a q&a with seth watter and beth capper, co-organizers of the magic lantern cinema
For readers who don’t know about Magic Lantern Cinema, could you give a brief overview?
SW: Magic Lantern began as an idea in the mind of Ben Russell, who has gone on to become an internationally exhibited filmmaker. Together with Carrie Collier, a screenprinter and filmmaker, he launched Magic Lantern as a screening series in 2004. At first there wasn’t any money to pay anyone for anything. AS220 initially provided a free space for screenings; after that Magic Lantern moved to the Cable Car, also free, because Russell worked there at the time. Projection equipment was likely borrowed from the Department of Modern Culture and Media at Brown, and the artists who showed in the series allowed their work to be screened at no cost after shipping. Collier designed and printed beautiful posters for each show, which allowed the organizers to offer these to participating filmmakers as mementos in place of real financial reward. (We still commission poster designs from local artists for most of our shows.) At some point Russell secured funding from the Rhode Island State Council on the Arts and from MCM’s Forbes Fund, which enabled—and still enables—Magic Lantern to operate on a much higher level of professionalization.
BC: Magic Lantern is dedicated broadly to experimental and underground media. I would say we have a very broad view of what experimental means; we are as committed to avant-garde filmmaking as we are to, say, political documentary. We’ve had people involved who are really interested in new media art, for example, so we’ve had a component of our program be very new- and digital media–centric. But we’ve also had people who have a particular dedication to a 60s-70s moment of avant-garde filmmaking. So, how the programming is constituted just depends on who is involved.
How is Magic Lantern connected to Brown?
SW: For most of our existence, we’ve been lucky to have the continued support of the Forbes Center, the financial organ of the Department of MCM. We’re not incorporated as a Brown student organization, which would put more constraints on the way we use our finances—in particular, I don’t think we would be able to pay Brown students for their curatorial or administrative labor. It’s always been very important to us to be able to remunerate these things that are so often done for free. We also receive some support from the Creative Arts Council at Brown, and we are just coming to the end of a grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, which generously awarded us $10,000 a year in operational costs for three years.
How did you get involved in the series? What is your current role?
BC: I started my PhD here in 2012 and I got involved immediately, partly because I’ve done a lot of film programming before. Within the Master’s program that I came from, at the [School of the] Art Institute of Chicago, I was part of a group that rejuvenated the experimental film series within the school, called the “Eye and the Ear Clinic,” and found funding for it. I ran that for almost the entire time I was there. So when I came here, I knew I was interested in film and media programming. The first Magic Lantern program that I did here was actually in conjunction with a conference that people within the MCM department organized, called “Terror and the Inhuman.” I did a screening that was related to ideas around broadly these terms, “terror” and “the inhuman,” which are actually less about horror and more about ideas of war, structural violence, and those kinds of questions. I’m currently the treasurer and also a co-organizer (along with Seth Watter and Faith Holland).
SW: I studied film as an undergraduate at SUNY Binghamton in New York (2005-2009).
In 2008 I spent a summer as an intern at Light Industry, a screening space in Brooklyn that was brand new at the time. Their programming back then was really wild, involving a lot of guest curators.
I didn’t have the opportunity to program anything at Light Industry, so when I came to Brown in 2011 and learned there was an experimental film series called Magic Lantern, I immediately sought out its organizers, and started helping out in small ways by hanging posters, setting up for events, etc. My first program for them was called “Interiors” (Fall 2012) and I became involved in a more administrative capacity shortly thereafter; by Spring 2013, I was doing or overseeing about half of the programming. I usually call myself a co-organizer of the series.
Why do you think it’s important that a space like Magic Lantern exists?
BC: I think it is important to encourage people to spend the time to watch film and video that is difficult and that approaches complicated themes. Experimental media helps push other forms of media into more interesting places, and I think it’s important to have spaces where it’s not just easy, necessarily, to watch and consume something. So much of what we see in movie theaters just washes over you, and I think watching something with a more complex political and visual language is really vital to keeping us thinking in different ways.
SW: I do think there is something special about the social nature of moviegoing that is jeopardized by all our innovations in home viewing over the past 30 years. I think if you spend any amount of time with experimental cinema, you come to realize that the traditional space of projection is itself a unique component of the medium of cinema, and that artists will exploit this space for the intense concentration and emotional impact it affords. The darkness of the room and the large scale of the image are not incidental. It’s a cliché to say that people go to the movies to escape from reality, but actually, I think a lot of people go because movie theatres are among the last spaces in modern life where you are expressly discouraged from being distracted, multitasking, and chattering inanely, which is how we all normally spend our time. And you are still there among other people who share this experience with you, people you can have discourse with before and after and, if it is a program of shorts, in the regular gaps built into the event of projection. If we can offer viewers an experience that is particularly provocative or challenging, something that they could not have had at home, that’s enough for me to feel that we’ve contributed in our own small way to the culture.
Some of your past screenings, such as “Black Celebration” and “Domestic Unrest” have had a somewhat political bent. How central is political art and cinema to your programming?
BC: It’s not all of what we do, but it’s an important element of what we do. We’re definitely interested in thinking about the intersections between politics and aesthetics in our programming. But we’re also very interested in certain kinds of very formal and structuralist filmmaking. Not to say that those forms of filmmaking are not approaching political questions, but they do so differently.
SW: “Black Celebration” was obviously meant to be timely, drawing connections between the black liberation movements of half a century ago and the climate of today. I was reading in Artforum last summer about the recently rediscovered work of Edward Owens, a young, gay, black filmmaker who was active for a brief time in the New York avant-garde of the 1960s. I remember feeling a sense of excitement because people of color have never been in the mainstream of what we call experimental or avant-garde cinema. So I had a desire to push my own curatorial practice into new territory, which also meant expanding somewhat the definition of “experimental” that Magic Lantern has generally adhered to. I asked Beth if she wanted to work on the program together, and we came up with the idea of focusing on moments of black insurgency. We ultimately veered more toward documentary film, an arena in which black filmmakers were especially important and active in the 1960s. I’m really happy to have done that show.
What are some of your favourite Magic Lantern programs from recent years?
BC: There’s a piece that I actually hadn’t seen before I screened it—I was taking a chance with it—but it was a really amazing find. It’s a piece called “Killing Time” by Fronza Woods, and it’s about this woman who is trying to decide on the right outfit to commit suicide in. It’s a dark comedy, and it’s really, really smart.
We showed a piece called “Black Celebration” as part of our eponymous screening. It’s by Tony Cokes, who is actually a professor in MCM. The video is from the late 80s, and it’s a really, really incredible reflection on black protest as a form of refusal, in some ways. It includes scenes from the Watts riots set to a kind of heavy metal score—a really interesting juxtaposition. It was very exciting to see a piece by Tony, and remember what an interesting maker he is, and how lucky we are to have him in the department.
SW: I’ve really enjoyed Faith Holland’s four programs—“From the Cloud” (2013), “Technolust” (2014), “Click Click Click” (2014), and “The Music Video Show” (2015). Faith is an artist who is very involved in the new media art scene, and the shows she curates tend to be hyper-contemporary, very in tune with the present both politically and aesthetically. I tend to focus more on the classic, American tradition of avant-garde cinema, while Beth is very invested in the history of feminist film/video and in the intersection of feminism with other forms of identity. When the three of us were curating, I think these emphases all complemented each other nicely.
What Magic Lantern events can our readers look forward to in the next few months?
SW: Cassandra Guan, a graduate student in MCM, has put together a two-part event (April 6 and& 7) with the legendary dancer, choreographer, and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer. She’s showing two of her feature films, “The Man Who Envied Women” (1985) and “Privilege” (1990). I guess they would both fall under the category of “new narrative,” a genre of filmmaking that combined a more traditional narrative structure with formal or stylistic experimentation, and which emerged in the 1970s along with the widespread dissemination of critical theory and feminism. From what I’ve read, the two films are very dense conceptually, but quite humorous, too. On the first night, Rainer is also giving a lecture on the contemporary artist’s position in society; each event includes a moderated Q&A with her afterward.
BC: On April 28th, we have a screening on ecology and perception curated by MCM Ph.D. student Thomas Pringle. The screening is a collaboration with the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, and takes as its object those perceptual environments closed to the human but open to the camera and otherwise.