Henry Hills

Experimental Filmmaker

Henry Hills

Letter to the Guggenheim

303 East 8th St., #6-R
New York, NY 10009

April 30, 2012

Edward Hirsch, President
John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation
90 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10016

Dear Mr Hirsch

My profound apologies for not writing much sooner. Receiving the Guggenheim Fellowship, in addition to being a great honor, was an enormous boost to me emotionally, materially, and aesthetically.

I was awarded the accolade in May of 2009 but opted to receive the honorarium and take my fellowship “year” in 2010 owing to prior obligations. When I arrived in New York that January I was still completing “Astronome”, a multi-camera 60 minute video document of a collaboration between playwright Richard Foreman and composer John Zorn which I had shot the previous Spring (and which was subsequently released on DVD that Spring: www.tzadik.com). Completing this took some weeks longer than expected and was so stressful that I decided to work on an entirely different project from the one which I had described in my application essay. I was absorbed the next six months creating several hours worth of elaborately composited full-HD loops of almost-abstract symmetrical patterns from train footage I had shot on my bi-weekly commute between Vienna and Prague the previous year. This gorgeous and delirious material is intended for a multi-screen installation. The portion I completed was based on 16mm footage I had shot of tracks viewed from windows of moving trains, constantly evolving lines which retained the pulsating rhythm of the train ride no matter how abstracted. During this period I also collected numerous hours of footage of trains in motion (looked at from the outside) from hundreds of movies throughout the history of film (from Edison and the Lumieres through John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock and up to the present; as a compilation this offers an interesting overview of how the look of film changes from decade to decade, as the image is always more-or-less the same) for the second part (which I have not yet begun) of this installation-to-be. This was a very pleasant period for me: being a full-time artist with minimal distractions. I would wake up and go to work on my computer, virtually every day creating several minutes of dazzling new footage. The patterns were based largely on reproductions of particularly elaborate pages from a range of medieval illuminated manuscripts (but also sometimes on contemporary structuralist comics). I almost immediately completely destroyed my computer, a MacBookPro laptop, in rendering these enormous files, and so I spent part of my grant purchasing the largest, fastest, most powerful Mac desktop computer then available and also a number of hard drives and monitors (I also spent a portion of my grant purchasing a new camcorder, a good quality video projector and finally another laptop to take back to Europe with me as the desktop system turned out to be too huge to transport. I spent approximately $12,000 on equipment. I had enough deductions from those and my film-lab & post-house expenses, plus some salaries for assistants, that I didn’t owe any taxes that year to the IRS; whatever other funds there were were spent on living in New York 9 months without having to work for anyone else). It had never

occurred to me that the typical procedure was to find a place to mount an installation and then design the installation for that space. I was being so productive that I just kept working and the next thing I knew the summer was over (and I had to go back to my teaching job at FAMU in the Fall).

Upon returning to Vienna in September, I totally changed gears and returned to the project I had described in my application, especially since I had to return to working on a laptop, which became my latest film “arcana”. I rented a studio across town and went there almost every day when I was not in Prague teaching. Also a John Zorn related project, “arcana” is based on a text he wrote in the 80’s, “Film in 15 Scenes” which consists of 254 shots (mostly nouns), assembled in a musical rather than narrative manner. I had spent several years accumulating footage--shooting both 16mm film and a variety of video formats in New York, Prague, Vienna, and in the Appalachian mountains of North Georgia, as well as downloading stills, graphics, and some stock footage from the internet--trying to figure out what this text meant. In the process I succeeded in personalizing the images, so that keeping a strict adherence to this rather obtuse list paradoxically freed my imagination and let me explore a wide range of techniques and structural devices in an often very humorous manner. I was able to continue work on this film longer than I had expected which greatly enriched the level of detail. Completed in June of 2011, it was accepted for distribution by SixpackFilm in Vienna and premiered at the New York Film Festival that October. It is still touring the festival circuit (Rotterdam, Diagonale, European Media Arts Festival, etc) and also has been included in recent shows in New York, San Francisco, and Seattle. The Guggenheim Foundation is duly credited in the end titles.

I had spent a portion of the money buying myself out of a project (i.e., returning some unearned yet already-spent salary) which I had grudgingly agreed to edit, but which had turned out to be endless, a monumental documentary on filmmaker/philosopher Peter Kubelka. After completing “arcana” I returned to editing this project, which my wife, Austrian documentary filmmaker Martina Kudlacek, had been directing over the past 5 years. We finished this 4 hour epic, FRAGMENTS OF KUBELKA, this January and premiered it to high acclaim at the Rotterdam Film Festival in February; it will screen in the Fall in New York and at the Viennale. It turned out to be a fantastic & fascinating film document.

I have begun (mostly writing) a new film called “H” in which every shot will revolve around a word beginning with that letter, as will the last names of all the participants (so far I have vocals by Shelley Hirsch & a lecture by Susan Howe on “‘H’ as the disappearing letter”). It will begin in Heaven and end in Hell (the Purgatory in-between representing “Hope”), and hopefully travel to Hyderabad, Hanoi, and Hong Kong. As “H” is an aspirate, I will include a lot of exhalation on the soundtrack (maybe I’ll record my pranayama class) and well as music by Hildegaard von Bingen, Handel, Haydn, Hindemith, and Hauer. Over the next month, however, I am completing EMMA’S DILEMMA, a video project which I worked on from 1997 to 2005 and had sort of let drop when I moved to Europe & returned to shooting 16mm, and had dreaded touching since my protagonist’s suicide 4 years ago. It will premiere the end of May at Microscope Gallery in Bushwick to accompany a show of Emma Bernstein’s polaroids. I am very happy with it, though I haven’t shown it to anyone else yet. I plan to complete the, as I imagine it, massive multi-screen train-related installation over the next, say, year and a half, alongside production and postproduction of “H”, as they sort of represent the two sides of my brain.

In short, the very first intimation that I would receive a Guggenheim Fellowship set me on a productive creative roll which is still continuing. Having been primarily living in Europe at that time, I was feeling rather isolated; now I feel I am back in the center of things and on a roll. I cannot thank you enough.


Henry Hills