An E-mail Conversation with Michael Snow

The depth of Michael Snow’s influence on the avant-garde, like the breadth of media with which he has worked, is rivalled by few artists of the twentieth century. In a survey of his work from the seventies, P. Adams Sitney had already described Snow’s moving images as “constitut[ing] a monument in the history of the avant-garde film” – indeed, Sitney’s own efforts, notably in his essay “Structural Film”, have been instrumental in the erection of that obelisk. 

For now, the 91 year-old Snow is one of the few canonized figures of his ilk, and the structural school he’s said to be part of – which has become a synecdoche for the entirety of experimental film – remains etched into the annals of American cinematic history. 

This places him in a particularly interesting and tenuous position among the establishment of the avant-garde – if that is even definitionally possible. For the very idea of a vanguard artistic movement seems inhospitable to the kind of institutional coalescence which has made Snow one of North America’s most well-known living artists. It is at this junction – with Snow being asked the same questions about Wavelength (1967), or introducing another screening of La région central (1971) – that he has been forcibly fixed, and his recent work seems to engage with this imposed station. 

For example Cityscape (2019), his newest video piece, vertiginously probes Toronto’s skyline employing an apparatus similar to the one used in La Region Central. Shot in IMAX, the short acts as a clear formal, philosophical, and technological homage and update to his earlier groundbreaking film. WLVNT (2003), or Wavelength For Those Who Don't Have the Time, likewise reckons with the enormous legacy of his earlier work, which inspired Chantal Akerman and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, among others. 

To be clear, I do not bring these films up to criticize the artist; in fact, the two works are as aesthetically and conceptually daring as anything avant-garde film has produced this century, with the metatext’s added poignancy. Rather, I mean to suggest that the fact of Snow’s seventy-year career, one almost entirely marked by critical success, has pitted him against what Renato Poggioli called the avant-garde’s “cult of youth” – its often stultifying obsession with the figure of the young artist.

Just this year, for example, the Art Gallery of Hamilton launched Early Snow: Michael Snow 1947-1962, the first exhibition “exclusively focused on the artist’s formative years”. The exhibit was curated by McMaster University professor James King, who recently wrote the first biography on Snow. Such are the fruits and follies of longevity.

And yet Snow now, like any visionary artist in a bind, has found a way forward. In addition to the work cited above, his fixation on personal and artistic history made its way into *Corpus Callosum (2001). As he explained to me, the animated final sequence of that prescient and sardonic exploration of CGI and digital filmmaking was based on animation he did working for George Dunning in the fifties.

This seems to be the defining strategy of his work this century: using the past like a battering ram to break open film's formal and conceptual boundaries, Snow wants to reveal the historical continuities of the medium and its apparatuses, and to find traces of his own biography therein. These are works about growth which nuance that crudely teleological term late period used by the writers of film and art history; which, by applying that logic of the individual to the entirety of cinema, show the myopia of thinking an artist’s project must be neatly contained within a person’s life; which show that an artist has no more a definitive end than does the ever-evolving camera. 

Over two conversations, Snow and I spoke about this kind of retrospection, as well as process, legacy, and experimentation – and the contradictions therein. He also revealed his latest work, a book entitled My Mother’s Collection of Photographs. While he did not provide details, Snow’s recent output suggests his continuing provocative engagement with history.

This conversation was edited and condensed for clarity. 

(1) *Corpus Callosum (Michael Snow, 2001)

Brandon Kaufman: How has isolation been for you? Have you been engaging with art since Covid upended everything?

Michael Snow: Yes, I have engaged more or less with art in the past few months. During that time, the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s Early Snow exhibition and also the Listening To Snow exhibition at the Art Museum at the University of Toronto were both open. Also, we finished all the preparation necessary to publish a new bookwork, entitled My Mother's Collection of Photographs. The book is being published by Prefix ICA here in Toronto. I played several concerts with CCMC [the experimental Canadian group founded in 1974 by Snow and others] before the quarantine but several have been cancelled since then. A retrospective of my films was scheduled by the Anthology Film Archives and [is now] indefinitely postponed.

There has been a lot of discussion about the concept of “productivity” throughout this quarantine, with the opposed describing it as an almost Taylorist understanding of the creative process, one most pernicious for those unable to reach its efficiency quotas. Is your process a war of attrition waged against your will and life’s responsibilities, or do you work at a more leisurely pace, allowing yourself as much time as needed?  

Honestly, I am aware of "creativity" only in relation to my music. Visual artworks are usually the products of several stages of “creativity". In music, I first played traditional jazz, which to simplify, consists of playing predetermined themes, then playing variations on that theme, then returning to the theme.  

Gradually, over the years, I started to play my own themes. Not themes that preexisted. Now, I sit down to play the piano and gesture. What I will play will be a new gesture. It will have connections with my previous playing, of course. But, the important thing is to recognize what the implications of the first gesture are and to pursue what is implied. In improvisation my piano playing is now “better” than it used to be (more original).

Something I struggle with as I work is doubt – about my aesthetic or intellectual or personal engagement with something I’ve written, for example. Is this something that has ever afflicted you, as a maker of conceptually ambitious work?

Yes. A new work will, of course, be somewhat of a surprise. Sometimes, it helps to be surprised by a work that you haven't seen since you finished it. During the installation of Early Snow, I had this positive pleasure of seeing works that I hadn't seen for years, and being very impressed by them! With a new work, any doubts should be diminished by the positivity of sharing what you've done.

Do you think of yourself as particularly nostalgic?

I am certifiably “old”. Though I've had an interesting life, I don't think I'm particularly nostalgic. I acknowledge that it's unlikely that my new work will break boundaries.

To make you nostalgic then, do you recall a first movie-going experience?

The first movie I saw was the unforgettable The Gold Rush (1925) by Charlie Chaplin. I [also] remember a film in which the two stars get stuck in a ferris wheel! The Belsize Theatre on Mount Pleasant [in Toronto], very near where I lived, had Saturday afternoon children’s programs, and we went there very occasionally. 

(2) Cityscape (Michael Snow, 2019)

You didn’t begin working with film until after your studies. What sent you on that journey from jazz and painting to this new medium?

When I graduated from high school I was awarded an art prize. On that basis, I enrolled at the Ontario College of Art (now referred to as OCAD University). But I had started playing the piano publicly with jazz groups while I was in high school and continued doing that when I was at OCAD. During those years, I played piano in jazz groups for frat parties at [University of Toronto student culture centre] Hart House! Other than geography, there seemed to be no connection between these two activities.

I didn’t truly notice film in my life until during my first public exhibition with Graham Coughtry at University of Toronto’s Hart House in 1952. I was contacted by a man, George Dunning, who said that he was impressed by the exhibition and that he wanted to meet me. We met and he said that he was one of the directors of an animation film company, and that he was so impressed with my drawings in the exhibition that he wanted to offer me a job learning how to animate. I accepted this wonderful offer, and that was my real introduction to filmmaking! Dunning later directed The Beatles’ film Yellow Submarine (1968). While I was working at Graphic Films (for George Dunning), I continued to play occasional jazz jobs. During the late 50s, for a year I played nightly at the Westover Hotel in Toronto with a band led by Mike White, a trumpet player.

You moved to New York in the early sixties, a milieu I think of as being against industry, conventional methods of distribution, production value, profit and for uninhibited expression, artisanship, altruism. Whether that’s ahistorical or not, that period did see the founding of important artist-run and creative non-profit organizations like the Filmmaker’s Co-op. I – and other artists I know – crave that sort of community, but establishing and maintaining it seems difficult when looking out at this alienated, isolated, time- and cash-strapped landscape. Do you think building a similar film or art culture and community is possible?

The incredible range and speed of computer activities seems to me to imply that physically shared movements are unlikely in the future. On the other hand: “community” is being shared via the Internet and such sharing is faster than we thought! Electronic music, classical and popular will continue, but so will the community aspect of making music together as in the past. 

Via the Internet, electronically, groups will continue to come and go, but the physical presence of the “film”-makers will be less important. What happened in the 50s, 60s and 70s in New York is unlikely to happen again.

Were the structural filmmakers of that period part of a larger philosophical and aesthetic project, or was it so that individual artists whose interest in similar ideas, as it were, flowed organically from the ether?

P. Adams Sitney was the first critic to identify what he saw as a “school”, though his description of what constituted such a film described Wavelength (1967) more clearly than other films. It's true that the filmmakers Joyce Wieland, Ken Jacobs, Ernie Gehr, Paul Sharits and Hollis Frampton admired each others’ work, but they were surprised that our films could together constitute a “school” or “movement”.

In the pertinent article it must be noted that Sitney did not actually name the artists whose films were “structural”.  

How do you conceive of your work’s relationship to narrative or plot? They seem to me to creep in at the edges of your films but are always stultified. Still, their presence can (in varying degrees) be felt. Do you find any value in them?

Obviously, each of my films is different and each film has a different quantity of narrativity. Speaking structurally, narrativity means presenting an event to the audience at a particular time, then referring to that event later. I have tried to control "narrativity" in different ways, trying to get [the film] situated in the ideal "now" of the cinema experience.

There is of course the concern of this ideal “now” being dislocated when, say, Wavelength is watched on a computer. Has the death of celluloid film affected your work?

I have always tried to ensure what I consider the optimal conditions for the presentation of my films. Wavelength would be at its best projected, not rear-screened, on 16mm film in a darkened space with seats. But, new situations will call for new variations. One can hope that the film in question is strong enough to maintain its singularity through new variations in presentation.

Five years passed between 1976’s Breakfast (Table Top Dolly) and 1981’s Presents. What was that period like for you? Was there ever a doubt you’d work in film again? Have you ever felt your work has taken from the medium all it can conceptually or aesthetically offer, that you’ve reached a dead-end of sorts?

(3) Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1967)

I can't condense a memory of what was happening in the years 1976 to 1981 that you mentioned, wherein I did not make a film. I think now that Presents continued what was implied in Breakfast so that despite the pause, there was continuity. So Is This (1982) was largely written in 1975, on the heels of 'Rameau's Nephew' by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974).

This would have also been the time of struggles with the Censor Board (which had recently been abolished), which perhaps had further impact. The distinction between gallery moving image installations and theatre/auditorium projections in my work should not be forgotten.

In discussions of your work I seldom hear mention of how funny it is. Is humour or respite from the seriousness of Art important to you when working on a project?

I've been a bit surprised by what seems to be funny in some of my films. However, SSHTOORRTY (2005) was certainly constructed with the hopes that some of it would be funny.  

Have you seen the identity of the Canadian artist change throughout your life? Is there even such a thing as the Canadian artist, besides geographic location?

I am Canadian and I'm an artist. It's geographic and historic.

Where do you stand on the eternal discussion about interpretation – whether, in Susan Sontag’s words, we need a hermeneutics or an erotics of art? 

I'm grateful for any reading of my films. [Although] I think one can miss the specific physical nature of a film by desiring expressible meaning.

Wavelength is – at least from my perspective, in an undergraduate film program at a Canadian university – probably the work you’re most well-known for. Does legacy or influence have any personal value to you?

It's wonderful to know that Wavelength will probably outlive me.

What do you make of the idea of an artist’s “late period”? 

I don't think I've made enough lately for it now to be identified as a “late period”. I hope it's not too late. My attempts to answer Brandon Kaufman's questions (thank you) are my most recent work.

(4) Solar Breath (Michael Snow, 2002)

Image (1) from *Corpus Callosum (Michael Snow, 2001)

Image (2) from Cityscape (Michael Snow, 2019)

Image (3) from Wavelength (Michael Snow, 1967)

Image (4) from Solar Breath (Michael Snow, 2002)

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.