Hey, You’re On

Spring in Austin means South by Southwest, the ever-expanding music, film, and interactive festival that takes over the city like an annual visit from King Kong, beating its chest about the newest music, the latest films, and the most up-to-date interactive technologies. Strolling along Congress, the broad avenue that runs away from the Texas Capitol right down the center of Austin, festival-goers had a chance not only to see work by an artist at the center of Austin’s storied music and film scenes, but to participate as well. Filmmaker and artist Luke Savisky’s installation at the Arthouse on Seventh Street invited passersby to peer into a small box in the downstairs window. There they saw, as Savisky himself describes it, “a huge, conical wall projection—a kind of infinity box representation of the installation that was upstairs.†But the projection in the box was only meant to engage viewers while their faces were projected on a large 15-foot window on the second floor, as though there was “a giant peering out the windows above.â€

The last time projections of that size could be seen at Seventh and Congress was decades ago, when a movie house called the Hegman’s Queen Theater stood there. People would look into the box downstairs, “and then their friends would go, ‘hey, you’re on,’†Savisky recalled. But when viewers backed up to see themselves, they disappeared from the window. His own installation, entitled T/x, offered a moral for a festival dedicated to the “newâ€: Before you know it, things change. Not long ago, I spoke with Luke Savisky, to hear him reflect on his own history, from making film loops and slide shows to back some of Austin’s most fabled bands, like Poi Dog Pondering and Ed Hall, to doing his bit to move Austin’s art and film scene from the back pages to the cutting edge.

In 1978, Savisky moved to Austin from southeastern New Mexico, via Baylor University. (Baylor was the university farthest from home for which his folks would pay.) But once in Waco, Savisky discovered punk rock and the bands that were into it. He started coming to Austin to see punk bands, go to parties, and swim in Barton Springs. After a couple of trips to Barton Springs, he decided to come to the University of Texas to finish school. Bill Lundberg, a pioneer in the field of contemporary film and video installation, had been hired to develop a “Transmedia†program. Savisky says, “It consisted of an old 16mm Bell and Howell camera and one video 8 camera.â€

While his mother wanted him to be a painter, “some sort of Michaelangelo character,†and his father wanted him to get a real job, Luke started working with film loops, short sections of film grafted into a circle so that they run through a projector endlessly. Savisky began learning to manipulate the loops, drawing on them, coloring them, even, on occasion, bleeding on the film to alter the projection. “Film is just such a visceral kind of thing,†he says. “Very tactile. The fact that you can act directly on it was very appealing to me. What you do on the film shows on the screen. You can’t do that with videotape, obviously. If you touch it, you destroy it.â€

These influences were apparent in an installation this past November at Testsite, also in Austin. Savisky used multiple projectors to illuminate the windows and interior of a small house. Approaching, viewers noticed the windows glowing blue with two images of water, as if the house had been filled to the roof. In one window, an enormous man pulled himself underwater along a rope toward the second window, where a woman—clinging to an orange life preserver—floated alone on a giant body of water. It was Barton Springs seen through a lens of melancholy. The tactile aspect of the work was made apparent by the projectors themselves, set out in the yard for everyone to see. They were the type of old-model 16mm projectors you might have last seen in a high-school health class. The loops loaded into the projectors from hand-made constructions of electrical wire, bent to hold the film, bouncing with the casual jerkiness of the projector. The loops are recycled from found footage, shown with a recycled technology, and the images themselves cycle endlessly: The man never reaches the woman, the woman never lets go of her orange vest. Describing how he comes up with these installations, Savisky says, “I usually have a feeling about a piece I want to make—abstract elements that all come together to make a new meaning out of these bits and pieces. It’s a long process of gathering images and letting them find their language with each other.â€

This long process was greatly aided by Savisky’s work with musicians. He’s done all variety of visual spectacle to support and augment bands, mostly in live concert settings (but he’s also done a little film work that ended up in a Flaming Lips video). “I went out with Ed Hall for a few years and I’m still working with Stars of the Lid,†he says referring to the bygone pinnacle of the Austin noise-rock scene and the current masters of ambient magic, respectively. “It was the perfect opportunity for me to try stuff,†he explains. “I did a lot of animation, drawing on film and applying different stuff to the film and trying different projector techniques and filters and prisms and reflections and it provided opportunities to just play and get paid for it.†But playtime is over now because Savisky is starting to shoot more original material for his work. “The biggest problem, for everyone, is you hear the cash register ringing as the film is rolling through the camera,†he says. “Which can be frustrating, because I love the act of shooting; it takes such concentration. It’s a beautiful moment to me.â€

If a person who shoots film is a filmmaker, the main thing that separates Savisky’s projections from being “movies†(besides the lack of overt narrative and crass commercialism) might be that he doesn’t show them on screens. “I’ve projected on moving trains, hillsides, sculpture, my own sculpture. I’ve made kind of living sculptures, projecting faces onto casts of faces. Bodies. Moving Bodies. I guess just about anything. Water. Smoke. Just about anything that you can project on. Buildings, of course. Architecture.†In a recent piece, Savisky projected an original film loop of a girl, floating just under the surface of the water, onto a relief sculpture of a baby coming out of the birth canal. Just as the film girl’s face broke the surface of the water, it precisely aligned with the face of the baby, giving both pieces a depth and fullness that neither film nor sculpture alone could ever achieve. It was literally as though the artwork itself gained life, but it was the viewer who gasped in astonishment.

Savisky says he’s trying to make “a connection on a really basic human level.†Politics comes from that, he adds, “whether or not you can allow yourself to connect with other people and to make this association with their basic humanity. I’d like to get to that point where the connection is made initially, and you see the similarities to the way people respond to things, and in that way you’re more likely to treat other people with respect.†And so he’s constantly looking for new ways to make those connections. When I asked about future projects he responded with a long list of ideas, including some 35mm and 70mm projects, further outdoor experiments, projecting film in conversation with the landscape, and a top-secret idea he didn’t want me to print because he wanted it to be a surprise. When I suggested he was full of possibilities, Savisky responded, “Maybe a little too full. I get overwhelmed with possibilities.†But like the art of filmmaking itself, Luke Savisky is growing. Like the giant peering out of the museum on Congress, his ideas are already too big for any one art form to contain them.

Kirk Lynn is the playwright-in-residence for the Austin-based theater collective, Rude Mechanicals.

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Published at 12:00 am CST