Tony Buba is among Pittsburgh’s most acclaimed independent filmmakers. And like so many people these days, he’s admittedly obsessed by the coronavirus pandemic.
It’s a deadly disease, after all, especially for older folks and those with underlying health conditions. And Buba imagines that his lungs are compromised after a lifetime spent in Braddock and North Braddock – the same stretch of the industrial Mon Valley he’s spent his storied career chronicling in films that have screened around the world.
Buba was the Miller Institute of Contemporary Art’s pick to lead off Looking Out, its new series of photographic and video art based on what artists see through their windows while sheltering in place during the pandemic.
The gallery, based at Carnegie Mellon University, posts a new work each weekday morning on its Instagram page. The series started May 19 with Buba’s “COVID-19 an obsession – Part I,” shot through the front window of his home on a quiet wooded road. The 8.5 minutes of footage centers on a bird feeder, and the lead cast members include a Baltimore oriole.
The camera never moves during any of the series of shots, and the video feels meditative, like you’re simply staring out the window with the artist as birds come and go. But the film is subtly experimental. On the soundtrack, “Sometimes the shots are a little in sync, [or] a little out of sync, sort of like our lives,” said Buba. And while “COVID-19” was shot over two days, it’s edited to feel like one, to reflect the blurring of time many of us are experiencing during the shutdown.
The work’s surface peace and quiet, meanwhile, are belied by Buba’s accompanying essay, which explains his “obsession.” “I am 76 and I will be 77 in October,” he writes. “People in my age group have extraordinarily little chance of survival even without having been subjected to breathing the polluted Mon Valley air their whole life. I am preparing for my death.”
Buba was invited to contribute to “Looking Out” by Alex Young, part of the team that developed the project as part of the Miller ICA’s move to provide online programming during the pandemic. Young said he was inspired by works like Polish artist Józef Robakowski’s video “From My Window,” which he shot over more than two decades from his flat in a high-rise apartment. (In a society full of the homebound, others have of course been using social media in similar ways, like this Facebook group.)
“I thought of it as this great way to do something both meaningful and enjoyable for the participants,” said Young. “The window becomes this membrane. Both the window that’s literal, and vernacular architecture, and the windows of our screens.”
“It’s really about also creating kind of portrait of Pittsburgh in this moment, and creating an archive of what it looks like through the pandemic, though the viewpoint of artists,” said Miller ICA director Elizabeth Chodos.
Also posting works on Looking Out last week were Shaun Slifer, Erin Mallea and Lindsey french. Scheduled contributors include Chris Ivey, Barbara Weissberger, Kevin Clancy, Carin Mincemoyer, David Bernabo, and the artist team slowdanger.
The series’ run is open-ended. “As long as people are looking out their windows, we’ll be doing Looking Out,” said Chodos.
There will be more from Buba, too, including “COVID-19 an obsession – Part II.” The filmmaker’s career stretches back to the 1970s, when he made his name with quirky, incisive short films about Braddock and its people. Critical acclaim followed his 1989 indie feature “Lightning Over Braddock,” which has earned a long afterlife at film festivals and art houses. His 2013 documentary “We Are Alive,” about the fight to save Braddock Hospital, screened around the country.
Part of his COVID-19 obsession, Buba said, is his fear that he won’t get to finish two other documentaries he’s working on, another about Braddock and one about his parents’ home village, in Italy. And one thing more: “If I get this and I die now, I can’t have this big funeral I’ve always thought about, with people coming and saying what a great guy I was!” he said, laughing.