Musician, composer, filmmaker and performer David Bernabo is plenty busy with his own art. But recently, he spent nine months exploring the creative processes of eight other Pittsburgh artists. The result is the feature-length documentary Ongoing Box, which gets its local premiere this week.
Bernabo is best known for his adventuresome band and art ensemble Host Skull. The 100-minute Ongoing Box forgoes narrative; its only real theme is the creative process. With a probing eye and a penchant for closeups, Bernabo captures the artists in their studios. Choreographer Maree ReMalia and her troupe rehearse and perform a raucous group dance titled The Ubiquitous Mass of Us. Painter Stephanie Armbruster crafts her encaustic paintings with tools including torches and razor blades. Blaine Siegel works on paintings and a multimedia piece; conceptual artist Lenka Clayton explores a "residency in motherhood"; photographer Garret Jones sets up a studio shoot; and veteran mime artist Mark C. Thompson develops a physical-theater work about crime victims and predators.
A couple of Bernabo's subjects fall outside the usual definition of fine art: Luthiers Raymond Morin (of the band Pairdown) and Adam Rousseau craft acoustic guitars from scratch, and noted local chef and restaurateur Kevin Sousa (of Union Pig and Chicken, and formerly Salt of the Earth) scours vacant lots in Braddock, gathering wild edibles like garlic mustard and yarrow, and prepares a dessert of rhubarb and white chocolate.
Ongoing Box actually grew out of Bernabo's own in-studio filmmaking experiments with motors, smoke, ice and paper (some of which remain in the finished feature, as a sort of rhythmic punctuation). The project expanded to feature length due to his interest in his own artistic process: when he realized, for instance, how much of the work of music and film are about editing. He came to understand that that's the case with other art forms as well.
"I really like to see different people's approaches," he says — whether they start with an idea they pursue, or discover the concept as they go. "It's comforting to know what other people are doing, and if they feel the same feelings" and share similar goals in their work, he says.
Bernabo says he was inspired partly by grassroots efforts to support local artists, like subscription-art series CSAPGH. His seemingly disparate cinematic influences include both the "how they make that" segments on Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood and Swiss artist Roman Signer's lyrical, nonnarrative 1996 European travelogue Signer's Suitcase.
Some segments in Ongoing Box (which takes its name from a Host Skull project) are observational and wordless, others interview-based. The more voluble subjects include Mark C. Thompson, who discusses the questions he asks himself about how best to communicate with the audience in a given piece. Lenka Clayton, whose conceptual artworks about motherhood include "Objects Taken Out of My Son's Mouth," explains, "Motherhood isn't my subject, it's my material as an artist."
Though it won't be apparent to most viewers, one near-common denominator in the segments is Bernabo himself: Ongoing Box largely features artists with whom he's collaborated. "I started working with more of them as the film progressed," he says. It's a circumstance he considers emblematic of the creative cross-pollination that's endemic to Pittsburgh. He even appears onscreen, unidentified, in such endeavors as performing with ReMalia's troupe. Bernabo also composed the film's exceptional soundtrack of guitar music, and performed it on locally made guitars, including one of Morin's acoustics.
Bernabo, who by day works an administrative job at Highmark, self-funded the film. Ongoing Box has had small screenings in cities including Chicago and Columbus, Ohio. However, he has since tweaked it enough, he says, to qualify the Aug. 14 showing at the Melwood Screening Room as the world premiere.
While additional Pittsburgh screenings are planned, Bernabo also hopes to submit Ongoing Box to film festivals. Although all the artists profiled are based in Pittsburgh (ReMalia has since relocated to Washington, D.C.), Bernabo says he believes the subject is universal enough to resonate anywhere: people pushing themselves outside of their comfort zones. The artists in Ongoing Box, he says, are "a group of people that have this drive where they have to create, where they continually have to develop."
For more on the film, visit www.ongoingbox.com.