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Creative Collaboration

Installation view of “Entering the Republic of Misery” image courtesy Dorsch Gallery.

Interview with Richard Haden and Bill Bilowit on “Entering the Republic of Misery” a collaborative video on the life of Mercedes, an Argentinian-born, crack-smoking sex worker in Miami currently on exhibition at Dorsch Gallery as part of the exhibition (RAD) Running à Dérive by Richard Haden.

David Rohn:  The video is gritty, personal, and in some ways uncomfortably intimate. Since I know you both and your past work I expected a certain level of detail, and nuance from this production, particularly, if I may say so, in the realm of technical refinement; Bill, you are synonymous with complex video software, and Richard, your mastery of material craftsmanship to create hyper-realistic sculpture is blatant, even to the point of being invisible. In contemporary art culture, where individual vision is so highly regarded, collaboration is evident as a satisfying yet potentially difficult undertaking. It is from this interest in mind that I ask the following questions in an attempt to go behind the scenes of your collaboration and this engaging video.

Since I understand that it was Richard’s original decision to generate the actual content around the life of the video’s protagonist Mercedes, I am curious to know from him what got that started, and then from Bill how he related to the footage; what struck him about it’s content, the way it was shot, what he saw as it’s greatest strengths and how he approached refining the raw content.

Richard Haden: The exhibition at the Dorsch gallery has to do with running and the discoveries that solicit me as I run long distance through the Miami area. I had started running to get in shape, but quickly became bored, so I started looking for routes that were more engaging. I found that railroad easements were great because of the marginalized pathways that become short cuts through industrial, commercial, and residential areas, mixing urban zones, habitats, and neighborhoods.

As my practice of running improved I found myself going farther and farther…then I started noticing discarded objects along the way, that I could carry, running, back to my studio to use as models for carving… then I started carrying a still camera with me so that I could take pictures of interesting sites, objects, path ways, vectors, people and so on. After I got used to stopping to take pictures and running again I tried carrying a video recording device with me. I borrowed a GOPRO HD camera from Jake Kooser. The camera came with a harness, which enabled me to mount it on my chest or head. However, I found it difficult to keep the footage from being to jumpy and jarring when I ran, so I managed to hold it in my hand to steady it as I recorded while I ran. That worked better. Then I had the epiphany to expand my practice to include recording people that I met running without running. That is when I met Mercedes-whom I ran into several times while running through the Wynwood arts district. Eventually, after some time I got to know her and we began a relationship, based on trust and her knowing that she could depend on me to help her out with everyday things, like a pimp might do, but without me being a pimp.

Bill Bilowit: From the very first clip I could see Richard had captured exceptional, visually beautiful, and what I’d call preternaturally authentic situations. That authenticity came from many things. The compression and deep focus of that little camera amplified the Miami atmosphere in ways that evoked its true density and particularity. Richard’s encounters with Mercedes played out as a heightened reality because she’s utterly unhindered and trusting of Richard’s presence. And the camera’s tininess magnified every subtle, faint nuance of Richard’s grasp – unmistakably human motions – layered on top of his rattling pick-up truck’s jouncing on pitted streets and railroad tracks. Plus, the GOPRO Richard was using did not have a viewfinder or LCD screen which meant he had no way of knowing what was recorded until later. This lack of a viewfinder eliminated a huge task in shooting scenes, freeing him up to be more completely in the moment.

I watched every clip Richard shot during his month-long loan of the camera, and altogether it was an expressly cyclical narrative. Jail – rants – strategizing – drugs – rehab – Burger King – clothing acquisitions – beauty supplies – repeat. Yet every cycle I saw was fresh and suspenseful; that plus the subjects’ characters made it an irresistible project. Mercedes is not a stereotype version street prostitute. She’s a distinctly exuberant and vexing personality. Richard is not a white knight, John, or sucker; he’s a sincere, idiosyncratic and generally fearless traveler.

Image courtesy Richard Haden, Bill Bilowit and Dorsch Gallery.

David: It would be interesting for the sake of understanding the dynamics of your collaboration, to hear some description about the early conversations you had on how to refine the project. I am wondering, for example, what Richard may have had in mind in approaching Bill and perhaps Bill’s own response to this, and to the footage. Ultimately how perhaps your notions differed and what you both may have agreed on from the start.

Richard: It’s like this: I had hours of clips and little experience with video or film, yet I knew that I had some good stuff, so I approached Bill because I knew he had experience with making and producing documentaries. At first I just wanted feed back on the 28 or so clips that I had (hours of video recording…) then, after I sensed that Bill seemed enthusiastic about what I had, I asked Bill if he could help edit…which turned into more of a collaboration than just taking an editor on board a video project.

I knew that I didn’t want just a documentary in the traditional sociological sense, and I knew roughly some effects that I thought would free the video from a simple Documentary genre… so, I suggested this or that temporal shift that might engage a viewers stream of consciousness–and Bill was already ahead of me with the same ideas. What we came up with is what you see in the video–its analogous to how we view, interpret, muse, and savor short sequences of everyday encounters as though they were atemporal passages of time while at the same time contrasting the narrative moment with an inevitable destination. We wanted a strong visual presence mixed with a cyclical narrative.

Bill: In the manner he captured these clips, Richard rejected all the traditional documentary film precepts of defining, framing, and contextualizing a subject, and the result is an extraordinary authenticity. That was exactly his goal, to avoid classifying and moralizing and create instead something “lifelike,” an experience yielding to the indefinable aspects of an encounter, a place, a relationship.

That idea was right up my alley so there wasn’t any differing of notions in the slightest. It’s like he returned from a month in unexplored territory, handed me raw footage of new life forms, and missioned me with revealing it to the world. He was generously trustful and motivational, which makes for better results than worrisome and micro-managing. Rather than assigning me an edit, it’s like he was giving me my turn.

Image courtesy Richard Haden, Bill Bilowit and Dorsch Gallery.

David: The video is not short by art gallery video standards (26 minutes). Some might argue that shorter is better. My own view here is that the piece is like a cyclic saga, and worth every minute. Since editing and the addition of post production effects are arguably the most rigorous aspects of producing a video, it would be interesting to hear about your individual ideas about the length and other decisions around general structure of the piece.

Richard: At first, I didn’t even think much about the length. I wanted a stand alone work that could be viewed in more than an art gallery setting. Plus, with so much raw “footage”, it was hard to even keep the length to 26 minutes. I could see it being even longer. As well, I didn’t want to cater to the limited attention span of much of today’s audience while at the same time I didn’t want it to be an exercise in endurance either…

Bill: After I realized how dense and detailed the clips were, I decided not to worry about duration until there was a shape and rhythm to the edit. I showed Richard an initial 8-minute segment and he told me not to be afraid of a long run (speaking of which, Richard will run in the New York Marathon this November).

What’s especially cool is that the piece is a seamlessly looped narrative with variable temporal dimensions. It can be experienced in a bite-sized, two-minute gallery walk-by and still be engaging; on the way out, they’ll stop for another hit. As a sit-down exhibit, any starting point is a beginning and any departure point is an ending, five minutes or ten, whatever. Of course, I recommend the full 26 minutes– any 26 minutes; when you see the scene you walked in on in its new context, you’re full circle.

Image courtesy Richard Haden, Bill Bilowit and Dorsch Gallery.

David: In regard to the post production effects, specifically the slowing down of some sequences, particularly around Mercedes’ arms and hands, I felt these really gave the piece more resonance and helped keep the distance from an exercise in ‘Cinema Verite’. I also thought the time sequence breaks that announced for example ’6 hours later’ or ’10 minutes later’ really helped the narrative. It might be interesting to hear how these decisions came about, what motivated them and what may have been seen as downside risks to these decisions.

Bill: There are many temporal effects in the piece that expand and contract moments, gestures and moods. The brief “elapsed time” titles that separate certain sequences are another form of this effect, heightening awareness of time invested by the subjects, and, by implication, distance covered. Seconds or weeks go by instantaneously, the urban panorama rolls by in the background, stretching (circuitously) for endless blocks. The main risk with any of these techniques is that they’re applied intellectually, forcing a distance from the subject. That would likely obstruct the stream. So I was relentless that every apparent and invisible edit, every effect, every iota of intervention in the raw footage was an extension of my seduction by something I saw or heard, and with that approach I really enjoyed bringing to each of those actions a meticulous care.

Richard: To put it simply, I wanted to produce a visually strong work that reflected Mercedes. I wanted an estranged view, like, how I think our stream of consciousness deals with everyday encounters of unusual everyday experiences, of people and things ready to hand, that give us our daily sense of being alive. We want to highlight those moments that often go unnoticed or don’t remain in long-term conscious memory.

Mercedes, to me, has the ability to seem indestructible –loaded with the most amazing charisma and energy despite her role– self cast as the self-destructible protagonist. Her lifestyle, on the other hand, with all the performative aspects that go with being who she is, is still real and authentic in that she is a woman with the skills to live on the street and in ‘the hood’. Mercedes seems to have this natural tenacity and ability to survive in a situation that most can’t even imagine. Given this, I still do not want this video work to necessarily be a moralizing document of someone living this way or that… my aim is to show a small part of her life as it is… as extremely real, colorful, tragic, humorous and, maybe after all is said and done, not really all that much different from our own daily sojourns into the “Republics of Misery”.

Image courtesy Richard Haden, Bill Bilowit and Dorsch Gallery.

David: What other general or significant observations do each of you have on this collaboration and on collaboration as a general undertaking?

Bill: Lewis and Clark, Ben and Jerry, Abbott and Costello, Brakhage and Cornell.

Richard: Collaborations are cool.

(RAD) Running à Dérive by Richard Haden on exhibition at Dorsch Gallery, Miami, through November 12, 2011.

This post was contributed by David Rohn.

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Creative Collaboration