Black Maria Essay Series

A Festival for the People

by Margaret Parsons

Head of Film Programs, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC


Knowing that were facing the disappearance of celluloid and the loss of communal film viewing experiences as we once knew them, some conjecturing about our future seems necessary. In a far-off epoch, how will historians deal with the archeological remains of cinema? How will they decode the detritus left by decaying 16mm filmstrips or explain the cultural systems that produced them (festivals included)? Will these researchers appreciate that long before the global drive toward dematerialization, 16mm film was an artisanal métier, a labor-intensive process of tactile construction subject to the vagaries of chance and personal ingenuity? And what will they make of hand-coloring, or emulsion scratching, or something as unfussy as photograms? Will they even realize that filmmaking was once a photographic process and that, in that long-gone era, creativity occurred long before postproduction? Id like to imagine that years from now future historians will recognize a phenomenon like Joe Gibbons lo-res toy PixelVision His Masters Voice and decipher its wit. Or that theyd be captured by the poetry of Peter Huttons Lodz Symphony or the kinetic rhythm of Jodie Macks animated fabric castoffs, and that everyone who views Coney Island through Su Friedrichs Damned If You Dont will see its lyricism. But I have to admit, I really have little confidence the future will get any of it.

All that leads to the topic of the Black Mariaa remarkable institution in our contemporary film historyon the celebration of its thirty-fifth. In three and a half decades the Black Maria festival has transitioned from 16mm to digital formats without missing a beat. Yet it continues to regard traditional aspects of celluloid filmmaking as fundamental for both preservation and artistic production. After all, the prominent New Jersey inventor whose name is so closely associated with the festivals historythe original Edison black maria studio is located on the campus of Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orangeinvented the very mechanism that pushes sprockets forward through a film camera. But Edisons love of innovation was so strong that hed be equally intrigued by pixels on a digital display.

Its not the format, but what you do with it.

This month I spoke with the Black Marias founding director John Columbus. His former training as an art student and experimental filmmaker shaped his view of film and festivals. John still lives in his native New Jersey, and though officially retired, he spends a lot of time thinking about the state of filmmaking and film theory today. Picking his brain on the origins and meaning of the Black Maria (we also spoke about independent festivals and film exhibition), I wanted him first to share his views on the use of 16mm format, its filmic materiality as opposed to the digital way of producing. I especially wanted to hear his thoughts, since my own bias is on the side of 16mm. We all know, of course, that film is a commercial medium, and that labs are closing and even negative film that gets processed now goes straight to digital. So its clear the market will dictate films eventual demise. But the die-hard artists who continue to work in 16mm Kevin Jerome Everson and Jodie Mack among themare still embraced by the Black Maria. Here is a summary of things that John and I discussed, his language is in quotes.

"I have a thing for the materiality of film and have my own explanation as to why it feels different from digital video recording. Film emulsion is composed of a random distribution of silver salts (or particles) in gel layered on translucent celluloid or plastic strips with sprocket holes and that results in a tactile-like surfaceof sorts. Also film (and its sprocket holes) is shot intermittently at 24 frames per second. Electronic media is recorded on a fixed grid of pixels (or whatever), geometrically locked in place somewhere in the memory of the medium and thus less tactile. Its equivalent to analog sound verses digital sound, and now it seems that vinyl is making a comeback. Ive bought some vinyl LPs recently and its softer, and richer when I compare, for instance, my CD copy with a vinyl copy of a Nina Simone recording I love."

"That said, coming from undergraduate arts schools (six years at three institutions making etchings, silverpoint drawings, lithographs, oil paintings and such, as well as majoring in graphic design), Id like to think of the digital media verses film media as not so different from oil painting verses watercolor painting or etching verses lithography. The artist chooses what works for her or his needs or project. Digital is more portable, and now with 4K resolution, texture or grid completely disappears and may be higher resolution than film, not sure... You can see genius even in a QuickTime file. However, film still has that surface tension or traction that is intrinsic to its tactile-ness or materiality. But the discontinued PixelVision camera (originally marketed as a childs toy), which recorded only in black and white on cassette audio tape, has a texture of its own and, as a very low resolution (or rustic look), worked just right for media artists like Sadie Benning and Joe Gibbons..."

"I recently bought a high resolution video camera and traded in my 16mm Arriflex Camera. Theres a looseness when capturing images on video and theres a huge amount more time available on a digital memory card than on a 400 foot roll of 16mm film. And the cost of recording images is geometrically less expensive by many factors. Now if I could only figure out the software for digital editing, but thats a whole different discussion (i.e. physically editing strips of celluloid film hanging on ones neck or in an actual editing bin and cutting on a flatbed machine verses digital editing with virtual editing bins and drag and pasting with a virtual mouse. But I kept my vintage Bell&Howell spring wound 16mm camera and my Rivas editing block."

What about trying to start a traveling indie festival now?

When John initiated Black Maria, the notion of an indie festival event was hardly a novel idea. Since at least the 1960s, there had been regional start-up independent festivalsa notable one in Utah, for example, founded in 1978, now thriving within the commercial world.

Many festivals were originally conceived, in part, as magnets to attract tourists to an area: with the allure of art, so the argument goes, people will spend money, and business will boom. While theres nothing inherently wrong with this notion, the most admired festivals are those whose more thoughtful, more conceptual roots have remained intact. They are harder to track down for a mainstream press and audience, but Black Maria is one of them.

Knowing already Johns accounts of the Black Marias history and origins, I was hoping to move beyond that and find out what he believes is its deeper legacy. But Thomas Edison and New Jerseys Edison National Historical Park is so intricately tied to the Black Marias raison dêtre that its impossible to skip lightly over the Black Marias legendary muse. Edison was always exploring, always open to different people coming in to the studio to do these vignettes they were never grandiose, just seeing what the medium could do. That inspiration also predestined the Black Maria to favor conceptual and hybrid forms over conventional categories.

John was inspired by the Edison site and felt that there was some connection to the more conceptual roots of experimental cinema. That crazy building. . . . Edison was opening up the short form . . . recreating worlds. When I asked John if he had some early connections to other festivals he mentioned that after film school at Columbia, he was part of the underground scene in New York with Jack Smith and others. He taught at Stockton State in New Jersey and with his students there, created the Stockton State Spring Film Festival in 1973-74.

The new curator at Edison, who wanted to do things to enrich the site, was open to trying Johns ideas for a film competition and festival. So with assistance from the Charles Edison Fund, the Black Marias first year had a hundred submissions and three shows. Pete Rose, who was to have a long-term and significant impact, was one of its first filmmakers. The first screenings were at Edison Parks visitor center and the Montclair Art Museumall on 16mm. "Pete Rose mentioned it to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and it went to Richmond with the help of Ashley Kistler. Richard Hershkowitz at Cornell was next. By happenstance the Black Maria became a travelling show . . . through the people that he knew."

Where did the idea of open competition come from?

"Since I had already made some films, and then entered them in festivals with rigid categories, I felt it was wrong to have those categories exclusively. Experimental film, for instance, can be documentary with unusual structure, and not just serving the content I was frustrated that these categories were too restricting, and suffered from strictures that I felt were unnecessary."

Rebelling against the "narrow mindedness" of most festivals as he saw them, John wanted to take Black Maria to cities that did not have any film festivals. "Take it anywhere. Totally off the circuit. . . . Early audiences were hungry for new alternative stuff-challenging, whimsical, eclectic." Even if, early on, some of the audience walked out, it was still the open and democratic spirit that prevailed.

Why allow anyone to submitamateur, outlier, or professional?

"With this medium, how do we know its possibilities unless we are allowed to explore it? The anti-commercialthis is how the medium grows and expands. People were feeling alienated with almost no budget. If a filmmaker was in the area, he or she would show up. Hoboken, Newark Art Museum, local public libraries. There was a democratic ethic here. Store fronts, the Ironbound section. We would do a show any placeand wed give the money back to the filmmakers. We would not take money. There wasnt much overhead."

It was a "folksy, hand-to-mouth existence" at first. John supported himself by teaching at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia then working on Black Maria out of his house, finding others to support, and collaborating with sites. "I was a huckster for the sake of the festival."

"At first there were not many venues that we would now call alternativegalleries and theater spaces, for example. There are vastly more alternative spaces today, and almost too many festivals . . . And streaming digital has changed the landscape, and we must also include YouTube, all of them complement one another."

As for start-up festivals now, "its becoming like capitalism. Money and promotion come first, though good things can come out of them, of course." But even though a sense of experimentation can result, new festivals today are too often driven by the lure of tourism. That was decidedly not part of the Black Marias missionbring the festival to the people, not the people to the festival!

Sustain the old, nourish the new.

I wanted, finally, to get thoughts and directions emerging from the mind of Black Maria's new executive director, Jane Steuerwald. Here is a summary of what she said to me, reinforcing the image of the peoples festival.

"Sustaining the old and nourishing the new is the perfect way to frame what I have always loved about Black Maria and what I hope for its future.  I still remember my first experience with the festival, and with John Columbus.  I was the new chair of the Media Arts Department of what was then Jersey City State College in Jersey City.  John had contacted me out of the blue and asked if I was interested in arranging a screening of Black Maria films for faculty and students. This was the mid-1980s... What I recall is that we held the show in the Media Departments old building at 203 Westside Ave.  We all loved that placeit was an old industrial warehouse probably filled with asbestos, and sort of jury-rigged into serving as a media production facility."

We arranged the screening in a classroom on the ground floorcement block chicand it was very well attended.  I was immediately taken with the films and with Johns presentation.  Before long we started talking about the possibility of John moving the festival from his cozy but tiny office space in his home in West Orange, to a more substantial office in the Media Arts Center at the college.  I suppose now I should say . . . the rest is history."

"Black Maria was 'adopted' by the Media Arts Department and it has been in residence ever since.  John's vision of the festival as a champion of independent, cutting edge, experimental film was something that we all collectively embraced. His model of seeking out exceptional work that is never mainstream continues to inspire me today every time I preview a new submission."

"Certain genresanimation, documentary, and experimental approaches to storytellingare natural fits.  What I have seen evolving over the past few years is that filmmakers working in narrative are embracing the short form simply for the love of itand decidedly not as a prelude to longer work. This evokes the early days of avant-garde cinema when artists were turning to film as a new form of expression.  Maya Deren, Stan Brakhage, and Kenneth Anger, for instance, were making use of the short formavoiding the feature length.  Short films were embraced for their own sake."

"Another thing I've observedthe dramatic increase in women filmmakers.  And I mean women who are doing it all, writing, directing, shooting, editing, and promoting their own work with great success and vigor. More than half of the films chosen for our thirty-fifth anniversary season were made and submitted by women.  Black Maria has always championed female filmmakers.  In fact, as Ive reviewed programs from past years, women in film have always had excellent representation in the festival. This has much to do with John Columbus' vision and his efforts to seek out and recruit filmmakers pushing boundaries. The sea change I see now is that there is no longer a need to search for these women artiststhey are present, visionary, fierce, and unstoppable."

"What do I hope for the future?  How do we nourish Black Maria?  By giving the filmmakers our complete support in all things.  This means programming, programming, and programming. It means seeking out and establishing relationships with more venues that are willing to screen short films in all their glory.  It means keeping our submission fees to filmmakers low, so we can continue to be inclusivenever exclusive. It means continuing to expand the reach of the festival internationally.  This year Black Maria received submissions from filmmakers living on literally every continent except Antarctica. Apparently, it's time to teach a few exceptional polar bears to shoot with a Bolex."