Q&A with SVA’s Benita Raphan About Her Film at the Walker Art Center

October 24, 2013

Designer, art director, photo-illustrator and filmmaker Benita Raphan‘s (BFA 1984 Media Arts) film The Critical Path (2003) is playing this month at the famed Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. SVA Close Up recently caught up with Raphan to discuss her film and to learn more about how her multidisciplinary practice intersects with her work at the College as a project coordinator in the BFA Design and BFA Advertising departments (chaired by Richard Wilde).

benita200Your practice spans a range of disciplines from fashion to design to film. Can you talk a little bit about your background and training?

I feel very lucky that I started my professional career at SVA with mentors and teachers like Richard Wilde, Marshall Arisman, Carin Goldberg and Paula Scher. When I was a student, all of my teachers and mentors always pushed me to work toward excellence. After graduation, Milton Glaser and Henry Wolf were champions for me to go to graduate school at the Royal College of Art at a time when it was not common for designers to do so. In London, I had completely different mentors—the Brother’s Quay, Ray Durgnat, Clare Kitson and David Curtis, all fans of Films D’Auteur. I subsequently lived and worked in London and Paris for a total of 10 years.

Your film The Critical Path explores the life and work of Buckminster Fuller, someone who on the surface carried on an eclectic yet fully integrated practice encompassing science, nature, design and art. Can you share more about the origin and process of making the film?

I have always been inspired by the lives and craft of certain individuals. As a personal essay filmmaker, I feel compelled to unravel and comprehend their worlds, in order to re-interpret them and generate a new perspective through a cinematic constellation of scholarly discussion and opinion. Reading has led me to consider deep questions about the nature of language, creativity, thought and consciousness. Working at SVA has also spurred me to seek out scholars able to address these fascinating issues within a broader, more contemporary context.

critical425Since graduate school, I have directed and produced a body of short experimental films and projects using the form of a cinematic diary to examine eccentric and unusual inner lives. I have often read about how an idea in science, mathematics or the arts, from a singular inception (sometimes on the most intimate level) can grow over time to touch the world. I’m interested in revisiting events in time, such as an impulse, an ineffable compulsion, an intuition—and in reframing an action as simple as one pair of hands touching pencil to paper, it can become history years later.

During my art practice, I record oral histories (much like NPR does) with people directly related to the subject, or with scholars and historians who have studied the lives and work of these great subjects. In many cases, this may be the only form in which these stories and insights live. After this step, I collect original artifacts and generate images to provide visual interpretation for the words. I always undertake this with a team of professional collaborators.

What are you currently working on that most excites you right now?

I have been honored to have Alan Berliner, the filmmaker, as a mentor for my films over the past four years. The subject of my current project in production, Emily: No Names, No Dates, is a film and multimedia literacy circus performance that explores language, sound, and poetry, grounded in, but not limited to, an examination of Emily Dickinson’s intertwined life and work, and based upon oral interviews with various academic experts in the fields of philosophy, poetry, media studies and neurology.

emily425In collaboration with others, the project will incorporate a collage aesthetic, including typography, the layering of specific and abstract images, varied colors, sound sensations and singular words coupled with spoken poetry texts, to represent emotions and nuanced concepts being discussed. I have interviewed several key scholars including Susan Howe, Ph. D., an American poet, scholar and essayist most associated with the Language poets. She is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and received Yale University’s Bollingen Prize in American Poetry and a Guggenheim award in 2011. Cole Swenson, Ph. D., the Poetry Chair at Brown University is an ekphrastic poet and essayist. Avital Ronell, Ph. D., an NYU faculty member, philosopher, essayist and performance artist, writes about contemporary media. Our previous work together on a television documentary, Great Genius and Profound Stupidity, is currently appearing on the Sundance Channel. Another scholar at Princeton University will discuss the relationship between music, techniques of reproduction, memorization and writing. Additionally, I will interview two scientists, specializing in consciousness and the mind’s ability to form new ideas through language.

Images from top down: Benita Raphan; a still from The Critical Path; a still from Emily: No Names, No Dates.

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