Jeff Preiss on the Contradictions of Documentary Making

The artist speaks to Saim Demircan about the storied exhibition space, the Orchard gallery, and his innovative films documenting its three-year run

BY Saim Demircan AND Jeff Preiss in Interviews , Opinion | 13 JAN 22

Saim Demircan: You were one of the founding members of the co-operatively run Orchard gallery along with Rhea Anastas, Moyra Davey, Andrea Fraser, Nicolás Guagnini, Gareth James, Christian Philipp Müller, R.H. Quaytman, Karin Schneider, Jason Simon and John Yancy, Jr. Started in New York in 2005, the gallery was programmed so that each member presented an exhibition of their own work and organized a show. As a filmmaker, you documented a number of these exhibitions in collaboration with other members for your ‘Orchard Documents’ (2005–08), six of which are currently on display as part of ‘Exhibition as Image’ at 80WSE. How premeditated were these works when the gallery began?

Jeff Preiss: From the outset, Orchard was meant to serve more than one purpose. The idea of opening a gallery was actually the second or third to come out of a group formed in despair over [US President] George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004. We set up an LLC called Art Sales and Services (or ASS) to hold the lease to 47 Orchard Street. My first intention was to use it as a studio and to film the space itself. The ‘Orchard Documents’ developed from this initial concept.

Jeff Preiss and Andrea Fraser, Orchard Document: May I Help You? (Text 1991), 2005, film still. Courtesy: Jeff Preiss

SD: The first works you made were Orchard Document: May I Help You? (Text 1991) (2005), with Fraser, and Orchard Document: Discharge (2005–06) with Guagnini, which were both filmed during the gallery’s inaugural show.

JP: That exhibition included Andrea’s performance May I Help You? (1991/2005), for which she welcomed every visitor as the gallerist, entrapping them in a lengthy monologue. She performed every day for a week, and I filmed her in short, silent bursts on 16mm with my Bolex. At the same time, I happened to be employed on a commercial project and had access to a 16mm studio camera, which I could use for sync sound. So, I borrowed that and some proper sound gear to make a movie of the performance. I consider it an ‘Orchard Document’ mainly because of the way it maps the space, but I was also working against the idea of an objective document by constructing an obviously false continuum in the edit. We shot sync sound with a small crew on the last full day of the exhibition.

Jeff Preiss and Nicolás Guagnini, Orchard Document: Discharge, 2005–06, film still. Courtesy: Jeff Preiss

SD: What’s remarkable about the film is the extent to which it reveals the level of acting in Fraser’s performance. Yet, despite it being a composite of performances, the synched sound renders them indistinguishable from one another.

JP: Later that same evening, I filmed Nicolás undergoing Reichian therapy, which is designed to produce intense, unfiltered emotion. The idea of shooting such a private aspect of Nicolás’s treatment came out of our discussion about the relationship between the language of film and the psyche. The exercise involves a phenomenological equivalent to camera panning: a back-and-forth eye movement and simultaneous rhythmic breathing that affects visual perception, flipping what’s seen as subjective and what’s fixed ground. Somehow, this reversal allows negative feelings to be discharged: in Nicolás’s case, it was anguish. Although this film and Andrea’s document could be seen as oppositional to one another, they eventually formed a triptych with my own Orchard Document: Spring-Wound (2005–08), which I placed between them for my show, ‘Spring Wound’, Orchard’s closing exhibition in 2008.

Jeff Preiss, Orchard Document: Spring-Wound, 2005–08, film still. Courtesy: the artist

SD: Orchard Document: Spring-Wound consists of 16mm footage that you filmed between 2005 and 2008. How did you develop this?

JP: The idea behind Spring-Wound was to observe the duration of Orchard. Because we had a three-year lease coinciding with the remainder of Bush’s second term, this gave the project a time limit. I had just finished a film commissioned by the architect Rem Koolhaas (33 Chronological Sequences Spanning Four Trips to the Site of the Netherlands Embassy in Berlin, 2004) and had been working on the temporal and spatial particularities of camera pans, describing architectural volumes by relentlessly cutting between opposing camera movements that tracked the interior and exterior of the building in question. At the same time, I was keeping a personal diary of 16mm home movies. So, I set out to continue with both and eventually distil all the right-left-right pans that I had taken between the time I first set foot in 47 Orchard Street and the last time we turned off the lights there. I thought the mechanical back-and-forth of the pan gave the impression of time being ratcheted or physically dragged along the ground. Later, I added the sound of a slowly turning millstone from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1932 film Vampyr to emphasize this sensation.

SD: What was your view of documentation at the time? Seen in the context of the show at 80WSE, the ‘Orchard Documents’ present the possibility for alternative forms of historization to usual film documentation.

JP: It’s hard to say, since I’m still not sure what documentation is. On the one hand, I am attracted to a classical tradition of documentary film; on the other, I find it full of irresolvable contradictions. I was shooting film every day over the course of Orchard’s run, but I had been doing the same for almost ten years prior. I thought of the footage as an all-inclusive chronicle from which any part could be extracted as raw material and, for the three years of Orchard, much of it was framed as documentation or, more precisely, a failed effort to satisfy a desire to document. Of course, the desire is really something else, akin to the desire to project identity. I didn’t realize that one of the documents would address identity specifically.

Jeff Preiss, Moyra Davey, Barney Simon and Isaac Preiss, Orchard Document: High school am over/gin crash, 2008, film still. Courtesy: Jeff Preiss

SD: Are you referring to Orchard Document: High school am over/gin crash (2008), which you made with Moyra Davey for her exhibition, ‘Calendar of flowers, gin bottles, steak bones’?

JP: Yes. Moyra and I first got to know each other when our kids – Barney and Isaac – were small and, by the time we started Orchard, they had the kind of friendship that seemed to span back infinitely. We decided to oversee our kids making a film in which they pretend to get drunk and then wildly parade around the gallery in gleeful disdain of Moyra’s exhibition.

SD: Isaac then uploaded this film to his YouTube channel, and you then re-shot the document from the browser. It’s a fascinating detail because it adds context by showing you something from beyond the frame of the exhibition.

JP: When it launched in 2005, YouTube seemed to offer a platform that had been previously unimaginable. For Isaac, it played a near mirror-stage role in his development. In 2007, aged 12, he started a channel called GLBTQ Community to document his own gender transition. Although he had already found a trans community online, there were few others his age publicly using video diaries. Isaac’s channel was among the first to address transitioning that young. The film he and Barney made together was shot in Orchard on his webcam and uploaded onto his channel as an instalment of his transition diary. One of my favourite details is that, when it’s over, YouTube automatically generates what’s next on GLBTQ Community, and thumbnails of Isaac appear in intimate closeup, like frozen moments of his deepest self-expression. Of all the works produced at Orchard, this is the one I hold most dear.

Exhibition as Image’ is on view at 80WSE, New York, until 20 February. 

Main Image: ‘Exhibition as Image’, 2021, exhibition view, 80WSE, New York. Courtesy: Saim Demircan; image: Carter Seddon

Saim Demircan is a curator and writer. He lives in Turin, Italy. He recently curated ‘Exhibition as Image’ at 80WSE, New York, USA.

Jeff Preiss is a filmmaker, cinematographer, director and producer.