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Night Reels Audio Tour Transcript

200. My name is Stacey Steers and I am the multi-disciplinary artist behind the work in Night Reels. Over the trajectory of my career the focus of my art practice has been experimental animation. I create my films by hand, like many artisans, in a way that harkens back to the early history of animation. For years I drew my animated films, but around 2000 I began to feel that the expressive quality of my drawing style was too confining and I began to search for a more neutral way to work with images. I decided to try my hand at collage animation, a form I was familiar with through the work of Larry Jordan and others. I decided to try creating collages by combining antique photographic materials or film stills with fragments of 19th century engravings and illustrations. Each collage is small, usually 4 x 5.5 inches, and I photograph them in sequence on an old animation stand using 35mm film. I have to make huge numbers of these works on paper to create a film, usually 8 unique images for each second of screen time. It’s a very obsessive, labor-intensive process. As an experimental filmmaker, I’m always looking beyond the conventions of narrative filmmaking and I try to explore a different sort of cinematic language. I like to try to leave room for the audience to have their own relationship to the images and ideas. 

201. Star Chart features work from a current ongoing project with the working title Deep Space. I consider the three completed films in Night Reels a trilogy and Deep Space is both similar and moving in a new direction. I try to build on the techniques I employ as I address a new project and in this case I will be adding text to the film in a collaboration with the poet Mary Szybist. What you see here is still silent, however. The landscape for the film is outer space and the film will feature Lillian Gish and Janet Gaynor. I plan to have a subtext involving aging, since Lillian Gish had a long cinematic career and she ages on the silver screen. She made her final film The Whales of August in 1989 when she was 92 years old. The images of her here are from a very early Biograph film called The Mothering Heart that she made as a teenager. I’m exploring contemporary feelings of uncertainty and peril. The film Deep Space is an internal exploration of the power of beauty and imagination alongside the specter of annihilation. For the Star Chart I made 3 loops from the work I have completed and placed them in this wooden disc that features a reproduction of a 19th-century star chart. My collaborator Michael Schliske constructed the frame and put the piece together. I like the way the disc gives context to the loops and that there are screens occupying the surface like blinking solar systems in the vastness.

202. The first of the trilogy films is called Phantom Canyon.  For this film I had the idea of incorporating the subjects from Eadweard Muybridge’s human motion studies from 1883. I was familiar with them from my years studying the figure, they are a resource for many artists since they show multiple images of bodies in motion performing various activities. I thought their stop-motion quality made them a natural fit with animation, and also that the male and female figures could become characters in a film that was a metaphorical examination of a relationship. I combined the figures with images from clip-art books which are collections of copy-right free images often used by artists. The bold contrast in the black and white images seemed to work well with the themes of passion and dismay that the film explored. From the very beginning the technique excited me. 

I began to create 3D sculptural installation objects in collaboration with other artisans after I finished my second trilogy film Night Hunter and created Night Hunter House. The excited response to that work made me think about returning to Phantom Canyon and thinking of a way to incorporate a key element of the film with a small scale projection built into a sculptural object. Stack of Beds emerged from that process. The falling beds are part of a seminal scene in Phantom Canyon and creating a physical representation of that scene seemed like a fertile choice. My friend, the fine woodworker Michael Schliske and I designed the piece together, and he fabricated it using various antique beds and other elements he built. I like the way Stack of Beds plays with filmic scale and extends the metaphoric power of the film by placing the viewer inside the filmic space in a certain sense.

203. The second film in the trilogy is Night Hunter. After I completed Phantom Canyon I knew I wanted to continue working with collages, but I was looking for a way to add psychological complexity to the characterizations. I had admired a performance by Lillian Gish in the D.W. Griffith film Broken Blossoms from 1919. Her portrayal of an abused child is quite staggering and vividly emotional. I thought I might be able to lift her from the scenes in that film and bring her into my own world. I began to cut her out of printed film frames and collage her into a mysterious house with a snake and confounding eggs where she is very much alone. I used fragments of 19th century Pre-Raphaelite illustrations to construct the collages. I ended up incorporating images from 4 of her silent-era films. Night Hunter explores a loss of control, heightened emotions, and maternal impulses. Gish expresses all of those magnificently. I create my films intuitively and don’t plan ahead. I’m inspired by Surrealist techniques, particularly those employed by women like Remedios Vara, Leonora Carrington and Frida Kahlo. Like them, my working process is organic and allows the unconscious to play a role. I am looking for a poetic alignment of elements, not a rational one. My films bring incongruous or unexpected objects into a pre-existing film frame or a newly assembled collage. Over time, I’ve learned that these unanticipated conjunctions of actors and print elements create a kind of visual, energetic charge. 

I decided to create Night Hunter House following on an opportunity to premiere the film Night Hunter at the Denver Art Museum. While I was constructing the film, I had the idea that it would be interesting to try to create a sculptural facsimile of the house where the film is set, with its many mysterious rooms. I worked with an architect friend, Mark Sofield , and we designed a 10 room miniature house with a video screen in each room. Michael Schliske finalized and fabricated the piece. As you move around the house and look into the windows, you can watch nearly all of the film in discreet loops. Along with the media, each room contains an assortment of miniature objects I placed there that parallel the action in the loop. I love using miniatures and I think the enactment of voyeurism as we gaze through the windows opens up the scope of film. I find the intersection of sculptural object and media help draw the viewer into the fantasy realm of the film and place the two elements in conversation with one another.

204. For the final film in the trilogy, Edge of Alchemy, I wanted to develop a relationship between two women. I decided to work with the silent-era actresses Mary Pickford and Janet Gaynor, both of whom project a sense of interiority and psychological complexity in their portrayals, which is something I’m always looking for. It occurred to me that it might be interesting to present a version of the Frankenstein story but with a gender reversal that would illuminate the classic story in a new way. I’m an avid gardener and I had been thinking about bees and hive decline, and I decided that that crisis could present an entry point for the film and help define the characters. Mary Pickford plays the “scientist” and Janet Gaynor the “creature’ she creates. I took elements from over a dozen films to create collages for Edge of Alchemy. I again used fragments from the work of 19th-century illustrators to create the backgrounds. 

Much of the action in Edge of Alchemy takes place in an arcane laboratory adrift in a world outside time. To accompany Edge of Alchemy, I worked with Michael Schliske to create several proto-scientific instruments that give the appearance of some sort of functionality while serving as miniature screening “rooms” for the re-scaled film material. I like to play with impact of scale and contrast the intimacy of the miniature with the physically encompassing experience of the big screen.  Each instrument features lenses that in various ways distort the images on the screens embedded in them. I am interested in perspective and how our preconceptions alter our experience of what we see. The lenses play with and alter the images from Edge of Alchemy and I hope encourage the viewer to reflect on the subjective nature of interpretation and point of view.