A conversation with Frédéric Moffet about his video exhibition at Vox Populi‘s Fourth Wall during the Month of May. Conducted and edited by Timothy Belknap.
Timothy Belknap: At Fourth Wall, you are currently screening a mixed arrangement of three of your films: The Faithful, POSTFACE, and Jean Genet in Chicago. What were your thoughts behind this screening?
Frédéric Moffet : Like most of my work, the three videos investigate the slippery territory between history, lived experience and fantasy. They are all involved in the act of looking backward. The journey through history is often a bumpy ride for the queer traveler. Neither family nor school tells us anything (positive) about our past struggles. The task at hand is to research, rethink, and rewrite. In many of my projects, the strategy of choice has been to queer the archive, creating a new, hybridized text that reactivates the past and reframes the present. Of course, things are changing presently, and many gay story lines are now visible in the mainstream media. But one thing is not changing: history is written by the victors. Though I do rejoice in the present victories, I am more interested in the footnotes, the stories that happened in the shadows, the lives of the outsiders. Jean Genet is a queer icon, but the text I adapted for my project, The Members of the Assembly, is not very well known, and the reviews were far from positive when it was first published in Esquire magazine in 1968. POSTFACE focuses on the life of Montgomery Clift after his car accident (after the fall…), the period of his career that is not celebrated. The men of The Faithful inhabit a space suspended in time; they are strangers visiting a bar in search of a connection instead of browsing a hook-up app. They are looking back, framed in the nostalgic grain of black-and-white 16 mm film, but only to look forward, learning from the past to find alternative propositions for the present, the future.
TB: The films in The Faithful were previously displayed on opposite walls, which allowed the film’s implied flirtatious gazes reciprocate one another. But in the current screening, the reciprocation is gone — a scenario that falters for me if it is only about a confrontation, a power struggle, with the viewer. However, the film really presents these men as very tender and sweet as they pose partially clothed in what we assume to be their normal leather bar attire. I found myself to be aroused by the patient disposition behind the men’s physical movements and their continually kind acknowledgment of the camera. Given that my description is how I, as a viewer, experience the films in different settings, I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the interaction between the films’ content and presentations.
FM: You are absolutely right, the viewing situation at the Fourth Wall is not ideal for The Faithful. It does not convey the full complexity of the space created by the two-channel installation, with the reciprocity between the screens and the more ambiguous role of the viewer in this ménage-à-trois. The promiscuous aspect is also gone. In the original format the number of men was different on each wall, and the looping did not happen at the same time. Hence, every time a character would return, he would be flirting with a different partner. However, I was still interested in including the project in this program. Something else happens; the viewing is more intimate. The actor’s gaze is now only directed at the viewer, implicating him/her in the scenario. The portraits also serve as pauses between the two longer pieces in the program.
TB: You have displayed several of your videos as multi-channel installations and have been a part of numerous film festival screenings. Obviously, the viewing experience is very different in the two settings. I imagine, with a different audience, the conversation changes drastically as well.
FM: The message is always received differently. Viewers bring their own personal knowledge and life experiences in the process of making meaning. That is what I enjoy the most about presenting work to the public. Viewers often understand my videos very differently than I do. The work doesn’t end when I am done editing. POSTFACE is not entirely the same project for a film scholar, a new media artist, or a middle-aged gay man.
TB: What was your direction and directorial process during the shoot of The Faithful? I’m curious about what you did or did not tell the actors to express in their non-verbal communication.
FM: The day we shot The Faithful was one of the best days of my life. There was a real sense of camaraderie between the crew, the actors, and the bar manager, who became one of the actors by the end of the day. The piece is not a documentary; the actors are not the bar’s usual patrons. They were selected from different communities that I frequent: the art world, the gym, the bars, the Internet … My directions were minimal: people had to look at the camera as if it was someone they wanted to have sex with. There was no rehearsal, no retake. Some men were expert at this game; others were really awkward, which is a true reflection of what happens in bars. In reality my friend, filmmaker Shellie Fleming, who, sadly, passed away recently, was behind the camera and became the object of all their lustful flirting. Because of her presence behind the camera, this project will always have a special place in my heart.
TB: I am sorry for your loss. These are really beautiful films. Collaborating with people from your various communities must have made that day feel like a celebration and leave you a bit nostalgic. In your artwork, how important is an authentic experience — like that day — as compared to fantasy?
FM: My practice is about the blurring of these boundaries. I guess this is how I experience the world. I am a daydreamer who is constantly creating scenarios in my head as I move in the city. There seems to be a permeable membrane between what I read in the bus, the people sitting next to me, and the music rushing through my headphones. Everything is in a constant state of montage. Fictionalizing a situation helps me to understand it better. Filmmaker Robert Flaherty famously said that sometimes you have to lie in order to tell the truth.
TB: The current screening at VOX alternates two longer films, POSTFACE and Jean Genet in Chicago, interspersed with the six different three-minute films from The Faithful. The changeover between POSTFACE and The Faithful evokes a beauty-and-beast juxtaposition in the way the image sits on the wall. For example, there is a moment in POSTFACE when Montgomery Clift is laying still and the whole projection seems to wrench in pain, which, to me, heightens the contrast to the subsequent, still single shots of a man quietly waiting for the film’s ending ascension into white. Could you talk about how you approach to choosing the medium?
FM: The decision regarding the medium for each project is crucial. I always ask myself: what is the best way to render content, what meaning will be added by selecting a specific medium? POSTFACE is just as much a eulogy to videotape as it is to Montgomery Clift. When I started working on the project in 2010, it was clear to me that videotape was a thing of the past. But as a video artist, tape had always been my main material. I decided to make a video that would utilize multiple formats, starting from footage shot on film, transferred to DVD, then dubbed down to mini-DV and VHS multiple times while controlling the speed in old decks with dirty play heads. Since I am not a formalist, I needed to find content that would match this process, a storyline about a character moving toward a state of obsolescence. That is when I thought of Montgomery Clift, an actor in free fall due to an accident that left his face partially paralyzed. What is an actor without facial expressions? The downfall is even more dramatic when the actor was formerly known as a heartthrob. That is one of the most interesting moments in Clift’s career, this moment when all the trouble haunting his private life infiltrated the roles he was giving as an actor. The Misfits is an all-time favorite because of this brutal blurring of fact and fiction.
TB: This pairing of the process and the man makes a lot of sense, but the visceral experience of watching the video deteriorate helped shape my understanding of the medium and of Montgomery Clift’s distress.
FM: I am happy that you found the experience of watching the video visceral. I am much more interested in this type of affective reading than one that is mainly concerned with visual effects.
TB: You mention this film as a eulogy to videotape — do you still have any interest in the medium?
FM: For now, I have no plans to create another video utilizing analog techniques. I really do enjoy this type of process, but I do not want my work to depend on a specific (and outdated) material exploration.
TB: What were your thoughts behind the affective reading of The Faithful?
FM: In The Faithful, the choice of grainy black-and-white 16mm was once again essential, since it points to the 70s, the pre-AIDS moment of gay liberation and exploration. In many ways the project is about resilience. Black-and-white 16mm film is on the fast track toward extinction, while cruising bars have taken a hard hit from the proliferation of hook-up apps. Regardless of their digital competition, neither has conceded defeat. Bars are still the locus of the gay community, while the materiality and texture of 16mm will always have a strong hold on artists and experimental filmmakers. And above all, men will always cruise other men, regardless of risks, prejudices, and oppression.
TB: You mention your “strategy of choice has been to queer the archive,” and you write on your website that Jean Genet in Chicago was “a queer rewriting of the events surrounding the 1968 National Democratic Convention from the point of view of the controversial French writer.” Jean Genet’s writings have inspired and been adapted into numerous films. What personally resonated for you about his politics or depictions of homosexuality?
FM: Jean Genet is the ultimate outsider. His entire oeuvre is dedicated to the celebration of marginality, his own and the marginality of others (drag queens, prisoners, vagabonds, freedom fighters…). He embraces difference. I cannot think of a more unappealing proposition than the desire to be normal, to fit in within a sea of blandness. His text, The Members of the Assembly, was very important to me. I discovered it at the beginning of the Iraq war. It encapsulated so many contradictory emotions I was experiencing at the moment. This is why I decided to adapt it within a mise-en-scène that destabilized the viewing, blurring past and present by re-enacting events from the sixties with masked actors in contemporary settings. His fantasies about the Chicago police force in the text are very controversial, but his struggle between political and sexual desires is one that many people, including myself, have experienced and can empathize with, even if we would rather not admit to it.
TB: There are several moments within the video when the musical score almost turns the tone into an advertisement. I struggled with these moments and wonder if Jean Genet in Chicago is about the contradiction and confusion of desire and distaste?
FM: The video is definitely about the collusion of desire and distaste. I often used the music in an ironic manner, elevating violence to a state of sensuous ecstasy or turning a political convention into a Hollywood spectacle. There was a lot of black humor coming from the juxtaposition of serious issues with pop references. I didn’t want to make it feel like an advertisement, that was never my intention, but I do understand that these strategies have been recycled from the avant-garde into the world of commerce. Still, I wonder what the video could be trying to sell?
TB: Whatever it is — I’d be interested in you “selling” more of it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me.
FM: My pleasure.
Frédéric Moffet is a media artist / educator / cat lover / sleeps very well at night.
Timothy Belknap received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from the University of Illinois at Chicago and a Master of Fine Arts in sculpture from Tyler School of Art. His personal work has been featured on WHYY’s NewsWorks Tonight and has recently been exhibited in Philadelphia and New York City.
He is currently a Vox Populi member and the Co-Director of the Icebox Project Space at Crane Arts.