Filmmaker Focus: Steve Cossman

For this month’s Filmmaker Focus we hear from Steve Cossman, a Brooklyn-based artist,
whose 16mm film TUSSLEMUSCLE received its world premiere at the 48th AAFF and is currently featured on the traveling AAFF 16mm tour.

Optical Boundaries, a tour of live film projections Cossman organized (with filmmakers Ross Nugent and Fern Silva) has recently concluded. Cossman is also the founder and director of Mono No Aware, an annual exhibition of expanded cinema.

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AAFF: Could you give a brief description of your film/educational background?
SC: I was fortunate enough to grow up with young parents that supported and shared my interest in music and art.  When it came time to go to school, I chose to study Sculpture and Painting.  One of my first jobs out of school was at a bronze foundry near Philadelphia working 4 days a week and for extra cash I would design then silk-screen shirts for bands out of my tiny apartment which sat atop the Wooden Shoe bookstore. With my spare time I would rent movies from TLA and started to think more about revisiting film as a medium.  I shot and screened what I would call my first independent animation short and toured the US screening it with one of the bands I did artwork for, Black Eyes (how I met Jacob Long who later scored TUSSLEMUSCLE).  I came back from that tour energized and decided to go back to school for film.  I soon moved to Prague, studied cinema at FAMU and returned to the states to call Brooklyn home.  Between studying Sculpture, Painting and Film I’ve always been in a state of non-matriculation.  Traditional typesetting, Bookbinding, Foam latex molding, Aircraft aluminum machining, Washi papermaking… I love taking classes.  It gives me a chance to meet interesting people and solve a new set of challenges.  Currently I’m taking a course in AutoCAD at FIT and working as a personal assistant/bee-keeper in Manhattan.

AAFF: At what point did you start primarily working with film?
SC: I’ve had an interest in animation from a young age.  I think it started when I received an Ohio Art Animator toy as a birthday gift.  I must have logged in hundreds of hours on that thing.  I realized later that its functionality was similar to what is called a lunchbox.  It was really an incredible little device that I still have today.  But, it wasn’t until I was in college that I took a formal filmmaking course and even then my thinking was still very sculptural.  Berks Filmmakers ran their film series at my school and I was exposed to a lot of great films through the efforts of Gary Adlestein and Jerry Orr.  Film excited me, but I wasn’t ready to implement it into my own work just yet.  Experimentation with Super 8mm after school led me to further my studies in animation and my experience at FAMU had a profound impact on my thinking.  At that point, I began thinking of time as a structure.  I believe that the world, on both the micro and macro level, is constantly moving within a framework of units and that this irrepressible flux of time is the nexus of human experience and perception.  Film lends itself nicely to this idea and allows me to achieve certain desired effects.

AAFF: How did TUSSLEMUSCLE come about?
SC:  In 2001 I discovered that the view-master reel cells are in fact 16 mm wide with single perforations. I came across a few reels that had been water damaged and the white cardstock holding them in place had peeled back exposing the frames.  I always thought it would be interesting to create a film entirely of these little images, so when I had the time and means I began collecting flower themed reels. I gathered reels for the greater part of 3 years to amass enough frames to create the 5 minute piece and spent 2 years assembling.

AAFF: How did you approach organizing thousands of these stills? 
SC: After the frames were extracted from each reel, I would identify the similarly imaged cells and place them into envelopes. On the front of each envelope I typed a few notes about the image and made a tiny 2.5” X 3” copy of the image as to identify what was inside. These envelopes were pinned to the wall as a means of organization and a way to storyboard the piece. 

AAFF: Can you describe the structure of the film?
SC: With the structure of TUSSLEMUSCLE I wanted to draw energy from the colors and forms of the discarded flower image through the use of time, pattern and rhythm.  I set out to compose a piece that would blur the calm beautiful hypnotic movement of flowers with anxiety and chaos inherent of nature.  I would take images of lets say, a Rose and a Carnation then play them off of each other.  In music a parradiddle is executed: Right Left Right Right, Left Right Left Left over and over.  I spliced a Rose with a Carnation with a Rose with a Rose, Carnation Rose Carnation Carnation and so on.  I made and broke musical/numerical patterns in this way to create a visual discord allowing the viewer to reconsider established perceptual relationships.  I knew I wanted to compose the piece to have a few points of rest and a strong crescendo at the end that would cut to black as if you had run right off the end of a cliff.  So I spliced the 7,000 frames together in a way that I feel achieved that experience. I have two other works in progress made from viewmaster cells, WHITE CABBAGE which is all images of butterflies and WOLVERINE which is all cartoony pop-culture images.  All three films are made from similar source material but have radically different structures.

AAFF: Your newest films also use single-framing techniques?
SC: Yes.  My most recent work on film is 15,862 frames long, essentially put together one frame at a time.  Though, this time I had a little help from a friend who wrote PHP coding for the process (thanks Neil!).  CRUSHER starts with a low-res thumbnail image, which is then translated to 16mm film reading each pixel color from left to right, top to bottom, as a single frame of film.  This piece is the first in a series that investigates how information travels and the process it goes through to reach its destination.  I was especially interested in packet switching and image compression. One of my goals with CRUSHER is to re-implement what is lost by these systems in the mind of the viewer.

AAFF: describe Mono No Aware…
SC: Mono No Aware is an annually occurring exhibition of expanded cinema performances that takes place in Brooklyn, New York each November.  It began in 2007 when I became increasingly interested in contemporary artists working with film as part of installation and performance work.

Our first year was quite exciting.  It was held at the original Galapagos Art Space, which had a long history of screening experimental cinema in partnership with the Ocularis film series.  Paul Clipson flew out from San Francisco and screened some of his work, in addition to a number of local artists whose work I continue to follow and enjoy; Austin Willis, Collin Emcee C.M., Huong Ngo, and Matthew Morrandi.

It was meant to be a one-off event, but with the venue past capacity on a Sunday night of a holiday weekend, attendance dictated otherwise. 

I structured the event similar to a film festival with a call for entries, then was able to curate the program primarily from that.  I wanted the event to remain free to submit to and free to attend without selling products such as T-shirts/tote-bags as a means of fundraising.  So, all expenses were out of pocket the first three years.  We have been fortunate enough to create partnerships with such spaces as Lumenhouse (which are very supportive of what we are trying to do), Kodak, Pac-Lab and other sponsors-in-kind.  All of whom make the event possible through their kindness and generosity.

At the end of September - early October we offered filmmaking workshops.  The workshops were an effort to teach those who want to learn and encourage those who desired to submit to MNA in 2010 who might not have had the experience working on film.  All the workshops are led by former participants of the event and were a great success.

AAFF: and the title ‘Mono No Aware’…?
SC:The term ‘Mono No Aware’ stems from a concept in Japanese culture/literature in which there is a deep connection, often emotional, with something that is fleeting.  Since the environment created by this type of work is ephemeral, it seemed a suiting title for the event.

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Steve Cossman’s personal site is here.

The fourth annual edition of Mono No Aware will take place in late November, detailed information here; and Cossman will be showing new work at the gallery Number 35 in NYC in December.

Posted on December 14th, 2008