By Kerry Laitala
Kerry Laitala is an award-winning moving-image artist who uses analog, digital, and hybrid forms to investigate the ways in which media influences culture-at-large. Laitala's work involves science, history, technology, and her uncanny approach to evolving systems of belief through installation, photography, para-cinema, performance, kinetic sculpture, and single-channel forms. She is the current recipient of the San Francisco Arts Commission's Individual Artist Commission to create and display a new series of electrophotographs.
On October 1, 2015, Laitala will give a talk titled Historic Techniques—Aura and the Spectacle of Light at the California Historical Society's San Francisco Headquarters. Learn more about the event and purchase tickets here.
I don't usually like to toot my own horn by writing about my own work, but I do enjoy talking about it, so I thought it would make the most sense to have my friend Brian Darr of the blog Hell On Frisco Bay ask me questions and transcribe the interview for this blog piece.
Brian Darr: Can you give me a brief history of your contributions to the San Francisco art scene in the last twenty years?
Kerry Laitala: From 1995-1997 I went to the San Francisco Art institute for my MFA in filmmaking, and I studied with some amazing filmmakers and curators. People like George Kuchar and Ernie Gehr and Michael Wallin and Mary Tsongas and Steve Anker.
I didn't really start exhibiting until 1997, the year I graduated. Actually in 1996 I did have an installation at the Art Institute, of a kinetic sculpture called the Retrospectroscope. In 1997 I started showing film work out there in the world, and I was lucky to have a short called Secure the Shadow Ere the Substance Fade programmed at the San Francisco International Film Festival. That was my entree into more mainstream venues, being able to screen at an international film festival at the Kabuki Cinema, and to see my work on the big screen.
Beginning in the late 1990s I screened at Other Cinema, Craig Baldwin's Saturday screening series which is currently in its final season at A.T.A. I also started screening at the Exploratorium. I was invited to curate a show called “revealing bodies” where I was able to show Secure the Shadow in the context of other films that had to do with imaging the body. It was really exciting to screen works that had inspired me and were interesting to me, and be a part of that large series that Liz Keim had worked hard to program.
BD: How did you get involved in still photography?
KL: I studied photography at the Massachusetts College of Art, with some prominent photographers including Abe Morrell and Laura McPhee and Barbara Bosworth. I was really interested in working with large and medium format photography. That was when I started working with a view camera, and that gave me a lot of the skills to make images for the Retrospectroscope.
I put aside still photography to immerse myself in moving image and performance until just a few years ago when I purchased an electrical generator and began making the electrophotographs that I'll be focusing this upcoming talk on. I displayed some of these at SOMArts, at Artists' Television Access, and at Oliver Hawke Gallery, and next month I'll be unveiling a new series of these camera-less images as part of a year-long project of works inspired by the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exhibition (PPIE).
In 2015 I've been very fortunate to show at places where I'd never screened at before. For instance I was part of the inaugural weekend of the centennial celebration of the PPIE at the Palace of Fine Arts, and I also had a multi-projector installation at the California Historical Society. This is part of a series called Engineers of Illumination, that gave Scott Stark and I a chance to invite other artists like Kevin Cain, Ben Wood and Elise Baldwin to come and install video. We were able to open up this particular venue to a more diverse array of artists that were influenced by the PPIE.
BD: Tell me a bit about your performance work.
KL: In addition to the multi-projector video installations I've been producing for the PPIE Centennial, I've also created several multi-projector expanded cinema works. For these I operate two or three 16mm film projectors at the same time, changing the image and manipulating it between the screen and the lens, and also between the lens and the gate of the projector, to create a live performance that transforms the material in different ways. It's different every time I perform it.
These performances have taken place at Oddball Film & Video on Capp Street, at Artists Television Access on Valencia, and at Shapeshifters in Oakland. Sound artists Voicehandler performed with me at each of these, and we won an audience choice award when we performed one piece at the Crossroads festival in April.
BD: Can you talk to me about the activities you use your studio to facilitate?
KL: I use my studio for a wide variety of activities. I've made a lot of films in my studio where I'm manipulating images frame by frame using an intervalometer. It's like an animation motor which you can mount onto a 16mm camera, and it lets you shoot single frames of images. Then I can manipulate the images that are being shot and I don't have to be behind the camera. It's a very solitary endeavor. I've shot a lot of things there including a new work Chromatic Wheels, and images for a performance called Trip the Light Fantastic, that I did at the Exploratorium, another one called Solar Furnace, and many other performances.
It's also great for film salons. I invite artist friends, both locals and people that are coming from out of town, and we have small gatherings with food and drink, and we all show either something we've made or a film that we've discovered, a little gem that we want to share. It's a forum for people to get feedback on their own artwork, if they're showing a work in progress and they're looking for some constructive criticism, that usually happens at these salons. Attendees are very generous and it's a nurturing environment. It's a good community-building type of atmosphere. I've had going-away parties for my departing filmmaker friends there too.
BD: How about your photography?
KL: I also use my studio to expose film by hand. I expose motion picture film using a flashlight and I expose 4x5 format film using an electrical generator. I put small conductive objects onto the light-sensitive surface of the film. Then using an electrode I zap the objects, and then the light from the corona discharge that sprays off these objects is exposing the film, without a camera.
BD: What's the difference between doing this in a studio and at home I know at one point you turned your apartment into a darkroom.
KL: Being able to have a studio that is light-tight is really critical for me. If I wanted to do what I'm doing now it would be very tricky because I would have to cover all the windows in my apartment with black material to block out all the light. In my studio, I can expose film without it getting fogged. Also, when I shoot time-lapse with the intervalometer. I can have something set up and I can continue to shoot while I'm not there, over time. I don't have to worry about everything getting moved around so that's very important.
BD: Could you do electrophotograpy at home?
KL: Not only would I have to make the place into a light-tight space, but also I develop the film in small trays, and I don't like to have chemistry around my cat. Also there's no special ventilation at my apartment, unlike at my studio.
BD: What exactly is so delicate about light-sensitive media?
KL: Light-sensitive media are photochemical in nature. When you expose a piece of celluloid film to light, whether by a camera or by a flashlight or by electricity, you are igniting and activating silver halides that are on the surface of the emulsion of the film. The light creates a reaction that forms an image. But you can't see it- it's a latent image that must be brought out through a precise photochemical process.
First you put the film in developer, and then you have to arrest the development time, and then you use something called hypo or fixer, and that removes the unexposed silver. But it must be completed in darkness. If more light reaches the film it corrupts the process and fogs the film and makes the image less discernible.
BD: I understand you're being evicted from your studio space in December. What do you think will happen next?
KL: I have no idea. I still haven't found a new studio and I'm extremely stressed about the possibility of not being able to make art, and putting all my equipment in storage, if I can't find a new studio that I can afford to work in. It's very disconcerting and disheartening that the situation has gotten to this.
My ideal studio would be one where I can have darkness any time of the day. I can make it completely dark. A studio that is secure because some of the equipment I work with is valuable, so I would want a room I can lock and that has walls that go all the way up. I'd like a studio that has adequate ventilation, and access to water if possible. The ideal location is one that I can walk to from my apartment on Post Street but that may be completely impossible.
BD: Why is it important for San Francisco to have artists? Why can't we just have content platforms that collect art from all over?
KL: I think that all artists that are part of the community add to the fabric of the city. A city should be a place where there's a diverse range of interests and a diverse range of creative people who are working with sometimes unconventional materials and with practices that most of us would not be compelled to pursue. Local artists are best positioned to make art reflecting local history, local geography, and all sorts of local concerns.
I feel that a city without art and artists that are local, contributing to this particular community, is a dead city. It's a city that is completely insipid and uninteresting. It's a city that does not embrace individual attitudes and individual creative impulses. And it's really a pity that San Francisco has lost so much. It's quite upsetting.
San Francisco has been historically known for being a place where Bohemian culture has flourished and the community of artists has always had an independent and fiercely activist stance. The art that's made may not always be on the international scale, but it's completely grass roots and not funded by corporations. People work to create more of an independent culture of freethinkers. Unfortunately in San Francisco, because of the economic crisis we're in, which for some people is an economic boom, this whole diverse culture of people who have been here for a long time, who have made art on the fringes, off the radar, and oftentimes in opposition to mainstream practices, that's all gonna go away. If people don't understand the value of that, it's a tragic loss.