Portland, OR: Living on Video

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Since the early 2000s, Portland has produced the most prolific and vital experimental filmmakers and video artists in the country. The city’s strong sense of community and support for the arts has made it a breeding ground for video art. There is also an abundance of screening venues, including Holocene, Machine Works, The Hollywood Theater (which also has a stage for live accompaniment), The Guild Theater, and Cinema 21; established galleries such as PICA and PDX Museum of Contemporary Art are also strong supporters of local artists.

There are many different niches and styles of film and video art emerging from the city, but one commonality is a strong tie between video and music–not surprising, considering that everyone in Portland is in a band. Given the amount of venues available and the curatorial freedom they’re afforded, filmmakers and video artists have the luxury of being able to construct often costly and space-consuming installations.

Presented here are four artists who’ve discovered their unique voice in the City of Roses.

The Vanguard: Matt McCormick

Matt McCormick was just as surprised as anyone by the international attention received by The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal, his 2001 collaboration with indie film stalwart and Portland expat Miranda July. The 16-minute video addresses the subconscious creation of modern art by those who are hired to buff, or “remove,” graffiti. The haphazard cover-ups become completely new works of art, calling to mind Russian constructivism and abstract expressionism. The Subconscious Art received numerous prestigious awards and honors, propelling Portland’s film and video artists into international view.

The zeitgeist was here, and McCormick was already an integral part of it. In 1996, he had started video label Peripheral Produce after renegade screenings got Portland residents asking where they could get their own copies of the videos. The company soon expanded into a distribution hub for experimental film and video, and McCormick felt that it was time for the city to stake its claim in the worldwide film community. “There were a lot of venues for people to show their work, and it was going on all the time, yet there was not one definitive screening,” he recalls, explaining his reasons for founding the PDX Experimental Film Festival in 2002.

Though he’s still an unwitting ambassador for Portland experimental film and video, McCormick’s true passion is his own work. “I have no one specialty,” he says, “but maybe that is why I’m good at directing.” Humble words, considering he handles his own directing, writing, cinematography, sound design, and editing. These days McCormick is putting most of his effort into completing his first full-length film. He also recently finished a video installation for a local hotel–its flickering images of a bridge silhouetted by sunset are quiet and haunting, showcasing McCormick’s uncanny ability to highlight something touching and human about the relationships between inanimate objects.

Along those lines, his 2004 work, Towlines, is a breathtaking experimental documentary that exposes the subservient nature of the hard-working tugboat. The quiet strength of the towline that never quite gets the attention it deserves becomes a poignant observation of the nature of human society. It is not a stretch to compare the noble tugboat to McCormick, whose quiet wit and constant hard work is keeping Portland at the forefront of experimental filmmaking.

The Outlaw: Vanessa Renwick

Vanessa Renwick is as wild and untamed as the Northwestern wolf packs that are her latest obsession, which fueled a recent film project and 2003’s Hunting Requires Optimism. The latter is a video installation that consists of 10 refrigerators–nine open to a moving image of a lone wolf’s unsuccessful hunt, the last to the fearsome howl of the creature as it successfully captures its prey. Only one in 10 wolf hunts is successful, and Renwick focuses on the hope of that 10 percent. This dark optimism is a common theme throughout her work.

Renwick’s general aesthetic is at once old-fashioned and aggressively modern. Her desire, perhaps “need,” to forge her own path, with an extensive filmography dating back to 1983, gives the sense that she is living out her own version of a modern-day Western, with no rules and no boundaries.

As true as she is to her love of the Northwest, Renwick is especially loyal to Portland, where she has lived and worked since 1989. Her first screenings in the city were hosted by Peripheral Produce events in the early 2000s. “It was a prolific time for me,” recalls Renwick. “Matt [McCormick]’s show deadlines spurred me to get started on the work.”

Her installation projects lean more toward site-specific and interactive work. “I like people sitting together worshipping the projected light,” she claims, “but I also like getting them off their asses together with the moving image.” The most striking example of this audience interaction is her 2002 installation The Yodeling Lesson, in which the audience was required to pedal on a bicycle to power the video projector, thus keeping the installation running. The images projected in this homage to Portland’s unofficial mascot, the bicycle, featured her longtime friend (and the creator of the Xtra Tuf zine) Moe Bowstern bombing the Mississippi Avenue hill on a bike, completely naked.

Renwick’s film and video work–which she refuses to use as a significant source of income (opting instead to paint houses or work as a bike messenger)–always demonstrates a wry sense of humor, combined with a deep respect for her subject, whether it be wildlife, bicycles, or the audience itself.

The Rogue: Cat Tyc

Cat Tyc’s first love was writing. She accidentally caught the video bug while working at a digital video company in New York, when a piece
of text she had recently written simply “worked itself into a video,” becoming her first piece, Speed Freaks Do Bach (2004). Tyc now sees the two forms of art as interchangeable. “Poetry and video are both using language,” she says. “The intuition is exactly the same, it’s only using different tools.”

Tyc has produced countless music videos for Portland bands, and even in her personal work, songs often get a starring role. The Synesthesia series (2006) is a collection of videos (including Furness and The Night the World Caught on Fire) that explores the neurological phenomenon in which the stimulation of one sense (such as sight, sound, or smell) leads to automatic, involuntary experiences in a second sense. The videos in the series are set to songs, but Tyc’s visual depiction of “seeing” sound moves into a realm far deeper than music video, becoming something closer to abstract illusionism.

Tyc has recently shifted her focus toward more politically driven pieces, including a site-specific installation that tackles the issue of gay marriage, tentatively titled PDA, and her first full-length film, Umbrella, a narrative that addresses the emotional effects of a woman’s decision to have an abortion. As director and writer of the film, she sees her script as “a road map.” It guides the crew until she reaches the editing process, which, she says, “brings it back to me again. Before that, the project is everybody’s.”

The Cub: Uli Beutter

Beutter grew up vacationing in the States with her family and quietly dreaming of working in film. Her travels led to a fascination with the U.S., which eventually prompted her to move from her small village in Germany to the equally small town of Eugene, OR in 2001. She studied theater and broadcast media until she moved to Portland in 2004 to realize her dream of being behind the camera. Beutter enrolled in the burgeoning film program at The Art Institute, where she met Alec Cohen, her strongest collaborator. While still in school, Beutter and Cohen started the video firm Sandy Montana (which also employs artists Kurt Nishimura and Tom Brown) as a way to earn money from filmmaking, allowing them to work on projects that were closer to their hearts.

Beutter states that the tone of her commissioned work, mostly commercials and music videos, is much more light-hearted than her “little heart pieces,” which are where she “works out her issues.” Her solo work, White (2007), is a haunting video installation about conformity, during which she negotiates herself inside a huge white box along with a group of people painted white from head-to-toe. The two-minute Heritage (2004) is an emotional work in which she recounts her first-hand experience of bigotry and being a stranger in a strange land, narrating over footage from Luis Buñuel’s Land Without Bread, a movie that strikes a chord of nostalgic longing for a faraway time and place.

Beutter’s involvement in the Portland film and video network has been fairly limited in contrast to veterans McCormick and Renwick. “They are the curators, whereas I am someone who would screen in a little room,” she explains. “[When I got started], they were a different league of artists, and still are.” Nonetheless, Beutter’s first screening was at McCormick’s 2005 PDX Film Festival–a perfect example of the general spirit of support and community within the Portland film and video scene.