Found Footage, Teeter Tottered

Also: on finding art on top of Muehlig Funeral Chapel

[Editor's Note: HD, a.k.a. Dave Askins, editor of The Ann Arbor Chronicle, is also publisher of an online series of interviews on a teeter totter. Introductions to new Teeter Talks appear on The Chronicle.]

Last Thursday afternoon, I wheeled the mobile teeter totter down Liberty Street to the Michigan Theater, to the exact spot where John Roos [proprietor of Roos Roast Coffee] and I had tottered back in the spring of 2008.

Found Footage Festival Michigan Theater

I have no idea who these people are. What they're proving is that if you set up a teeter totter in front of a crowded theater, passers-by will just hop on and start teeter tottering. (Photos by the writer.)

The occasion was a ride with Nick Prueher, who together with Joe Pickett co-founded the Found Footage Festival. The festival is a celebration of old, found VHS tapes. It has toured the country for the last six years – each year Prueher and Pickett curate a new show. The 2010 edition passed through Ann Arbor last Thursday.

Imagine an exercise video featuring Angela Lansbury in a bath towel giving herself a massage. Or imagine a sexual harassment training video – how to recognize and avoid it, not how to perpetrate it – featuring a guy in a lunchroom holding up a piece of fruit and asking, “What do you think of my banana?”

These are the sorts of videotapes that Prueher and Pickett have sifted through by the thousands. They culled out the very best to make a part of their show, which they host and comment on live in theaters across the land.

On the totter, Prueher discussed with me the requirement that the videos they collect be “found.” The story of how the tapes were found – in many cases in thrift stores – are as important as what’s on the tape, he said. They’ve been producing the Found Footage Festival for long enough that people now send in videos they’ve found – and the story of how they’re found is archived along with the contents of the tape.

But Prueher described on the totter how there could be a kind of “taint” attached to a collection, if someone just sent in, say for example, a bunch of training videos that they themselves produced and directed back in the early 1990s. He also talked about his internship on Mystery Science Theater.

It was the notion of an authentic “find” that I found most intriguing. So I’d like to tie that into a short reflection about The Chronicle’s Stopped.Watched. section and The Muehlig Funeral Chapel at Fourth and William Street in downtown Ann Arbor. Several days ago, a remarkable addition was made to the roof of The Muehlig Funeral Chapel.  It’s not accidental that I choose “remarkable” to describe this addition. I mean it simply in the sense that it caused someone to remark on it – in the form of an observation filed by a Chronicle Stopped.Watched. correspondent: “[William & Fourth] Crazy contraption on the roof of Muehlig Funeral – art on a stick gone wild. Have I just never noticed it?”

Muehlig Funeral Chapel with the new art installation by Andrew Carson. The view is from the Fourth & William parking structure.

Several readers left comments to the effect that they, too, had noticed it and wondered if they’d just missed it before. Except for the fact that I wanted to write about the rooftop art for this column, I would have been content not to call up Muehlig Funeral Chapel and ask them about it. To me, it’s enough that it’s there, we see it, we add it to our visual memory, we go on about our routine. Until we see something else remarkable, and then someone will remark on the new thing.

But I did call. I spoke with Clayne Frazer, one of Muehlig’s directors, who told me that a general manager, Kevin Jacobi, had conceived it.

He’d purchased the piece from one of his favorite artists, Andrew Carson, who exhibits at the annual Ann Arbor art fairs. The concept, explained Frazer, is eventually to commemorate Carson’s piece as a kind of tribute or memorial to all the folks Muehlig has served over the years.

So why were Chronicle readers offered a snippet about a new piece of art atop Muehlig Funeral Chapel in the first place? It was not because Muehlig sent out a press release. [Please make a note of that, all of you public relations folks, who spend hours crafting words and images to put into an email to convince someone that the thing your client is doing is remarkable enough for someone other than you to remark on it.]

Muehlig simply installed it, along with the lights that illuminate it at night. A Chronicle reader, Matt Hampel, “found” it in the wild, and remarked on it by filing a Stopped.Watched. item. That’s when Stopped.Watched. is at its best, I think. My very favorite Stopped.Watched. items are those that are observations made in the course of someone’s regular routine, and because it is their regular routine, they notice something’s different – something different enough to remark on.

The difference between that kind of Stopped.Watched. observation – unplanned and uncalculated –  and a presentation based on a press release or an official statement, is something like the difference between spotting something in the wild and looking at animals in a zoo.

Apropos of zoos, another recent Stopped.Watched. observation serves to make the same point: “[Fifth & Ann] Amusing new sidewalk ‘petting zoo’ of retired, gilded hydrants, outside fire station [photo].” The new fire hydrants had actually been a part of the Downtown Development Authority board discussion at its Nov. 3 meeting, and I’d included the description of that discussion in my board report. But it inadvertently was cut during a reorganization of the piece. Here’s how it would have read:

Fifth and Division: Fire Hydrants

Besides the underground parking structure construction, the other major project the DDA is working on is the Fifth and Division street improvements. [John] Splitt reported that construction on the project is 85% complete. Leah Gunn said she thought the new fire hydrants in front of the fire station along Fifth Street were “great.” Susan Pollay indicated that they’d been sourced with the help of the new fire chief, Dominick Lanza, and Mike Bergren, a former city employee in the field services unit who works for Park Avenue Consulting, which is helping to manage the Fifth and Division project. Pollay described how the fire hydrants were part of an effort to establish some sense of the firefighters’ commitment to their job. There will also be some pieces of granite installed, one of which will commemorate fallen firefighters. The “plasticky” looking red sign will also be replaced, Pollay said.

That piece of “found footage” serves, I think, to illustrate what we’d lose without Voxphoto’s Stopped.Watched. observation: We’d miss the practically poetic “petting zoo” description of the hydrants. Plus – with all due respect to DDA board member and county commissioner Leah Gunn – some skeptical readers of that passage would have simply concluded she was remarking on the hydrants, because, well, that’s what politicians will do. Maybe because she was looking for the firefighter vote. Or maybe pandering to dog owners in some weird, oblique way. Cynical Chronicle readers, and apparently there are a few, can probably come up more possibilities.

But Voxphoto’s Stopped.Watched. item validates the remarkableness of the fire hydrants. Because as far as I can tell, the guy is not seeking public office – he just enjoys interesting images.

teeter totter found footage

Nick Prueher, co-founder of the Found Footage Festival, rode the teeter totter as it passed through Ann Arbor on Nov. 4.

Not every one of The Chronicle’s Stopped.Watched. items is a perfect gem. But the vast majority reflect the fact that correspondents grasp what that section of our publication is trying to achieve in these very short observations from correspondents’ regular routines. This might be considered fairly surprising, given that The Chronicle did not go to the trouble to shoot a training video on how to be a Stopped.Watched. correspondent.

But there could be a connection between training videos and Stopped.Watched. You know the guy with the banana who starred in that sexual harassment training video that was part of an earlier edition of the Found Footage Festival? I think we might have unintentionally documented his whereabouts here in Ann Arbor – in a Stopped.Watched. item: “[Fletcher & Palmer] Cereal banana killer strikes again. Fletcher parking structure stairwell. A nearly weekly tragedy. Why isn’t this making the news? [photo].”

For the complete interview with Nick Prueher, read Nick’s Teeter Talk.

One Comment

  1. By mr dairy
    November 10, 2010 at 11:22 am | permalink

    The best kind of public art are works that are discovered with little or no explanation.

    Found film is no different. The funniest movie I’ve ever seen is a found film movie. Uso Justo by Coleman Miller [link]