The artist who goes by the name Vladimir is one of the only known filmmakers working with View-Masters, which, if you remember, are those cheap-looking toy binoculars usually filled with images of zoo animals or dinosaurs. Instead of watching her so-called films on movie screens, audience members hold “stereoscopic viewing devices” up to their eyes and click through picture reels of dioramas, action figures, and abstract photographs of trains. She calls them Vladmasters.
Through her website, Vladimir mails her handmade films around the world, each one accompanied by a spoken-narration CD and sound track. Her “picture stories” have included adaptations of Calvino and Kafka, along with some of her own writing, like the one about the pseudo-mystical congregation of farming machinery. She claims to “seek out the forgotten, the discarded, and the overlooked objects of this world… and [takes] tiny, tiny photographs in order to tell their stories.”
Since 2003, she’s become an anomalous staple in the independent film festival circuit, winning the World Champion of Experimental Film title on multiple occasions. She remains active in her hometown of Portland, Oregon (also the home of the View-Master), where she works as a projectionist, creates her own scratch-it Vladland lottery tickets, builds Super 8 film experiments, and works as a quality assurance engineer at a software company.
This interview took place over email, with Vladimir responding from both Portland and Brisbane, Australia, where she was participating in the Other Film Festival. In her final email she talked about her “amazing” new Christmas gift, the HYDRA Game Development Kit, and her plan to spend the next year creating her own abstract video games.
I. MOVIE PROJECTION AS SELF-ABNEGATION
THE BELIEVER: When you set up a performance—or is it better to call it a screening?—what happens, exactly?
VLADIMIR: Sometimes I compare my performances to synchronized swimming. It’s not an entirely apt metaphor, but it’s always nice to be reminded of synchronized swimming. At a performance, everyone in attendance is given a viewer and a set of my handmade disks. There is a brief instructional introduction, and then we begin the sound track, which leads everyone through a tiny private screening experience just past the end of their nose. There are ding noises on the sound track to cue the turning from one image to the next. Sometimes there is a narrator and sometimes there’s just music. Perhaps the most exciting moment is participating in the ker-thunk of tens or hundreds of View-Masters turning simultaneously after that very first ding.
BLVR: Would you say that’s the ideal scenario for someone to experience the Vladmaster? In a theater, like most films? Because I just watched those Vladmasters you sent me in my living room all day, and enjoyed the private storytelling feeling, almost like reading.
V: The great thing about the theater is that there is a sort of euphoria and excitement that comes from the experience of just being in a crowd of people who are all holding View-Masters and all experiencing this sort of simultaneous media for the first time. The crowd experience is really wonderful, but I think that the more personal, private experience that you had in your living room is probably more conducive to reflection and paying attention to the story. Perhaps you could call one a roller coaster and one a scenic drive?
BLVR: A little while ago, I heard David Lynch talking about his appreciation of the laptop computer, how it has completely transformed cinema by encouraging people to watch films alone, which is, again, more like books. It also encourages people to use headphones, and brings a renewed appreciation to the way sound and music function in a film.
V: I really like this idea. The intimacy of the View-master viewing experience is very important to me. I’m a projectionist and one of the wonderful things about projecting movies is that you get to hold every part of them in your hand. You get to see the film as an object and to see the individual frames. I think the View-masters present a similar experience: you can view them narratively, as time-based, alongside the soundtrack, but you can also hold them in your hand, see their individual parts, and appreciate them as craft objects.
BLVR: That reminds me of how Stan Brakhage painted directly on his film. When I first realized what he was doing, my idea of film was suddenly transformed from abstract images floating in the air, to the idea of actual physical film stock. He broke that “fourth-wall” of physicality.
V: I’m sad to say I haven’t seen very much Stan Brakhage, but I was fortunate to see two nights of films by his close friend and collaborator Phil Solomon when he visited Portland. He treats the surfaces of his films chemically so that you see the surface layers buckling and peeling. The original images decay and fray and become submerged beneath the layered surface so that his films are filled with a sense of beauty and loss. There’s also a Bay Area collective called SILT who works with the decay of the film image by leaving their films in holes in the ground to get moldy and be eaten by creatures. I saw a wonderful 8mm film they hand-fed through a broken projector, sometimes holding it too long in front of the lamp so that you could see the image start to melt.
Maybe at the other end of the film-as-object spectrum, there are Bruce McClure’s films. He strips film down to its most basic elements: light and dark. He does multi-projector performances in which each projector is running an identical film loop that consists of several black frames followed by a single clear frame. He uses dimmers, the focus on the projectors, and occasionally gels or different shaped gates to manipulate the stroboscopic shapes created by the film. The sound for his performances is generated by passing the sound of the frames running through the projector through various pedals to create a rhythmic pulse that matches the pulse of the visuals. They are without doubt the most physiologically affecting films I’ve ever experienced.
BLVR: I really like the way you used the word “performance” there. The concept of viewing a film has always been so removed from the idea performance, but with your work and, say, McClure’s, there’s that element of it’s-happening-right-now – something you don’t get with prerecorded films. Do you think this connection with film comes from your work as a projectionist, where you’re sort of “performing” the film?
V: When you’re a movie projectionist, the goal is actually one of self-abnegation. A good projectionist is an unnoticed projectionist. This is perfect for me because I’m always trying to make myself disappear. I’ve always just used the word “performance” for lack of a better alternative with my own shows. Most of the time during my shows, I’m looking awkwardly down at the floor and waiting for the soundtrack to end. If anyone can be said to be doing the performing, or the projecting, during my shows, it would be the individual audience members.
The thing I’ve taken from projecting is just the intimacy with the medium. Because we tend to show older prints, before we show a film, I pass every reel through my gloved hand to check for damage. When you do this, you become aware of the individual frames and of the process of these discrete pieces becoming a fluid whole.
I think that there are many people who turn their films into performances and also make the audience hyper-aware of film’s construction and mechanism. Bruce McClure is certainly one of them. I’ve just been lucky to see three of his performances in the space of a week and a half at the utterly amazing OtherFilm Festival in Brisbane, Australia. Almost every film there had a performative element. The projectors were always in the same room as the audience and usually projected by the filmmakers.
I saw two wonderful multi-projector performances by the great Australian filmmaker Dirk De Bruyn. He began each of his shows by shining a flashlight around the raised arms and reels of the 16mm projectors. The shadows of the reels would play around the audience as a sort of initiation into film via a ritualistic invocation.
There was also a performance by Sally Golding and Joel Stern, two of the organizers of the festival who also do performances under the name Abject Leader. Joel does live soundtracks and Sally makes films. She’s a fellow projectionist and also a film preservationist and her work is steeped in experimentations with film substance and film history. The performance that they did at the festival dealt with early cinema color techniques in which consecutive frames of film would be shot behind red, green, and blue filters onto black and white film and then projected back through those same filters to create a full spectrum effect. Sally set up three projectors pointed straight into the audience, one each with a red, green, and blue filter, and then stood in the center of the room holding up a large picture frame filled with tracing paper. She makes the audience stare into the glare of the projector and then rescues us by physically interrupting the glare and locking the three projections into a single image.
BLVR: One thing I’ve never been entirely clear about is the whole job of a projectionist. What’s the whole process there?
V: The average feature film comes in two very heavy metal cases each containing three 20-minute reels about 18 inches in diameter. Probably 95% of theaters run these reels on what is called a platter system. This means that they build all of the reels onto one big platter so the projector pulls the film off of one level of the platter and spits it back out onto another. The whole film runs through a single projector in a single pass with no need for a projectionist other than to build the film and push the start button.
I’m lucky to work at a theater that doesn’t use platters. Instead we use two projectors and do reel changeovers. Over the course of a film, the projectionist switches back and forth between the projectors four or five times. At the end of each reel of film there are two sets of cue marks, approximately eight seconds apart. When one reel is winding down, I stand at attention next to the projector that is not running and keep a very careful eye on the top right corner of the screen. When I see the first cue mark, I start the second projector, which then has eight seconds to get fully up to speed. At eight seconds, I see the second cue mark and hit the change-over button which simultaneously closes the dowser on the first projector and opens the dowser on the second. If my timing is off, or if I miss the cue marks, the audience is treated to anything from a half second of black to a very embarrassing six seconds of countdown leader.
II. “YOU ARE A GOOD ROBOT SENT TO SAVE THE LAST HUMAN FAMILY FROM THE EVIL ROBOTS.”
BLVR: The Vladmasters have been in a ton of film festivals and you actually won the title of the “World Champion of Experimental Film” a few times, which means, by all standards, you are clearly a filmmaker. But at the same time, you’re not a filmmaker in the same way that pretty much anyone else is a filmmaker.
V: In terms of the audience experience, which is of a visual and audio narrative that takes place over a pre-determined timeline, I’m closer to making films than anything else. I certainly feel comfortable being a part of film festivals. However, when I’m making things I don’t think of them as films, I think of them as stories. If I had my choice I think I’d go with the very simple description: picture story.
BLVR: So then, if you had to place yourself in a lineage of directors, filmmakers, or picture story makers, where would you be? On your website it says that you enjoy the “very early films of Rene Clair.”
V: Although I love film, I don’t often think in terms of cinematic models when I’m working on a project. I get more caught up in the very strict parameters (28 photographs over four disks) of the View-master and I concentrate on working things into that tight little structure. One of the great delights in working with the form is in that moment of anticipation, in the narrative disjunction, that comes in the jump from one frame to the next. To me this jump feels more akin to turning a page in a storybook than the smoother flow of a film narrative.
The one time I did look to cinematic models was working on “Actaeon at Home.” I knew that that would be a show with live music and no narrator, so I was trying to create a purely visual logic for the jumps from frame to frame. I was inspired by early animation. Looking at something like Gertie the Dinosaur or early Fritz the Cat cartoons you get a sense of these early animators’ joy in discovering the infinite malleable possibilities of lines in motion. There is a glorious anarchic logic and infinitely transformative quality to those worlds that I tried to capture, in stiffer form, in Actaeon.
BLVR: Another thing I want to ask you about is Portland, which, per capita, seems like one of the most artistically exciting cities in the world right now. It also seems, from the outside, like there are these very close-knit artistic communities tying together all types of musicians, artists and filmmakers in a really independent, free-spirited sort of way.
V: I’m probably not the best person to talk about the Portland art scene just because I’m very, very shy and mostly opt to retreat from the world. That said, I probably never would have become a sort-of filmmaker if I hadn’t moved to Portland. When I moved to Portland, after college, I had spent four years programming a university film series and had a good background in foreign and classic film history but no real concept of experimental or underground film. The only models I had of regular people making films were unnecessary imitations of Quentin Tarantino. Coming to Portland I discovered a whole other idea of making films, films that were small, personal, homemade, and felt completely apart from anything I had seen before. It was not unlike discovering, at the age of 13, that there were people who made music that was not played on Top 40 radio stations.
BLVR: So how did your awakening of experimental film unfold? What directors helped to usher you out of the “Top 40” of filmmaking?
V: I don’t know if experimental is exactly the right word for the films that attracted me. I think I might more use the term handmade. Some of them were certainly experimental, but just as many were simply small or personal or homemade. One thing that happened a week or two after I moved to Portland was that I went to a screening by the Tiny Picture Club. This is a Portland Super 8 collective. Their logo was like the Superman logo with an 8 replacing the S. It was a very chilly November and the screening was in a tiny, unheated Quonset hut. There were about 50 people crammed in there, sitting on the floor, with musicians along one side of the room. They played along to about 10 different Super8 films about dreams. The films were all very small, simple, and joyous. Much of the footage was hand-processed and scratchy. There was some stop action animation. There were homemade costumes and masks. There was an introductory film set to the T-Rex song “Bang a Gong.” In it all of the members of the club wore white jumpsuits with their logo emblazoned on the back. They were running around a park with their cameras. There was much pixilated action made to make them look like they were flying, levitating, rotating in circles on the ground on their bellies. The feeling I felt sitting in that room and watching those films was exactly like the feeling of falling in love.
BLVR: Do you make any handmade films yourself?
V: The only films I’ve made have been super8 films with the Tiny Picture Club. The thing that I enjoyed most with films was trying out technical experiments. I built a device that could control up to three Super-8 cameras simultaneously and could run them at either 18fps or off of a intervalometer. It was pretty cool but, other than filming some friends playing soccer in a park one afternoon, I never really figured out anything good to point the cameras at.
BLVR: You once said “Atari is one of (your) favorite art forms.” You said you “like the video games where you could still see the pixels.” I’m curious if this ties in with all of these homemade ideas. Without any of the hi-fidelity bells and whistles, it seems like there is less of a separation between the artist/creator and the viewer.
V: I like to be able to get a sense of craft and humanness behind work. I think what you said about the lack of separation between creator and viewer is exactly right. When I see the little pixels rolling by in an Atari game, I think back to BASIC programming and how hard that little computer is thinking and how hard the programmer had to work to put all those pixels in just the right place.
I’m very bad at actually playing Atari games. I rarely make it past the first level. However, similar to the View-master, I love them as absurd little mini-narratives. The narratives are really what give form and understanding to the pixels. If you take a game like Space Invaders or Galaga or even Frogger, and watch it, forgetting the narrative, you’re left with the motion of abstract colored forms. It’s only those couple of text windows at the beginning (which nobody pays much attention to) that provide form for the whole structure and objective of the game. One of my favorite mini-narratives goes along with a game whose title escapes me at the moment – it’s the one where you are a good robot sent to save the last human family from the evil robots.
I’ve recently encountered some interesting Flash games online that return to a completely abstract and non-narrative form of the video game. One in particular is called Boomshine. It’s a field of slowly moving colored balls. The objective is to click your mouse somewhere on the screen to create an expanding ripple. Every ball this ripple touches turns into a new ripple. You try to turn as many balls into ripples as possible with your single click. It’s so simple that it doesn’t require directions, yet it’s also beautiful and incredibly addictive.
BLVR: Okay, I just played Boomshine for twenty minutes and I was in some sort of weird trance with that game. Plus, you’re right about the directions. To figure the game out, you just get to resort to simple visual assumptions (e.g., if I do A then B happens). In the context of this conversation, it reminds me a little of the abstract filmmaking you’ve been mentioning, where you’re forced to start thinking things like, “that thing over there is moving fast, and the other thing is moving slow.” It engages the mind in such a different way than narrative film.
V: I think that’s a really wonderful way of expressing it. I’m very untrained when it comes to watching experimental film. I don’t think I could make an abstract film if I tried because everything inside of my head only knows how to operate on cause and effect. But I do like to sit back and enjoy other people’s abstractions even if I’m always very self conscious about not appreciating them in the right way. This might be why I like Boomshine so much. You get cause and effect alongside your abstractions. I can’t help but trying to make sense of everything I see, whether I’m supposed to or not.
BLVR: And finally, just to clarify, Vladimir is not your birth name, right?
V: I was never enamored of my birth name and I’d always planned on changing it when I went off to college. But one day, when I was sixteen, one of my English classes had a class assignment in which we were supposed to pair up and write little essays about our partners based solely on looking up their name in a few baby books. Maybe it was just my natural impulse toward sabotage, but it seemed like the perfect opportunity to make the change. I had a sharpie and an index card and I made myself a nametag introducing myself by my new name. Ever since then, I’ve been Vladimir. I have now been Vladimir for almost half of my life.