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Interview: Kevin Jerome Everson - Contemporary American Artist and 'Black Filmmaker'

Shadow and Act By Terri Francis | Shadow and Act January 21, 2014 at 5:29PM

A Kevin Everson film combines archival, scripted, reenacted, and documentary elements for a look and feel that is sophisticated and no-nonsense like the artist himself. He’s made over 100 films and still cookin. Last year the Alpert Foundation and the California Institute of the Arts recognized his unique artistic vision with a 2012 Cal Arts/Alpert Award, an honor that has been held by such luminaries as Carrie Mae Weems, Kerry James Marshall and Suzan-Lori Parks. 
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Terri: Your films are in this fold of nonfiction---

Kevin: Yeah but I make everything up. Quality Control is the only film if I hadn’t shown up they would’ve been doing the same thing.

Terri: Quality Control. That’s the one at the laundry?

Kevin: I did activate a couple of things but mostly they would have been doing the same things if I’d been there or not.

Terri: I saw Quality Control at the Whitney Museum of American Art last spring and it’s mesmerizing. You’re watching something you don’t normally see—like the ironing and sewing—and some of it is familiar like yeah, I know these people. But then the revelation of gesture, the space, and the sense of duration kind of hypnotize you. Like you’re on the cusp of something but then it becomes this mood. It’s a cool experience. I always feel like there’s a part of me that forgets I’m watching a film. Like the film is this window. But that doesn’t feel right – like I’m just peeping in on people.

Kevin: That’s fine. It’s ok. I always try to get them to look at the camera at least once or twice so they don’t feel like they’re in a zoo. I don’t like that zoo mentality. You see these reality shows and certain filmmakers who I like---I like Harmony Korine but he films the trashiest white folk and it’s a fuckin zoo--zoo mentality cuz “they’re not us.” I don’t like that. That’s all due to the cadence and the framing. Where they distance the subject… Figure to ground relationships, that kind of thing.

Terri: How does it feel showing Quality Control at the Whitney Museum of Art versus the community where you filmed it?

Kevin: The community? I don’t know that they would want to sit through it. They would see themselves and that’d be it. They may get down with it though but 71 minutes is a long time to watch ironing. So it’s a specific audience. People ask me who do I make it for? I make it for myself. And then of course I’m an artist so I can’t ---I’m not a documentarian or a journalist trying to change shit or inform. I’m looking for form. That’s the game.

I remember when I used to make these weird sculptures with furniture but they couldn’t sit in community centers. They needed the white walls. I put them in there and people would appreciate them but I didn’t like them in there. They didn’t look good because they’d blend in and look like everyday objects.  Once you start making these kinds of things well then the venues are narrow and I know that.

And Quality Control…Depends on where I’m screening … [Sometimes I know] I can’t show that film. It’s too long!

Not that I dumb down my package because people are sharp as a tack; they’re sharp everywhere. And I don’t want to dumb it down and I never do cuz it’s my stuff.

But I just want to show things that get the point across without them sitting around all day. People don’t sit around in Rotterdam; people get up and fucking leave! But now I think I beat everybody down to the fact that if they’re gonna come in and see a Kevin Everson film they know what the deal is jack; better pack a lunch!

Terri: I love that you understand the viewing experience around your films and you’re not neurotic about it.

Kevin: Well, I know the genre.  I remember when I was up at Princeton recently and P. Adam Sitney--I thought he was sharper than that! You know who that guy is? [Professor Sitney is the author of Visionary Film, the first major history of post WWII avant-garde film.] He asked me—and again I hate the Charles Burnett question. And I love Charles Burnett but I hate when people compare me to him. I mean this don’t have nothing to do with Killer of Sheep. Man, you’re only looking at that it’s in black and white and they’re black folks. Charles Burnett’s music is nondiegetic. He’s telling a story. It’s night and fucking day.

Terri: What filmmakers do you feel like you have some affinities with or that you’re in conversation with?

Kevin: Filipino experimental digital filmmakers Khavn de la Cruz, Lav Dias and John Torres. Lav Dias makes these 9-hour narrative films; they’re so cool. Like if it takes 20 minutes for the oxen cart to come down the road, it takes 20 minutes for the oxen cart to come down the road. But there’s something that’s super fucking humane about that. It’s so visceral. 

Terri: Do you feel different when you’re working in color versus black and white?

Kevin: Depends on subject matter.  

Terri: Is it the same with film versus video?

Kevin: Yes. It depends on subject matter. Formal issues. Respect for the subject and what they’re doing. Lighting. I might have to rip and run because they’re working so I can’t just stick around.

Terri: I’m glad you said that because one thing I want to get across to people who see your films is that it is a made thing. You don’t just show up and hit record.

Kevin: No I start planning back in November and film in the summer.

Terri: Can you take me a little bit through the process? Maybe Century?

Kevin: Century is based on another film. I crushed another car in this film called Chevelle. I was up in Toronto and I wanted to make something where it didn’t have any people in it but was all about people.  And all about black folk. My cousins made those cars. They worked at the Fisher Body General Motors Plant in Mansfield, Ohio, which was a stamping plant, making doors, side panels, hoods. They were forming it. Not putting it together. They’re made by automation but there’s some kind of hand and touch in it, so to speak. I was thinking sculptural. I wanted to do something where I could transform the object too.

Terri: Do you feel a link or empathy with the people in your films? You’re kind of doing the same things.  

Kevin: Yes because I tell them. I’ll walk up to a cat and say hey look y’all making some muthafucking art up in here. Oh excuse me.

Terri: Do you want me to take the “muthafuckas” out? I feel like it adds some color.

Kevin: Depends. (laughing) Even my mom is like good lord that boy was raised in a barn.

Terri: (laughs) Ok I’ll  take some out but not all!

Kevin: I’m gonna try to quit cussing.

Terri: I don't think you should quit cussing at all. I think it cuts through the usual coonery and buffoonery that passes for analysis and don't even get me started on the artsy veneer of the experimental art scene. It's liberating. Speaking for myself. 

Kevin: Right-on. I like cussing for those reasons.

Terri: Cool. So let’s go back to how you approach participants for your films.

Kevin: I’ll ask a cat. Look, I tell them I’m an artist. Do you mind if I film you because I think what you do is very colorful and very inventive. I can see the intellectualism.  You’re an artist. I’m an artist too and I want to share the process. I tell them I’m making these experimental films. This image may go with this image. I just talk about it like that. When I was making this film about old cats. I was in this boat. And they had never seen black and white film or that kind of thing. But the first thing they said to me was do you want the boat to go in and out of these shadows? I said yeah. Yes. Yeah brah that’s cool as hell. C’mon. So if they’re down with it we do the work. I’m not trying to do anthropology … those doc makers who talk about how they try to be friends. No. I don’t have time for that. I tell them I’m making some art. That’s it. I’m not lying or stringing a muthafucka. It is what it is. When I used to do street photography, I would talk to them the same way. This picture is going on a wall.

Terri: What you’re doing is sculptural films or film sculpture of ongoing life?

Kevin: Or making it up. When I was in Congo-Brazzaville – we did that water skiing film [BZV, 2010]. I made that up. Best way to mark a river is to water ski on it.

Terri: Are we supposed to know that it’s made up?

Kevin: Nah, I don’t care. That’s just for me.

Terri: So then do you care about these representational issues that plague discussions of black film—well, I guess I’m saying what I think when I say “plague?”

Kevin: No, I don’t care. No. I don’t want to make minstrel films or Sambo films. I’ve got too much respect for people.


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