VDB Asks... Christopher Harris

Christopher Harris headshot

Christopher Harris makes films and installations that read African American historiography through the poetics and aesthetics of experimental cinema. He employs a variety of technical and formal approaches in his work including manually and photo-chemically altered appropriated moving images, staged re-enactments of archival artifacts, and interrogations of documentary conventions. His influences range from Black literature, all forms of Black music, and various strains of mid-century avant-garde film. Christopher is based in Iowa where he is the F. Wendell Miller Associate Professor of Film and Video Production in the Department of Cinematic Arts at the University of Iowa.

1. Can you tell us something about your background?

I come from a working-class African American background in the Midwest (St. Louis, MO), so I grew up in a “flyover state.” I wasn’t particularly well read, and our family couldn’t afford trips or vacations, so I wasn’t well-traveled or anything like that. My main outlet for imagination was Black popular music and culture. I was especially obsessed with Motown, Parliament-Funkadelic, and Jimi Hendrix. When I heard Miles Davis records at 16 my life changed. In college I met a guy who turned me on to free jazz (Frank Lowe, Albert Ayler, John Coltrane, and Eric Dolphy). All of the music from Motown and P-Funk to free jazz really prepared me to think.

2. What inspired you to become an artist? To use film, video?

Black music has been my primary inspiration in life and that has transferred to my artistic practice.

I have a sort of origin story that has two parts. Part one is that I am almost a failed musician (that is, had I actually attempted to play music beyond a single afternoon, I would have at least made it to the level of a failed musician). I liked drawing too but, while I wasn’t bad at drawing from photos, I couldn’t draw from life and so I never tried to be a visual artist. I kind of buried my impulses toward making music or being a visual artist. I had no clear idea of what I could do if I couldn’t be an artist. That leads to part two of the origin story which happened when I took a film class in college (prior to my “sabbatical” from higher education) to get an easy “A” and fell in love with the idea that movies were more than entertainment or that they could be more than that. I was excited to learn that movies could be about ideas. I never looked back. I later realized that a film could actually be an idea. Filmmaking appealed to me more and more as I realized that editing, camera movement, sound, etc. could be used musically. So, in a way, I never really gave up on the idea of making music. I realized that my filmmaking could have a musical quality or at least that its formal aspects could be informed by ideas that I got from listening to music.

3. Did you have formal art training/schooling?

After a very long “sabbatical” from higher education during which I was an autodidact going to movies, museums, galleries, and jazz clubs in Chicago, and reading tons of film, music, and art criticism, I finally went back to school to study filmmaking. My time as an MFA student at SAIC was pivotal because that’s where I figured out that I could actually make films that mattered to me.

4. How do you balance life and art? Are you able to make a living through creating art?

No, I teach to make a living and I’ve only recently begun making money from my filmmaking. I don’t think I’ve ever learned to balance life and art. I think my day-to-day work as a university professor, family life, etc., i.e. “life,” has taken the greater part of my time, especially administrative work at my university position. So, I have more films that I want to make than I have time to make. It doesn’t help that I am not a terribly fast-working filmmaker.

5. What influences or motivates you in the world?

I am influenced mostly by a number of incredibly brilliant thinkers, many of whom are artists/filmmakers/writers that I’ve been fortunate enough to meet and get to know a bit. These are people who know a whole lot about a whole lot of things. Also, Black music is my first, next, and last teacher.

6. What artists or movements are you following right now?

There are too many to name but to narrow my focus, I’m very interested in international Black experimental cinema by people like Miryam Charles, and Brazilians Aline Motta, Everlane Moraes, João Vieira Torres and Grace Passô.

Also, I am continually confronted with the happy fact that there is so much rich work being revisited all of the time that has been more or less ignored by the canon makers. The actual lived history of the arts is so much richer than the ossified canons would have us believe. 

Finally, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between film/art and abolition. I’ve been trying to figure out ways that moving image-making and art-making generally can function to support abolition in order to help rid us of these carceral structures within which we live.

7. What was the last exhibition you saw?

Forecast Form: Art in the Caribbean Diaspora, 1990s –Today at the MCA Chicago back in February of this year (2023). I don’t get out as much as I would like.

8. What has been the best screening experience of your work?

I have had A LOT of great screening experiences but if I had to settle on one, I’d say the 2018 Flaherty Seminar curated by Kevin Jerome Everson and Greg de Cuir Jr. where I was a featured artist alongside Cauleen Smith, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Ephraim Asili, and many other great filmmakers. The positive reaction to my work was overwhelming and I was deeply inspired by the work of the other filmmakers as well as by Kevin and Greg’s programming brilliance.

9. What are you working on right now?

I’m working on several films right now. One is an optically printed found footage film about dancing, abolition, and cinema. Another is about the relationship between my childhood, the Catholic Church, and colonialism shot partially in Senegal. A third film is a serial film in collaboration with Thomas Comerford about the relationship of Black people to water. The first installment is centered around Chicago. There are a couple of more that I won’t attempt to summarize here except to say that one is edited in-camera using close-focus cinematography of text and the other is a color separation film made with found footage and a vintage magazine cover.

10. How do you start a piece? How do you know when a piece is finished?

There is no clear beginning to the process of making films for me. I mostly live with an idea long enough that I get bored with it or I must make a film to exorcise it. I find filmmaking difficult, so unless an idea just won’t leave me alone, I won’t make a film about it. Also, I’m always turning over ideas and holding on to scraps of things that speak to me and they eventually find themselves in my films, often years after I first encounter them.

I think I mostly know a film is finished if adding something or taking something out would feel destructive to whatever is holding it together as a more or less complete “thought” (even if it is an open-ended thought).

11. What are you currently reading? Watching?

I am reading a bunch of books, too many really, but I am most actively reading: Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters, the catalog for Cauleen Smith’s exhibition Give It or Leave It, and Rei Terada’s Metaracial: Hegel, Antiblackness, and Political Identity.

I most recently watched William Greaves’ 1972 film Nationtime, Videofreex’s 1969 video Fred Hampton: Black Panthers in Chicago and Elia Suleiman’s The Time That Remains. I also have a queue of movies that includes some lesser-known films by Ida Lupino and Ernst Lubitsch, plus Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts, Jules Dassin’s Rififi, Robert Kramer’s Ice and Yoshishige Yoshida’s Eros + Massacre but first I’m going to see Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse tonight at the local independent cinema.

12. Room for final thoughts:

Back to work on my films. Literally.


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