warehouse warehouse

Indefinite Pitch

by James N. Kienitz Wilkins,  available 06.06. – 20.06.17
James N. Kienitz Wilkins, Indefinite Pitch, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist

The Androscoggin-River is not necessarily known for its beauty. It is rather the heavy pollution by 20th century industry such as textile mills and paper mills located along its banks that account for its notoriety. Indefinite Pitch is both a personal excursion into the remains of a landscape after the radical decline of an industry and a reflection of digital image production in the face of its exhaustion – an attempt to stir the endless flow of images by freezing it.

James N. Kienitz Wilkins (b. 1983) is a filmmaker and artist based in Brooklyn. His work has been selected for international film festivals and venues including the New York Film Festival, CPH:DOX, MoMA PS1, Rotterdam IFF, Locarno IFF, Migrating Forms, and the Whitney Biennial 2017. Past movies includes the experimental documentary feature, Public Hearing (2012), and the short, Special Features (2014), which in 2015 won the Founder’s Spirit Award at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and a Grand Prix at the 25 FPS Festival. In 2016, he won the Art Award from the Lichter Filmfest Frankfurt, as well as the Kazuko Trust Award presented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center. He is a graduate of the Cooper Union School of Art in New York City.

Downstream

An Interview with James N. Kienitz Wilkins
by Pujan Karambeigi

Pujan Karambeigi: I am really interested in your decision to make a film about a place you have never been to, namely Berlin in New Hampshire. So even during the production process you did not go there to actually enter the site. Instead, you went to your hometown, Lewiston/Auburn, Maine, 2 hours away from Berlin, to take photos that would later form Indefinite Pitch. How came this idea up to make a film close by but explicitly not on site?

James N. Kienitz Wilkins: I wanted to make a movie free to go where it wanted, without getting carried away. So its actual shape—photos and sounds—came after the narrative was figured out. This isn’t too different from the commercial screenwriting process, with changes and adjustments made to accommodate reality. The final look and feel becomes a record of many compromises. I like thinking of compromise as an artistic tool, especially in the sense of consenting to how one’s life is actually playing out. With Indefinite Pitch, I challenged myself to be comfortable with autobiographical details, including my general disposition (which I’ve found harder and harder to hide in my movies). In ways, I’m lazy and impatient. Or I exist more in my mind than the physical world, and I hope to execute my ideas in the most efficient way as possible. Production as an occupation is fairly unexciting to me. Even less so the prospect of travelling to a far-off land in order to film it. So a site connecting downstream to where I knew I would be (visiting home), rather than where I would decide to place myself as self-appointed filmmaker-explorer, was just good sense. Accepting a shifting subject was very interesting to me. I didn’t have to move much for this movie. [read on]

James N. Kienitz Wilkins, Indefinite Pitch, 2016, film still. Courtesy: the artist

PK: As we are already talking of the different compromises a film goes through during its productions process: Could you say something about the imagery in Indefinite Pitch, these clean high resolution black & white shots of the Androscoggin river?

JW: I took the photographs. I like to take photos, though I’m not interested in photography as an end-all. The images in Indefinite Pitch are like a deck of cards to me: a fixed set that is infinitely shufflable and without individual value outside of the game. I wanted to create images at once specific and vague. They depict exactly what they are said to depict (the shoreline of the Androscoggin river in Lewiston/Auburn, Maine) but they don’t tell you much about the place. They are beautiful (in my opinion) but also generic, the way most beautiful things are generic. Like a photo of a sunset. Or a catalog swimsuit model. Or maybe a hit movie at Sundance.
This connects in a big way to why I used a still camera to make a movie. It’s probably the most economical way to make a generic and thus “competitive” moving image. The resolution of even an inexpensive still camera exceeds today’s moving image standards (2K, 4K), allowing for a scalability as high quality as any Hollywood production. It’s a sort of unearned resolution. The poor man slipping into a party to which he wasn’t invited by dressing the part.

PK: Taking Indefinite Pitch as a landscape movie it may be read as a film about the post-industrial New England region and the network of problems that has developed in this radically changing social texture (talking of racism, heroin use, white supremacists, etc). What has intrigued you to use the form of the monologue, or more specific: a first-person essay, to do a kind of landscape portray?

JW: I agree it’s a landscape movie as well as a personal essay. I really love post-industrial northeastern U.S. towns. They can be depressing as hell, but also beautiful. New England in particular fascinates me as the bedrock of the whole American experiment. I wanted to speak to the place.
I’m extremely interested in narrative, which I feel gets a bad rap as the opposite of documentary (untrue), or the enemy of formal experimentation (untrue). Narrative is simply the telling of connected events. It’s not always story, which implies finality of values, although it’s intimately derived from plot: the material to be connected; the data defining a zone; the borders of a property which can be walked in any direction; the grounds forming a basis of action. In Indefinite Pitch, this spatial sense of narrative is used to explore a landscape which is, quite frankly, indifferent to my personal opinions, feelings, or struggles. Monologue literalizes narrative as an intimate, insisting voice of reason trying to control or interpret from above what is happening on the ground, for better or for worse.

PK: In his essay The Ethnologist’s Jewels Lévi-Strauss talks about states of aggregation in relation to ethnological practice. His example is the pattern generated by a drop of milk falling into the same liquid. Only through the means of chronophotography it became possible to both see and store this ephemeral pattern, turning something soft into something hard. However, this solidity must still appear fragile in order to evoke the precariousness of living forms: What Lévi Strauss referred to as jewelry.
Now, coming back to Indefinite Pitch, I find it extremely interesting that your very specific practice of the flow – photographies of Androscoggin river, continuous pitch monologue, manipulating your own voice, a frame rate without movement, doing it ‘PowerPoint style’ – seems to radically confront the opposition of the soft and the hard, the moving and the immovable in terms of digital moving image production. Could you comment on this in relation to the visual and auditory form of Indefinite Pitch?

JW: This connects to the documentary quality of the movie. When the narrator says, “I want to tell the truth this time”, it’s no joke. This is the most factual documentary I have ever made. There is truly an attempt to account for facts, as far as my unprofessional self could handle an aggregation of so-called facts found on the Internet. In order to do so, I needed a new form. I didn’t want to be distracted. Freezing things literally gave me breathing room to consider and reconsider again, including my own relationship to the material. It is an interrupted flow. Hitting “pause” gives time to go back and think, but of course, it spoils illusion. And then there’s always flows you can’t stop: insistent voices, hidden frame rates, hemorrhaging of money, life itself. How to deal with this? I think a lot about Harun Farocki’s statement from Between Two Wars:
“When one doesn’t have money for cars, shooting, nice clothes; when one doesn’t have money to make images in which film time and film life flow uninterruptedly, then one has to put one’s effort into intelligently putting together separate elements: a montage of ideas.”

PK: Now in terms of reception, what do you think of radically changing the temporal flow Indefinite Pitch has been embedded in up to this point: From being shown in a cinematic landscape to being exposed to the laptop screen?

JW: I think the site of Indefinite Pitch is as much the Internet as any geographic space. It’s the wellspring, so to speak. In fact, very little information outside of personal anecdotes couldn’t be reconstructed from available sources on the Internet. This is similar to some of my past work.
But a newer idea I’ve been playing with that connects to upcoming work is the idea of a movie being scalable, which I mentioned earlier. Physically unburdened, like a vector graphic or a Platonic form. Perhaps never actually existing in a substantial way. The way movies are watched these days certainly emphasizes this. From the confusion of terms (film for what is not film; TV for what is not TV) to a basic lack of control over technical parameters once a movie is released. Watching movies these days is a proposition (if you are watching it in a theater; if you are watching this in HD), logically, and almost sexually: like, a pact between maker and viewer that things could be different. The relationship could change. Like, what do you want out of this? Juicy 24? Or good old reliable 23.98? Shall we put on the 3D shades, or pretend it’s like film? I’m increasingly OK with this. There’s something kind of perverse and stimulating about it.