In the last few years, multidisciplinary artist Zia Anger has traversed the boundaries between music, performance art, and cinema, in her work directing music videos for artists like Angel Olsen, Julianna Barwick, Mitski, Beach House, and Jenny Hval. Anger’s collaborations with Hval are perhaps most symbiotic, dating back to 2013, when Anger also starred in Hval’s provocative “Innocence Is Kinky” video. In 2015, Anger released two surrealistic short films, “I Remember Nothing” (which features a clipped, out-of-body rendition of Hval’s “Why This?” from Apocalypse, girl) and “My Last Film,” which screened in Madison in early 2017 as part of the now-retired Micro-Wave Cinema Series, in a program curated by the independent studio Memory.
Since that time, Anger had a small role in Ricky D’Ambrose’s Notes On An Appearance, and she’s most notably been piecing together what she’s now touring, screening, and performing as My First Film, a truly original meta-reflection that involves the audience in her interchange of laptop video and live commentary. Anger will bring the project to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art on Wednesday, October 23; and the Milwaukee Film Festival on Thursday, October 24. In her personal live screenings of My First Film, Anger psychologically plunges into her “abandoned” first endeavor, Always All Ways, Anne Marie (2012), about a young woman’s talismanic journey to find her mother. Like Anger’s other work, My First Film is wryly introspective in its explorations of her own mythos and emotions. In her own words, it “erases the line drawn between a filmmaker’s body and body of work,” a characterization that should resonate with anyone piqued by the history and context of Jenny Hval’s earthy poetry.
Billed as a “live event,” the first of its kind for MMoCA’s Spotlight Cinema series, the 75-minute presentation weaves a narrative using real-time text in Apple’s TextEdit, Google searches, audience directives, and AirDrops. It offers surprising revelations in the realm of artistic creation as well as what it means to be a female artist in today’s media landscape. Before collectively experiencing Anger’s journey, I wanted to ask about her thoughts on her investment in the totality of the process, building new cinema grammar, and the relationship of cinema and performance.
Tone Madison: From what I’ve seen of your work in My Last Film (2015) and recent music video for Jenny Hval’s “Accident,” the concepts you present are both interconnected and open-ended… maybe what I’d call ongoing internal-psychological artistic dialogue. For example, “Accident” opens with you/your own mother beginning to type a letter to Jenny in TextEdit about how you “can no longer do this work (with no money)…”
The second half of My Last Film offers some insights into the history of what came to be My First Film, as an actress (Rosanna Arquette) laments the death of cinema in a monologue with a comment about festival submissions and entry fees—a personal reflection of your actual efforts with the “abandoned” feature film that My First Film is a live commentary of, partly in the aforementioned TextEdit program on your laptop. Would your definition of cinema reject the idea that any one work, particularly your own, is self-contained?
I feel like you’ve provided a certain personal update to cinematic self-reference or the meta-film with integration and implementation of modern technology, even offering a kind of reverse montage of your own collaborative work with Jenny Hval as the “Accident” video concludes. What role do you think pervasive technology has (or modern devices have) in either upholding or destroying general pre-existing notions of cinema?
Zia Anger: My work is not self-contained. Once I thought I was just a filmmaker, at best. Now I understand that all the different types of work I do are in conversation with each other. Even when I have day jobs, they usually end up on my Instagram. Every time I log on to Instagram, or, even better, TikTok, I find myself learning so much about narrative storytelling, and cinema. At least I think I am learning about cinema. I honestly couldn’t tell you what what the traditional existing notion of cinema is. For so long those traditions held me back. I’d rather not go revisit that place. Cinema is so young, I don’t think we are at a point that we should be interested in upholding or destroying anything. We should just be building. For me the pervasiveness of moving images apps is exciting. It allows a sort of democratization. A lot more people have the ability to define the rules and power and methods of moving image production.
Tone Madison: Some of your music videos that I’ve seen—Mitski’s “Geyser” and Zola Jesus’ “Siphon”—involve the musicians themselves (or surrogates) physically acting out and pantomiming the lyrics to the actual song in a kind of performance art, a supplemental visual commentary to their intimate sonic landscapes. That’s also how some might interpret what you plan to do in Madison with My First Film, but perhaps in a more metacinematic dimension. How did you develop your stylistic voice in uniting performance art/interpretative dance with your interest in art films or filmmaking? Have you always seen them as being intertwined or an extension of one another?
Zia Anger: My whole life I’ve been unable to separate my body from my heart and my brain. Some people are very good at compartmentalizing. I am not. I was a jock growing up. And so the emotional and intellectual highs and lows of competition were often accompanied by a physical performance. In the performance I allude to many reasons why now I might be drawn to dance or more “artistic” forms of movement. But this way of expressing one’s emotions and thoughts through physicality is something I have always done. And is something that is hard for me to separate the parts of.
Tone Madison: From what I’ve seen of your art and collaborations, particularly with Jenny Hval (and her most engrossing diaristic songwriting), the perspectives are driven almost solely by experiences and stories of women. With My First Film, that’s magnified by the fact that you’re diving into your own histories and processes. Over the course of your working career, what shifts or lack thereof have you noticed in the avant-garde movement (locally or even internationally) regarding the involvement of women? What advice would you offer younger women, who are aspiring filmmakers, to foster their sense of inclusion?
Zia Anger: Historically, in the film industry it was important to keep secrets. It’s important because if you are the only one who knows how to do something, or how something was done, you are the only person doing that. It gives you power. You have no competition. This is a very “masculine” way of being. Luckily the film industry is becoming more transparent. Some of the best lessons I have learned are not from people who are more powerful or established than me, but from peers. To young people I would say keep asking questions of each other, and answering each others questions. Create circles of collaborators where you all are being generous with each other. Reject patriarchal structures and ways of treating each other. And don’t worry too much about the older and more established filmmakers who may not give you the time of day. Reject movie theatre Q&As and replace them with Q&As with your collaborators and peers. It’s a much better use of time.