Charles-André Coderre is a visual artist and filmmaker based in Montreal. Alongside his personal projects, he’s been working with different members of the Constellation roster since 2011. A recent Jerusalem In My Heart show at Cafe OTO in London provided the right opportunity to discuss his working practice.
What is your background and how did you get into filmmaking?
I studied in a film production program at the University of Montreal and I did my Master’s degree on contemporary experimental cinema at the same institution. During that time, I got involved with the Montreal experimental filmmaker collective Double Negative. Since then, I’ve worked on various projects with members of the collective. I started working with Karl Lemieux, filmmaker / visual artist for Godspeed You! Black Emperor, since the announcement of the new Godspeed You! Black Emperor tour in 2011. I was helping him hand-process the footage and I did a lot of optical printing for the shows. Also, I worked with Karl as his assistant on the Black Keys 2012 visual tour (the band won a Grammy award for the best rock performance this year) and as an editor on different projects – recent videos for the tracks ‘Lilac in Hand’ by Amen Dunes and ‘Halo Getters’ by Hiss Tracts.
How did you get involved with Jerusalem in My Heart?
Radwan knew of my passion for analogue film & music and he was my « contact » to let me shot the Land of Kush latest album (“The Big Mango”) recording session at his music studio The Hotel2tango in Montreal. From those images I created my film “H2T”.
Needless to say, I was a huge fan of Jerusalem In My Heart’s project before my participation as projectionist and visual artist. I knew very well the work made by the others visual artists: Malena Szlam and Karl Lemieux. I am honoured to be part of this project.
For those who haven’t been lucky enough to catch one of the shows, could you describe your set-up?
Radwan is playing buzuk, synths and he is singing in front of multiple screens (we are actually working on a new set-up for the next shows) and I normally take up a place in the centre of the room with the audience around me, sometimes very close! Once, in Paris, I needed to push people around to get access to my film loops.
During the shows, I am operating four to six 16mm film projectors and projecting film loops (each of them is more or less 6 feet long). It is really important for us to create an ‘installation’. I’m not standing behind everyone with the sound technician. The audience can see me working, they can hear the incredible projector sound. This specific installation is part of the show.
What are the unique challenges faced by a filmmaker working in a live context?
First of all, it’s a film performance and not a digital projection. I cannot just press play and wait till the end of the show. The projector may break up, the loops too. All my projectors are quite old. It’s a risky thing! It makes it very challenging and this is what I like. Unique, unpredictable and alive!
Jerusalem In My Heart’s music is mostly instrumental but with some key sang parts. Did you discuss the background to the tracks and the lyrics with Radwan Ghazi Moumneh while putting together the visuals? How did you make them work together?
I knew very well the project before getting into it. I already had an idea of what was the ‘soul’ of it. Radwan and I maintain a continued dialogue. I first listen to his new tracks, I show him some images and then, we work together to find the best combination. In any case, I’m not trying to make a representation of the lyrics. I know the meaning of what Radwan is singing but I’m more interested in creating something that I feel to be in the right mood, and very intimate to me, in accordance with the music. For instance, I know the political statement behind the lyrics, so, I try to show images that refer to this political spirit without showing literally what Radwan is singing.
It’s really important for us to offer to the public a real meeting between two different arts. As the experimental filmmaker Bradley Eros said: “there’s material aspect of cinema, celluloid film, that makes it resonate as an experience of live media, ephemeral, parallel to the physical theater, oral poetry & musical vibration of acoustic instruments”. In a certain way, we are interested in the intrinsic relationship between celluloid film and live music performance. There is a lot of improvisation during the performance depending on the length of a piece of music that can be modified by Radwan, by the way he plays his instrument etc. I would describe the show as “controlled improvisation”. There is a canvas and we improvise around it. That’s why it’s never the same experience for the audience.
You only use original 16 mm film material in your JiMH’s shows, which you shoot and develop yourself. Some of your films are also heavily post-processed, mostly by hand, if I’m not mistaken. Could you explain how big a part this process has in your work?
I shoot all the images in 16mm (B&W and colour) and I hand-process them. After that, depending on the result I’m looking for, I use old photography techniques such as mordançage, reticulation, bleach etching, hand-made emulsion or solarization. I spend a lot of time in a darkroom with chemical products. I’m still, and always, at the learning stage for all these tremendous techniques! All those chemicals reactions on the film make me feel as if the film is alive and for me, this is the fundamental difference between working in film instead of digital. Also, I spend many hours in front of an optical printer to make fresh copies of the altered materials and change the rhythm of the images. It is impossible to pass the original film in the projector after several chemicals baths. That’s why I need to do a lot of optical printing. After that, I send my films to the Niagara Custom Lab in Toronto to make sure I have enough print copies for the shows.
Did you specifically shoot any new material for the shows or did you use archive stuff you already had?
It’s a work in progress! I always try to include new material after a bunch of shows. For the actual shows, most of the images were shot specifically for Jerusalem In My Heart performances. There were a few abstract images that I took from some films made in the past. Also, as you said, I show some archive stuff that I already had but never used before. For example, in 2012, I shot a full moon party in a little town called Kalaw in Myanmar. I found the images very relevant for the show. Actually, when people come to see me after a performance, they are convinced that those images are found footage.
It is becoming increasingly difficult for artists to work with 16 mm film as most labs have closed down and stock is not as easy to get hold of. And even then, once one has overcome all the pre and post-production hurdles it’s not easy to find festivals (aside from niche ones) that still show films rather than digital transfers. Having said that, at the same time, it is has also become increasingly frequent, at least in London, to walk into a gallery and find 16 mm projectors, or at least up until very recently. Artists seem to be keep burning the flame of film more effectively than film-makers, in same cases, and I am thinking, for instance, at the work of Tacita Dean and her Turbine installation at Tate Modern. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future of film?
I could say that Tacita Dean’s work, as well as her clear position on film, is a big inspiration to me. I’m thinking of her article ‘Save Celluloid, for art’s sake’ published in _The Guardian_ in 2011 and her book _FILM_ dedicated to the future of film as great manifesto for the survival of celluloid film in this digital era.
I’m motivated to work with film because, notwithstanding an industry which encourages the obsolescence of celluloid (but continues to attempt to reproduce its aesthetic through digital means), there still exist a number of filmmaking collectives who continue to defend the use of film in their practice. I’m thinking of l’Abominable, The Handmade Film Institute, Process Reversal, Filmwerplaats, Labor Berlin, no.w.here, and Double Negative, to name a few, that pave the way to ensure the survival of the celluloid medium in cinema. It’s a great time to work with film! Let’s shoot shoot shoot shoot shoot to refer to the London Film-Makers Cooperative manifesto from 1967.
Are there any parallels between the analogue and digital dichotomy of film and that of music? Can you see yourself ever working with digital images in the immediate future?
I think each approach has its specificity and its way of thinking. For example, the hotel2tango music studio offers both digital and analog ways to record an album. It’s a question of what you want to do. Each technology has its advantages.
Actually, I collaborate with a friend who created his own 3D software, Raphael Demers. The performance is called “Bangkok Loops”. In this performance, we show 16mm film loops as well as 3D digital images that came from a digital scan of a 35mm movie trailer. I’m really interested in these ‘technological hybridity possibilities’ that were not possible 20 years ago.
One thing that struck me seeing your set-up, is that you also travel with your own projectors, and you had four of them at Cafe OTO. Apart from the fact that projectors are really heavy to carry around, how expensive does it actually make it to tour the shows?
We left 3 projectors in Europe in a storage place to help with the flight fees and we are lucky in that Radwan is often in Europe doing sound work for bands such as Suuns or Ought. It helps us to reduce the cost of the tour at different levels.
Do you get any grants as an artist and filmmaker or the austerity cuts have struck hard in Canada as well?
I can feel the austerity around me because film festivals and artist-run centres in Montreal have so much difficulty in keeping up their activities. It’s a hard time for the arts. Personally, I’ve been very lucky because there was a new program for emerging filmmakers in Canada called ‘micro budget’ and I got into it with a friend of mine, Yann-Manuel Hernandez, to do a feature film! The exception that proves the rule!
Your films are mostly abstract, but you have also worked with actors in the past. How important is narrative in your work?
I’m actually working on a feature film with actors. I’m very concerned about narrative and I could say that even in Jerusalem In My Heart’s project, this is a preoccupation to me. It is very important to find the right balance between abstract images and figurative images. I want to create an open space for the imagination and then, to be able to reconnect with things that people can identify. The public can let their mind go, but I’m really aware of the need to integrate images from reality that can provoke an emotion. I’m working a lot on this aspect of the visual side.
What are you currently working on?
Actually, I’m working on my first feature film that will be shot in digital & film and on new shows for Jerusalem In My Heart.