The only source of light in the room is the soft, creamy glow of the desk lamps illuminating the artists’ worktables. Joseph Clayton Mills, his glasses white from the reflected light, leans over his serpentine cables and intricate sound-making apparatuses on the left. Facing him on the right side, Marvin Tate leans back, shadowy, his red beanie floating in the darkness, behind a desk with a large book and a microphone. A blank square screen hangs in the space between them. This is Kinosonik #1, a performance sponsored by three major Chicago arts organizations: Black Cinema House, Experimental Sound Studio, and Chicago Film Archives. A pair of artists were chosen to create a soundtrack to a series of short, diverse shorts extracted from the immense Chicago Film Archives. In the weeks leading up to the performance, the musicians watched and rewatched the shorts, developing a relationship with the material. The performance itself is improvised, but given the time spent with the films, the artists have ample opportunity to create a framework for themselves.
The project was inspired by smaller collaborations between Experimental Sound System and Black Cinema House last year. Lou Mallozzi, the executive director of ESS, was in charge of selecting artists for the project, and Penny Duff, the program manager for Rebuild Foundation, worked with Chicago Film Archives to provide footage.
Mallozzi says the project involved a high degree of trust among the three arts initiatives. The organizations did provided the different parts and allowed everything to come together organically.
The projected screen lights up with spinning bronze-colored movie reels. The hypnotic pinwheels are shot in groups, individually, and from different angles. Dad, Tate whispers unexpectedly, while Mills paints the background of the soundscape with dulled moans. Later on in the clip, a weary-looking man appears, adjusting the reels. The circles seem more alive.
After a clip of a man losing himself in swarming city crowds comes a short from JoAnn Elam, an experimental filmmaker. Bare country landscapes are obstructed by a dark overlay. Holes in the overlay bounce around the screen, continuously changing what the audience sees. Tate mutters almost unintelligibly, his voice oscillating from throaty robot to soulful crooning.
The screen switches to shots of CTA platforms and close-ups of people gazing out of the train windows, unaware they are being watched. As the train speeds up, Tate and Mills stop slow-dancing and start doing the Charleston. “A perfect little snow globe…imagine what a world this would be, if I was your rainbow,” Tate yells into his microphone. Mill’s mellow, ambient music becomes feverish, grating beats.
Then, an abstract explosion of brushstrokes and scratches cause Mill’s side of the room to come alive with dings, whirring, and other machine noises.
The next clip, a short film by Kenji Kanesaka, though very fragmented, is the first to have a discernible storyline. Amid mania of Christian protesters, mannequin body parts in trash cans, cars, and advertising posters, a young African-American boy runs up a bombed-out apartment building with a jug of milk. People stop him on the street, the jug spills, he throws the jug—the sequences appear out of order. From time to time, Tate comes in against the post-apocalyptic images of a none-too-distant past. “Ain’t no role models in the hood.”
During the showing it is difficult to pay equal attention to Tate’s voice, Mills’s sound landscapes, and the video. Some segments seemed to highlight one medium more than the others, but often I found myself allowing my focus to roam from across them. It is easy to imagine each viewer having a radically different experience of the performance.
After the presentation, Mills and Tate sat down with Mallozzi to discuss their collaboration and to answer questions from the audience.
“Joe and I met at The Hideout one night,” Tate recounts. “Joe’s friend introduced us. Quiet guys always like me.” Mills reminisces about the early stages of their relationship: “In our second meeting, he hands me his recorder that he’d been carrying around for years, just recording snippets of poems he’s working on, and conversations with his wife, and jokes, kids fighting. Totally random stuff. So he handed it to me and said, ‘This is my mind, let’s do this.’ It was great; it was trusting to let me see that.”
Despite their different backgrounds, ages, and life experiences, their personalities overlap. “We have the same interests; we’re both really eclectic in the way we work,” Mills says. “And we’re both really willing to try things we haven’t done before, so we just started working together.”
Given the nature of the project, the two artists had to develop a personal relationship to the clips. Many of Tate’s contributions were stream-of-consciousness musings and anecdotes, sparked by the films. He says, “Upon seeing those shorts, I recalled those types of movies, in fact I see my old neighborhood in there. There was that familiarity coming into it. I know this soundtrack. I knew what I wanted to bring to it.”
Though Mills was in the foreground less frequently than the video and Tate, he had the important task of marrying the two. He gave structure to Tate’s beautiful fragments, or as he puts it, “In performance, I’ll interrupt Marvin with his own thoughts.”
Kinosonik #2 will be held on Sunday, December 7 at Black Cinema House, 7200 S. Kimbark Ave. See blackcinemahouse.org for more information.