Every Contact Leaves a Trace
a talk by Lynne Sachs
Hunter College Master of Fine Arts
Oct. 20, 2021
For most of her adult life, film artist Lynne Sachs has collected and saved the small business cards that people have given her in all the various places she has traveled – from professional conferences to doctors’ appointments, from film festivals to hardware stores, from art galleries to human rights centers. In these places, Sachs met and engaged with hundreds of people over a period of four decades, and now she is wondering how these people’s lives might have affected hers or, in turn, how she might have touched the trajectory of their own journey. During our first hour together, Sachs will expand upon her personal approach to making experimental documentaries and her essayistic method of asking questions of herself and others. She will interweave clips from her previous works (including The Washing Society, Film About a Father Who, and Girl is Presence) and her work-in-process, all of which take a hybrid approach to research and production. She will also touch on the writing of thinkers who have recently been of great importance to her own art-making practice, including theorist of visual culture and contemporary art Tina Campt and scholar and activist Silvia Federici. In this way, she will examine her own current work, be it inchoate, porous and, like everything that is worth doing, deeply challenging.
In the second half of her presentation, Lynne will ask the audience to make their own new piece. Lynne will share a screen shot of three of the cards from her collection as a prompt for responses. Participants will choose one card as source material, using performance, forensics, or materiality as their medium of interpretation. Because our meeting will be conducted in a remote context, we will have access to items we find at home in our domestic universe or outside in the place from which we happen to be “zooming” in. At the end of our gathering, we will come together to discuss our own attempts to push as close to failure as we can imagine, and the revelations we discover on the way.
For almost two years, we’ve all been wondering how and when we can begin to touch each other again. Somehow, we’ve adapted to the distance – standing six feet apart, hiding our mouths, gliding one elbow along the elbow of another. And yet in this time, I’ve also begun to wonder how, in my state of social existence, I am also a composite of “the company I keep”, as the expression goes, the people who have passed through my life and left their mark on my skin and my consciousness.
In forensic science, the perpetrator of a crime brings something of themselves into the crime scene and leaves with something from it. Thus, “Every contact leaves a trace,” and there is always some sort of exchange.
Grappling with this “scientific” phenomenon, I returned to a box of 550 business or calling cards I have collected throughout my adult life. Rifling through the cards, I couldn’t help wondering about each person who offered me this small paper object as a reminder of our brief or protracted encounter. Some meetings were profound, others brief and superficial. And yet, almost every card actually accomplished the mnemonic purpose for which it was created. Holding a card now, a trickle or a flood of memories lands inside my internal vault and that person’s existence is reinstated in mine. Beginning earlier this summer, I threw myself into the process of investigating how the component parts of these cards could hold a clue to my understanding of what they are. With the assistance of a forensic specialist, I examined the finger prints on the cards. I learned about their material qualities from a paper maker. Inspired by Jean Luc Godard’s series of TV interviewa about large conceptual topics with two children – France Tour Detour Deux Enfants – I listened nine-year twins glean what they could from the text and images on the cards and then create make-believe dinner parties composed of the individuals represented by the cards. I visited with NYC artist Bradley Eros who seems to re-invent personae for himself simply by designing new cards.
Clearly, I love the research. I have filmed each of these experiences. Now, here with you all, I want to return to some earlier projects to see how this way of thinking and working has been an integral part of my art-making process all along.
I am fascinated by the intention with which the cards are produced. A business card is a distillation of who you are in just a few words, usually the uniform size of 3.5” x 2”. After these months of remote engagement, I am also interested in their haptic nature, the fact that they must be exchanged between two people, hand-to-hand.
The concept of making distillation has been at the foundation of my work for a very long time. As an experimental filmmaker and a poet, I am far more interested in the associative relationship between two things, two shots and two words than I am in their cause and effect, or their narrative symbiosis. For me, a distillation is a container for ideas and energy, a concise manifestation of a multi-valent presence that does not depend on exposition. A distillation is not a metaphor; it’s more like metonymy and synecdoche, where a part stands in for a whole, where less might be more.
Tonight, I would like to share scenes from three of my films that most of you have seen thanks to the Hunter Media Alliance. This will give us a place to begin our conversation around the significance of this concept in my work.
In my film “The Washing Society” (made with playwright Lizzie Olesker), I move from an almost microscopic attention to the most elemental aspects of the clothing we wear and wash, to a wider more place-specific image of two women folding. I examine the material elements of the threads as they combine with the hair and skin of our bodies. All of this is encapsulated in lint. Lint is comprised of the detritus from our clothing and the hair, skin and mucus of our bodies. It is a substance that some people find soft and comforting and others find disgusting. Lint can be a ritualized expression of cleanliness or an abject reminder of decay. I discovered a divide in our culture, when I decided to hand out pieces of lint to every person who entered the live performance version of this work, which I call “Every Fold Matters”. There were those people who fiddled familiarly with the material throughout the show and others who immediately through it to the floor. Lint is a somatic substance that can allows to find a material intimacy with others.
“The Washing Society”
Lint shot and women working 14:43 – 17:00
No matter which way you feel, the experience of lint suggests touch. The most significant distinction in this conversation, however, is “Does the substance come from me or my family or someone else, a stranger or someone cleaning our clothing?” And, if the answer is someone else, then we are talking about labor, service and wages.
I am currently working on Hand Book: A Manual, a book version of this project to be published next year by Ice Floe Press. A section of this book will include a recent conversation with the feminist historian and activist Silvia Federici. Federici helps us to understand better the relationship of this form of hidden, under-valued “reproductive” labor to the functioning of our economy. Over time, in the film, I push the lint to embody this resonance and complexity.
In “Girl is Presence” (made with poet Anne Lesley Selcer), I filmed my daughter Noa during the most intense part of the pandemic in New York City.
Play first two minutes of “Girl is Presence”:
Noa is listening to a poem, one that happens to derive its every word from French philosopher George Bataille’s treatise “Solar Anus” where he writes:
“If the origin of things is … like the circular movement that the planet describes around a mobile center, then a car, a clock, or a sewing machine could equally be accepted as the generative principle. An abandoned shoe, a rotten tooth, a dog devouring the stomach of a goose, a drunken vomiting woman, a slobbering accountant, a jar of mustard … are to love what a battle flag is to nationality.”
Wow! This is a distillation, exactly what I am trying to do in all of these films. Create relationships of association between things. Refer to things as essences rather than explanations. Before our eyes, my daughter moves her hand across a table arranging and re-arranging a series of mysterious – at least to her – objects from my own past as an articulation of her desire for a new order. We are witnessing a series of internal choices based on who she is. Again, like we saw with the lint earlier, hands rather than an entire body or a face are an integral part of my exploration of a dynamic my camera – and thus you – is witnessing.
Does this film become a portrait, of sorts, through distillation? Does Noa’s tactile connection to these objects – or props in a more conventional film situation – offer us a context by which we can consider the impact that objects themselves have on our thinking?
I start my most recent feature “Film About a Father Who” with an image of me combing and detangling my father’s hair. This is something I have done quite a bit with him over the last few years, as he and I have aged. As you watch us, the scene feels both tender and a little painful. His skin is wrinkled and his hair is greyish-white. I am younger, middle aged, they say. He winces but he seems grateful.
The next shot is an older image from his own home video storage bin, shot on Hi 8 probably in the early 1990s. The tape has been stored in a garage, it has aged with time, decayed, been reduced to a few soft pastel colors. When I first came across it a couple of years ago, I immediately dismissed it as too deteriorated to even consider using. A few months later, I thought about it again and realized that it was absolutely essential to the entire film. By breaking down this seven-minute shot into three parts placed in the beginning, middle and end of the film, I discovered an image vessel into which I might be able to generate three distinct responses from my audience. On initial “contact”, you are introduced to three archetypal young children playing in a stream. On second viewing, you know that these are two boys and a girl who are members of the filmmaker’s family and that the family dynamic is complex, fraught and not-at-all nuclear in the conventional sense. On third viewing, you as viewer bring to it your awareness of how these children grew into being adults and how they each are grappling with their relationship to their father. Each iteration is a distillation, an evolving impression of this family and maybe family in general. We know that each interaction a father has with his child leaves a trace, each contact we have with an image leaves an impression of some kind.
Opening shot of “Film About a Father Who”
In cultural critic and scholar Tina M. Campt’s book Listening to Images,
“She explores a way of listening closely to photography by engaging with lost archives of historically dismissed photographs of black subjects. Through her inventive audio-based confrontation with images, Campt looks beyond what one usually sees and attunes her senses to the other affective frequencies through which these photographs register.”
Thinking about Campt’s insistence that we “listen” and thus imagine the sounds of a life’s experience that has not been fully embraced or recorded, I too had to recognize another layer to these images. While at first glance my own family images seem celebrate and exemplify a welcoming and nourishing scenario, we know so much more about what we’re are not seeing: two sisters who have never represented. In the last image, I and you recognize this absence. The transparency is not visible but it is palpable. In this way, we recognize that these images are not so much a distillation of what we do see but what we don’t.
Stevie shares cards.
Instructions: Play in the space between the reality of the card and a conceptual response. Using only the materials you have at your fingertips, respond to these cards. Think about addresses, geography, fonts, numbers, names, the person you imagine made the card, the graphics, what is revealed, what is not revealed.
Push yourself from the specifics to the abstract; reverse the “bio pic” approach; make a piece that evokes rather than explains.
Form: sculpture, video, performance, sound.
8:00 Lynne presents idea for the interactive project. People can make sculpture, shoot with camera, perform.
8:05 Everyone turns off camera and begins to make their piece.
8:20 Everyone returns. Viewing using speaker viewing. Stay muted. Stevie will call on you and you will activate speaker viewer. All participants write down a couple of words to remind them of the work. Note, you need to unpin and return to gallery view each time. People who shot video may screen share.
8:35 Return to gallery and everyone displays their work at once. We cannot do simultaneous screen share so people who shot video must put their phones up to their computer camera.
8:40 Begin conversation together about process.