Mike Hoolboom began making movies in 1980. Making as practice, a daily application. Ongoing remixology. Since 2000 there has been a steady drip of found footage bio docs. The animating question of community: how can I help you?
Salome Kokoladze: I first met you in the Winter of 2013. You came to Baba Hillman’s class at Amherst and as you stepped in the classroom, you turned the lights off. You said something along the lines of “this way our faces soften; it is easier to have a conversation.” I feel your work has this similar function, acting as a reminder that seeing a person and being confronted by a face might need effort, takes time or some sort of quiet/softening. Can you talk about the process of building intimacy through images and how or if this is possible?
Mike Hoolboom: Your question reminds me of how many people I haven’t met, especially after seeing them. Last week a friend and I took a stroll, trying to fill the hole between us with words. We hadn’t seen each other in a while, had fallen out of the habit of each other, so in place of hugs and confidences, there was a new distance. Later in an email she linked this unmeeting with others here in Canada (a new pal assured me: when I first came to Toronto, I learned to cook for one) because of her race (Latinx) and accent.
Levinas says that ethics begins with a face-to-face encounter. But sometimes a face is not a face. Many friends would die for their cat and dog familiars, but think nothing of eating cows and pigs by the galore. Some faces are our pets, while other faces are for eating. How to create soft enough lighting to admit the strangers we keep turning into?
SK: In Soft Landings for Capitalism you mention “horizontal intimacy”. What does this term mean to you and how is it different from more “domesticated” or formulaic understandings of intimacy?
MH: Intimacy summons a touch, doesn’t it? Even on the subway, when I feel a warm flush at the back of my neck, I can feel someone’s look as a touch. Though in the underground it arrives from far away, at a safe distance. What if we were close enough to hurt each other, which also means close enough to love each other, or at least, to open a door, to say hello, lay down a new welcome mat?
The pal I mentioned who learned to cook alone came from the Middle East. She assured me that if you’re making a meal for two, you might as well make enough for twenty, because no doubt the neighbour will stop by, and a kid hungry from too much football, and your sister’s friends. She was describing a culture where doors were the beginning of community. I don’t come from that place. I grew up in the suburbs, where we made a point of not seeing our neighbours, and every face was a threat.
The horizontal intimacy conjured in Soft Landings arrives from the living room art events of Alexandra Gelis and Jorge Lozano. The personal is not only political but cultural. What if culture was about taking care of basic needs like food and relationships? Every evening starts with a free home-cooked meal before the artist opens a conversation, as we slouch over couches or sprawl across the floor, close enough to be touched. Let’s remember that we have bodies together. We make a meal of each other’s words and appetites. What could be more intimate than to be eaten? Didn’t Freud suggest two childhood responses: yes and no, either eat it, let it become part of me, or else reject and keep it outside of my body. Somehow, by transplanting their Colombian roots into this Toronto living room, Alexandra and Jorge open the door, and allow us to feel again.
SK: It is interesting to rewatch Buffalo Death Mask or Positiv during this pandemic. These works not only address how to deal with loss, but also how to be alive. How to be alive when death is an imminent threat for all, how to be alive in isolation, or how to be alive alongside the traps of nostalgia. I also see these earlier works as conversing with the pieces you have made during the Covid-19 pandemic. In Skinned, one of the narrators says, “the virus did not take away my future, it took away my past.” How was collectivity and the maintenance of collective memory possible during the AIDS epidemic and what can we learn from it today?
MH: I remember a moment at a fledgling ACT UP meeting in Vancouver in 1990. We melted in the heat of a stranger’s backyard that was overflowing with white men, and the disorganized organization meant that there were a lot of opening statements, beginnings, preludes. It was like coming for a meal and being served snacks. And then Hank stood up from his wheelchair and said “I haven’t come here to talk, I came here to do something!” He slumped back into his chair as everyone grew quiet, and in that moment of silence we made a turn together, we became a group. Part of what I hear in your question is: how do we make that turn?
We were dying, and had only our bodies to offer as protest material, bodies that had already failed us in so many ways, but they would have to be enough.
There was so much fear that afternoon, and fear became the flipside of anger. Why have a Pride Parade if there isn’t so much shame? We had been gifted our fear by doctors and employers and former best friends, and Hank helped us to touch that fear in our bodies, and turn it into the anger we needed to create change. He had to stand up without legs into order to turn this fear and anger into something else. You might call it queer rights, art, waking up, health care activism or beauty. But in order to go on living, we had to show, to make a public demonstration, of the dying place.
If there is a downhearted feeling of anxiety in the pandemic, maybe it’s because our isolations too neatly mirror neoliberal strategies of isolation and addiction (why don’t we just call the internet: heroin?). But the feeling of suspension, holding up the old flows, invite questions. I learned them from the everyday heroes who gathered in Tahrir Square during the Arab Spring. Instead of police: what makes me feel safe? Instead of school: how do we learn? In place of governments: what do we need to change right now? What is the most important thing? And how can I find out about the most important thing by talking with you about it?
SK: “I don’t see orange, I am orange, I’m an orange drape,” says Donna Washington in Scrapbook. That moment reminded me of the poet Sayat Nova’s lines, “You are fire, your dress is fire” used as a mantra in Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates. While I do not want to romanticize experiences around mental illness or the internal struggles of a poet, I feel as though both voices point to something essential that we might be losing as humans. This loss is well questioned in Incident Reports, where the main character asks while watching a dog eat a bone, “Where is my bone? Where did my bone go, my daydream, my body, my beautiful animal life?” As an artist myself, I find experiences like Donna’s or Sayat Nova’s elusive in the contemporary world: to be redundant in the world, to dissolve into the most mundane of objects, to desire and suffer from this experience at the same time. Do you also feel this? How do you deal with this sort of loss on a daily basis as an artist, as a person?
MH: I’ve spent many years sick in bed, granted a passport to “the other country” as Susan Sontag put it, which is forgotten as soon as you leave. If you’re lucky. Illness returns me to my unwanted body and slows the flow so that I can notice what is actually happening right now. How many times have I staggered outside after a bout of convalescence and felt every sunbeam and blade of grass, listened to the wind rustling through the leaves?
But sickness is a hard taskmaster. Far easier to invest in a couple of “clippy” microphones, thumb-size devices that run into a tapeless tape recorder, and step back into a world where every sound is suddenly and dramatically amplified. The swirl of water in a drain, or a boat dock moaning, or the wings of a swan I watched yesterday charging a bridge. It is only pleasure. And even better, there is no end to it, no decisive moment to attend to, instead, an always opening world invites me to attend, to listen to the song of rustling jackets and bicycle wheels ticking. Because there is no place, not even an anechoic chamber, where silence is possible, the city offers an ongoing collage filled with unexpected juxtapositions. Who has time to listen to the music?
SK: “You are a mother, Ma. You’re also a monster. But so am I — which is why I can’t turn away from you” . I kept thinking about this line when watching 23 Thoughts About My Mother, especially the moment in which you describe your mother slapping you and your brother, followed by your realization that in that moment your mother was “somewhere else, in another country, finally able to take her revenge.” We are so deeply connected to the wounds of our mothers. What does it mean to experience cruelty while understanding and being conscious of the origins of your mother’s pains and actions? Does this help you be gentler towards yourself, towards her?
MH: I didn’t think of the beatings as cruelty, instead I was receiving exactly what was deserved. I had earned the right to receive, I had worked for it, and this was the fruit of my labours. I learned so much while we were in that room together, though these lessons, like all intimacies, came with unexpected costs. She taught me to listen with my whole body, or better: to receive her with my whole body, to attune. It was simply a matter of survival. I could feel her pulse racing as if it was my pulse, I could hear the words squeezed out of her voice box. What else? I learned how to leave my body and forget.
The Japanese internment camp she lived in when she was a kid was beyond even her formidable language. It couldn’t be stored in that house, so she passed it along to her kids as an inheritance. I don’t think it’s unusual. Is that what led Lacan to say that every gift is unwanted? I can understand it, but I can’t stand it. I can accept the explanation, but my body can’t leave that room, or it can’t stop leaving me, so I am still longing for the death in life that I met in those long nights, when she touched me with the irresistible force of invasion and history. What could matter after that?
Ocean Vuong writes: “Memory is a second chance.” I’m not sure how he has managed to put down the armour so that he can write his perfect sentences, not after the choir of his mother told him, night after day, what he could never be. It’s not unusual. What is unusual is his response. Not only does he manage to hold onto the gift of his vulnerability, he can find a shape for it that allows him to offer it up to others.
Sharon Salzberg says that western culture has created an imaginary body that many inhabit. This body has a strong front and a soft back. A spineless body filled with fear that has to protect its heart. Yoga might help reverse the flow, creating a strong backbone and an open heart. Ocean is my yoga.
 Vuong, Ocean. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. New York: Penguin Press, 2019.