NORTH ADAMS -- More than a decade ago, Jason Simon and Moyra Davey began an annual party in their barn in upstate New York -- now their get-togethers are becoming the source of a retrospective installation at Mass MoCA.
"One Minute Film Festival 2003 - 2012" opens at Mass MoCA on Saturday, March 23.
The film festival began with the capabilities to pull it off becoming available. Simon had come into possession of a video projector, left over from a short-lived artist group he had been a member of. At the same time, he and Davey were being evicted from their live and work space in Hoboken, N.J., and decided to follow other artist friends and look to Western Sullivan County in upstate New York for a home.
The couple found land with a finished basement that they could live in, while taking the next few years to build a barn on top of that.
The barn, Simon says, was begging to have a gathering in it, so he and Davey decided to hold an annual summer party which asked each guest to bring a one-minute video they had made, along with any food and drink.
"I had film projection equipment of my own already, and I had the video projector, and I had a history of doing a lot of different kinds of work in film and video as a day job, and so I could pretty much show anything," said Simon.
The enthusiasm surprised Simon and Davey, with their guests often taking it far more seriously than they had expected, and pursuing their next year's movie with deliberate intent. Artists with successful careers who had always been interested in filmmaking thought the party was a perfect testing ground, with low stakes and in a friendly environment.
"In a way that we didn't anticipate, it definitely caught on," Simon said. "People started to get into making their movies and wanting to raise the stakes for their movies and get the response for their movies and incorporate this kind of filmmaking into art practices that otherwise didn't have it.
"That really happened more than a few times to more than a few people in a way that ended up being quite special. That caught us and them by surprise and really contributed a lot to the positive energy in it."
Over time, Simon and Davey agreed on a 10-year-cap on the party and never really worked hard to turn it into a bigger event. Each year, though, more and more people showed up.
"It has zero online presence," Simon said, "and we would hand out or send out the postcard, and then people would bring other people. We would also be busy during the year, traveling for work, and people would have already known about it and asked about it. We would just say, ‘yeah, show up.' "
The final party was in 2012, where Simon found that planning the event required a much different tactic, thanks to the way technology had changed over its existence. It was decided to pre-arrange an exquisite corpse-styled project among the filmmaking partygoers in order to give some cohesion to the technical side of the party.
"When we started it, it was analog, and so I was vee-jaying tapes, VHS tapes, occasionally a DV tape, but still on tape, sometimes film projectors," he said. "I became quite good at switching back and forth between formats so there was no interruption. As technology started to change that became harder to do."
"People started bringing their movies in on keychains and stuff. It required a lot of advance work on a computer up there in the barn, which I never had to deal with before. I really reached my limit for tolerance of this combination of event culture and digital culture. I don't think they're a great combination actually. I think events should be analog."
The planning began 18 months in advance of the final party, and the process saw a film being made and then the last second of that film -- 30 frames -- being sent to the next filmmaker to continue the work.
"We were able to get 63 people into that chain," said Simon. "It took on this exquisite corpse structure. You didn't know what your predecessors film was, you just got to see the last second. It was a way to try and take technology that was actually becoming increasingly frustrating and use it to our advantage."
One second turned out to be a more generous prompt than it might seem.
"In fact, a second is a long time, it's one-mississippi," said Simon. "You can get a lot of information out of that. A lot of people actually did extraordinary transitions and, yes, the scenes merge and people pick up threads that they get in the last second. Other people just did what they decided to do no matter what they got in the mail
The final component came in the form of movie posters for some of the movies, created by the filmmakers themselves. It started out with 18 posters hung in the barn for the 2011 party, following which a formal call was put out, and the resulting movie posters are part of the space in Mass MoCA where the videos will be shown. The creation of the movie posters allowed the festival to end its life and begin, as Simon calls it, "an afterlife."
"The goal was to make it another thing because it would never be like that thing," he said, "and I think the posters really go a long way to making that transition happen. I think the posters are quite important in terms of that migration."
The installation at Mass MoCA will also allow the show to live as a ghost in many other venues. Simon and Davey had done a few versions of it as guests in other places, but had typically turned down most offers to make it an official on-the-road film festival.
"Typically, we would say no, but just organize your own, it's not rocket science," Simon said. "Places that had asked us if we would bring it there, a few years ago we could start to say no, but if you wait till after the 10th year, you can just take the show. Some version of that will happen."
It also has the promise to be a template for a BYOV -- bring your own video -- party, and Simon sees the benefits of others adapting the format into their artistic and academic practices.
"When you are working, if you are a visiting artist at another school and you're there for a week or a month or a semester or something, it can be just a really nice way to wrap up a process, to summarize a process that you've been going through with students. It doesn't have to be a focus."