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Stanya Kahn

No Go Backs

September 26, 2020January 10, 2021

Institute of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

This image illustrates a link to the exhibition titled Stanya Kahn: No Go Backs

Press Release

A visceral 33-minute short film, shot on super 16mm with an original sound-score and no words, No Go Backs follows two sets of teenagers who leave the city for the wild, just haphazardly prepared. Featuring the artist’s son (Lenny Dodge-Kahn) and his life-long best friend (Elijah Parks) and their friends (Serafina and Marisol Prietto,) No Go Backs is a quietly dystopian fiction grounded in real-world relations and the understated but persistent presence of contemporary catastrophes. In the haunted precarity of a collapsed world, the kids travel in dreamlike states of distraction, malaise, and resilience. They cut an arduous path along sites of California’s historic water wars, following the aqueduct north toward its source, through the monumental landscapes of the Eastern Sierra Nevada. Eventually encountering other kids along shared roads—and the prospect of camaraderie in facing the unknown—the film becomes a vision of tenuous survival and the astonishing power of the earth. Completed just a month before lockdown, No Go Backs appears as an uncanny premonition and an allegorical epic about an entire generation that must make a new way forward.

As in her earlier works such as Stand in the StreamDon’t Go Back to SleepSandraKathy and It’s Cool, I’m Good, Kahn grounds a constructed narrative with real-world relationships in No Go Backs. Dream-like, otherworldly— aesthetically informed as much by the rupture of trauma as by the play of time and timing in comedy, literature, music and the sub-conscious—Kahn’s film/video practice reflects praxis in the world-at-large. The films—and the processes through which they are made—are imbued with recurring concerns about agency and power, about resistance, rhetoric, and creative refusal. Contributing ideas and even music, the kids were active participants in the creation of No Go Backs, at the same time that they were subjects dwarfed by the film’s massive subtexts: issues like capitalism, land occupation, climate collapse and a global rise in authoritarianism.

Working for the first time with 16mm film, Kahn returned to roots in 35 mm photography and a slower approach to recording images. In place of dialogue, Kahn created original music and worked with composers and musicians (Insect Ark, Alexia Riner) adding sampled and diegetic sound as well to build the film’s unique aural design. Anchoring No Go Backs’ melodic themes are Brian Eno’s Sombre Reptiles, a track from his third album Another Green World (1975.) Slowed down, Eno’s guitar, urgent and ambivalent like the anxious, languid time of adolescence, moves steadily across insistent percussion, the song becoming a road map for the film’s overall score and driving its longest montage. Co-star Elijah Parks also contributes original music as eli.so.drippy. Riffs in homage to Lil Uzi Vert, XXXTentacion, A$AP Rocky, and Tyler the Creator—who were seminal for the kids during the time in which the film is set—float in and out like audio ghosts signaling to other youth. In a surprise and fortuitous aligning of vision during production, Lil Peep’s mother reached out and gave Kahn rights to use a clip of one of the late artist’s songs, connecting even more poignant content for the cast, who were coming of age in a world that seemed to be dying, while brand new sounds emerged in the musical innovations of early Sound Cloud rap.

As with all her films, Kahn immersed herself physically, shooting, editing and designing in addition to writing and directing, operating the 16mm film camera (in challenging conditions!) with the help of cinematographer Consuelo Althouse and assistant camera Alisha Mehta. She shot No Go Backs primarily with a long lens in order to film from a distance and allow the teens autonomy and space, and to acknowledge that young people inhabit a unique state that can’t be fully interpreted from outside. While the world alternately persecutes or ignores teens, while pilfering their inventiveness, Kahn wanted to hold them in view while dialectically sensing what can’t be seen. The camera’s proximity to its subjects also reflects Kahn’s interest in the practice of mutual respect in general: to see and acknowledge difference without invading, assuming to know, or attempting to co-opt. Working without dialogue, Kahn wanted to make a film that could be quietly polemic, to allow the viewer more share of the discourse. Exhausted by daily word streams in the scroll of news and comments, everyone wrestling with position and rhetoric amidst the never-ending real violence of life in late capitalism, she wanted offer a break.

The camera often pauses, lingering to capture the magnitude of the earth. These scenes hope to be generous, offering a slowing of time in which rest, contemplation and self-awareness might occur, along with a sense of releasing the land from our grip. These pictures are also awestruck, and like the long shots of the kids, are enchanted recordings of the endangered.