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Interview with film-maker Bruce Sheridan

The word 'film maker' is really a short-hand for the many artistic activities that Bruce Sheridan pursues. It's true that he makes films, and is the Chair of the Film and Video Department at Columbia College Chicago, where he was instrumental in bringing about the creation of the Media Production Center, an architecturally stunning building that opened its doors in the Loop in 2010. You can get an idea of the range of those activities (film, music, philosophy) at the website After hearing Bruce's presentation for the Story and the Arts panel that we both participated in a few weeks ago, I was keen to get him to expand on his views on creativity, imagination, and the commonalities between different forms of art.

Philip: Usually I'd start with a biographical question, but there are links for that, so I'll just jump straight in and ask: what sort of films do you like to make?

Bruce: My first instinct is to say that I mainly want to NOT make two similar films consecutively. I love making a documentary if I am interested in the subject but nobody could pay me enough to make one about a subject I'm not totally engaged with. I was about fourteen when I made my first film, which hardly anyone ever knew about (I kept it a secret from my family) and is now lost. A teacher who I think detected things were not good at home and was worried I was going badly off the rails (I was) showed me some films by Len Lye (coincidentally I am going to talk about Lye in a panel discussion on Improvisation at Columbia College soon) then gave me film to scratch. I made a thirty second animation of the map of Poland growing and shrinking and growing over the ages to the sound of a heartbeat. I have no reason why I chose that; I knew no Polish people and little about the modern country, although I suspect a comment by another teacher about the tenacity of the Polish people in the face of repeated invasions that alternately erased and resurrected their country sparked my interest.

I am by nature a musician and a storyteller; my work in film is always serving one or both of those primary impulses. (I have no special reverence for film: I love it but I don't worship it. I think too many filmmakers worship the form itself and end up unavoidably derivative or just struggle to have something unique to say.) The abstract impulse (which, as I mentioned, was initially stimulated by Len Lye then later influenced by Stan Brakhage) serves the musical instincts, especially related to rhythm and pacing. Documentary and narrative fiction play more to the storytelling instinct.

Philip: On your site, you discuss the connections between different art forms, and you practice many of those forms yourself. What lies at the heart of your thinking/writing about 'imagining'?

Bruce: How long do you have? I find pretty much every definition arbitrary, which is not to say there are not legitimate, useful categories such as "music", "painting" "film" etc., but simply a recognition of the way human language and other forms of communication impact conceptualization and meaning. Wittgenstein is fascinating on this. [Important note: I am NOT a relativist.]

I don't deny there are different art forms, I'm just not that interested in finding one and living in it. I think some 20th century speculation about human psychology that was presented as science without true scientific rigor (Freud, Piaget, etc.) has had a disproportionately large impact on assumptions about the mind, and, in particular, learning and development. Put extremely crudely, those approaches played out from a background assumption that a newborn baby really doesn't have a mind but gradually accretes one as the result of experience of the world acquired initially only by receiving information from the senses. The legacy is a sense that human mentation simply is conscious, rational thinking, which we have to find and fix in place and that it is distinct from (though interacts with) imagination and the emotions. In other words, the default assumption is that proper rational thinking is constrained by the real world and the evidence of the senses whereas the emotions and imagining are subjective and arbitrary. I think affective states (emotions) and imagining (probably in that order) are the basic processes, and rational thinking in specific contexts - social, cultural, artistic - is what is constructed as we grow.

Philip: Music has been and is extremely important to you. What are the common currents in your own work between making music and making films?

Bruce: As I said, my interest in abstract films is directly connected to music through rhythm, etc. I have mild synesthesia that manifests as a crossing over of tactile perception with sight and sound. For example, I have touch sensations that change when I perceive changes in sounds such as in music and also when I watch film images or look at paintings and photographs. I am not talking about "feeling" the texture displayed in images (although I experience that too, as I assume most people do). When I look across Guernica synesthesia and the high degree of crossover I seem to intuitively experience between modes.

I can't yet explain all this very well yet. The point is that I suspect my mild synesthesia, which mainly crosses over sound and vision with touch but also crosses over between sound and vision directly, is somehow related to my interest in and reasonable competence with a number of art forms (or my incompetence at staying with one form, if you prefer).

Philip: The widely-acclaimed Media Production Center of Columbia College Chicago is now nearly a year old. In what ways does it provide the space to discover what you've referred to as "sensory story"?

Bruce: The MPC is not a building as much as it's a pedagogical concept. It's really a laboratory for media arts that supports both the investigation of established practices and the exploration of pretty much anything one can imagine doing with light (and light capturing devices), movement, and sound. Contemporary digital technology adds speed and flexibility to our artistic experimentation, although the fundamental principles are minimally impacted by it - the pinhole camera or a film camera get at all that just as well or better, probably because they are (to varying degrees) analogs of human biological processes (digital technology is by definition non-analogous; the medium is a series of numbers made up of the two digits 0 and 1).

The Media Production Center of Columbia College Chicago

When we were planning the MPC many people would say "Why do you need a physical space? Everything will soon be done in computers if it isn't already". That's a fallacious argument or at best an answer that's given because the real question is not understood. Human beings evolved in, develop in, live in and make art in time and space (you are in still functioning in time and space when you sit at a computer console or wear a virtual reality suit) and are necessarily deeply interested in cause and effect. This hasn't changed even when technology has impacted biology. Human lifespans have doubled in a twitch of evolutionary time and that has not significantly changed our visceral connection to time and space no matter how many hopeful brains are suspended in cryogenic tanks. When the tsunami approaches, the computer is no defense; best get to the hills (time and space; cause and effect).

Once I know how to make films I can possibly choose to work only in virtual environments, but learning has to have a physical, visceral component because the most important piece of technology is the human mind (actually, the embodied mind). When I was at the Banff Center for the Arts in 1997 they had all the new VR gear. You never see that stuff now and most everyone who was anywhere near it even then knew it was doomed. It answered the wrong question. We care about experience but care little for how we get it because the experience is what our minds make of what our senses give them, in the context of what our minds did or did not expect in the first place. It's a dynamic loop and the MPC was built with that in mind.

Philip: Finally, what projects are you working on at the moment?

Bruce: A) Hunting Daniel, a story based on the lives of my great-grandparents, especially their time in the Peruvian Amazon in 1911. I have researched and started a book and/or documentary project on the whole story, although that is on hold as I am writing a feature screenplay that fictionalizes the time in Peru.

B) Dust (That's a working title. The final title is likely to be The Infinity of Ghosts, which I took from a song by Beth Orton). This is about my father's death in the Australian outback three years ago, aspects of his life that led to that outcome and my relationship with him growing up.

C) Getting My Grooves Back. A blog and maybe book or documentary project I have just started, about returning to listening to vinyl records after I threw away several hundred albums collected over thirty years when I moved from New Zealand to Chicago in 2001.


  1. Mr. Sheridan connected many dots that personally spoke to me on many levels. If any film student at Columbia has their doubts about the program...... perhaps they should visit the mindset and intellect of Mr. Sheridan who heads this department with such a pioneering-adventurous demeanor. Not only are his thoughts refreshing, but genuinely his spunky attitude sets a tone that he isn't disappearing from the film world anytime soon. I am grateful for attending the seminar he spoke on this last Wednesday.


  2. I was at the Critical Encounters panel about Improvisation on Wednesday, too. It was all great, and Bruce brought a mixture of energy and the intellect to the day, as you correctly point out. His range of reference is extremely wide, yet ha manages to convey it in a lively manner.


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