Interview by Katya Yakubov
Filmmaker and installation artist Pat Clark shows us how memory is a tangible yet malleable object in his film Decay Theory, constructing an almost convincing “document” of the past with found materials. In our chat, we talk about his documentary background, and how it led to his experimentation with film-slides, home movies, and archived recordings, appropriating these materials to sculpt and fabricate new memories.
You are currently in school and Decay Theory is part of your MFA at San Diego State University. What kind of work were you predominantly doing at San Diego State?
I did two programs there. I finished the masters in television and film, where I primarily did documentary films. I did a film about the fall of Saigon in 1975, very much a traditional form of documentary. My thesis film, The Language of War, was about Iraqi combat translators, people who spoke Arabic and worked alongside the Marines in Iraq, translating for them. The dangers they faced, what risks they took, and the danger that they are in now that the troops have left. So that work was also a more traditional documentary, but after I finished that I started in the art department, studying multi-media, and that’s what I’m getting my MFA in. There I’ve sort of taken the turn to more experimental and installation work and that’s where Decay Theory came from.
Still from Clark’s The Language of War, a documentary about Iraqis who served as translators for the U.S. military in the recent war.
It’s interesting because you don’t always realize as you’re doing something what themes and interests are present, which will come to influence your later work. But looking back, I could see how something like the Iraqi documentary has the idea of constructing meaning through language, and it almost directly feeds into the kind of documentary work you’re doing now around memory and construction of meaning through the recollection of memory.
I’m glad you picked up on that because from my perspective, when you’re engaging in more traditional documentary, you feel you have to really be true to the things that were told to you. So, I talked to someone, and they told me this and this and this, so how do I accurately represent that? Whereas with Decay Theory I found these really old recordings of somebody sitting down for an interview, so I thought, how can I now cut it up into a story that wasn’t necessarily there? It’s two opposite ends of the spectrum. I was so used to worrying about being true to what someone was saying versus having the liberty to make a new story out of the material that I found.
And how do you find this material to manipulate?
Well, I was really interested in memory and this idea that if you opened up someone’s head and there was this tangible thing that you could see of what they had done in their life, what would that thing look like? So for me, the idea of 35mm slides became that tangible way to have a memory. I didn’t have any slides, so I went to eBay and thrift stores and started to collect them. I don’t know about you, but I have a box of photographs when I was a kid, or home movies or whatever, but I would never let someone else have them. So when I look through these photographs of people at the Grand Canyon or Paris, I wonder, who are these people, what’s their story, and how did I get a hold of what I would consider very intimate memories?
Still from Clark’s Decay Theory, a film about the non-linear nature of memory.
Then I was really interested in the idea of what happens when you lose your memory. If I have this thing of a ‘memory,’ what does it look like when someone experiences Alzheimer’s or dementia or something? When the memory goes away, what does that look like? I started experimenting, as you saw in the film, of putting the slides into water, spraying some bleach on them and dropping them in, letting them sit for a minute and pulling them back out, scratching them up a little. And when I was making the video, the slide could be clean in one shot, then it was gone, then it was back in the frame, but damaged. It really reminded me of when I would speak with my grandparents who were dealing with memory loss. Sometimes you’d talk to them, and they’d be very clear, but you’d go back the next day and they would have no idea, and you’d go back the next day and they only kind of remembered. So the film slides became a very direct way of showing that.
I’m glad that you talk about experimenting with damaging the slides, because I think it is a really clear visual metaphor for memory loss. And yet you had these alternate versions of Decay Theory online and I was wondering if those versions were a progression in the search to find the right visual to embody the idea. Were the other versions an experiment you did before you found the film-slide visual, which really rang true to you?
The reason I have alternate versions is because they were part of a video installation, so on one wall, one version was playing, and on another wall there were the x-ray-like images with the brain, and on another wall there was the version with the tiny balls moving around. But they were all tied to the same soundtrack. My idea was the film-slide version being a very direct visual of what Alzheimer’s might look like, but the one with the brain scan image is a scientific version of what the brain activity of memory loss might look like, and the third version was a more abstract way to show memories moving around as these shifting balls, with one memory stored over here and one over there. They were not all necessarily created as a progression, as in, I’ll try this image, and then I’ll try this one, but rather three different takes on the idea. The one with the slides is my favorite and it’s maybe the one most people connect to, so maybe the most successful.
Still from Clark’s alternate version of Decay Theory, part of his three-channel video installation at Flor y Canto Gallery, San Diego, CA.
Knowing that all three images were playing simultaneously in a space, I can see how this creates a very strong awareness of the subtext of memory loss and Alzheimer’s. Whereas, I think when you watch the single-channel Decay Theory, your first impression might not necessarily be that this is a film dealing with Alzheimer’s, though that layer is still there.
Yeah, and that was also one of my challenges. How do you take an installation, and show it not as an installation? That’s why I have several different version of the video online, to explain how the installation looks all together.
I was going to point to your website as well, the ability for artists to lay out their own site, especially with multi-disciplinary works like yours, being able to upload sketches and photos of an installation, along with the videos themselves. Can you talk about your feelings around the issues of privacy, and being able to hold back content versus the license to exhibit work the way you want on a website or on a site like Vimeo?
I think in my previous life, in my other degree program, yes, when I was doing traditional films, a lot of festivals you submit to don’t want you to have the work online. I would always make a trailer or a teaser, but it was really tough when I made a good film and I wanted people to be able to see it, yet at the same time, I had to keep the content private for festivals. How do you walk that line? But for this stuff I don’t mind having it up online for people to see just because it’s so abstract, I don’t know what someone would do with it, if they would borrow it. So I haven’t been clutching at this quite so tightly.
And not knowing that alternate versions of Decay Theory existed as an installation, for me to go the site and discover these other layers of the project is great.
As for the structure of the film itself, an important moment in the film is the question that leads to the reveal of the fire. When you watch it, and you realize that the dialogue is cut up and circular in its construction, you want to understand in terms of the actual interview that took place somewhere, what was the first question asked, what was the second question? You want to piece this sequence together in your head, but you really never can. I was wondering what your main goal was in constructing the dialogue and essentially creating a new narrative in this way?
It’s kind of twofold. One, I was thinking back to the experience I had speaking with my grandparents who had Alzheimer’s. It was almost like you were talking in a circle. You would ask the question and they would give you the answer, whether it was a real answer or something they were making up, but you could never get with questions 1, 2, 3, to a definitive end, you just kept talking in circles. That was one reason to structure the film this way. The other reason was initially I thought about the installation with people coming in and out, and the piece is five minutes long, so I didn’t want someone to come in and necessarily be behind or ahead of someone who was already there. You’re not 100 percent sure where it starts and stops when it’s playing over and over again. That was the intention. The idea of where the questions are coming from or what the goal of this interview was is abstract. I was never trying to answer that question.
Still from Clark’s alternate version of Decay Theory, also a part of the three-channel installation.
And you mentioned when looking for your materials, like the slides and home movies, these are just things you find, but the audio seems more tragic and personal. It’s a serious interview and you feel that in the tone of both voices. How did you find that audio?
It’s interesting because it comes from the Library of Congress. Back when I was doing a lot of traditional documentary work, especially the first one I did about the fall of Saigon, I was using a lot of national archive material because they had access to a lot of photographs and material from that period of time. I had come upon this dialect study, done by some east coast university. They went all over the United States in the 80s and what they would do is just sit down with people and talk with them for an hour, in an effort to record the way people speak. They have a huge list: interview with 13-year-old Louisiana girl; interview with 86-year-old Idaho man. All these recordings, and you would think for a dialect study they would be asking them the same questions so they could get a standard base of how people say things, but they just randomly talked with these folks who went on and on about all sorts of stuff. So I was listening to these interviews and this one guy had an interesting voice, some dramatic stuff in his testimony, so I decided to land on him. I’ve actually used other recordings from that library for a couple of other pieces I had done since then.
In traditional filmmaking, the art direction or objects that you shoot are perhaps not as important as the actual recording of them, which becomes itself the art object. But with the Decay Theory installation, you used the physical film slides from the shoot as part of the space, placing the slides in jars in the room.
Yes, when I did the Decay Theory installation the layout of the gallery was set up perfectly for what I wanted to show. I had the three videos, one on each wall. Luckily, there was an alcove that was almost like a cave in the back. I then took the used 35mm slides, after they had been soaked and decayed, and I let them dry. It was so interesting to see them in this state, almost like a butterfly cocoon after the butterfly was gone. I knew I wanted to use the slides somehow, at first trying to put them in picture frames. I couldn’t really figure out what to do, but you had to see what the images were, so I had to put a light behind them. I thought the alcove would be a perfect spot because it would be dark back there. Once I decided to put them in mason jars, which are for me very nostalgic, I lined them up in the back. People would gravitate towards them because it was this kind of glowing light in the back area. The space was set up really well for that.
Photo from Clark’s Decay Theory installation, which included the objects used in his film.
It’s a little strange to think that you’re essentially creating a fake document, weaving this audio onto photos that have nothing to do with the audio. I’m curious if anyone “fell for it,” thinking the exhibit was more of a document of someone. Did anyone approach you wanting more information?
Yes, people asked who this was, if it was a family member. Obviously the answer is no. But not only is it a different person talking from the one we are seeing, all of the pictures are from I don’t know how many different families all over the place. I did try to tie in the photos with his dialogue. If he was talking about a house, I would show a house. But those things have nothing to do with each other. It was an interesting question I was asked a lot because I got the original idea from this reel-to-reel recorder that I had of my grandmother’s 100th birthday. The quality was really poor, but that was the first experiment that I did. Later I realized, why does it have to be my relation or connected to me personally? It’s not necessarily important, and this way I could do what I wanted with the material. But a lot of people asked where I got these pictures, and who is this person, and what happened to them? My answer is always, “I don’t know.”
And this shows that you can manipulate and create a very convincing alternate reality. There’s definitely an intimacy in the audio and the nostalgia of the pictures. You’re a good magician, achieving this feeling that it really is someone’s family.
Yes, but another thing I wanted with the piece was to have people come in and watch it and be able to relate it to their life, if that makes sense. So you come in, and you hear this older person, see some photos, and you might recall your own memories, things you might not have thought about in a long time. “I remember doing that as a kid,” or, “that guy looks like my uncle.” The idea of seeing something and it being a trigger to connect it to yourself.
Still from Clark’s Decay Theory.
Do you plan on continuing to work with found materials that revolve around family?
Yes, that’s where I’m continuing to work. I’ve been experimenting lately, moving from still slides to buying 8mm home movies, and seeing what that looks like. The last work I did was called ENCODE, for which I was taking testimonies from the archives, and splicing in footage of actors, having images projected onto their faces, while the actors are lip syncing the interviews I transcribed. So the image would cut from the actors reading from the prompter, to the real tape and then cut back again. Thus the person narrating changes. This would then alternate between three different individuals. My intent was to represent the same experience three different ways without using three separate accounts of the story. They were all working from the same text but the inflection, pacing and visuals projected on their faces provided three unique stories. That was an installation a couple months ago with a few screens, and it would be hard to show what it looks like online.
Still from Clark’s latest film, ENCODE, installed at the San Diego State University Downtown Gallery.
And how do you feel about Decay Theory being screened at the festival, if this different space will allow the film to be read in another way?
There are two ways to experience it. The more traditional way where everyone sits down, the lights go off, it starts, it ends. And there’s the gallery setting, where you can walk in and spend 30 seconds with it or 20 minutes with it. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to talk to people seeing it in a gallery, so I’m interested to see what the reaction will be of people watching it in a more linear fashion, whether the same impressions hold up.
You will be at the festival in February, so you will have an opportunity to participate in the Q&A after the screening, and hear what the audience got out of the piece.