Revealing Maya Deren
the high priestess of experimental cinema at land
What if Maya Deren had a Vine account? I’ve devoted the last two weeks to recreating Maya Deren’s Vine profile. In order to do so, I’ve watched her films, re-read her texts and researched her life. For this second entry of Artists in the Age of the Web 2.0, I knew I wanted to re-construct the work of a woman; I wanted to enter a dialogue with her. And Maya was the person who attracted me the most. Because of the nature of her work, I reached the conclusion that Vine would fit her like a glove.
Vine, like Instagram or other social networks, promotes an over-exposal of the I, which is also one of the reasons that made me think of Deren. As happens with many of the first films of the avant-garde cinema movement in America, those works (like Vine) become a sort of self-fulfilment process. The creators of those films, like characters in a trance or sleepwalkers, reveal through their acting a huge amount of psychodramas in the minds of their characters. Even more in the case of Maya Deren, always close to anything magical, ritual, poetical, as we can see in works such as The Very Eye of Night. Vine works almost exactly like Instagram: it’s based on the publication of six-second videos that are repeated as loops. Some of the main pillars of Deren’s work, like rhythm and repetition, worked perfectly on the social network I had chosen.
Playing with extracts of Maya’s videos meant recording from the screen (I wanted to respect the fact I was recording from my mobile and not editing the videos before uploading them) and I obtained as a result blurred and pixelated images. In the beginning I found this deeply annoying. But then I realised that Maya Deren introduced the possibility of isolating a single gesture as the total form of a film, something not comparable to Vine, of course, but still the social network uses the same kind of spirit. The poverty of the channel, the poor quality of the images I re-used, reminded me also of Hito Steyerl’s words1 and one of the main ideas, even policies if you want, directing my wish when re-creating the channel, at the point of writing, of viewing. If it serves the purpose of resurrecting Maya Deren’s images, even as stains or blurs, may it be so!
Maya Deren started feeling more comfortable with her writing after each film, while her interest in form become obvious. I was afraid each time I cut one of her shots; I felt I was desecrating her work. She left us six films. In each of them she explored a new formal possibility. In Maya’s work we can perceive an interest to juxtapose time and space, an interest that hasn’t stopped until today. At Land is one of the works by Maya that I like the most, but I don’t think any of them achieves what she was looking for so well as A Study in Choreography for Camera. The dancer’s dance traverses different spaces and it doesn’t do so metaphorically: from a frame in which we see a foot raising from a bushy background, we move on to another in which the foot descends on a room, and this goes on until we cross a museum. The movement of dance gives continuity in time, and through an expanding space. My wish when undertaking this exercise was also guided by this principle of continuity: crossing Vine and expanding the movement of Maya’s images for them to emerge before your eyes.
“The insistence in analogue film as the only medium of visual importance resounded in the discourses about film almost independently from their ideological tendency. It never mattered that the luxury economies of film production were (and still are) firmly linked to national cultural systems, the capitalist production of studios, the cult of male genius and the original version, and as such frequently conservative in their structure. Resolution has become a fetish, as if its lack equalled the castration of the author. Twenty or thirty years ago, the neoliberal restructuring of media production started little by little to shadow non-commercial imagery, up to the point that experimental and essay films became almost invisible. Since these works became more and more expensive, rending impossible to show them in cinema rooms, they were also considered too marginal for television. Thus, they slowly disappeared not only from cinemas, but also from the public sphere. Videographic essays and experimental films were kept in the shadow with the exception of rare projections in film institutes or clubs in their original resolution before disappearing again in the darkness of the archive.” Steyerl, H. Los condenados de la pantalla, Caja Negra, 2014.
Maya’s channel, like her work, is full of people dancing, of people entering a trance. The sounds of Beyoncé’s Lemonade or of Rihanna are mixed with the sounds she could record herself during the time she spent in Haiti learning about voodoo and shooting those rites. Fragments of works such as At Land or The Very Eye of Night are mixed with fragments of the rest of creators that followed her trail and perfected it. It’s the case of Bruce Baillie, who achieved a sort of haiku cinema,2 something that Maya Deren insistently looked for at the end of her life and about which she talked during a series of lectures she gave in Woodstock, New York, in 1959. For her, form was always fundamental, and that search reached its peak in Baillie’s Mass for Dakota Sioux.
The recreated channel is a sort of homage to her films and her legacy. The priestess of experimental film, as many have referred to her, is a capital figure of forties avant-garde cinema, apart from a creator celebrated by some of film’s most prominent names, such as Stan Brakhage or Jonas Mekas. That’s why, more than establishing a dialogue with Maya Deren, which I’ve done too, I feel I’ve revealed Maya Deren to the current day and age by using Vine. For that reason too, more than a re-reading of her message, I discovered while working on her images that their strength and currency rely on the certainty that their pillars are as just (in the sense Serge Daney used the word) as timeless.
Maya Deren went back to the idea of making a haiku film with Meditation on Violence, as P. Adam Sitney says in Visionary Film: “Maya Deren herself returned to the imagist film to make Meditation on Violence in 1948, and again just before she died when she conceived the idea of the haiku film.”