What’s a Live Film Festival?: And other fun questions like: Milkbar, a new organic drink or a collective of artists?

By Mary Armentrout

September 1, 2008, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

This September 12 through 14 MilkBar will be taking over the new Oakland Noodle Factory Arts Center for the 2008 MilkBar International Live Film Festival. The MilkBar Film Festival is a weekend marathon of new experimental short film/videos from around the world as well as new short works created for the festival that explore the idea of “live” film. What is “live” film? We define this as films that incorporate a live element in their presentation such as: music, dance, theater, installation, live feeds and manipulations, audience interaction, or performance of any kind. This year we have created the biggest MilkBar film festival yet, with a lively mix of film and “live” film pieces, five pieces commissioned specifically for the festival, films by artists from nearly a dozen countries, and film festival programs from Finland and Russia.

So what exactly is this festival, and what, who, why is the MilkBar?

The MilkBar is the Oakland based collaborative and curatorial team of Merlin Coleman, composer, and Ian Winters, video/ media artist, and myself, choreographer Mary Armentrout. We started out as a group of artists producing small shows in our studio, an inexpensive, shared studio space across the street from Mother’s Cookie Factory (hence the name MilkBar). Over time, as an artist-run and discipline-diverse group, we have come to a shared curatorial aesthetic/vision, and we collaborate to collectively program and produce the MilkBar events. The vision is part intention and part accident, as we’ve found ourselves successful in ways we hadn’t expected. We started by making genre-collage evenings we call “Salons” —a short dance piece, a live experimental music ensemble, a couple of short films, a pop style music group, maybe an installation, or a puppet show, who knows—and presented them in our very informal but clean and homey intimate proscenium warehouse space, and something clicked. The audience was having a great time—they liked hanging out with us in the space and talking, during intermission and after the show, they liked being able to watch cutting edge work with a beer in their hand, sitting in a comfy chair or on the bed. The artists felt free to experiment if they wanted to, and more at ease talking with folks in the audience about the work and their process. Sounds like utopia to me—how did this happen?

Here are a few of the ingredients we think are crucial:

The physical space: small and informal, living room-y, but still very much a live performance venue, with living room furniture, a bed, and the big bucket of cheap beer nearly on stage—the space breaks down the high culture divide. Not only that, our warehouse space is a strangely comfortable oasis—an adventure to find in the industrial wasteland of East Oakland, but a magical spot once you do. We sense that some of the audience’s openness is the journey to find it, which already takes you out of the everyday.

The intimate, informal performance and social experience: where artists can present work out of their normal mode, works in progress, and experiments, and have the audience be very interested in the whole range. There is often a sense of ease between performer and audience, with the performers talking to the audience and not feeling an artificial sense of disconnect. Also, our space is low tech and intimate enough so that the production environment does not dominate it.

Genre collage: critical to our endeavor is our shared belief in the power of cross-media works, fusion works, genre-destroying works—like live film. We all three, in our own ways, work in this area and find this kind of inquiry very exciting. Collage and fusion works just seem like a really apt way to describe the world to us, and we try to program work of this sort as often as we can. But there is something more to the genre collage situation. Even if we don’t have any cross-media works on a program, there is something about the structure of having short pieces of different genres fill the evening. It seems to enable the audience to experience and understand experimental work in a more comfortable and satisfying way; seems to allow the focus to stay fresh and then also to let the different kinds of work boomerang around in their heads and create connections/exposure/understanding/questions that a full evening of one genre just doesn’t do. It’s like you figure, well, I’ll understand the dance piece, but probably not the music, and who knows what the film will be like, but in the end you feel like they all contributed to a rich meta-experience of how artists work to convey their message and you become more comfortable interacting with that process.

Over the years we have been lucky enough to be able to present intimate performances by such Bay Area luminaries as Leslie Seiters, Pamela Z, Bob Ernst, Smith and Wymore, Randee Paufve, Matt Volla, and Matt Ingalls, alongside works by less established artists like Natalie Greene, Meadow Leys, and Heather Heise, all to great effect.

From the original MilkBar Salon idea we have branched out and explored in different directions—but the MilkBar Film Festival with its unique emphasis on live film has become our biggest project. Fueled by Ian’s connections in the film world and our shared interest in live film work, it outgrew our warehouse space last year and we moved the festival to CounterPULSE—successfully transforming their large theater space into a homey comfortable place to see a dizzying array of different film and live film works (yes popcorn was involved).

We are now working on recreating that special MilkBar feel in the brand new Oakland Noodle Factory Arts Center. This cutting edge building project in West Oakland will eventually house a small theater and café as well as affordable live/work loft units for artists. At the moment, construction is just finishing, and we will be one of the first productions in their new, somewhat raw, theater space. We aim to take advantage of this great new raw empty space and find as many ways to creatively install films and live films as we can. The MilkBar International Live Film Festival will be one of the kick-off events of the Noodle Factory Theater’s “Raw” theater season.

As for the festival itself:

The MilkBar International Live Film Festival runs September 12-14. There will be a main show at 8pm each night in the “raw” theater space, but there will also be a whole hour’s worth of installed film and live film pieces site-specific throughout the building, from 7 to 8 each night, screenings of several different international film festivals at earlier times during the day in the theater, a tiny but yummy temporary café on site where you can get a light dinner, different live music acts post-show on both Friday and Saturday nights, and of course, free popcorn!

The showpiece of the whole festival will be the five MillkBar film commissions. With the support of the Meet the Composer grant, we have commissioned five Bay Area experimental composers to create works incorporating film and perhaps other “live” elements. Composer Evelyn Ficarra is working with our own Ian Winters. Composer Mathais Bossi, of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum fame, is creating a piece with filmmaker Eric Koziol and choreographer paige starling sorvillo. Composer Dan Plonsey, along with his Daniel Popsicle ensemble, is working with filmmaker Liz Albee. MilkBar composer Merlin Coleman is working with filmmaker Katherin McInnis. Composer George Cremaschi is creating a piece with media artist Lucy HG, choreographer Emma Nordanfors, and movement artist Carolina Bäckman. These five new works will be presented as part of the main show each night, interspersed with our selection of short experimental films from around the world.

In addition, this year we are lucky to be able to screen several international independent film festivals. From St. Petersburg, Russia we have the Open Cinema Festival, and from Finland comes the Love and Anarchy Festival, as well as a rare Irina Evteeva Animation Retrospective also from Russia, these will all be screened at different time slots earlier in the day. During the installation hour from 7 to 8pm, we will be featuring a live film/dance piece by local choreographer Sarah Sass. On Friday and Saturday nights, we will have live music at 10pm continuing the festivities into the night. Friday, we will have Sylvain Carton and friends performing an eclectic mix of circus-gypsy-bluegrass-klezmer-jazz , and on Saturday, Dan Cantrell’s Mini Mega Band which fuses threads of Jazz, Balkan, Middle Eastern, Greek and Indian traditional music. We think this is a great line-up—hope you can make it.

MilkBar International Live Film Festival, September 12-14, Oakland Noodle Factory Theater. See the whole line-up and all the festival details at milkbar.org.

This article appeared in the September 2008 issue of In Dance.

Mary Armentrout is a choreographer, teacher, writer and curator. She makes performance installations, and the next one will definitely be at the new Milkbar in Richmond.