even the opposite, destructive in some way?

MS: I spent almost 20 years making a film called “Corpus Callosum” (2002), which is a 90-minute film shot on digital video cam. It was intended to use computer modifications, alterations, transformations, using a software program called “Houdini” that was developed in Toronto. The main creator of that program worked on this film with me, and it came about because in 1981 I finished a film called “Presents” (1981), which has two or three main sections. In the beginning I wanted to find a way to compress and stretch the image. it’s a film that was going to be shown on 16 mm, so I tried using prisms and things like that. And then, watching television, which happens to be fairly rare with me, I saw a wipe, a way of changing scenes that squeezed and then stretched out, which was exactly what I wanted to do. I looked into it and found that it’s a Quantel system. So using this system I did what I had intended, which is squashing the image and then stretching it out again.

That was only part of making this film, but it really intrigued me and I started making notes and thinking about making a film that would be just about squeezing and stretching. I was thinking of just using that apparatus, but as a few years went by with occasional notes on that and other things, I started noticing some of the possibilities that were emerging using computer animation. And gradually I thought of going further; rather than only stretching and squeezing, doing some other things too. And the technology kept on changing. It happened fairly fast; by 1999 particular ideas of making a certain transformation. It could be done but then it would take 50 hours of computer time and cost $ 50 million.

In the 90’s everything started to change the technology, in a kind of acceleration, and I was following that. Then I played a concert; in the intermission I was talking to somebody from the audience and it turned out to be Greg Hermanovic who is the designer of this program. I mentioned these ideas that I’d been thinking about for at least 10 years, and he knew my films and said he’d really like to talk more about it. He got involved and he decided to try to shoot some of it and I was lucky enough to get a grant, but our budget estimates were completely crazy, and we used up the money to shoot three seconds or something or other. And that happened for a number of years; I’d get something done and then I’d have to stop and try to find some more money to do it, because it was expensive, but gradually got done.

But at one stage I decided that it probably was going to be impossible to do this 90-minute thing, which is all completely written out, it was a prior composition. I looked over what I had accomplished, and part one of it was one of the scenes in the living room, called “The Living Room” (2000) and I issued that finished it, and showed it separately, because at the time I was, convinced I never be able to do the whole thing, and this works very well by itself. Then with wonderful luck I met somebody who knew how to get the right people with the right language for money, and so I was able to get enough money to finish it. But the point of doing it was to use the mobility with a digital image has, something that could never have done before, and my background was an animation, and the other thing was it was fun it was fantastic was it you could use a real live-action shooting and modify it which in the past was also extremely difficult.

This interview was originally published in “The BFI Gallery Book”, British Film Institute, London, 2011.