5th Cosmic Rays Film Festival | Exhibition: The Digital Wilds @ Lump Gallery in Raleigh, Mar. 3–Apr. | Four Short Film Programs: Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill, Mar. 30-31 | Live Cinema: Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro
To the uninitiated, experimental film might seem cloistered or unapproachable. But behind the black turtlenecks and complex facades of its most famous progenitors, unconventional cinema is famously egalitarian—especially in the South, where anything avant-garde may instantly be deemed subversive.
The fifth Cosmic Rays Film Festival helps further upend expectations, combining a spirit of acceptance with an innovative blend of programming, including immersion in The Digital Wilds at Lump Gallery in Raleigh, traditional screenings at Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill, and live audiovisual performances at Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro. Ahead of the festival’s weekend of in-person events, INDY Week caught up with cofounders Sabine Gruffat and Bill Brown via email to talk about future film technologies, institutional support for challenging art, and how it all got started.
INDY Week: What inspired you to start the Cosmic Rays Film Festival?
Bill Brown: Sabine and I both make experimental films. We wanted to share the kind of work we love—films that are personal and experiment with audiovisual form—with audiences here in the Triangle, which has been home to some terrific festivals and venues in the past: Chapel Hill’s Hi Mom! Film Festival, the Strange Beauty Film Festival, and Durham’s Unexposed Microcinema. They had all closed shop by 2018, so we decided to start Cosmic Rays.
This wasn’t our first rodeo, though. Sabine and I have collaborated on several projects in the past, including La Videoshop, a pop-up microcinema that we installed in a defunct art gallery in Paris during the summer of 2015. But we’d never tried to go whole hog.
The festivals that inspired us weren’t just experimental film festivals but festivals that were started by experimental filmmakers: PDX Fest founded by the filmmaker Matt McCormick up in Portland, Oregon; FLEX Fest started by filmmaker Roger Beebe in Gainesville, FL; THAW Fest that was programmed by film students at the University of Iowa. We wanted to model Cosmic Rays after those filmmaker-run festivals because they all, in their various ways, aspired to be the kind of film festival that an experimental filmmaker would love: down to earth, with adventurous programming and a generous definition of what experimental film can be.
How do you curate the program to ensure it stays fresh and innovative?
SABINE GRUFFAT: Most of the folks who submit through our open call are aware of our work and our programming. We like films that take aesthetic and personal risks. In the end, we create the final program based on how the films are in conversation with each other. I don’t think we have ever programmed a film because it was “fresh,” but I can think of several that we found innovative in their structure, editing, or visual language.
BB: Practically all the work we screen comes from our open call for submissions. The open call is exciting. We never know who will share work with us or what they’ll send. We’ve had the good fortune to see films we’d never see otherwise. We love to show new work from established filmmakers, but it’s even more fun to show work from someone we’ve never encountered before. It’s like hitting pay dirt.
How important is it for artists to push the boundaries of what’s considered “traditional” in the film industry?
BB: If Hollywood filmmaking is like a fancy mansion—think of some Beverly Hills replica of a house in Downton Abbey—then experimental filmmaking exists in the forgotten ivy-covered greenhouse at the back of the estate—the place the misfits and mad scientists sneak off to smoke cigarettes. It’s important to have a space like that, where filmmaking can be continuously interrogated and reinvented. When I first started making films, my parents would mention Steven Spielberg a lot because one, he makes films, and two, he makes tons of money. It didn’t take long for them to figure out my films weren’t going to be as profitable as Spielberg’s.
Part of the confusion is that experimental films have less in common with Hollywood films than with the studio arts and poetry (not to mention alchemy and witchcraft). They’re less invested in conventional forms of dramatic storytelling—I’d argue they’re not even particularly invested in storytelling at all, at least not in the throwaway sense that everyone from pharmaceutical companies to management consultants talks about “stories” these days. What they do care about is cinematic form and meaning and how those two things can be configured in an infinite variety of novel and sometimes breathtakingly beautiful ways.
How will the technologies on display in The Digital Wilds impact the future of cinema?
SG: It’s just the beginning, so it’s hard to tell. But VR, AR, and 360º video have already expanded the rectangular film frame to become completely immersive. This becomes an editing challenge because the only way to cue a viewer to turn their heads toward the action is through sound. More and more people watch media in their homes and in their headsets, which makes VR, AR, and other forms of portable media completely appropriate. This isn’t just about film and cinema—this is about our whole mediascape changing. There are already stories written entirely by artificial intelligence (AI). I look forward to seeing how artists respond to all of it.
How do you think audiences will respond to it?
SG: Often, people enter a gallery and immediately try to decide whether they like what they see. Viewing art forces us to at least consider what we are seeing. Any time you bring something different into a gallery like an iPad or a VR headset, it challenges people to consider technology and see it as more than just a carrier of content. The Digital Wilds is interested in how technology lets us communicate with the natural world, and vice versa. In eteam’s video piece, Our Non-Understanding of Everything, there are snails interacting with iPhones and spiders walking on computer chips. How does the natural world interact with our human-made technological products? How does the snail’s sensorium react to an LED screen image?
There is a Walter Benjamin quote in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: “The equipment-free aspect of reality here has become the height of artifice; the sight of immediate reality has become an orchid in the land of technology.” Technology is ubiquitous. To be in a space where technology isn’t visible is what should be strange these days. Mediatized reality is not rare. Orchids are rare. Orchids grow in hard-to-reach places. There are many species of orchids that are endangered.
I recently visited a video class at the University of Massachusetts, and the students told me that they edit differently on TikTok than on Instagram because each platform facilitates a different kind of editing. We live in an era where there is a proliferation of screens, media genres, and platforms. Each of these platforms facilitates a specific kind of visual language, and it is part of our job as filmmakers and artists to critically explore the different lexicons. In the same way Roland Barthes deconstructed advertisements in his book The Rhetoric of the Image, we need to look at the rhetoric of platforms and technologies.
How will the live cinema component of Cosmic Rays complement that digital exploration?
BB: The whole ethos of the festival is how do the technologies and materials of media production influence the images we make, and even the way we consume those images? Imagine if you’re at the movies and the film projectionist is also making the film you’re watching on the fly. That’s a live-cinema performance. During a show, artists use media tools—video synthesizers, 16mm film projectors, laptops, and Magic Lanterns—to create images and sounds in real-time. The means and materials of production are performed.
Mainstream films and videos invest a lot of time and effort in hiding the means of production from its audience. We’re not meant to pay attention to how images are made. In fact, if we notice that stuff (a mic showing up in the shot; a scratch in the frame), then something’s gone wrong. During a live A/V performance, the artist pulls back the curtain on how they make their images so the audience can see and hear the artistic interventions—scratching film emulsion or bending video signals—that produce sounds and images. This kind of direct encounter with the technologies of image production and projection is exciting. It’s spontaneous and responsive—and always a little bit risky.
Speaking of risky: all proceeds from Cosmic Rays ticket sales go directly to participating filmmakers, many of whom are local. How important is that for fostering creative communities?
SG: A big part of our mission is supporting artists and filmmakers, so a majority of the grant money goes directly to them. But our organization also has to be sustainable, and we can only do what is within our capacity as a small non-profit. In order for the arts to thrive in this region, the larger institutions and film festivals have to dedicate a larger part of their budgets to artists, especially local and emerging ones. If we want equity in the arts, we have to start by paying artists.
BB: We live in a country where, outside a handful of big cities, the arts are underfunded—and audiences for the arts are underserved. This is doubly the case for artist cinema, and triply the case for artist cinema in the South. A big part of our mission is to support innovative media artmaking in the place where we live. As a festival, we do our best to reach out to experimental filmmakers across the state, and we offer a separate discounted submission category for NC filmmakers. As far as we’re concerned, there’s no reason North Carolina shouldn’t be the center of the experimental film universe.
SG: North Carolina is definitely overlooked by the art world. Even the art publications that cover Southern art have few (if any) representatives writing about North Carolina. Our state needs art writers to critique the work artists do here. We need an art publication that raises the stakes on the quality of exhibitions. We also need art collectors to invest in local art—and not just traditional framed artworks on walls or sculptural installations.
For the last two years, we have received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts specifically for Cosmic Rays Digital because there is a national interest in developing the South’s digital arts. The area has a growing tech industry, but the arts are still very traditional. I am a professor in the Art Department at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and I can attest to the fact that, as a region, the Triangle is behind the curve. There has never been a cinema on the UNC campus.
Also, I was on a panel about public art in Raleigh, and when I asked if there would be opportunities for technology-based art, the consultants were surprised to hear that anyone in the Triangle does digital art. Our hope with Cosmic Rays is to expand the notion of what visual art can be beyond traditional painting and sculpture and support local artists who currently work digitally or might consider working with new media if there was a dedicated space for that kind of artwork.
As co-directors, how do you divide the responsibilities for organizing and executing the festival?
BB: The festival is a truly collaborative process. Both Sabine and I have a hand in the programming and organizing, as well as festival marketing, fundraising, and promotion. That said, Sabine is primarily responsible for curating and installing the digital artwork in the Cosmic Rays Digital exhibition, while I usually oversee the live-cinema setup. Also, the festival wouldn’t be possible without the help of volunteers.
When our open call for film submissions closes at the end of December, we reach out to experimental filmmakers in the Triangle and invite them to serve on a screening committee. This year, the committee included seven local filmmakers, as well as Sabine and me. All the submitted films are viewed at least once, though work that aligns with the mission of the festival is usually viewed three or four times. Sabine and I consider what themes or threads emerge from the list of finalists, and we select films that are not only remarkable on their own but enter into conversation with other work in the program in exciting and unexpected ways.
What lessons have you learned entering the fifth year of Cosmic Rays?
SG: This kind of arts endeavor is always a challenge. Every year, we are funded in a different way with very few repeat grants. This year, we became a non-profit so that we can be eligible for more grants. But while we have more experience and learn a lot, it doesn’t get any easier. What keeps us going is our growing festival attendance and the feedback from our audience.
BB: It’s always a challenge to get the word out. But each year, the happiest surprise for us has been the way Cosmic Rays has tapped into a community of experimental media-makers and audiences in the Triangle that we didn’t know existed—and that is bigger and more varied and diverse than we imagined when we started the festival in 2018.
How did Cosmic Rays react and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?
SG: Unlike most festivals, we are not interested in virtual screenings. As volunteers, we have to enjoy what we do, and if everything is online and there isn’t a local community coming together to watch films, we don’t see the point. We had a virtual gallery last year as part of Cosmic Rays Digital, and very few people came to the online opening. In the end, I thought it wasn’t worth the work.
BB: COVID left us reeling. We paused Cosmic Rays in 2021 and wondered if it would ever return. Lots of people (including me) are still not totally comfortable gathering for live events. If anything positive has come out of the pandemic, it’s that it’s forced us to consider what matters and what doesn’t matter so much. When we decided to bring the festival back last year, it was because we decided artist cinema matters. Maybe art is not a high priority when the world falls to pieces. But art can offer something: some way to make sense of the insane world we live in; some sustenance or solace.
How do you recommend that festival goers participate in the different offerings?
BB: The Digital Wilds Exhibition is up at Lump Gallery in Raleigh until April 2nd so you can go anytime on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The live cinema performances at the Cat’s Cradle Back Room on Thursday night are not to be missed! We search far and wide to bring these performers to Chapel Hill.
SG: Lump Gallery has always had interesting and risky programming. They are a space that supports media artists as well as painting, drawing, etc. We wish there were more spaces like that, but real estate prices are so prohibitive now. It would take someone with a vision that has the funds to do something really big.
In The Digital Wilds, there is a strong emphasis on interactivity and viewer participation. How does this approach add to the exhibition’s impact and significance?
SG: I actually once met an artist who did this performance called “touching art with a dirty hand.” His whole idea was to go to a museum and not wash his hands and touch all the art. That was the performance and I thought it was very funny. Usually in a museum or a gallery, you are not supposed to touch the art. It is so ingrained in our polite adult selves to treat art as a sacred object. When art is interactive, often it is the kids that feel comfortable playing with the work. The adults might be too polite, self-conscious, or educated against it.
Do the futuristic technologies on display in The Digital Wilds have the potential to challenge traditional notions of the gallery space and the art-viewing experience?
SG These technologies are in their infancy. Augmented reality is used a lot in museums as a way to supplement information in place of a guided tour. It can be quite gimmicky. The use of AR in The Digital Wilds exhibition is more intentional. Ultimately, the show is about the natural environment and how we as humans choose to interact with it. The artists have different ways of thinking about technology as a conduit or an impediment. In Kristin Lucas’ playful Cosmic WildflowAR piece, you can place wildflowers in a space to attract butterflies and bees. She is an artist who is interested in the sustainability of digital art practices.
As a result of climate change, artists are looking very closely at the natural world. Anytime you are looking closely at something and make a record, you are creating some kind of representational data set or archive (even if you are not a scientist). By including technologies of sight, this exhibition foregrounds the machines that allow us to record and interpret the natural world so that we may be aware of all the lenses and filters we are looking through.
Let’s talk about some of the specific programming on tap. Tell us more about the concept behind Tomonari Nishikawa’s Six Seventy-Two Variations and how it will be presented at the Cosmic Rays Film Festival.
BB: In Six Seventy-Two Variations, filmmaker Tomonari Nishikawa uses a wood carving knife to scratch the photographic emulsion off a looped strip of 16mm film. Working in the tradition of the camera-less scratch film, as well as the direct manipulation of the 16mm optical track that we find in work by Norman McLaren among others, Nishikawa creates images and sounds in real-time as he abrades the film strip. With each slice of his knife, Nishikawa creates a projected image like an open wound that the projector’s light seeps through.
Jon Satrom’s Prepared Desktop sounds intriguing as well. Can you give us a sneak peek into what we can expect from the performance?
Sabine: The title of the piece is a nod to Henry Cowell’s and John Cage’s idea of the prepared piano. For Jon Satrom, it’s not a piano but a laptop that he’s interested in hacking. His ultimate aim is to break software and laptops. Watching Satrom’s performance is like sitting through a technology breakdown on acid. It takes what is normally anxiety-inducing and turns it into a nihilistic play.
How about the themes in Jonas Bers’ “ΔV/ΔT.” How does that fit into the larger context of Cosmic Rays’ live performances?
BB: Jonah Bers is a Brooklyn-based media artist who hacks audiovisual systems to create real-time, immersive sound-image projections. In his performance, he combines modified hardware video mixers, a handmade modular synthesizer, an oscilloscope, and cameras, bending, tweaking, and processing the audiovisual signal as it makes its way to the screen. He builds most of his tools himself. He is like an ‘80s-style computer hacker with an amazing sense of symphonic structure.
Beyond this year’s festival, what can we expect from the future of Cosmic Rays and the Cosmic Rays Foundation?
BB: This past year, with invaluable help from our first-ever curatorial intern John Winn, we launched the Cosmic Rays Touring Festival. This traveling program of work from past editions of the festival allows Cosmic Rays to keep going after the festival ends, and to bring hard-to-see artist films to new venues and new audiences around the U.S. and the world. The touring festival made a half-dozen stops in 2022, and we hope to schedule even more tour dates in the coming year.
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