Interview: Ben Balcom
This month Open View sat down with Ben Balcom to discuss
Microlights, a neighborhood cinema in Riverwest specializing in contemporary film and video. As a filmmaker in his own right, Balcom teaches at the UW Milwaukee and is the Technical Director for Milwaukee Film.
Open View: You and Josh Weissbach founded Microlights in 2013 out of a Riverwest storefront. What were your initial motivations in beginning the project?
Ben Balcom: I have to give Josh a lot of credit for being the machine behind its inception. We had been collaborators, roommates and tour buddies for a long time. We met in college, in 2004, made some films together, traveled together, and ended up overlapping years in grad school.
Josh, at the time, was involved in some other projects but when his colleagues graduated [from the postgraduate Experimental Film program at UWM] he turned to me and said “we have to do something.” I was on board but didn't know how to see the whole project. Then, by chance, I was looking for a new apartment, and ended up living above the former neighborhood bar, Rick and Donna's. After moving to the upstairs flat, I remember looking downstairs at the former tavern. I saw past the old counter to the perfect rectangular outline of the space and thought, ‘that’s a screening room.’ After a lot of convincing the landlord came around and agreed to renovate the space which became Microlights.
OV: What or who influenced the initial structure of the microcinema?
BB: I would definitely say Stephanie Barber’s Bamboo Theater set a local precedent and encouraged me to think that cinema could be a sustainable thing [in Riverwest]. To say it was only Bamboo would be a little irresponsible because Woodland Pattern had been programming film and video work for a while and Carl Bogner, both independently and through the LGBT Film and Video Festival, programs a lot.
Beyond what I knew was happening in Milwaukee, there’s a pretty significant amount of nationwide micro-cinemas and alternative screening rooms that I see Microlights as a real part of. In Chicago there was the Nightingale and Chicago Filmmakers, and while Josh and I were on a nationwide film tour, we discovered a great many of the micro-cinemas that I think really represent the distribution alternative for independent and experimentally-minded filmmakers. Microlights is a little node on a much larger network and that network is still blossoming.
OV: Who currently is in charge of Microlights?
BB: I currently work on the project with Jesse McLean. Before that I programmed Microlights on my own from 2014-2015 and with Josh from 2013-2014.
OV: Eventually the project transitioned from a venue to a pop-up model (around 2015) How has this model affected the programming structure? What are the benefits of using the pop-up model in Milwaukee?
BB: The transition was a difficult one emotionally, it was hard to let go of the old space and sometimes I still miss it or wish I had it. We are in the same neighborhood but it’s funny how a slight shift of venue can make things feel so different. There are also very real logistical differences. Now we’re a little unincorporated institution within a larger institution that has its own rules. But the old space became unsustainable and literally impossible for me to keep going. There was no funding, it was all out of pocket and was just my home. I probably could have stopped a year earlier but didn't want to. By the end of the second year I think I had denied how stressful it was and how challenging it became financially.
In part, the shift to pop-up has been really wonderful because someplace like Woodland Pattern has great space and an excellent group of people. But moving beyond Woodland Pattern with spaces like Green Gallery West and Inova have brought opportunities to collaborate and converse with people who Microlights wasn’t engaging with before. There have also been screenings as a direct byproduct of an exhibition that’s already up at a venue, such as Green Gallery West having the Halloween program. Those kind of prompts are always really productive as a programmer, and to treat programing as a contribution to something someone else is already doing.
OV: What have you noticed about Milwaukee’s arts culture since first arriving back in 2013?
BB: There have been so many projects that pop-up in many forms and are more ethereal in nature that are not necessarily rooted to a place. It’s always been something that excites me about Milwaukee. It speaks to the potentiality inherent in the place. It’s a city where you can make any number of things happen much more readily. I lived here through quite a devastating loss of a permanent building [the former Green Gallery West building], and it left me wondering, what part is necessity? And would everyone be happier if their projects were permanently housed somewhere? [Milwaukee] seems like a community defined by its ability to more fluidly describe what an art project or art space is and that seems great.
It’s a little weird with cinema. Cinema’s not really great as pop-up because the control of space is the name of the game. That makes it a lot different because any space can theoretically become a white-walled gallery. The pop-up is kind of funny because the space will always be a little imperfect until there’s a place you have full control over.
OV: How do you see the Black Box paring with the White Cube? What are the benefits and drawbacks of these kinds of spaces in art and cinema?
BB: There are much more rigid rules that define a good cinema viewing experience, such as the quality of both audio and video projection, the sonic quality of the space, and the sightline or visibility of seating. A lot of these restrictions, for me, come out of working as a projectionist at film festivals. I get bombarded by people who are really obsessed with the mathematical reality of a good vs. bad screening environment. I work with a guy named James Bond, it’s his real name, who’s easily the most skilled projection engineer on the face of the planet. He’s based out of Chicago and will tell you there's a mathematical way to correctly present film, both digital and analog. Microlights is actually pretty renegade in that.
There are differences in what each space expects the audience to do. I think there are some really interesting and pertinent questions about what we do when we consume media that is different in a cinema and in a gallery. There are all these rules expected of the audience in cinema where they can’t talk or check their phones or move around. You are expected to sit in the black box for a specific amount of time and not leave until it’s over. The activity of cinema is a devotional one where you are giving your duration to something. Cinema makes a demand of its audience, and I like that.
OV: Do you see the need for cinemas becoming obsolete?
BB: If the cinema becomes a less relevant kind of space, film and video work would cease to be screened in a collective way. I think it’s very nice that people share in the durations of cinema together. I would be worried if ‘movies,’ as an all encompassing term, started to only be made for personal computing consumption. We would lose out on a really special collective viewing experience. The kind of experience where time is taken out together and we’re all like, “yeah it’s little weird that we’re going to sit in the dark quietly together, then in two hours we’re going to go to drink beers and chat about this strange experience we just had.” I think there’s so much potential for collective and shared experiences. For example, when you see a performance, it’s different than when you see an art object that’s hovering on its own and everyone sort of swirls around it in their own time. Collective time is something really important that cinema does.