The Operating System and Liminal Lab

RE:CONVERSATIONS :: LATE NIGHT WITH CARL SAGAN :: Shanna Maurizi talks Experimental Film, Science, and Existential Crisis with Tara Plath

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[box] In this special edition of our RE:CONVERSATIONS series, Filmmaker Shanna Maurizi joins Artist/Writer Tara Plath in dialogue around Maurizi’s recent experimental project, LATE NIGHT WITH CARL SAGAN. Shot entirely on an iPhone with homemade props and frame-by-frame animation, the video is a restaging, a reimagining, and an insomniac response to Sagan’s iconic 1980 series, Cosmos. Poetic, existential, hopeful, his series is a timeless prophecy on humanity’s place in the universe. Sagan talks to the subject with an attitude best described as wonder, in a manner that is wholly different than the position taken towards science by contemporary entertainment. Viewed late at night on Netflix, it becomes a participatory conversation, drifting into tangent, hyperbole, speculation, and intervention.

LNWCS enjoyed its premiere at Anthology Film Archive in August as part of the NewFilmmakers series, and will grace the west coast on November 8th, at Craig Baldwins San Franscisco experimental series Other Cinema, in a program called “lo fi sci fi”. Watch an excerpt above, courtesy of the filmmaker. [/box]
[superquote] I am really focused on this idea of phenomenon that as humans, we cannot understand. Even physicists have a hard time with quantum physics. We have a very difficult time with certain concepts. You can just barely grasp it before you lose it again.
I like the idea that we are completely misunderstanding.” – Shanna Maurizi [/superquote]
Tara Plath: How was this film originally conceived and how does Carl Sagan and Cosmos relate to your practice?
Shanna Maurizi: It was the dead of winter, and I decided to watch the entirety of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos on Netflix. I hadn’t watched it when it came out because something about astronomy terrified me. It was a bit too existential for a little kid and too much for me to wrap my head around. When I saw it on Netflix, I thought it was perfect for what I am interested in now. As I was watching it a friend Elise Gardella who organizes a series in the East Village called Presenting at Seventeen asked me to present something over the summer. I hadn’t made a video in a while and there were interesting things coming up for me from watching Cosmos.
I have always been interested in interrogating science itself. There is an entire field called Science Studies, which interrogates science as a system of knowledge and categorization. It is interesting how much science, the more you look at it, talks about how much we don’t know rather than what we do know. I have always been interested in the unknown.
Sagan has this attitude toward science that you don’t see anymore. It is very different and of the time, and very specific to him. He has a sense of wonder and curiosity, and a real philosophical approach. The series was really beautiful and meditative to watch. I was also interested to watch it as something I was frightened of as a child because here is something about the nothingness of space that I am interested in now.
Plath: I like the idea of you as a child being terrified of these things and then reaching a point where you can talk yourself through this existential crisis.
Maurizi: The existential crisis fascinates me now, the nothingness. In every science fiction film ever made they travel to other planets and star systems but it is never really explained that if you time-travel like that, you can’t ever return to earth. You would be billions of years in the future and the Earth would be gone. That was a shock. I hadn’t really thought about it.
What he is talking about is so intangible and vast. The scale of things fall away, and you have to keep stepping back until you are thinking about these questions he poses: How are humans going to answer to how they have spent their time on this planet? Relative to the rest of planetary history, we have only been here a tiny spark of time and we may well not survive. It is quite possible that we won’t. We will be exterminated and something else will come along. It is sort of tragic that we are this certain conglomeration of molecules that has not happened anywhere else in the universe.
Plath: Drawing feels like a large part of your practice. It is a very interesting point in the film when your hand enters the screen, and the way you insert yourself into the film. How does drawing, as an action, operate in the film?
Maurizi: Drawing is a much bigger part of my practice now, it hasn’t always been. It is a way of bringing something into being, or a manifestation. It is a mode of processing things, but also a way to fix them in time. I consider drawing as an act of translating, or even mistranslating, what I am seeing.
Plath: The scene that you include from the original Cosmos where he explains the consequences of intergalactic travel, with a young boy and his little brother who has become an old man while he was travelling through space. He represents this idea with such an emphasis on material, on what skin looks like when the boy has been in one world while this man has been growing old on Earth. The way you handle materials nicely paralleled this approach.
Maurizi: That was a very beautiful scene. It is a hard concept to wrap your head around. It almost hurts your brain and not very often do you see something on TV that makes your brain hurt. I am really focused on this idea of phenomenon that as humans, we cannot understand. Even physicists have a hard time with quantum physics. We have a very difficult time with certain concepts. You can just barely grasp it before you lose it again.
I like the idea that we are completely misunderstanding. Our knowledge is limited, we could be so off the mark when trying to understand reality. One thing that is amazing about Carl Sagan is that he approaches all of this without fear. He has a reverence and everything is explained in such a beautiful way. There are no value judgments attached, or maybe it is a different set of values– like a cosmic value system, which would be completely different from anything we have created here.
Plath: And why shoot Late Night on an iPhone?
Maurizi: The way I use my phone is different than how I use a camera. It is much more casual, and I wanted to retain that. If I had moved to a different type of camera, I would have automatically and unconsciously changed my approach.
I am completely analog, my phone is my only digital equipment, and I wanted to use this really low-fi tool. Outside of my practice, I work in film post-production, so I am constantly handling material that is shot 4k or 5k, where each frame is five thousand pixels across. We are approaching a point where our eyes can’t even perceive these things. I wanted to work backwards, against that, perhaps because I am around it all the time. It has gotten to such an extreme. 5K formats are beautiful, but it connotes something, at this moment it connotes commercialism.
In school we worked in DV, which looks like shit when compared to my iPhone. If DV was ok then, the iPhone is ok now. I am uncertain about this constant march towards higher and higher resolutions. I don’t know what that is going to offer us, necessarily.
Plath: I believe this hyper-specializing in every field makes it very hard to approach art at all. I have photography friends that will not give a work the time of day, because it is not a perfect print, which I find really tragic.
Maurizi: It is so unimportant! I have never been interested in the technical aspects of things. When I started in photography, I didn’t have a light meter. I still feel like it is unimportant. It is just a presentation medium and however you want to make your images or get them out there is qualified.
Because I work in this field, there are so many camera and recording geeks. The biggest thing for them is the next update, with better sensors or whatever on their camera and I wonder, what for? I worked in photo labs in the Bay Area, and the person with the best camera in the shop would use it to take pictures of his cat. If you have nothing to say then it does not matter what you use, and you certainly don’t need a $10,000 camera.
Plath: There is self-awareness in the way one works with material, and an awareness of the act of filming that sometimes gets covered up by the best camera and the best equipment. You lose self-awareness because you are trying to capture something with such an extreme.
Maurizi: I am not a big fan of the camera illusion. It is often the case is that there is a giant camera and lights and people standing around and how can you say that that is a true moment, when all of that stuff is there in your face? The true moment does not exist, which has been established but there is an attachment to this idea that persists, like an atavism. Not to say that a camera phone is somehow more true, it’s not either.
I enjoy working with parameters. I set the parameter to make this video with my phone, which required a lot of trouble shooting. I had to get past all of the automatic things that the iPhone does, almost like I was fighting against it but it allowed me to be freer with what I was making. If I had rented an expensive camera, I would have become bogged down in self-analysis and it would have become too heavy handed.
[superquote] This is something very relevant to my work right now, this obsessive repetitive action: the action of re-working and repeating the same thing over and over again, even without knowing what the point is. Maybe there is a point but you are not privy to it. A different part of your brain is operating, which feels like the definition of art really: making things that don’t have a point or not understanding what the point is.[/superquote]
Plath: I might not have been able to guess that you were using an iPhone, but the way Late Night was shot and your use of these constructed props does create a certain immediacy.
Maurizi: The props in the film actually took me a long time. There were a lot of problems…it is not that easy to say “Oh I’m just going to make something out of tin foil and junk.” You have to have an armature and everything. It becomes this moment, which I think is a very constructive moment, when you are in your studio thinking what the fuck am I doing? I am fiddling around with Ping-Pong balls and plastic things that smell like grape jelly from the dollar store, and I have been here all day. If somebody were to walk in…. it all looks so ridiculous. But I think that is a really good moment! To just follow an idea through no matter how silly it seems, or to become obsessive about manifesting the ideas in my head. This is something very relevant to my work right now, this obsessive repetitive action: the action of re-working and repeating the same thing over and over again, even without knowing what the point is. Maybe there is a point but you are not privy to it. A different part of your brain is operating, which feels like the definition of art really: making things that don’t have a point or not understanding what the point is.
Plath: I feel like criticism and art history doesn’t give that idea the time of day. It makes me wonder, what are we spending time on because we think it is important? Not because it is important to us, but because we think it is supposed to be important. And you totally miss the experience of art in its entirety. Criticism, for me, often feels like it is not generative. It is only reductive.
Maurizi: That is how I felt making Late Night– the experience was such a generative process. I was exploding with ideas that came from watching Cosmos, and was interested in how the series interacted with the things I was already thinking.
I was working at SF MoMA in the 90s, and I was running sound for an interview between the director of the museum and Robert Rauschenberg, who was walking around the museum and talking about his paintings. Rauschenberg was giving answers that were much more interesting than any of the questions, which were really banal. Then they came to one painting and the director asked him, “What are these really interesting marks? What was your process in creating these marks?” and Rauschenberg said, “Well, it was on the floor and my girlfriend at the time had this ferret animal that ran around all the time, and ran across the painting, which was on the floor.” They treated Rauschenberg’s work as so precious, when that is not how he made it….
Plath: They are remaking Cosmos. I wonder how the re-make will reflect the times. Even with the way we think about NASA these days, compared to a couple of decades ago when it was such a symbol of hope.
Maurizi: I don’t think you can cover Carl Sagan, but I am interested to watch it because it will cover a lot of new science. All these scientific fields have become hidden. I don’t think it is because people aren’t interested; it is more so that the information is not available. It has become so complex that you need specialized education to even understand certain terms or concepts. Carl Sagan attempted to translate complex ideas, but still in a sophisticated way. I feel like science shows now address eight-year olds.
Science is a very male narrative that often feels off limits to commentary. It was interesting to insert myself into Late Night because I haven’t done that before. The character is not necessarily me, but just a female character. Science is really owned by all of us, not just the people deemed scientists. It is all of our cosmic and universal knowledge about ourselves. One group shouldn’t have authority over that.
TARA PLATH studied Sculpture and Visual and Critical Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She recently moved to New York City, where she holds various jobs and titles, and continues to write for Expo Chicago’s THE SEEN.
SHANNA MAURIZI is interested in the scope of knowledge and its relation to the unknown, realized in drawing, altered photographs, short film and video. Her work has been exhibited widely and her films have garnered festival awards and screened at Anthology Film Archives, Craig Baldwin’s Other Cinema, and the Ende Tymes Festival among many others. Maurizi was a featured panelist at The Operating System / Exit Strata’s RE/PRESENTATION and RE/PRODUCTION :: Artist as Accidental Entrepreneur roundtable at Launchpad Brooklyn in June 2013; her artist interview series WORK ONLY can also be found featured on THE OS online. Maurizi is also a member of the collaborative team behind the recently launched Brooklyn exhibition space, Songs for Presidents.
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