In the experimental film series Peggy and Fred in Hell, a pair of children wander through an apocalyptic world, the cultural remains of a lost society. They are like feral children raised by television and the sole survivors of an unspecified catastrophe. The surrealistic project, which includes 17 episodes filmed and produced over three decades, will be screened on the Caltech campus on Tuesday, May 21, as part of the new Caltech-Huntington Program in Visual Culture.
The program, a joint effort of Caltech's Division of the Humanities and Social Sciences and The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, is intended to create opportunities for cross-pollination between the arts and sciences, facilitate dialog between scientists and humanists, and mobilize The Huntington's vast collections of visual material for Caltech faculty and students and beyond.
Leslie Thornton, the filmmaker behind Peggy and Fred in Hell, is the program's first artist-in-residence and a visiting lecturer in visual culture. Thornton has been on the Caltech campus since April, exploring the Institute's nooks and crannies, gathering material for future projects, and organizing a filming field trip to The Huntington for her students.
We sat down with Thornton to discuss her work, what inspires her, her deep family ties to the sciences, and what she hopes will come of her time at Caltech.
You're an artist, but you've worked in close proximity to the sciences, and there's a strong science streak in your family background. Can you tell us about that?
My grandfather was an electrical engineer who designed power plants. In 1942, he was sent to Berkeley under a military contract to lead a team of engineers working with Ernest Lawrence on the Manhattan Project. Around the same time, my 21-year-old father, a physics student at Harvard, was drafted and engaged by the Manhattan Project. He was the 66th person to arrive at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico. Following the war, he was the technical director at General Electric on a project to develop an atomic-powered aircraft.
I grew up around people working on major research and military projects. This background has entered into my thinking and practice as an artist in a number of ways. Most recently, I've had residencies at several institutions that are science and research based, including CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research). While I am not a scientist myself, I maintain a curiosity and attraction to scientific practice.
Why did you become a filmmaker?
As a young artist, I was very serious about painting, but I also had the sense that if I continued down the path I was following, I would end up in a white room making white canvases. This was during the '60s and '70s, a period of minimalism and conceptualism in painting and the arts in general.
I was also interested in "experimental," or avant-garde, film as an aesthetic practice. At a certain point, I abandoned the reductive orientation I had toward painting and turned toward the cinematic medium because it offered the broader and open-ended dimensions of working with time and people and things in the world. I did not consider myself to be a filmmaker but rather as an artist using film as my medium.
What do you like to explore through your work?
The uncanny edge. I work on an edge between what you feel you know, the familiar, embedded in a form that undercuts certainty, essentially creating an aura around the familiar that engages us in a different way. I want to open up what we perceive and think we know. Also, and more specifically, I'm interested in how history and culture are represented. I'm drawn to the anecdotal and to looking at what we can ascertain between the cracks of official narratives.
What inspires you?
When I was at CERN last year, I was especially drawn to its "antimatter factory" and to atomic physicist Michael Doser. When we walked into the factory, it looked chaotic. There were thick bundles of cables hanging everywhere and stacks of large white marble slabs. I said, "This place looks like it's held together with gaffer's tape and string!" Doser said that essentially it was and went on to explain that it was the researchers themselves who pieced the facilities together as ideas came upon them. Rather than wait to spec things out for engineers or architects, he explained that to work there you had to know how to use a soldering iron yourself. He remarked that specs would take months and would probably be wrong and superseded by the time any engineers could be involved. I was very impressed by the immediacy and passion he was suggesting—and this in a scientific context. The popular conception of science would be that people work with facts and in a rational way. What I saw there was a manifestation of a process-based approach to knowledge, and in this regard, science and the arts do share some common ground. It is so stimulating to witness science in process that, for me, it's just way better than Disneyland! It sparks the imagination even if I am far from being able to comprehend the specifics.
Caltech is not thought of as an arts school, but there are creative people here. What kind of creativity have you seen?
The space I've spent the most time in so far is CAST. There is an entomologist working there, and he is using his background to help people developing the design of drones. I hope I will manage to visit a pond where he observes bees on water. I have spent years filming various animal species, including bees on water, for a series of artworks called Binoculars. We had a great conversation based on his work and what I have observed myself. I am going to give him the hours of footage I have of bees doing exactly what he studies. There is so much creativity here and possibility of exchange. I'm just starting to scratch the surface.
What do you hope will come from your time at Caltech?
I think being here will change the things I am thinking about and will be doing for many years. At Caltech, I'm building a media footage archive. I hope to speak with many people during my residency, and I will dig in where I am allowed, and I will learn. For example, my most recent video focuses on drone tests from the 1940s to the 1990s, including the atomic-powered airplane that was my father's project in the 1950s. While I'm here, I hope to speak with and film more material related to drones and flight in general. This will go into my own self-generated "archive." It will form the basis of future works. This is exactly how I filmed the children in Peggy and Fred in Hell, by the way. I recorded them for over eight years and then edited the material into a series of short interconnected videos over the course of 30 years. A lot of unexpected effects came out of the longevity factor. The same will happen with material gathered here. It will re-emerge in unexpected ways. I am in the hunting-and-gathering stage of production. And the intuitive stage. I have a lot of faith in serendipity to lead me forward.
I am also teaching a course, and I love the students here. They're very different than the people I'm used to teaching in a liberal arts context. I've asked them to film their friends explaining what time means to them. Since they mostly have limited experience in artistic practices, I hope I'm helping them find a kind of comfort in doing things and speaking about things that are not already familiar to them. I've told them that by the end of this course, they will all be able to make a film that they can show anyplace. I think that is the case! They are marvelously open and engaged by our small experiments together, and I am learning a lot from them as we go.
Peggy and Fred in Hell will be shown in Caltech's Baxter Lecture Hall at 7 p.m. on May 21. The screening will be followed by a discussion with Thornton. For more information, visit http://bit.ly/peggyandfredinhell