Conversation between Seth Fein and Joshua Glick
Between Neighborhoods operates almost entirely in split-screen as in the above screenshot (80:40) from its conclusion where Zenén Zeferino Huervo of Veracruz sings his ballad about Queens at Terraza 7 in Elmhurst, click for clip. Seth Fein produced the screenshots and clips that illustrate his answers. Captions cite timecodes for screenshots and, in many instances, provide links to associated clips. Audiovisual media from Between Neighborhoods is for viewing via Jump Cut 58, all rights reserved Seth Fein, Seven Local Film, 2018.
Joshua Glick: Your documentary, Between Neighborhoods (81 mins., Seven Local Film, 2017) , has evolved into at least three distinct installments. The newest iteration was awarded the Founder’s Choice prize at the Queens World Film Festival. What is the origin of Between Neighborhoods?
Seth Fein: My initial response is that I live in Queens. I moved there as I was moving from writing about film to making film. And Between Neighborhoods is the culmination of my thinking about and doing history across my career, which compelled my move from print to video. My ambition has always been to juxtapose different temporalities, different primary sources, forms of media, and most of all to explore the ability of art not only to engage but to analyze. Working in video has allowed me to redeploy my archival research by creating directly on the screen rather than writing about it, to explore new ideas through evocative editing rather than narrative description. Between Neighborhoods’ development across iterations has increasingly moved in this direction—even as it has grown in duration from about 40 minutes to about 80—by jettisoning voiceover, moving from single-screen to split-screen, limiting titling to conceptually and visually evocative key words, direct quotation, and strategic exposition. Between Neighborhoods expresses transhistorically the intersections of immigration and imperialism, urban and international political economy, to provoke thoughts about what is history, where is it, how is it made, to show that it is not something uncovered from the past but created now in the present, by the filmmaker (as by the historian) and then again by the spectator. Unisphere, Between Neighborhoods' principal subject, presented an opportunity to relate multiple histories at once through documentary art.
Glick: In the film, the Unisphere is such a prominent symbol and subject of analysis. How did this colossal structure become so central to the project?
Fein: Between Neighborhoods developed from my own fascination with the Unisphere and my recognition that it could tell stories, histories, about which I had long studied. I understood it in terms of the ideologies that built it, the global as well as regional vision it propagated, and also the different-but-related world that surrounds it today, on the ground in Queens and globally as political economy. It offered a way to work between present and past and to consolidate my scholarly tools and my artistic ambitions around a single object, to visualize expansively historical fields that were otherwise invisible.
I had encountered Unisphere across my life, but saw it differently when I, a Brooklyn native, returned to live in NYC, in Queens, as I began to make documentaries. Robert Moses, president of the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair Corporation commissioned US Steel to build the giant globe, the biggest in the world, as his Fair’s theme center and its only intended permanent structure in Flushing Meadows-Corona Park (FMCP), where, of course, it still stands. While I was shooting another documentary, at Kissena Park’s Velodrome (also built by Moses) in Queens—about the mainly male but interethnic, interracial, and international subculture of radio-control car enthusiasts—I would stop on my way home on my bike to look at Unisphere during Summer sundowns.
I became fascinated with two things: the beauty of the changing light on Unisphere as the day ended and the robust social life around it, which reminded me of Breughel paintings, both by the elder and the younger, their scenes of everyday social life and recreation across the seasons swirling through public space. The world around Moses's mammoth stainless-steel armillary effortlessly projected the diversity of Queens (kind of like the Velodrome but with even greater social breadth and topological splendor).
Accordingly, I ran a camera without moving it and then when logging the footage at Barnard, where I was teaching then, I was struck both by its beauty and how it affected other filmmakers working nearby. I started to use this footage in the course that I created at Barnard, Projecting American Empire on Film. I thought with my students about the imperial ideologies that surrounded Unisphere’s construction. By intercutting my Unisphere footage with clips from my archival research (especially from propaganda films produced transnationally by Washington for the Third World in the 1960s), we explored how the world in New York City had through the other side of imperialism, immigration, remade the city. Queens, more than Manhattan where my course met, had become its most cosmopolitan borough. In working with my footage of Unisphere and my archival video research, I was able to fulfill another mission of the class: to explore how film could do history, innovatively, artfully and provocatively, transgressing disciplines, genres, historiographies, and temporalities. I was working out without realizing it the ideas that would become Between Neighborhoods. It also led to new archival research about Unisphere, which I thought I would use to write but that became primary materials for my film, whether or not they display directly in it, as many do.
The more psychoanalytic answer is that Unisphere had been dancing around my unconscious for decades, maybe. It and I are the same age. My parents told me that they took me to the NYWF when I was a baby. I looked at Unisphere again, as a Brooklyn immigrant to Queens, as I reconnected my life and work, from film historian to filmmaker. I told a story about this at the Moth (the video is linked to my own webpage on sevenlocalfilm.com). It is notable that unlike me Unisphere has not visibly aged, over the last fifty years, but as Between Neighborhoods shows, its meanings have changed; the dissonance between that geophysical sameness and geosocial differences only more profoundly illuminates historical contrasts across time. Perhaps as I was in a moment of personal and professional transition, I related to those transitions around Unisphere, that orbit the armillary’s own orbits, and that I connected both to the work I had been doing for years and the work I wanted to do, which Unisphere allowed me to do, or better said, compelled me to do.
Glick: What inspired the diptych approach for Between Neighborhoods?
Fein: It emerged from my interest in transhistorical analysis and expression: bringing different temporalities together in my writing about crossborder film cultures, viewing historymaking as a creative opportunity to connect authoritatively and provocatively (only) seemingly disparate research to explain things about present and past that could not otherwise be seen. As often is the case, others can convincingly connect the dots better than artists themselves can. Accordingly, when Between Neighborhoods screened in Cambridge University, Julia Guarneri, a professor of history there, introduced it by recalling how I taught with multimedia when she was a teaching fellow in my International History of the United States in the Twentieth Century lecture course at Yale. In fact, Between Neighborhoods grew in form from what I began there, especially playing different film clips simultaneously alongside and intercut with each other.
It's a way of viewing how texts cohabitate and travel between varied cultural fields across different temporalities, to contrast the meaning of the same text in different contexts, which is really the work of both the historian and the documentary artist in the here and now. For me, this was the beginning of making history through video art. But it also was the beginning of my awareness of how I could achieve better in audiovisual practice what my research inspired methodologically but that my writing could not well enough effect: putting different cultural fields into conversation with one another to make better history by producing documentary art. It was not simply a matter of illustrating lectures or quoting directly my film and TV research by showing it rather than describing it, as I did in my scholarship but transcending via video to express what print historiography could neither adequately analyze nor explain.
My interest was in multichannel visual expression. Pragmatism produced the single-channel, split-screen diptych. I had an initial idea to make Between Neighborhoods as a triptych, since I liked the idea of transcending binaries as well as referencing the theme of threes, on which Between Neighborhoods meditates: three orbits around Unisphere, the era's geopolitical notion of three worlds, and its echo among city, outerborough, and suburb in Moses's tripartite empire.
But it would have been very difficult to edit and almost impossible to exhibit large enough, without a prior commitment from an exhibition space dedicated to the project’s scale. Since Between Neighborhoods intends to be immersive, and having a split screen already reduces the size of each frame, it needs significant space to project properly. I should add that some of my close and very skilled professional filmmaker friends, protectively discouraged not just the triptych but the diptych as too complex conceptually and technically for this project, as I ventured into its production alone and especially as it grew in duration. Their good sense both tempered my technical ambition but also reinforced my conceptual dedication to multiframe representation. A lack of expertise nurtured experimentation (a nice word for it) and enforced limits. The outcome satisfied me (as well as them).
As with any writing or filmmaking or other compositional endeavor, deciding on limits, in this case two frames, allows for greater creativity within those boundaries. Also, as one of my filmmaking friends said about the dual-screen format: we are bioptic animals, watching two frames at once is more graspable than three (or more). I think that's true, not only for comprehension but contemplation. However, I imagine another iteration with a constant third frame or channel of Unisphere in real time across the length of the artdoc as well as other forms of multiscreen installation that would not presume fixed frontal viewing.
A key “rule” for the diptych's composition derived from combined concern about conceptual commitments and formal limits. In its juxtapositional, split-screen editing of observational and archival footage, the present (observational footage) always projects on the left and the past (archival footage) always on the right, to destabilize a conventional causality, a linear left-right reading from past to present. This de-ordering foregrounds the work of the filmmaker, of the historian, in creating the past presently by positioning the viewer in resistance to diachronic documentary and historiographic conventions. Such positioning undermines not simply linearity but also the analysis of single events, individuals, discourses, or structures, to focus instead on the synchronic friction the diptych creates between them.
One of the places this happens in Between Neighborhoods is its pairing of my footage of the 2016 iteration of the annual Bolivian Independence Day Parade each October through Jackson Heights with archival footage of the parade through La Paz celebrating Vice President Richard Nixon's state visit to Bolivia in 1958. It connects my observational filming of the transnational present just around the corner from my home with research about the international past of U.S. empire, represented by and through this Bolivian newsreel secretly subsidized by Washington.
The parallel parades expressing Between Neighborhoods' transhistorical equation between immigration and imperialism culminate by segueing to a sequence that operates between Corona, Unisphere's neighborhood, a center of Mexican immigration to NYC today, and Mexico City, site of an Alliance for Progress-era state visit by Jack and Jackie Kennedy in 1962. The transnational present and the international past interact across cinematic and interamerican neighborhoods. JFK endorsed the modernizing mission of Mexico's authoritarian state-party (the PRI) headed by Pre sident López Portillo, as an exemplar of liberal modernization, a United States in the making. In doing so, Washington's counter-Castro invoked the Good Neighborhood—the twentieth-century rhetoric that expressed the interamerican imperial discourse that created Washington's Western Hemisphere for two centuries—but does not extend between neighborhoods, to Latin Americans in the United States. The international and the transnational, neoliberal reality and liberal imperialism transhistorically confront each other, across borders, between neighborhoods.
In bringing together the international and the transnational history of Jackson Heights and La Paz, Corona and Mexico City, of imperialism and immigration, these sequences also unite the present and past of my own career, now as a filmmaker and in the past as a film historian. Evoking the history generated between neighborhoods, if you will, temporalities converse across time and place within an imagined space that transcends each, not to tell the story of either the Jackson Heights or La Paz parade, nor of Corona or Mexico City as imperial destinations but to suggest another journey back and forth between them, one which also charts my travels from writing about audiovisual culture to producing it.
Glick: The two New York-based mid-century World's Fairs served as showcases for moving image innovation. The RCA Pavilion at the New York World's Fair in 1939 introduced television to a mass audience. And the IBM Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair in 1964–5 featured a variety of elaborate small and large screen displays. Were you using the audio-visual grammar of the World's Fair to critique or interrogate it?
Fein: That’s a very interesting observation. And I’m gratified that Between Neighborhoods prompts this association, because the work considers audiovisual communications, Unisphere's key theme, as central instrument as well as sign of U.S. empire’s ideology of progress through technological modernization. Between Neighborhoods' archival research includes examples of small-screen as well as large-screen propaganda sponsored by Washington to sell U.S. progress across the Third World and by the NYWF Corp. and US Steel to promote the Fair as part of that outerborough/Third World mission. That I cannot say that I was intentionally citing the prior Fair's small-screen exhibits (of which I am very aware) does not diminish the power of your association, since the spectator ultimately produces art, just as I think the artist works on different levels of consciousness. In that regard, your insight prompts my memory of a multiscreen, multimedia presentation about the 1939 Fair, by Bill Stott, great scholar of Depression-era visual culture, when I was a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin. Stott was definitely using the form to mediate between his talk and the past it considered. So, who knows?
Glick: How do you research, locate, assess, and assemble so many different kinds of media? Is your process of creating a documentary similar to writing an academic article or book?
Fein: Let me take the second part first. It’s less like academic writing than creative writing. It’s more like an essay, not an academic article but an essay that uses tone, form, and evocation to examine, explain, and instigate. A documentary is different too from academic writing, but really what drives this project is using audiovisual art to make points about all sorts of things that an academic work could not do because of the limits of that type of writing as well as the limits of writing, period. Or to put it differently, it attempts what I wanted my writing to do.
The artdoc freed me from the social and expressive confines of the professional expectations about what “scholarship” should look like in order to better pursue scholarly objectives. Correspondingly, its differences from a more conventional history documentary are as notable as how it diverges from conventional, single-story historiography. Though, I should add that Between Neighborhoods involves onscreen writing, which demands composing and editing prose—its key-word transitions and its epigraphic meditations as well as direct quotations—in rhythm with documentary sounds and images, mindful of the graphic look of words and their sounds' poetics and phonetics. I love doing this writing (some of which projects in the clips I've linked).
There are, however, a couple of ways in which making the artdoc is exactly like writing from research. First, once I start editing, the ideas begin to take off, no matter what the outline is, putting it together generates unanticipated insights and objectives. The other is that I had better get those ideas down, into a sequence, or they will disappear. I can make a list of things I need to tweak but the big ideas about what to represent and how to do it, need to be done right away, when it's fresh. Logging my own footage, especially the dozens of hours I shot of Unisphere, presented many challenges, because it was not explicitly evident where it would fit in the work. I tagged it for things it made me think of conceptually, like modernization or immigration or imperialism or fascism or religion, and also for connections to archival footage or prior footage shot by me that I realize as I look at it I want to connect. This is not different than for any other filmmaker, but the diptych generates a highly dynamic and sometimes beyond-mind-boggling set of creative criteria. So the opportunity and challenge is to identify both what is there in the footage but also imagine how I intend to use it, not necessarily narratively, more like an abstract collage.
One of the most important archival finds for me—audio tapes of NYWF meetings and press conferences and events at which Moses and others said things not said anywhere else—presented particular challenges for organization and for editing. I had to keyword the digital files I obtained of these voices very carefully because I could not scrub through them to see what I might have missed (visual cues are easier to locate than audio ones). At the same time, it created creative opportunities to juxtapose sounds and sights.
For my shooting of Unisphere across recent years, at different times in different seasons, it became really complicated to organize what I shot, to indicate rationally how it could connect with other archival or original footage (I shot of other things). Then there was the dilemma of how to use so much of this observational footage of a single object. For example, because I wanted to capture a sunrise at Unisphere I went out there before dawn in the dead of winter and ran the camera from a fixed spot for hours facing west, catching the sun coming up behind me, in front of Unisphere, and the light changing around and on it. I would have loved to project this in realtime, kind of like Warhol's Empire, and as a constant channel in a multichannel installation. (In fact, in outerspace innerborough, Between Neighborhoods' single-frame precursor, I played a scene intermittently in realtime, intercut with the other original and archival footage to suggest the different temporalities in which history happens.) I wound up using the several hours of the sunrise sped up within a couple of minutes in Between Neighborhoods' opening sequence.
Something unexpected happened that changed everything. As I wrapped the shoot, jumping around to keep warm, watching how the area has a specific life on a weekday morning, mainly Asian women and elderly couples speed walking around Unisphere for exercise, men crossing by it in groups, on bikes and by foot, on their way to work across the city, I noticed behind me, a woman doing Tai Chi in the dry fountain that runs east from Unisphere and that has one of the neoclassical-cum-modernist sculptures Moses commissioned for the Fair. I spun the camera around and observed her elegant moves and thought of archival photos and footage I had of that statue and that fountain and began to imagine how I would combine things, the now and the then, the resonant forms and themes, the art; it became the beginning of Between Neighborhoods' concluding sequence, which included new footage I subsequently shot to make it work (in the conclusion, linked above and here, below).