Martha Colburn.

“EXILE was built in 1933 originally as Paretti Hall. I use the bar to lay out my painted film backgrounds which are often around the length of the bar: 35 feet. Between 2006-2010 I hosted a number of filmmakers, dancers and performers in events that functioned as sounding boards for new projects involving film and live music or dance. In the morning I work in the old front office ( complete with an unopened safe) which is my main studio. In the evening the golden light of the sunset behind Manhattan fills the kitchen and bar. The power plant behind my house (affectionately named Bessie by the locals) lets off bursts of steam, the sound of which deafens every living thing within a mile. This strip of land where my studio is located is known as ‘Asthma Alley’. The power plant is in several of my films because it has the red and white candy-cane-striped stacks that look great in my ‘environmental’ films and because it has given me asthma, so I hope one day they will shut it down.

I am based part-time in Amsterdam and produce many of my films in Holland, so when I am in New York I really like the feel of ‘Old’ New York. My neighborhood in Queens is not so different than I imagine it being 60 years ago (with the exception of Crack cocaine and Dollar stores).”

Abacus I use for counting frames.

Highschool sculpture and anti-fracking postcard.

Posters from tours and Klaus Nomi.

Super 8 camera.

Martha Colburn is an artist filmmaker based in New York. She travels extensively exhibiting and lecturing on her work. She has a B.A. from Maryland Institute College of Art and MA equivalent from Rijksakademie Van Beeldende Kunst (Royal Academy of Art) in Holland. A self-taught filmmaker, she began in 1994 with found footage and Super 8 cameras and has since completed over 40 films. She also selects elements from her films and using slide projections and murals to create installations. She has made music videos/ music-art films for bands such as Deerhoof, Serj Tankian, Felix Kubin and the documentary ‘The Devil and Daniel Johnson’. Martha had her own band ‘The Dramatics in the 90’s and they released 6 records for which she made 7,000 hand-made record covers.

FROM YOUR DESKS: How do you work?

MARTHA COLBURN: I set-up my 16mm camera on a tripod, point it at the art and start animating. I have this thing I made out of old shelving that has layers glass, and I throw it in the middle of the floor and get to work. I exclusively film in my room/studio/office/bedroom. If I work while traveling it is just daydreaming about what I’ll create next. My website has a ‘Making Of‘ page and gives a good idea of how I work.

I am based part-time in Amsterdam…so when I am in New York I really like the feel of ‘Old’ New York.

FYD: Do you venture behind the bar, pour yourself a drink and have a Jack Nicholson Shining moment?

MC: It’s the boulevard of wayward art projects and winter clothes back there… like if Jack Nicholson was an artist instead of a writer.

FYD: You come home to an”old” New York via your space. Is your era dead and gone — as in CBGB’s is a fancy clothing store and Mars Bar gives way to a shiny glass tower?

MC: I’m talkin’ the era of the 1930’s, between the World Wars…when punk meant something different; a small-fry hoodlum. My space was an ‘Italian Club,’ a speakeasy basically. Criminals and artists are the creative outsiders of society. William Burroughs talks about this, he understood that connection. So I feel like my making art in this cast-away time-capsule is a re-incarnation of the anti-authoritarian premise the house was built upon and humanitarian passion (because the Italian hall also fed the poor and helped the neighborhood) that its inhabitants exhibited. I am always donating to Hour Children, which is a place near me that provides supportive services to incarcerated and formerly incarcerated women and their families.

If I work while traveling it is just daydreaming about what I’ll create next.

FYD: What elements in your art creep up from your time in Baltimore?

MC: ‘The Baltimore years’ I mostly hid inside my warehouse, that’s the only reason I am still alive. The elements of Baltimore, like kitsch, and ‘trash culture’ aesthetic faded as I left the city. It was also a different time. America was not in three wars,but Baltimore was at war. It was in the peak of its ‘drug war.’ Gangs from DC would come and battle Baltimore gangs on my block with 600 round shootouts and it was total anarchy. The anarchy and violence came out in my films after I left.

FYD: What attracts you to film? You don’t edit which means there is no manipulation.

MC: I edit in-camera, which means I shoot frame after frame, for say 2.5 min ( the length of a roll) or 3600 frames. So I have to make an improvisational ‘collage narrative’ appear to have almost already been conceived and edited, all under the camera. I don’t shoot from three angles and then edit them together ( which one could do, with a big grant and a camera crew), instead I shoot what the editor would edit together later. I use film because it is what I am used to using and requires no ‘updates’.

The anarchy and violence came out in my films after I left.

FYD: Your film Myth Labs looks beyond the over-exploitation of the epidemic. What is the meth metaphor? Might meth have been used to tap into one’s subconscious; much like peyote; where the “trip” helps one overcome certain fears or inhibitions?

MC: It’s purely destructive. The Meth metaphor is not a metaphor in the film, as much as the direct subject. One of the ideas behind it is salvation. People seek salvation through the drug. Their lives are usually at a point of no return when they begin taking it ( I’m speaking of the rural community). They feel the drug turns them into super humans. It is empowering in the beginning but leads to the people being a shell of their former selves or even dying. I have read enough about it, to know the ‘trip’ is a very bad one.

FYD: You spend time in Amsterdam. Has that city changed or is it the same as it ever was?

MC: One of my favorite new songs is ‘Our Leaky Homes‘ by the Amsterdam-based band The Ex. It’s about climate change and kind of the inefficiency of homes and it’s a anarchistic Pop musical masterpiece, of which I am hoping to make a video for. My desk is recycled. Its a chopped up old desk top with an old desk underneath. I would be a hypocrite if I were writing environmentally focused films on a new desk from IKEA. I believe in recycling in every aspect of your life that is possible. Americans have to struggle a lot more with poverty than they do in the Netherlands, and certainly for artists, but that is changing there. The grants are drying-up and people are kind of in a panic. Politically it has changed a lot also, in a negative direction.

It is empowering in the beginning but leads to the people being a shell of their former selves …

FYD: What do you think of today’s Occupy Wall Street movement?

MC: I film it. I go there with my 16mm and Super 8 cameras. I change the film rolls in the camera, under my jacket in this McDonalds corner I found that is kind of dark. It’s an adventure for me. I like filming it live, because I made a protest film, but with puppets I had to make move and now it is alive. I just was in Amsterdam on the first day of the occupation there, and filmed it as well. So many hand-made signs, dogs, kids, bagpipes, joints burning, blues singers; totally different than NY.

FYD: How do you keep yourself upbeat amidst the serious subjects you cover?

MC: I’m out on the street filming now so it’s a different game. I am not working on serious subjects only. I’m painting, being a self-styled cinema verite’ filmmaker…experimenting..VJ shows…

4 Comments For “Martha Colburn.”

  1. Roger J. says:

    What about the environmental impact of flying and all that travel? A recycled desk hardly makes a dent in that carbon footprint.

  2. rico says:

    Thats RIGHT! What ABOUT all that travel??? From now on its walking or bike riding!

  3. Justin Bucharach says:

    true, one of the many reasons why the idea of ‘activist filmmaker’ or ‘political artist’ is a total fake, a market strategy perhaps.
    and what about all that film and video materials? sure they’re recyclable.
    nice work though.

  4. mmmmm, so what would acceptable action for a political artist be then? sitting on your ass in you’re organic vegetable garden drawing with a stick in the dirt and trying to under-breathe?

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