The Unfamiliar Messenger: An Interview with Clint Enns

Stephen Broomer, “The Unfamiliar Messenger: An Interview with Clint Enns,” The Seventh Art (October 10, 2014).

Clint Enns – Photograph by Stephen Broomer.

Clint Enns is a film and video artist, community advocate, and curator, presently based in Toronto, Ontario. Shortly after completing his undergraduate studies in Math and Philosophy at Simon Fraser University (Vancouver), Enns began to take film and video workshops in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His first completed pieces, on record, come in that year, in 2006, and since then his work has screened internationally, at film festivals, galleries, and community cinemas. While in Winnipeg, Enns distinguished himself as an instrumental member of the Winnipeg film community, involved with Cineflyer, the Winnipeg Cinematheque, PLATFORM Gallery, and Video Pool. Since moving to Toronto in 2011, he has taken up doctoral studies in Cinema and Media at York University, and has continued his social engagement as an active voice in the city’s media arts community, a critical agent with vanguard sensibilities, contesting the status quo and curatorial practices within the Toronto film scene.

As much as he is a critic of the curatorial practices surrounding avant-garde film, Enns has also offered an alternative, with his own curatorial projects, from his incisive historical program on the evolution of computer animation, Codes in Motion, his programming of film-related events at the Videofag gallery in Kensington Market, and for the Vector Game + Art Convergence festival, to screenings for the nearby Fabulous Festival of Fringe Film (Durham, Ontario) and Land/Slide happening (Markham, Ontario). Leading by example, Clint Enns has cultivated an inclusive sensibility as a programmer, this activity coming to a head with his co-founding, with his partner Leslie Supnet, of the Regional Support Network, an exhibition platform that invites work from outside of Toronto, with a regional focus. Since launching in March of 2014 with a screening of films by Baltimore-based artists, presented in conjunction with Baltimore’s Sight Unseen collective, Regional Support Network has hosted screenings of work from Portland and Saskatchewan. In his advocacy for regional support, Enns has also served as an ambassador for the Toronto experimental film and video community, bringing programs of recent Toronto works to international engagements.

Through the course of less than a decade, Enns has developed a formidable body of work as an artist. That work has served as an insistent critique of vision, assembled with obsolete tools that he uses to abstract, echo, and remix images, some of which are taken from his own cameras, others from video games and ephemeral films and videos. Enns’ work bears debts to the historical vanguards of film and video, in particular structuralism, but it is not the work of an ideologue, and Enns has not aligned himself in the narrow particularities of any one tradition. Rather, his work engages in perceptual crisis, subject ambiguity, esotericism, image fidelity, and, as in his curatorial work, the relation between maker, audience, and authority. As his work has matured into its present state, it has assumed de-contextualization as one of its central gestures, the works dealing with images that are familiar by the logic of conventional forms, and then obscuring those bonds that make it legible. In Enns’ work, the unfamiliar is simultaneously a source of humour and a predatory force, lurking within the everyday, to challenge the complacent rhetoric of ordinary vision. This work has been the subject of solo retrospectives in Winnipeg, Brooklyn, Austin, and Ottawa.

Stephen Broomer: You’ve managed to build a substantial body of work in the past eight years. From circuit bent videos to hand-processed films, this work maintains an aesthetic and thematic consistency. There is an overarching material self-consciousness: the work is often rough-hewn out of photochemical and digital technologies, revealing common ground between disparate media. One need only examine the material descriptions in your filmography to see the vast range of technologies in play, from toy cameras, to MS paint, to compression errors, to ASCII animation. How did you come to start making this work?

Clint Enns: I began making films while completing a Master’s degree in mathematics at the University of Manitoba, in essence, following a lineage of experimental filmmakers with formal educations in mathematics, for instance, James Benning, Alexander Keewatin Dewdney, Tony Conrad and David Rimmer. My first film was made for a One Take Super 8 Event in 2006, however, before that I was an avid cinephile with an interest in experimental cinema. In all honesty, my partner Leslie Supnet convinced me to make my first film and without her I am convinced I wouldn’t have been able to.

SB: How did you first encounter experimental film?

CE: My first encounter with experimental cinema occurred when I was 16 and I accidentally saw Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge d’Or (1930) at the Pacific Cinematheque in Vancouver. I went to see it again the next day simply because I was still totally baffled by it and was still laughing about certain scenes, scenes that still make me laugh. Later, I discovered the sacred Blinding Light Cinema and was introduced to works by filmmakers like Stan Brakhage, Arthur Lipsett, Ellie Epp, Guy Debord (whose Society of the Spectacle [1973] was continually played due to popular demand), Sadie Benning, Jeff Krulik, Craig Baldwin and George Kuchar. It was probably during this period that I developed an affinity for lofi, low budget, DIY personal visions. The other thing I liked about the Blinding Light programming was its diversity, that is, the programming demonstrated that contemporary experimental cinema was a broad cross-section of work that posed a challenge to conventional notions of cinema.

SB: Where would you see the correlation between your studies in mathematics and your work in video and film? I think of this in part because so much of your work deals in the fractured codes of a dissected digital vision, of symbols and change, which would lead me to presume that there may be some resonance with algebra and calculus.

CE: Of course there are some resilient residues of mathematics in work, both practically and philosophically. Most recently, A Knight’s Walk (2014) is a spatial study that is intended to raise questions about the topological nature of the space in which we inhabit. The film begins with an animation of a knight traversing a chessboard, following one of the many algorithms for generating knight’s walks. This section is followed by a bored radical traversing a Winnipeg supermarket by chance (played by Chance Taylor). The last section is of a Klein Bottle. The film can be thought of moving from 2D to 3D to 4D. Of course, the Klein Bottle is rendered in 3D and reduced to the 2D screen. One of the speculative events referred to in the title of the film occurs when Cameron Frye (played by Alan Ruck) from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) breaks down into pixels while contemplating Seurat’s painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.

SB: A Knight’s Walk combines in series several different aesthetic approaches and processes – you have the two distinct acts of animation, the chess piece and the Klein bottle, both of which are essentially about orientation, as in direction, fortification and strategy, and which bridge the rest; and then the photographed sequences, of Chance in the supermarket, and the plundered and consequently altered footage from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. One of the things that struck me about this work is that you don’t really give us inbuilt instructions to explain this assembly, and that the effect and experience of the piece lies in what we infer from it. I think that the richness of the work results, in part, from this disorientation, the feeling of being lost in conjecture. But even then, there are these relatively easy, funny moments – the parallel between the pointillist painting and the pixels, which also comments on the rhetoric of the close-up in mainstream cinema, of ‘moving in’ on a subject as if penetrating their surface, where here, the surface is impenetrable. There’s also a sense, not to be reductive, but that, in terms of your varying processes, ‘these are our toolsets and this is how we use them’, in other words, that you bring several aesthetics and processes to bear on a piece because that’s another way to be fluid and it’s another correspondence between thought and expression, both which can take sudden turns. Do you feel that there is a correspondence between these strategies, of obscure concept and inconstant form?

CE: The piece is definitely intended to be disorientating, after all, as a topological space, the Klein bottle is one of the standard examples of a non-orientable surface. Moreover, the Klein bottle has no inside or outside, it is only one surface similar to the Möbius strip. Of course, using different media is an attempt to disorient the viewer, as is utilizing various medium specific glitches. On that note, the piece wasn’t intended to be obscure, it was an attempt to challenge the audience’s notions about space and the rules associated with that space. For instance, in the first section, the knight follows moves according to the rules associated with the space, namely, the chessboard. That is, it moves to a square that is two squares horizontally and one square vertically, or two squares vertically and one square horizontally. The knight completes its tour according to an algorithm that ensures that it will land on each square exactly once. In contrast, in the second section, the young radical violates many of the rules associated with the space, namely, the supermarket. In this section, the radical moves around the supermarket displacing various objects, challenging the way in which the space is normally used.

SB: You strongly identify with Winnipeg, Manitoba. I have to admit that on my recent visit there, I was really struck by the passion and liveliness of the city’s experimental film and video community. How is the spirit of Winnipeg reflected in your work?

CE: My work stems from a strong DIY ethos implicit in films from Winnipeg. The works made there are unique aesthetic visions, breaking from many of the established conventions present within the contemporary avant-garde. I embrace my own idiosyncratic tendencies towards strange humour and lo-fi experimentation. When I first moved to Toronto from Winnipeg in 2011, I felt homesick and often complained about missing the experimental film and video work that reminded me of home, namely works made in the spirit of fun formalism (this term was originally coined by Toronto filmmaker John Kneller to describe Mike Maryniuk’s films). In an attempt to comfort me, Toronto filmmaker and curator Chris Kennedy advised me to learn that “serious is fun.” Although there is some truth in Kennedy’s statement, I am still interested in experimental film and video work that is serious fun.

SB: I see the DIY ethos of Winnipeg, that would indeed seem its spirit, but I do find ‘fun formalism’ to be as vapid an expression as ‘serious is fun’. In my experience, formal art is plenty fun, even when assembled out of grief and suffering, fun in that the process seizes and moves you, and fun, in that sense, to make, fun to watch. At least, that was true in the ’60s and ’70s, in spite of all the theory that tries to sober structuralism up and sanitize it or worse, repackage it as something more theoretical than purely structural. Those who aren’t having fun making formal work probably should do something else, like make work without form, which, I guess, would not be work at all. And what could be more fun than a permanent vacation? I’d agree that your work is serious fun, and, like I’ve said, much of it is resistant to interpretation, blocked off and fortified and referential, which is always the work that I find to be the most fun to make and watch and talk about.

CE: Of course, I am not trying to reduce the complexity of the work by labeling it as fun formalism. There seems to be the misconception that once a work is fun, it becomes mindless entertainment. Under the moniker fun formalism, I am really referring to work that actively attempts to engage the audience. For instance, I would consider many of Snow’s films examples of fun formalism.

In contrast, there are many serious works being made without any depth and curators have a tendency to justify this work as rigorous. In other words, they seem to equate work that is mind-numbingly boring with rigour. This might seem radical, but I believe it is the filmmaker’s duty to engage the audience by providing complex visual arguments and challenging ideas.

SB: When I look at your work as a whole, I see a kind of impulsivity and restlessness. On the one hand you have these works that clearly come from reflections on media and an interest in creating perceptual distress, and entanglements of form and content. There is also a branch of your work that deals in documentation and community support, portraits of filmmakers, festival trailers, and regular experiments that come from daily engagement with this practice. I use the term impulsivity because yours is a living and unpredictable practice of near-constant activity. It reminds me of the Toronto artist John Porter, for his ability to balance and integrate his cine-dance films and projector performances with his vast body of community documentation. Your own recent artist portraits include John Porter’s T-Shirt Collection (2014); Walking with Phil (2013), a portrait of Philip Hoffman; and Walking with John (2013), a portrait of John Torres.

CE: I am a huge fan of John Porter, both in terms of his films and his community documentation. I started making these artist portraits in order to spend time with my favourite artists. It is not a coincidence that I started to make these portraits around the same time that photography became a serious part of my practice. Photography forced me to interact with the world around me and not simply with cultural detritus. Ironically, these scavenging practices have re-emerged with a vengeance in my photographic practice, that is, many of my recent photographs were found undeveloped in second-hand cameras. Sometimes I double expose these found latent images, but often I simply develop them and exhibit the ones that interest me. My recent engagement with photography has provided me with an opportunity to re-engage with the everyday, to reveal the beauty in the often overlooked.

SB: On a related subject, you and Leslie have recently started the Regional Support Network, a frequent screening series at Video Fag in Toronto, that brings work from other experimental film communities, presenting them in the context of their colleagues and origins. In many cases, this is work that curators in Toronto have neglected but which represents current efforts in the invited regions. At the same time, you have also been touring programs of Toronto films, including work that has been neglected locally, an inclusive curatorial stance.

CE: Regional Support Network was an attempt to see work from other scenes without a Toronto lens. The idea for RSN came out of a discussion with Eli Horwatt, after the Pleasure Dome screening of The Blazeing Familiar: Recent Film & Video from Chicago. The problem with the program, in my mind, was that all of the works were actually blazeing familiar. I was hoping for The Blazeing Unfamiliar and thought this could be achieved by allowing active artists to represent their own scenes through putting together survey shows. Leslie and I never watch the programs before hand, we simply organize the screening. We are also open to programming suggestions.

Since I have moved to Toronto, I have been developing some Toronto pride. It took me a long time to figure out the film scene and at times it still confounds me. With that being said, it is surprising how many amazing experimental filmmakers there are here and how difficult it is to have your work shown given that local work is always competing with international work The irony is that the work does stand-up to international work, however, there seems to be a bias against local work, that is, curators seem to have a difficult time recognizing local talent.

Curatorially, I am simply putting together survey shows of Toronto work that I think are engaging and represent the diverse cross-section of the techniques, styles and themes that are being explored by moving image artists in Toronto at this time.

SB: You work with found material across various media. I remember being with you, for instance, when you found a rotting 16mm reel of John Denver last summer, what became Hey There, Mr. Lonely Heart (2013). That and pieces like Self Improvement (2010), Connecting with Nature (2011), Discovering Inner Beauty (2011), and many others draw from, I don’t really want to say ‘the archive’, but the second-hand image, pilfered from the coffers of television. In the case of Hey There, Mr. Lonely Heart, you came across the material by chance, in a field on Phil Hoffman’s farm. What is your process for finding the material for these works? Does it all arrive by chance, or do you seek out certain kinds of materials? And, generally speaking, when you do find materials, do you more often than not hold onto them for a long time and consider what you might do with them, or is the process more immediate?

CE: I am always on the lookout for lost or abandoned footage, especially if that footage is culturally estranged. The amount of time spent with the footage depends on the footage itself. Hey There, Mr. Lonely Heart (2013), Pleasure Island (2011) and my photographic series Abandoned in Winnipeg (2013) are all perfect in Ken Jacob’s sense of the word. That is, to Jacobs, a perfect film is one that is “perfect left alone, perfectly revealing in its un- or semi-conscious form.” I feel there is nothing I could add to these images to make them better. In addition, I usually don’t add titles to these films, in contrast to Frampton adding his stamp to Works and Days (1969), since I feel I am simply releasing them from eternal obscurity. With that being said, I spent a long time with the source footage from Self Improvement (2010), Connecting with Nature (2011), and Discovering Inner Beauty (2011), figuring how to de-contextualize the original footage in order to speak to broader concerns such as spirituality, New Age commodification and alienation through technology. Through the manipulation of audio texts, these films become deliberately convoluted and esoteric. There is also a certain psychotic desperation to religious sermons when you remove all of the references to G-D.

SB: It’s true that without God in the explicit, those recordings become ambiguous, and bear a, you use the phrase ‘psychotic desperation’, I would say a railing passion or conviction, general to the apostles of any other subject. Deliberate convolution is common among works of yours from that period, and is, to my thinking, quite different from obscurantism, which is what I think is going on in recent work like A Knight’s Walk and The Everden (2013). Deliberate convolution just leads us into ambiguity, which is an openness to interpretation and to personal projection; by contrast, there is something closed off about the obscurantism of A Knight’s Walk and The Everden, esoteric but not to the end of ambiguity, but particular in its meaning.

CE: A Knight’s Walk and The Everden were attempts to provide new ways of visualizing and conceptualizing spaces people are familiar with. The familiar, by definition, is internalized. By making the familiar estranged, it is possible to re-evaluate it. Two of the main strategies I employ in my work to make the familiar estranged are obscurantism and decontextualization.

SB: In addition to your work in film and video, you’ve also done a lot of photography. You often buy, process, and scan old exposed film and repurpose the images, but you also use disposable cameras, past their expiry date, for daily documentation, and you’ve exhibited photographic projects in galleries. It’s an aspect of your practice that I find tremendously fascinating, in that you’re devoting this time to practice what many would see as a dated hobby, made from this material and process that mass culture regards as ‘antique’. You and I are contemporaries and we’ve both witnessed the decline of consumer photography. One is always aware that this technology is outdated. Tell me about your work with disposables, toy cameras, and so on. Do you do this out of a fondness for this material, its particular relation to qualities of light and to memory?

CE: The fact that these tools and technologies are presently becoming obsolete means that they are available to artists to use and experiment with. Purchasing 35mm film from second-hand stores and estate sales makes it affordable. My practice involves experimenting with the technologies available to me. If 16mm was more affordable, I might be making 16mm films or if I could afford a digital SLR, I might be using that. I am content working within these limitations, pushing the boundaries of these obsolete technologies and with using outdated modes of technologies to express myself artistically. With that being said, I am aesthetically drawn to the ways in which technologies fail and in the impure image.

SB: There is that practical side to it, that obsolescence gives us these technologies. But the impure image is underlying all of it, the ambition to make technology fail, fail again, fail better. I’m pretty sure that if you were working with a digital SLR, you’d just find a way to break it to make it more interesting!

CE: Once these technologies become cheap enough to experiment with and to possibly break, I will begin using them. I’m positive that planned obsolescence will make this possible in the near future.

SB: You’ve made a number of pieces that confront the legacy of experimental film and video and performance art.We might say that these are acts of slaughtering ‘sacred cows’, a killing of idols, or describe them, as you have, as homage. I’m thinking specifically of the James Benning pieces, Ten Skies (2012) and Gleem (2010); Splice Lines (2012), a kind of violent, fluctuating horizon made out of magnified tape splices from Kurt Kren’s 6/64 Mama und Papa (1964); your Empire films (Simpson’s Empire, 2013; Rotterdam Tower, 2011; Gameboy Empire, 2011); 747 and softly through the night (both 2011) are adaptations of Chris Burden performances; sears catalogue 2011(2011), a tribute to Paul Sharits’ Fluxfilm 26 (1965); and windshield baby gameboy movie (2009), which, beyond the Brakhage debt in its title, demonstrates, in your words, the “inherently dehumanized nature of digital images,” an embrace of the dehumanized digital image that, by its title, references a work that celebrates the film image as a poetic record of humanity. These works represent, in turn, your critical engagement with history; a radical critique, manifested in practice; and, consequently, the way in which your work interrogates what are arguably its own roots, or at least, what informs it. To that end, why have you chosen to engage with these particular artists?

CE: By using these works, I am attempting to engage in critical dialogue with the original work. Although I would consider my work homages, that is, they are made out love and respect for the original work, they are also intended to demonstrate a break from the canon; to create a needed space for new artistic visions. In other words, to create space for work that doesn’t look “like it should.” At this point in time, I find canons extremely restrictive and oppressive since works produced outside of these previously established modes are often lazily disregarded as lowercase art. Creativity and innovation seems to have been replaced with notions of prestige bestowed by programmers and curators that are only interested in further re-enforcing the canon…and for good reason, they are rewarded for safe programming.

Brakhage’s film Window Water Baby Moving (1962) beautifully documents a baby’s birth whereas my video loops images of a baby’s death. I was originally going to title the piece windshield to the wombsince the images from the Gameboy camera look like ultrasound footage and there is a Christian pro-life video called Ultrasound: Window to the Womb (Shari Richard, 1990). I ultimately concluded that this title would be too harsh. This short video was intended to provoke, raising the question: is this actually a limitation of the medium? It is worth noting that this video came about at a time when the legitimacy of video game art was being called into question.

With 747, I am also asking questions about game space. That is, how does the artistic gesture change in game space? softly through the night can be seen as an attempt to de-masculinize Burden’s work Through the Night Softly instead of re-performing the piece with glass, I decided to preform the work with marshmallows. Ironically, the marshmallows gave me a rash.

SB: The Everden (2013) is a work that is about, among other things, being uprooted, personal crisis, and yet those aspects of the work are deeply implicit, sifted by pixels. One of the dominant aesthetic themes of your work is broken technology, the fragmentation that arises from glitch or emulsion décollage. How do you feel your aesthetic interests have changed over the past eight years?

CE: After The Everden, I stopped producing moving images for about a year since I began to find producing moving images incredibly stressful. I found the pressure to make works of “art” debilitating…I couldn’t get started because I felt my work was destined to fail to meet the standards imposed by those around me. It was at this point, I devoted myself to photography. It has renewed my interest in the value of art making for both personal expression and therapeutic release. In the last few months, I have begun to make moving images again. At this point in time, I am working on a longer satire, humorously exploring many of the tropes of contemporary experimental filmmaking.

SB: When you say tropes, it suggests that the activity around us is focused enough that we can see tropes, dominant styles, type and stereotype. I see them, too, and as you do in approaching the subject satirically, I have some apprehension about tropes where concerns anything truly experimental or radical or vanguard. It’s clearly important to you, given all of your efforts in the experimental film community, to sort out your relationship to experimental film culture. In light of that, where do you see yourself in the climate of contemporary experimental filmmaking?

CE: For the time being, I see myself as a critically engaged and contributing member of the Toronto film community.