Writer, filmmaker, and visual artist Daniel Foster has created a film projection backdrop for The Watts Towers Project , the performance by Roger Guenveur Smith that comes to the Walker January 21-23, as part of the 2010 Out There series. Here, he shares his process and his personal experience with the Watts Towers, the Los Angeles “outsider” art landmark.
From Daniel Foster:
I had not seen the Watts Towers since 1984, and even then I viewed only the outside of the skeletal forms rising like sci-fi creatures from the bleakest of Los Angeles neighborhoods.
Like most Los Angeles residents, I didn’t understand the Towers, and I didn’t make much of an effort to do so. I knew they were a National Historic Landmark, a set of 17 interconnected sculptures, the tallest 99 feet, which took 33 years for Italian immigrant Simon Rodia to build. But leaving my cozy Los Feliz neighborhood to visit them . . . well, wouldn’t a visit to MOCA followed by a cappuccino at the museum café seem more sensible? And safe?
All this changed when I was introduced to Roger Guenveur Smith’s compelling vision of the Towers in his solo piece, The Watts Towers Project, which will be presented at the McGuire Theater January 21, 22 and 23, 2009. I was asked to create a 70 minute art film, projected on two screens that backdrop his trenchant, spoken jazz performance.
After visiting the Towers again, I decided to create a dreamscape film that reveals the eclectic details that Rodia had packed into his life’s work: the brilliant blue-violet bottom of a Phillip’s Milk of Magnesia bottle, a river of 7 Up bottles concretized in place, and Rodia’s ladder of hearts, embedded with tiles ascending to the sky, among other elements.
I wanted these images to move, and to move you. Moreover, I wanted to reflect Simon Rodia’s genius for haphazard beauty.
I was granted permission to photograph the Towers, inside and out – on a February day with a fortuitous light rain. The moisture leant a gleam to the black spires and the artful bottles, dishes, shells, tiles and crockery that lay hidden at its heart.
I set up my equipment and began shooting, feeling like a kid in a playground built for my solo enjoyment. (Normally, the Towers can only be viewed by group tour.) Being alone in those interior mazes, peering through a tunnel lens aimed at delight after delight, was akin to being on a drug trip. Seven hundred and eighty-two photos later I went home.
For the art film, I narrowed the images down to fifty, then thirty. I cut out details in Photoshop – green bottles, a mother-of-pearl tile, a deep crack across a rose-patterned crockery tile – then layered on blurred, black-and-white backgrounds. I stacked and then composited the images in an editing program, isolating various elements.
In the final film, objects appear and disappear and cracks in the tiles grow and recede over nine minute intervals, with each screen showing different, yet paired images.
The effect produced nearly imperceptible alterations in the images, allowing the audience to absorb both performer and the film. (The speed of the accompanying video is greatly accelerated.) While most of the film is shot tight, revealing intimate details of the Towers’ interior, I wanted the film to finally breathe at the end, to soften into space, much as Smith does in his performance. So I shot the end images from beneath the Towers, looking up toward the sky, as if peering through black cages. The Los Angeles Times termed the premiere “one of the most original theatrical performances of the season.”
In the end I wanted to create a successful projection design, but more than that, I wanted to honor Simon Rodia. I wanted to discover and touch the essence of his work, lift it into high relief and present it bathed in the ineffable. Where it belonged.
Maybe even more than all of that, I simply wanted to do this: I wanted to show you The Towers — in the way that I finally could see them.
Click here for tickets and information on The Watts Towers Project.
Click here for more views of the Watts Towers from the Flickr pool.