Suzette Smith

Tonight, TBA presents Mechanics Laid Bare a one-time-only collaboration between Portland non-profit cinema art collective the Cinema Project and local composer Matt Carlson. I got a chance to see their practice and talk about the project a few nights ago in a darkened Old Town loft where they were rehearsing.

Carlson sat near the back with a table full of flickering synth equipment. Heather Lane, Mia Ferm, and Melinda Kowalska of the Cinema Project were moving around a long, low table filled with small projectors. They were of the reel-to-reel variety, the size of old classroom AV equipment. A large rectangle of amber ocean water rippled on the screen, looping and fluttering along with the projector’s own flickering light. Michael McManus (also of Cinema Project) walked back and forth between Carlson, the projectors, and a soundboard he was using to mix newsreels on the film strips in with the space-like sounds Carlson was creating. So that was rad as hell.

In addition to the projected water, footage of lush jungle slowly joined the screen.

“That's good.” Lane says. “If I go too much nature then you can balance me out.”

Slides of a child’s birthday party, Old Faithful, slow-moving animals of prey, and women diving athletically into water followed, overlapping at times.The project felt heavy with repurposed nostalgia. The reels of sportsmen running and animals creeping were once real, now transformed into light and over again into an artistic medium.

“We’re all very excited to get to use three 16mm Analyst projectors.” Ferm said of the equipment assembled. “Analyst projectors were mainly for reviewing sports footage so it’s something every football coach would have had,” she explained. “You can slow the image down and speed it back up. You can play the film in reverse. They can be very hard on the film so don't be surprised if you see something start burning or slip and we just kind of let it. Additionally, we'll have a variety of lenses on hand that we'll be swapping out to allow for the sizes of the images to change.”
When I asked about choosing to collaborate with Carlson, Ferm said, “We were familiar with the music he produced as part of Golden Retriever as well as his more avant-garde analog synth compositions. We knew he could lay down a sound bed that would be cinematic, atmospheric, and dynamic.”

Carlson described the collaboration as “Cinema Project’s show” he was asked to accompany. “It's very improvisational within a loose structure,” he explained. “We have a big-picture view of what will happen but the minute-by-minute details are left entirely to the performers. It's more an approach where choosing your collaborators is kind of the composition itself.”

Melinda Kowalska retreated to a build table to cut more strips of film, her energy so focused I was loath to interrupt to ask about it, but Ferm was able to describe her process, “Melinda makes these beautiful 16mm loops by spraying, splattering, and layering paint directly onto the filmstrip. They are lovely objects in themselves and then when projected the images are like [the] inside of funfetti cakes. A lot of stuff we hold onto for years and have been waiting to re-purpose, like the box of 35mm slides that Heather found practically in the trash, some of which are pristine images of hunters skinning an animal.”

One of the film loops caught and a projection slowed down, black boxes flipping across the image of the rippling water. Heather Lane looked at it from a distance. She seemed to be deciding what to do about it, whether to let the film burn at a rehearsal. Across the room, Kowalska failed to notice anything outside the loops she was choosing. Matt Carlson played an oscillation mimicking the wavering image. I knew McManus was amplifying the sounds of the projectors but there were times when I was puzzled trying to figure out who was making what sounds. It was all very fluid and beautiful. I can’t recommend it enough.

Previously, at TBA:
The Effervescent Spirit of AU and the Camas High School Choir
Unpacking "Otherness" in Carlos Motta's Deseos / رغبات
Royal Osiris Karaoke Ensemble's Stealthy Mindfulness and Toxic Masculinity
Disco Nostalgia and Wildwood Fantasies in Meg Wolfe's New Faithful Disco
When Watching One Part of Morgan Thorson’s Still Life, Another Part Passes You By
Narcissister’s Sublime, Ab Fab-Approved Spectacle