Vanessa Renwick is pretty much as punk rock as they come. She’s been self-producing films and videos in her own indomitable style since the early 1980s. Her DIY aesthetic can present a challenge to an indie film scene that sometimes seems to care more about slickness and commercial success than originality of spirit. Which is not to say she can’t be slick when she needs to be. It’s just that with Renwick, there are no rules; only surprises.
This program for UnionDocs is Part One of Renwick’s slam-dunk two-night NYC career retrospective. (Part Two, focused on newer work, is at Anthology Film Archives Monday, April 11). “The Oregon Department of Kickass” is an eclectic sampling of her very best work, spanning over twenty years and in almost every moving image medium there is. It will be fast and aggressive, and also slow and contemplative. It will be achingly beautiful and horrifically ugly. Without fail, however, it will be seriously intense, hard to pin down, and harder to forget.
And the music… Oh, the music! Renwick has commissioned some of the most badass original scores in the history of no-budget film. This program features scores by some of the Pacific Northwest’s best musicians (Sam Coomes, Chris Sand, Tara Jane O’Neil, Johnne Eschleman, Donovan Skirvin). Vanessa Renwick does not come to NYC very often, so this is not an event you’ll want to miss.
Toxic Shock by Vanessa Renwick
USA, 1983, 3 minutes, 16mm
Penetration up the wazoo, blood, fire, gas, needles, tampons, liquid power and cocktails of the burning sort. My experimental response to sweating out near death with Toxic Shock Syndrome.
Britton, South Dakota by Vanessa Renwick
USA, 2003, 9 minutes, digital projection
Ivan Besse was the Strand movie theater manager in Britton, S. Dakota during the Depression. He had a 16mm camera and went about town shooting people at their various activities during the day. The lack of narrative invites dressing these cinematic dolls with futures, now histories. The melancholic drone of the accompanying organ music tends to lead them into sad tragic finery.
Crowdog by Vanessa Renwick
USA, 1984-1998, 7 minutes, digital projection
Filmed on super-8 during a 9-month barefoot hitchhiking trip across the US, this film records filmmaker Renwick’s visit to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota to investigate the remnants of the FBI’s “Reign of Terror” on the American Indian Movement. On daily walks to the river with her wolf dog she meditates on her experiences as a barefooted person in a shoe-wearing world.
The Yodeling Lesson by Vanessa Renwick
USA, 1998, 3 minutes, digital projection
Yodeling bagpipe bicycling booty.
Richart by Vanessa Renwick and Dawn Smallman
USA, 2001, 23 minutes, digital projection
A tour through the mind of obsessive collagist and front yard artist Richard Tracy. While confined to a psychiatric ward at age 50, “Richart” Tracy made this discovery: “If you want to get out of the hospital – start making art like this. They will get rid of you – fast!” Seventeen years later, he’s turned three residential lots into a massive black and white maze of his visions. This documentary takes a trip through his yard, art, methods and his mind. Wait until you see what he keeps in his basement!
9 is a secret by Vanessa Renwick
USA, 2002, 6 minutes, digital projection
Renwick recounts a sad time in her life, when a friend was dying and she suddenly became aware of the presence of crows. The dark birds in turn point her to the practice of counting crows, which is both a children’s rhyming game and a form of divination in which the number of crows suggests events in the future. Eight crows auger death: nine crows reference a secret. Renwick combines these fragments with glimpses of imagery- a bed, the crows captures as silhouettes, a man’s twisted body – to craft a lyrical and moving essay that works its magic through poetic accretion rather than narrative logic. -Holly Willis, L.A. Weekly
Mighty Tacoma By Vanessa Renwick
USA, 2011, 9 minutes, digital projection
Vanessa Renwick frames the powerful mechanical operations of the industrial tide flats between the languid waters of Puget Sound and the towering splendor of Mount Rainier. Her film honors the ongoing importance of Tacoma as a port city while continually emphasizing the city’s geographical setting. Renwick’s deft balancing of the manmade city and the region’s natural ecosystems illuminate range and qualities of beauty that inform our day-to-day life in Tacoma. Renwick’s dichotomy also serves a gentle but eloquent reminder of the fleeting and miniscule qualities of human endeavor.
Portrait #1: Cascadia Terminal by Vanessa Renwick
USA, 2005, 6 minutes, digital projection
A mesmerizing stare with a hypnotic score at the most efficient grain terminal at the port of Vancouver, B.C.
Portrait #2: Trojan by Vanessa Renwick
USA, 2006, 5 minutes, digital projection
The astonishing five-minute color film was shot in 35MM and transferred to video, sporting a perfectly synched musical score by Quasi’s Sam Coomes. No narrative, just a picturesque haunting reminder of our lives under the totem of a nuclear state. Long defunct, the monumental tower was imploded earlier this year and Renwick (of Oregon Department of Kick Ass) decided to capture the haunting silhouette that has simply stood there menacingly for years. She calmly documents its demise, which is very much an anti-climax. The short film adores its subject, the towering cement structure. Over a varying course of time, with lapse and stills we view a building painted in pastel light, stark at night, at dawn and dusk. Its inevitable course in its history would be told through a moment in time when it was no more. In essence, the very moment of implosion infers the ultimate destructive potential of its former chilling power. The film, shot by veteran cameraman Eric Alan Edwards (To Die For, Copland, The Break-Up), is stunning to watch, and perfectly blunt. -TJ Norris
Portrait #3: House of Sound by Vanessa Renwick
USA, 2009, 11 minutes, digital projection
Circling the empty corner where a historic Portland record store once stood among a strip of black jazz clubs, Portrait #3: House of Sound is a testimonial to a community and cultural space recently demolished. The beautiful black and white 35mm footage, subtly tinged with loneliness, both juxtaposes and compliments the rich, vibrant voices sampled from a radio broadcast tribute to the record shop. The film moves between laughter, fond memories, melancholy and finally, conviction that despite physical destruction, the House of Sound will never die. -MIXFEST
Vanessa Renwick is the founder and janitor of the Oregon Department of Kick Ass. Daughter of the American Revolution. Born 1961 in Chicago, Illinois. Film / Video / Installation artist. Lives in Portland, Oregon. A filmmaker by nature, not by stress of research. She puts scholars to rout by solving through Nature’s teaching problems that have fretted their trained minds. Her iconoclastic work reflects an interest in place, relationships between bodies and landscapes, and all sorts of borders. Working in experimental and poetic documentary forms, she produces films, videos and installations that explore the possibility of hope in contemporary society. She is a naturalist, born, not made : a true barefoot, cinematic rabblerouser, of grand physique, calm pulse and a magnetism that demands the most profound attention. Represented by PDX Contemporary Art.