Sculpting Trauma to Shed Light on the Past
New York City is tirelessly filled with innumerable happenings; every so often, one stands out and shakes the audience to its core. White Man On A Pedestal is a two-person performance project by artist Doreen Garner and Kenya Robinson for Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, New York. The exhibition forces viewers to observe and viscerally connect with the profound racism that permeates the life and work of Dr. J. Marion Sims—long considered the “father of modern gynecology”—who performed torturous procedures on enslaved black women without anesthesia or consent for the purposes of experimentation and research.
On behalf of Art21, an award-winning non-profit platform for contemporary art, independent filmmaker Brian Redondo captured Garner’s stunning performance for all of us to experience after the life of her exhibit. I interviewed Brian about his filmmaking process, and about this specific performance—the goal of which was to introduce the concept of a multi-layered and ever-relevant trauma to audiences on a large scale. First, here’s the film:
Brittany Washington: How would you describe your work? What types of non-fiction stories are you drawn to?
Brian Redondo: I try to use documentary storytelling as a means to amplify voices from the margins of society. It’s inherently political, but I hope I also help reveal something else more universal about people and our relationships with each other. And, like a lot of filmmakers, I tend to gravitate towards issues and stories that I’m personally connected to, so in my case, much of my work revolves around immigrants and immigration.
BW: How did your collaboration with Art21 come about?
BR: I somehow got an email blast from series producer Nick Ravich, perhaps through my membership in the Diverse Filmmakers Alliance. He was looking for freelancers and I responded and expressed interest. Once we sat down over coffee and got to know each other, I think we realized we thought about both documentary and the art world in similar ways. A couple months later, he proposed that I work on the piece with Doreen.
BW: What were your initial thoughts about Doreen and her project?
BR: When I first searched the web for Doreen’s work, I was initially concerned that the mutilated bodies represented by her sculptures would be too difficult to digest on screen…that audiences might tune out before they had a chance to hear her intentions. But after I met her and saw her work up-close, I was in awe. Doreen’s level of craft, her meticulousness, and her ideas about sculpting trauma left a huge impression on me. I realized her project operated on multiple levels and with numerous entry points for different types of audiences. So, then, my concern became less about making it palatable and more about how I could possibly condense and present it all in eight minutes.
BW: It’s not very easy to film performance art, or art in general. How do you approach making such subjects visually exciting?
BR: I actually disagree. To me, performance is easy to film because it’s visually striking by its very nature. Good performers naturally emote, often without needing words; they do something that most either can’t do or are unwilling to do. Watching an action performed with emotion is the foundation of cinema. So then, to make it visually exciting, following the action is probably 70% of the job. For the remainder, I try to think about what makes the particular performance or performer noteworthy (e.g. the process, the space, the irony, the audience, etc.) and whose perspective should be presented. Then I try to tease that out through the camera.
BW: You’ve had a good deal of experience filming performances, but this show worked with a variety of materials and thematics that one doesn’t normally encounter. Tell me about the style and angle you took in capturing Doreen’s unusual aesthetic.
BR: One of the first things Doreen and I discussed was her appreciation for the music videos of Hype Williams, which she loosely uses as inspiration to create unforgettable imagery. So I used his work as inspiration too, opting for slow motion, some overhead shots, and embracing the dramatic lighting and deep reds of her show. (I opted to do so without the fish eye lens.) I also tried to give the piece the eerie feeling of a genre film. I tried to incorporate editing tricks from suspense and horror films as well as their use of a floating, ghost-like camera. Her work is haunting and so is the history it’s based on, so I tried to match that in the film aesthetically.
BW: As non-fiction filmmakers, we use stories to educate audiences through the medium of the moving image. Doreen does this as well, in her own way and with her own tools. Did you ascertain any commonalities or connections between your work and hers?
BR: When Doreen talks about sculpting her audience’s trauma, what she means is that she aims to craft a very specific experience for her audience to have. She takes into account every detail — lighting, sounds, smells, textures — so that all the senses are engaged and a lasting mark is made. That experience imbues the history she’s referencing with something resonant that goes beyond facts—something that only art can really achieve. I think about filmmaking in a similar way. Audiences can certainly read about various topics, but it’s only through hearing the real voices of people, observing their mannerisms, and spending time in their daily environments that we gain an empathetic understanding that goes beyond just the mere facts. Film allows us to experience the lives and perspectives of different people, and I try to craft that experience, using all the aesthetic tools of the medium, into something absorbing and revealing.
BW: We screened your film at a monthly gathering that was thematically observing Black History Month, when we highlighted stories about the black experience as well as some pieces that were created by black filmmakers. Doreen offered that her work “is concentrated on stories in which black bodies are exploited by the medical industry.” Diversity and inclusion within the media and behind the lense are conversations we’re having quite a lot of these days. As someone who was tasked with telling a “black story” while coming from an Asian American background, would you say that you’re finding increasing opportunities to work with and experiences to engage in that celebrate a variety of cultural spaces that are lesser known or, perhaps, are more in the public eye than previously?
BR: I think filmmakers of color and filmmakers of any other underrepresented, underserved, marginalized identity group have typically told stories about our own communities to combat dominant narratives of the mainstream. And I think, on the whole, we’ve always engaged with one another in that process. The difference now is that mainstream media is starting to take an active interest in such stories. I think traditional gatekeepers are more aware of the need to be more inclusive, whether by force or by choice, and new gatekeepers have emerged to provide more platforms for this kind of work. While opportunities have increased, I think it still feels forced…like demographic boxes are being checked off and quotas being met. We still have a long way to go before the true robustness of our diverse society is properly represented on film.
BW: What was your crew like for this piece?
BR: I was playing a one-man band for half the shoots, but for the rest, I fortunately had second cameras and sound courtesy of fellow filmmakers Anna Barsan and Diana Diroy, as well as PA Ife Adelona, from Art21.
BW: And, what are you working on now?
BR: I’m currently editing a feature length documentary called One Day I Too Go Fly. It’s directed by Boston filmmaker Arthur Musah and documents the college experience and coming of age of four MIT students from Africa. I’m also trying to jumpstart a couple new short docs about families and communities dealing with deportations.