With echoes of the awards season currently steering the discourse about film somewhere in-between the classic binary of poor things competing against the favorites, fandom and the multitude of systems engaging with the aesthetic production and commercial reproduction of film, less attention is paid to the calculi, criteria, canons behind the valuation and valorisation of its qualities, and their perpetual situatedness.

What is the context in which each assessment framework emerges? Who and what warrants its establishment and to what extent does its embeddedness in particular traditions influence the assessors and assessment processes, respectively? Additionally, how is any attempt of différance conceptualised and expressed within such finite, fixed and systemic wholes; sums of dedicated and clearly defined parts that present the possibility to be predicted, modeled potentially, and reproduced time and again? And if this is the case, how far is the prospect of a procedural AI spin-off, really? With speculative approaches to the above allowing a conceptual analogy to the pervasiveness of ubiquitous, black-boxed AI processes, connections between fandom or stardom-based echo chambers and respective algorithmic filter bubbles, the extent to which they differ from respective institutionalised AI processes, beget a thorough consideration. At the same time, it is helpful, I believe, to consider alternative ways, independent of institutionalised evaluation and valorisation models; aesthetic and meaning-making processes that emerge through the works themselves and offer organically a formal contribution to film and the moving image.

In this context, I reflect on the inspiring conversation I had with artist filmmakers Mary Helena Clark and Mike Gibisser after the screening of their award-winning film A Common Sequence (2023), at the BFI London International Film Festival. With an acclaimed body of work that explores possible connections between the materiality of film, the affective potential of multiple formats alongside the agency and tactility of objects, Mary Helena Clark has been creating abstractly vivid, alluringly oneiric sequences that are often interrupted to reflect on their essence as cinematic formations; a self-reflexive cinematic universe of sorts, connecting the materiality with the artistic potential of cinema. Mike Gibisser’s acclaimed work has explored the fluid boundaries of genres, narrative structures, and formats, and the in-between spaces allowing them to act as interlocutors in a sophisticated navigation of the creative expansiveness of cinema.

Sharing the similar patterns of creating inspiring work, that bends, transcends and transforms perceived boundaries of both the materiality and creative potential of film, artist filmmakers Mary Helena Clark and Mike Gibisser present in their recent film a creative osmosis that re-stablishes what a documentary film can achieve. Revisiting the expansive possibilities of montage and cinematographic techniques under what I describe in my review of the film, a post-human gaze, their highly acclaimed, award-winning documentary offers an intellectually stimulating and aesthetically striking cinematic experience, that delves into power dynamics and inequities that have been historically embedded in capitalist and neoliberalist production lines and have formed beliefs, ideological and political constructs, as well as knowledge bases and a post-digital context of extraction. Their film documents the ties that bind seemingly disparate environments, humans, non-humans and processes; the journey of an engendered salamander in Mexico, the story of Dominican nuns who run a conservation lab, the optimised crops through plant patent creation, AI-led apple-picking processes, and the pertinent research of a P’urépecha scientist on the genomic sequence of indigenous people. Alternating between an observational, yet attentive approach to sequences that unravel the historico-political facets of their subject matter, and a tender, textured and, at times, transcendental aesthetic proposition in the depiction of humans, non-humans, animals and the connections among them, the two filmmakers offer a nuanced aesthetic proposition that is affectively cerebral and intellectually affective.       

In our stimulating, enjoyable and pattern non-conforming, iterative discussion, I had the pleasure of getting a glimpse of those open spaces in their creative practice and the ways in which their ideas become formulated though the film. Also, the inspiration behind their latest film, the modes of pattern creation or dissolution, filmmaking, technological innovations, humanity and the embeddedness of historical socio-political inequities, property and post-humanities.

EN- Frame !ndependent: Hello, so I would like to start from the very end and ask what type of connections would you like to encourage between spectators and the film? I have been drawn to your distinct approach which, in my review of the film, I describe as a distinct posthuman gaze; exploring concepts of sovereignty and property that seem to be permeating the entire film, both in terms of its subject matter and its formal expression. So, within this context what connections would you encourage spectators to form with the film?

M.H.C.: Mike and I both began filmmaking with an interest in experimental film, more of an associative montage image logic, that both builds the film and constructs meaning within it. For this project, we wanted to apply that approach to an observational non-fiction film. I think what that provides for a spectator, and for us as filmmakers, is an elongated view of causality. It moves us away from the immediate cause and effect of a single storyline, and that was really important to us and the issues we wanted to address, like migration, or global trade or intellectual property. We wanted to open up the way we might think about a single event. And I think that from the jump, we were always really excited about having a non-human lens on each specific location. That was one of the few things that we knew in the beginning of the project.

M.G:. I am really fascinated by the question. I don’t think that anyone has articulated back to us yet, this idea of the non-human gaze or the post-human gaze. We talked about ecological filmmaking, or one that was more interested in engaging with systems as opposed to specific characters, which points back to your question about connections. I think one of our interests is a sense of deeper time or a sense of troubling an idea of progress through technology, specifically. Certain advances, some of which we talk about in the film, give us the sense of moving forward or progressing, not only technologically but also in terms of an ideological perspective. You know, like the idea that we can put our colonial past behind us. I think we became really interested in drawing out those connections at a deep level. Universities study the genetics of a salamander as a mechanism to try to take on its attributes, and their engagement with the salamander is very different from the nuns who use traditional knowledge and the animal’s actual body in the syrup. But underneath both of those things there is a sense that the natural world, or these non-human actors, exist for us and that we are entitled to their attributes.

EN- Frame !ndependent: Yes, the connections that these non-human actors form with one another, and the power dynamics embedded in their relation to humans, make me think of the concept of the ecosystem. The salamander, the nuns, and the fisherman appear to form two very distinct ecosystems which come together somehow through parallel sets of connections with the former, that appears as a non-human protagonist acquiring agency to weave connecting threads between different environments. I think that the film simultaneously presents and reflects on those connections in the process of becoming, in a thematically concise and aesthetically compelling way. I was wondering about the extent to which this was also reflected in the process of filmmaking. Were there any types of ecosystems that you observed being created, disassembled, or merged during the process of filmmaking and through the process of filmmaking?

M.H.C.: For a film that has a splintering, mutating form, we could have gone in a lot of different directions. But I think, at least, by the time we were shooting in South Dakota the framework of indigeneity had become more of a guide in our creative decisions and how we were connecting the spaces and ecosystems. It became incredibly important for the film to engage with the complexity of indigeneity and the diasporic movement of different species, including humans.

M.G: I think Joseph Yracheta’s work, as a P’urépecha scientist, provided a sort of landing path. It wasn’t something that we had planned in the beginning. But thinking in terms of ecosystems, what ended up happening is that we began to develop the structure of the plant-animal-human. And so, when he was talking about indigenous DNA completed that cycle which allowed us to reconsider the other subjects in the film. And also, this idea which is not something we started with but became really important as we went on, that the mechanism of privatisation is a kind of slippery boundary between what’s considered a part of the natural or the non-natural world. And also, a sense of datafication, or an ecosystem of data. Before we had gotten into the research, I would have considered datafication in a more traditional way, as the exhaust of online activity. But our research introduced me to this idea of data being gestural, like the way in which an apple is picked, that shift of expertise into data in order to train the AI, or even something like the salamander being considered a different species because of its being bred in captivity for a long time. So, things transforming into other things as this ecosystem of data.

M.H.C: Right! Through our research and conversations while editing, or between shoots, we began to draw all these correspondences, which would then guide the edit in how we represent each ecosystem, their histories and economies. The process of obtaining a plant patent, which relies on genetic uniqueness, became a big part of the apple section, which we learned about while shooting with the farmer Dave Allan, because we could see the linkages to the genetic research of the achoque.

And then there are the formal connections of the hand. Like the salamander’s hand regenerating, the field worker’s rapid fruit picking, the robotic hand being trained to harvest. Through the edit we began to pull those things out, tightening the image logic of the film. And that was probably one of the most exciting collaborative parts of the movie where you have a co-conspirator to turn to and say things like “You know. It’s all making sense now!” (laughs).

EN- Frame !ndependent: Yes, it has its own distinct, aesthetic identity, which is a clear sign of artistic brilliance, in my opinion. I don’t know if this was something that, as you just described, emerged organically through the artistic process?

M.G: Our collaborative process. I think there is a way in which we were trying to blend our thinking and our styles that did transform into this new thing that neither of us would have done on our own.

M.H.C: And thank you for this very kind read of the film! (laughs)

EN- Frame !ndependent: It is the truth! Another thought that has been troubling me while watching and thinking about this film was… John Locke. What drew you to his Second Treatise of Government (1689)?

M.H.C.: I think the pleasure that comes from working on a project for this long is that you are holding everything in your head while you continue to read and encounter other ideas and works. We were deep into the film’s edit when we came across the Locke quote and were so struck by his example being perfectly in sync with the subject matter from Washington state. We were first interested in Washington’s agricultural industry because of the migration story of Don Maurico’s sons, and then were attracted to the apple because of its metaphorical and religious connotations, which tie back to Sister Ofelia and the Christian iconography of knowledge. And so, with the film continuing on to patents and the idea of privatisation, when we came across the John Locke text, which referenced the apple and the acorn, it just felt like serendipity. Locke suggests the right to own something comes through mixing one’s labour into the land. We knew we wanted to use it in the film because property and labour were already major themes.

M.G: Yeah, if I remember correctly, I think we had been aware of The Treatise, but found the language of it backchanneling through other research. We had started reading about a court case, McIntosh v. Johnson, and other more theoretical writing about the agricultural argument and the notion that Mary Helena is bringing up about cultivation, privitisation, and mixing one’s labour with the soil.  Watching the film, there is a clear hypocrisy that becomes evident, which is to say that we see plenty of labour throughout the film that does not become a method of ownership. So, obviously the argument is an example of power finding a justification or outlet that isn't available to everyone.

M.H.C.: And that the agricultural argument illustrated the insidious and racist way of dispossessing Native Americans from their land by considering them and their labor as “a part of nature.” The Supreme Court case, that Mike mentioned, argued that leaving them the land was to leave it in a state of “wilderness.”

EN- Frame !ndependent: This is deeply unsettling and certainly your film does a great job in shedding light to this type of institutionalized racism and discrimination, which we see being historically normalised, both as a concept and as a practice through different iterations of governmentality. At the same time, what is quite interesting to watch is how these types of processes unfold, in order to assign particular meaning to the concept of commons, the concept of uniqueness and the socio-politically charged concept of “otherness”. I can personally identify this process both in the sections about machine learning, but also in the section with Joseph Yracheta and his research on the DNA of indigenous people. There might be potentially a moment, in which concepts can be formulated on the basis of normalised injustice, through property ownership and exclusionary rights, on the one hand, but also on the basis of alternative futures, for example, if this concept were to be formulated on the basis of egalitarianism, inclusion, non-hierarchical relations. So, I was wondering about the extent to which you think that it is possible to examine the very moment in which specific meanings can be applied to a patterning sequence or not?

M.H.C.: I don’t know if I can speak today, right now, this morning, on alternative futures. But I think we were really trying to take a hard look at these moments of “forking paths”. For example, with the apple-picking machine, this technology could take underpaid, overworked human beings out of the fields, where they could suffer heat stroke from extreme weather conditions. But the technology could also leave entire communities out of work. Or with Joseph’s research, mapping minority group’s genomes, could be thought of as the most democratic and inclusive act to consider people from all different backgrounds when developing medicines or treatments… And that’s a utopic, democratic thought. Instead, Joseph, looking at colonial histories, sees a much darker future where isolated populations are used for data but not given access to the health benefits developed from the research. So, we were interested in looking at these moments containing both utopic and dystopic potential. What comes to mind for me is that moment of bifurcation or something. And I think that throughout the film we are really looking at these moments of potential.

M.G: I think the image of the forking path is, I don’t know if we’ve used that language before, spot on. We talked about technology as not inherently good or bad, but also not neutral. Containing the potential for both, like Mary Helena is saying. I think I am way more interested in your answer to this question, or other people’s thoughts on these questions, rather than my own. I feel that, as a filmmaker, the film is the most articulate expression that I have to try and engage with these topics.  And the section that you were talking about, referring to machine learning, is in part a collage from Megan O'Gieblyn’s book God, Human Animal, Machine (2021) where she talks about meaning as an anthropocentric concept, that information technologies, because of the way that they use information or the complexity of the patterns that they create, are beyond single human understanding. The billions of calculations they make push this idea of knowledge outside a traditional context of knowledge as mastery. The single human can no longer have a mastery of knowledge in these technologies, right? So, I think that we either have to reckon with that idea, that we created a technology that puts us into a position that requires us to have faith in the results of the calculations or shift what we consider to be meaningful.

EN- Frame !ndependent: So, we talked a bit about patterns and sequences, but I would like us to also talk about the reverse, unpredictability. I was wondering if there was something that surprised you, especially during the process of filmmaking. Was there a moment in which you encountered subjects, ideas or maybe the ways in which they connect that surprised you, either in a positive, negative, or even in a neutral way, but something that really changed your outlook and perspective?

M.H.C: Honestly, every conversation we had with Joseph Yracheta. He is such a vast thinker and I feel like almost every time we talked to him, he was making a connection or telling us about a tribe’s data sovereignty lawsuit or an early botanist’s theories on Native American agriculture. There could have been eight more films.  And then there were the formal connections – looking at tree grafting manuals and the work of the German scientist, Julius Schaxel, who was grafting the limbs of the axolotl onto different parts of its body – that made the conceptual links feel almost inevitable. That was very creatively and intellectually satisfying.

M.G: Talking about surprising moments just makes me think about being grateful to have worked with Mary Helena on the project because she was thinking so divergently from me at times. I can remember when you (to Mary Helena) first mentioned the robotic apple picking, my brain was somewhere else and I didn't quite get the connection, but then of course all the resonances began to pile up and it became so important. Or that the court case which used the agricultural argument as justification to disenfranchise indigenous ownership over land was called “McIntosh” was an amazing coincidence.

EN- Frame !ndependent: Yes, you can make another film based on that…. I don’t know (laughs). Also, “the apple” is just …

M.H.C: And it is apple season now (laughs!).

EN- Frame !ndependent: Yes! (laughs)

M.H.C: Every time I eat an apple I think about the movie, that it comes from a whole legal system as much as a tree.

EN- Frame !ndependent: Yes, that’s the power of this film. It stays with you. The axolotl syrup, for example is just something that I'm still thinking about every day! I'm not sure if there are any plans on expanding on the ideas that are presented in this film, or are you working on something entirely different?

M.H.C: We haven’t yet plotted out a future collaboration. I think we are still kind of catching our breath!

M.G: You (to Eirini) seem to have a research practice that is connected in some ways to the film. I am just curious to hear for a few minutes about the connections that you made with your own research.

M.H.C: Or about your research just in general.

EN- Frame !ndependent: Thank you for asking. My research focuses on the politics of aesthetics; conceptualisations of the cinematic image, spectatorship agency and ethics in a data-intensive context. So, I am also researching patterns, in the context of personalisation, and the ways in which they draw on the potential of film, express and produce cinematic and cultural effects within data-intensive infrastructures. I am concerned with questions surrounding democracy, film culture, spectatorship and the fragmented ways in which these concepts can be formulated. So, watching your film, meeting you and talking to you filled me with a strong sense of kinship. The moment of bifurcation that you mentioned earlier, for example, and how various possibilities can lead to the creation and expression of different patterns, is something that I have also come accross in my research.  There is a meaning associated with privacy, that emerges within particular contexts, on the one hand, but equally there is a different line of thought, akin to the Lockean philosophy, that makes connections to property and citizenship, in the form of exclusionary rights. So, it was a wonderful coincidence to come across your film and work, as well as to have the pleasure to meet you both!

M.H.C: This was a real pleasure.

M.G: Thank you so much.

EN- Frame !ndependent: Thank you very much for your time and the exchange!

 Interview to Eirini Nikopoulou.