Small Intensities: Films by Karissa Hahn

We typically think of a film as a bounded thing, a discrete unit. Any time-based work has a beginning and an end; even media works that are constructed to be shown as loops will have some moment at which the basic information repeats, and we can consider the piece “complete.” However, something we don’t always think about is the fact that some artists work in series, each individual component of their creative practice deriving its fundamental meaning from all the others.

One can certainly isolate a single Christian Boltanski “missing person” photograph, for example, or a single small sculpture by Allan McCollum or Sol Lewitt. In fact, many artists whose work does focus attention on the singular art object are much better understood when their work is contextualized by multiple examples. A strong Picasso or Pollock can stand out in a crowd, to be sure. But a group show cannot provide the same kind of convincing argument for the vitality of, say, Agnes Martin, Robert Ryman, or Cy Twombly, that you get with a room filled with their canvases.

Filmmakers are no different, and it’s worth noting that there are a number of very significant contemporary makers who, whether deliberately or not, produce their work according to this aesthetic principle. It is a pleasure to catch a glimpse of a single new work by Friedl vom Gröller, Jonathan Schwartz, or Guy Sherwin. But their films are so small and gestural that much of what makes them unique can only really be observed across several films. Sherwin, for his part, exhibits his work in groups of small films, and Schwartz is beginning to do the same

Twenty-three year old L.A. filmmaker Karissa Hahn is another artist who takes this approach, and we are fortunate that her brief, luminous films are now on Fandor where they may receive the multiple viewings they deserve. Part light-diary, part materialist experiment, Hahn’s films are typically short, three minutes or less. Each in its own way engages with the medium’s capacity to record light intensity and the relationship of those sensations to personal and shared memory.

We can observe this in Hahn’s earliest work. The one-minute Retracing Home (2013) is an odd entry, layering a ghostly shot of a window, eventually looking out the window onto a flower garden, with a semi-transparent celluloid field dotted with brightly painted daubs and the occasional flecks of plant matter. The soundtrack shifts from the grind of light on the optical sound head to an echoing bit of synthesizer. Hahn is clearly working to explore the optical printer here, as well as honing her painterly eye. But Retracing Home is too derivative of Stan Brakhage, Jennifer Reeves, and Louise Bourque to allow Hahn’s own voice to shine through just yet.

The formal elements that make Hahn’s work unique start to take shape not long after this, in her films from 2014 onward. Effigy in Emulsion (2014) is an excellent example. At the start of the film, we hear “The Wedding March,” and see a found-footage clip of a bride and groom walking arm in arm down the aisle. We are shown two sequential frames of this film clip along with its sprocket holes, resulting in an optical-printer view that immediately calls to mind Owen Land’s structuralist classic Film In Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc. (1966). Like Land’s film, Effigy soon becomes repetitive, but Hahn takes a far more analytical turn, more akin to Ken Jacobs’ Tom, Tom the Piper’s Son (1969-70). Hahn shows us that during the procession, someone takes a flash photo, whiting out the film. And so, frame-by-frame, Effigy walks us through this footage, increasing the contrast and attempting to isolate this light event. It’s hard to say whether Hahn intended to leave us with any sense of ambivalence with regard to the act of marriage, but her excruciating attenuation of this event turns the simple taking of a picture into a bomb blast, one subjected to Zapruder-like scrutiny. Another one bites the dust.
One of Hahn’s brighter, more lyrical films, Emulsion Electrons Imbued (2014), is one of a series of works that the filmmaker constructed around previously recorded audiotapes. Knowing this is hardly necessary for the viewer, but with that information one gets a better understanding of its looseness, a feeling that it follows motifs that are not necessarily apparent on a single viewing. Still, this is a dense film. Hahn's jump cuts and in-camera editing result in a severe compression of time, so the two short movements of the film strike the viewer as rife with information.

After opening on a bright yellow-orange lens flare, we see a woman on a bed, working in a journal, closing her bedroom window. This sequence focuses on gesture and light, and the staccato motion of the missing frames (a result of the on-again, off-again camera run) creates an almost spectral inventory of attitudes. Then, in the film's second half, the golden tone gives way to a blue tint, as we see upside down reflections roll out on a moving windshield, the medium long shot on the bed replaced with a close-up partial view of the glass. On the soundtrack we hear the muddled voice on the tape, discussing electromagnetic fields and electrons moving further apart. Thematically, rhymes quite subtly with the way light spaces itself out into visible film grain, whirling even as the image remains stationary.

In fact, an earlier double-exposure film shows Hahn examining some of these same concerns in a slightly different manner, from a more strictly formalist angle. Where Emulsion Electrons Imbued has a more varied, seemingly personal agenda, In Effluence accord: Emulsion (2013) takes a single image arrangement – two figures seated in a room in front of illuminated windows – as the basis for a study in light and composition. Hahn takes this single image and duplicates it across the filmstrip vertically, as if it were a stationary event being projected through a moving film. However, using optical printing, we are actually watching the filmstrip move across the screen in silence. As the figures remain relatively still, the “action” of the film is restricted to zones of white light that assert themselves against the overall blacks and reds of the image. These include scratches in the emulsion, horizontal frameline breaks, and the vertical edges of the strip itself on either side of the image.

The actual scene shifts very slowly. Figures change position, the focal length shortens. But this change is so gradual that it is overshadowed by the more dramatic movement of the filmstrip. As the depicted scene slides down again and again, In Effluence accord creates a sort of blur that belies the overall stability of the environment itself. That is, there is very little motion in the image, but the image itself is tumbling into a kind of stuttering echo of itself. As such, we turn to extra-diegetic artifacts, such as edge markings and the bright smear of the windows’ light, to orient ourselves. As with Hahn’s other films, we are asked to look at the light that forms the pictures before us, rather than to look through it. In this regard, Karissa Hahn’s films are small optical poems, using the very basic technologies of 16mm to explore otherwise hidden intensities of the material world.