Wednesday, September 23, 2009

American is my second language

Lately I have taken to doing a bad American accent when hanging out with the locals. I am unsure how far this will go.

Some other brief observations:

- bread here is generally a lot sweeter than in New Zealand.
- water, in a way that is hard to describe, has a stronger taste.

- it is so hot that the air is thick... I have a new appreciation for air conditioning
- cars are very courteous to pedestrians.
- burgers are much bigger.
- a lot of the Americans I have met use the words "go ahead" unnecessarily. For example, "I'm going to go ahead and open these windows," or, "Let's go ahead and read this article."
- a lot of the Americans I have met are wonderfully polite.
- Larry King takes on greater significance when you watch him here.
- desert dust is no good for my allergies.
- the world music students occasionally fill the morning air with delightful bells and whistles.
- the writing school students are overtly obscure
- undergrad theater and dance students are skilled at
self-consciously projecting themselves.
- I enjoy waking up in the morning, getting ready for school, then walking across the grass to class.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Some conversation and home decor

I have to admit that the first two days of class had left me feeling a little bit down. In my first semester, I have a lot of required classes, most of which are technical workshops that all of us in the Program for Film and Video have to do to gain access to the gear. I am sure that I will expand my knowledge in this area, which is certainly useful, but I had started to wonder where the critical core of my degree might exist, as there seemed to be little space for it in the classes I am taking. On top of this, I was starting to wonder about my classmates. Presumably we are all here because we have some kind of talent, but to begin with, I had no idea what anyone makes, or what they think about what they make, or what they think about anything, actually. I am happy to report however, that as the first week unfolded, some conversation emerged that allowed us to engage with some broad ideas surrounding art, film and what we are doing here. One class in particular, Film Making Fundamentals with James Benning, gave rise to a group discussion regarding the current state of play for film; what it is, what we can do with it and why. The debate was lively and I enjoyed this immensely.

Perhaps more importantly though, I am now the proud owner of a duvet (or 'comforter', as they are called here), another pillow and two cushions. These gems of bedroom furnishing were found in a thrift store in Newhall, one of the older parts of Santa Clarita, which is a short 15min bike ride from here (one of my flatmates lent me her bike). I had gone to buy a cellphone and ended up pottering around some shops that looked to be far more independently operated than the chain stores that domminate this city. I sat at the counter in a diner and drank filter coffee, successfully purchased a cheap (but sturdy) communications device and floated into Carmen's Closet. I had previously researched my options for luxurious bed decorations in Walmart and Bed Bath And Beyond, but could not decide whether I should invest US$15 in a pillow and upwards of $30 for a duvet. The lovely Carmen supplied me with all that I needed for the grand total of $8. I was so chuffed with my purchase that I handed over $10 and said she could keep the change. I was left with a slightly awkward ride home, since my new possessions were transported in two large bags hanging off the bike's handlebars. But I didn't care. I knew what joy awaited me. After a lengthy washing mission, the fabric and sponge objects were placed in their new home atop my bed. I believe the colour scheme in my room has really come into its own now. I sleep soundly.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Los Angeles, I love you

I have been back in L.A for just over one week now and gosh, it is very stimulating! In contrast to San Francisco, logic was something that was clearly not a concern at the town planning meeting. I have seen many interesting people, buildings, art, roads, dead spaces, living zones... all of which are jostling for position and often find themselves on top of one another. It seems at this stage there is no end to what L.A has to offer. One art highlight I would like to mention was the Abraham Cruzvillegas show at REDCAT, the gallery that CalArts founded. The NZ3 went to the opening event for Autoconstrucción: The Film.
With regards to composition and narrative structure, there was an amazing similarity between Cruzvillegas' film and 'Work And Not Work', the film I made at the end of last year. Every shot was stationary, making a composition out of the architecture of his home town, arranged into long sequences detailing the ram shackle houses and improvised structures that were born out of necessity. One might think of them as 'proof of existence'. These passages were interspersed with quite explicit sex scenes, very abruptly dropped into the narrative to provide a dramatically private counterpoint to the exterior surveys, though they were filmed with the same observational distance. Cruzvillegas gave a talk which I found to be very invigorating. I asked two questions that received a thoughtful reply (though my accent sliced through the air with startling inelegance). Fiona and I managed to talk with him afterward and he was very open to conversation. It's so great when you have those experiences where you recognise that you are relating to someone or some idea, that it is resonating with you. That's truth really. About as true as life gets maybe. It's reassuring also, like, yes, I know that this makes sense to me.

Another highlight was the Downtown Artwalk, where numerous galleries or temporary installations open up late into the evening and hundreds of people roam the streets, taking in the art, music and markets. I didn't see many art works that I related to, but the bustling atmosphere and myriad styles of fashion were fascinating. This was especially
interesting after considering the current gentrification of the area, which is turning previously derelict buildings into 'stylish' loft apartments. On the way there we ate delicious tacos from a low-fi stand that was operating in a carpark. One of the staff members thought my pronunciation of 'pollo' was quite funny and suggested I simply say 'chicken'

Today is the first day of classes so I guess my holiday is over. I am quite settled now, though I need to buy a blanket for my bed and perhaps a pot plant, as my room currently feels like an abandoned storage cupboard in a primary school. I also need to buy a car and a mobile so that I can be more independent. It is important for me to be able to explore the city further in my own slow way so that I can understand my relationship to it better.

One further point I should make is that I don't have any 'art' ideas at the moment, only questions and concerns. For example, I feel like there is some kind of ethical or maybe moral puzzle to navigate as I start to make work here. I am very conscious of the fact that I am a foreigner and I am unsure at the moment how my relationship to the environment will develop, since I am bound by this condition. So what does it mean for me to film what I see here? Will the work exist as a postcard or travel snap? Or is it possible to gain some kind of solid ground from which to engage? I'm sure that this will resolve itself over time and I am fully prepared to make some bad tourist art along the way. Perhaps there is fertile territory in this idea of dislocation? But I don't really want to make art about me and my isolation.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sweet home

I moved into my new room yesterday in the graduate apartment block at CalArts. As you can see from the photo, it is designed with a certain functionality in mind. Though since I have downsized my belongings, there is actually plenty of space and the view, as detailed in the other photo above, is very pleasant. Fiona and Amy were kind enough to drop me off and help move my suitcases. As we came up the driveway a little shiver of excitement rolled through my old bones. It was so choice to see the buildings in the flesh and to step onto the grounds where I will spend the next three years.

The area where the school is located, Valencia, is a planned community, part of the city of Santa Clarita, about 30min drive from some of the more well known parts of L.A. It is an amazingly repetitive (and huge) neighbourhood, with roads that spiral off the main drags into dead ends, driving all business back into the vast strip malls that have every chain store you could wish for. The buildings that house these shops are all the same and there seems to be no opportunity for a small collection of independent stores to spring up. Virtually all of the homes are replicas of each other, taking the concept of suburbia to a whole new level. I would find this all terribly depressing if wasn't so absolutely fascinating.

Tonight I went with some new friends to play glow-in-the-dark mini golf, one of the few things to do here at night time. There was a fine selection of country music on the sound-system to accompany us through our fiercely battled competition. I came a respectable 3rd, with 4th and 5th trailing miserably behind me.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Hello Los Angeles. Hello friend.

I'm back in L.A now. Fiona Connor picked me up from Long Beach airport. It was really great to see her. Before leaving NZ I was very conscious of this being a huge solo adventure and I was looking forward to tackling America on my own. But I realise now that having a friend here is so important. Fiona, her friend Sasha and I went down to the beach and had a swim. It was pretty disgusting water (comparable to Takapuna on a bad day) but so enjoyable nonetheless. We cruised around the city, got my suitcases out of storage and cleaned up at Sasha's folks' home in Studio City. Being able to crack jokes and compare experiences as New Zealanders is invaluable, especially since we can relate artistically (and Fiona has considerably more knowledge about the U.S than I do). I am very excited about the future and feel that I am starting to find my footing here.

Today I hung out in the house that Amy Howden-Chapman and Fiona are house sitting for a few months (again, very lovely to meet Amy and extend 'Team Kiwi'). It is owned by a very Christian family who obviously love their home and put a lot of money into it. Everything is big... the oven, the fridge, the milk cartons, the sauce bottles... it is quite surreal to be making myself comfortable in what might be thought of as a quintessential American home when the owners aren't here. I don't belong at all, yet here I am, happily making a cup of tea and cooking a fried egg on toast. Funny how quickly one can adjust to their surroundings. We also cooked dinner which helped me to feel like I am settling in. So far, America is a fine place to be.


I have found San Francisco to be a pleasingly arranged city. There are very distinct areas, each with their own characteristics and all them close together. You want this? You go there. You want that? Go here. I am certain that I will return to take in the sights that I have missed. And of course it will be fantastic to spend more time with John and Leland, who have been completely generous hosts. Our night time gallivanting has certainly taxed us all physically, but I feel it was necessary to experience as much as I could in the few days that I had here. I am sad to leave, but look forward to settling into my new abode, back in that sprawling mega city, Los Angeles.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Art in real life

Wow. I went to the San Francisco MoMA today. That was a very special experience... Johns, Magritte, Lichtenstein, Picasso, Rothko, the list goes on. Seeing the precision of a Donald Judd right up close was quite something. 'Untitled' was a series of 10 small boxes arranged vertically on the wall. I noted that the edges were not soldered along the whole length of the box, but were in fact only attached at the ends and the middle with a small amount of solder. Using only the necessary amount of bounding material somehow brought a degree of delicacy to the work that has not been apparent to me before.

Of special importance to me was Drawing Restraint 14 by Matthew Barney. I had no idea it was there, so when I stumbled upon it I have to admit that a large degree of awe dictated my experience. It was right at the top of the ceiling and included the Cremaster symbol, constructed with wobbly lines, but clearly identifiable. The rest of the drawing consisted largely of scribbles and the words 'Situation', 'Condition', 'Production'. There appeared to be a large amount of layering, allowing for a narrative related to its construction to reveal itself. Even in the most dense films from the Cremaster cycle, it is this layering of narrative that I find to be extremely stimulating and inspiring.

The rest of my day was filled mostly with walking the streets again, trying to get a feel for other parts of the city. Last nights entertainment is slowly me down somewhat, though I have managed to cover a reasonable amount of ground.

Flowers in my hair

Quite frankly, San Francisco is fantastic. It is such an easy city to fall in love with. There are heaps of people around, plenty of things to look at and it is very simple to get around. Today I walked from South Beach, through the Financial District, the Mission, Castro, Haight-Ashbury on to the Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park. It took me a few hours but I find that walking is a great way to get the lay of the land and I would rather look at people than go to tourist spots.

One odd element is the very large number of homeless people on the main streets. I'm told it is the fair weather and the city's accepting attitude towards them that makes it a good environment for those without a house to live in relative comfort. It is a little disconcerting since a lot of them seem to be a bit crazy. But everyone seems to coexist without too much bother, so that is what I am doing.

John is being an exceptional host. We are going out again for dinner tonight and will no doubt hit a few of the cities numerous drinking establishments.

On the move

Today I flew to San Francisco. While I was waiting for my plane I started to feel physically better, which allowed me to feel excited, which I think made me even more better physically. I'm visiting John Duncan, James' brother. We are staying at his girlfriend's apartment in South Beach. I've only been in this city a few hours and already I feel like it is a lovely place to be. There is a vibrant atmosphere, beautiful buildings... I think this will be an excellent little holiday.

Outside it's America

Day two in Santa Monica and I am, for the most part, stuck inside my motel. Last night was awful... very little sleep, an unhappy body and nothing but 100 channels of garbage for company... and it is so hot here. I went for a walk in the afternoon to find some food. I ended up going into a supermarket and buying ingredients for a sandwich... chicken, coleslaw and cheese... which I assembled outside the store and ate on the spot. I actually felt very comfortable and was happy enough to survey the scene for an hour or so. I walked further down Lincoln Blvd for the sake of some sight seeing... it's a huge six lane road that runs for several kilometers... mostly takeaway joints, convenience stores and service shops, but I was just glad to be out of the motel for a while, though I soon ran out of energy and needed to return to my den of sickness.

A new land

How strange to step outside a building and into a new country. I'm sure to everyone else this is not so interesting, but I am very conscious of this fact and how it is impacting on my experiences. Foreign land leads to foreign thoughts. However, I am also aware that it is still me, just walking around, same old Sean. The duality is very stimulating. I'm looking forward to seeing how this shifts my art making.

I'm staying at the Santa Monica Motel on Lincoln Blvd. It is a suitably low-fi affair with modest decor and a certain 'lived in' feeling. My sickness is getting worse, but earlier today I went for a walk around outside to look at my new surroundings and hopefully find some drugs. Despite my blocked head, it was thrilling... African-Americans driving huge cars blasting hip hop from their subs, Hispanic dudes hanging outside Super Pollo, greased Americans talking loudly... so much of it is very familiar, at least as image. And then seeing it for real feels like living in the image, close but distant at the same time.

Maybe I'm being naive but so far nothing seems that out of the ordinary... everyone is essentially doing the same thing... we all just hang out, eat, try to enjoy ourselves. Plus Western culture is all around us. I realise there may be contradictions in what I am saying... exciting but familiar, new thoughts, same Sean... I guess this is the reality of what I am experiencing.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

I have no room and I need to pee

A physical and emotional wreck... I don't know if this is a good state to be in for your first long haul flight, but you play the cards your dealt I guess. I do enjoy taking off, though given that this is the first time I have left NZ and I will be gone for a while, there was certainly an added sense of adventure, like, "This is permanent." The night's activities were obviously a bit limited, but big action films translate surprisingly well to tiny TVs with poor resolution... "You are not alone, there are pockets of resistance all around the earth"... damn straight Mr. Bale, I AM the resistance.

The phrase, "I'll sleep when I'm dead" took on a colourful new meaning around 2am. Then around 4am I realised I was sick. This was not pleasant, not at all... head, stomach, throat... none of these guys were in a good mood. Still, I did manage to squeeze in 'Leaving Las Vegas.' Nicholas Cage is a fantastic actor, I will not hear a bad word spoken about him. I love his commitment to the craft, his honesty, his charisma. Watching someone kill himself with drink in a place only a few hours away from where I will soon live was little disconcerting, but I'm sure that I needn't worry too much. The good life awaits me...