Claudia Vess stands behind photographer Laura Seldman and wiggles a somewhat battered stuffed clown over her head. “OK, look at the clown,” Vess instructs, as storyteller Ellouise Schoettler gazes up at the creepy focal point.
It’s Nov. 7, just days before the opening of Artomatic 2004, and Schoettler has just finished a 90-second interview, one of 50 conducted by Vess on this sunny Sunday alone. The interviews are part of what artist and amateur filmmaker Vess hopes will be an ongoing archival project, documenting not only all of the participants of this year’s Artomatic, but also artists who have lived and worked in D.C. throughout their careers.
“Since there’s not a lot of documentation in the Washington newspapers really about the enormous arts scene, I thought that was something that we could do,” Vess says. “Hopefully it will continue after Artomatic, and we’ll do longer interviews with groups of artists who work together around the city, to try to keep this going and document how things are changing.”
And, according to Vess, 54, there have been huge changes since the ’50s. “The mother of a friend of mine was an artist,” she says. “And it was difficult for artists to find a place to show, there were so few places. And now, that’s not the case. There are a lot of artist-run galleries, there are a lot of regular galleries, commercial galleries….So the arts scene is really just—happening….The history of all of that is in these artists’ heads.”
Thanks to a grant from the Humanities Council of Washington, DC, Vess is able to get those heads talking in front of a camera. Footage shot today will ultimately be stored in the Washingtoniana collection at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, but she hopes to have it ready at the Nov. 12 opening of Artomatic. A still shot of each artist will appear on the wall of Artomatic’s Oral History Room—hence Seldman and the clown.
Vess’ idea intersects one that painter and Artomatic veteran Ellyn Weiss came up with years ago. “It occurred to me, really, after the very first Artomatic,” says Weiss, “that it would be good to have essentially a time-lapse [record] of the whole thing—when we first enter this empty, usually sad, shabby…building and transform it over a very short period of time—in this really chaotic, organic way—and play in it for a month and then decolonize it and leave these vestiges.”
Not an auteur herself, 57-year-old Bethesda resident Weiss had failed to inspire interest in the project—until this year. Filmmakers Kimani Anku of public-access station DCTV and Anya Arax Manjarrez, along with several cohorts, agreed to take on the documentation. Anku and Arax Manjarrez have been shooting footage of the space since just before this year’s crop of artists took over the Capital Children’s Museum at 800 E St. NE.
“On my own, I was interested in doing a documentary on Artomatic,” says Arax Manjarrez, whose collages were displayed at the event two years ago. “So when [this project] came along, it was perfect.”
Both Vess and Weiss plan to air their footage on DCTV, but if all goes as planned, pieces of both projects will be blended into what Weiss figures will be a “traditional documentary.”
Though for Vess and Weiss archiving is the main goal, that doesn’t keep Weiss from a grander, if admittedly whimsical, thought. “If [the documentary] turns out fabulous, you just may see it at Sundance,” she jokes.—Anne Marson