We recently met the directors of The Filmballad of Mamadada for an interview published by our media partner REVS, in the current issue SATISFACTION. As with many of her female contemporaries, the Baroness von Freytag-Loringhoven’s cultural legacy has been obscured, and in some instances appropriated into the oeuvres of better known male peers. Following the feminist wave of the last years, The Filmballad is made of a myriad of contemporary feminist voices challenging the viewer with more questions than answers.
Poet, artist, model, and public provocateur, the Baroness defied the social and artistic codes of her time. Many believe she gave Marcel Duchamp the porcelain urinal that later became Fountain. An important figurehead for the fledgling Dada movement in America, the Baroness was a close friend of avant-garde luminaries such as Djuna Barnes, Berenice Abbot, William Carlos Williams, and Ezra Pound.
Lily Benson and Cassandra Guan recruited a group of over fifty filmmakers to produce a collective biopic. Participants were invited to interpret specific biographical fragments and create filmic adaptations on their own terms. The results varied wildly in style and content: from a re-contextualized Jane Fonda interview, to a reconstruction of a lost 16mm film by Duchamp and Man Ray. About the feminist topic they said: “We don’t think about feminism as an issue of interest to women or some category of people that identify women, it is something to which everyone has a relationship with, that is why we invited straight male filmmakers to participate, because the thing is there and you have to somehow deal with that”. Here is a warm-up with few questions.
You coordinated over fifty artists presenting fragments of the Baroness’ life. The result is chaotic and somehow difficult to follow. Don’t you think the Filmballad should be presented in a museum, rather than in a cinema?
Cassandra Guan: We definitely considered and we still are open to the possibility about showing this as an installation or as a single channel film in a context of an art gallery or a museum, but for the project, and the process of working with all this people, we wanted to have a very definitive goal. The cinematic presentation was that goal, and part of the project behind the actual product of the film is sort of coming together of all these very different people with very different practices; we needed an aspiration to get all this people on board. And so the aspiration was “we are going to work together to make a film” rather then doing a sort of installation.
Every fragment and sequence could also work independently from the others.
Cassandra Guan: After having tried both I have to say I do like showing it in the context of a film in a proper theater. It is very easy to present all the fragments as individual short videos, there is something more challenging in considering The Filmballad as a film: people are not presenting their own individual point of views, but they are presenting a part of a narrative. Instead of a collection we wanted to have a collective, where everyone tries to make something bigger even if the bigger thing is not coherent!
Lily Benson: And I do feel like it is very chaotic, in a more stimulating way, or easier to watch, because your attention span is getting challenged. It is challenging, but it also have something new in it.
Cassandra Guan: The film reminds of New York underground cinema, of the experience of watching it, not in terms of contents. We are both from New York, that is not the tradition that we work with but I think there is an influence, and actually some of the filmmakers who contributed were from that generation. It is not a group of young artists, it is a range of artists, we have people like Abigail Child, New York underground filmmaker, Christian Marklay, Shelley Silver, and then we have our peers practicing.
Was it easy or complicated to produce the film? How long was the production process?
Cassandra Guan: It is technically manageable but socially complicated!
Lily Benson: We wanted a pretty big variety perspectives, so there is several people we asked to, who had never made a film before, like theorists, and art historians.
Cassandra Guan: In the end we had to serve as editors: some people sent us polished finished pieces, but there were a lot of drafted pieces. The really interesting negotiation for me was convincing people to change certain elements. Everyone sent us their material, but even though they agreed to be part of this larger film, in their mind their section was complete and perfect. Afterwards we looked at everything, it was great but we realized we had to edit, and we had to change the piecing length and move things around.
Lily Benson: We started as purists, I didn’t really think we had to edit at all and just put them in a timeline, one after another! And then there were people who definitely needed to be self-contained and with titles and credits in it. It was way too long over programmed short film screenings, and once we started to see how we needed to intervene to make it watchable and than there was the big social issue.
Cassandra Guan: But it is an interesting issue, it was very difficult to cut. Even that conversation explaining that we were trying to create a collective rather than a collection of individual perspectives, was a kind of interesting negotiation, and surprisingly people always came around asking how it could be done and suggesting ideas.
Lily Benson: Also since we are based in New York, there were a lot of people involved in the project, and we were able to make test screening, after negociating we had a private opportunity for them to talk about it, and once they saw what we were trying to do, no one complained at all.
Are the texts and animations in the film referring to Dadaism?
Lily Benson: I was the one who composed the inter-titles, and then we have got a friend who helped us with the animations, but I think for that I was not directly referencing Dada images, because we really wanted to refrain from this kind of nostalgic play and I was more up for unity and simplicity. I think it is just in terms of Minimalism, and simple lines.
Is it still possible to find any magazines or reviews where she used to write?
Cassandra Guan: The Little Review which we mentioned in the film, is actually a very famous Modern Avantgarde magazine, it is the magazine that that first started to serialize the James Joyce’s Ulysses in America, the most frequently published poem. I think there was this revisionist movement in the 40’s and the 50’s because I have got a book that was edited by Marc Anderson, editor at Little Review in 1950, like a greatest hits The Little Review ever published. And I think Hemingway published her in some of the past editions, but she wrote a lot more than what was published.
Cassandra Guan is a New York based artist working within and against the tradition of film. Through narrative experimentation, her work seeks to reclaim culturally repressed histories while engaging critically with the promise and problematic of such representations. Guan was born in Beijing and immigrated to the US during her early teens. She received a BFA from The Cooper Union and subsequently attended the Whitney Independent Study Program.
Lily Benson is an interdisciplinary artist based in Malmö, Sweden and Brooklyn, USA. Working in mediums like animation, performance, illustration, and pop music composition, Benson investigates and challenges popular culture and entertainment through feminist play.