After wrapping production on her first film in 2012, alternately titled Gray and Always All Ways, Anne Marie, Zia Anger submitted it to 40 different film festivals and did not gain entry into any. When she tried to have the credit’s “post-production” status removed from her IMDB profile, “it just wrote “abandoned”…because I had never premiered them at a festival, films I had made were considered abandoned." This is the inciting incident that sets off the narrative of My First Film, a hybrid form of new media, artist talk, and theatrical performance that ran at Metrograph before winding up as a livestream performance at the beginning of the Pandemic Age. My First Film recycles the body of Anger’s “abandoned” crowd-funded feature, creating a new work exploring institutional power while pushing the boundaries of streaming content.
The performance event was promoted by the artist’s personal Twitter account during the first months of the pandemic, offering tickets on a first-come, first-served basis that would reach capacity within minutes. I followed the URL emailed to me, and full-screened the private YouTube Live video. The screen of my ThinkPad becomes a window into Anger’s MacBook. Screen-sharing has become more common, but in May 2020, the transformation of my own desktop into that of another’s retained the shock of intimacy at the beginning of mass social isolation.
Anger opens Apple’s Messages application and starts to send out video clips to whoever texts the email written alongside a introductory guide contained in the frame of a text editor. She encourages the audience to communicate with each other, sharing the clips with any potential Android users who are locked out of this proprietary software-mediated exchange. The phone numbers of the audience are all visible in the notifications continually bubbling to the surface of Anger’s interface. In traditional live performances, the initial experience will always involve the sensation of sharing space and participating in an event with others.
It took me some time to appreciate just how well-crafted this overture was; in the moment, all I felt was a deep sensation of anxiety. I have not owned a smartphone in 5 years, and I have not regularly used any proprietary software in almost as long. At the same time, I have developed a deep and personal connection to the computer interface that I have developed through editing the source code of free software. The sudden introduction of the Other into my quarantine pod was something of a rude jar. On top of this, I feel disoriented by the sudden transformation of my own interface into the heavily designed, slick contours of MacOS. I had to ask my girlfriend what was going on, because even after several minutes I could barely parse what was transpiring, and how exactly people were using their phones. Anger has very cleverly used this part of the performance to simulate the sensation of audience spectatorship, something that she writes about as an intrinsic aspect of the experience of cinema that she holds dear .
The video clips passing around the crowd are deleted Instagram Stories. Anger explains, typing into a text box, that it was an arduous task to retrieve them because the company doesn’t want people to think that Stories do, in fact, continue to reside in Facebook’s coffers after they are automatically removed from the network. This introduces us to the political theme that runs throughout the film: Anger’s rejection by the film industry, and her eventual defection.
Even in her independence from one industry, Anger relied on theatres to run the performance, and then on tech giants. YouTube hosts the stream; Apple provides the software on Anger’s laptop; and Instagram held her archived Stories. The Internet and the possibilities of open, networked distribution onto commonly-owned devices gave Anger the virtual space to create an art work which expresses the full bore of anti-establishment frustrations, but the space is really just a simulacrum. And it isn’t even true independence: the film industry was traded for the Big 5, which make the film industry seem like a noble affectation by contrast.
Add on to this the sudden sensation of being present with an audience of 60 others, within one’s home. I don’t do great with large crowds, but I can deal with them if I’m prepared. The forms in which online publishing has settled have stagnated, solidifying as podcasts, videos, tweets, the occasional article; My First Film alerts us to new possibilities in a field that has dramatically accelerated as the dominant terrain for culture and social expression.
Following this introduction, the bulk of the stream consists of Anger moving through the time track of the first-order film, while commentating in a text document arranged to take up the right-hand portion of her screen. She relates the biographical details of the production, which partially illuminate her decision to recycle the “Abandoned” feature film. Always All Ways, Anne Marie / Grey tells the story of a young woman who becomes impregnated, and goes in search of her mother who abandoned her as a child. Around the time of the production, Anger relates, she also became pregnant and went through an abortion. Another tidbit is that, during one scene, she got one of her unprofessional actors drunk in order to get a better performance. On his drive home, the young man almost died, and it took years for him to recover his mobility.
The work is emotionally resonant, and very effectively executed, combining live improvisation in Anger’s presentation of her inner monologue. At certain points during the performance, she moves from the film to the Internet, digging up some website to make sure her audience understands how she is framing her own work. The two most important formal concepts that I want to explore from this piece are: 1) how the artist making a piece about their own work, drawing on their own archive, is formally innovative and represents a breakdown in the need for gatekeepers. 2) the Possibility of this move toward a limited autonomy is, in fact, the result of material developments in technology. The Internet and its (limited) democracy is just the latest development in a process that Benjamin describes in his essay on mechanical reproduction: just like photography at its advent was an ambiguous technology, hovering between radical proletarianization that Benjamin was optimistic about, and the complete deadening and commodification of culture that Adorno was depressed about, the Internet is just a further stripping-away of the aura.
In the context of the film industry, where digital reproduction has existed for decades, aura has been maintained through a strict guardianship of legitimacy. IMDB may seem like a minor, unimportant signifier of legitimacy, but Anger’s case proves to us that it is in fact a major factor in whether one is accepted by the mainstream, and whether one can break into the same kind of world and opportunities that the mainstream presents. Anger wants to make a film for $1 million, but there is no contemporary precedent for filmmakers having access to those kinds of resources without working their way up through the institution.
The form of My First Film has not changed significantly from its initial theatre run, beginning in 2018 and continuing through 2019. At Metrograph, the artist sat in the front row, typing her commentary into a laptop connected to the projector. Now she substitutes the auditorium for a private YouTube link, shared to those lucky–or extremely online enough to have acquired a ticket. Turning the video full-screen had an added layer in the context of the pandemic. I am used to screensharing and having access to the inside of people’s laptops, but always for some functional or pedagogical purpose. Now that I had been alone at home for nearly two months at that point, relegated to exclusively-online social interactions, a once-banal activity took on new significance. My First Film became far more intimate in that regard, and revealed a new use for my laptop that I had not yet been made aware of.
Although I was used to it to a certain extent, the technique of screensharing for aesthetic purposes, instead of technical, had a greater effect.
The clips are taken from deleted Instagram stories, which she explains took a lot of work recovering: the company does not like to admit that Stories can be recovered. These clips play into and reinforce the overall themes of the work, which is a combination of working within and on the margins of institutions; and the use of the artist’s archive as a source of content for art works. The Instagram stories that introduced the performance also introduce the main thematic concerns of the work.
The other aspect of this introduction should be belaboured. It involved all of the audience members texting the artist, and then also texting each other, using the numbers that appeared, live, in the video. The purpose of this exercise is very professional, opening up the digital cloister so that there is some semblance of community, of audience. However, as someone who does not use an iPhone, any type of Apple software, and has not had a smartphone for 5 years, I felt very lost and confused and stressed out. Normally being a part of an audience is something manageable for me, but it’s still something I need to be prepared for; with this performance, I went into it without expecting having to interact in this way. I did not anticipate any kind of audience interaction, and therefore felt stressed that I was being put into a situation where I might potentially need to do so–on someone else’s terms.
whose run of the American theatre circuit began in 2018. Performances continued through 2019, and the performance found a brief new home online at the beginning of the Pandemic Age. Anger revisited the work from 8 years prior, which she admits was bad and from which she has grown significantly, using the story of its production to at once critique the elitism of the film industry–and to offer a new vision for content in an exploding age of Online Content.
During the promotion of her most recent short, My Last Film, which premiered at the 53rd New York Film Festival in 2015, Anger found that the experience of producing an independent film on her own, as a sort of initiatory rite of passage, had not registered on her resume because it had not found distribution. “I made [Gray], it didn’t go anywhere, and I felt really bad…I made a couple of short films, they got recognized…and then people started to talk to me about making my “first feature”…all these really great filmmakers were telling me, “You should go and make a film for $20,000 with your friends as your first feature. Go make a mumblecore film.” I would try to tell people, “I did that already, and I didn’t get any recognition, and actually now I want to make something for $1 million.”"
Who knows if Anger’s sense for new media and the Internet would be as finely-tuned as it is, had her first film been picked up, and if she had been integrated into the industry at an earlier age. What “My First Film” does is revisit the body of the earlier work, updating it by typing alongside it and moving through the Internet, and her computer, bringing us into the experience written by her life at the time of its making.
In the early months of the Pandemic Age, Anger promoted a livestreamed version of her performance “My First Film” on Twitter, offering limited seating on a first-come, first-served basis. I was lucky enough to grab a ticket during the final week of performances. I received a link to a private YouTube livestream, where I found myself with approximately 60 others. When the stream begins, my laptop became a portal into Anger’s. At this point I have become somewhat inured to the novelty of zoom conferences, and I am used to watching screencasts. This hits differently, perhaps because I use a highly customized, linux-based desktop environment, and she uses the proprietary Mac OS environment, which takes me by surprise. But regardless of why, the effect of the stream is far more emotional than any other similarly-framed piece of “content” that I have seen.
The real purpose of this essay is to try to identify the aspects of the performance that really close it off as something “elevated” beyond your typical livestream. The second part is to show how the technology that permits this performances is ambiguous, but has historically been overtaken by capitalist institutions (After Benjamin). The third part is to try to identify something about these films that can impact how we understand Content. What is important and relevant about this particular work in an age when Online Content is blowing up to an insane extent.
The argument is using Benjamin’s concept of the aura, but applied to the institutions that have built up around certain forms–for example, the American filmmaking system. The possibilities of using new media to explore the artist’s archive are an extension of how Benjamin understood photography in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” There is the possibility for “the feature film” to become more democratic on the Internet; at the same time, there is an integration of performance, which is a hallmark of online production.
Zia Anger manages to circumvent the exclusive logic of the film industry by taking her performance online, but the materials used to produce the film are all proprietary pieces of software. The venue is YouTube, and the materials are Mac OS.
recycles the old feature film and the biographical context for a piece that is anchored between new media and traditional techniques of theatre.
The stream jumps out of the dreary monotony of the Pandemic Age: it is uniquely intimate. The design analogy of computer interfaces is modelled on a desktop, which frames the computer as a tool. Its hardware interfaces are like those arm-encasings one uses to handle hazardous materials; through the mouse and keyboard, through the display, I am able to interact with the digital realm, which I would otherwise not be physically able to. The computer screen is less like a window, than it is a viewport: the software I use, the platforms and websites that I visit, are not some other world that I am able to look onto: they are tools and interfaces into a pre-defined set of possibilities.
Suddenly, my screen was a real, virtual window, giving me visual access to another person’s computer. The experience is jarring enough, but in an age of social distancing it is especially meaningful to have such an intimate experience with another. is built on this experience of intimacy, for the story Anger tells over the course of the ~90 minute performance is is also intensely intimate.
The performance begins with something that I found to be deeply stressful, mostly because I don’t own an iPhone. It took me a while to even understand what was happening. Before the screening begins, Anger opens her iMessage app and begins sending videos to the people there. The videos are deleted stories from her Instagram stories–even retrieving the goofy clips required a significant labour on her part, as Instagram is allegedly very reluctant to let go of its cache of deleted stories. Or to admit that what was once deleted, is only deleted from our view, while it remains now the sole property of Facebook, Inc. This introductory segment serves the function of allowing the audience to understand that they truly are a member of an audience. In the theatres where was first performed, the audience had the direct, physical sensation of being a member of an audience. And this experience of being part of a group witnessing a performance is an essential element of theatre–it is directly tied to the physical medium. Anger very cleverly replicates that experience in the digital context, which is a feat in itself, by encouraging audience members to text each other. In that way, the audience, who are each separated from each other in their geographically remote homes, begin to feel as though they are part of a live, collectively-experienced event. Although I could not participate because I don’t have an iPhone, and the whole thing was initially very stressful, I have come to appreciate the introduction as one of the most professional, carefully-considered, and innovative aspects of the entire performance.
After that initial introduction, Anger begins to screen her film. The various extraneous windows are minimized, and our viewport is relegated to the video player and a text document next to it, where Anger types her narration. The film we are watching, , Anger readily admits is bad–as most peoples’ first films are.