The woman with the expanding head

Regarding the program "Extreme Frames" with Martha Colburn

Marta Bassols
Martha Colburn

If Michelangelo had been a woman born in Baltimore in the early seventies, with no wealthy patrons, who spent her childhood and adolescence in the Appalachians and became an adult in Queens, and yet managed to retain her erudition and creative fervour, he would probably have been Martha Colburn.

Martha Colburn is, of course, one of the leading voices in present-day experimental film, but her films are the consequence (and the cause) of a process of alchemy with the visual arts, of poetry with animation, of meticulous crafts and musical immersion in the flesh. Her creation is as prolific and provocative as that of The Fall’s Mark E. Smith, with whom she shares the elegant vehemence of post-punk sensibility. An incensed student of history, wars and invasions (and the way they configure the world), the pieces she creates are a celebration of collapse.

Faced with the impossible, there are tangible or symbolic dikes that contain the waters that could crack open our everyday lives, but Colburn offers an unbridled crystallisation of many of our impossible fantasies with her films. In a way, her cinema is to onanism what pornography is, but with universal conflicts.

Her crackling, biting 8-mm and 16-mm animations, then, probably created to address her own positions and issues in the world (a germinal characteristic of art), transcend the artist and bring us all together in one place that shakes our pillars as a civilisation (with its historical approach) and our flesh (with belly laughs and shudders).

If art makes us feel less alone (as John Berger said), it engenders consolation, and this is how the artist’s skill in ANIMATING sublimates all signifiers; not just giving movement to inanimate objects or preparing series of drawings to turn them into film, but also everything that incites or raises our spirits.

Her works are critical of consumerism, religion, politics and violence, and her colourful, bubbling montages are small, laborious animated theatres before they become film. The first pieces she made were the product of a fortuitous encounter between the artist and a few 16-mm rolls of educational film. Colburn manipulates them by hand and turns them into frenzied sequences dotted with pop iconography as she plays with structures, textures, speed (faster than a human heartbeat) and music. This phase included works such as Acrophobic Babies, First Film In X-Tro and Feature Presentation, playful, lucid and incendiary gems worthy of the neural connections of the most inflamed Dadaist, but with a narrative continuity, or, rather, with an advancing visual torrent it is impossible to escape.

She gradually replaced found footage with the creation of her own sets and actors by animating collages with different materials, and her film set organisation became lying on the ground to paint and cut, and film the result directly with a Super 8 camera. This is what she did with cat heads on pin-ups in Cats Amore (2001) and fangs on smiling girls in the adverts for Evil of Dracula (1997), though continuing to return to found footage if chance smiled on her, as in Skelehellavision (2002), in which she painted on porn images (often skeletons and flames) that she found in the bin after the closure in San Francisco of the last X-rated cinema to use celluloid. Here, apart from the frenetic repetition and the superposition of dolls she made herself, we see signs of her obsessive commitment to her work: the stripes on the skeletons are scratched by hand in each still.

This is not an exception, it is the beginning. In many of her later collages, she creates layers, paintings and installations, and manufactures, by hand, all the elements she brings to life, frame by frame moving not just the principal action but every tiny element it contains, generating stories within the story, which, once edited, set out at full speed, evoking a colourful, strident atmosphere reminiscent of the infernos of Hieronymus Bosch. She further incorporates live recordings and interventions. Her technique, then, using multiplane glass animation, is like a physical manifestation, which tries to capture the literalness of her ideas and concepts about art in multiple layers of depth and reading.

In the words of Jan Švankmajer, another subversive, transgressive animator who persistently comes to mind when reviewing Colburn’s filmography (despite the perceptible differences in rhythm), animation brings the impossible to life, including the disturbing and the terrifying. And, in this case, the artist’s imaginary gives her free rein to animate violent representations that challenge the foundations of Western society and, mixing political current affairs with pop culture and traditional symbology, review the recent past to criticise the present and, perhaps, understand all the rock ‘n’ roll that the future holds in store.

In Triumph of the Wild (2008), for example, she uses the obvious reference to Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film (1935) to review, in just ten minutes, events covering more than four centuries of American history. A fascinating, relentless storm of coloured images presents, to the rhythm of blood, guns and a driving piano score, the circular, eternal subversion of roles between hunters and hunted (animals and humans) as opposed to the patriotic propagandistic symmetry used by the German.

In Myth Labs (2008), where she shows the first Europeans to arrive in America, guided by a bug-eyed Jesus and bearing methamphetamine in their bible, she compares believers with junkies in their capacity to feel extremely powerful before they start wandering around like zombies. To do so, she had to assemble 600 priests and camels, and 50 painted backdrops, some with five moving layers, and even articulated fingers.

Martha works for 11 months to make 11 minutes of finished film, a process that begins with the selection of materials and moves on to the painstaking creation of the subjects, objects and actions represented, before being filmed with the self-discipline of stoic confinement at home in the dark, incommunicado (sparking devotion in any samurai), and, in this way, annually sacrificing the outside world to regale us with a new imaginary world.

This guerrilla cinema is made with a weapon: the Canon Scoopic she uses to film was designed for the battlefield and used in Vietnam. But this is not the full extent of her militancy; her coherence is apparent in every act: she chooses analogue in the digital age of which she is a rebel daughter, not just to prevent technological multinationals overturning it with their latest product, or for reasons of aesthetics or economy, but because the fact of not needing a computer as a work tool gives the film in itself the physical presence she tries to capture in her narrative.

It’s all circular.

Just like in Metamorfoza (2013), with an orchestral score played at the premiere by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, which begins with butterflies swarming past a window. After a few seconds of the outside of the house, she takes us through its interior, punctuated by a war outside, where a doll leaves the house and goes into a television set where she becomes involved in the war going on. Everything turns, physically too, in a kaleidoscopic image, but finally the whole experience sees the girl turned into a butterfly and the chaos of war into beauty, perfectly closing the circle of nature.

Her current stagings are usually accompanied by live experimental music (dwelling within her punk-rocker heart) and she places colour filters on the projectors, to make what is already a flaming experience more vivid and unique.

A heart so wild that in less than two minutes it can machete into our retina figures like Charlie Chaplin, Pee Wee Herman, Brooke Shields, C-3PO, Charlie’s Angels and Gadhafi, among others (Dolls vs. Dictators, 2011), for an installation in the Moving Image Museum, where the dolls of course annihilate with their superpowers a host of living dictators. And such a sharp, hilarious brain that she readapts the Wizard of Oz (Meet Me in Wichita, 2006) with Bin Laden as the lead, thereby creating an allegory for modern times: the Tin Man is the steel industry, the Yellow-brick Road, the stock market, and the Scarecrow, Middle Eastern farmers. Her intention—absolutely mainstream—is to bring politics into the dining rooms of our homes, just as The Wizard of Oz brought fantasy into all of our homes. It’s a shame that television companies are not as smart as she is. Since she was unable to use all the characters of Fleming’s original for filming without being sued, she took photos of people who had dressed up as Wizard of Oz characters for Halloween, and used them for her film, the result of which can only be seen live (not even on the internet), to the chagrin of many eyeballs and domestic smiles.

Her first creative breakthroughs came in writing. Apparently, her high school teachers were fascinated by her literary and imaginative aptitudes. She also had a punk band, The Dramatics, with which she made six records and toured Europe. She made 5,000 album covers by hand, painting them one by one with different iconographies. When she got to New York, she worked in a cabaret that featured all kinds of local talents, and, shortly before, while still living in the mountains, it seems she had invented what she called “farm shows”, which consisted basically in putting on displays of farm equipment and miscellanea, ranging from a splendid tractor to a giant marrow. She has also given animation workshops all over the world, made music videos for bands and artists such as Deerhoof, Laura Ortman, Rita Braga and even Felix Kubin. She contributed to the animation of the documentary The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and is currently represented by James Cohan Gallery (which also represents Bill Viola). Even so, she spent many years of her history as an artist working in all kinds of jobs such as collecting Christmas trees, counting cyclists for the state of Maryland, cleaning the houses of old people who told her their stories of the war, or making sets for the parties of millionaires. Basically, anything that could earn her a few dollars for her pains.

If Martha Colburn has not graced the dome of the Sistine Chapel with her magnificent paintings of sadistic human, animal and geographical poetry, it is only because it has been completed for over five centuries, and she only looks ahead, though the gods of punk that she evokes shout that there is no future seen from the past that she bestrides.


Marta Bassols