Developing a Small-Gauge Ethos for Scholarship and Art

[Ed. note: this post is part of a roundtable discussion, Small-Gauge Scholarship. For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

I made my first film in 1997 while studying philosophy at the University of Northern Colorado. I was working on an undergraduate honors thesis exploring existentialism and identity when a friend insisted I watch Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. This was followed by encounters with No Wave, neorealist, avant-garde, and eventually silent films. During these months of devouring the history of cinema, I happened upon a super-8mm camera at a pawn shop in Fort Collins. I didn’t know how (or even if) it worked, but I knew this accidental find was important to my study of philosophy. Somehow, it had to become a part of my thesis. After I convinced my advisor that a film would be a great supplement to the traditional (written) thesis, I collaborated with two friends to shoot a (embarrassingly bad!) short film about an amnesiac named Claire. We shot the film in southern California over a Christmas-break weekend using a VHS-C camera. While we brought the super-8mm camera to every shoot, we used only a single roll of film, relying instead on video to re-create “silent-era” aesthetics such as sepia coloration, music-only sound design, exaggerated performances, and intertitles in place of dialogue and narration. The final film has screened only a few times to a handful of colleagues and friends, and that roll of super-8mm film sits unprocessed and unprojected in a bin in my basement.

I begin with this story both as a way to introduce my own genealogy of “small-gauge” and as a means to tracing just what a small-gauge ethos might entail. While Kevin’s experiments started out as those of an artist theorizing his practice, my own trajectory is the inverse, the movement of a scholar exploring how to study the world. For me, filmmaking, writing, performance, radio, and now sound ethnography were always forms of multi-modal research, ways of studying and documenting my experiences and sharing them with others. From the outset, I approached scholarship as if I were an artist. I understood thought as a craft, a mode of making where form and content were inextricably connected, one influencing the other. I continue to believe this. And, in thinking about the goal of this roundtable, I wanted to return to the early moments of my own small-gauge practice to think through what precisely I mean by small-gauge and how its valuable characteristics might be carried forward.

It is important, I think, to clarify a few more terms for our discussion. “Ethos” generally refers to the spirit, mood, atmosphere, or character of a particular culture or era. I want to argue (if this post can be said to have an argument at all) that the term ethos might be a productive way to think about how to discuss or promote a certain way of making or doing scholarship (and art). It is more open than terms like practice (which is what I usually use) or method (the scholar’s favorite) because it implies a “way of doing” that will determine what tools are used and how. “Small” is literally defined as something that is of a less than normal size or a piece of a larger thing, but it can also mean miniature, compact, and microscopic. “Gauge” refers to measuring; it can mean the act of measuring, a measurement standard, or a measuring tool (physical or otherwise). Putting these all together, we might say that a small-gauge ethos is a spirit of doing that consciously measures itself as a smaller-than-standard piece or a zoomed-in miniature. In short, it is important to think of small-gauge not as dogmatically linked to any particular form or format but to a scale or scope measured against the current standard.

I think for my practice, and Kevin’s as well, some of the standards I am measuring my work against include the digital, the visual, and the urban as well as speedy and easy making and large-scale distribution. To be clear, however, “against” here does not mean “in opposition to” but rather entails finding things and ways that have fallen through the cracks, so to speak. To use an analogy, interstates are really amazing, fast, and get you everywhere you might need to go, but I adore lovely highway drives and gravel roads are even better (but a bit too exhausting to use all of the time!).

So, what might we say are the characteristics of a small-gauge ethos? What is it about a winding, slow, circuitous gravel road that might serve as a productive guide for contemporary scholar-artists? One answer might be the bumpiness of the road, its hiccups and accidents, another might be its affects of intimacy or resistance, and yet another could be the care it requires to navigate and its localized impacts. If I were to offer a summary of my own small-gauge ethos, then, it would include the following five core principles: care; duration; brokenness; forgetfulness; and rebelliousness. As I write these, I am aware of how crucial each principle is to my work now (and my collaborations with Kevin) and was even to that first film experiment I conducted back in 1997. Small-gauge for me is about making with and for those I love; it is about doing things slowly, so slowly, and working with broken (or breaking) tools and materials and peoples. It is about finding what has been forgotten, but also about ensuring my own forgetfulness and keeping it close as sort of haunting reminder (that roll of super8mm film is almost twenty years old now!). And, it is, above all else, about rebelling, ensuring that I never stay so comfortable that I am unable to challenge my perceptions of the world or of myself.

I hope in my next post to spend some time unpacking the core principles introduced here and discussing how they have shaped my (and Kevin’s) academic and artistic works. But, for now, I would like to conclude with a short film Kevin completed in 2010 that aptly embodies the small-gauge ethos and the five principles I briefly mentioned above. Luthier is a story about a master instrument maker (a luthier) named Raúl Orlando Perez who lives in the mountains of Patagonia.

Luthier from Kevin T. Allen on Vimeo.

Photo by Broadmark

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