Speaking with the Walker’s Bentson Film Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap, New York–based artist Ericka Beckman revisits the making of Frame UP, a double-channel video work from 2005. Commissioned by the Walker during construction of its new Herzog & de Meuron–designed expansion, Frame UP uses chance elements of the construction landscape and its workers to conceive of the Walker as a vast pinball machine. Frame UP is on view in the Walker Lecture Room through March 29 and in New York on High Line Channel 14 through March 11.
Isla Leaver-Yap: How did your double-channel video installation Frame UP (2005) come to be? The key “figure” in Frame UP is the construction site where the Walker’s Herzog and de Meuron–designed building was being made in 2005. Building sites seem to be particularly fecund spaces for the projections of desire – they’re microcosms of world-building, especially in relation to the construction of cultural value (in this case the Walker). Could you say a little about the commissioning process and how long it took to make the work? How did the shooting and editing work practically? Were you seeking specific shots, or was the primary work in the edit?
Ericka Beckman: When Sheryl Mousley [the Walker’s senior curator of Film/Video] commissioned me to do a piece involving play and the construction site, I thought I would learn from the process. Which I did! In 1999, after my film HIATUS, I decided that it was time for me to work outside the studio in real locations. Frame UP is the second project I filmed outside the studio. (The studio being a black box where I created everything from a set of rules, and where each film project proceeded directly on the back of the other one.)
I was attracted to architectural sites – particularly industrial sites – because they reveal the process of construction. So having access to a construction site was developmental to me; it allowed me to investigate and observe how things get made.
I met Sheryl when I was shooting Cinderella (1986) in Minneapolis in the mid 1980s. I have been intensely aware of the role the Walker plays in the support of performance, film, video, and in all forms of temporal art for many decades. The Dada works and Fluxus objects, plus the films and documentation in the Walker Collection were instrumental to my commitment as an artist. Once I was offered this commission I felt I should like to make a piece that is in dialogue with that collection.
I was invited to film at the Walker during the construction of the new facility. I was restricted in my vantage point to the outside of the construction site, so I set up many recording cameras in various places to capture the site through time-lapse photography. These varied in formats, from Super 8 and Hi-8 to very low-definition VHS cameras. I also was unable to be there for the length of this commission (2003–2004), so I hired interns from the Walker’s Film/Video department to manage my cameras and send me the materials. I edited throughout the shooting process. I was on site in June to set up the situation, I returned once in December to shoot 16mm film, and then I returned in 2005 for the opening.
Leaver-Yap: In a 2012 interview with Frieze you mentioned keeping a notebook of your shots for reference during the edit of your works. I’ve always been interested in the how shoot-for-edit filmmaking has this quality of looking both forward and back throughout – a kind of in-built anachronism that is a process unique to artists’s moving image work. What parameters did you set yourself in the making of the work?
Beckman: From my description you can see that this was a “film for edit” project. However, I went into the project with the plan to make a game and, in place of real planning, I embraced chance and experimentation in the gathering of materials as well as in the editing.
The construction site became the pinball “backglass” for the structure of this film. I looked at the workers as dancers. With my camera, I followed the movement of materials through this space and, specifically, how they were transported and handled by workers. I looked for various pinball references on the construction site – that meant looking for shafts, for paddles, inclines and sockets.
Leaver-Yap: The action on both of the screens is antagonistic, and this notion of competition of course resonates in your earlier works, like You the better (1983), where the narrative builds on competition and accumulation. Did this notion of a double-channel work come right at the start?
Beckman: The idea of using two screens came early on, when I visited arcade centers where multiple players play games side by side. The games may have various backglass themes but the core mechanics are the same. Two players in the pinball arcade actually behave very similarly, hitting paddles, knocking balls around and trying to get them into slots. It’s a solo game but players are in competition for the score.
Leaver-Yap: For me, Frame UP probes the structural aspects of how one looks/reads/frames a space, and how that framing produces – even in its most minimal and least-ornamented form – a narrative quality. And games, of course, are totally committed to narrative in this way. In Frame UP, the balls lead the eye, and this double-channel form (perhaps a “binocular” presentation) produces a way of looking. How did you consider the sound in relation to this narrative-making, and were considerations of other formal qualities like color significant in determining what you were looking for in the shoot, as well as afterwards, in the editing of the digital overlays?
Beckman: The sound for the work came from actual recording on the location, plus many found sounds from department store recordings, where I recorded toys and games and of course an actual pinball machine.
Editing is where the chance or “play” aspect was featured. Since I had multiple cameras covering the same day’s labor, I assigned cameras and shots to each screen. Then I linked game sounds to all the shots I chose to work with. At this point there was no linear structure just a “bin” of shots and their sounds.
Then I turned “off” the video monitor and cut a soundtrack from the found sounds. I gave myself one rule: I would start in unison and then build a separate soundscape for each screen. This allowed me to let go of building a competitive relationship between the two screens. Then I opened the video monitor and took a look at my action cuts. This first edit governed everything that came after – the graphics, the length of the shots. My second rule was to heavily rework the first edit.
It was a joy for me to take a very important architectural site and turn it into a simple pinball game, and to make the workers of a remarkable structure turn into handlers for the game. And why not? Isn’t that a joy itself to turn work into play?
Leaver-Yap: I’m not sure if this resonates with you, but I was reminded of some formal similarities in this work to Hilary Lloyd’s videos and Rosalind Nashashibi’s films (specifically Lloyd’s Untitled multi-channel projection piece of a Glasgow building site from 2009 and Nashashibi’s Bachelor Machines Part 1 from 2007) – where these works are shot and edited by a female artist occupying a usually masculine environment or behaviors. This occupation of specific genders has often been true in video gaming, too (and recently problematic). Did you think of the camera eye or the viewer in a gendered state?
Beckman: I do not want to diminish your question about gender viewpoints. I am often asked the question if I understand what I’m doing from a gendered camera. But what struck me about the materials my camera shot was how varied in age these men where on this Mortenson construction site. They defied my stereotype of construction workers. For the most part, the workers multitasked. One day they would be building scaffolds, next laying rebar, then doing the wiring or steel welding. They seemed very well trained and very secure, and there was no stress visible on site. I did ask questions about the M.A. Mortenson Company – their hiring process, their loyalty to their workers, and their reputation in the Midwest. I learned that they are a union company and only hire a union workforce.
Leaver-Yap: Re-presenting Frame UP now at the Walker, ten years on since you made it, I’m conscious not only of how the institution looks back on its own biography, but also how Frame UP migrates to other contexts, namely where it is concurrently being shown on The High Line in New York, a Chelsea location with its own diverse cultural history, but also one of construction, accelerating skylines, high-speed capital and its own competitive rules of engagement. I was wondering if you find the resulting work significantly different from how you wanted to respond to the commission invitation more than a decade ago?
Beckman: This Minneapolis worksite now stands in sharp contrast with what I see going on all around me in lower Manhattan, where much of my immediate community is in a state of renewal or, better said, expansion. The buildings are going rapidly up by the hands of subcontracted non-union workers. When I look at these buildings I don’t see craft but capital, with no regard for the community, the workers, or even the inhabitants who will have to face management that does not care about the building.
Speaking specifically about the Minneapolis work site, I did see and follow a few young female workers on site. They were athletic, strong, and exceedingly involved in various work tasks, like their male counterparts. This reinforced what I saw as a very young female child growing up on the military base. I am not proud of this background, but it did form a strong viewpoint. My father was not an officer so, at his level in the military service, there were many women sharing the tasks of running the base operations. They both wore the same drab uniforms, and marched alongside their male counterparts in full display at military functions. This cut through many of the stereotypes of gendered bias in labor and probably gave me a utopian view of labor politics at a very young age.