Tell us about yourself. How did you become an artist?
I come from a long line of rabbis, and I spent 12 years studying Jewish philosophy and religion in Hebrew and ancient Aramaic at the Maimonides School (Boston, MA, USA). We talked about ethics all the time, and we were taught that nothing was more important than trying to be a good person. When I left the Yeshiva, other cultural voices loomed larger, asserting more materialistic and selfish values. I became more aware of the cruelties and injustices of our world, and they felt like they were both innumerable and everywhere. I was troubled and confused, and I didn’t know how to proceed. Then, during my studies at Yale (New Haven, CT, USA), I stumbled upon a sculpture class; taught by the brilliant critic, art historian, and conceptual artist Ronald Jones; who showed me the potential art has to generate discourse and facilitate change. Suddenly, I knew my calling. The problems engulfing me felt vast, but I didn’t have to stand idly by. I could raise awareness and open dialog via activist, art, and film projects. I could foreground the ideologies of ethics, environmentalism, and responsibility. And I could try to cultivate change.
What was your first job in the art field?
When I decided to become an artist, I realized that I needed an additional job to pay the bills. Teaching felt appealing to me, because it had the potential to generate discourse, like art, but in a different kind of way. So, I studied pedagogy at Lesley University (Cambridge, MA, USA) and started teaching art and art history at The New Jewish High School (Waltham, MA, USA). I taught there for 3 years and then moved to Pasadena (CA, USA) to study art and film at ArtCenter College of Design. Afterwards, I started teaching video art at the University of Southern California (Los Angeles, CA, USA); and then, eventually, I moved to Winston-Salem (NC, USA) to teach filmmaking and video art at Wake Forest University.
What makes you want to tell stories? In other words, what are the themes/issues you want to incorporate into your work?
One of the ideas from my childhood that has stuck with me is the Kabbalistic concept of Tikkun Olam: doing what we can to repair the world. So, when I see a problem, I try to raise awareness about it through my projects, with the hope that it might help generate change. Right now, I’m dedicated to raising awareness about how we’re treating immigrants and refugees. Immigrants and refugees are locked up in detention centers in the United States—and all over the world. And many of the people we’re locking up are subjected to physical and sexual abuse, as well as forced labor. We’re capable of acting so much better than this. Sometimes, we just need a bit of a jolt to remember our values. So, I created Border-Ball, with the hope that it might provide at least some of the cultural jolt that we so desperately need.
Please tell us about your vision and your method of approaching a new project?
Each of my projects has been born from a moment when I conceive of a way to address a problem that we face. The march in Charlottesville (VA, USA) in August 2017 was a defining moment for me. Klansmen without hoods shouting openly about killing Jews and African Americans. At the same time, the US President—and many others—was spewing racist rhetoric towards the Latinx community and ordering deportations and detentions. I felt that the ideologies of diversity, immigration, and acceptance were under direct attack; and I had a civic duty to try to do something about it. So, I decided to make a pilgrimage to the U.S. – Mexico border, walking every day, for 40 days, from the Otay Mesa Port of Entry in San Diego (CA, USA), along the Border Wall, to the Otay Mesa Detention Center—and back. To bear witness. To open dialog. And to celebrate a vision of a compassionate, welcoming, diverse home for all.
Who are your filmmaking influencers? What are the films that were influential for you?
I learn something new from every film and other art project that I see, including, perhaps most importantly, from my teachers—including Ron Jones, Mike Kelley, Stephen Prina, Hirsch Perlman, and Patti Podesta. Some of the other artists whose films and video art projects resonate with me particularly deeply include Bas Jan Ader, Doug Aitken, Tacita Dean, Stan Douglas, Steve McQueen, and Ragnar Kjartansson.
How do you think the industry is changing? How has COVID affected independent filmmaking/creation?
It’s fascinating to see how many film festivals are doing screenings online these days and how often people view films from the comfort of their homes. I think the physical theater experience will always be an important one. And I also think that online screenings and streaming platforms will continue to be important, because I think that they enable even more people to experience the work.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists? What are some of the things they must follow/avoid?
Everyone puts ideas out into the world all the time, with every conversation and with every action—not just through films and other art projects. There is an ethical and political dimension to all that we do, so it is always important for us to be mindful of that.
Do you think films/stories can bring about a change in the world?
What do you think people like to watch these days? Has the pandemic changed people's taste?
That’s a fascinating question. And I’m not quite sure I have a clear answer. But my sense is that there is simultaneously a greater desire by many people for escapist films and also for films with deep dive explorations of our very real problems.
Please tell us about your upcoming projects.
I’m working on a feature film called Sick-Amour: A Love Story. It celebrates a forlorn and lonely tree that I adopted in the middle of a giant parking lot in front of the Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena (CA, USA). I began the project all the way back in 2005, and it continues to be a big part of my life.