On Tuesday, January 3rd, Proteus Gowanus hosted their first event of the New Year: a film exploration of Ellis Island. The evening began with a special magic lantern show guided by Barbara Mathé of the American Museum of Natural History. The Museum has a collection of magnificent glass slide photographs taken on Ellis Island by Chief Clerk Augustus Sherman, showing exteriors and interiors of the building complex as well as portraits of arriving immigrants. Many were later skillfully hand-colored by Museum employees. Barbara took us through the history of the island slide by slide. Joel Schlemowitz, a Brooklyn-based experimental filmmaker, was generous enough to provide an antique magic lantern to project the slides in their original form. The reflective glow of the worn-out faces of weary travelers illuminated the room with a soft tungsten light, allowing the audience to gaze right back into the faces of this nation’s ancestors. It truly was a unique experience.
The evening continued with a screening of “Ellis Island,” the landmark 1981 film by interdisciplinary artist Meredith Monk, featuring the Island’s immigration buildings before the restoration in the early 90s. Pablo Vela and Ellen Fisher, performers who have worked with Monk since the 1970s and appeared in the film, were in attendance to discuss the making of the project. It was clear that many of the images in the film evoked the lantern slides taken by Sherman at the turn of the 20th century. Performers, dressed in period clothing, posed for “moving portraits” and underwent the cursory medical examinations that could determine their fates. When asked about whether any of the performers had personal ties to the decrepit buildings, Ellen Fisher remarked that the mother of two children who appeared in a scene with her recollected her experience coming through Ellis Island as a child. These stories from the Monk performers brought a new closeness between the film and the lantern slides viewed earlier. Notes from the audience led to other personal memories of visiting Ellis Island and further discussion about the current state of human migration throughout the world.
As the programmer of the series, I’d like to thank Barbara Mathé, Joel Schlemowitz, Peter Scisioli, Pablo Vela & Ellen Fisher for their contributions to the event. This was the 3rd screening in our Migration Film & Video series, and we’ll continue hosting similar events throughout the year. The next screening is scheduled for February 7th.
— Sean Hanley, PG Film & Video Coordinator