Our “Fellows Friday” series focuses on the artistic lives of our Pew Fellows: their aspirations, influences, and creative challenges.
This week, we speak to artist and filmmaker Mark Kendall (2016), whose experimental documentary films reflect on, as he says, “the everyday conditions of our everyday lives” in ways that bring together the physical, sensuous and perceptual with the intellectual. His feature directorial debut La Camioneta premiered at the 2012 SXSW Film Festival, and was selected as a New York Times Critic’s Pick. Kendall’s work has been screened at venues such as the National Gallery of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, Wexner Center for the Arts at Ohio State University, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. A Guggenheim Fellow (2014) and Sundance Institute Fellow (2011), Kendall has been in residence at the Bogliasco Study Center in Italy (2017) and The MacDowell Colony (2015), and was a Fulbright Fellowship Program finalist in film/video (2008).
How did you become an artist? Is there a particular experience that drove you to this choice?
I've long been interested in how people define and seek to transcend the boundaries of their own individual and cultural worlds. In college, I worked at Vanderbilt's Object Perception Lab, learning about the plasticity of the senses and the haptic potential of visual perception. As an anthropology major, I was interested in exploring the intersections between phenomenology, liminal states and spaces, and questions of cultural value. I slowly began gravitating towards filmmaking over the course of several years because it was a vehicle that provided an affordance for synthesizing my curiosity about the human condition with my background in music and emerging interest in photography. Accordingly, I approach the art of filmmaking as a kind of experiment, employing a strategy of carefully attending to, and possibly altering, habits of perception.
What are some of the early art experiences that have influenced your approach to your work?
In Knee Plays #5, David Byrne says, “Being in the theatre is more important than knowing what is going on in the movie.” Although I had some formal musical training as a child, it wasn’t until I took up the bass years later and began to improvise that things really opened up for me. With improvisation, there’s no such thing as a wrong note because it’s really not about any one note—it’s about the relations between them, and about getting inside those relations. I think that early freedom to experiment musically, to let myself be guided as things unfold, really influenced the way I approach my films. [Writer and theater critic] Hilton Als has this great line about Sly & the Family Stone’s subversive appeal where he says that their genius was to have a soulful groove in the bassline while layering in lyrics that were counter-cultural. I also find myself drawn to works that traffic in social commitment conveyed through an unexpected set of conditions.
Your feature directorial debut La Camioneta follows a decommissioned school bus on a transformative journey from the US to Guatemala. What inspires your film subject choices? What are you trying to convey in your work?
Like most people in the 21st century, I find myself inundated with ideas, information, and images. My ideas for films come from conversations, my day-to-day life, things I’ve read or seen. Maybe it all comes back to improvisation—there’s got to be some kind of imaginative spark that is made available in the right moment, which carries both me and the project forward.
One can make a film about pretty much any subject, but what really matters is how one chooses to approach that subject. How are we seeing what we are seeing? What kind of space are you inviting the viewer into?
For La Camioneta, I was interested in following the journey of a familiar cultural object as a way to explore the ecology of its relations after its perceived value had expired. It was equally as vital for me to be on the bus myself as it was to not know where it might end up, who might be its new owner, or what route, if any, it might end up joining. Along its trajectory across various borders, this recognizable, relatable object—the school bus—becomes a means for weaving together more personal, human stories within the larger context of global circulatory processes.
An array of brightly colored camionetas form the backbone of the public transportation industry in Guatemala, and each one is painted in a unique way, utilizing a graffiti-like style that incorporates traditional symbols and styles. Some might assume this surface is merely decorative or ornamental, but it actually has a structural function that belies the simplicity of its appearance. For rural indigenous communities steeped in oral traditions, these designs—which reference the Mayan huipil textile tradition—carry within them a nonverbal code that communicates essential information to potential passengers about place and identity, without relying on language. That is to say, how it looks is much less important than how it functions.
Despite the impression of it being some kind of minimalist conceptual conceit, focusing the film on just one bus actually afforded the opportunity for telescopic shifts in scale, and it opened up all kinds of possibilities I never could have foreseen. Sometimes I am reminded that an entire universe can emerge out of something simple if you allow the world to breathe through it.
In his 1982 essay “Theory of the Quasi-Object,” Michel Serres describes how an object—as opposed to being an inert thing that is merely acted upon—has the ability to both mediate and transform social relations: it simultaneously connects and de-centers, “weaving the collective as it circulates.” I think films also have the potential to behave in this fashion.
What single ethical consideration most impacts the decisions you make as an artist?
If we accept the idea that perception and sensation—the basic elements of experience—are not some ahistorical givens, but are themselves formulated by history and empathy, how can we go about transforming the very perceptions that constitute us in a way that spawns critical spectatorship?
What are the primary vehicles you use to support your practice—what makes it possible?
A good experiment is always on the edge of failure, which is why I am so grateful for the support of incredible funders who value experimentation and who encourage artists to continue pushing boundaries. If you're too comfortable, you're likely not risking anything. Sometimes I am reminded just how important it is to work with and to surround yourself with people who have similar goals and values and who can help you stay true to yourself and keep everything in perspective. Making films is often so open-ended and precarious. The reason you’re going to continue making work years down the line is because you’re resilient, you have a few people who really support you, and you’re in it for the long haul.
What is your biggest challenge?
The hardest thing of all is to preserve your freshness of mind, so that you remain open at all times to being surprised by what you might think you already know. If you can’t surprise yourself, how can you expect to surprise anyone else?