Recent Acquisitions: Exploratorium Film Seeks to Capture the Rhythm and Drama of the Embarcadero

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Cultural institutions in San Francisco continually search for new acquisitions. Alexis Coe brings you the most important, often wondrous, sometimes bizarre, and occasionally downright vexing finds every other Friday.

When Liz Keim started the Cinema Arts program at the Exploratorium in 1982, she was one of the earliest adopters of interactive public programming in the Bay Area. Keim knew that films by scientists and artists exploring observation, poetry, and surrealism would enrich visitors' experiences. Today, she heads up a small team which ensures the Film Collection, a composite of 16mm film and digital work, is not only shown in the museum, but in major metropolitan cities across the globe, including Singapore.

In the midst of packing up the collection for the Exploratorium's big move from the Palace of Fine Arts to Pier 15, Keim made time to speak about her latest acquisition, a film she commissioned from Paul Clipson.

How did you come to commission Clipson's film, Light Year?

I started seeing Paul Clipson's work at various screenings and noted that he is recognized as a leading avant-garde filmmaker in this century who also happens to live and work locally. This particular commission came about as part of Paul Clipson's Exploratorium residency, which started two years ago in 2011. He first created a series of experimental nature documentaries titled Compound Eyes Nos.1-5. These short films sought to view insect and animal life in unexpected and unusual ways, in order to understand these life forms in a manner more related to imagination and dreams, and perhaps to understand them differently.

Was this the first film you commissioned?

We started commissioning films seriously in 2005 when we launched an outdoor film project with the University of San Francisco at the foot of Market Street called "A Trip Down Market Street 1905/2005: A Centennial Celebration," with funding from the San Francisco Arts Commission. One of my favorite films in the collection to emerge out of this project is a short, black and white kinetic film by Tomonari Nishikawa called Market Street (2005, 5 min.).

I think that big projects like our move from the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina over to Pier 15 along the bustling Embarcadero also instigate new ways of thinking about what we do and renews our passion for commissioning original work. We are delighted to be bringing our wonderful old 16mm film projector with us to our new location, and along with all of the current digital and sound technologies we will employ to show off cinema; we are thrilled to include good old celluloid as well!

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A collage of images from Clipson's film

What will the film capture about the Exploratorium's new home at Pier 15?
Simultaneously the Exploratorium was exploring the physical and cultural layout of the Embarcadero, noting the many changes and increasing human activity along the waterfront and we were looking for an artist who could capture the spirit of this everyday setting in cinematic ways. After seeing and showing Clipson's work in the past, we jumped at the chance of having him create something new for us that speaks to the landscape we are relocating to. There is something beyond the physical structures that line the waterfront, the stuff we plow through and by everyday, which I'm most interested in. How do we capture the ephemera and the intangible?

There are certain filmmakers who can translate our cityscapes cinematically, much in the way that poets and musicians do, by re-envisioning our environments into something renewed, alluring, and worth noting again. I was attracted to Paul's aesthetic and to the way he crafts beauty from puddles, light poles, old signs, foliage, and alleyways. His focus on reflections, translucent colors, and on the natural phenomenon that is elemental in everyday detritus is visually invigorating and quite beautiful. He grounds us in the city's visceral textures, finding rhythm and drama in the mundane, and elevating our perceptions of it.

From Paul's perspective "The film will attempt to capture, in an impressionistic manner, the surrounding environment rather than the new space itself. This was one of the first understandings that Liz and I had -- that the film will be more of a collaged frame around which to imagine the various layers of past, present, and future into which the new Exploratorium will exist. In this way, perhaps visitors to the new space will feel as if they're entering both a new, exciting space, as well as enjoy it within a city and bay changing itself through time."

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Did you work closely with Clipson on the project?

We work as a community at the Exploratorium, so along with my other colleagues at the museum, including Jordan Stein, we are working closely with Paul. Initially we all walked together and talked philosophically, not just about the physicality of space but also about memory, lost histories, and impressions. Paul remarked that our conversations helped him "to imagine the new space with an emotional reference point to the original building as a working pier and its relationship to the surrounding environments of the bay and San Francisco." Staff filmmaker Phoebe Tooke is currently accompanying Paul Clipson on some of his journeys and is making a short documentary of his filming process, which will include interviews and clips. This short documentary will be viewable on the Exploratorium's Art website which will be launched close to the Exploratorium's grand opening on April 17, 2013.

When, and where, can we see the completed film?

We will premiere Clipson's 16mm film at the Exploratorium in a longer performance version with live music by Tashi Wada and projections by Paul, once the museum is open. The date has yet to be set but the premiere will take place in 2013. The film is set to be complete by May. The shorter digital version will be on display on various occasions in a number of different contexts within our exhibition areas. Please check our website by mid-April for specific dates and locations of the premiere and subsequent screenings.

For events in San Francisco this week and beyond, check out our calendar section. Follow us on Twitter at @ExhibitionistSF and like us on Facebook. Follow Alexis Coe on twitter @alexis_coe.

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