Frederick Abrams

The Underground Cathedral


Q. How much time did you work on film? How many years or months?

A. The Routes of the Underground Cathedral is a remake of the film, The Undergound Cathedral. The remake was several months of around the clock work. It is similar to the original in a number of ways but far more embellished and there are new scenes. As for the original version, created during the mid 1990s, it is difficult to say. The process evolved from playing with the maps to photography and this occurred when I was invited in 1989, exactly at the end of communism, to Poland on a cultural exchange program. I was taken by a director of the Warsaw Metro, which is a very funny albeit sad story in Polish history – depending on how you look at it – inside of an unfinished station of the first line of the system. This began my investigations carrying a small still camera and small tape recorder anywhere I travelled where there happened to be an underground.

Warsaw Metro 1989

At this point actually I wasn’t planning on a film at all. I was thinking of using this with installations, but also I was planning on doing a live performance which was to be for a cultural program associated with the ’92 Olympics in Barcelona. However, for many reasons this never happened. I was working on making a live performance where my first idea was to have a slide show behind performing musicians. When I bought my first computer and shipped it to Barcelona where I was living at the time, the idea came to me that I could continue my work abroad, continue my photography, sound recording and put together a sophisticated slide show with sounds to go along with the live performance of music. Then I went back to the United States in 1995 and for the first time was exposed to digital video editing, which I decided to get into for the sake of live performance. I still didn’t know that I was going to make a film. It was not in the forefront of my mind, however, I must add that as far back as when I was designing page layouts for the glass art magazine that I also edited, I conceived a visual storyboard in my head. Anyway, in 1996 I again visited Poland when I learned that the first line of the Warsaw Metro had opened and I was very curious to see the changes in the country since its leap into what was called, “Shock Therapy Capitalism.” Previously, in 1991, I had made my first return visit and did more photography as I noticed that Poland was starting to change visibly since my first visit two years earlier during the revolution. In ’96 with my video camera I went back to videotape the Warsaw Metro, now an operating single line system. At that time I was introduced to an international multimedia festival in the city of Wroclaw, and was invited to do the world premiere performance of my live show. I was asked to make a proposal and I made two short videos with music I had composed on computer with sounds of the metro, with the photographs taken over the years, computer artworks often derived from them etc. I made these two video clips to send to this festival but as a result I was then introduced to a man in Barcelona who was distributing videos and short films to festivals. He liked what he saw, he sent them to various festivals for me and very quickly they won several awards, including for documentaries in Italy and for sound illustration in Toulouse. Suddenly I realized I was making film, and it was working.

When I came to Europe, and I spent at first most of a year in Paris, I was attempting to show my work, but I wasn’t at that time producing very much. I didn’t have a means to work; I didn’t have a studio any longer, and I discovered, in fact, it wasn’t until I came to Poland in 1989 and started doing photography, that it became clear to me that one very simple way to continue working while not having a studio, not even having a home, was with a camera. Of course, I did some drawings, I did some graphic works on small pieces of paper, which I made in Poland and are in the film also. This became very important to me: how to survive and produce while traveling. This multimedia computer that I had sent to Barcelona in 1992 became my method of continuing my work and while I didn’t need more than a tabletop to do my work any longer, it opened up incredible new territories for me, which meant that I could produce CD quality music, as I did with one synthesizer, and then when I got into digital non-linear video editing. So I ended up moving my computer with me to different parts of Europe. I did most of the post production while living in Poland, putting together this live performance, organizing a group of ten musicians, myself included and having the musical scores made, which was done between myself and a man in Anchorage, Alaska over the Internet. I went through stages from glass artwork to an installation to preparing to do a live performance. So, one could say that this film is a representation, a byproduct, of nearly twenty years of work beginning about 1980 following my first visit to Europe. But the actual idea of making it into a film? Even that I can’t say was becoming clear until late 1996.

Q. When you went into the underground did you know beforehand what you wanted to capture?

A. Very often it was very spontaneous and it usually happened to be when I had time and chose to take my camera in the underground. I never really spent a lot of time anywhere. I would be there with my camera for anywhere from half of an hour to a few hours, but I was also limited by the battery of my camera, which never lasted for more than about 20 minutes of shooting time at best. When I made my second trip to Poland in 1991, then using only a still camera, I also went to Prague and Budapest and spent one day in each city recording sounds and taking photos. Then I was invited to Moscow and did the same. Continually I returned to Paris more than anywhere. I came back to Paris numerous times and I became fascinated with certain subjects, one being the station, “Bonne Nouvelle” (Good News), because I found a very ironic relationship between the name of the station and the posters that were often next to the name on the wall. The first one I saw, which was in 1989, was a picture of Charles de Gaulle leading a parade at the victory celebration of the liberation of Paris. This was a government sponsored poster that was connected with the celebration of the French Revolution Bicentennial of 1989.

Bonne Nouvelle (Good News)

I came back another time and saw one that was very ironic. It was a United Benetton ad which said, “HIV Positive” on the skin of someone. I photographed it so “HIV Positive” was no longer associated with the company logo but instead with the name of the metro station.

Bonne Nouvelle (Good News)

Another government sponsored poster showed a poor child looking very sad while standing before a trash can and above her it says, “This world, we can change it.” Another merely shows a fisted hand with an open thumb pointing straight up. So, everytime I came to Paris I went to this particular station with a camera and later video camera, but most of the documentation was done very, very fast.

Q. When you speak of “Bonne Nouvelle,” for example, is it a social vision? Is the underground for you a reflection of something social…?

A. Of course, it’s life. For me it became a test tube, a particular place to do a study of humanity, perhaps a generally more poor segment of humanity, but a very open one, because there are many people of many cultures travelling through the undergound. Although I’ve so far only done this travel of my own through the Western Hemisphere, there’s tremendous influence from other parts of the world in the underground and one comes in contact with them. On some city streets it’s not so different, but in the underground it becomes something more of a controlled environment and everything becomes more accentuated. More like an artwork in a gallery, there’s less distraction of what’s around whatever you’re focusing on.

It’s also a subject which covers territory of many parts of the globe and shows a relationship between all of humanity. You recognize cultural differences but also our similarities as humans: the languages that are different, as are the announcements of the train stations that are often heard inside of the train cars. Yet, the maps are color coded in such a way that someone can understand where they’re going quite easily without having to read written language or instructions.

At the same time, there’s much to be said in many delicate ways about social issues, social realities, which my film covers a lot. Of course, I mentioned HIV, well I don’t take a position on this – I certainly don’t think that it’s a positive thing – it’s a statement also about our perception of good and bad, black and white. One of the themes that I myself didn’t consciously realize until the film was finished is the issue of danger. Throughout the film there are many symbols of danger. There’s one sign that says: “Danger Third World.”

I created that by changing a sign in the underground in Boston which said: “Danger Third Rail.” The third rail is the electrical rail and if you fall on the third rail you’re dead, or at least badly shocked. I thought of this as an irony. You see a man falling; it’s a little sign about falling onto that third rail. You see an overhead illuminated sign with one word: “Alarm.”

There is the announcement of a driver being attacked, which is ironic because then the people are told they can enter the train for free.

So this is a nice reward that is the result of a bad story, something I have personally found to be a constant lesson in life. There’s a big issue throughout this film and my work about what’s real and what we imagine, starting with the names on the map, names I changed in my photography that is altered by a computer, of the actual names on the wall or signs that you see in the metro, and how our imaginations affect us – in other words, what is real danger and what is not; how many symbols around us often make us afraid to expose ourselves to life. One of the beauties I think of the underground – and I don’t always think that it’s beautiful at all – is simply that it is open to all of humanity. Sometimes it’s not pleasant to see poor people, old sleeping men and the odors, and sometimes it’s quite depressing, but I’ve found throughout my travels something beautiful often in things that are depressing. I noticed this when I first visited Poland in 1989, in fact and saw many layers of paint on buildings that had not been painted in God knows how many decades. So, there’s some kind of perhaps a melancholic beauty in humanity that I often find in the underground that I wanted to communicate in my film. But back to the question concerning whether it concerns any social vision, much of this results from personal experience and observation during my travels.

Q. Something that is strong in your film is that there are just pictures and the sounds of the metro without an explanation. Could you speak about this relationship between sound and picture?

A. Often sound and image are from completely different places and this is a play on our perceptions of reality. For example, at the end of “About to Depart,” you hear a man’s voice in English which is from the new Los Angeles Metro, and he says, “This train is about to depart:”

In any case, one is seeing from inside of the train looking through the train conductor’s front window as the train is arriving in slow motion into a station in Paris, but it’s a very abstract black and white scene and the station platform in the distance that the train is slowly approaching appears to be perhaps something like a space station. However, the train never reaches the end for it suddenly stops. The movement halts at a frozen frame, which remains for several seconds as the music ends and then it fades into black.

Well, how many times have I ridden in the Paris Metro and was thinking about Los Angeles or Poland, where I’ve lived, or anywhere? Some of the chapters are based on my still photography, which is a very difficult thing to do. When I went from that jump from making a multimedia light show behind musicians to a film I had a real challenge to make film segments based on but a few still images, such as “Antenna Man,” and “Metro Boulot Dodo,” which are based on still photos of two black musicians. Anyway, being a multimedia film, I often also just juggled what images and scenes I had to work with and I didn’t only think of these literal relationships of what sounds correlate with what images, just as the names on “The Large Brain” may be interpreted both literally or not.

Q. The film is one hour?

A. In its entirety, yes. But because it has no usual story plot and its parts may be juggled in sequence, I was thinking more of a CD containing a series of musical pieces, or of a series of paintings or sculptures. Because it is designed modularly, as a series of video clips strung together, I have also been showing it in its individual parts or in versions of varying lengths, one reason being time limitations of certain festivals to which it has been submitted.

Q. Did you film first and then do the editing or film and edit at the same time?

A. Both. I have continually changed parts in it. I actually finished it, I thought, more than once. In fact, I recently visited Paris again and saw the new line of the Paris Metro which is radically different from the rest of the system, and I found a couple scenes that were very interesting to me. So, I inserted them in a couple parts that I already thought were finished. I removed scenes that I had put in before and I didn’t ever think like normal filmmaking: writing a script, having a storyboard. There never was one, other than some abstract sequence at times inside of my head. As I approached music composing much like a painter, I did the same with film editing. Before the post-production was even begun, in fact before I knew that digital video even existed, I had composed most of the music with the sounds first, inserting the sounds with the music in rhythmic and melodic ways. For example, in one instance in “About to Depart” you hear a buzzer from the underground system in San Francisco, but probably only I know that that note at that moment is the buzzer, because it’s in perfect melody with the music, which was an accident and this happens to me often.

But then after the compositions were recorded and completed I started editing scenes and still images that I had put into a library of images and scenes in my computer. I started editing them to the music and I would sometimes put a scene in slow motion or speed it up so that it was in rhythm to the music. It was a very intuitive process as was the music composing for the most part. I was juggling these images, which I also did with the words on the stained glass map. I would say that my overall process is evolutionary. Something keeps evolving until – I love what Duchamp said about his “Large Glass” – it’s “finally unfinished.”

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