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Micah Stansell

Micah Stansell

with  Cinqué Hicks

 

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Micah Stansell, Over the Bent World, 2020, Single-chanel film, Film Still

Among the many seismic perceptual shifts of the last 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced a reorientation to space. For many of us, space became suddenly and radically small. The orbits of everyday life not only hemmed in our bodies, they transformed the terrain of our imaginations.  The work of Atlanta-based video artist Micah Stansell has also experienced a kind of spatial reckoning. Whereas his work had previously looked outward—outward to the world inhabited by distant family histories, outward to academic literary theories—it has shifted to focus inward, excavating his own life, internal spaces, and intimate family dynamics.

Micah Stansell’s video and installation work is lyrical, poetic, and often dreamlike. Images are not so much strung together end-to-end as they are set against one another in resonances that weave, memory-like, in and out of one another. Stansell uses this indeterminacy as a primary structural feature, shaping narrative as a web rather than as a filament. What happens when that practice becomes even more internalized? When its object is the inner life of the family or the individual? Stansell’s new work has begun to ask these questions.

Micah Stansell, Over the Bent World, 2020, Single-channel film Flux Projects, Atlanta, GA

As a cinematographer, Stansell pays meticulous attention to craft. Camera movement, color palettes, and lighting are all expertly deployed to frame a mood or suggest the gauzy imprecision of time. This fine finish puts Stansell’s work visibly in conversation with commercial cinema. The works often superficially resemble movies in the vernacular sense. But their multiplicity, their radical multilayeredness frustrates any unified, cinematic reading. Every viewing produces multiple stories, each incomplete, but each contaminated by all other possibilities.

Stansell leverages the inherently collaborative nature of filmmaking to make his work not only multilayered, but multi-vocalic. Other voices—other sources of expressive agency—find their way into the work. First, the voice of his wife and primary collaborator, Whitney Stansell, forms a major counterpoint to Micah’s vision, rounding it out with alternative viewpoints and visual features. The work of poets, musicians, and actors also find a home in the work creating a final artifact that by its very structure has to be experienced as polyphonically as it was created.

In this conversation, we explore themes of viewership, memory, and what it means to make art in a pandemic.

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Micah Stansell, The Water and the Blood, 2011, Multi-channel sound and video installation, Installation View, High Museum of Art

Cinqué Hicks: You’ve talked about how your video work should be experienced almost in the round, that it should be “overwhelming.” It struck me that when we go to the movies in a commercial context, that interaction is very scripted. You're going to be going into a certain space; you're going to be in there for a certain amount of time; your movements are tightly constrained; or there's just a very few things that you can do and certain ways that you can interact with the film. Whereas with yours, obviously, it's much more open and unscripted. And the viewer can have lots of entry points and exit points and that sort of thing. How do you think about that in your installation work?

 

Micah Stansell: Yeah, that openness is intentional for us. We're trying to create, to borrow the language of Barthes, more writerly experience, more “writerly text,” as he would call it where the viewer becomes an editor in a way. They're choosing what to see, they're choosing what they hear. For example, some of our projects have had multiple audio tracks that you would select either a headset if you're in a gallery, or you could select a stream if you're seeing it in a public setting or outdoor setting. That kind of interactivity—that participation—is built in, so that at the end of it when it's been viewed, everybody who saw it may have seen something slightly different, or certainly saw something slightly different, may even have seen something wildly different depending on where they were choosing to look at a certain time or what they were choosing to listen to.

 

And that's an interesting thing for me to think about that two people could be standing next to each other experiencing this thing and experience it in totally different ways. That kind of goes back to the conceptual root of a lot of what the work is, and that it's conjuring up what it's like to remember or experience something, an event, or a family history or something. So In a lot of ways, we're trying to make these facsimiles of those experiences or those memories.

 

CH: When you talk about that, I immediately think of The Water and the Blood (2012) as a great example of that. Tell me more about what you were trying to accomplish there, what you were thinking about as you made that.

 

MS: As much as it's about any particular story, that piece is also about memory and experience. We used a story from my parents. Essentially, it's a story of my dad. It's not a documentary per se, but the film is telling this family story of my dad who had raised cattle, and then had his cattle stolen from him. This was during the late '70s when beef prices were at an all-time high, and he had taken out this loan to purchase the cattle. The idea was to fatten them up, overwinter them, and then sell them and make a profit.

 

And unfortunately, during the winter, all of them were stolen. Well, not all them, but most of them were stolen. A few remained. He was able to salvage a bit of [the investment] and pay back some of the loan. But it was this very difficult point in time. He was just starting out doing this. The children in the film are stand-ins for myself, my sister, although the ages aren't really quite right. We were younger than the actors in the film.

 

That's the narrative that we structured the piece around. But more important are the thematical things that are happening within it. A lot of that is focused on creating this experience that feels like a recollection and memory and how we remember things. Part of that being you and I may go to a family event and hear stories and walk away with totally different recollections of what stories were told, or what we had heard, depending on who was talking, how we were listening, how we're experiencing it.

 

The stories are pretty opaque. It would take several viewings, I think, to piece together exactly what was happening without knowing it beforehand. So that's kind of secondary as far as our intentions with it. If someone gathers what the narrative is, that's wonderful, but it's not the primary goal by any means.

 

I think that differs very much from, like you were saying, when you go to see a film in a theater, that is the expectation that you are going to see a directed narrative and you will understand the story and that is what you're getting out of it. Whereas for these projects that we're making, it's really more about the experience you're coming away with, and it's engendering these feelings of memories, these feelings of experiences as much as any direct narrative story.

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Micah Stansell, The Water and the Blood, 2011, Multi-channel sound and video installation, Installation View, High Museum of Art

CH: It's interesting that you call them feelings of memories because I started to say you frame this as a memory, but also as a memory that is not your own. It struck me as kind of a cultural memory. It was kind of an impressionistic ode to maybe a bygone era of rural white southern life or something like that. How do you approach that? Or how are you thinking about that? Is that a nostalgic turn?

MS: I think that it is... we're definitely playing with that idea of nostalgia. I mean, that's definitely something that we're using to an effect. But while these things are set in a certain time period, we're filming them obviously contemporarily. It is amazing to think about the fact that you can set something in the '70s, or late '70s, and you can go out and film it in this contemporary time, in this century, and you don't have to do that much to make it look like the '70s depending on where you go.

In The Water and the Blood, we filmed this wrestling scene. We found this amateur professional wrestling. I know that's a strange phrase, but for lack of a better way to describe it, they're not actually Olympic wrestlers. It's professional wrestling, but it's kind of in this more amateur stage. But we found these group of wrestlers who put on these really incredible wrestling shows. That was in Franklin, Georgia, and they wrestle in an old Piggly Wiggly. We didn't have to do anything. It really reads as perfectly appropriate for the time period.

     

We did ask the promoter if they could schedule certain wrestlers. Pretty Boy Doug Somers was one that I particularly asked for who's been wrestling since the '70s. And then structuring the matches around pairings that we thought would be more visually interesting. But for the most part, it was just what they would be doing anyway on a Friday night. And they were great sports about it. I think that being in Atlanta, we have a different sort of version of what we think maybe the South or Georgia is, but if you go an hour outside of Atlanta, you can see a very different version of the South. I don't really want to make any kind of judgment on that necessarily, if that makes sense, but it is very different. And so we're using, I guess, that opportunity to be able to tell stories that are set decades ago: 20, 30 years ago, 40 years ago.

CH: Yeah, the contrast of working in Atlanta versus in these small rural towns. Just to push a little bit more on the racial aspect of it, it seemed it was possible 10 years ago to write about your work and to look at your work and not comment on kind of the unbroken whiteness of the work, what I’ve called this ode to rural white America, or the rural lifestyle. I wonder if it looks any different now to you because we've undergone so many changes in terms of race relations, in terms of consciousness just within the last year. I wonder if your thinking about that has changed in any way.

MS: That's a question, obviously, that comes to mind when you think about the rural south. But I'm not sure that if I were to make that film again today, I would make it differently if that speaks to the question that's being asked. Because it is about a particular event. It's structured to tell that story that took place in these areas. It's not as if we're going out of our way to make it about kind of a particularly white rural experience. It is just the narrative that we are telling, the historical story that we're telling.

 

We didn't go into the wrestling arena and say, "We're looking for a particular racial makeup within this wrestling group." We just filmed with the wrestlers that were there. And the same for the cattle auction and all these places. In a lot of ways, this is filmed very much in a documentary style. We're using places that are there and available. And we're not using actors other than the handful of actors that we've cast and bring into these places. But everybody else in there is just there. They're just doing what they would be doing.

A lot of times, we talk about them as hybrid documentaries in how they're filmed and that we're not putting together big casts and big crews to do these things. Usually, it's just like two people with a camera and audio recorder. And then we're going in with a couple of actors into these places. So yeah, The Water and the Blood definitely has this southern rural aspect to it. That is definitely intentional because it's the story we're telling. We're telling the story of that time period in these places.

I can certainly see that it's probably harder for me to step outside of it because it is a family story. If I were to put myself into a perspective of an outsider, I could see how it might read differently than the way I experienced it.

So for me when I look at it, I do see a lot of tension and heartbreak, but it's for different reasons than what most people probably see those things. And therefore, I'm seeing... when I'm making it or thinking about it, watching it, I'm seeing this very difficult time for a young father. And when we were making this film, I was in that same stage of life as my dad was when he was branching out and doing this... was putting himself into this very vulnerable position to try and make a living for his family. There are a lot of parallels between what he was doing with the cattle and what I was doing at that time in making this artwork.

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Micah Stansell, Let Light Perpetual, 2019-2021, Multi-channel sound and video installation, Film Still, 8k Video

CH: And looking at it visually, thinking about nostalgia and thinking about the heartbreak, you do a lot of interesting things with color shifts and unsteady camera work. And it does have the feeling of a memory, but it also has the feeling of a Super 8 movie. But it looks like a Super 8 movie the way we thought a Super 8 movie would turn out, but never quite did. Or the feeling that you get watching a Super 8 movie even though it doesn't actually look like that. But you feel like it looks like that.

 

MS: Right. We're not using film. I would love to be shooting on film in some ways. When I was in film school, we shot on film and several projects I've made were on film, but the cost of it is just not really sustainable for these kinds of projects. We're using modern digital cameras, but I shoot a lot with vintage lenses and I develop these techniques with using these lenses for modern cameras. Some of them don't even mount to the cameras. A lot of that floating feeling is actually the lens being physically held in front of the camera. So you get this incredibly organic feeling, it's impossible to keep it perfectly steady or still.

 

The way the image is projected onto the sensor, you get these kind of planar shifts because the lens will have these small movements up and down, which you never get with a fixed lens. It creates a much different looking image than what you would traditionally see. And I feel like a lot of that contributes to more of an impressionistic view, more of a facsimile of how we remember images or draw images out of our mind. And then also relates to the movement of a film plane through a gate on a film camera. It can represent maybe a Super 8 film or a 16 millimeter film or something like that as well.

CH: The whole time we've been talking, you've been saying “we.” Who are you referring to there?

MS: It's almost always just myself and Whitney (Stansell). We make these projects. I mean, the thing about a film is it can't be made by one person. Film is collaborative. Moving image work is almost always collaborative. There's the possibility of just kind of setting a camera on a tripod and doing that sort of thing. But the kind of projects we're making are not that. So I always have at least Whitney with me, and usually several other people depending on what the scene is requiring. But we'll have sometimes a sound person, sometimes assistant camera, that kind of thing.

 

I always want to talk about it in that vein, in that context. It's difficult. In a [commercial] film, there's credits at the end of the film. But (my works) are always presented in continuous loops. There's no point in which you feel like we can stop that loop and put credits in there. Of course, we credit actors, things like that, in any of the accompanying literature with the shows. But it's hard to figure out how to represent it in a way that is fair to all the people that have put in effort and energy and creativity.

CH: Can you talk a little bit more about Whitney in particular, about her contribution? What does the collaborative process look like other than just having another pair of hands there? What else is happening in that process?

MS: It varies based on the project. She's a constant fixture on set while we're shooting. And usually, no matter the project, her role on set is to work with actors. She functions in a lot of ways just like a director or a co-director if we're using the terminology of filmmaking because I'm always shooting it. And a lot of times, it's very difficult to focus on all the technical aspects of shooting, and then also make sure you're getting the performance correct or the other creative aspects that you want to be capturing. She's always watching a monitor, or at least there over my shoulder making sure that the actors feel like they're being communicated with and she's much better at that than I am. I'm not the greatest of communicators in that sense.

 

That's her on-set role. She also does a lot of costume design. She had an undergraduate degree in fabric design, so she's really great with costuming. She's made custom wallpapers for our film, Between You and Me (2010). She made this custom wallpaper that we used throughout, handprinted it. She does a lot of that kind of production design, especially when the pieces are more remote period pieces. And then also, we have this conversation that's ongoing. Because we're married, we spend a lot of time with each other. We're always talking about projects. We're bouncing ideas off me for her drawing, painting, sculpture work on which I'm not nearly as adept. But at least conceptually and editorially, we're having those conversations.

 

It really is very much a collaboration in that sense, especially in the works that are more introspective, more related to our family or our environment. Those kind of work pieces are heavily collaborative. We did a piece during the pandemic for Flux Projects that was meant to be seen online. We filmed with our children and wrote the political narrative that went along with it that was relating to what we were thinking and experiencing at the time.

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Micah Stansell, Let Light Perpetual, 2019-2021, Multi-channel sound and video installation, Film Still, 8k Video

CH: Tell me a little bit more about this pandemic piece. What's it called?

MS: It's called Over the Bent World. It's a short film that we made in response to Flux Projects. They reached out to a handful of artists with micro-commissions, I would call them. It was early on in the pandemic, and we were looking into an abyss essentially of what making work and presenting work would look like. And so it really functioned as a balm for us to have a reason to make something. We were spending a lot of time with our kids in rural Georgia in the woods and on the lake and just decided to make a short film about that.

 

We tapped a couple of collaborators that we've worked with. Like John Harkey who wrote a lot of the poetic text within The Water and the Blood. He wrote some stuff for Over the Bent World. And then Ryan Huff who co-scored The Water and the Blood with me, made a piece of music for Over the Bent World. It was a really nice thing to do, a nice point in time to just forget everything and make this piece of art. But also, it is talking about things we were thinking about at that point in time with the unknown sprawling out in front of us.

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Micah Stansell, Let Light Perpetual, 2019-2021, Multi-channel sound and video installation, Film Still, 8k Video

CH: Do you think you have new ideas that you might want to explore coming out of the pandemic now, in response to the pandemic that you might not have had otherwise?

MS: I think the pandemic has driven our focus even more into an introspective realm. I'm very interested in thinking about my children, my family, my relationships as much as anything else that's going on. But how those things are situated within this period of time, how those things are situated within all the things that are swirling around us. But it's the starting point now, whereas in a lot of the previous work, the starting point was always theoretical. I was very much interested in the semiotic ideas or ideas of structuring things around absence centers. You can see that in a lot of earlier pieces I made. Now, it's not as much about those kind of theoretical constructs. It's more about these environmental constructs, like how my personal relationships are operating within the environment at large, within the world at large.

CH: That makes me think of your public installations. Maybe all of them have at one time or another been in a commercial store window or on the side of a building or in some kind of outdoor, publicly available context. Why is that important for you?

MS: One of the things that interests me about making work is that it can be seen in these unexpected places. I like the idea of people stumbling upon the work, art just put into their everyday lives, injected or interjected into their everyday lives. I think people approach it totally differently than they approach it when it's in a museum. And we've shown a lot of the same projects within the context of a four-walled gallery as well. And I think that it's received differently. What your expectations are as you approach it change dramatically when you see something projected on a storefront or the side of a building or in a public space than when you've intentionally made an effort to go to a museum or a gallery to see it.

I like the idea that people will encounter it and maybe just watch for a minute and then move on. And then there are people that will encounter it, and they will be kind of struck by it and sit there and watch multiple loops of it. Those kind of disparate experiences are interesting to me, how people take that away with them or interact with those unexpected moments is interesting to me. Not that I get a lot of feedback on how that works, but I imagine those experiences. I have had people send me emails or text messages or reach out who had no idea who I was or what the work was, and just stumbled upon it, but then felt moved to reach out and tell me about their experience. And that's always interesting or fun.

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Micah Stansell, Let Light Perpetual, 2019-2021, Multi-channel sound and video installation, Film Still, 8k Video

CH: So you plan to continue doing those sorts of public installations?


MS: Yeah, definitely. We made a piece in 2019 that we showed for two nights in December of 2019 that was slated to be fully installed in the spring of 2020. And then it was put on hold because of the pandemic and just all the other things that were going on around it. Actually, that project will be revived here shortly probably before 2021 is out, hopefully. We're waiting on some infrastructure parts of it, but it's going to be a very large-scale outdoor installation on a building on the Eastside BeltLine.


We worked with the developer of that building from when the building was just drawings. He approached us and was like, "I really want to commission you guys to do a project for this building." And so it has this purpose-built window that faces the BeltLine that we've designed the projection to go into. The projectors are housed on an adjacent building, and it has automated shades that go down behind the glass on the building to create a screen.


That was a commissioned piece that we made in response to the neighborhood in some ways. It's set in the late '70s, early '80s. So kind of contemporarily with The Water and the Blood interestingly, but it's set in that part of town.  We did research and had conversations about that part of town and what it historically had been before it became the Eastside BeltLine. It's called Let Light Perpetual


The projection space is going to be permanent, which is very cool. Our piece is the inaugural piece, the piece that we created purposely for it, and then they will curate other works for the future. And they'll develop a rotating program of really interesting projection work.


I feel like Let Light Perpetual is a departure from the way we've worked in the past, narratively in particular, but also just visually. It's shot on a higher end cinema camera. While there is more organic flow, a lot of moving camera stuff, I would say it's more cinematic. It has less of the organic handmade feel that some of the other projects have had. There are those small things that aren't really noticed, but feel like fairly big evolutionary things for us. I don't know how much that's related to introspection and having a little bit more time to think about things and work on things during this particular period of our lives.

Atlanta, Georgia 2021

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Micah Stansell is an Atlanta-based filmmaker and installation artist. He received an MFA in Digital Filmmaking and the Arts from Georgia State University. His work has been shown in galleries, museums and film festivals across the Uniteds States and internationally. He has received several awards for his work, including an Artadia Award, a Working Artist Project Award from the Museum of Contemporary Art of Georgia, a Special Jury Prize for Innovative Filmmaking from Atlanta Film Festival, and a Student Academy Award Nomination for his graduate work.

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Cinqué Hicks is an art critic and writer based in Atlanta, Georgia. He has served as senior contributing editor of the International Review of African American Art, and was the interim editor-in-chief of Art Papers. He was the founding creative director of Atlanta Art Now and co-author of its landmark volume, Noplaceness: Art in a Post-Urban Landscape. From 2008 to 2012, Hicks was an art critic, arts writer, and columnist for Creative Loafing and has written for a variety of national and international publications including Public Art Review, Art in America, Artforum.com, and Artvoices.