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Interview with SMS Professor Lana Lin

This post is part of the SMS Advising Series for New Students. All posts are designed and curated to make the lives of newly admitted students much easier. From academic resources to having a social life in NYC, we want to make sure that our students get the best of ALL worlds!

An Interview with Professor Lana Lin 

Lana Lin, Associate Professor of Film Theory and Digital Cinema with the School of Media Studies, produces work which troubles conventional boundaries. Whether these be disciplinary, methodological, or in their subject matter, Lin’s work as a filmmaker, researcher, and visual artist centers themes of cultural translation, the self, and vulnerability. For over a decade she has worked as half of the collaborative research project Lin + Lam, interrogating the contingencies of cultural memory. Her works have been screened and exhibited at UnionDocs, Brooklyn, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, Gasworks, London, and Auckland Festival of Photography, among others. 

Her recent work emerges out of her doctoral dissertation at New York University, culminating in the book Freud’s Jaw and Other Lost Objects (2017) which investigates what it means to live with cancer and to deal with loss through the writings of psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, scholar Eve Sedgwick, and poet Audrey Lorde. She also recently finished production on a documentary centered around Lorde’s book The Cancer Journals. I spoke with Lin about her work, advice for young filmmakers, and the challenge of creating in the time of coronavirus. 

Tell me about how you began to move into doing experimental video work?

I wouldn’t actually describe it as a “move into” doing experimental video work because I essentially started my creative life by making experimental film. The only creative work I did prior to making films—and I mean celluloid film because I started with Super 8mm and then 16mm film before I ever recorded any video or digital material–was writing. As a kid and through high school I imagined myself as a writer. Upon entering college, I thought I would be a writer and then I took a film class, and I was hooked. It was the farthest thing from what I felt was my natural inclination, which was to be inside my head and solitary. J. Leighton Pierce was the head of the film production area at The University of Iowa at the time. He is a very important figure in experimental film, and his work had a lot of influence on me. 

Prior to college I was a big fan of films. I would watch classic Hollywood cinema on TV and what one might call “European art films” in Chicago when I had the chance. But I had never seen an experimental film until I went to college. The Communications Department at Iowa, which has since changed its name, offered a blend of theory and production, not unlike SMS. I took an American Avant-Garde class which introduced me to a whole history and style of filmmaking I had no idea about. Leighton Pierce also showed experimental films in class that served as a model of filmmaking that we, as students, could achieve with our own resources in terms of finances, equipment, and skills. I wanted to make films that were complete artistic works in and of themselves and not a “calling card” to something bigger and supposedly better, not a modest version of what I “really” wanted to do if I had more money, talent, and higher end equipment. I then went on to Bard College for my MFA, which was an interdisciplinary arts program where film as an art form was studied alongside poetry, music, sculpture, painting, and photography. In other words, there was no necessary correlation between filmmaking and storytelling. It was not presumed that films needed to be narrative. A film could be more of a crystallized, fragmentary observation of the world or expression of an experience, like a poem, or it could be a lyrical or dissonant experiential encounter, as with music, or it could be visceral, textured, haptic like sculpture.

You are also known for producing work which troubles boundaries between archival practice, art, and research (Lin + Lam), tell me a little about these mixed media projects.

I have been collaborating with H. Lan Thao Lam since 2001. Our projects have focused on the stateless and right-less, sites of residual trauma, contingencies of national identity and historical memory, the arbitrary nature of “truth,” and the remains of war and exile. We decided to collaborate because of our shared aesthetics, ethics, and politics. Our practice is conceptually driven. This means we don’t embark on a project knowing the form it will ultimately take, but rather allow research and conversation to guide us to the most appropriate materials and aesthetics for the project. 

We are often inspired by seemingly idiosyncratic catalysts which might entail uncovering unofficial histories and re-interpreting the archives. We draw on psychoanalysis, histories of decolonization, critical race studies, and disability rights activism. We treat creative endeavors as opportunities to venture into unfamiliar terrain as the specificity of each project demands. A current project on Freud’s massive antiquities collection required that we delve into Greek mythology, and one of us had to hone her figurative sculpting skills (not me.) For another project sponsored by the India China Institute at The New School we are exploring animation. The project is sited at the northeastern Himalayan border region of India, but after spending last summer there, we realize that it may take shape as an animated triptych which follows the figure of a cross-border running postman.

As a practitioner who has worked in the field over the course of decades (and through the technological changes which have come to define those decades) what advice might you have for students who are interested in producing experimental work rather than strictly narrative projects? 

On one hand, my advice to any student, regardless of whether they are interested in experimental or “strictly narrative” projects, is to pursue what you are passionate about. On the other hand, experimental filmmakers have a certain degree of freedom technologically speaking that fiction filmmakers may not. Or to be more specific, industry filmmakers are much more constrained by the demands of the industry, which are typically to use so-called cutting-edge technologies so that a certain kind of “high end” production value is achieved. Experimental filmmakers don’t need to follow these rules, so to speak, which is not to say that they aren’t concerned with technology. To be an experimental filmmaker is to be experimenting with something, and frequently this means that one is experimenting with the technology, and with the kinds of aesthetics that different technologies can render. 

I have often made works that are addressing the particular characteristics of a given technology or the transitions between technologies. My video Taiwan Video Club uses analogue technology, specifically VHS tape, as a commentary on cultural storytelling practices that are passed on orally (an analogue technology itself) and then from tape to tape, as people copied tapes and passed them on to friends and family – all analogue technologies really. My collaborative film Unidentified Vietnam No. 18 is shot on 16mm film at a time when 16mm film labs were closing in the U.S. (There has since been a resurgence of the format.) We used 16mm film because the original source material was a collection of 1960s propaganda films which were shot on 16mm, but also because the film was dealing with regime change when Vietnam fell to Communist forces. The threatened obsolescence of 16mm film was a means to signify this impending transition from one way of life to another. My most recent film, The Cancer Journals Revisited, is about the vulnerability of human bodies. I use outdated Super 8 and 16mm film because celluloid film is a material body that is not unlike human bodies. It shows its age, through increased grain and color shifts, and is subject to injury that is visible through scratches on the film.

It goes without saying that our current moment poses an extreme challenge for many of us at The New School, educators as well as incoming and current students. While this may be a big ask, I am curious if you may be interested in saying a few things on the challenge students face in this coming semester and the challenge of producing creative work which must contend with the restraints of working from home and the uncertainty about the future which we face. 

It is an extraordinarily challenging time, and as I am writing this response, ICE has just delivered its despicable threat to international students. I certainly never faced the intense difficulties that students are facing today. One piece of advice that was given to me that still holds true is to always make work with the resources you have. Scale your projects to fit your budget, the equipment you can get your hands on, the skills that you have at the moment, the time that you can devote to them. Audre Lorde, who continues to serve as an inspiration to me, notes that your most important resource is yourself. In the face of uncertainty, you always have yourself. Your mind and body are the container of all that you have both enjoyed and suffered. This is the limitless resource that you can pour into your work.

Interview by Daniel Pemberton

Daniel Pemberton is an MA Media Studies student at The New School. He has worked in copywriting, videography, music journalism, and even directed a few short films. His main passion is in research, working at the intersection of digital media, film studies, visual culture, and critical theory. His work has been recognized at numerous conferences across the United States and around the world. He is currently the Graduate Student Advisor with the School of Media Studies. 

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