A Conversation with Michael Gitlin, Issa Ibrahim and Jim Supanick

On February 7th, filmmaker Michael Gitlin presented his documentary That Which is Possible Order .  The film focuses on The Living Museum, a gallery and studio located within a Queens psychiatric institution and explores “the reparative function of creative action.  After the screening, Michael was joined in discussion by Issa Ibrahim, a musician and artist who participated in the film, and videomaker Jim Supanick.  During this discussion, they addressed the history of contention between the hospital and museum as well as the film’s intricate sound design.


Jim Supanick: It seems in some ways that [the museum] goes by its own rules or ‘not rules?’

Michael Gitlin: I’ll say something really quick and then I’l let Issa talk, I think he can probably address this better.  The one thing that’s not in this film is Building 40, which is the big building that the in-patients are all living in now, which is, well, if you tried to design a building that would scare the Hell out of people with mental illness, that is the building you would design.  If you’ve ever been on the approach to what’s now called the RFK Bridge, that building off to the left on Randall’s Island is the Manhattan Psychiatric Center and it looks quite similar.  It’s bigger, but it’s designed by the same architect and it’s got this sort of oppressive look to it.  I thought for a while, ‘should I have that as a building in the film?’ But decided just to center it on this old part of the campus.  The campus is, in some ways, really beautiful, really leafy as you saw. It’s one of those weird places where maybe liberal good intentions and right-wing cost-cutting kind of came together. First, they moved everybody out of these old buildings and into this big, ugly, sort of oppressive-looking building and then started dumping people out of there.  But, in terms of the relationship between the two, I would say it’s a difficult relationship.  A strained relationship

Issa Ibrahim:  The Living Museum is a rehab program within the confines of a psychiatric center.  So, while under the roof of the place, it’s a grand art space, it still functions like a rehab program where they open every morning at 9:30 and close exactly at 11:30. They clean us out, we come back after lunch at 1:30 and work until about 4:30.  It’s very structured, very time oriented.  Because the in-patients who go there are, to the moment, on a schedule.

MG: I didn’t really know that, that’s interesting.  From my perspective, just as a person that went there as a volunteer and then just hanging out, it seemed like this place that was, and Janos kind of talks about this in the beginning, that it provides “the maximum possible freedom within the given conditions.”  He’s talking about life before The Living Museum, but in a way it’s also The Living Museum.  It’s kind of providing the maximum freedom possible within the given conditions.

II:  It’s very unique, totally unlike anything you’d ever imagine.  Anywhere, really. From a personal standpoint, going there twenty years as an in-patient, there’s the structure of the ward and then this Utopia.  As an artist coming to that Utopia is amazing.  You can do whatever you want to do.  I pushed those boundaries a lot.  Just seeing how far I could go in what I wanted to do.  I got away with a lot.

MG: My impression of Janos is that he tries to avoid saying ‘no’ or at least not say it directly as much as possible.  He kind of tries to ‘let things be’ as much as they can be.

II : Plausible deniability, he always says.

JS: When you say you’re pushing boundaries, what are those boundaries?  Are they people? Are they time contraints?

II: Artistic boundaries as well.  There was a period when I was doing body prints, nude body prints.  And because, at the time, there weren’t that many people coming in and out of the museum, I would prep my canvas, paint my body, lay down, and then just wash up, go back to the ward, then come back in the afternoon and do it again.  That’s an artistic boundary I was pushing.  But also, being a provocateur sometimes as an artist, you want to push the boundaries of society, so there were times I was sort of up against it with the administration.

JS: How did this get started for you Michael? You mentioned volunteering.  But, could you give me some sense of how this came to be a film?  We had a conversation about this a while back and I seem to remember you telling me that it wasn’t going to be a film.

MG: I didn’t go out there to make a film.  One reason for that is, and maybe people have seen the film, the documentarian Jessica Yu made a film called The Living Museum in about 1999.  So it’s a while ago but it’s got a lot of the same people.  Issa’s in it, John Tursi’s in it, and it’s the same place.  So in some ways, when I went out there, I felt that I didn’t need to make that film.  I was sort of working on another film on a related topic and I kind of wanted to be with people who would help me work through the things I was thinking about for that film.  I knew about The Living Museum through a good friend of mine who had been there as a volunteer, I had gone there years ago and actually had met Issa. So, at a certain point, I got in touch with Janos to become a volunteer.  I started going there weekly just doing what a volunteer would do.  Helping with computer stuff, taking photographs of artwork, just sort of hanging out.  The main thing a volunteer does there is provide a sort of social system so that’s what I was doing.  As I think is clear in the film, I got to really love the people there and became very close with some people.  Still, I didn’t think I was making a film.  After a few months, one of the guys there asked me to make a music video for him. Not the video you see in the film, a different one.  In some ways, that sort of outed me as a filmmaker so then I just started shooting all the time.  I still didn’t know I was making a film.  Before I knew it I had 35 hours of film and I still didn’t know I was making a film.  Then eventually it began to shape into a film.

JS: Issa, do you remember your first encounter with Michael?

II: Years ago a mutual friend introduced us.  One of the great things I remember is when he started coming around, I was sort of coattailing him.  I’m a filmmaker as well so I would sort of ask questions about certain things.  He showed me one of his films, The Birdpeople which was amazing.  I’d ask about things like lighting and just get little pointers about filmmaking.  I really liked what he did.  He had a very humane touch so I just tried to glean whatever I could when he was around.  Also as a musician, he’s a musician as well, we had kind of a music simpatico. You know, talking about Brian Wilson or whatever.

Buy JS: The first time I saw the film, afterwards thinking about it and now the last few days looking again at it, I’m trying to figure this out.  In some ways, I see a sense of continuity with your past work.  You have this really distinct visual sensibility, I think.  It’s hard to pinpoint in words.

MG: Thank you, I think.

JS: Well, I mean that in the most positive sense.  But, there’s also a set of thematic concerns which I’m also hard-pressed to put into words. All that said, this seems like something of a departure.  I’m gonna steal something that you said about it before.  You ‘made a musical.’  Maybe you could talk about that, but also I think the sense of collaboration is something that maybe was there in previous films.  Here it’s right in the foreground.

MG: I’ll start with the musical thing.  When you’re there, the thing that strikes you, if you keep your ears open, is the soundtrack of the place.  It’s really amazing.  Music coming from the music room, the band might be playing, there’s music playing on the stereo, there might be a TV or radio going.  Just a lot of stuff going on.  There’s a lot of different music that people are playing and I wanted to take that all on, and take it seriously.  I didn’t want to distinguish between the stuff that’s more polished, like the recording we hear at the end, and stuff like the music from the women who calls herself ‘Queen Earth Blessing.’  She doesn’t play guitar like a person usually plays the guitar, but she takes it very seriously.  I wanted to respect that.  I thought a lot about what happens in a musical.  There’s this buildup of psychic or emotional pressure until the only way for it to be released is through song.  In a way, that’s what I wanted in the film.  There’s a buildup of pressure that, then, gets released in a song.  We get access to people’s interior lives as much through the music as through things like the collaboration.  It’s a little more ‘doc-y’ than the other stuff I’ve made.  I also felt a certain ethical responsibility to the folks I was with.  When I first started thinking, ‘maybe I’ll use some of this in a film,’ I was still working on my other project. I thought about using portions of it to make a sort of collage thing like I would usually do.  Then I thought, ‘this doesn’t seem right.’  The folks there didn’t sign on to be in that other film.  So in some ways I felt that I had to make the film a little different in that way.

JS: Why don’t we open it up to the audience?

Audience Member 1: I wanted to continue the conversation about cooperation and ask you two about acting and performance.  I thought it was a really nice turn when the music video started.  Stylistically, the shift from documentary to straight-up performance was interesting.  There were also a lot of moments where people would look directly into the camera and it became clear that it was partially an act.  Even the interviews with [Issa] felt very much like a performance in some ways.  Maybe it was the way it was edited, or just the way it happened?

II: I don’t know how to answer that, really.  I’ve been in several documentaries, I’ve been on NPR, they did an hour-long special on me, so I’m very familiar with being asked questions.  Especially questions about things as serious as what I discuss in the film.  So maybe it didn’t seem fresh.  I hate to say rehearsed.  That’s what I’ve devoted my life to actually.  I try to be very open and honest about those things.

MG: I didn’t know that.  Again, I thought we were having this moment!  I would say, in response to that, that one of the things the material made me think about was the Erving Goffman phrase “the presentation of self in everyday life.”  I mean, I couldn’t help but think about that a lot.  How do we present ourselves? In particular, how does this group of folks present themselves to me?  Though I grew to be close to people, I was still an outsider.  I wasn’t part of daily life.  I was there once, sometimes twice, a week.  So there is a performative aspect of the interaction we have.  Certainly that’s true most clearly in the thing with John when he puts on his Pink Floyd straitjacket and performs ‘crazy.’  John is a bit of a ham, I mean that in the best way.  He came in as I was filming a musical performance and I couldn’t not film it.  He was making a performance about mental illness in a way.  As I said, there is a kind of performance that’s happening in different ways throughout the film.

Audience Member 2: I have some experience, as you know, with The Living Museum.  I came there with these concepts that were preconceived and after spending years in personal contact I’ve come to have a different perspective on mental illness and what I call ‘psychophobia.’ I was wondering if you could talk about your own ‘psychophobia’ and maybe, Issa, you could respond to that.  What is ‘psychophobia’ about?

MG: I mean, I would say if I’m guilty of something it’s maybe not ‘psychophobia’ but ‘psychophilia.’  Which is maybe the inverse and bad in a different way.  I’m not condescending but interested, in a way, for my own psychic reasons.  Anybody that’s interested in that area is interested for reasons that come from their own drives.  I guess, that said, there are folks around the edges of The Living Museum that I didn’t get to know. People that felt less welcoming.  You know, I’ve got a camera and that’s a pretty big deal in that kind of environment.  So, those people are not in the film obviously.  I think, everybody that’s in the film, I had some kind of connection with, some deeper than others.  But, there are some people I didn’t make a connection with.  There I felt that sense of ‘I can’t reach this person’ or ‘I don’t know how to reach this person.’

II: I know this gentleman, so he’s kind of like a plant.  But, it’s kind of like psychophobia being a type of racism, or sexism, or ageism.  It’s something we’re working on.  Trying to break down those barriers as days go by.

Audience Member 3: At what point did you know that Issa was going to be sort of the central voice in the film?

MG: Again, it’s pretty shocking how long I worked on this thing before I knew I had a film.  Nothing like that has ever happened to me in a way.  As soon as I began to put material together, Issa was pretty central to that.  For a variety of reasons.  First, I like the guy and when I was there he was always someone I wanted to see and say ‘hi’ to.  And, he’s also really able to clearly speak about what his experience was.  And he’s really talented, as a painter, as a songwriter.  It was clear early on that there would be three central people: John, Janos, and Issa.  They lead us through in a way but Issa does become kind of the center.  Plus he’s just photogenic.

Audience Member 4: I don’t have a specific question.  But, I have an observation about the exhibition of the work.  It seems like it could be considered overstimulating.  As opposed to the gallery system which is how artwork is typically presented.  You know, white walls and such.  Could you speak to that opposition?

II: Well, I was struck by it too when I came there.  Overstimulating is the perfect word for it.  I’ve been coming there for twenty years and there are still things I’ll see and think, ‘I’ve never seen that before.’  I think of it like a really good book, or a really good film, or a really good song by a really good baroque pop band where you can play it a thousand times and you’ll still hear something that thousandth time that you never heard before.  I know it’s not white walls, not the gallery system, but we exist outside of that.  The Outsider Arts Fair just happened this past weekend and we weren’t a part of it, happily.

Audience Member 4: I’m not saying it should be.  Maybe I shouldn’t even say it’s overstimulating.

II: It is, it still is.  I think that’s one of the reasons they call it The Living Museum.  There’s always a new piece of art getting placed somewhere that you’ve never seen before.

MG: There are lots of rooms that didn’t make it into the film.  And there are some pieces, like the clown painting we see, where no one can identify the artist.  There’s stuff that’s been there for years and no one knows where it came from.  It’s really an amazing place.  Upstairs there’s this file room which mostly consists of work on cardboard.  Hundreds and hundreds of pieces of beautiful work just kind of sitting there, mouldering really.

JS: Colin, you had your hand up?

Audience Member 5: I think the film does a really nice job of navigating the pieces of received wisdom one encounters when thinking about mental illness especially with relation to art.  On one hand, you’ve got the fetishization of ‘outsider art.’ The sort of stuff that makes a prop of mental illness or tries to borrow a certain power from it.  And on the other, there’s sort of a discomfort with conceptions of art that are therapeutic.  The film did a very nice job of not falling into either of those traps and that seems tied to the very construction of the museum itself.  I’m also curious to hear more about the intellectual background of the doctor we see talking.

MG: I’d say one thing about that.  And maybe, Issa, you can tell me if this is true.  My understanding is that there is, in Building 40, an art therapy program.

II: Yeah.

MG: So that gives you a sense of the difference between The Living Museum and art therapy.  The museum isn’t really art therapy, it’s artists doing stuff. So it’s not therapy in a traditional sense.  My understanding of art therapy is you make some art and then work through ‘what is this telling you about your psychic mechanism?’ and all of that.  Janos isn’t sitting with the clients at The Living Museum and talking about the art.  First of all, he doesn’t have time to do that.  And I don’t think he has the inclination to do that.  I mean, he is talking about the art, but he’s not talking about it on that level.  In that sense, what I tried to do was show that that’s what happens there.  That it’s not an art therapy program in that sense but it’s clear that making stuff does something for the people there.  In a way that struck a chord for me.  You know, what is it that makes you want to make stuff?

Audience Member 6: Just to clarify, in-patients who are sent to Creedmoor are in Building 40 and are not part of this program?

II: It’s a privilege system.  Because it’s a rehab program, they have to be evaluated by their treatment team.  Then, once their evaluated and found to be fit to go over, with our without an escort, they’re shipped on a bus and dropped off at the museum.

MG: The people in the film are a mix, a mix I didn’t really want to tease apart of in-patients and out-patients.

Audience Member 7: I really liked that you didn’t really draw a distinction between in-patients and out-patients.  I liked the slow reveal of the doctor too.  Eventually you realize that, yes, he really is a doctor.  I kept expecting a big reveal.

MG: Yeah, Janos is a bit of an eccentric.

Audience Member 2: In Jessica Yu’s film he says that he’s more delusional than everybody else.  And he would probably still say it.

MG: He’s a very interesting guy.  I’ll say this as a bit of background about him, his dad was part of the ’56 uprising in Hungary and was arrested.  His whole family was kind of thrown out of Hungary and came here.  That should give you a sense for his approach to dealing with bureaucracies.  ‘Just kind of keep your head down, do your thing’ you know.  To paraphrase James Joyce, “the artist lives by silence, cunning, and exile.”  That’s his way of dealing with Building 40 and the people at the top.

Audience Member 8 purchase torsemide 10 : I have a question for Issa, are you still at Creedmoor? What’s your relationship to the hospital?

II: No, I was there for twenty years and got out about five years ago.  I have my own apartment now in Richmond Hill, Queens.  I still come to the museum as a peer counselor.  I do substance abuse counseling and medication compliance counseling and various other things.  Not that I’m pro-medication. I’m there once or twice a week. Usually I’m at home writing or painting.

MG: You used to have your studio in the museum.  You don’t use that as a studio anymore?

II: It’s my exhibition studio but I don’t paint there.  When I was in-patient I used it.


Audience Member 9: Issa, could you talk about what the future holds?

II: I’m working on a memoir.  I just recently acquired a literary agent and I’m working on a memoir about my life and this whole experience with mental illness.  They hope to turn it into a film.  They always say that, so who knows.  I’m still painting as well.  I just made a documentary musical, inspired by yours Michael.  It was at the Big Apple Film Festival and it’ll be at a few more film festivals this year.

Audience Member 10: I wanted to ask about the camera and how you work with your camera.  Early on there’s a shot with visible shaking which I really liked.  I’m guessing you didn’t use a tripod and that that was a conscious choice.  Maybe that sense of stability would have felt unfair? And then there’s another choice you made that had to do with focus.  At times it seemed that because you had a shallow depth of field, you didn’t always understand everything.  It was clearly not an omniscient camera.  I thought that was a subtle way of admitting your own process of discovery.

MG: Thank you. The one thing I would say to preface remarks about this is, in some ways accidents and contingency play a bigger role in decision making than we would like to admit as filmmakers.  I had my camera, a Canon 5D and again I didn’t know I was shooting a film.  I was taking a lot of stills.  The first few shots are totally handheld which was difficult.  I soon built an apparatus with PVC that I could’ve bought for eight-hundred bucks but built for ten.  It gave me a little bit more stability with the camera.  And then there are shots where it kind of looks like you’re on a boat.  For those I used a Steadicam Merlin, it’s like the bottom of the Steadicam family basically.  I had never used one so I really just figured my way through it.  Everything else I’ve ever made, I’ve used a tripod.  It became clear that that would be impossible if I was going to make the film I wanted to make.  As soon as I put up the tripod it felt weird.  There was a much different relationship between the people there and the camera when I used it.

Audience Member 11: To what extent is it a film about New York? Because we never see that it’s in New York but there were a few reminders.

II: The accents.

MG: In a way it’s a film about Queens.  Every borough has their own psychiatric center and I assume they each probably have a slightly different culture with some shared aspects.  But this is, I think, the only place like this.  It comes back to the question, ‘why isn’t this everywhere?’ And it’s bizarre that isn’t everywhere.  I never really thought of it as a film about New York but I definitely thought of it as a film about Queens.  It’s quite a shlep to get out there.

Audience Member 12: Were there stories or performances that you decided to leave out that were hard to leave out? And was there anything you had to ask someone to recreate/

MG: I can’t really remember anything that had to be recreated.  But, there were a number of things I had to leave out.  The process of making the film involved getting OMH (Office of Mental Health) consent forms and by the time I came around some people had moved on or decided they didn’t want to be in the film.  Two people in particular, Curtis and Tyrone were hard to leave out.

Audience Member 13: Are the people at The Living Museum all experienced in art? Or do some decide there that they want to try it?

II: I’d say about 80% have some sort of artistic proclivity.  I have an extensive art background as do other people.  But there are some people who just sit down and do what they want to do.


Audience Member 14: So people sort of work on their own? I’m under the impression that art therapy traditionally involves a teacher or whatever, but this seems different.

II: There’s definitely no instruction.  There are volunteers, people who are there.  I’m there and if you have a question to ask as far as materials or whatever we’re there.  It usually doesn’t come up though.


MG: People will bring things to Janos while he’s sitting at his desk and try to get feedback.  Sometimes he’s forthcoming and sometimes not.  He doesn’t really see it as his role to be that forthcoming about his criticism of things.  That’s one of the things that attracted me to the place.  It’s also one of the places where the title That Which is Possible comes from.  Most people work really hard but you can also be there just to escape the mental health system.  Janos has a German word for it, this sort of ‘constructive hanging out.’

Audience Member 15: I have a question for Michael, I found this piece very spiritual.  Can you comment on the spiritual aspects of the film?

MG: Well, Issa’s kind of a spiritual guy but I wouldn’t call myself spiritual.  For me, there’s a lot in the film that isn’t spiritual exactly, but meaningful.  The sense of ‘meaningfullness’ that can enter someone’s life is one of the things I was working through.  I wouldn’t say I found that in everybody, but it was definitely something a lot of people showed.

Audience Member 16 Purchase : I find it interesting that there were practically no women in this.  There are two I can remember. Was that just haphazard?

MG: It’s certainly a thing in the film that I was very aware of.  I thought a lot about it while I was making the film and tried to include as many women as I could.  There are quite a few women there.  Probably a few more men than women, if you looked at the percentages.  I think part of it is that I had a camera, and I’m a guy, and I’m white.  There was a kind of distance …

Audience Member 16: From you or from them?

Buy MG: From them.  I wasn’t able to make a connection that I was with some of the guys.  The woman I was closest to, you see her in the film sewing, was the only woman who would agree to be interviewed.  But, the stuff I recorded didn’t really end up working with the film.  So yeah, it’s something I thought a lot about but it was really a situation I didn’t have as much control over as I would’ve liked.

Audience Member 17: I really enjoyed the film.  But, there was one section where I thought the editing really didn’t stick with what really happened.  There’s the guy who’s reading a lot and you cut it up in a way that makes it seem sort of incoherent.  I was curious about that choice given your commitment to realism.

MG: I wouldn’t say I had a commitment to realism.  There’s a lot in the film that’s really manipulated. For me the film has two structural grids that overlay each other.  One is the grid of the day.  The other is kind of as if the film is decompensating. Which maybe you can explain, Issa.

II: It’s when medication leaves your system and you start to experience psychosis.

MG: Right, the medication leaves your system, the dosage isn’t adjusted correctly, and you experience a psychotic episode.  And so there’s a way in which the film goes down and then back up.  After lunch, John dances and then tells us what is going on in his head. Then Issa tells his story and Timothy tells kind of a rambling and intense story.  So the camera work is intense.  I have looked at the film and wondered if I was going too far there, being ‘not nice.’  So I have questions about it but it’s the one place in the film where I didn’t do anything to the sound.  It gives you a sense of the cacophony that’s there sometimes.

Audience Member 17: It felt like you were sort of playing with coherence and incoherence.

MG: Right, and then the film sort of comes back out.  The music changes to a beautiful song and they’re talking about family.  So that’s part of this other grid.

Audience Member 18: Could you talk about the technical conception of the sound? Sound in the film is never a given like it usually is in documentary.  It feels very intentional.   Even in the moments of cacophony, it’s a very particularly textured cacophony.

MG: The one thing I did a lot of was record sound separately with a stereo mic.  This goes back to the question about reconstruction.  There is a lot in the sense that I recorded a lot of sound and then found images that went with the sounds.  Obviously sound comes into play a lot and like I said a lot of it involved taking things away and then building from scratch.

JS: Thank you everyone.