Between Worlds

Shelly Silver

photo / Nancy Borowick

October 5, 2015

A Profile of Shelly Silver (B.F.A./B.S. '80) from the Fall 2015 Issue of AAP News.

Shelly Silver's (B.F.A./B.S. '80) latest film, the 52-minute frog spider hand horse house, opens with a frog kite drifting across a blue sky, wandering past the edge of the frame and back again. The film cuts to a group of people practicing tai chi, accompanied by the achingly slow adagio of Beethoven's Hammerklavier sonata. We see more clouds, trees, sky; a man's hands on a piano keyboard; a dead bat on a wooden floor; a young girl's pink-painted toenails; bees entering a rotted tree trunk; schoolchildren being told, "Simon says, 'Be quiet.'"

"I wanted to make a film where language isn't a driving force," says Silver. "I wanted to make a film about children, animals, death, and pedagogy — all the elements of fairy tales — but I didn't want to have a fairy, and I didn't want to have a story-driven film. I wanted a film that's magical and yet viscerally observational, where there's an intuitive weaving of all these tropes that get picked up again and again in different ways, where I'm setting a tone of: 'This is it. This is what you're going to be seeing.'"

To watch a film by Silver is to lose yourself in a world of ideas, images, and questions about how we live. For in complete world (2008), she filmed on the streets of New York City, asking strangers, "Are you satisfied?" "Does equal opportunity exist in the United States?" "Are we responsible for the government we get?" In TOUCH (2013), she turned to fiction, shooting from the point of view of an unseen, unnamed, gay Chinese librarian-turned-photographer who's taking care of his dying mother. In 37 Stories About Leaving Home (1996), she chronicled three generations of Japanese grandmothers, mothers, and daughters, telling their stories within the context of a folktale.

In one of 37 Stories' sweetest, saddest moments, a woman talks about her career as a benshi, a performer who provides live narration to accompany silent films. If there were a benshi to narrate her own life, Silver says she imagines a voiceover that shifts restlessly from one identity to another, constructing a set of fictions that reveal little about herself. So we wouldn't hear much about growing up in Brooklyn and on Long Island, or about being the daughter of scientists, or coming to Cornell in 1975, where she earned a B.S. in European history and a B.F.A. in mixed media, back when campus faculty debated whether photography should be considered art.

This voiceover would say little about her work since then — creating eight feature-length films and numerous shorts, with screenings and installations at the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the Yokohama Museum of Art, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, and hundreds of other places around the world. It might elliptically reference her accomplishments so far this year — major shows and retrospectives at Philadelphia's Slought Foundation and Cinéma du Réel in Paris's Centre Pompidou, an installation at Brussels's Argos Centre for Arts and Media, gallery shows in Brooklyn, San Francisco, and SoHo — or might not mention them at all, eliding an Anonymous Was a Woman award (1998), a Jerome Foundation Fellowship (2000), and a Guggenheim Fellowship (2005).

"I would be a benshi who lies," says Silver, who teaches at Columbia University and serves as chair of the visual arts program. But when Silver talks about her life, she's as direct as the witnesses of in complete world.  "I was a really obstinate kid growing up. I only wanted to do the things I liked to do. I was very passionate about reading, drawing, photography. I liked watching films and I liked watching television. When I came to Cornell, I was doing a lot of photography, but after my first year I got frustrated with its limits. I couldn't fit my ideas into it. I shifted to a pared-down form of conceptual art, where I would write a word on a piece of paper, and since the art department was all about aesthetics, the discussion would turn on the texture of the pencil next to the paper, not about the expletive I had written. One of my professors finally said, 'You should try film.' And it made me grumpy, because I didn't want to admit that he was right."

But he was. That summer, after junior year, when Silver took a film class at the San Francisco Art Institute, everything clicked: All the studio classes she'd taken at Cornell. All the coursework she'd done in philosophy, anthropology, sociology, intellectual history. All the books she'd read by Deleuze, Derrida, Kristeva, Woolf, and the theorists of the Frankfurt School. All the conversations she'd had with Dominick LaCapra, her advisor in the College Scholar Program, an independent major program in the College of Arts and Sciences that Silver completed to earn a second degree. All the conceptual art pieces she'd made, all the fights she'd fought, all the frustrations she'd felt. Finally, she had a medium big enough to contain them.

"I was hooked," says Silver. "With film you have language. Time. Sound. Images. You have expectations to push against. And once I understood this, my real work began. I came back to Cornell and wrote my own ticket, and that's been the hallmark of my work ever since: pushing against assumptions about narrative, politics, visual form and duration, truth and its relationship to fantasy, storytelling, and misunderstanding. Film allowed me to dig more deeply into questions of persona, identity, historical inheritance, wish fulfillment, beauty and its discontents."

Returning to campus, she borrowed equipment from the School of Hotel Administration and started piecing together experimental films that combined those different universes. She hosted a "weird pseudo–talk show" that aired on cable television at 2 a.m., fielding angry calls from angry callers. She took a filmmaking class with Marilyn Rivchin in the College of Arts and Sciences, finished both degrees, and moved to New York City, ready to work.

She started in postproduction at Rough Cut, cutting alongside Tony Oursler and Michael Smith, before jumping to Rebo Studios, where she edited feature films, documentaries, music videos, advertisements, stand-up comedy, and industrial shorts. Then, as part of the DAAD Artists-in-Berlin Program, she gave up her day job, moved to Berlin for a year and a half, and shot Former East/Former West (1994), in which she asked what it meant to be German after the Reunification, with on-street interviews about words like history, socialism, capitalism, freedom, and foreigner.

Decades later, she's surprised to find herself still working in the same medium, still in love with the moving image and everything it can do. "Let me count the ways," she says. "When I started, I didn't know what film could bring to me. That it would allow me to enter situations I couldn't access without a camera, to ask questions and give people a platform to say what they might not say if someone with a camera had not asked. That it would allow me to see my neighborhood, my country, gender, myth, the view out the window, another person's face in a way I could not otherwise. That I could frame space, slow down time, juxtapose unlikely ideas, sounds, or stories, and bring people together in darkness to watch, a room full of strangers all facing this ephemeral, projected, flickering light."

For frog spider hand horse house, Silver videoed schoolchildren in Halifax playing Simon Says; artists at Yaddo and MacDowell, including the ones playing piano in darkened rooms; a horseback-riding school; students at a summer school for composers; frogs, spiders, snakes, and the dead bat caught in the mesh of Silver's screen door at Yaddo. She edited by intuition, knowing she wanted to start with an image of a frog floating in a blue sky, and working nonstop over the next 48 hours to finish the film's first 40-minute rough cut.

"Working with a nontraditional structure, as I edit the first few minutes of a film, I'm always aware of laying the groundwork — a careful connection between sound, movement, gesture, and music, so that the audience, even if they don't consciously understand, will feel held," says Silver, who talks about frog spider's "binary structure of children and animals, two endangered species," before returning to her own coming-of-age story in Ithaca.

"I didn't want to go to Cornell; my parents strong-armed me into going," she says. "But it turned out to be the right place for me in so many different ways. I had a studio, I had a small community, but I was also part of the larger university, which I understood as a microcosm of the world I was about to enter. I learned that staying in the cracks between realms, disciplines, and industries is an interesting place to be. Am I in the art world? Am I in the film world? Do I make documentaries? Do I make fiction films? There are all these different ways I function, which aren't exactly in any one world or another. At Cornell, I found this place between worlds, and that's the place I've continued to be."

By Kenny Berkowitz

Close overlay