Nik Nerburn is a Featured Artist for the 2017 Altered Esthetics Film Festival.
You can catch Nik's work twice during the Film Fest: 13 Roads in Otter Tail County will screen June 1 at 7:30PM and Prairie Dreamers will screen June 3 at 7:30 PM. Nik will introduce the film with Springboard for the Arts Executive Director Laura Zabel.
We are excited to host two of your most recent films at Altered Esthetics’ 4th Film Festival. Can you tell us a bit more about them?
“13 Roads in Otter Tail County” is an experimental film that is just that - I filmed 13 different roads in one of my favorite counties in the state, all from the exact same perspective, and cut 10 second shots of each of them together. The result is a film that really just celebrates the road as an object of contemplation. Either driving, walking or biking, I’ve always found the rural road to be a great contemplative tool, maybe in the same way some people like to walk through a labyrinth in an english garden. It’s also about celebrating the deliciously boring cinematography of Peter Hutton, whose work exerts a powerful pull on me. He died the summer I was making this film, and there were some filmmakers who were shooting a roll of black and white 16mm in his honor, calling the project “A Roll For Peter”. I didn’t get my act together soon enough to participate, so this was my little contribution to his memorial in the artist-made film world.
“Prairie Dreamers” is pretty different, both subject-wise and stylistically. It’s an irreverent little film about an organization called Springboard for the Arts and what they’ve been doing in a town in west-central Minnesota called Fergus Falls. I lived in Fergus for a month, documenting a period of transition where they moved into their new office. Springboard is known for helping artists get their financial and legal houses in order, but their work in Fergus also revolves around something called creative placemaking. Creative placemaking can look like a lot of different things, but I’ve described it as ‘taking a place people don’t want to be and making it a place they do’. In Fergus, much of that revolves around an old state hospital building that looms on the edge of town. But their whole spectrum of rural life is also being reimagined. That’s what the film explores.
Prairie Dreamers documentary style experiments with a first-person approach. Why insert yourself into the film?
That’s interesting to hear you say that - I think of this film as more of a ‘conventional’ documentary! But maybe I can’t help taking a first person approach. I was taught in the artist-made film tradition; essay, diary, first-person, personal ethnography, performance, collage, etc. I feel empowered by the work of filmmakers who insert themselves into the frame. Ross McElwee, Agnes Varda, Chris Marker, Guy Maddin, Trin T Minh Ha - it’s artists like this that I hold close. I guess I see it as being more honest, somehow. It challenges the “voice of god” documentary approach, which has a negatively charged history, of course. Seeing the filmmaker’s process opens up a delightful psychic territory, one where digressions, stories, fuzzy memories and family archives can be “as important” as the authoritative maps, graphs and talking heads that most documentaries employ.
When did you first start making moving image and documentary work? What is it about this medium that attracts you most to it?
I was very lucky in that my parents strongly supported me. My dad is a writer and my mom taught journalism for 25 years, so I was exposed early-on to great stories and a passion for storytelling. My dad also let me play with the video camera on family trips, which I think gave me a lifelong interest in home movies. My mom showed me a few classic social justice documentaries as a very young boy, and those had a big impact on me, especially Roger and Me by Michael Moore.
I’m also a product of the Perpich Center for Arts Education, one of Minnesota’s most remarkable arts institutions. It’s an arts based public boarding school for 11th and 12th grades. I continue to mine the ideas and relationships that I was exposed to at that school. Rudy Perpich started it back in 1989, I believe. Every couple of years, some killjoy state legislators try to shut it down, but it never happens. And if Perpich alum have anything to do with it, it never will! Shout out to my media arts teacher Nancy Norwood, now Nancy Bundy.
But back to your question - what is it about the medium that attracts me? I just love the process. Living inside a story or subject for such a long time feels good. I get very interested in certain things, and I can use the filmmaking as an excuse to dig deep.
Do you have a certain process to your work?
The shooting process is my favorite. I’m a believer in play, constructed situations, and archives. Experimental isn’t exactly the right word, but it’s close. I often think about one of my favorite photographers, Alec Soth, and his process of visualization. Doze off on your couch and imagine your personal museum. You’re the only one with a key to it. Open the door and look around at the images on the walls, which are the most beautiful images you could ever hope to make. Then, get off the couch and go out and make them. In the waking world, of course, those images don’t exist and never will. But it’s a prompt for you to get out into the world and start the process. You’ll come home with better material than you could have hoped for. As far as the editing goes, it’s a much more workmanlike process of refinement. Kind of like whittling a stick. Just get it done.
I first heard of your work with your film In the Shadow of Paul Bunyan. I remember reading in an article at that time where you were referred to as a: “punk documentarian.” I immediately was intrigued, because personally, much of my own approach as an artist is influenced by my punk background. Can you tell us about that film and how a punk approach was explored in your filmmaking?
Yes! It’s what my mentor Craig Baldwin calls “cinema of poverty”, or what I call “available-ism”. It’s an approach that has less to do with gear, software or a professional polish. I guess it means working with whatever you have at your disposal. In The Shadow of Paul Bunyan, which is a film I finished back in 2014, traces the geography of Minnesota’s Paul Bunyan statues alongside the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862. I made that film with expired 16mm film on a non-reflex Bolex, a hi8 camera and used 16mm film scraps from other films to collage together a story that I couldn’t film. My close friend Kyle Ollah made some music for it. My friends and family kicked in some cash on a kickstarter. I filmed it over the course of about a year and a half, putting together what I could when I had the money and time. It was hard! But whenever I would get demoralized, I would remind myself that I already had everything I needed. I just needed to look around me to find it! No matter how big your production, there’s always something you don’t quite have access to or some camera you couldn’t quite afford. But with an attitude adjustment, you can learn to embrace your small size!
I suppose it means not being dogmatic in your approach or technique. As Madam Winger says, you don’t need a lot of money to make a film! And it doesn’t need to be slick and flashy to be good!
History, memory, and place are recurring themes in your work? How do you approach these topics through your experimental documentaries?
I’m interested in small ‘h’ history. How people make place out of space, you could say. It’s the idea that lived and remembered experience of history is important. It’s about lifting up the supposedly marginal to the level of the supposedly authoritative. The geographer J.B. Jackson is a big intellectual influence for me regarding this. His writings are concerned with sidewalks, fences, highways, greyhound stations - what he called the “vernacular landscape”. He recognized that the small things that impact the lived experience of individuals in a place are as important as the planner’s eye view. I try to channel that concern with the small and personal into an historical approach - how do individuals make sense of their own place within the big, fraught and unresolved histories of our land?
Somehow, I’m very interested in contested histories, which memory and place usually intersect with. Maybe it’s because northern Minnesota is a land of contested histories, and I absorbed that narrative contradiction as a kid. It’s comfortable for me, rather than unsettling, as it is for some people. It’s part of the collapsing of the authoritative voice.
Do you have any new projects you are working on?
Too many! I’m finishing up another half-hour documentary about the changing landscape of East Macon, Georgia, called The Heart of East Macon. There used to be a cotton mill in a neighborhood of this medium-sized Georgia town, and all the houses were built by the mill for workers to live in. Now that the mill is gone, the neighborhood has changed from white to black and is over 50% vacant and abandoned buildings. A long list of organizations and nonprofits, led by a local arts organization, is working to rehabilitate a few houses and turn them into an ‘artist’s village’. There’s lots of worry about gentrification and displacement, but there’s also a real sense that the project is helping out the neighborhood too. The film is about how people who grew up in the heyday of the mill remember the neighborhood, the way people live there now, and the challenges of doing equitable real-estate development.
I’m editing a film called Sometimes You Move The Puppet And Sometimes The Puppet Moves You, which is a Les Blank-inspired dive into a puppet performance of the Finnish creation myth in New York Mills, Minnesota. There’s also a Red Green Show-style corn cooker that feeds the whole town for free. I lived there for a month last summer and shot a ton of footage I’m still trying to sort through.
I’m also working on a less-defined project with my friend Jais Gossman (another Perpich alum). He’s been embodying a Norwegian immigrant from 1850’s New London, Minnesota, named Ole Knutson. Ole was a real person and once walked 50 miles to St. Cloud to buy a grindstone, promptly turning around and walking home with it. Jais wears this funny jumpsuit and has been embodying Ole and walking across different places, sometimes driving or using a boat as well. He actually gave me a jumpsuit too, and sends me cryptic instructions about how to film myself (“Walk across a border,” for instance). I’ve been filming him for the past year and a half or so. He actually got some grindstones made by a monument company that he’s installing as public sculptures around New London. We were planning on carrying the grindstones on a dolly 50 miles to install them. But Jais just broke his leg last week trying to impress some kids playing basketball. So maybe I’ll have to put him on the dolly too.
Images courtesy of the artist. Interview by Jes Reyes.
Previous film fest posts from Altered Esthetics blog: