Temporary Utopias: An Interview with Ben Balcom 

“Temporary Utopias: An Interview with Ben Balcom.” Millennium Film Journal 79 (April 2024): 76-83.

At the end of summer 2023, Ben Balcom was invited to Montréal, Québec by Visions, a regular screening series, in order to present “In Praise of Lost Futures,” a collection of “filmic speculations that trace utopian longing in the dust of the ordinary,” in Balsom’s words. When I was in Milwaukee in 2016 to present work at Microlights Cinema (founded by Balcom and Josh Weissbach in 2013), I had only seen a handful of Balcom’s works, mainly well crafted, formal 16mm films that experimented with artifice, as well as his most recent film at the time, Our Own Private Universe (2016), which appeared to a new direction in his work. 

Balcom’s films have since matured beyond 16mm abstractions to explore conceptions of utopia in relation to literature, landscape, and place. With this as an underlying concern, Balcom has made regional histories, essay films, and experiments with genre. His most recent works deal explicitly with experimental pedagogy and the spaces that facilitate these approaches. Balcom is also a respected member of the Milwaukee film community, a co-founder / co-programmer at Microlights Cinema, and an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

This interview began as a casual conversation that migrated to email. It has been collaboratively edited into its present form.

CE: “In Praise of Lost Futures” began with one of your last purely formal experiments, an in-camera 16mm film experiment titled ceol (ruinsong) (2004). Do you see the film as engaging with the language of the landscape through song? Can you talk about your decision to cut up the soundtrack? 

BB: I feel so distant from that film and that way of working these days. It was filmed in Scotland, up on the Isle of Skye, at the ruins of Duntulm Castle. I devised a strategy to create an in-camera, single-frame experiment. I filmed one frame at a time and rotated the camera in my hands around a simple 4-point axis, creating a kind of flickering pinwheel effect. 

Albeit cliché, ruins do serve as readymade symbols for memory and modernity. As I was filming, I had no idea what the soundtrack would be. Eventually I found an old radio documentary on the ancient music of Scotland. It purported to cover 6,000 years of musical sound, beginning with birdsong, and moving to the first known Gaelic song. The title of the film comes from the Gaelic word for music – ceol – which alludes to sounds that birds make. Chopping up the sound clip allowed me to extend its length, mask its poor quality and, additionally, mimic the frame-by-frame structure of the images. The song is also a process of mimesis: birdsong to human song, music emulating the sound of nature. At that time, I believed the mimetic faculty of art was the basis of all filmmaking. 

CE: In A Symptom (2014) you speak into a mirrored orb reflecting a Cartesian grid.  The audience can see you speaking but cannot hear your voice. At the same time there are mirrored subtitles over a black image, telling us that you have something important to say to the audience – something full of meaning and intent. Is this a self-deprecating parody of an artist’s statement or an apology to the audience? 

BB: That film can essentially be boiled down to a statement on the impossibility of communicating through any given artistic medium. Like all speech, it’s meaningless, and yet we do it anyway. At the time I believed that we represent the world through words even though this formal disunity exists (the dissonance between sign and signifier). It’s a self-referential parody of filmmaking, an apology to the audience and an invitation into a prismatic dance. 

The monologue delivered to the mirror was unscripted. The initial confusion, or joke, is that the on-screen text reading “this is me speaking” could relate to the strange sound we hear, but it is literally the filmmaker speaking. This actual sound is the sound of the grid (contact printed onto the optical track). 

The film functions as a symptom of structuralism: a single object or event that suggests an underlying structure. The artist addresses an audience, but the address is essentially impossible. At the time I made the film, I was reading Lacan and thinking through this idea that the symptom is something deeply knotted in the unconscious, a form of speech that has no addressee.

CE: While perfect communication is a practical impossibility, many of your later films explore another ideal, the perfect society. In your films you reference various utopian texts, for instance, Garden City Beautiful (2019) uses a text by Victor Berger which presents a futuristic Milwaukee, and News from Nowhere (2020) features the poetry of Bernadette Mayer which imagines a perfect summer day. What is your vision of utopia?

BB: The most useful way to think about utopia is in terms of scale, practice, and orientation. I think utopianism is simply an orientation towards the future, an orientation that we need to insist on if there is to be any imaginable future. Utopia is the horizon and, as such, is both always present and always receding. Recently, I’ve been thinking about utopia as a series of nested phenomena, a thing that exists on multiple scales. There is the very smallest version of the thing and we can scale up from that but it gets harder and harder to envision or to stretch the imagination as we proceed and it can’t happen until the present reality shatters. 

Utopia is a concept that seems to invoke consternation, perhaps because the connotation is always on the level of the state, the city, the polis. To repeat the worn-out definition, the term means no-place. Can a poem be a utopia? Could a dance, a trance, or a sexual encounter constitute a temporary utopia? At one point, I believed that a screening was a form of utopia, but that feels less true these days.

CE: Film exhibition as an extension of John Lennon’s bed-ins. Unfortunately, one can’t even say that no-one has ever been killed at a movie theatre.

BB: Thanks to certain experienced political fabulists, I feel I’m capable of imagining a utopian dream of a world without modern nation states, with humans organized into a series of interlinked cooperatives where certain trades become the most immediate form of “governing” bodies, in which everyone participates directly in the making of shared governance. Just imagine if artists in the United States got organized, it would be possible to demand equitable screening and exhibition fees. Not to mention more pressing issues, like holding art institutions accountable for divesting from the military industrial complex. 

CE: In Canada, we have the Canada Council for the Arts and recommended rates related to the exhibition of moving image works set by the Independent Media Arts Alliance (IMAA), a non-profit national organization that advocates for moving image artists in Canada. More importantly, we have publicly funded health care, but even with this it is tough to view Canada as a utopia. Do you see your recent works exploring different forms of utopia as a response to contemporary political unrest and anxieties?

BB: They’re personal responses made during a deeply anxious present. They stem from my own evolving sense of what art should be and do in the world. But I have no illusions about my films stirring anyone towards direct action, nor do I think that’s what they need to do. 

Recently, I was presenting Growing Up Absurd (made with Julie Niemi, 2023) at the Mimesis Documentary Festival. I could only attend virtually. Someone asked about the relationship between documentary and protest. I have always been suspicious of the term documentary, instead favouring a form of poetic cinema that uses a lyrical form to engender the most urgent needs facing us at present. I hope one person will find their way to these films, find unexpected pleasures in the form, and walk away with a simple prospect for change rattling around in their mind. Structure a feeling by feeling a structure, you know? (Nod to artist and conceptualist Jesse Malmed.)

CE: Can you talk about the text you used in Speculations (2016)Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (1975)? What drew you to this text?

BB: I made Speculations after Notes from the Interior (2015) as experiments in genre. “Experimental” and “narrative” are obviously silly distinctions to begin with, but I wanted to use an experimental approach to open-up genres. Notes From the Interior was based in melodrama, Speculation was based in science fiction. 

Notes was made after ravenously consuming Douglas Sirk films during a particularly lonely Midwest winter. After making the film, I felt melodrama was a dead-end. So, I turned to Sci-Fi. I also wanted to make a film about Milwaukee and Dhalgren is set in the midwest. Ironically, Delany is not a midwestern author by any means. All his city spaces are quintessentially New York and all of his work is informed by the erotic space of his cruising routine. So, the conceit that this novel is “set” in the Midwest is odd; but it’s a magnificent and monumental text on the abstraction of “the city.” 

CE: One of the lines that stood out to me was: “and you know it, know your own death, for a whole second, three seconds, maybe five or ten … before the thought goes and you only remember the words you were mumbling, like ‘Someday I will die,’ which isn’t the thought at all, just its ashes.” While listening to this text, I remember thinking, “if words are the ashes of thoughts, what are images?”

BB: Maybe images are the fossils of thought. Physical traces that manage to both contain and be evacuated of their material origins. 

CE: Notes from the Interior isn’t your only melodrama, there is also Our Own Private Universe – a film that looks as though it was shot in technicolour. As in Garden City Beautiful the film plays out in a car, but the ideas presented are self-reflexive and point to the limitations of a certain type of cinematic language. Garden City Beautiful seems to ask: how do we move beyond the facade, how do we address issues beyond the screen? It also seems to be the point in your work where you moved beyond introspective formal experimentations and into questions about our relationships and responsibility to the world around us.

BB: Unfortunately, I’m not sure if there is any moving beyond the facade. I’ve moved beyond a mimetic view of cinema and now feel cinema is all artifice, all the time. I think Our Own Private Universe points toward a kind of double bind: we try to speak earnestly in a language we’ve inherited that is riddled with tropes and cliches. What attracts me to Sirkian melodrama is the idea of the impasse…the form offers no escape, there’s a happy ending, just a tacked-on empty promise. A series of false knots and false tying of knots. We don’t need any “resolution” because there’s no catharsis in it. 

The film felt like a total risk, embracing melodrama forms as an experimental filmmaker…it has also proved to be one of my least successful films! Stripped down, it operates exactly like my other films. It’s a structural experiment: take one scene, one scenario, and repeat it until the meaning empties out, hopefully, allowing it to be refilled with new meanings.    

CE: You are very active within the Milwaukee film community. How do you see your work fitting into the Milwaukee scene? Can you talk about what you see as some of the tropes and strategies that are utilized within the experimental film scene? 

BB: I think my most significant contribution to the community is as a programmer and educator. It’s funny how infrequently my actual work screens here – probably part of being a local anywhere. There is a rich history of artist-run spaces in Milwaukee. For instance, Stephanie Barber ran a microcinema here called The Bamboo Theater, where she staged happenings and hosted filmmakers from around the world. Josh Weissbach and I started Microlights Cinema back in 2013. He had been programming a screening series with two of his colleagues (Tony Balko and Michael Walsh) and wanted it to continue. We initially had some support from the University, but it has managed to sustain itself by some practical magic.  

After living in Milwaukee for about five years, I wanted to make a film “about” Milwaukee, which led me to Speculations, Garden City Beautiful, and News From Nowhere. Speculations is a kind of ambient portrait of place and precarity, and Garden City Beautiful is an homage to the legacy of Wisconsin’s socialist history. In recent years, the state has swung so far to the right that I wanted to make something that reminded us of the progressive ideals that define the state. It once screened at the Milwaukee Film Festival, and I remember people leaving once I said the word “socialism.”  

CE: Can you talk about the money shot in Garden City Beautiful, the couple asleep at the wheel of a moving car?  How did you get that shot?

BB: It wasn’t too difficult. I rented a U-Haul trailer and towed it behind my friend’s old Chevy Tahoe. My friends Alyx & Rudy were brave enough to get into Alyx’s car while it was being driven down I-43 on a trailer. No permits required. I built a little DIY camera mount from a two-by-four, heavy duty suction cups and a tripod head. It’s a miracle that the ARRI SR camera I was using didn’t fly into traffic, a testimonial to those suction cups. Had the shoot gone wrong, it would’ve been a catastrophe. 

CE: Not a difficult shoot at all. Your more recent films like Looking Backward (2022) and Growing Up Absurd, deal with pedagogical spaces that embrace experimental methodologies.  For instance, Looking Backward deals with Black Mountain College and Growing Up deals with a history of Tolstoy College with testimonials from former faculty and founders. Where do you think cinema lies within experimental pedagogical approaches? Where do you think your films fit into the equation?

BB: Well, given how many experimental film artists sustain themselves with careers in academia, the connection between experimental film and teaching seems quite intimate. I also believe, perhaps naively, that experimental film still has an essentially pedagogical function in the contemporary attention economy. Experimental films invite a different kind of attention and engagement. 

I still feel that experimental film carves out a space for fostering new forms of open mindedness. Cinema has a hierarchical form of address (film points at audience, audience receives or rejects film) and could be construed as classically pedagogical. A film mirrors the professor standing before students. Hypothetically, each experimental film requires the audience to ask: “How am I supposed to read this?” The experimental film, in its attempt to deconstruct the grammar of cinema, asks to be learned in real time. Beyond that, there’s a network of institutions that constitutes a history of this discipline. Of course, there now are a whole slew of books on this institutionalization of experimental cinema.

CE: Can you talk about the statue in Silent Witness, a film originally made for the Winnipeg Underground Film Festival (WUFF)? What drew you to it?  

BB: I’m beyond grateful to my friend Natasha Woods, filmmaker and Milwaukee park export, who first introduced me to Jackson Park in Milwaukee. The statue is The Pewter Lady by Gustav Haug. Originally, the sculpture decorated Milwaukee’s chamber of commerce. The inscription on the statue reads: “May this statue ever be a silent witness to the progress and growth of Milwaukee.” It’s a beautiful sculpture in a beautiful park. Natasha and I share our amusement about the fact that it is a statue of a non-existent figure, a monument to everybody and nobody. It’s a monument to a promise, capturing the spirit of 19th century Milwaukee when sewer socialists (a group of American socialist based in the city from 1892 to 1960) governed the city in a public space – a space for everyone. Now, the statue stands as a monument to a future foreclosed. 

Honestly, I don’t know where I’d be without WUFF. They have always been really supportive of my work.

CE: Winnipeg filmmaker Aaron Zeghers has acknowledged A Symptom as a source of inspiration for a scene in his upcoming film tentatively titled Possible Worlds. Granted there is a long tradition of grids in cinema, one could even make an argument for the role of the grid in cinema’s proto-history through Muybridge. It seems Robert Beavers was one of the influences on Looking Backward. Can you talk about his influence beyond simply borrowing his turret technique?

BB: The grid in A Symptom is one hundred percent Muybridge-inspired. Beavers was and remains a huge influence. The turret moves in Looking Backward were intended to extend what was happening with the zooms in Garden City Beautiful and the pan/soft focus in News from Nowhere: a central visual metaphor reflecting some utopian notion. I went into Looking Backward knowing the film needed some central mechanism, a thing I could do with the camera that would determine the vocabulary for the film. Having experimented with the turret for years, it’s a technique that’s never made it into a film of mine. It was an opportunity to pay homage to a technique that I learned from seeing Robert Beavers’ films at Yale back when I was an undergraduate student. 

At the time, I drove to Yale from Hampshire college with Josh Weissbach and our mentor, Abraham Ravett. I was equal parts challenged and enamoured. Few screenings have left such an intense impression on me. He inspired in me a sense of the poetics of cinema. It is clear Robert’s practice is deeply indebted to the world of poets. I still believe that we, experimental filmmakers, are more aligned with poets than any other artists.

CE: Can you talk about verbal performance by Charles Olson in Looking Backward. It is totally unhinged and impossible to decipher. What is the original context of this recording?  Did you edit it?

BB: The original recording is from a 1968 lecture Olson gave at Beloit College in Wisconsin, titled “Poetry and Truth.” He died two years later. The recording is edited, mostly to compress a meandering lecture and to construct a narrative logic in that material. What he was actually up to is open for debate. He was unimpeachably brilliant, ragtag, and dependent on booze and amphetamines. A more infamous example would be his lecture at Berkeley in 1965 where people seem to be divided on whether he was just a rambling drunk or if he was in fact engaged in a form of performance art, embodying in real time the synthesis of speech and mythopoetics that he sought to synthesize across his career. Whether staged or performed, it is a harrowing portrait of the failures of speech and being. He sounds ragged, incomprehensible, but his speech is so beautiful. He sounds like a modernist father figure, fumbling through a half-memory of immaculate knowledge. I wanted to preserve this quality while giving it some shape, in hopes that his puzzling, incomprehensible speech would help give shape to the actual space of Black Mountain, while simultaneously pulling the rug out from under this poetic legacy that I adore.

CE: What are you working on now?

BB: I’m in the early stages of a project about Ceresco (a.k.a. The Wisconsin Phalanx). Ceresco existed in the mid-eighteenth century in the town of Ripon, WI and was a short-lived agrarian commune founded on the ideas of Charles Fourier. It is also the same town where the Republican party was founded. I’ve been looking through the archives at the Ripon Historical Society and reading some letters from the members of the commune. I’ll be drawing on the archives and Fourier, whose writing is complicated to say the least. He had some great ideas about the dissolution of capitalism and the virtues of communal living, some genuinely weird about the evolution of new species, and the emergence of roving armies of amorous lovers, alongside some genuinely bad beliefs. My hope is that the film will be a kind of epistolary thing, a letter from the members of Ceresco. The last film I made was almost a conventional documentary, but for this I want to return to a deeper form of lyricism, to let abstraction seep its way back in. A film from just beyond the utopian horizon.