The Great American Think Off

Big story from Nik’s News today - I’m honored to be a recipient of a 2018 Jerome Foundation Grant, which will fund the production of a documentary film about the Great American Think-Off, a rural philosophy debate that happens every year in New York Mills, Minnesota (population 1,199).

Four people from around the country compete to come to this central Minnesota town to debate questions like “Does Life Have Meaning?”, “Does Technology Free Us or Trap Us?", and "Has the 2016 election changed our perception of the truth?". The New York Mills Cultural Center (also known as the “Kulcher Center”), which hosts the debate, encourages writers "to ground their essays in personal experience rather than philosophical abstraction. "Four “thinkers” who have submitted essays on the agreed-upon philosophical question are brought to New York Mills, where they are invited to make their arguments before the town, who chooses a “Great American Thinker” by vote in their elementary school’s gym.

I applied like I do to many grants and residencies; by applying and then promptly forgetting about it, hardening myself to likely rejection and preparing to steamroll on ahead. So you can imagine what it was like when I got the phone call from the Jerome Foundation last week. I thought it must be a mistake!

I empathize with my colleagues and collaborators who might have applied for the same grant and whose projects weren’t accepted. The application pool seems to have been quite big (and likely strong!) and there are probably lots of factors that influence how the committee chooses. I get many more rejected than accepted applications, but that process helps me hone my application-writing skills to a fine, dagger-like point. This time, the persistence paid off. I’m both humbled and ecstatic to have been chosen! For now, here’s a little bit of my application narrative.

“An accessible open call like this attracts strong thinkers from all walks of life. Previous “Thinkers” include a 16-year old Eagle Scout, a doctoral candidate specializing in biomedical ethics, a retired assembly-line worker, a man incarcerated for murder whose essay was read aloud on stage in his absence, a staff writer of the Baltimore Sun, a World War II veteran, and my childhood dentist (he won twice). The “Great American Thinker” is never crowned as such for having the ‘right’ argument, but only for having the best-argued stance. “Honestly,” as the founder of the Kulcher Center said in 2012, “I think this idea of, 'I'm not changing my opinion, but really, the best argument tonight was made by this person,' is a pretty neat thing to do, isn't it?”

I’ve wanted to make a film about the Think-Off ever since I heard about it two years ago while working as a resident artist at the New York Mills Cultural Center. While there, I learned that New York Mills has a unique history of debate and dissent, being shaped by the many Finnish immigrants living there, who were often marginalized because of their socialist heritage. The 2017 Think-Off will no doubt feature strong characters, whom the film will follow from their arrival in New York Mills to their arguments on-stage, culminating in the winner’s announcement.

Since the 2016 election, rural communities have been psychoanalyzed ad-nauseum in the national media; they are mired in patronizing representations and surface assumptions of conservatism. As somebody with deep and continuing roots in rural Minnesota, I'm interested in depictions of rural life that contradict urban assumptions. In our fraught national political climate, these assumptions need to be challenged more than ever. At its core, this project is about complicating the dominant representation of rural people, by documenting a thoughtful and ideas-based debate happening in the deep north woods. I believe that now is the right time for a project like this.”

More to come soon!

West Duluth

I'll be living in Duluth, Minnesota for three months this summer working on a collaborative image-making project for the Duluth Art Institute. Lincoln Park is another neighborhood on the edge of transformation, with new businesses moving in at a moderate pace and the older, working-class neighborhood shifting with it. Culturally, the neighborhood reminds me of Superior, Wisconsin - a hard-drinking, hard-working, practical place with a deep industrial identity (even as that industry, primarily Taconite shipping and processing, is also changing rapidly).  As usual, my interest is in the history of the landscape and the ways people make sense of their place in it.

My work will be in the mold of my East Macon polaroid project, driven by a street-based collaborative image-making process. In other words, free pictures! I'm planning a storefront show on West Superior street as a culmination in September. Stay tuned! I'll be actively posting on facebook, instagram and on the project's site (

  My studio in Lincoln Park. Thanks to the great folks at the Duluth Art Institute!

My studio in Lincoln Park. Thanks to the great folks at the Duluth Art Institute!

13 Roads in Otter Tail County screenings

Hey all! I have some really exciting Minnesota screenings coming up this spring and summer. For starters, my film 13 Roads in Otter Tail County will screen at the 2017 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival this April 27th. This is soon, I know - so if you can't see it then, don't despair, because you can still catch it on the good-old-fashioned television. Twin Cities Public Television is showing the film as part of it's MNTV showcase on Sunday May 14th at 10:30 PM on TPT2 & Monday May 15th at 4:30 PM on TPT2. Next, it's showing at the Altered Esthetics Experimental Film Festival this June 1-3, which, by its past curation, looks like it's going to be a remarkable event (coincidentally falling on my birthday, June 2nd). Finally, the film will screen at the Walker Art Center this August 3rd as part of MNTV's museum run! This is a big life for such a little film, and I'm really happy about the love it's receiving. And finally, these rural roads will also be seen in the big city of San Francisco as part of Other Cinema's Psychogeography show on May 6th. Huzzah!

Common Ground PBS

Scott Knudson at Lakeland Public TV in Bemidji made a great short documentary about my art practice. My friend Christer and my dad Kent also make appearances!

Tal's Big Day

I've been living and working up in Fergus Falls, Minnesota, for the past several weeks, with the support of Springboard For The Arts. I'm working on several new projects, including this strange little flick I made one day in North Dakota. Watch it!

The Minnesota Third State Hospital for the Insane

I'm thrilled to announce that I've been accepted as a resident artist by Hinge Arts in Fergus Falls, Minnesota! This means that I'll be spending the spring on the humble plains of west central Minnesota, living in the old Fergus Falls State Hospital, also known as the Third Minnesota State Hospital for the Insane, working on an experimental/expanded documentary film project. I can't wait to find out what stories and memories are waiting to be dusted off inside this awe-inspiring, haunting and melancholy place.

More updates to come!

In The Shadow of Paul Bunyan Kickstarter!

It's finally up! Please take a look and consider donating.

"In the Shadow of Paul Bunyan is an experimental first person documentary about colonial heritage, mythmaking in northern Minnesota, the US/Dakota war of 1862 and a certain iconic pair of roadside attractions in Bemidji, Minnesota. The film explores the way the Anglo-American caricature of Paul Bunyan overshadows the many complex histories of this state. Using rarely seen archival materials and observational 16mm film, In the Shadow of Paul Bunyan is an expedition into the hidden corners of this land we call Minnesota." 

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Please donate to Northern Spark!

Northern Spark is an annual, dusk until dawn arts festival that lights up Minneapolis on the second Saturday of June each summer. The festival is presented by Northern, a small but mighty Minneapolis-based non-profit arts organization whose mission is to transform our sense of what’s possible in public space. Learn more about why they need your $$$ here.

"In The Shadow of Paul Bunyan" projection at Northern Spark 2014

I'm honored to be included in Northern Spark's 2014 lineup!  Northern Spark is a nonprofit all-night arts festival that lights up Minneapolis on June 14. I'll be projecting archival, found and original Paul Bunyan material on the side of the Cowles Center in downtown Minneapolis, directly across the street from the old Lumber Exchange Building. Read more about it here!