Matt Town: SOAP

by Joel Schlemowitz

A spray of bright sparks on the black screen, seeming to be a display of fireworks. It is the result of an arc welder, scattering molten metal droplets. A thick-bladed band saw cuts into a piece of steel. The weighty visage of the black-and-white 16mm reversal film used to convey these images onto the movie screen seems itself a metallic compound of steely grays and rich blacks.

The film is SOAP by Matt Town, shown at Millennium Film Workshop on November 30th in a two-person program of works by Angela Ferraiolo and Matt Town. The film’s title refers to a soap box racer, its construction assiduously documented in silent, static shots.

But is is not the soap box racer of nostalgic, childhood idylls that emerges before us. The thing assembled before the camera from square steel beams and sheets of plywood is strange and boxlike. It is a blank, sharp-edged rectangle. Perhaps its plain outline does have a certain childhood association. It is suggestive of the cardboard refrigerator box, coveted as the makings of a playtime fort, citadel, castle, or bunker. A minimal form, its absent details filled in through youthful imagination.

A paint roller is seen in close-up applying a coat of white to its flat, unadorned surface. A white rectangle, it resembles two sugar cubes that humidity has fused together end to end. The only feature disrupting the blankness is an oval hole up top for the driver to peer out.

We look down upon the streets of Bushwick, Brooklyn, viewed from rooftop or window. The sight of the empty streets goad us into a feeling of anticipation, awaiting the eventual visitation of this unearthly soap box racer. The neighborhood itself had a part in the project’s concept, Matt Town would later explain. An unlikely merging of an interest in soap box racers and the troubling feelings in witnessing the gentrification of Bushwick, the new arrivals attempting to “wash away” the neighborhood’s character and community.

The blank, white rectangle, with wheels round and thin protruding out from beneath it, slowly rolls down the street and into the frame. The use of black-and-white 16mm film is well suited to heighten the visual disparity of the stark, white box racer and the tonal variety of the urban setting with its a rich harmony of silvery grays.

We can’t help but let out a little laugh at the sight of this strange, incongruous thing, a square-shaped UFO gliding silently down the city street. Its occupant is seen in white plastic construction worker’s helmet, peering from his oval lair. His eyes are just visible above the surface of the racer, causing him to resemble a tank driver. Or perhaps the object of an ultra-minimalist version of “whack-a-mole” poking out from his burrow. Despite our amusement at the sight of this rectangular apparition, the racer has an unsettlingly sinister quality as well. A white, reclining version of the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey a featureless rectangular slab of otherworldly origin.

SOAP appeared as an installation work at Microscope Gallery back in the summer of this year, the 16mm projector concealed within a white box on a metal stand, a form echoing the physiognomy of the soap box racer driving the streets of Bushwick in the film. A visual interplay of image and object. There at Microscope the film had been shown on a loop, but now it was an equally gratifying experience to view it in linear form on the screen of Bushwick’s Millennium Film Workshop.

Matt joked afterwards about the work’s connection to Bushwick. The film was not only made in Bushwick — using Millennium’s cameras and editing equipment, no less — but with presentations at both Microscope and Millennium, the film had thus far only been screened in the neighborhood of its origin. Perhaps he means to embargo its presentation elsewhere? In that case you’ll just have to come to Bushwick to see it next time.