Kevin Jerome Everson

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Looking Up: Week #1 Recovery
Kevin Jerome Everson

10 Minutes
Courtesy of the artist, trilobite-arts DAC, and Picture Palace Pictures

Artist Cinemas

Repeat: April 24-25, 2023

Recovery is about an Airman training to be a pilot at the Columbus Air Force Base 14th Flying Training Wing in Columbus, Mississippi.

Recovery is the first installment of Looking Up, an online program of films and accompanying texts convened by Jorge Jácome as the twelfth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Film.

The film is presented alongside a conversation with Kevin Jerome Everson by Uli Ziemons.

Looking Up runs in six episodes released every Monday from March 18 through April 24, 2023, streaming a new film each week accompanied by a commissioned interview or response published in text form.

A conversation with Kevin Jerome Everson
By Uli Ziemons

Uli Ziemons (UZ): I had a look again at the Forum Expanded program (at the 2020 Berlinale), where we screened Recovery among a combination of films that had a pretty wide range of tonalities and forms. We showed it together with Margaret Honda’s 70mm fade-from-black-to-white-and-back-to-black film Equinox and Graeme Arnfield’s The Phantom Menace, remember? All very physical films in their own right. But I thought we could start with the context in which Recovery was made.

Kevin Jerome Everson (KJE): Yeah. I think it was coming from Tonsler Park, a film I made in 2016 (observing voting precinct poll workers on Election Day 2016 in Charlottesville, Virginia). I wanted to film more civil service workers, so to speak. There’s an Air Force base in my parents’ hometown—Columbus, Mississippi—that is one of the main economic engines in that area. And so we got permission to film there through the Department of Defense. It was great because two Black females were in charge of the media department to grant access. They were excited that I was going to do something at that base, because nobody films down there. For crew, it was just me with the camera and a former student of mine, Will Jones, recording sound. We definitely needed another person but I wanted to keep it small. I was trying to find some kind of military training exercise that would last the length of a 16mm mag, like ten minutes. And once we got to this cat spinning, I was like, “Oh, that’s it. That’s the only thing I wanted.” I was trying to do all these long takes and that was the only one that really kind of worked. The other films were edited and had longer versions of all the employees doing the task at hand (Inventory, 2020 and Sanfield, 2020).

UZ: Inventory was your take on Želimir Žilnik’s film Inventur – Metzstrasse 11 (1975).

KJE: Exactly. With Recovery, I like the focus on that guy spinning around. It was kind of perfect for the duration of the (film) magazine.

UZ: So the length of the training is exactly the length of the magazine? Or did you stage it for ten minutes?

KJE: It was ten minutes! And Will and I, we looked at each other, I was like, “Of course!” It’s kind of like the lock and dams in my film Lago Gatún (2021, feature shot along the Panama Canal). I knew it took ten minutes for those lock and dams to close and open. So, that’s been my jam, anything that takes that long.

UZ: A lot of times in your films we see people who are training or practicing or honing their skills and their craft in a way. In Forum Expanded, we showed your short film Three Quarters (2015), where a magician is training, doing sleight of hand tricks. Throughout your films, there are many different examples of people exhibiting talent and craft. What is your interest in that?

KJE: Coming from sports, I guess. I don’t believe in hierarchy but I believe that through practice and repetition, somebody can be very good at something. Nobody shows up and becomes a calf roper. I made a number of Black cowboy films that show how it takes practice. I like how the body changes through repetition and practice. I have a speech impediment, so I say things twice—it’s the repetition. It all comes from these kinds of things. My dad became one of the foremost Volvo mechanics in the Midwest through practice and preparation. I remember growing up, my kinfolk would brag about how good they were at their job. They knew how to do things. During college, I worked at two factories in the summer. I got really good at the task at hand. It also changed my body. I remember when I worked at the Westinghouse factory, my forearms got really big from the specific labor I was doing.

When I started getting into filmmaking in the late nineties, I was interested in showing small routines and gestures, and the way that repetition would change the body. My parents looked different on a Monday than on a Friday. The work week would change them. That physical transformation. I don’t think I ever filmed that, but it was what got me into filmmaking. Previously, I had been making all these kinds of sculptural objects. But I realized that if I showed these routines and gestures on film, maybe the viewer can imagine them happening over and over again and physically transforming the person. So that’s how I got into film, so to speak.

UZ: The physicality in Recovery is also very, very palpable. On the one hand, you see that this pilot in training is spinning around on his own axis and he’s not feeling dizzy or anything, but as a viewer, you can get dizzy from just watching.

KJE: Oh my god, it’s hard to watch. I had an exhibition in 2021 at Halle für Kunst Steiermark in Graz, Austria and made a 16mm print to loop in the show. So it was even more dizzying because the physicality of the film and the physicality of the subject matter.

UZ: It’s interesting that you watch this person so intently over the course of ten minutes and you see the little facial expressions and how he has to perform all these different movements in order to…

KJE: Pass the test.

UZ: He’s constantly being asked (off-camera) how he’s doing on a scale of, I guess, zero to ten, how sick he feels. He’s always zero. And then towards the end, he’s like one, two, but he’s kind of smiling.

KJE: Yeah, he was trying to act and he gave the wrong number on purpose because he was acting for us.

UZ: He’s too good at what he does.

KJE: They picked the best one.

UZ: The best pilot?

KJE: Yeah. It’s like when I made Sound That (2014, short featuring employees of the Cleveland Water Department on the hunt for leaks in the infrastructure in Cuyahoga County) where the city of Cleveland gave me the best crew, which was cool. I want that. Those guys were great.

UZ: We’ve been over the years talking about your films, several times in front of audiences, and the aspect of abstraction always comes up. On first glance, your films have a documentary approach: You encounter them, and you say, “Oh, I see somebody doing something.” But I think you think of them also as having and possessing a level of abstraction. I was thinking about that in relation to training, how that is also an abstraction of the actual task.

KJE: Yeah, totally.

UZ: So how do you see that level of abstraction play out in Recovery? There is the abstracted flight training, but then there’s also this very, very close framing, which in a way abstracts the room that we are in.

KJE: We don’t know where we are.

UZ: Are there other levels?

KJE: I like creating this kind of atmosphere. I’m not into space or establishing shots and all that kind of stuff. I like when Wong Kar-wai and Christopher Doyle got together, in an interview they talked about their film language being based on this Cantonese word kongjing, the idea that when the fog lifts, that’s when things become clear. They’re all about creating atmosphere. It’s not a space that you can walk to, “Oh, I’m going here.” It’s all created for cinema, you know? I like that as film. In fact, it’s a film assignment that I give to my students, to make and create atmosphere so you don’t rely on your immediate surroundings—just take us to a place that we’ve never been before. I always think abstraction has to be earned, you can’t just show up. I’m always trying to use representation in imagery to get the abstraction and now I’m doing it with sound, with the new films I’ve just shot.

UZ: You said before that this Air Force base where you filmed Recovery is the largest employer in the region?

KJE: I think it either was or is, because they normally are—those military bases are big employers. I think that’s why in the States, they put military bases all over the country, so your congressperson can defend the spending—you can always rely on the military-industrial complex for economic survival. Which for me is interesting because that’s government jobs for Black Americans. America is like 13, 14 % Black, but if you go to any state capital or city that has the government or military as a main employer, you’ll see a disproportionately large number of African Americans because the private sector never hired Blacks. Even Wall Street was for friends and family. But the government did. The government jobs are the last bastion of middle-class culture in most cities, except for Las Vegas which is a union town. Anywhere that you have government, you’ll see a large percentage of Black Americans, civil service workers. That was the whole idea of filming these kinds of civil servants.

UZ: It’s a military job and in that sense it’s a civil service job. But then, being a pilot, it’s interesting how you connect these: the pilot and (in Tonsler Park) the election officials, or the person helping at the voting booth. They’re leveled in a certain way.

KJE: Oh, they’re equal.

UZ: I don’t know if it’s the case, that the military or this type of military training also creates the opportunity to have civilian jobs afterwards, as a pilot.

KJE: I guess they can be helicopter pilots. I think most of the commercial airline pilots were military at some point. My uncles were in the Air Force. They all had jobs in shipping—FedEx and logistics. They did those kinds of jobs. The skills you learn transfer from the military. I can’t take orders. I can barely give them (laughs). I couldn’t be in the military. I’m too much of an individual, although I do like team sports and being part of a team. But that’s temporary: 48 minutes, get in and get out.

I see people go off to the military and then come back to jobs. And it’s always from poor cities. I remember going to the post office in my hometown of Mansfield, Ohio and seeing folks with war injuries, prosthetic limbs. Most people joining the Army during Iraq were from poor cities. The government was trying to hide that fact. When the US military became a volunteer army after Jimmy Carter got rid of the draft in ‘77, folks started seeing it as more of a job, not as having to go and fight. You realize the demographic of folks who were joining the Army… Most of my friends joined the military under Reagan because the factories were closing up. There was a huge increase in people joining the military because there were no jobs.

UZ: Let’s return to that question of taking orders or being good at taking orders. Another interesting aspect in Recovery is this disembodied voice offscreen giving the orders of what to do. On the one hand, it’s this authority figure is telling the trainee (Airman First Class Xavier Payton) to do certain movements. But they’re also constantly checking on the trainee’s well-being. It was an interesting kind of relationship between these two characters in the film.

KJE: It wasn’t like they were pushing that person, it was mostly just helping, making sure the person was safe.

UZ: That was the instructor?

KJE: Yeah, this Filipino cat (Staff Sgt. Nazareth Oliver).

UZ: That decision to keep the sound and not have it silent, was that clear from the beginning?

KJE: Yeah, I shot with an ARRI-S and that noise is actually the camera. It’s not a crystal sync camera. Even in Inventory, you hear the camera. I didn’t bring a crystal sync camera with me because I like the ARRI-S, I thought I was going be handholding more. It is tough to sync up though, because it doesn’t quite run 24fps, although it says 24fps, so it took a couple of days to sync it up. Now, for my new films, I’m doing a kind of provisional sound. I like this crazy noise. So it seems like it’s the machine. For me, the artist is always present even when the camera is on a tripod. I remember, for years, I was handholding these long-take films because I wanted the artist to be present in it. And then a few times I was trying to include the sound of the camera as being the artist present. I guess it depends on the film. But now I’m shooting all this stuff with the Aaton, and if you have this high-contrast film within the soundtrack on the right side of the frame, it makes this noise. So I’ve been making all these films where the image is producing the sound.

UZ: It’s interesting that both you and the pilot in the film are working with and against the machine in a way.

KJE: Yeah, Recovery is one of my favorites. For some reason that one just worked.

Uli Ziemons is co-head of the Forum Expanded section of the Berlin International Film Festival. He has curated film programs for, among others, Kunstverein Leipzig, Kochi Muziris Biennale, National Museum of Contemporary Art, Seoul, Arsenal - Institut for Film and Video Art, and KW - institute for Contemporary Art. From 2014 to 2020 he was a member of the short film selection committee at Dokfest Kassel. He is the author of Aufzeichnungen eines Storm Squatters, a monograph on George Kuchar’s Weather Diary video series.

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Film, Labor & Work
Documentary, Militarization, State & Government, Blackness, USA
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Kevin Jerome Everson’s art practice encompasses printmaking, sculpture, photography, and film, including twelve features and more than 200 shorts. Recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, the Berlin Prize, Heinz Award in Art and Humanities, Alpert Award for Film/Video, and Rome Prize, Everson’s work has been featured in retrospectives at Tate Modern/Film, London; Halle fur Kunst Steiermark, Graz; Harvard Film Archive, Cambridge; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Centre Pompidou, Paris; Modern and Contemporary Art Museum, Seoul; and Cinematek Brussels; and at the Whitney Biennial (2008, 2012, 2017), the Sharjah Biennial (2013), and the 2018 Carnegie International. Everson is a Professor of Art at University of Virginia, Charlottesville.


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