It’s often said that contemporary art is an arena for posing questions, developing problems, and introducing doubt: a place where skepticism, complexity, improvisation, and ambiguity thrive. In today’s public discourse, however, authority tends to be the dominant mode, be it the black-and-white acrimony of politics or the comforting cliches of popular entertainment. Documentary cinema is situated at an interesting crossroads between the two: we expect a documentary to explore the unknown, however uncomfortable, without itself being unknowable. A documentary should always “ring true.”
When conceiving New York Close Up, we wanted to develop a project whereby we could experiment with telling stories that capture the nuanced dilemmas and productive disquiet that’s at the root of creative endeavors. We wanted to show how artists struggle to form ideas, make things, and build communities—through interviews, in process, and in the context of their daily lives. Artists in this documentary series are portrayed exploring questions both prosaic and profound: Is this an interesting picture? Am I the character I created? What’s the difference between art and entertainment? Should I be beholden to the past? Is art enough to change the world around me? Can I afford to do this? What does the future hold?
As the creators of an experimental project, we’re motivated by questions too. We ask ourselves: how do we make pictures of art and artists that are simultaneously edifying, subtle, and strange? We ask the artists: how do you want to be represented and why? We wonder: is it possible to record the imperceptible changes in our own backyard? We worry: are these stories accurate, or are we repeating the ones people want to hear? We speculate: can we adapt popular forms to smuggle in difficult subject matter? We fear: by investigating uncertainty, do we risk unnerving audiences towards artists and art we feel passionately about?
To explore these questions, we’ve created a loose structure that allows us to play with different tones, genres, and styles of storytelling within a single documentary series. Younger artists felt like the right group to go on this adventure with: people who are in the process of establishing their voice, challenging assumptions, and creating images of and for themselves. Our relationships with the artists are collaborative and open-ended, so that a dynamic portrait can emerge slowly through short films realized and released over time. We intend the experience of the project to be one of change in aggregate, of lives and conversations and filmmaking unfolding.
Why New York? The degree of collaboration we’re undertaking with each featured artist is truly only possible in close quarters, and New York happens to be where we’re based. Being able to drop by a studio, check in on the progress of an edit, see the same shows, meet the same people, speak the same language—it’s all part of the mix. At the same time, and as is the case with many New Yorkers, being a transplant to this city, and a wanderer beyond its limits, is part of being a resident. For most, this place is a dream lived out on movie screens. And so reconciling the New York of our imagination with the city around us is part of this project too.
What we hope to leave behind, for future generations, is a rich and varied portrait of creative people in a particular time and place. We aspire to chronicle what it feels like to be an artist today in New York, what’s at stake in our culture, and what it means to make art. And we want to have fun while doing it. Join us, for this is only the beginning.
Wesley Miller & Nick Ravich
ABOVE: Artist Mariah Robertson with a clapperboard. Greenpoint, Brooklyn, 12.13.10. Production still from the series New York Close Up. © Art21, Inc. 2011.