SELECT+ERASE, Interview with Salise Hughes
By Pablo Molina Guerrero
In 2015 I met Salise Hughes due to my participation in an experimental collective film she organized from Seattle. The work translates the exquisite corpse to the audiovisual world. Film directors of different nationalities participated to grant it greater diffusion, and the feature film was shown in different parts of the globe. After meeting Salise I began to review her filmography, and was interested in the technical and aesthetic processes she made with found footage. We decided to carry out this interview by mail in order to observe her development as a filmmaker and what she thinks about what she does.
Pablo Molina Guerrero: Salise, you are originally a visual artist, how did you get to the movies?
Salise Hughes: I had seen Bill Morrison’s Decasia (2002) and was interested in seeing if I could work with found footage. Decay, recycling, and regeneration were themes I was working with in my paintings, so it seemed like a natural transition. Found footage also seemed like the easiest way of entering filmmaking, since I had no training or equipment.
P.M.G.: Tell me a little about the process of your first work and where did the inspiration come from…
S.H.: I did have access to an editing suite, and an archive of 16 mm films. I came up with an experiment based on a painting I had seen by Max Ernst. He had flatly painted over areas of an illustration. It was a collection of images of animals and furniture. I saw the illustration next to the finished painting and was intrigued how he had transformed it through subtraction. So my experiment was to see if I could translate that technique into filmmaking using found footage.
P.M.G.: What was this first experiment composed of?
S.H.: I used footage from some weather related educational film, one about the Heimlich maneuver (how to stop someone from choking), and one on Tai Chi. I was allowing free association to make use of these random subjects and have them work as a whole. Everything was new to me on this film, and had no perceived idea of what to do. For the sound I experimented recording marks and scratches on film leader, as well as manipulating ambient sounds from the footage.
P.M.G.: And what did you do with the edition as you were not familiar with the audiovisual processes?
S.H.: I was familiar with Photoshop and so imported small clips of footage as frames then digitally erased areas of each one. I then edited the new footage into my own narratives. This is how Strange Weather (2005) was born. I haven’t add it yet to my Vimeo site, but it did screen at Rotterdam. Once I saw that my experiment worked I have explored it ever since.
P.M.G.: What did you think of this adaptation from the visual arts to the cinema?
S.H.: I found working on each frame of film like making a series of paintings. While I knew next to nothing about experimental film when I began, I found my visual art background adapted very well to it.
P.M.G.: Besides the inspiration caused by that experiment by Max Ernst, were there other motivations to continue working with found footage and with the same technique?
S.H.: The erasure was initially inspired by the decay and manipulation in films I saw by Bill Morrison and others. As a painter I was interested in the decay in paintings I saw in museums. The cracks and fading of those paintings had through the years become part of the image. Paintings were changeable and mortal. This is of course true of film as well. I was also inspired, as I said earlier by making a film by subtraction, through the destruction, or death of one thing comes the birth of another… recycling, regeneration, etc. So any film I made would carry these themes as a subtext. In my film The Tourist (2008), I wondered how erasing the beautiful landscapes of Michelangeo Antonioni’s The Passenger (Professione: reporter, 1975) would affect the figure of Jack Nicholson climbing a sand dune. In that case it was discovery. But in other films, Erasable Cities (2011), which was inspired by Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, and in my feature Antarctica (2018), erasure is embedded in the theme of loss; through memory and/or the actual destruction of the world through greed, and self interest.
P.M.G.: Salise, with what other materials do you work besides 16 mm?
S.H.: I started with digital transfers of 16 mm, then started ripping DVDs of Hollywood footage. I also use YouTube videos, and digital files from archive.org.
P.M.G.: In legal terms, have you had any kind of problem with using found footage?
S.H.: I haven't had any problems using this footage, because in the US we are protected by what is called Fair Use. It's a legal term that allows for parody and other creative interpretations of someone else's work. Also unless there's money involved... and no one here is making any money, Hollywood doesn't really care.
P.M.G.: And what do you think about copyright?
S.H.: I'm not a fan of copyrights, but there's stealing, and it's different from appropriation. I keep telling people art isn't made in a vacuum. We are all influenced by what's around us, we build upon other people's work to make something new. To some degree that's how all art is made. I think appropriation began with Duchamp, and we've been building on that idea ever since.
P.M.G.: Because you work with Photoshop, over the years have you been able to accelerate the pace of work? Have you found other methods?
S.H.: Erasing individual frames of film creates a frenzied movement when played back at the same speed. This is why animators work at 12 fps instead of 24. Each clip of manipulated footage has to be slowed down by at least 50% when editing. This create an odd double speed: the slowed down movement of the action, and the sped up movement of the manipulation. I’ve also learned to use looped footage and other techniques to ease the labor.
P.M.G.: Do you consider that you have a transversal theme in your work?
S.H.: Walking, running or swimming are recurring themes. I can’t tell you for sure why. Currently I’m working with home movies I just discovered of my family, and I’m using footage of myself learning to walk.
P.M.G.: You are currently working on your first feature film, can you tell us what it is about?
S.H.: That's right, the film is called Antarctica. It is about a child running to escape the damaged and broken future he has inherited to a place he has never seen. This is also the basic plot of François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups, 1959), and the hero of Antarctica is a repeated clip of Jean-Pierre Leaud running, from the end sequence of The 400 Blows. Only the frames of film that contained him have been scratched and gutted. In this case the boy is running from the destruction of the world. He is running to the only place left uninhabited, and so untainted by human caused suffering, Antarctica. Except Antarctica is melting. It is at the center of the coming destruction of the world.
P.M.G.: How are you joining the child of The 400 Blows with other film quotes?
S.H.: It unfolds in the dense fog of a dream. There is no road or path. The journey then is through his mind. And so the boy travels across time and space with ease. The mind becomes a cinema screen, able to conjure up fragments of stories, memories, images, that are erased, scratched and full of ghosts. The journey is traveled through this dense collection of popular culture, and the history of cinema is used to tell the tale of human greed and self interest that has lead to the end of the world.
P.M.G.: I've been very interested in the way you've been developing your feature film in chapters... do you think it's easier to exhibit it like this than like a properly feature film format?
S.H.: Experimental features are usually more difficult to screen than short films. Festivals rarely take them. But the short format can be limiting to many filmmakers. At EXcinema I’ve been including more of them, and the response has been good. For my feature, I’m telling the tale in chapters, or self-contained short films. That way the shorts can be shown in festivals while the feature is being made, and hopefully create interest in the feature when it’s ready.
P.M.G.: Tell me a little about EXcinema, the group of filmmakers that you are part of in Seattle…
S.H.: Seattle has some very good experimental filmmakers, but the community is sometimes fragmented. EXcinema was a way to bring them in, and have a place of our own. We have another venue, Northwest Film Forum, but they work with all kinds of filmmakers, and so not as responsive to our needs.
P.M.G.: You make exhibitions of your own experimental films in the theater, how does the public respond to this type of work?
S.H.: Our screenings have loyal followers. Some pull in larger audiences than others, but the audiences are always receptive and praise our programing.
P.M.G.: On the other hand you make the EXquisite Corpses, which are collective feature films inspired by the rain of ideas of the surrealists, where did this idea come from?
S.H.: I started the EXquisite Corpses a few years ago with different film groups around Seattle. When I started EXcinema I wanted to include it in our programing since it brought together some of the goals I had for the group. I wanted a project that would bring together the local experimental film community. I had also just returned from a residency in Belgrade, and that experience inspired me to open it up internationally. For The Spaces Between Cities (2015) I had an open call on Frameworks to see who might be interested and the response was really great. Now I do a combination open call and referrals. After the projects are completed the participating filmmakers help arrange screenings near them. Some of the filmmakers from these projects have contributed to our regular programing.
P.M.G.: For some time it has seemed to me that found footage is a confusing term, because not all authors find the footage, but sometimes they look for it,... what do you think?
S.H.: I agree found footage is a confusing term. I use it because people understand it means it's not your footage. Some people say repurpose, which is probably more accurate.
P.M.G.: Thank you Salise for your time.
S.H.: Thanks to you.
Visual artist who manipulates found footage into experimental films. Her films have screened in festivals internationally as well as art museums and micro-cinemas. In 2013 she was awarded a residency in Belgrade Serbia where she made a film with local archived footage. That film later won an award at Belgrade Festival of Documentary and Short Film. Other awards include Ann Arbor Film Festival, Paris Festival of Different and Experimental Works, and Alternative Film/ Video Festival in Belgrade.
Pablo Molina Guerrero
Chilean filmmaker especially linked to audiovisual recycling, his work tends to reflect on violence, literature, archives and catastrophe. His videos and films have been shown at film festivals and art institutions. He has also ventured into writing about cinema and culture in different magazines and websites, he has also curated film for Festivals and specific shows.