Interview by Dorothée Deyries-Henry, April 2017
Could you introduce us to Place Mattes?
Place Mattes consists of a series of short animated sequences from fragments of still images. It’s one chapter of my on-going album of moving images of particular places that I have called “Log Abstract” and have been making for a long time.
The different titles in this series serve mainly just to differentiate them in time – they could just as easily be identified by the years of their production – in this case 2013 and 2014.
“Mekas demonstrated that the movie camera could be as simple and flexible as a paint brush”
How have the evolutions of technology impacted your work? From a technical but also a conceptual point of view, in the way you consider your subject and film.
I started shooting 8mm film at around the time Kodak introduced Super 8 in the late 1960s.
Over the years I moved back and forth between 8mm and 16mm film, working with the possibilities of manipulating the image in the camera during shooting to create a form of visual music. I had always admired artists – such as Len Lye, Oskar Fischinger, and Pat O’Neill – who had the tools and the skill to optically alter their films in post-production.
So when desktop digital editing software started appearing in the 1990s, I was very happy about all the possibilities it created for orchestrating movement in ways that had previously required the mastery of an optical printer.
Digital projection seemed equally liberating because it removed the technical necessity of showing films in a strictly linear way in a darkened room at fixed times. As a practical matter, this is still how most experimental films get shown but as museums and galleries use digital projection to break down the barriers between exhibiting moving images and other media, this is changing.
But although I loved the possibilities of the early tools for desktop post-production, I never liked the original source of its images: analog video.
So I never shot in video until it too became digital. For a long time I manually scanned short strips of 8mm and 16mm film with a slide scanner in order to work on them digitally. Place Mattes is only the second series of sequences of images I have put in distribution that did not originate on film. But technology never caused a conceptual change in my working method. I still start with moving images – and now sounds as well – from a particular place and rework them in ways that interest me.
Scott Hammen, Place Mattes, 2015 / video / color / w. sound / 8'30. Courtesy Light Cone.
I think you said that the film was a way to take some distance from your personal experience. Could you explain to us how it is combined with the narrative or “diary film” aspect?
For me, as for many other filmmakers, Jonas Mekas’ Diaries, Notes and Sketches (1969), changed everything. It suddenly revealed that it was possible to escape the traditional concept of film as a narrative form derived from theater and literature, and simply celebrate motion as part of daily life.
Mekas demonstrated that the movie camera could be as simple and flexible as a paint brush. And Mekas opened doors not just with his films. His critical writing and his creation of Anthology Film Archives in New York called attention to an older tradition of visual artists who had been using cinema starting in the 1920s in Paris and Berlin that was largely unknown to most young artists like me in the US.
My own work resembles the diary form mostly just in its chronological nature. Since I return to the same subjects repeatedly over time, one can see things evolve – seasons change, children grow up.
A last question: could you tell us a little about the artists or filmmakers that inspire your work or that you feel close to?
They are pretty obvious – the great artists of pure animation – Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann, Oscar Fischinger, Man Ray, Len Lye, Robert Breer along with others who are not animators but whose work has extraordinary formal and lyrical qualities – Mekas, Marie Menken, Andrew Noren, Warren Sonbert, Peter Hutton, Rose Lowder, Robert Beavers, to name a few.
Lots of inspirations !
Main Illustration: Scott Hammen, Place Mattes, 2015 / video / color / w. sound / 8'30. Courtesy Light Cone.