Greenpoint’s Light Industry, Illuminating the Obscure for Cinephiles and All the Rest of Us

Photo by Nicole Disser

I challenge you to find something you’ve heard of screening at Light Industry, the Greenpoint-based non-profit film program dreamed up by Thomas Beard and Ed Halter. Starting out back in 2008 inside former light industry space in Industry City (hence the organization’s name), Light Industry has since moved up to Greenpoint, but their commitment to the obscure, the rare, the weird has remained. Absolutely every film screened through their reel booth (something that looks more like a tree house than anything you’d find in a movie theater) seems to have either been dug up from the nether regions of cinema, buried deep in some forgotten archive, or is so new and now that cinephiles might not even be wise enough to pretend they’ve heard of it. Rest assured that Light Industry’s weekly programming schedule will always be full of surprises.

Take a look at the programming set up by Thomas and Ed just this year: in February the duo screened L’anticoncept (“a sound film without images” from 1951 by the artist Gil J Wolman), and in March they hosted an exceedingly rare peek into the work of Edward Owens, an African-American filmmaker who got his started making films as a teenager in the 60s, eventually finding his way into Manhattan’s Warhol/underground scene.

As obscure as their programming might be, it always remains approachable; plus, with weekly shows, and seemingly no two much alike, you can trust that Ed and Thomas are putting together something a variety of people can enjoy.

“What I love about what we do is that we play to the hardcore cinephiles—finding things like Edward Owens where people are like, Oh my god!—but then also playing to people who want to learn about cinema,” Ed explained. “We’re kind of like a little schoolhouse. You can really learn the breadth of cinema by following our programming.”

“You can see a Laida Lertxundi film that was made last year or you can see a silent-era boxing film,” Thomas added. “So there’s this kind of historical sweep but also we like to be doing international and genre-spanning stuff.”

Though they’ve received grants that have helped them blossom into a standalone institution, including one from the Andy Warhol Foundation, Light Industry is far from being a massive institution. They’re not even close to cinematic powerhouses like Film Forum and Anthology; their space is a small and can fit an official maximum of 75 people. It’s a bare-bones operation in a studio-like space flanked by DIY benches made of pine two-by-fours.

“As you can see there’s a limit physically to this space,” Ed glanced around.

Thomas added: “I have vivid memories of people riding their bike up, looking to this sign that says ‘Sold Out’ and then just opening up the door and kind of swanning in. It’s so New York to be like, ‘Oh it’s sold out but obviously not for me.”

“I would love it if every single show was like that,” Thomas admitted.

But when I sat down with the two founders (and it’s confirmed they’re cinephiles; I even had them describe what cinephiles looked like, comparing their descriptions to their appearance and they perfectly matched), they explained how their small mission might not be ever be suited to becoming a big production.

BK Mag: So this space is super DIY…
Thomas: It’s very DIY. We began with virtually no resources and when we started a friend of ours hooked us up with an unrented studio space in Industry City. Basically at that time she was overseeing the development of a number of studios in Industry City so a number of places that had been previously used for different kinds of literal light industry were being repurposed for studio spaces.

There was a large empty one and she made an arrangement between Industry City and us to have it gratis. And then we bought some folding chairs from some party rental place on Long Island, they were unloading them on the cheap, and we had some 16mm projectors and a video projector and his credit card, so that’s how we began.

How did you get into this? Are you both filmmakers?
Ed: No, actually we’d both been working in programming at film festivals, that’s how we met. Thomas had worked with CinemaTexas in Austin and I ran the New York Underground Film Festival for 10 years. We met when Thomas came to visit New York Underground. Several of the festivals of that era were very closely aligned with one another and we’d visit each other’s festivals and so forth. Then I left New York Underground and Thomas left CinemaTexas. Then CinemaTexas ended.

Thomas: They were not related. It’s not like I left and it blew up.

Ed: Well it was at this time when a lot of film festivals were changing or ending and we had moved to Brooklyn close to 2008. There was a retrospective at Orchard Street Gallery for the Collective for Living Cinema, a film exhibition group that was active in the 70s and 80s and into the early 90s. This was really inspiring for us to think about this group.

We were talking about how, well we should really do something like this in Brooklyn and do something now. Thomas also worked at Ocularis in Williamsburg that had a somewhat similar structure in some ways to Light Industry.

Thomas: We had weekly screenings, and it had been going for many years before I moved to New York and I was the last program director and it kind of wound down after a decade-long run. Then I finished graduate school and actually was looking for work after school and basically didn’t get jobs at many great institutions. I didn’t get a job at the Whitney, or the New Museum, or MoMA—the long list. But anyways, not getting a job out of grad school was also part of how Light Industry began.

I remember when I was in graduate school talking with a friend about having some collectively-run space. But it ended up just being the two of us. Thank god, because it’s much more manageable to have two people run something than to have, you know, a giant unwieldy email chain between a dozen or more people. Not that there’s anything wrong with a larger collective enterprise, but for our purposes having a small operation has worked well for  us.

What’s your backing like?
Thomas: The Warhol Foundation was huge game changer for us.

Ed: That was the first giant amount of money coming in and that really changed how we could do things.

Thomas: When we say “giant” it would be a drop in the bucket for a museum, but we got a check that covered all of Light Industry’s expenses for the next two years. The way that Light Industry began, virtually with no resources, it made us realize the fact that in order to make something like this happen, you could do it with very little. So it’s funny to us working at an institution where people say, “We’d like to do this, but it’s just not possible.” And it’s like, hmm no it is possible.

You guys have such an interesting film line up; it’s never anything I’ve ever heard of. It’s always intriguing and always for different reasons. So how do you source these things? Do you come up with general themes?
Ed: The starting principle of Light Industry was really to see it as a crossroads between different communities that are about the moving image, the art of the moving image, cinema, but that historically, even in this city don’t interact enough. You can look at the world of cinema, the fine art world, things that have a lot in common are actually much less socially connected than you might imagine.

I’m noticing now that’s changing a lot. But when we started, they were very distinct worlds. But you could also think of the worlds of documentary, the academy, artists who work with the internet, these are all segmented populations, even in a city like New York. So one way we tend to think about our programming is this kind of cross-pollination. One day we might have a performance by Cory Arcangel and the next day week we have a film by Straub-Huillet. And so anyone that follows us, in a sense there’s always going to be a bunch of stuff from a world they’ve never heard of.

Thomas: People might be first attracted to Light Industry’s programming for one particular show and ideally be turned on to other kinds of work they might not have otherwise been familiar with.

Ed: And we do this by pairing with guests as well. One time Amy Sillman, a painter, presented this really obscure movie, but one that in Egyptian cinema is considered a classic film, and that was amazing. Again, it draws in a crowd who are interested in international cinema, a crowd of people who might know Amy and trust her taste. So there’s a case right there where the crossroads are happening right in the show.

In terms of finding the material, a lot of it comes from reading. Thomas and I both have enormous libraries on cinema, we just dig through old magazines and current listings of things happening all over the world.

We’ve heard some crazy stories, like friends of our in India who do experimental cinema there. One of them was visiting us and she said she knows all of these cinephiles in India who get our emails and then try to torrent everything that we get. And so many times they’ll hit something they can’t even find on the most hardcore torrent site and they’re like, “NO!”

But it’s interesting for us that our audience isn’t just who comes into this little room. We get feedback from people all around the world who read our announcements and feel like they’re learning about cinema simply that way. And that was absolutely not our intention when we started this, but it’s an interesting emergent property of the way we do things.

Thomas: It’s nice, because obviously the event itself is the most important thing we do, but to know that our shows have a life beyond the event. And sometimes the program notes that Ed writes are the only thing on the internet about a filmmaker.

Ed: The case with Edward Owens, the moment we put out the announcement just immediately we get emails from five different places like where did you get this? Can I see this? There was just this intense interest. That happens with a lot of the shows, not all of them but particularly with Edward Owens.

Thomas: Well, Edward Owens is obscure even for us. But another thing that’s important to us is that we wanted to take work that was really significant to us—in many cases it’s obscure or difficult or experimental cinema and not presuppose there’s an audience for this. Rather we feel that with the program notes we’re making an argument for the work, why it has some urgent reason for being shown. And that’s not always the case with cinema, with a mind of developing a new audience around it.

Ed: Because of our structure we have one show a week, on average. And that show only happens one time, so all the focus is on that single screening. It’s a very, very focused selection. It’s not like if we were Film Forum or Anthology where we are having five or six shows a day and then every day throughout the week. These are great places that have very, very full calendars. If you’re not already a hardcore cinephile it can be daunting to open up one of those calendars and go, well what do I see?

What I love about what we do is that we play to the hardcore cinephiles—finding things like Edward Owens where people are like, Oh my god!—but then also playing to people who want to learn about cinema. We’re kind of like a little schoolhouse. You can really learn the breadth of cinema by following our programming. Because we try to show the entire range of cinema in all its manifestations.

Thomas: Beyond the level of audience, it’s also about making the work, different kinds of work and different kinds of ideas circulating around them accountable to one another or something. They have to be thought of alongside one another and I think that’s also kind of rare. The discourse around international narrative cinema might not be paying attention to the discourses around fine art.

Ed: They don’t come together and there’s not much dialogue between those two worlds, especially between international narrative cinema and the art world. Narrative cinema is still outside the parameters of the art world even though it’s certainly a highly advanced art form, but it doesn’t somehow fit into the structure of the art world.

So are you guys challenging the canon?
Ed and Thomas: Absolutely!

Ed: But also we like to celebrate the canon too.

Thomas: My hope is that our program speaks to the fact that film history is always ripe for revision and renegotiation. A significant part of our program is about retrieving things that have been lost in someway or downplayed. Our particular emphasis on feminist and queer cinema is very much a part of that project.

Ed: And within feminist and queer cinema I feel like we are showing some of the things we think of as canonical, but the remainder of cinephiles might not. It is a kind of counter-canon, it’s not the canon everyone runs to necessarily.

Thomas: I think film programming plays a part in building canons. Film history and art history are constantly being rewritten with every generation, so we very much feel responsibility to foreground works we feel are worth remembering and have enduring value.

Ed: The other thing about the cinema that’s different from visual art, canonically you can get by with reproduction to see what an artist has done, what their work is like. It’s the same thing with photography and with music, but with cinema even though we have VHS, DVD, and now online streaming– most of the works we’re interested are either a) not available in that format or b) the experience is not going to really happen for you on your laptop. Watching a James Benning film on your laptop is not going to satisfy.

Thomas: That sounds pretty grim.

Ed: It sounds pretty awful. But there’s a specificity to the event and cinema unfurls in that event and you can’t really experience it and you can’t really know it without it. That’s why I think programming builds canons, because otherwise you can’t really access the work and you can’t get a sense of how other people are experiencing it.

Thomas: The old specters of racism, sexism, and homophobia haunt whatever you would unironically call “the canon.” So when we say “canon” there’s definitely a hint of irony to it.

Ed: And all of these dialogues have different canons. In terms of Olia Lialina, who we wanted to work with for a long time, there’s no one more canonical in the world of net art than her, but for people who don’t know that work she’s as unknown as anybody. And a lot of people don’t know she was connected to Cine Fantom, which was a kind of Light Industry in Moscow in the ‘90s.

Were there films you dug up that you never thought you’d find?
Ed: A good example is this film we showed Elizabeth and Mary by this director D.A. Pennebaker, this is a film that isn’t listed in any Pennebaker filmography. He didn’t even list it on his website, but I have this old book on cinéma vérité and there’s this chapter on Elizabeth and Mary and I thought, whatever happened to this movie? I literally called Pennebaker’s office and his son answer and he comes back and he’s like, yeah it’s right on the shelf next to me, you want to show it? But here was this amazing gem of first wave of cinéma vérité in the United States that is phenomenal. Pennebaker came here and introduced it, he gave a discussion afterward and he literally wept during the screening because it was so emotional for him to see the film again.

Thomas: There’s a great agility that comes with having an operation so modest in its design. So that’s something we really value, the ability to show whatever we want, in whatever context we want, whenever we want. It’s a kind of autonomy that would be hard to find at an institution of any stripe.

Ed: I think we’re a good argument for staying small. There isn’t this normal progression with us. Our goal has always been to see how we can keep it going at this size and without doing something redundant in New York City. This city is amazing in terms of cinema because we have things no other city has in terms of programming, you can see an amazing film here every day.

Thomas: We’re very wary of growth as a presupposed ideal. There was a time when Film Forum looked not unlike Light Industry. But that’s not what we want.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here