Temporal (Dis)connections, Collaboration, and the Cicadas: Conversation with Rupert Residents Fred Schmidt-Arenales & Monika Uchiyama

January 12, 2024
Author Povilas Gumbis

After a week-plus of scheduling, I finally meet Fred Schmidt-Arenales and Monika Uchiyama, the filmmaker duo that currently resides at Rupert – an independent, publicly funded centre for art, residencies and education located in Vilnius, Lithuania. Working on their first collaborative project – an experimental documentary titled Counting Seventeen – the artists focus on brood X, a specific cicada type that emerges only once every seventeen years in northeast U.S. According to the description provided by the artists, the cicadas ‘function as metaphors for the unconscious, imagined construction of new human social structures, fear of ego death, and much more’. In this interview I aim to pry into the laconic yet curiosity-inducing ‘much more’.

With refreshing beverages in hand, we take our seats on the patio of Caffeine, situated in the middle of White bridge in Vilnius. With the ambient sound of the nearby skate park adding sonic background to our conversation, I begin by giving my own take on their previous work and how I think it connects to Counting Seventeen. The keyword that emerges is heritage. In Fred’s B-29, you’re my sunshine (2019) and Critique of Inheritance (2018), heritage acquires a familial connotation: in the former, one of the subjects is Fred’s grandad, a veteran of WWII who participated in the occupation of Japan, through whom an analysis of the war’s legacies takes place; in the latter, a 3D scan of Fred’s face allows the artist to probe into the questions of inheritance of whiteness. With Monika, documentary works like A New Use (2018) and Limits of Feeling (2017) also position her family at centre stage. Minimalist modes of filmmaking, accentuated by the delicate yet precise sways of handheld camera, meet the heaviness of heritage in A New Use, which depicts a small family-run factory in Tokyo that has been making wax products for generations. Its current proprietors worry about the future of the business and simultaneously glance backwards, questioning whether they ever had a choice in becoming part of the family trade.

Having said the above in a more verbose manner, I continue:

Povilas Gumbis: …and these themes of family and heritage, I feel, also dominate the subject of Counting Seventeen. But before we go into that I would like you to react to what I’ve just said. Do you think it’s a fair description of your work?     

Monika Monika Uchiyama: It’s interesting to think about Counting Seventeen through heritage. Heritage isn’t a keyword that I would write down. But when I think about it in the context of Counting Seventeen, I think about humanity’s heritage: what we inherit, what we protect, what we preserve, what we pass down, how we think about generations before us. And I think that definitely is a theme that we’re working through.

Fred Schmidt-Arenales: But I’m curious, before Counting Seventeen, how do you feel about heritage as a keyword for your other works?

Monika: Heritage… It’s almost like I bristle at that word. It doesn’t feel right in my mouth.

Povilas: Yeah, it does sound a bit official, almost. We could also change that to inheritance, as I think the term offers a slight ambivalence, whereas heritage might be a very objective term.

Fred: Yeah, those two terms are very related. It feels that heritage can attract other, more counter-productive meanings. Especially with the sort of fetish nature of the object. Like wax-making as Japanese heritage or traditional craft.

Monika: Which is funny because it’s not really a traditional craft. My perspective on it and how I depict it is not meant to say it’s craft. It’s just kind of like a… thing. So maybe that’s what makes me bristle about heritage, that kind of overly precious extra layer of meaning that I don’t quite see?

Fred: And in my work, it feels the opposite. It’s not like, oh, we love this heritage. The connotation is – fuck, here’s this heritage, here’s this thing that we have to confront.

Photograph by Andrej Vasilenko @ Articulations 3, Medūza, 30 August, 2023.

Photograph by Andrej Vasilenko @ Articulations 3, Medūza, 30 August, 2023.

Povilas: The reason as to why I was thinking about heritage and family in relation to Counting Seventeen is twofold. One, they emerge in unison to overwhelm their predators – their survival and thus essence is based on the action of the collective. Second, they live in areas where there’s either a lot of trees or, and this I would like to accentuate, in places where they have lived previously. Here’s the heritage thing – you come from a lineage, from something that comes before you.

Monika: Yeah, there’s literally a person in our film who says that the cicadas that we’re encountering this year in 2021 are the children of the ones that came in 2004. Generational difference becomes clear because their life cycle is so short. I mean, it’s long for an insect, but short in human scale. It allows us to see a species being affected in real time.

Fred: Well, that makes me think of how sensorially rich the cicada emergence is. All of the senses are very specific and overwhelming. The smell is really strong. The sound is really strong. And this sensorial experience happens only once they emerge. I think they can create this sort of time warp or temporal displacement feeling in people who are near them and who have lived in that place for a long time. A few of the people we talked to, you can tell that they’re kind of in both of those time periods at the same time.

Povilas: And – basic question territory here – how did the idea to make a work about the cicada come about? Because whenever people ask me about it, I always say that these cicadas emerged in late May – June of 2021, at a time when the world was coming back to normal after all the pandemic shenanigans. So there is this connection of the cicadas emerging from their slumber with us doing basically the same thing at the same time. Is that the connection you are making in the film?

Monika: We were actually discussing it this morning. The pandemic is in the film, not through any literal connections, but in a few different ways. It’s reflected in how some of the characters talk indirectly about the pandemic, just about their experiences in general. It’s reflected in how we came to make the movie in a way, because for me, the project came at a time when I was feeling really creatively frustrated and very stuck in my house, going through a depression. So it made sense that we would come together to collaborate on something that just involved going out and finding people and observing this thing that we don’t have control over anyway.

Povilas: So were you just talking, sharing your experiences during the pandemic and then thinking as to what are the creative things you can do? And that later grew into Counting Seventeen?

Fred: Yeah, just texting and staying in touch – me in Philly, Monika in New York. And at some point I happened to hear of the impending emergence through somebody on the radio. So then I did a tiny bit more research and thought that we should make a film about this. Mostly because it would be a good way to kick off filmmaking or artmaking again. But this connection that you’re drawing between the end of the pandemic, where people were enjoying summertime, spending time outside gathering…

Monika: People were vaccinated.

Fred: Yeah, newly vaccinated as of that spring. So that was definitely in the air. But, as we’re editing it now, it’s not trying to be a portrait of that moment with regard to the pandemic. But that is a true thing about the experiences of the people in the film.

Film still of Brood X (2022), Digital video, sound, image courtesy to Fred Schmidt-Arenales, Monika Uchiyama

Povilas: And how much will both of you feature in the film? Will there be an origin story of how the film came about?

Monika: We’re there as a presence, and our various characters are definitely talking to us and are in conversation with us, but we’re basically not in it.

Fred: We’re there in terms of the camera perspective, which is one that’s very much handheld, and sometimes you see recording devices or microphones and people are, like you say, very much talking to somebody, and that somebody is us.

Povilas: Reading through the description of your film, I’ve learned and was quite fascinated by the experimental use of all the different media. Counting Seventeen will feature 8mm film, digital video, computer and stop animation, analogue photography. I’ve even read that you’ll somehow incorporate the cicada husks and wings onto the film stock and then scan it afterwards.

Monika: We made contact negatives in the dark room with the cicada husk and did some experimentation with the wings as material. I will say that we’ve scaled back a little bit…          I think what comes out from all of the different media is, hopefully, not confusion, but a representation of how expansive our curiosity was when we were making the film. We really went in not having a clear shape of what it could be, but it was about going out in a moment where there was this phenomenon happening and using it as a framework to find people and to talk to them. So maybe that comes out of this period of isolation, and it’s a reaction to that. I would say if I were making a film by myself, it wouldn’t be on this topic and it wouldn’t be in the way that we are making it. But that’s part of collaboration, is that you’re doing something that’s generated from two people. We had a lot of fun with it.

Fred: Yeah, I think this is true for every way we approached it, we didn’t know how it was gonna go. And that was the founding condition of the film. We had never collaborated before. Our approaches to filmmaking are somewhat different, so we didn’t know how that was going to go. We didn’t know who we were going to meet or what the cicada situation was going to be like because we’d never experienced it before. We’ve never been to Lithuania, I’d never co-edited a film, so we didn’t know how that was going to go. The cicadas have never seen the light of day before. So, when they emerged into their adult form, they didn’t know how that was going to go.

Monika: And to return to the use of different media, I think it gives us a different access, different textures. I won’t speak for you, but as for myself, I lean towards extremely held back subtlety and very little intervention when it comes to editing. And so, this is kind of a different project in that there’s a lot of editing and a lot of possibility for intervening and creating different kinds of effects, whether it’s an emotional effect or a narrative effect or whatever. And because we come from – or at least I come from – a perspective of kind of letting things do what they do, the media also kind of gets to do what it does.

Fred: Yeah, I’d sign on to that, for sure. I’ve never been like, oh, I want to make films, because of all the crazy, cool things you can do with cinematography. I’ve always thought of it as a time-based medium – something you can allow to unfold. And even though we are doing a lot of cutting and chopping things up and moving between media, we’re really trying to do that in service of letting the different sensorial experiences or textures unfold in a film, which is not the same way that they can unfold in real life. Because the experience of being in the cicada emergence is so total and it’s cinematic, but it’s not one to one.

Monika: And we’re not trying to represent that faithfully. We can’t do it.

Fred: Yeah, we can’t.

Film still of Brood X (2022), Digital video, sound, image courtesy to Fred Schmidt-Arenales, Monika Uchiyama

Film still of Brood X (2022), Digital video, sound, image courtesy to Fred Schmidt-Arenales, Monika Uchiyama

Povilas: Would you then call it world-building? You’re almost creating a different type of experience…

Fred: I don’t know. I wouldn’t say world-building. Let’s think about that.

Monika: I wouldn’t say world-building because it sounds a little bit too controlling. I think we’re very moved by the content.

Fred: We’re moved by this world.

Monika: Yeah, because world building sounds like you’re the architect and you get to make the world. And I don’t think we’re doing that at all.

Fred: But there is something in that… I was just saying you can’t experience the cicadas with just image and sound. So, we are building an adjacent experience in a film that is like a reflection or something. It’s a response to the world.

Povilas: Huh, because obviously you two are directors of the film and therefore have authorship of it… but also don’t at the same time.

Fred: Yeah, it’s definitely weird. I’ve collaborated in this way a bunch of times before with other people, and I really enjoy that part of it. I feel like our collaboration is so fluid: it’s not simple, it isn’t easy work necessarily, but it’s very fun. It just feels very generative and collaborative, and even when we encounter problems, I think we’re both good at pivoting rather than getting frustrated.

Monika: I wonder also if it has to do with the content, too, because it’s so much about learning from what we encounter and what we see. It’s almost as if this material that we are working with disallows us from fighting over authorship – you kind of can’t. I keep thinking about how present we needed to be with the people and how present we needed to be with the cicada and… that time recording and actually getting the footage and talking to the people has ended, but that presence continues and we’re just kind of reacting every day to different feelings or things that the footage is teaching us.

Fred: Yeah, all of the footage is from a process of us being unfamiliar with the cicada emergence and encountering it for the first time. The perspective of the camera and the film is of discovery and learning. I also think that this will hopefully facilitate an outsider’s approach, allowing different audiences to identify with that.

Film still of Brood X (2022), Digital video, sound, image courtesy to Fred Schmidt-Arenales, Monika Uchiyama

A few days after our conversation, Monika and Fred screened a rough cut of their film to the people at Rupert. Watching it, never once did the idea of heritage come to my mind. Nor did I think of the pandemic – there were but a few frames of masked individuals that reminded me of those distant times. Instead, the cicadas appeared to me like open symbols, like empty signifiers that are able to house many different meanings, many different stories and subjectivities. It defies the ownership of a single narrative. It is a film, I think, about meaning-making, it aids the viewer in that journey without holding their hand and telling them what to think. It keeps a certain distance; it doesn’t tell more than it needs to, nurturing an active viewing experience as opposed to straightforward storytelling.

The cicada brood means something to me now as well, and in 2038, during their next emergence, I’ll have a chance to reflect on my position within the temporal cluster.

Povilas Gumbis is an art historian interested in Eastern European and Baltic art of the 20th century, their post-soviet developments, resulting historiographies, and the contemporary scene. Presently he works at Rupert.