Gregg Biermann on Saving Old Films, Fakes and His Mathematical Remixes

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Filmmakers remix classic movies for countless reasons: nostalgia, mining old footage for new meaning, creating jokes or social commentary.  Then there's Gregg Biermann, who processes Hollywood classics and sometimes his own footage through mathematical formulas designed to create digital optical patterns that are not always beautiful, psychologically innovative or rich in visual puns, but are always fascinating to watch. 

Biermann's videos come from a mindset similar to math rock. They’re metric experiments, not overburdened with heavy-handed meaning. They challenge the idea of artistic choice. While the filmmaker determines which formula to use for the edit, the actual cuts are out of his splice-by-splice control. Then he stitches his videos together manually, one digital edit at a time, in a laborious process — not through some software that spits out his movie in a matter of seconds.

Biermann is often less concerned about story, the dialectic clashing of images or the movement of characters or shapes through a frame than he is with the rigorous formulas he sketches out on scraps of paper. He overlays iconic shots from the pantheon of Hollywood classics in ways that obscure meaning but test just how much the original footage can be reprocessed and assaulted without losing its conceptual gravity. He treats scenes from Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles and Victor Fleming like musical notes he plays to a self-designed score.

The outcome of his aggressive structure is both sonically and visually terrifying. He’s violating the most basic assumption about what films should do: They should be vessels of meaning, right? But instead, he creates works that are mostly about form, not symbolism.

In advance of Biermann's appearance at First Person Cinema, tonight, we spoke with him about his work as a filmmaker and his approach to technology. (The following conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity. )

Westword: Talk about your history as a film and video maker and how you started working in the experimental genre?

Gregg Biermann: I started making films in college. I was a student at SUNY Binghamton from 1987 to 1991. I met Ken Jacobs and Larry Gottheim there. They showed me that film could be something other than a big Hollywood production with a cast of thousands and a crew — that it could be an individual art form, much more than in auteur cinema. One could really work alone in cinema and make something that was your own and outside of any kind of economic pressure, except for the economic pressure that you're in anyway. That's how I started.

I was interested in these films that these guys were showing, actually, at first because it appealed to the enfant terrible in me. I remember Ken would show this film called Arnulf Rainer, by Peter Kubelka. It's made up of clear leader (a translucent film strip usually attached to the beginning of a film to help a projectionist load the reel onto the projector) and black frames. That's it. It has sections of silence and white noise. He'd play it really, really loud. I'd see half the class leave on the first day. I was like, "I like this guy." It was some kind of punk thing going on there. There's something juvenile about it, I guess. But that got me interested in it, and I spent four years there.

From 1991 to 1993, I was at the San Francisco Art Institute, which at that time (not anymore) had a whole cadre of luminaries: George Kuchar, Ernie Gehr, Gunvor Nelson, Carolee Schneemann were there when I was there. It was the hub of activities for the experimental film community. I continued working there on my own work. Grad school was a way to escape the strangling yoke of responsibility for two years and do what I wanted. I created three or four films there. Then, of course, there is a crisis in trying to figure out what it is you're going to do to make a living and how you're going to continue to make art in that situation.

I landed in Chicago in January of 1994 and stayed there for about four years. I made one film there and did a lot of film programming. I eventually got a job doing computer graphics work. My first film out there was a computer-animated film that was transferred onto 16mm film by a friend of mine who was interested in some technology involving video transfer onto film. He created a machine to do that, and I, as a test, made this animation and we transferred it onto film. That was my first post-school film.

I started getting into graphics, computers and video. I eventually stopped using film altogether and started getting heavily into computations and other things that computers could offer that would extend from the kinds of things I was interested in in film, but perhaps could do things that couldn't be done before. I was always interested in how the computer changed so quickly and how graphics and video and audio changed so quickly. And then those technological changes lead one to do new things - or at least that's what I hoped.

I think it is probably true that I've done things that just couldn't have been accomplished even if someone had the idea to do them. They would either be unable to be accomplished during the era in which I was studying when I was in school, or they would have been so complicated that no one would have wanted to do it in an analog way. That's sort of where I came from.

Right now I'm teaching film studies, and I’m also the co-president of the Filmmakers Cooperative board of directors in New York. I'm trying to lead them in various projects involving scanning of films onto HD or better than HD.

We have access to a 5K Kinetta scanner. We've been doing some scanning of various projects and getting them recorded, color-corrected and finished in high-def video or better than high-def video. It's been a big learning curve for them, and for me, too, just in terms of adapting from the mechanical-chemical technologies to digital technologies.

We're working hard on trying to preserve the legacy of a lot of the collection, which includes work since the '20s. The organization started in 1961, but there is a collection of 5,000 prints, so it's a lot.
Are there huge rights issues that come up with filmmakers? How is the Filmmaker’s Cooperative navigating that?

Oh, yeah. There are definitely rights issues, I'll say that. Right now we have to work with the estates of artists if they're dead. If they're alive, it's much easier. You just ask them if they want to do this.

We're basically doing it on an as-needed basis. If a museum says, “Hey, we're doing a show. We need X film, but we need a digital version of it for our exhibition,” then we deal with that at the moment.

The Filmmaker’s Cooperative is not a big enough organization where we could be doing it in a systematic fashion, starting with A and ending with Z. We have to respond to who's paying.

I would imagine some of the dead filmmakers don't exactly have a formal estate?

We're running into this. I won't get into our legal battles or anything like that. I'll just say this: We're running into this issue where there is a lot of nebulous ownership over rights. A lot of different parties are claiming rights. But in some cases, these films may be public domain by now, which is the real reality. Various parties may say they own something, but they're stretching to see if they can own it. One of the things that I've learned is that if you pay them rental fees, they do own it. There is a lot of documentation that goes along with that stuff. I’m not that interested in that side of it, but obviously it has to be dealt with.
Let's steer this back to your films. Are you using algorithms to create your work? What's your process?

Basically, I'm doing it manually through a procedure, like an algorithm. 

They're certainly influenced by what became known as structural film, but I think that's a bad name for it. They are films that are related to process art, minimal art, things like that. Taking these to a place where the technology suggests that one could go, in terms of the complexity.

I know what's happening in these things. If one watches them repeatedly ten or fifteen times over and over again, one could understand what's going on. But very few people do that. I'm always impressed with somebody who does that. I don't even know if that matters, in a way.

The idea is there, but the result is what I'm interested in beyond just the idea.

I like what happens when these complex things take over a process and you get a result. Sometimes the result works, and you have a film, and sometimes the result doesn't. I guess that's the objective arc of it.

There are a lot of things going on with computers now in terms of generative art, art where you can plug in sets of transformations and see what happens. Essentially that's what I'm doing with these computational — some people say remixes — of these classical scenes in various films.

I’ve done a lot of Hitchcock. Also Welles. I've done two pieces with Casablanca. I like the idea of using the greats instead of something more common, like using B-movies or something.

Can you talk about why?

Sure. It has to do with the ideas of value. I'm always interested in forgery or things like that. You ever see F For Fake?


In that film, there is an art forger named Elmyr de Hory that has re-created original Cezanne and Matisse paintings that were actually sold to museums. When the museums found out that these were not Cezannes, that they were de Horys, suddenly they became valueless. I like injecting myself into that issue, somehow, like I'm just this guy, this nobody making these things. Yet I'm using the greatest moments in cinema, the greatest filmmakers, and also movies by filmmakers that have a gravitational field of their own, like Hitchcock and Welles.

As computers and technology evolve, are there ways you see your own work shifting into the future?

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, just in terms of resolutions, even. I remade a lot of the work in high definition recently. And I may end up redoing it in ultra-high definition in the future. Then, because the resolution changed and the shape of the screen even changed, I felt like I had to make a different set of decisions, even though work we might call the same pieces changed.

A lot of people say that technology is a tool and that it's the artist who uses technology in order to create their vision, but I actually think that's a little egotistical and probably not true in most cases. It's the technology that leads to aesthetic innovation based on what it might allow. You can see that with digital technology and works that involve appropriation, or even photographic or magnetic technology that involves appropriation.

Why do people do these things? Because you can do them.

Gregg Bierman will screen a selection of his works at the University of Colorado Boulder’s First Person Cinema at 7:30 p.m. Monday, October 10, at the Visual Arts Complex auditorium (room 1B20), on the CU Boulder campus. Admission is $5; for more information, go to internationalfilmseries.com/first_person_cinema.

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