I first heard about the artist Vladimir and her Vladmaster shows through accounts from the Portland Documentary and Experimental (PDX) Film Festival. I was instantly intrigued. Like many kids, I had a viewmaster toy growing up, and loved the thought of them being repurposed, customized, and used in a public setting. Later, I came across online video highlights from last year’s PDX festival and got a better taste for what Vladimir was doing. You can see that video here. That’s Vladimir working on a show at the beginning, but be sure to keep watching for footage of one of her performances later in the clip. Seeing a theatre full of people with their faces pressed against Vladmasters and hearing the cacophony of clacks when everyone advanced to the next image really had me hooked. I showed the clip to Film/Video Curator Sheryl Mousley and Women With Vision Program Associate Verena Mund, and they were equally intrigued and immediately contacted Vladimir about coming to the Women With Vision Film Festival.
I’m happy to say that Vladimir will be here for the festival’s opening night on Friday, March 3. For more information on the show, see the festival schedule on our homepage.
Vladimir was kind enough to indulge my curiosity and answer a few questions.
Joe: What drew you to make work involving viewmasters?
Vladimir: I’ve always been very excited by technical problems and reverse engineering, so it started out just as a technical challenge as far as whether or not I could figure out how to make my own viewmasters. However, once I’d figured out how to photograph and mount the pictures, I realized what a fascinating story-telling medium the viewmaster was. In this I was very much inspired by a 4-disc classic viewmaster story called simply “Dinosaurs.” I think that it was originally photographed in the ’60s and it tells a sprawling story which begins with consecutive battles between a T-Rex and a succession of a brontosaurus, stegasaurus, and triceratops, and then concludes with fiery volcanic eruptions and a single-title explanation that mass extinction is on its way. I was enchanted firstly by the model dinosaurs, but also by the absurdity of trying to tell such an epic, action-packed story with only 28 little still pictures.
J: When you created the first Vladmaster reels, did you intend the viewing to be a intimate personal experience, or did you always plan a mass vladmaster viewing with dozens of people clicking through a show in an auditorium?
V: The first two sets of Vladmasters that I made were intended for individual consumption. One set retold four of Kafka’s parables using toys, the other recreates four of the cities from Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities. I chose both works because they were very visually evocative but textually brief and because I could easily abridge the texts to fit into the tiny text windows on viewmaster disks. I made these disks to sell at a few places around Portland.
The idea of doing performances came about through Matt McCormick, Portland filmmaker extraordinaire who also runs the PDX Film Festival. I asked him if I could do something viewmaster-related for the festival, imagining an installation or something like that, and he responded by throwing me into the Invitationals and telling me to do something for a big big crowd. The Invitationals the show where Matt invites experimental and underground filmmakers from all across the country to debut a new work and then there is an audience vote to crown someone the World Champion of Experimental Film.
It was getting put on that bill that made me have to come up with a performance out of the viewmasters and so I did the CD soundtrack and my first public/mass viewmaster show which was Lucifugia Thigmotaxis, also known as the cockroach story. The first show was for that 400-person audience and I had no idea whether it would work, whether people would know what was going on, whether they’d obey the little dinging bell. Miraculously, it all did work wonderfully and from there I’ve been refining and playing with the performance format since. I think that the public performances are much more exciting than the more personal ones. There is a thrill of having that sort of public/private experience of seeing your own version of the tiny pictures at the same time that everyone around you is doing the same thing. Also, the sound of many many viewers clicking simultaneously is quite marvelous.
J: Can you describe the process of creating a new show?
V: Well, I’m a terrible procrastinator. I only really make new shows when I have promised to produce something for someone or some event. Usually about 2-3 months beforehand I spend a few weeks making myself sit in coffee shops hunched over little 3X5 index cards jotting down ideas and images and phrases. I also spend a lot of time visiting toy shops and thrift stores and model railroad shops looking for toys and odd items that might be inspiring. And I sometimes go to library and inernet research as well, although usually the fact-based stuff that I learn winds up getting tossed out as it doesn’t work so well in the story. Eventually, all of the ideas boil down into a concept and I’m able to write out a script and rough drawings for each of the 28 photos.
Then I go about prop-collecting and usually do all of the photography over the course of about a week. I also design the disks and get them to the print shop. This is about the time that I am figuring out who amongst my friends seems to have the right voice and demeanor to do the soundtrack and also talking with musicians who might like to do the music.
If everything is timed right, the film and the disks return at about the same time and, when the show in question is the 400-person Invitationals for the PDX Film Fest, I then spend about 3-4 weeks getting 5-6 hours of sleep a night and spending every waking moment not at work gluing little tiny photographs onto disks. Terrible pains shoot through my wrists as I listen to books on tape. Last time around I did Moby Dick, I Claudius, The Third Man, and Strangers on a Train.
J: What kind of an experience can a first time attendee of a Vladmaster show expect?
V: They should expect to arrive and be handed a viewmaster viewer. I short while later they will also receive a small, rather attractive packet of Vladmaster disks. They ought to take care NOT to peek at their disks prior to the commencement of the audio narrative as that tends to spoil the whole experience just like eating dessert before dinner. Soon the audio experience will begin and an authoritative male voice will instruct them in the proper workings of the viewer and the insertion of the disks. Said voice will also introduce them to the ding noise which will accompany them on their four-disk journey. Then the story will commence and they will be led through a photographed story by narration and music and dings. Most people find this a very pleasurable experience.
J: When you were crowned World Champion of Experimental Film, did you get a championship belt? Has your title since been challenged?
V: There is no champion belt but there is a very nice trophy which is commissioned by a different artist every year. Sometimes garish, sometimes elegant, sometimes light-up, it is a wonderful addition to any mantlepiece. The way that the title works is that the Champion is invited to return to defend his/her title the following year. I first won in 2004, then came back and won again in 2005 and am now preparing to come up with something to return with in April of 2006.
However, I have decided to retire from the Invitationals after this year.
J: What are Vladland Lottery Tickets? What can I win?
V: Vladland Lottery Tickets are another example of my reverse-engineering fixation. They are ink-jet printer generated scratch-it lottery tickets. The most recent was entitled Handsome Cameraman Lottery and featured photographs, culled from old manuals, of handsome cameramen demonstrating the proper usage of super8 and 16mm cameras. Possible prizes that could have been won included “Unimaginable Wealth,” “Super Powers,” and “Beer.” However, most tickets were losers and the only winners won “Beer.” I just made them to give around to friends for fun. However, none of the winners ever once took me up on their “Beer.” Perhaps they still remain unscratched.