Haint blue graces the front porch ceiling of many a home in the Southern United States. The tradition started in the nineteenth-century with the African American Gullah people, who believed spirits could not pass through water. Painting a porch ceiling blue to ward off spirits and ghosts was later adopted across the South.
Alyssa Taylor Wendt’s “HAINT” is an epitaph to collective memory — an epic three-channel 33-minute looped film that explores time and its endless cycles. Haunting, spiritual and, ultimately resonant, “HAINT” wrestles with the spirits and ghosts of history, both personal and cultural.
“HAINT” is presented in its entirety for the first time at the University of Texas Visual Arts Center, on view through Feb. 22.
Wendt spent a total of six years completing her multilayered film, which was shot in Texas, Detroit and Croatia.
The cast of characters and locales in “HAINT” include workers in hazmat suits, an avant-garde dance troupe, a curadora, an opera singer, an abandoned bathhouse, a deserted armory, retro futurist East European architectural monuments, a series of floating objects, and more. In the gallery, Wendt adds a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, of vintage objects and an abstract bronze reminiscent of an equine hind leg as intriguing visual interest points along with photographs of staged scenes taken on the film sets (which are not to be mistaken as film stills).
Wendt’s strong background in photography as well as underground filmmaking — not to mention her years as an antiques dealer — make this confluent project a stand-out.
Sightlines recently sat down on the gallery floor at the VAC with Wendt, surrounded by her work, to discuss her various inspirations and process of creating “HAINT.”
Mary K. Cantrell: Where did the inspiration for this project come from and what has it been like working on this for a number of years?
Alyssa Taylor Wendt: I’ve been working on this project for six years. The actual filming happened over a period of three years. My mediums in general are video, photography, and sculpture—probably in that order—I also do some performance and sound design. I came up with this project and I wanted it to be a three-channel video installation from the get go and I wanted it to be of a high production value. My videos from the past were a little more DIY, shot on DSLR and camcorders, and I really wanted this to be epic. So in order to shoot on 4K, on Red Dragons and these amazing cameras with a full crew, it takes a lot of funding, which, as a working artist, I don’t have access to that much funding at once. The piece was inspired by a lot of conceptual ideas that I have worked with in the past and continue to—such as cycles of history, ruins, the function of monument, death, song as a vehicle for information, faded grandeur, and animism—which is about the energy of objects, objects that I make, objects that I collect and find and objects I use in my films. It was filmed in three different productions. The first was filmed in Texas, in Austin and San Antonio, the second one was filmed in Detroit — that has a more narrative, feature-length segment, that I’ve shown separately — and the third part was filmed in Croatia.
MC: Why specifically those three places?
ATW: I started in Austin just because of convenience and budget. I also had access to a huge arts community of friends who I knew would help me get it started. There were spaces that I really wanted to use, a former armory and an abandoned former bathhouse in San Antonio.
I’ve always had an affinity for Detroit and the center channel that was filmed there represented trying to refictionalize the mythology of my father’s upbringing. My father is German, he was born in Berlin and as a child he lived through WWII. He left soon after and emigrated to the United States. In the years before he died he started telling me a lot of stories about surviving after the war and I found this sense of trauma to be so topical to what’s happening to people in the middle east and all over the world, this brutality of conflict, and the pointlessness of war and what people have to go through to survive, and what that trauma does to a cultural consciousness.
I’ve always wanted to work in Detroit, because it’s a fascinating city with its own complex history. I used it as a stand-in for post-WWII Berlin. At the time, five years ago, Detroit was pretty destroyed, much like the aftermath of a war, but this was an economic war. For the third part, I filmed in Croatia, specifically because I am really fascinated by the Spomenik monuments, which are some of the buildings and Brutalist memorials you see throughout one of the channels of the film. Spomenik is a Slavic word that means “monument,” but it has come to be associated with these structures which are scattered throughout former Yugoslavia, so they’re not just in Croatia, they’re also in Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro, all the former Yugoslavian countries. Most of them were commissioned in the 1960s to 1980s by Josip Tito, the former communist statesman-turned-benevolent dictator. I think it was an effort to increase his popularity. Most of them are memorials to WWII to either lost lives, ruined places, deaths, or tragedies and traumas. So they all have this really amazing, somewhat Russian inspired Brutalist and futurist aesthetic to them that now looks so avant-garde, especially in the countryside, most of them in the middle of nowhere. So these these things that were basically monuments and memorials built in homage to ruins are now becoming ruins themselves. I’m really fascinated with that cycle as it applies to many things that are cultural in our society. I think these are great, very emblematic of how we deal with our past. So that was the inspiration for Croatia.
MC: Why did you decide to shoot a three-channel film?
ATW: Each of the different channels or productions has a different idea about time and each of them deconstructs time in a different way. The Croatia section lives in a timeless space where it could be any time, the future, the present, the past, but it’s like a timeless, non-specific, temporal space. The Detroit portion in the center is more of a narrative, it is sort of a historical fiction. So it exists in the past, or at least reflecting on the past. The Austin version has a circular sense of time—it starts out where you see people excavating objects in ruins of a bathhouse. These objects are then brought into a building by various characters who interact with each other, and then, in a ritualistic way, end up smashing a pile, like an effigy, of these objects. Then we go back to the hazmat workers in the suits to get the object, so it’s a chicken or the egg thing… it’s that endless cycle of time that has no beginning and no end like an ouroboros.
These three segments are very specifically inspired by three artists’ works. I was very inspired by Pierre Huyghe, specifically a work he did called “The Host And The Cloud,” which is a film that he made in an abandoned folk art museum outside of Paris. He wrote structures for specific characters, and then let them improvise within the world of that character. The part that I filmed in Texas had similar experimentation. Another art piece was “Muster” by Clemens von Wedemeyer that I saw at the Documenta art festival in Kassel, Germany six years ago. He showed this piece that was a three-channel video installation, but instead of being side by side so you can view them simultaneously like mine, it was in a triangle, so you could only view one screen at a time. He also dealt with conflicting structures of time, so it just made me think about the way you could approach three different aspects of something or show multiple versions simultaneously. The last piece is Omer Fast who did a piece called “Nostalgia” that was somewhat of a triptych as well, and had three approaches to the same theme of building a partridge trap that were all very different. But that was a big inspiration in my thinking for writing “HAINT.”
MC: Can you talk a little bit about the desire to have the certain types of performers, like the opera singer, and the role song plays in the film. How were the groups and music chosen?
ATW: I’m very sensitive to soundtracks. I used to be a musician for many years. I sang, played guitar and Theremin. Having recorded albums and worked with different bands, I really like to have a layered soundtrack. I feel like sound is just as important as the visuals. Everything is just very specific to the story. For instance, in the first channel, the Austin part, “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” is a traditional song they play in Second Line parades, which are these funereal processions in New Orleans. So I knew I wanted to replicate that because in the film it’s right before they smash this effigy of objects. It’s a ritualistic, impending sort of doom, but also celebratory in a way. I have a lot of drone tones in there as well.
For the Detroit portion, I actually hadn’t cast the part of Helmselm, who is the opera singer, he plays the shadow side, our subconscious/death in the movie. I saw Joseph Keckler perform, who is a performance artist in New York. He was so incredibly dark, with this gothic beauty. He’s a professionally trained opera singer, but he takes it to a different level with his performance art. I basically lured him into acting the film because he just was the perfect person. Cipkice, the choir in the Croatia segment, sang a variety of songs. They sent me a selection and I picked the ones that had the moods and the lyrics that best fit what I was making. There’s some great stories I could tell you about the background of parts of the film- for instance, the whistling — so there’s a scene where you see a lot of shots with the Spomenik monuments, where there’s whistling over the top of it. I had this group of actors cleaning and polishing the monument in this gesture of preservation, but also of purification and protection. At some point, I had them marching in a circle around the monument and naturally, they all started whistling a song that I was not familiar with, and it sounded very Slavic. It was some partisan workers song from Yugoslavian history, a song of solidarity among the working class. I was like, this is so perfect to fit in with the themes of my film, and it came about completely organically. The soundtrack is really composed of opera, black metal music, experimental music, compositions, sound effects, ambient sound, voiceover, dialogue tracks and performed songs. I did most of the sound design myself with help along the way by the various editors. There are six speakers and three sets of stereo mixes for each one. I intentionally edited it so that it wouldn’t be a cacophonous mass, that it would be more of a dynamic inter-folded soundtrack that will guide people both emotionally and narratively throughout the viewing.
MC: What was the inspiration for the cabinet of curiosities? Can you describe some of the items you’ve curated?
ATW: Those are all altered props from the film, there’s very few things in there that are just straight ahead props. I used to be an antiques dealer, so I’m very good at sourcing strange objects, and I just have an affinity for them. Most of them have been altered in some way. They all are things that I found or made. I think often when things are props in films, they just get thrown out, or reused. All these things were special to begin with, then through the experience of being in the film, they now have the energy of whatever happened in the film. I wanted to elevate them by presenting them in this glassed-off, illuminated cabinet. I added the labels to add this taxonomic, energy of a natural history museum. These were archived and catalogued — again, elevating them to the status of being important artifacts. The shoes belong to be actress Karolin Brandi who played Karo. They were really scraped up after, in the feature version of that channel, a rape scene where she’s assaulted. It was one of the last things we filmed and her shoes got completely destroyed from being dragged over and over again. It was a very emotional and difficult scene. She was going to throw the shoes away I said, “No, no, no, give them to me.” I get chills just looking at the shoes because they remind me of her being dragged down the sidewalk. As a gesture of healing and thinking about scraped up and skin, I replaced the laces with sinew, an animal product, and laced and tied them together. It enveloped the meaning that they now have to me. Now, another example is the little monkey…
MC: That is seen floating at some point in the film, right?
ATW: Yes, I have a lot of objects that are suspended and rotating. The monkey was actually given to my father when he got on the train to go to the boat to come to America. He was really scared, really young and his sister stayed behind. She gave it to him and said, “Don’t worry, only the good die young,” like a little dig, right? The irony is that she had, unbeknownst to her, a brain tumor at the time, and only lived for another year or two, and my father live to be 87. He gave that monkey to me when I was a child, and told me the story about what his sister said. The label on that says “only the good die young.” I’ve labeled all the sculptural props with very enigmatic labels that are either references to the film or references to my own life. I like adding multiple layers beneath the work. Someone can enjoy it on a very surface level, or dig a little deeper, or they could dig a little deeper than that. I still see new things when I look at the film, and I believe me, I’ve watched it thousands of times. I like that endless discovery, to me, it justifies the existence of the work. The energy of places and objects are things that will have relevance continually, but in different ways. So, someone might see this work in 20 or 30 years, and it might be very relevant, but it’s not in the same way it is now for our collective consciousness.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.