Tonsler Park (Kevin Jerome Everson, 2017, USA, 80 min, Digital)
With Kevin Jerome Everson in person!
Followed by a conversation with writer Yaniya Lee (Canadian Art)
8 November 2016. Over a single day American filmmaker and artist Kevin Jerome Everson trained his camera on election officers at a Charlottesville, Virginia polling station. Working with black and white 16mm film and distant, extended takes, Tonsler Park focuses on the predominantly Black workers during their real-time engagement with the democratic process, their images frequently obscured by passing citizens. The result is a committed work of experimental and political portraiture which documents the occasionally banal final moments of a chaotic election, one marred by immense amounts of voter suppression and seen through its now well-known outcomes.
Wednesday 22 May
Doors: 6:30 PM | Screening: 7:00 PM
$7 General Admission | $5 Students
Jackman Hall (317 Dundas St W.) - McCaul Street Entrance
On Tuesday 21 May Kevin Jerome Everson and Claudrena Harold will present films from
their collaborative “Black Fire UVA” project at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. More info here.
Kevin Jerome Everson (b.1965) was born and raised in Mansfield, Ohio. He has a MFA from Ohio University and a BFA from the University of Akron. He is Professor of Art at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. Everson was awarded the 2012 Alpert Award for Film/Video; his films has been the subject of mid-career retrospectives at the Glasgow Short Film Festival (March 2018); Harvard Film Archive (Feb. 2018); Tate Modern, London, UK (Fall 2017); Modern and Contemporary Art Museum, Seoul, Korea (Feb. 2017); Viennale (2014); Visions du Reel, Nyon, Switzerland (2012), The Whitney Museum of American Art, NY (2011) and Centre Pompidou, Paris in 2009. His work has been featured at the 2008, 2012, 2017 Whitney Biennials and the 2013 Sharjah Biennial.
Leo Goldsmith is a writer, curator, and teacher based in Brooklyn. He is a co-author of Keywords in Subversive Film/Media Aesthetics (Wiley-Blackwell 2015), by Robert Stam with Richard Porton, and is currently writing a book about the filmmaker Peter Watkins with Rachael Rakes. He was the film editor of The Brooklyn Rail from 2011 to 2018, and currently co-edits the Exhibition Reviews section of NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies. He received his Ph.D. from the Department of Cinema Studies at New York University in 2018.
Images copyright Kevin Jerome Everson; courtesy the artist; Trilobite-Arts DAC; Picture Palace Pictures
By Leo Goldsmith
The Three-Fifths Compromise, gerrymandering, Russian internet trolls, the electoral college and its historical links to the enslavement of Black Americans, the shuttering of polling sites in areas with large populations of colour, voter fraud, voter IDs, voter suppression. None of these features of American electoral politics – historical, contemporary, evergreen – is mentioned in Kevin Jerome Everson’s film Tonsler Park, and yet they loom over its images and sounds like bad weather. Instead, the film is far more concerned with the immediate and particular—in this case, the bodies and spaces in a polling station in Charlottesville, Virginia, on November 8, 2016. Eighty minutes in length, comprising only twenty shots, Everson’s film is no work of overwrought, pundit-led political analysis, nor a hand-wringing elegy for American democracy. Tonsler Park is instead a material record, one embedded in its contexts with, nonetheless, no false assurances, no claims of authenticity, and no illusions.
Much like the rest of Everson’s compendious body of work, the emphasis in Tonsler Park is on people working: here, the women and men who have enlisted to staff the polling station, sign voters in, direct them, and offer them information. Shooting with a telephoto lens in grainy black-and-white, the images frame and reframe election officers in closeup, often with conspicuously handheld cinematography and often in takes of about eleven minutes in length, or the length of a reel of 16mm film stock. In these prolonged shots, a bespectacled older woman receives voters while seated at a desk, and a handsome younger man does the same. In two shots over ten minutes, an older gentleman stands offering directions. In another long, single take, Everson frames another older woman behind computer (she gets up; she sits down); he pans, zooms, and racks focus to another older woman engaged in a similar position and task behind her; then pans, zooms, focuses back to the first. These are candid, undramatic vignettes, recorded in extensive duration and detail. In their grungy 16mm elegance, they take on some of the exquisite boredom of Warholian portraiture, with its artifice scaled back. Performance and self-awareness are there, to be sure; but also boredom, distraction, and the polite industriousness of unthinking activity.
All of this might be said to offer a voyeuristic charge, common to documentary, of the person who isnt aware of, or isn’t quite thinking about, being recorded. But what we’re watching here, in Tonsler Park, is perhaps not documentary. Everson, at least, doesn’t like the term (anymore than perhaps Warhol would) as a designation of what he does, despite the fact that his work frequently circulates in such contexts. For one thing, we are never guided through these images in the manner of the documentary traditions. Each image is overwhelming in its detail, infinitely rich, bristling with recorded data that tremble with their lack of signposted directions. Everson is happy to film, to record, and to observe. People – whether voters or other polling officers – repeatedly obscure the frame, abstracting these mini-portraits with brief interruptions of backs and butts, clothing and coats, all out of focus, denying or forestalling the promised voyeuristic pleasure of observation.
Similarly, the soundtrack – a persistent hum of thank-yous, good-mornings, and other ambient cordiality– is never synchronized with the image, but rather captures moments just before or just after the filming of a given shot: voices, friendly and communal, intermingle in an collective, atmospheric babble that seems akin to, but just falls short of matching, the image that accompanies it. We see, for example, the handsome young man and see him mouth “You’re welcome,” but no such sound is produced. The nearest alignment of sound and image comes at the close of the film, almost as a reward, in a sequence in which a woman swears in a young worker as “page of elections” (“to observe the highest standards of ethics and impartiality…”). Her voice and lips are almost aligned, but just fail to match up.
The film, in this way, relies on a fundamental asynchrony, continually stoking and thwarting the viewer/listener’s desire to fuse the audio and visual tracks of the film. In printmaking, the method of aligning different color-layers into a single image is called registration, and Everson is playing with something similar at work here: the system by which sound and image come together to complement or complete one another, verify one another, forming a unified, holistic representation. Registration, like the registration of voters, is also that process which makes official, specifically through the act of recording information—the kind of sanctification that comes with being documented, registered, authorized. As Erika Balsom has suggested, Everson frustrates this task – documentary’s task – of aligning audiovisual technology’s capacity to record the real with something so unwieldy as the truth, or at least a truth produced in the service of an idea. This reality – this work, their work, Everson’s work – is not undertaken to be instrumentalized into larger narratives, especially not those that proclaim, in bold headlines, the Why and How of American politics.
In a volume entitled What is Real? Filmmakers Weigh In, compiled for the festival Cinéma du réel’s 40th anniversary by curator Andréa Picard in 2018, Everson relates a story about requests from local officials and university representatives (“mostly white”) to screen his films as a “sign of protest” in the wake of the recent uptick in white supremacist rallies and assaults in the United States. “‘They’ think,” Everson writes, “because the films have Black folk in them, it is a protest. We have respectfully denied the use of our films for that protest. The projects cannot be reduced to ‘their’ terms. The films function without ‘their participation.’ The films were not made to center white Americans. I told them ‘white supremacy is your fuckin’ problem, not ours.’”
The last two shots of Tonsler Park – taken from the end of a film reel, with the image flaring instantly from the representative into a white void – capture a woman’s hands carefully, but imperfectly, folding an American flag. We can take these shots as emblematic, metaphorical, or whatever. We can also take them as records of a daily task.