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Armchair travel at Area 5

“People are used to going into an exhibition and looking at the artwork from a distance,” writes photographer Dana Gentile in the artist’s statement for her often-exhibited installation, The Sitting Room. “I want my audience to walk into a wallpapered room, feel the rug beneath their feet, sit down in a comfortable chair, and pick up a book. The room should be a space for the audience…”

So the first thing the Manhattan-based Gentile and her chief collaborator, filmmaker Abbi Jutkowitz, did after rolling into Missoula for a joint installation at Area 5 was remodel the space to make a few walls, at least, look like the hallways of a cozy house with lots of family photos on display. A little like Grandma’s house, actually, right down to homey wallpaper recreated with paint and stencils.

“We’ve never done a big show together in a space before,” Gentile explains, “which is one of the reasons we wanted to come out here [from New York to Missoula] and try in in this space. There’s never been a couch before.”

The name of the installation, The Travel Room, is a collusion of sorts between Gentile’s The Sitting Room and Jutkowitz’s interest in the nature of travel.

“You wouldn’t usually think of traveling in one space like this,” the filmmaker admits, reflecting on the installation’s somewhat sedentary depiction of something as dynamic as travel. But in much the same way that Gentile is fascinated by the way other people display family and vacation photographs in their homes, Jutkowitz’s preoccupation with travel has as much to do with travel documentation—that is to say, the visual proof that a trip has been taken—as travel itself.

It’s a theme the filmmaker explores in Home Movie #3, a short film depicting a young woman (Jutkowitz) trying on various outfits and stuffing them into a suitcase. The film ends shortly after she packs herself into a suitcase, one of many charming in-camera effects accomplished with the single-frame feature of her Bolex and a cable plunger long enough for Jutkowitz to appear in front of the camera while still operating it. Humorously enough, it’s usually just one arm busy packing the suitcase because the other one is tied up with advancing the film a frame at a time—sort of the home-movie equivalent of taking a picture of yourself in front of a scenic landscape or popular tourist attraction because there’s no one else around to do it for you. That’s a particularly lonely form of traveling, but then so is the travel depicted in Home Movie #3, which shows calendars marked with “Mom” and “Dad” indicating a child constantly shuttled between divorced parents.

Jutkowitz, you can just tell, was the kind of kid who lived for educational movies in elementary and junior high school, that magic hour every week or so when the teacher would wheel a sea-foam-green projector into class or lead the kids down to the AV room. Remember some of those movies? “Sea water,” is an emphatic line I will always remember from a hybrid live-action/Disney-animated film about how blood works.

Ordinarily, Jutkowitz projects her own films, or sees to it that someone else is always attending the projector, to give the feel of home-movie night back when people committed picnics and barbecues not to video but to small-gauge films like Super 8mm, and before that regular 8mm and 16mm. It’s as much a part of the film experience, she agrees, as optical crackle, faulty splices and other defects inherent to the medium itself, which she also claims to include in her work wherever possible.

Though Home Movie #3 is shorter in length than an unedited roll of Super 8 film, Jutkowitz uses a variety of techniques to manipulate time, stretching here and compressing there. She uses some slow motion (achieved by changing the motor speed on her Bolex), but also a stop-motion technique somewhere between time-lapse and a style pioneered in the late ’40s and early ’50s by Canadian animator and filmmaker Norman McLaren. McLaren didn’t invent the technique of pixilation (not to be confused with pixellation, a term used to describe a particular kind of digital defect), but he did parlay it into an Academy Award for his 1952 short, Neighbours, a humorous examination of neighborly rivalries with a resonant Cold War message still poignant over 50 years later. Briefly, pixilation describes stop-motion animation achieved using human subjects who change poses incrementally between exposed frames to simulate continuous action when the film is projected. Generally used in enacted scenes, as opposed to unprompted phenomena that can be captured using the related technique of time-lapse cinematography, pixilation imbues live-action sequences with a surreal jerkiness. The action in Home Movie #3, Jutkowitz explains, was mostly improvised—not posed, but nonetheless performed with this sophisticated trick shot in mind—and the results are frankly more arresting for technique than content.

Just as Gentile prefers using available light in her photographs, Jutkowitz lit Home Movie #3 with just one light, bouncing it off the ceiling of her small working space. Also, most of the film was shot in the reflection of a mirror. The idea came to her, she says, while posing for Gentile’s photographs—in fact, the suitcase in the film is the one that Gentile would stuff with clothes and props and bring along with her on picture-taking outings.

There’s a lot of inspirational overlap in The Travel Room, lots of companion pieces to Gentile’s photographs in Jutkowitz’s films (the other film in the installation is Strangers, which ties in with an artistically repurposed, falling-apart 1938 edition of the Claude Houghton book of the same name) and vice versa. These girls get around together—The Travel Room is the proof.

The Travel Room is open to visitors throughout April at Area 5.

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