Tell me a lie: Liz Roberts on Stanya Kahn

Liz Roberts

May 11, 2020

Two teenage boys in parkas sit in the brush near the Sierra Nevada mountain range in a scene from Stanya Kahn's short film No Go Backs

Liz Roberts’s April 15 conversation for college students on Stanya Kahn’s No Go Backs (2020) was canceled due to developments surrounding COVID-19, but the artist's work has been made available to stream through May 24. In the essay below, Roberts places No Go Backs in dialogue with the video The Lonely Age (Part 1) (2019) by Oakland-based artist Connie Zheng.

When Stanya Kahn’s No Go Backs (2020) opened in January, I took my Ohio State Video I & II classes to view the film. I was fresh from a semester off and excited to return to teaching. During fall of 2019, I spent two months in California’s Bay Area and Central Valley, where I experienced much more acutely the climate cataclysm friends and artists on the West Coast speak about. Being a Midwest/East Coast hybrid, I hadn’t experienced earthquakes, fires, and beach erosion up close. In Ohio, I sat in the darkened Wexner Center gallery with students, taking in No Go Backs with a new understanding of California’s water wars (and a deep love of 16mm film, which is how I originally learned to work with moving image).

I wasn’t sure where to situate No Go Backs when I first encountered it, so my mind placed the film adjacent to the “speculative realism” file in my brain (speculative only in the sense that the adults in the world of No Go Backs are gone). The realism of the work—Kahn’s teenage son and friend are the main subjects and the landscapes they move through are current—resonated in January and February 2020. Then came March. The speculative bottom dropped out, landing the work squarely in the realm of realism for me as COVID-19 swept through the world with the potential to remove many adults and decimate existing social structure. 

Two teenage boys with flashlights walk toward the camera in a scene from Stanya Kahn's short film No Go Backs

No Go Backs

In the summer of 2019, I returned to ACRE (Artists’ Cooperative Residency & Exhibitions) in rural Wisconsin to volunteer after having been a resident two years earlier. There I viewed an excerpt of Connie Zheng’s video The Lonely Age (Part I) (2019). The work stuck with me. A few months later, I got to see Zheng again when I was in the Bay Area at a reading at Wolfman Books in Oakland. The event was part of The Burl Concentrate, a collaboration between Zheng and artist and writer Sarah-Dawn Albani, and focused on the Camp Fire that ravaged Paradise, California, climate change, and the psychospiritual histories of California.

A person in a hooded jacket and face mask walks through a narrow, rocky ravine in a scene from Connie Zheng's video The Lonely Age (Part 1)

The Lonely Age (Part I)

Later, during my California residency, I saw The Lonely Age (Part I) in full at Embark Arts. From Zheng’s description:

"The Lonely Age is a metafictional, experimental film project about magical seeds and the promise of survival that they offer in a ravaged world. It is set in a highly toxic and ecologically ravaged near future, in which people begin to hear rumors of seeds that have washed up on the shores of California after escaping from a GMO factory in China. This work is intended as a trilogy of short films which are rooted in the very serious question of the terms of survival, how we can collectively develop new visual and verbal language around 'climate apocalypse,' and whether or not our current environmental crisis can push us to imagine a new 'commons' and more equitable ways of living and relating to one another."

Kahn’s film also references seeds and has been positioned by curator Lucy Zimmerman as the third work in an intergenerational trilogy. I think about generational rift, my role as a teacher, a parent. This writing was to be a talk for college students—they would view No Go Backs and then speak with me about filmmaking strategies and their own work. Now, during coronavirus lockdown, I meet students in a strange realm called Zoom. I don’t think I’ve done the transition to online learning by the standards being imposed, choosing to take an asynchronous route and attempting to work individually with nearly 40 students. I’m trying to help them make work in a world that doesn’t make sense, but a world these films saw coming. I’m not exactly trying to take Kahn’s and Zheng’s films from the cultural imagination and read them as reliable prophecy, but the urge is there during this pandemic. I want to be in a classroom again. I want to go back.

A figure on the beach appears to be tangled in plastic and trash from the waist up in a scene from Connie Zheng's video The Lonely Age (Part 1)

The Lonely Age (Part I)

In The Lonely Age (Part I) a voiceover refers to “stories about the cough finally leaving” as masked people lie on the ground. Part I was completed before this global pandemic turned a cough into a harbinger of doom. Zheng started shooting Part II of The Lonely Age at Headlands Center for the Arts in February; in March, she posted prompts and asked for people’s responses to be sent via audio:

TELL ME A LIE about the present moment.

TELL ME A LIE about the future.

Tell me a hope you have.

Scream into the void.

I sit in my car with an N95 mask like the ones worn in The Lonely Age hanging from one ear and release a guttural scream into my phone’s voice memo (in the car so I won’t scare my teenage kid who is inside the house). They are part of the generation—like the kids making a new commons in No Go Backs—who will “reconfigure the house we’ve left them,” as Kahn notes.

A teenage girl crouches by the shore, pumping sea water through a filter pump as another girls stands in the distance behind her in a scene from Stanya Kahn's No Go Backs


Three-quarter profile portrait of artist and educator Liz Roberts by Heather Taylor

Photo: Heather Taylor

Liz Roberts’s work spans film, video, sculpture, and performance. In addition to Ohio State, Roberts has taught at Denison University and Columbus College of Art & Design. She is a core member of the Columbus-based artist collective MINT, and her work has been shown widely, with presentations at Microscope Gallery, New York; the Cleveland Museum of Art; ACRE (Artists’ Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions) Projects, Chicago; and CCAD’s Beeler Gallery. Roberts’s awards include a fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center; residencies with ACRE in Wisconsin and at San Francisco’s The Growlery; and recognition at the Chicago International Film Festival and New York Exposition of Short Film and Video.

Images: Stanya Kahn, No Go Backs, 2020 (film still). Super 16 mm film transferred to 2k video, 33 mins. 30 sec. Courtesy of the artist and Vielmetter Los Angeles. ©2020 Stanya Kahn

Connie ZhengThe Lonely Age (Part 1), 2019. Single-channel 4K video with sound, 11 min 47 sec.

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