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Colin Manning: more is more

September 22, 2017
Featured, Film


At the Northwest Film Center’s most recent installment of its ongoing independent Pacific Northwest filmmaker project Northwest Tracking,  the notorious Portland-based underground imagemaker Colin Manning gave us a taste of his special brand of film collage and animation: a retrospective of his earlier work plus a live performance of his signature projection art. After the performance and screening, Manning took the stage at Portland Art Museum’s Whitsell Auditorium for a conversation with NWFC’s Ben Popp.

His first words: “Sorry about that.”

Manning talked about his mad process, and how his tastes and techniques have evolved over time. “I have a capacity for overindulgence, too much all at once; sometimes it works, sometimes more is more, sometimes less is more. It’s different every time. The way I work, I don’t plan…it happens in the moment.”

More was definitely more at this event. Even before it commenced, as I hummed along with the Balanescu Quartet’s Kraftwerk covers playing on the house sound system, I noticed that the audients whose visual style most strongly signaled “artist” all positioned themselves (as I had, being an “artist” myself) behind Manning’s bank of projectors, which were set up not in the projector room but out in the audience, about five rows from the back. I counted four film projectors, two—no, three—slide projectors, and one of those overhead-transparency projectors like you used to see in schools, plus a DJ-crate full of reels. Manning was there early, testing his gear, talking to fans and former collaborators (I recognized Erin Laroue of local gothic doom pop group Jamais Jamais), and wearing a sweet vintage shirt printed with a pattern that looks like those sedimentary cross-sections you see in geology textbooks and science museums. Already it was one of the most Portland things I’ve ever seen.

Colin Manning’s first priority before getting into his “analog projection magick” was to introduce his supporting musicians, Disxiple 113 and Andrew Tomasello. “I usually do this in music settings: night clubs, someone’s basement,” Manning joked. We soon saw why.

I always like to go into these things without having a clue about what I’m getting into, so the live projection caught me totally off guard: a super-rich overabundance of wildly varied images, projected together all at once onto different planes of Whitsell’s screen, sometimes split by pieces of glass and mirrored on either side of the screen, sometimes densely superposed, usually flipped backwards or upside-down or both, film running in reverse, slides overlapping, colors and text washing out beyond the edges of meaning into some sort of trashily transcendent hyper-meaning.

For all the chaos, though, there was a clear artistic vision behind it all, a singular taste driving the selection and combination of images drawn from old nature films, safety catalogs, MST3K-worthy science fiction (I’m sure I saw some clips from the Heinlein classic Destination Moon), documentary footage from the last several decades, and gods only know what all else. I don’t think I’ve ever felt a cinematic experience so deeply in the avant-garde reaches of my lusty, psychedelic, extravagance-addicted gut. It can’t have lasted more than about 20 minutes but it felt like several hours. I’m always searching for art that’s big enough, full enough, and crazy enough to really scratch that itch, the one that demands More More More, and it’s not too often that I feel like I’m really getting good and properly fucked (aesthetically speaking, of course). For me, more was more.

The music fit right in there, noisy and dissonant and atmospheric, supporting the film and overwhelming the ears even as Manning overwhelmed the eyes. After each musician’s segment ended, Manning briefly flipped on that overhead projector as a sort of applause (I guess), broadcasting a ribbed ring of metal surrounding what looked almost like a bunch of teeth. Wild applause from the enthusiastic audience (who presumably also can’t get enough of this kind of art) and lights up for a quick stretch. We sure needed it.

The rest of the retrospective was more of the same, more or less: a collection of Manning’s late ‘90s collage and animation work. One short was all footage of San Francisco circa 1997, with a dazzling electro-acoustic soundtrack and “vocals by Boris, a real pig.” Another, 1996’s Incantation #16, juxtaposed animations built out of watercolor and paint applied directly to the film, all wild swathes of color with more heavy-squealy electroacoustic music. Asvatthama, made in 1998, used Gilliamesque cutout animation to retell a story from the Mahabharata about (in Manning’s words) “a nuclear warfare incident.” There were three or four more, each as engrossing as the last.

During his after-film conversation with Popp, I was pleasantly unsurprised to learn of Manning’s material collection process: “sometimes I’m out walking down the street, and I’ll see a piece of trash with an interesting image on it, and I’ll pick it up and put it in my pocket.” Here, clearly, is a fellow acolyte of Our Lady Eris. Old catalogs are another source of material, and he sometimes uses craigslist ads to cultivate the unexpected. “This one church in Portland called me and said ‘we’ve got this room full of of stuff,’ and they had a room full of projectors and slides, and a god-themed projector setup marketed specifically to churches.”

Manning co-created most of his films’ music himself, in collaboration with his friends Walter Funk and Matt Dean. “Making these films, believe it or not, took a lot of work,” Manning said, describing all night sessions in the animation room at San Francisco Art Institute, slowly collecting and assembling sounds in what sounds like pretty much the same way he put his films together, which is to say intuitively and chaotically: “I didn’t even have the film in front of me when I was making it.”

Manning called what he does as “a lost or almost lost medium. I developed techniques over the years for projection art, rather than film. It’s probably pretty obvious that I wasn’t following narrative structure for the most part. My nature is to be a little all over the place—I felt this overflowing desire to get all these images out. Looking at them now I don’t even like ‘em that much anymore. [It’s an] overblown aesthetic—now I’m kinda nauseated by it.”

Manning added that he has a projection museum, but it’s not set up as a museum: he just has a bunch of stuff that he can take out and display for people upon request, or for occasional shows and concerts.

If this all this sounds more like “exciting” than “nauseating,” you should check out Manning’s next show! He’ll be in one of those “usually music-oriented spaces,” North Portland’s Turn Turn Turn, on October 9, doing his analog projection magick for the first installment of local record label Impermanent’s I Hate Mondays series. Or, if you just feel like catching a nice normal film shown on 35mm in a comfy theater, why not head over to Whitsell Auditorium for City Lights, Singing in the Rain, or one of the several documentaries they’ve got coming up?

Actually, NWFC is always producing a metric shit-ton of cool stuff (more is more, remember). Just this month they wrapped up their exhaustive (and occasionally exhausting) David Lynch retrospective; commenced their series Case of the Mondays, Weekend Engagements, and Kid Flicks; and put on their usual array of filmmaking workshops. Next month is the one I’m most excited about: their Animated Worlds: Stop Motion Classics series, which kicks off October 15 with Laika’s made-in-Portland Kubo and the Two Strings. See you there!

Matthew Neil Andrews is a composer, percussionist, and editor at Portland State University, and serves on the board of Cascadia Composers. He and his music can be reached at monogeite.bandcamp.com.

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