M. Wood’s experimental feature Commodity Trading: Dies Irae screens at the Fall 2022 New Jersey Film Festival on Sunday, September 25. Here is my interview with M. Woods:
Nigrin: Why did you make Commodity Trading: Dies Irae?
Woods: Commodity Trading‘s origin is a complicated story. When I was 17 I began making what has become a cycle of art called The Numb Spiral. This is centered around a movie called Melencolia, which is the next feature film in the series I’ll be releasing. Commodity Trading in many ways is a stand-alone feature but also a continuation of the preceding feature films in the series: Dailies From Dumpland, Fractal Death (which is actually an immersive feature-length installation), and Body Prop. In my debut feature film, Dailies from Dumpland, I began using Columbus Circle as a double for the 4th layer of Dante’s Inferno, a place that fully represents the greed and hyperrealism of American society from the heart of the island on which I was born – Manhattan. Of course, the looming tower in this place is Trump’s tacky, gaudy hell. As a child my mother, a single working Latina from Costa Rica, used to point out Trump’s properties and tell me they were “tacky.” The definition of tacky forevermore was linked in my head with Donald Trump, now along with a number of other disturbing properties that represent Trumpism. As a New Yorker, Trump’s rise to the presidency and the fall of America were realized in slow motion during my life, but in a way that felt prophetic. He was always a disturbing fixture of my reality. The minute he started his presidential run he used the opportunity to label us Latinos as rapists and thieves. He negated us and all other non-whites for the sake of fanning the flames of racism and giving permission to lift up the hood once again in this country. Commodity Trading started as a list of notes based upon the idea of consumption. I thought of a number of close-up shots. The work has no screenplay. At the time I started shooting, my daughter was born and Trump had won the first few debates of the GOP primaries through a series of horrific spectacles and inflammatory malignant nihilism. The work, The Numb Spiral, attempts to get at the basis of this nihilism – which is a point in which one can choose to abide by a philosophy that essentially destroys reality. The work of Jean Baudrillard, Malcolm X, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Guy Debord, and Achille Mbembe all influence this understanding of nothingness as the symbolic negation of reality; this is what Jean Baudrillard refers to as “hyperreality.” The Numb Spiral is communicated through its circulatory system, The Digital Sickness, a phrase I use to mean the entire apparatus and all of the tentacles of mass media communication from the hardware, wires, satellites, invisible waves, to the firmware and software that control and contour the transfer of information that perpetually communicates less and less. Sartre’s Being and Nothingness serves as a blueprint for the way in which human consciousness orients itself around nothingness in order to allocate itself as being. However, the malignant nihilism, that which Sartre refers to as Bad Faith, generates a supreme solipsism (based mainly on the economy of white supremacy) and eventually gives way to the total negation of the real. This devaluing of reality is inherently tied to the formation of the triangular slave trade, as Achille Mbembe astutely recognizes in his work Necropolitics. At the University of Oxford, my alma mater and one of the oldest continuously operating learning institutions in the world, several figures were involved in the formation of the Royall African Company, including John Locke (mispelled as Lock in the Royall African Company charter), the figure whose three treatises on the theory of government greatly influenced another disgusting narcissist and hypocrite, Thomas Jefferson. I long pondered how the writers of the United States Constitution could value a human at 3/5 of a person. The idea of fractionalizing a human being seemed absurd, even for a racist and evil colonial state. However, upon reading the notes of the Royall African Company, housed in the Weston Library Special Collections, I saw first-hand the books and letters written in the late 17th century as correspondences between the Royall African Company and its royal sponsors. The accounts written are foul and among them are the receipts and ledgers of the company, nonchalantly listing commodities that were being traded (or sought.) They were gold, silver, Africans (referred to as slaves), elephant teeth, hides, etc… seemingly prioritized in a list in this order. Among the most atrocious of these receipts and ledgers is the trade value for a human being, “1/2 a slave” was worth a barrel of Rum or a musket. The fractionalization of humans, as well as the negation at the heart of this malignant nihilism, derives directly from the birth of global Capitalism which in turn is the birth of the triangular slave trade. This nothingness has birthed what Mbembe refers to as a “Bewitched” zone of hallucinatory realities governed by a white supremacy that has purposefully launched a Neo-fascistic war. As Trump continued to plunder American politics, likely for the benefit of Russia, I began to fear that he would win. I started filming constantly with my former brother-in-law Josh Gray (an actor, MC, producer, and the uncle to my daughter Annmarie. She is featured in the movie along with her mother Lauren. The movie mirrors the dissolution of the nation through he dissolution of my family as we coped with living in the trauma-filled, low-income neighborhood of Los Angeles we called home, known as the Jungles or Baldwin Hills.) Joshua and I set out on several shoots using Los Angeles as a map to the hole of the Numb Spiral, and we collaborated on our journeys and the “script” which was born out of long conversations between the Jungles, Skid Row, Beverly Hills, the local mall, and the sites of protest. On 11/9 2016, and all of the days succeeding for two weeks, the “resistance” was born and we documented and participated as members of the resistance. Commodity Trading continues off the map of reality and into another zone, that of the bewitched hallucinatory space, and prophetically realizes the Ukraine crisis.
Nigrin: Why do you use a variety of formats in your film?
Woods: The digital sickness comes in a variety of forms. Commodity Trading is largely shot in 16mm film because 16mm as a material allows for the multiple exposure of space. Marshall McLuhan states that it is impossible to have a point of view in a Global Village, that which has through electric media formed a false sense of connectedness through the instantaneous transfer of information (that Baudrillard further characterizes as metastasis in the abundance of broken and negative signs.) McLuhan says in order to have a point-of-view in this world, we must be everywhere at once, all the time, and “that is not a point-of view.” This multiple perspectival realization of space is also discussed by Philip K Dick in his masterpiece, VALIS. VALIS stands for Vast Active Living Intelligence System; in the book – a memoir of Dick’s own Numb Spiral told from the perspective of his alter-ego “Horselover Fat” – Dick states that we are living in the fall of the Roman Empire. Time has simply overlayed upon itself like a multiple exposure in a film. He viewed himself as a gnostic prophet in these end-times, and Gnosticism brings us once again back to Oxford, the site of the archives of the original Gnostic bibles known as the Bruce and Jung Codices. The Gnostics combined many schools of thought, including Pre-Socratic philosophy, into a religion integrating Egyptian, Greco-Roman, and proto-existentialist philosophies/ mythologies. Their religion itself was a mixed medium. In VALIS, Philip K Dick recalls an experience in which a pink ray of pure information is transmitted into his head, and within it lies the source of abundant and horrifying truth, that our world in its material excess and decay is the source of a profound void. This VALIS is Gnosis (knowledge) in the form of a compression of information. Our world is oriented around mainly digital medias with nostalgia for an analog that is no longer what it once was. Media is a drug and its massage, as is mentioned repeatedly by Marshall McLuhan, communicates more than its content. An escapist movie like a Star Wars franchise allows one to experience a sense of rebellion without ever rebelling. In that sense, media is tailored to the viewer’s unconscious drives in an attempt to create a false map, the effects of the cancerous hyperreality.
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Nigrin: Many of our judges found your film to be pretty crazy in a good way and a few others couldn’t make heads or tails out of it. Have you received a similar kind of reaction to your film elsewhere?
Woods: This is a criticism often leveled at my work. I take it as ableist however as my work also reflects my own neurodivergence, however I ask back, why is it that this work is seen as “crazy” as opposed to the absurdity of this terrible existence in which we live? What is so different about this work than the propagation of nothingness that blankets over existence? What does it mean to be an American to have comfort and to require the cool escapism of a completely threaded together narrative when the world is really a metaphysical paradox inside of an infinite despair? Why am I showing you these images? Why are they juxtaposed together? What have you done to seek meaning in the work? Is the act of spectating really bound by the need for full clarity? If so, why is that not a demand made upon the world as a whole? Or is motion picture supposed to be a cookie-cutter easy-to-swallow pill for the purpose of simplifying existence from the exterior, showering it in fantasy, and giving linearity to that which is inherently non-linear? I have a problem with this critique in the same way that I have a problem when it is leveled towards the work of David Lynch (at his best) or the avant-garde as a whole. Maya Deren received the same criticism. Spike Lee received the same criticism. The avant-garde has continuously redefined the boundaries of cinema and art and has been called crazy throughout history and yet without it we would be living in the most conservative and strict fascistic state of mind, which is what I am desperately attacking. A movie cannot ever fully simulate reality, but in Bad Faith it lies and poses as reality. This generates nothing in the world. This generates a false map, a false concept, a false reality. The average movie or work of art attempts to simulate a gross oversimplification and that becomes a simulacra of reality. That is why movies are the main conductor of hyperreality. Instead of demanding the movie be “normal” or lack “craziness” one should examine one’s own relation to “craziness”. Do these same notions prevent us from talking to people that are considered “crazy”? What is crazy is that Roger Stone is free when he is at the center of a grand conspiracy to infiltrate the US government and bring back Jim Crow era white supremacy. What is crazy is that half of the country literally believes Donald Trump is President. What is crazy is that the other half voted for another terrible president who is basically ineffective who eulogized Strom Thurmond. What of those neurodivergent that see the world from a perspective that the reductionists are incapable of viewing? I believe this criticism, and even the view that my work is “crazy”, refuses to accept the truth of the world. My work might be “crazy” in a Starbucks reality, where the point of one’s being is continuing to perpetuate the lies of Neo-liberal Capitalism without taking into account that one’s own comfort directly links to the death of millions. That, to the contrary, is not a gross oversimplification. That is a fact. We arrived from single celled organisms to a point where we watch celebrity families argue on reality television, transmitted through electric signals, codified and cancerous, engorged on its own lack of meaning. What is crazy is that people go to Marvel movies to tithe in the aspiritual hell so that they still have a church, a Captain America/Thor white supremacist daddy, and a dogma to which they can adhere to for the exact reason that reality is precarious; the uncanny, the unexplainable being, the never-ending puzzles are infinite and unknowable in their entirety. It is a solipsistic tendency to believe that one is owed full clarity. Instead, the spectator has a responsibility to ask why – to everything – and to use their own critical thought as a means of exploring what an artist weaves together. The spectator has a responsibility, in essence, to think self-reflexively about consciousness, the movie, its role in the world, and its relation towards itself – which is to say that the spectator has a responsibility to stop being a spectator and to think. My movie may be structured in a way that is not typical, but to call it crazy – even in a positive sense – is to profoundly misunderstand the work and even the world in which we live. My movie holds a mirror that condenses truths into a form that is anti-escapist, that forces one to expand consciousness.
M. Wood’s experimental feature Commodity Trading screens at the Fall 2022 New Jersey Film Festival on Sunday, September 25. The film will be Online for 24 Hours and In-Person at 7PM in Voorhees Hall #105/Rutgers University, 71 Hamilton Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey. M. Woods will be present at the In-Person screening to do a Q+A after the showing.
To buy tickets go here: https://watch.eventive.org/newjerseyfilmfestivalfall2022/play/62bf734ef728970029ec0af9
For General Info on the Film Festival go here: https://watch.eventive.org/newjerseyfilmfestivalfall2022
Albert Gabriel Nigrin is an award-winning experimental media artist whose work has been screened on all five continents. He is also a Cinema Studies Lecturer at Rutgers University, and the Executive Director/Curator of the Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center, Inc.