I must take this time to pay tribute to an amazing artist I was privileged to meet and whose work I appreciated on a very intimate level. My first awareness of experimental filmmaker Chantal Akerman—who passed away October 5 at age 65—was as a projectionist at the Walker Art Center. Tasked with screening Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), I was faced with a dilemma: I had a single, large, pedestal projector capable of showing the longest feature-length movies on its very large, two-plus-hour reels—but Chantal’s movie was three hours long! There were no instructions or directives about whether there should be an intermission. If you show something that long straight through, well, no one can last without at least one bathroom break. I tried to sense the intent of the artist. What would she want? From the relentlessness of the film, I surmised that she would want it shown uninterrupted. So I devised an extension to my already very large reel out of rigid cardboard that allowed it to be shown purely.
Years later I was in charge of exhibition AV tech, and Ms. Akerman had come up with D’Est (1993/1995), an art piece intended for gallery exhibition. It was a stunning cinematic record of her retracing her roots in eastern Europe, shown on 24 CRT monitors, synchronized in groups of three. All these constantly flowing scenes of everyday life in a different part of the world showing on this army of monitors! They backed up another part of the show—a continuously repeating 16mm feature-length film originally broadcast on German television. To create a projector capable of wired remote operation to control all functions, I enlisted a robotics engineer to fashion a computer-controlled console containing two projectors constantly changing over to the other to show the film, uninterrupted and unattended. I still look back at this—a “robot projectionist,” I called it—as my crowning achievement at the Walker. It had been my idea.
I was the one assigned to actually put together her installation piece for D’Est. Unusually, the first venue on this tour was not the Walker. The unveiling of Chantal’s first ever gallery piece was to take place at SFMOMA, on the occasion of the opening of its new building. I had set it up trying to anticipate what she wanted, what she herself envisioned, as best I could. I was very nervous to meet her. What if she didn’t like it? I had returned from being out of the gallery and found her and her videographer already there. She didn’t hate it. (Whew!) We worked on some small changes to my positioning of the monitor triptychs, but all in all she seemed happy with it. I felt bad for her as it became apparent she had a very severe case of jet lag. She was very tired. At SFMOMA the feature film played into an adjoining room next door. Their team had devised a projection booth inside the wall separating the two rooms. The projector was up quite high, requiring a ladder to access it. So proud was I of my robot, and as I got to know her a bit better, I was emboldened to compel Ms. Akerman to shakily climb the step ladder to bare witness to my grand achievement. She complied with less than the delighted reaction I was looking for. She nodded absently and descended only to lie on the floor on her back. I left the poor thing lying there.
I encountered her a couple more times during that tour. In Paris I had been installing her show and dealing with the peculiarly French obstinance (“We do not do ‘lighting.’ They all stay on or they all stay off!”). Chantal’s arrival was signaled by a fierce high-volume confrontation between two powerful women—Chantal and the curator. The melee was in French (sans subtitles), so I wasn’t privy to the details of the conflict. Eventually things calmed down and I resumed getting to know her a bit better. Perhaps she could sense my admiration, dating back to Jeanne Dielman. I was so honored to be in her presence, which placed me one degree of separation from the divine star of the famous French new wave film, Last Year at Marienbad, Delphine Seyrig (who also starred in Jeanne Dielman).
Chantal offered me a ride in her taxi through the streets of Paris. She told me she was small “like Napoleon.” I took that to mean she was damn tough, which was pretty obvious. She complained that during the making of her attempt at Hollywood-like musical, Golden Eighties,” that Juliet Binoche got the good suite.
I met up with Chantal a third time in New York when the show stopped at the Jewish Museum. The last section of D’Est was a slow-motion video of a winter street scene overlaid with Chantal’s mournful husky monologue. Ruminating. Deep digging. We sat together in that isolated last section of the installation watching this. I had convinced her to shorten a blacked out segment. She seemed wistful, and I perhaps over-read that she seemed a bit unsure what direction to take next. It seemed a vulnerable moment.
When I was in France for another show, In the Spirit of Fluxus (1993), the director expressed doubts, in that French old world arts way: “She is a film director but is she any good as an artist?” Of course today everyone is keen to blur those boundaries between disciplines. In that she was a trailblazer. To me she was an incredibly moving artist! You could just tell she put so much of herself in it. She moved me. Not an easy thing for art to do these days.