Resident Video is a monthly series that provides exclusive access to films from emerging artists. This month we bring you Cairo, IL by Ross Constable. Cairo, IL is a two channel, site specific work which will be installed at CalArts later this month.
Ross Constable is a Chicago filmmaker currently finishing a degree at the California Institute of the Arts. Constable’s most recent piece is Cairo, IL, a site specific work which mingles mediums, media, and genre into an experimental evocation of rural Illinois. Rather than be a documentary or even a portrait of a place, Cairo, IL evokes an expansive experience of the town.
Varied source material shakes the sense of Cairo as a static place, editing makes events seem simultaneous rather than linear. These effects are compounded by the film’s immersive installation. Projection of Cairo, IL is looped on adjacent walls in a gallery space. By presenting the film this way, Cairo, IL envelops the viewer in a constant evocation of events. Civil Rights protests, devastating floods and tornados, the flight of Cairo’s citizens to cities like Chicago, and a dog growing old and blind are all on display here. We’ve included a trailer which provides a picture of the installation space.
Be sure to see Constable’s installation and other work when and where you can. Below we ask Constable about the specific needs of his work, its unlikely topicality, and how he sees it standing up to the very forces it captures.
FACETS: We’re happy to present the two channel video component of Cairo, IL but this isn’t the whole work. Cairo, IL has been installed at the California Institute of the Arts and will be exhibited elsewhere, but what else is involved in the installation? Since the film itself is site specific, like the installation itself, will there be any changes to the setup when you move it to a new space?
The dual-screen export provides only part of the experience. In the installation itself, the images are projected large on adjacent walls, converging on the corner, and playing on a seamless, infinite loop. When I first set out to make a movie about the American Midwest, I never considered the possibility of an installation. My mind was locked into a single-channel, theatrical world. But as I got deeper into the editing, it dawned on me that exhibiting the work in a theatrical space was actually quite limiting. I wanted these images and landscapes to remain open, to be revisited and recontextualized with one another. And I was averse to the idea of a strict beginning and end. Contrary to many filmmakers, I like the concept of the viewer having agency when exploring the work, being able to walk in and out at any point. So when I started composing Cairo, IL for an installation setting, it was like rediscovering my entire vision for the project. With two screens, the images not only have a conversation with the audience, but actually start informing each other.
I anticipate a similar setup with each install. The images and soundscape literally surrounded the viewer. I covered the rest of the wall space with maps, both of Cairo, IL and Cairo, Egypt, to give the viewer a geographical context. The floors were covered with fresh soil and recently picked ears of corn, which introduced a smell completely evocative of the Midwest into the room. That was really exciting, because smell is a sense you can’t control when projecting something in the cinema. People really responded to that, and it added so much to the experience of watching the images and feeling as though you’re in Midwestern farmland, even if just for one 16 minute loop before you step out of the gallery and into the world you know. In the foyer, a wolf skull and snake skin (two symbols of ancient Egyptian deities) rested on a pedestal, introducing a sense of mysticism when the viewer first enters the room. All of these elements work together to create a space that engages in a sort of Midwestern mysticism by finding a line between personal and political, historical and mystical, experiential and informative. I wanted a work that viewers could walk in or out of at any point and still take away something even if they only stayed for a few minutes. And the potential of audiences revisiting the work after they had seen it was intriguing. During the original installation, many returned throughout the week, and had completely different interpretations and takeaways each time.
What really excites me about a reinstall is the potential for a new edit. Since first exhibiting the work, I’ve gone back to Cairo, IL and revisited many of the sites and structures I initially filmed. Because Cairo is a real place, with an overflowing, ever-changing history, I want my film to reflect that. I recently traveled back with my brother to film the total solar eclipse. I can’t wait for that edit.
FACETS: You don’t seem to limit yourself to one format, there’s digital photography, archival footage, 16mm, Super-8, and a similarly complex soundscape mingled together here. Why is it important to work in so many formats in this piece?
I wanted to break the illusions of time and history as something linear. That’s why there’s so much fluidity in the format – it’s a way of blending “past” and “present.” And the dual-channel presentation really aids that notion. Suddenly, an archival clip is having a conversation with a digital image next to it, and the audience starts to make connections. It’s a way of making the work more immersive but also letting history present itself through image and sound as opposed to text and voice. History isn’t necessarily something that has passed. For a town like Cairo, its histories are still very present and reflected in the town as it stands today.
Initially, I was set on using 16mm exclusively. But my collaborator and close friend, Evan Armstrong, was the one who opened up the possibility for something more expansive. He accompanied me on the first trip to Cairo, and brought along a VHS camera. With him shooting VHS, and me handling most of the 16mm and digital, it became apparent that all of these formats could work together to achieve something that brought another level to the work. And then there was the inclusion of the archival material, which had always been important to the project. There’s archival material such as a Jesse Jackson speech, or the photos from the 1967 race riots, and then there’s more recent YouTube clips. The 8mm is family footage from when my father was growing up on a farm in Indiana. My grandfather was a farmer, and all of the 8mm is footage of a 1950s’ and ‘60s’ Midwest. I did a lot of scavenging to find some of the material and I knew it was necessary to include it if I was going to paint an accurate and complex portrait of the American Midwest.
The sound design was the last step and probably the most important to me. I sound design all of my work and when it came to creating the soundscape for Cairo, IL I was breaking down and collecting hundreds of sounds that evoked the region. When I think of the Midwest, I think of cicadas. Of thunderstorms. Of industry. So much of the experience of a place resides in the sounds you hear while there. So I knew that a complex, lush soundscape was essential to creating this experience.
FACETS: Watching the images and thematic threads you present throughout, it’s hard not to see your installation as cognizant of the current moment in American culture. Cairo, IL vividly shows the urban/rural divide in America. What did you find in Cairo’s history and landscape specifically that connects with current events and other locations?
If you Google “Cairo Illinois” the first words you’ll see are “abandoned” and “death.” Both of these words are particularly reductive when it comes to describing the town. Cairo, IL is neither abandoned nor dead. When I looked deeper into the town, I found complexity and beauty that encapsulated a lot of the landscape of middle America. Since moving out to Los Angeles from a suburb of Chicago, I’ve realized my own affinity for the region. Growing up I spent a large portion of each summer on my grandmother’s farm in rural Indiana. So throughout my life I’ve felt connected to both urban and rural spaces. What I found really interesting about Cairo is its duality. The town isn’t quite urban or quite rural. It’s not fully Midwestern and not completely Southern. This duality extended past geography and it tied into my conceptual outlook as well. I researched for nearly a year before I completed the current edit of the film, and I began to draw connections to the ancient Egyptian myth of the afterlife. This was a narrative of salvation and beauty that existed past physical death and decay. I felt Cairo had a similar narrative. The Midwest is a landscape filled with natural threats of almost biblical proportions like fires, floods, tornadoes. I knew I wanted to explore those themes as a glimpse into the spiritual psyche of a commonly underrepresented place. And Cairo’s history, not unlike the history of Detroit, MI is stained with race riots, collapsed industry, and white flight. So I saw Cairo as a vessel to discuss the larger issues of the Midwest and inherently the American mythos as a whole.
FACETS: Setting aside the medium and site specific features of Cairo, IL for a moment, where in a literal sense do you expect this work to take you? What are the times and places you’re looking forward to exploring next?
I’m currently living in Los Angeles, and I’m still thinking of how to work with this city as a filmic landscape. But every time I travel back to the Midwest, I can’t shoot enough! I’ll definitely continue exploring Cairo. Recently, under review by Ben Carson of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Cairo’s public housing was deemed nearly “uninhabitable.” Its residents are under the threat of relocation, and Cairo itself could be demolished in the foreseeable future. So I want to go back and work with residents to create something that could potentially be shown to HUD. But in the meantime I have another installation on the burner, Turbine Angel, which explores the Midwest from a personal perspective–the farmhouse room in which my grandfather was born and died in. That one will feature three rotating channels of video. Out in Los Angeles, I’ve kept busy shooting and directing music videos and other contracted work. I’m currently approaching fundraising for a narrative script to be shot in the spring. I’m open to exploring ways in which I want to present images, engaged with film that lives in and extends past single channel theatrical work. Cinema’s potential still feels untapped to me.
Be sure to check out the rest of the Resident Video series. While the films are no longer available, the interviews remain until our servers dissolve.