In the film world, the concept of time – and the deconstruction of it – is an artistic opportunity. While in reality, we view it as something inevitable, uncontrollable even, in motion pictures it is something to manipulate. Slow it down, speed it up, maybe even force it to stand still.
Steve Cossman approaches his work with this philosophy in mind. It led him to one of his most notable projects, Mono No Aware, a film festival dedicated strictly to film works that bring a sixth-sense element: expanded cinema. This is the art of bringing a unique experiential aspect to the viewer as they watch things unfold before them. Working Class took time to catch up with Cossman days before he flew to Europe for a film screening.
WC: Can you explain how you approach your work?
SC: All of my films have a unique approach, in a series or individually. Most of my work tends to deconstruct a sequence in time and then rearrange the elements of that to create a new experience from the same material or the same fragments of time.
WC: What made you interested in doing this type of film in the first place?
SC: I think my fascination with time-based work has grown out of a long interest in animation. It started when I was a kid and then slowly grew into studying animation in school and having a profound effect on my work. I studied sculpture and painting in undergrad, and then after a couple of years I decided to go back to school for animation. At that point, I moved to the Czech Republic. I studied stop motion animation and was introduced to avante garde cinema. That’s when time started falling apart.
WC: How long were you in the Czech Republic?
SC: I was there almost two years, I did a program at the school FAMU and then I was fortunate enough to meet Jan Švankmajer and his wife, Eva, at their 40-year retrospective. It was at that party where I met people from [Czech Republic] who were animators. I got a job at a local animation studio, and that secured me through the summer and kept me busy.
WC: How did Mono No Aware start?
SC: I came back from the Czech Republic and moved to New York. I took a job with a sculptor, so I had weekends free to do my own work. While I was learning more and more about the film world – since my background was in sculpture – I started reading more about expanded cinema and the idea intrigued me so much that I thought, ‘How can I learn more about this? How can I get involved with people who are making work in this way? I’ll facilitate an exhibition of expanded cinema performances!’
I set up Mono No Aware similar to a film festival where there are entries and that sort of thing, and took submissions and then curated the program from those submissions. We had a ton of amazing work come in. I put together the evening, and to my surprise a lot of people showed up. So it got me interested in doing it again. And now, in 2016, we’re in our tenth year.
WC: How did you get people to submit work to you?
SC: It was really a grassroots effort. I basically did web searches for all the universities in the U.S. and other countries that had active film programs. I took from a list of art schools, art galleries, art centers, anybody’s address that I could get who had an association or had a reputation of this kind of work. I hand-typed the letters and sent them calls for entries via the mail. I think that personalized letter really got people’s attention. Even the first year we had submissions from other countries and we had someone fly out from California to perform. It was surprisingly effective.
WC: The term Mono No Aware, is about things that are fleeting. I was just thinking of this concept recently – before I knew what this term meant – and I’m wondering how do you feel connected to your work in that way?
SC: I first realized that I wanted to do more film-based work when I was living in Philadelphia. I made a short animation film and I invited everyone, all my friends, over to the apartment and I cleared out my bedroom, put up a screen and projected the work with some sound in the background.
Everyone was packed into that room together, everyone is cheering and laughing and we’re all sharing this experience together and it was just very touching to me and I realized this is the kind of experience I want to create with my own work.
In the past I’d made sculptures and prints and I hung them in the gallery and it just felt a little bit stale compared to this other experience.
WC: What were some of the criteria that you look for when you’re putting this event together?
SC: We only accept work that’s on film – it has to be 35, 16 or Super 8 film – it can also be projected light, but we look for work that is one part film, one part projected image and a second part which is a live performance aspect – playing into the idea of expanded cinema to activate the space where audience becomes participant.
It was at the first Mono No Aware event in 2007 when this one filmmaker, Austin B. Willis, a grad student at Hunter, created this piece by using a Bolex. He captured a single frame by opening the shudder and throwing a firecracker in front of the camera and the firecracker would run it’s course, and essentially draw a white sparkling line on every frame of the film so he would just advance the film and throw another firecracker. There was white lasso drawn onto every frame and when projected it was thrashing around the screen and to expand this experience [Willis] handed out a case of Pop Rocks candy to the audience.
So there were 100 people and when the film began everybody put pop rocks in their mouth and here you have this tactile experience of something exploding in your mouth, there’s the visual element and then also, there’s this choir of 100 gawking mouths. The people gaining from this experience have to actually be there.
Click here to get more information on Mono No Aware.