Hojas de Maíz was made at the request of Cincinnati composer and instrument-builder Anthony Luensman. The film was originally envisioned to be part of Tony's installation, Irato, in which each of his twenty-plus pieces, on exhibit in a civic art center, responded to viewers' pressing of a button. An exhibit of doorbells, imaginatively defined. One of Tony's stocks-in-trade is the use of discarded upright piano innards as electrified harps; my film contribution was to be projected amidst arrays of vibrating piano strings as art patrons took an elevator from the ground floor to a performing arts center. While this eventually proved infeasible due to ambient light conditions in the building, it did inspire the look and basic vocabulary of the film.
Prior to meeting Tony, I'd experimented with, and done editions of, soft ground etchings. Like any etching, a copper (or zinc) plate is first coated with an acid-resistant 'ground'; a mix of beeswax, asphaltum, and rosin. With hard ground etchings, an etching needle or other stylus is used to remove the ground—forming lines, cross-hatches, stipples—and a subsequent acid bath 'bites' into the exposed copper, forming gullies that hold ink, and then release it when plate and dampened paper are run through an etching press.
Soft ground has added to it tallow, or another soft greasy component, with the result that any textured surface will leave an impression in the ground that can then be etched. (It can be *really* soft, and reproduce fingerprints and other handling marks.) One of my soft ground experiments involved taking impressions of the corn husks used to make tamales—hojas de maíz as they are called in Mexican markets—and it seemed to me that the resulting network of veins, edges, and cracks would provide an organic counterpoint to the lines of machine-spun steel that'd be found in Tony's piano strings.
I prepared a 14" x 24" copperplate, rolled out a soft ground, laid corn husks over it, ran it through a press, peeled off the husks, and etched it in Dutch mordant. I printed a number of impressions on highly translucent Japanese silk paper, then sliced these etchings vertically and horizontally, beginning at different places on the sheets.
After placing gels on an eight foot long light table of my own construction, I laid out the etching strips, then, in complete darkness, contact printed them to 16mm print stock. Different gels and different exposure times resulted in different characteristics, ranging from spare and calligraphic to dense and frenetic. Screen activity and color progression guided my editing. My task was to sequence the 14" and 24" strips—I chose not to edit within a side-to-side or top-to-bottom pass across an etching—and these lengths give the film one of its fundamental rhythms.
The film is rich in microrhythms, emerging from the networks in the husks and from the fibers in the paper. The unexpected depth derives from imperfections in the contact printing process and, I believe, from the thickness of the paper, which though exceedingly sheer, puts some distance between the smooth, inked side and the fibrous back side.
Hojas de Maíz may be shown silent, and is often done so in fine art film screenings. It may also be shown with live sound accompaniment. In doing this, my intent is to provide contemporary composers and improvisers with a challenge: to create a soundtrack to work by a living filmmaker, working in color, with a high degree of abstraction. I am overstating it to make the point: it is criminal for composers to be devoting energy to creating yet another score for Potemkin or Metropolis. Sound or silent, I insist that the film be shown at 18fps—what Nathaniel Dorsky calls the 'sacred speed'—so that there's a slightly greater ability for the eye to dwell on individual frames.
Hojas de Maíz premiered at SS Nova (now the Mockbee) in Cincinnati in May/June 2002, with live accompaniment by Tony Luensman and Kenya DuBois. It has had over two dozen screenings to date, at venues across North America, and in the Aixperimental program of the Festival Tous Courts.
Eric Theise, notes for Image Playground,
Cineworks, Vancouver, BC, Mar 2004
Digital scan made possible through a January 2019 Interbay Cinema Society Lightpress Grant.