Introduction to the life and work of Joost Rekveld
Joost Rekveld (1970) is a Dutch artist and experimental filmmaker. Since 1991 he has been making abstract films and light installations. In his early days he worked intensively with the medium of film, experimenting with all aspects of the process from printing, to manipulating, to developing the images himself. In 1994 he was already using a computer to make an animation film by writing his own software; a practice he returned to later on in his career.
His works display an intimate and embodied understanding of our technological world. They are deeply inspired by science and technology and the systematic dialogue between man and machine. By exploring the various spatial and sensorial aspects of light projection his works intrinsically relate to the early history of optics and perspective and, in many ways, can be understood as a type of visual music. His animated films are often mechanical compositions whereby the computer acts as a controller, orchestrating the precise movement of each optical element of the film-work or installation. Rekveld’s current works-in-progress include a number of projects that relate to his interest in the nature of “Open-Ended Machines,” the philosophy of technology, and the sensory nature of our material environment.
Over the past three decades Rekveld’s works have been presented at many international festivals. Most of his recent films have premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and His film “#11, Marey <-> Moire” was the first Dutch film to ever be shown at the Sundance Film Festival. As well as festivals he has screened works at a wide range of venues for experimental film, animation and short film including the ICA and the Tate Modern in London, The Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Moderna Museet in Stockholm. He has presented a number of programmes about the history of abstract animation and light art, most prominently the 9th edition of Sonic Acts: Sonic Light 2003. Rekveld has a long history of curating programmes about abstract animation, visual music and the interaction between art and science and he is a regular guest at our weekly EYE on Art series where we present the history of the avant-garde. He has been giving lectures since 1993, and has been teaching interdisciplinary art since 1996. From 2008 to 2014 Rekveld was head of the ArtScience Interfaculty of the Royal Conservatoire and the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. He is currently a board member of Sonic Acts (Amsterdam) and of the Centre for Visual Music (Los Angeles).
The Filmmuseum’s relationship with Joost dates back to 2004 when he was commissioned to curate a program and an installation called “A House in 4 dimensions”. In 2015 Rekveld’s films were added to EYE’s collection and we began the restoration and preservation of a number of his early works. These included #2, 1993, VRFLM, 1994, #5, 1994, and #7, 1996. The restoration work has been a joint venture between Joost, Simona Monizza, curator of experimental film and Gerard de Haan, the digital grader of Haghefilm Digital; the lab we used for this work. From the beginning we decided to opt for digitally restoring these films as well as producing digital projection copies. Two factors informed this choice. The first is that for most of Joost’s early films there were already existing negatives in relatively good condition; these form good elements for long-term preservation. The second reason was the wish to enhance the screening possibilities of these films in an era where 16mm projection becomes more difficult or unreliable.
In light of the premiere of these restored works, which will take place at EYE on Tuesday 17th May at 19.15 as part of our regular EYE on Art series, Ruth Sweeney asked Joost Rekveld to share his thoughts on the process of preserving his early film works. We’d like to share this short interview with you.
RS: How do you feel about having your work preserved by a National archive? What is the importance to you of preserving the works in this way?
JR: Hmm..How do I feel? I feel old! No but seriously…during the preservation process we talked a lot about one of the things that I found rather confronting. That was, especially with my first film #2, that I was more or less forced to revisit the mistakes I made 20 years ago. I mean it was my first film so I had no idea about lots of stuff. Technical things especially I had no clue about at that time. What came across during the preservation is that many parts of the original source material is really underexposed so in the lab you have this experience where somebody is looking at the material and saying “Oh that’s really underexposed!”. So yes, that’s very confronting.
In general I am very happy that people are interested enough to actually go through with this restoration and preservation work. For me, as a maker, what I like about film is that when they're finished they're really finished. I’m not really keen to be involved again. These are old films. I’m not distributing them myself and I’m happy to leave that to others so I can focus on new work. Im happy that other people can take control of preserving these films in order to keep them alive and make sure they can still be shown. In that light, however, one thing I do find difficult is that preservation is very archive centric. I want to make my work accessible. That’s very important to me.
RS: How did you feel about revisiting your early work with two other people in the room, the curator and the technician, who may have different perspectives and judgments as they are not filmmakers themselves?
JR: It did feel for me that in some way the restored films are indeed reinterpretations but the aim for me was always to stay as close as possible to the original material and my original intentions. In terms of preservation the goal for me was always about making these works accessible again in a world where technologies have shifted and evolved quite dramatically. Film used to be an easy choice as a medium but now it’s something that is actually rare. 16mm projections are hard to come by now.
Back to your question…the preservation process itself was very technical for me. It was about identifying obstacles and looking for solutions. In that sense I didn't feel that the perspectives of the curator and technician were alien, but rather I was happy to use their expertise. I used to be scared of the grading process because it was so expensive but now I know what I want and there has been some progress in my dialog with graders over the past 25 years.
RS: How do you feel about giving over your film cans to the archive and not having the physical film object with you and in your presence?
JR: I don’t mind really. I’m happy to not have to care so much! If you take the baby metaphor.. the children leave the house and they're on their own. I might be in touch once in a while but yeah..it’s OK they're out the house!
RS: Your early work is defined by the use of the film medium with its laws, rules and flaws, all inherent to the process of filmmaking. With this in mind how do you feel about having these early films now made available on digital format?
JR: That’s a good question! The thing is they also still exist as prints and these are good enough to project. I wouldn't hesitate if people wanted to show those print versions. I see the digital format as a new version of the film but not a replacement. I also understand that in 25-30 years from now it could be just these digital versions that are the ones that are available. Naturally I have thought about this. What I will say is I used to see myself as a film fundamentalist but that has changed. I now realise that these things are not at all binary. For a long time I've made films writing my own software and code so it isn't necessarily a historical progression for me, but instead this transition to digital is much more fluid.
RS: What were your original expectations when we started with the digital restoration?
JR: Well not so long ago I had DCPs made of some of my more recent films, for example #11, Marey <-> Moire which was originally shot on 35mm and had a certain aesthetic. I was actually really happy with the results. I will say I do miss the hummmm of the projector with a digital projection but visually, I’d say it’s different but I don’t miss anything.
RS: More specifically, how do you feel about the digital version of #7, one of the more complex films you made as it involves a hand painted roll?
JR: Yes - that’s a different story! The thing with this film is that it was basically an original that I had given up! I remember bringing it to EYE and thinking you can have it if you want it but to me it looked like a tree trunk because of the way it was all packed together. The paint was totally stuck! I thought I’m never going to touch this myself. I assumed that if we were ever going to restore this that it would have to be from the print copies I made back when I produced the original. In the end we did use the original though and I’m a bit ambivalent about this because unpacking it did do some damage. Sometimes I think maybe we should just roll it up and keep it as a tree trunk! I remember when I made this film. I didn't have money and I wanted to make a 30 minute film as cheap as possible which is why I arrived at this technique with the paint. I was only thinking about production rather than how the film would be stored or preserved. I didn’t store it properly at all and also hardly screened it. The original isn't the most audience friendly film!
RS: Would you say that since you've been through this process of restoring and preserving these early films that you now think more about preservation when making current works?
JR: Yes. I think I do. With the digital stuff, all the code etc I definitely think about it but I don't have secure practices in place. I lose stuff. Things disappear. Actually it’s hopeless. There’s a media artist called Rafael Lozano-Hemmer who makes very complicated installations involving technology and he has an amazing guide on how to preserve your work as a media artist. It’s amazing, very wise. I do think about formats too. I only use open source formats because this is advantageous for preservation. I remember talking to Bart Vetger about code and this open source thing. He was already working in a certain software environment. I remember at some point thinking specifically about what code language I would choose to work with and what would be the best long-term option.
RS: Can you say something about the changing of formats that took place due to the restoration and preservation process of for instance #2, which was originally shot on Super8. Do you regard this as an ethical issue?
JR: No, not anymore. I have done in the past but, like I said, I’m no longer a film fundamentalist. I remember when it was irresponsible and unethical for a programmer to ask an experimental filmmaker to provide a video version of a film work. That was unthinkable! In the beginning when films were scanned to video the quality was a load of crap! It was terrible! Now with HD screening digital versions are much better. What I have also noticed over time is that 35mm is much more stable than 16mm now. It’s more reliable to screen films on 35mm because 35mm projectionists are all trained and know exactly what they're doing. The 35mm projectors are all standardised and I rarely have trouble with 35mm projections. 16mm it’s a totally different story! It is rarely perfect. The reality now is that 16mm projections are mostly crappy so digital projections are preferable because they are much better quality. I see that there are still pockets of film fundamentalism that remain but for me, I now see working with film as a passing phase in my career. I do think about how to make work accessible online. I think it would be great to do, and platforms like vimeo are making this easier but still…what is made available online simply is not the film. It’s so far from the visual experience I want people to have.
RS: In your 2010 essay “Conversations with Machines” you talk about expanded cinema as compositions: “Many of the historic expanded cinema projects are compositions for two or more projectors in which the focus is on the compositional opportunities of several film “voices”, analogous to musical voices. These films necessitate a conscious focusing of attention, so that each spectator has his or her own experience.” How do you feel the restoration of #5 and the conversion of the work to a single-channel piece has effected the nature of the work?
JR: The thing is with #5 is that it was originally made to be shown in a gallery space, not in a cinema. What I liked then is that I could sort of reconfigure the work and adapt the screening format to the space. This posed an interesting challenge when the piece started to be integrated into film programmes, either with my other work or other single-channel works. I then found myself needing to present the work in the standardised space of the cinema. After some trials and experimenting I found that this single-channel screening is actually the optimum way to screen the work in the cinema space. I see this preservation as a way of freezing that choice in time in a way. The prints do still exist so it can still be shown in different ways and we also talked about making digital copies of each of the individual “tracks” as it were so there could still be various screening options. In a gallery space for example it still makes most sense for it to be screened as a three-channel work. I like to keep these possibilities open!
RS: Also in relation to #5, you mentioned before that you like the hummmm of the projector. With this in mind how important was it for you to consider the lack of the 16mm projector in the new digital version?
JR: For me, presenting #5 was always so exciting! However, it’s an excitement that I know the audience wouldn’t have experienced because for me it was about the anticipation. When I would screen this work using three projectors I would do a test run and figure out delays and syncs. There was always a lot of tension for me then. I would be anxious about if the projectors were running at the same speed. It was exciting in the same way a horse race can be! The projectors are three horses approaching the finish line and will they be in sync?! This moment gave me a sort of nervous excitement! Like I say this is purely personal and the audience don't know about this element or experience that tension. For that reason now when I think about the digital version of the film which is perfectly synced it’s actually just boring! I’m totally aware that there is no change here for the audience…for the audience it’s boring all along!
RS: So the final question is how do you feel these early works - in their restored form - relate to your current work?
JR: That’s an interesting question. If we go back to the baby metaphor; the child leaving the house and starting a new life of their own etc but then, at the end of the day, they're still family! That’s how I feel about my films. I can definitely learn a lot from revisiting the films but it’s a new kind of interaction, and of course I still have a strong connection. If I take #2 for example, a film which, until very recently, I hadn't screened for a very long time. Just before we started the preservation process I screened the film in Japan as part of a retrospective type programme and it was the first time i’d seen it again in maybe 15 years. It triggered a lot of thoughts. I was writing a lot of proposals at the time I revisited it and I realised then that this film captures something that I've tried to do in all my films. Something I didn't realise until that moment. I thought in some sense I have always been making the same film, and actually continue to do so! What I mean by this is that I have a fascination with processes where forms emerge and structures come into being. I see that I was doing that in #2 and it’s basically what I'm always doing. I always think my projects are completely different but in fact they're not. In that sense revisiting the films has been very interesting.
RS: Which restoration do you feel happiest with?
JR: I think I would say #5. Thinking of how Tuesday will go I feel very confident and I feel like it’s going to be really nice and thats not easy to do with 16mm screenings. My films were made at a time when you could just rent film projectors but thats becoming more and more exotic. Preserving films gives them a new life. I’m happy that this preservation process makes my films more accessible. This is so important to me! I want my films to be seen!
Blog post by Simona Monizza, curator Experimental Film EYE & Ruth Sweeney, student intern.