Economic landscapes, Super-8, Memphis, punks, skaters, artists, India, Pakistan, the ocean & the Bandung Conference.
Todd Chandler is a filmmaker, musician, and interdisciplinary artist. Live performance, installation, and site specific events are natural extensions of his films. His work is often set within real life contexts and infused with fictional narratives. His first feature film, Flood Tide (2013), documents and reimagines a journey down the Hudson River on the Swimming Cities of Switchback Sea, a fleet of sculptural rafts dreamed up by the artist Swoon.
He often works collaboratively. He is the co-creator of Empire Drive-In, with Jeff Stark, and was a founding member of the Miss Rockaway Armada, and the band Dark Dark Dark.
His films and installations have been featured at the Hammer Museum, the Torino Film Festival, Brooklyn Museum, Mass MoCA, Rooftop Films, 01SJ Biennial, and the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art. His projects have been written about in Filmmaker Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, BBC, and New York Magazine. He has received fellowships and support from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Jerome Foundation, New York State Council for the Arts, Experimental Television Center, the Corporation of Yaddo, and the Wexner Center for the Arts. He teaches in the Department of Film at Brooklyn College.
You shoot in very unique settings most people would walk right past. How do you end up there and what catches your eye?
Generally what’s on the edges is more important to me than what appears to be at the center. I mean this both in terms of a frame or a scene, but also, the kinds of places I’m drawn to. Walking around by myself with a camera forces me to slow down and pay attention to light, to the way things move, and to things I might miss if I were, you know, walking around staring at my phone. Which, incidentally, I do all the time.
How did you become a traveler and how has that shaped your life?
Since Nowhere is a travel magazine, I feel like I should give this one some real attention. The pressure! Well, let’s see…my own travels, seeing changing physical, social, and economic landscapes, and experiencing my own interior emotional landscapes while traveling, these things have always informed my life and my work. My first short film was a super-8 road movie that I shot on a road trip to Memphis when I was 19. My film Flood Tide is kind of a road movie on a river. I’m working on a new narrative project that also takes place in transit.
My first real experience traveling was in the early nineties. My friend and I bought his mom’s old station wagon, threw a futon mattress in the back, made a giant garbage bag of trail mix that we thought we could live off of for the summer, and set off across the country. I remember gas was 99 cents a gallon in the Midwest. For two months we stayed with friends of friends, strangers, and in the back of the wagon. It opened my eyes to the kinds of invisible social networks (pre-internet, of course) of punks, skaters, artists, and freaks around the country. We would show up in a town, find the weird donut shop where the punks hang out, and just go there—find a place to stay, go to shows, see the town. So I was traveling in all of these unknown places, but hanging out in very familiar circles.
The first time I traveled out of my comfort zone was in the late 90’s. I spent a year traveling alone in India, Pakistan, and then East Africa and the Middle East. I brought a super-8 camera, a few cartridges of film, and a tape recorder with one 90-minute tape. I was in my early twenties and my mind was constantly blown. I learned a lot on that trip, but even more transformative was coming back and experiencing New York again– seeing the city anew and reexamining my place in it.
During that year I read and re-read Hakim Bey’s Overcoming Tourism. He writes about three kinds of travel, trade, war, and pilgrimage, in an attempt to distill which of these gave birth to a newer kind of travel: tourism. He draws parallels between tourism and military incursion, which he argues both extract value through violence, without giving back. But, with pilgrimage, the more popular a holy site grows, the more culturally resonant and powerful it becomes. Religious pilgrims bring more power to the site, rather than sucking it away. Kind of the opposite of tourism. I started thinking more critically about the way I was traveling, and while I didn’t become a religious pilgrim, reflecting on that trip changed the way I would travel in the future.
First, I swore off travel in general. Which was a ridiculous, ascetic response, but it somehow seemed appropriate at the time. Then I spent some years doing human rights video work with organizations around the U.S. and internationally. That felt like a responsible way to travel, one that I could allow for. Eventually, I realized that trying to attain some perfect, ethically sound life was totally crazy. I decided to embrace hypocrisy, imperfection, contradictions. And by embrace, I don’t mean ignore. I mean I figured I could experience something beautiful, important, and deeply problematic all at the same time. Most things are like that anyway, right? So instead of forgoing experiences for their perceived flaws, participating while being constructively critical seemed much more productive. And fun.
About 10 years ago, travel for me became intertwined with art practice: being in a touring band, the Miss Rockaway and Swimming Cities art raft projects, traveling to places and working with local artists to make a film or an installation. I’ve actually never thought about how this kind of travel might fit into Bey’s Overcoming Tourism rubric.
I guess touring with a band is like Bey’s thinking about pilgrimage in that you’re definitely giving back, hopefully contributing to the culture of a place, or at least to your own small scene. But when traveling for film and art projects it’s pretty easy to fall into a well-intentioned kind of cultural imperialism; showing up in a place and treating it like a blank canvas, or fetishizing its exquisite decay, or, you know, imposing our own narratives and mythologies onto a place– as if a place weren’t already full of rich and complex histories, and people. All this to say, that I still think a lot about embracing contradictions, and also about building relationships, about context and existing histories and communities, and about how in film the gazes of insider/outsider or foreign/local can intersect in really interesting ways.
from “The Scenic Route” (Music: George Graham, North America)
What art besides filmmaking informs your work?
Music is a super important part of my life– in terms of filmmaking and otherwise. Still photography and painting have taught me how to about light. I feel lucky to be involved with an extended community of people making work that consistently inspires me. Some of that work informs what I do very directly. For example, I collaborated with Jeff Stark on Let Them Believe, a film that follows a group of artists to Chernobyl as they steal radioactive material to construct and amusement park ride in Manchester, UK. It was an actual project by artists Eva and Franco Mattes, and Ryan Doyle. They asked us to make a film about it, and what we came up with was not a straight documentary, but a piece that documents, fictionalizes, and interrogates the project all at once.
What is the worst day you have ever had behind a camera?
Ten years ago I was shooting a short film about the band Magnolia Electric Co., and cinematographer Ava Berkofsky and I were in Edmonton getting one final shot. We had just driven west across the Canadian prairies from Winnipeg. We saw the northern lights in Saskatchewan. And we shot some amazing footage on the way into Edmonton at dusk. There was a triumphant, giddy feeling, because we were almost wrapped. We had a camera set up on a tripod on the sidewalk. Some kids on bikes were riding towards us, and as we stepped out of the way so they could pass, one of them grabbed the tripod and camera and rode off with it. It all happened in slow motion, and I just watched in a kind of stupor of disbelief. Eventually I ran after them, but it was too late. We spent much of the night filing a police report, and then driving around, defeated, with our remaining camera trying to make up for that lost footage. In the end, the piece turned out great, but that night was rough.
What was the best?
It’s hard to answer that. When I was making Salvage Title (excerpted here) I was at this huge scrapyard in south Brooklyn, shooting for hours, obsessing about the tiny details, holding shots for 5 minutes at a time, just mesmerized. There was plastic being blowtorched just below where I was shooting and a bunch of other stuff that seemed to be on fire. I could feel my sinuses getting singed from the fumes but I couldn’t stop.
What is the difference between feature filmmaking, documentary and fine art?
In my own work those distinctions are pretty blurry. The more important distinction for me has to do with making work on a kind of DIY level versus working on a larger scale with more institutional support. The former is a kind of exploratory process that is very much aligned with my spirit and how I like to move in the world. The latter is, well, necessary to some degree. On one hand, it’s great because you get support, and you get a bunch of (hopefully) smart people helping you make better work. On the other hand it’s a business. People want to see a return on their investment. I don’t think that makes for the best art.
Who is your favorite director and why?
It changes all the time. I’m going to just give you a list—not of favorites necessarily, but of people whose work inspires me.
Deborah Stratman, Jem Cohen, Diane Bonder, Chris Marker, Jia Zhanke, Khalil Joseph. Brett Story has a new film called The Prison in Twelve Landscapes that is beautiful, deeply critical, and formally rigorous all at once. By the way, I also watch plenty of trashy stuff too. I got a projector that can project 3D and a couple pairs of glasses. So now we can watch 3D space and nature documentaries at home, but also, you know, Iron Man 6 or whatever. I can zone out to some seriously trashy spectacle, even if I also hate that it’s what’s valued most in this country.
Who is your favorite writer and why?
Again, it’s not easy to just name one. If I had to name a favorite writer and favorite book it would probably be James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head. Baldwin is consistently great, and there’s something in that later novel about the way he captures the cruelty and beauty of human relationships, of family, and identity on the most intimate scale, and then weaves that into this brutal historical context that’s so powerful. Other recent favorites include Maggie Nelson’s the Argonauts and George Saunders’ Tenth of September.
from “Salvage Title”
How do you balance commercial work that pays and artistic work that does not?
Right now I’m working on a new project that can hopefully fulfill both of those imperatives—a creative project that could pay the bills, at least for a year or so. It’s exciting, and it’s uncertain, and it’s giving me all kinds of anxiety because up until now I’ve kept those two worlds separate. I take on paid work that is short term and unambiguously mercenary: I edit corporate video. It is what it is. I have a couple of clients who understand how I work and why I’m doing it. They’re great. I’ve avoided seeking out more creatively engaging money work in order to not put myself in a position where I’m forced to tap into a certain part of my spirit that I keep reserved for my own work. I also teach two classes at CUNY every semester, so if I do four or five freelance jobs per year, that’s usually enough for me to get by and leaves enough time to work on my own projects. It’s a bit precarious, but it’s working for now. I certainly don’t judge anyone else for their choices– we all have to eat.
Where would you live and what would you do if someone gave you 10 million dollars?
I would live in Brooklyn, have a small place in upstate New York, and a tiny house somewhere in California—or maybe some land up in British Columbia in case the shit hits the fan in the U.S., which seems imminent.
As for what I would do, it’s pretty pragmatic. I would set aside a small fund for my own film projects, nothing extravagant, just enough to hire my friends and make some things together. I’d put enough away to make sure my immediate family was set for life. I don’t mean set as in not having to work. I mean the important stuff. Everyone would have a roof over their heads, and if someone got sick medical bills could be covered.
If there were anything left I’d start a small foundation for super under the radar artists who are making creatively adventurous work that has some kind of social justice slant. Kind of like Field of Vision meets Creative Capital from 15 years ago. Or maybe I’d buy a few hundred acres in rural PA or upstate and start a retirement home for my extended community of friends and family.
That last one is about as fantastical as I could get. Maybe with 100 million I could get crazier. But 10 million, I think at that level, most of my decisions would be fairly practical. My life and the lives of the people I love would be more stable, more secure. I’d probably freelance much less, but beyond that, I don’t think it would radically change the day to day.
Why don’t you do that anyway? Without the 10 mil?
Fuck you, I’m working on it.
My partner and I bought a house in Brooklyn recently, which was a miracle born of class privilege and unfortunate family circumstances that led to an infusion of money. We’re thinking about buying a little chunk of land upstate if we can swing it, so one day we can build something up there.
The retirement community will have to be a group effort. As my friends and I get older, taking care of each other is something we’re talking about more. Where’s the compound going to be? Should it be somewhere warm? Where’s the nearest hospital? I recently overheard a conversation about how we should build simple single story houses because we’re not going to be able to handle stairs at some point. This seems insane because most of us are in our late thirties and early 40’s. But we can see the future and the future is bleak. Thanks for the reminder. We should probably get started on that project.
How do you feel about cats?
I hate cats. Sorry. No, I’m not sorry.
What do you think of the ocean?
I love the ocean and it terrifies me. Right now I’m looking out at the Monterey Bay in California and the Pacific is just so much scarier than the Atlantic. The coastline is wilder and and the water seems more powerful. It’s breathtaking here, but I can’t wait to get home and swim at Brighton Beach or the Rockaways where the water is warm and the ocean feels more manageable.
What would you do if you woke up and it was 1956?
Hmm. A lot of cool stuff happened that year. It was the year after the Bandung Conference and a lot of newly independent Asian and African states were figuring out how to shape the post-colonial world. Allen Ginsburg wrote Howl. I could think of all kinds of righteous things to do—like finding Donald Trump, or George Bush, or any number of demagogues-to-be and…I don’t know, killing them seems extreme, but maybe making sure they had some forceful, formative experiences that would shape their worldview in a way that might bode better for the future of the world. But honestly, that’s probably for someone smarter than me. Shit, I don’t know how to answer this. Do I get to take a camera? I’d probably just shoot a lot. People were less media savvy, and there was no homeland security so I think I would be able to have access to locations that are tough to film in today, like scrapyards and shipyards and waste transfer stations, subways, and schools and factory floors. Or maybe I would make a film about the end of McCarthyism.
Where did you grow up?
Wellesley, Massachusetts. I moved to New York in 1992.
What is your least favorite thing?
Cats. Structural oppression.
What makes you happy?
Spending time with friends.
What is your next project?
I’ve got two things going on right now. One is a documentary about schools and security culture. Another is a narrative feature that takes place entirely on a cross-country bus. The excerpt here is from a scouting trip I took on a bus from New York to LA last summer.