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The first in a series of Moving Image Commissions premiered in the Walker during Cinema and released June 1 for a limited run online, James Richards new 8-minute film, Radio at Night (2015) responds to the legacy of late British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Here, Bentson Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap discusses the mechanical mediations of sensuality and flow. A painter, writer, queer political activist, and […]
The first in a series of Moving Image Commissions premiered in the Walker during Cinema and released June 1 for a limited run online, James Richards new 8-minute film, Radio at Night (2015) responds to the legacy of late British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Here, Bentson Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap discusses the mechanical mediations of sensuality and flow.
A painter, writer, queer political activist, and filmmaker, Derek Jarman (1942–1994) took a synthetic approach to his art. His dexterous approach to composition, as well as his ability to blend the painterly aspects of celluloid film with the nascent technologies of video, reveals his integrationist thinking. Jarman’s films especially are characterized by the sensual interplay of human figures and the environments they inhabit. Candidly probing representations of bodies, relationships and aesthetics, his legacy continues to have a profound effect on the creation and future possibilities of queer cinema.
Artist James Richards frequently cites Jarman as an inspiration for his own work, and Radio at Night is an explicit expression of the late filmmaker’s influence. Echoing Jarman’s collage techniques and inverted color palettes, as well as revealing Richards’ own embrace of sound as a complex force that might govern the behavior of an image, the contemporary artists’ new 8-minute video is a spectral meditation on the human figure as a space of sensual integration.
Radio at Night is a work suffused with openings, holes and voids: eyes, mouths, viewfinders, geysers (as well as violent openings: surgical incisions and bullet holes). Whether literal or metaphorical, bodily apertures are both the subject of the work and the tools for its reception. Here, sound and image relentlessly commune to remind the viewer of their materiality. These are substances that are, in essence, physical; they flow into our aural and retinal cavities prior to recognition, sense and interpretation.
“I wanted to create a sense of the material as something channeled,” says Richards of Radio at Night, “rather than something taken.” Channeling—perhaps more usefully reinscribed as “flow”—is central to the artists’ work, and especially to Radio at Night. “Flow” not only articulates the artist’s continuous circulation of sound and image throughout this work and others (Richards’ often recycles and adapts material from one video to the next, drawing from his growing stockpile), but also describes the absorption, integration and transmission of material. The diversity of Richards sources—home movies, pornography, instructional videos, spoken word records, and the artists’ own burgeoning collection of self-shot footage—are unmoored from their original contexts and synthesized into a different logic. And yet the appropriated material always retains a single element or trace residue for which it was first gleaned by the artist: a specific noise, gesture, color or mood.
The American artist Steve Reinke, a previous collaborator of Richards’, describes the latter artist’s approach to source material as one of “narrative and affect suspension.” Rerouted from their initial context, materials transition from one state to another, repurposed not into another narrative but an environment in which the original footage is a complicit collaborator. So, too, one is subjected to Radio at Night as one is subjected to an environment. In an environment, sound is resonant, while vision is evident. In the video, the former consistently dominates the latter; switches in tone precipitate cuts or inversions of video action, and tonal pauses remove the presence of the image altogether.
Philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has described the relationship between sound and the body as a sonorous event: “a time that opens up, that is hollowed out, that is enlarged or ramified, that envelops or separates, that becomes or is turned into a loop, that stretches or contracts.” Nancy’s evocative and metaphorically anal description operates under the premise that one submits to a sonorous event. In other words, one can close one’s eyes, but not one’s ears. The sonorous event is an environment rather than a score and, in this way, it finds striking similarity to the intentions of ambient music, a genre that seeks to favor atmosphere over structure. For Radio at Night, this parallel is significant. Not only does its soundtrack give a nod to the ambient output of experimental music group and regular Jarman collaborators, Coil, but it also conceptually echoes Coil’s central inquiry, which was emblazoned on the sleeve of their 1984 debut album, How to Destroy Angels: “How sound can affect the physical and mental state of the serious listener.” Whether by accident or design, Coil emphasize sound’s power to affect materiality first, and perception second.
In Richards’ work, sound subjects the listener to specific acoustic architectures in order to influence the reading of onscreen images, especially those that indicate the human figure. In Radio at Night, as well as its precursor Raking Light (2014), the soundtrack includes familiar sounds of digital technologies that occur in close proximity to the body—namely, the sounds of “personal devices”: a small camera and its microphone scraping along the surface of a table, the noise of a hard drive “thinking,” a hard wind rushing into an unshielded microphone, for example. These sounds are frequently paired with the typically depersonalized imagery of instructional videos, documentary films, and medical photographs. Nearness and anonymity are thus bridged and paired. So too the title of the work infers such a hierarchy. In a reference to a text by Richards’ late friend and artist Ian White (1971–2013), the phrase “radio at night” captures the idea of an atmosphere authored by sound that is mediated and brought into being by technology. Radio is, after all, a transmission that is public in broadcast, and yet private in reception.
In contrast to his earlier output, which is largely characterized by sonic dissonance and the unhinged emotional turbulence that such atonality brings, Richards’ audio for Radio at Night operates out of a definitive engagement with musical harmony. The soundtrack is entirely composed in the key of C Minor, blending fragments of found sound with passages sung by a female vocal ensemble. (The artist commissioned the ensemble to perform excerpts from ‘The enemies of She Who call her various names’ a 1972 poem by American feminist, lesbian activist, and poet Judy Grahn. Excerpts of Grahn’s poems and voice have previously appeared in Richards’ Misty Suite, 2009 and Not Blacking Out, Just Turning The Lights Off (2001–2012). This C-minor key sustains a register of sonic coherence from beginning to end—from the opening scene, where a low thrumming sound of two interchangeable notes accompanies a constrained shot of trees inside a viewfinder, through to the complex and hypnotic arrangements of choppy samples that stutter together in the central section of the video. Radio at Night’s unified quality is not entirely hermetic, however. Like the open holes, cavities, and apertures it depicts on screen, the video itself is a porous structure: disparate materials become interchangeable within a rhythmic whole, sounds and images flow in and out as if elements of a bridge or chorus.
A feeling of seamlessness permeates Radio at Night. Disparate material is regulated and conditioned into coherence. Simple interventions—namely, Richards’ use of the imposition of the loop and the frame—skew a source’s original sense of scale or duration, and integrates a controlled mechanical process into physical mannerisms. (This is not to say that human gesture is purely rendered as a mechanized artifact, but rather the situation is reciprocal: the loop gives a human image to the mechanism.) “The video frame acts less like a window and more like a surface in which activities happen and are divided,” says Richards. “These are images pumped out as if from a small bandwidth, personal but distant.”
In his 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin described cinema as a function to “train human beings in the apperceptions and reactions needed to deal with a vast apparatus whose role in their lives is expanding almost daily.” Radio at Night emerges from and also depicts a contemporary moment in which the human figure is seamlessly blended with its technological environment. Here, apperception is not simply an instructive coping mechanism, but an aesthetically elevated form of visceral engagement that draws out emotional correspondences between unlikely entities: a “thinking” hard-drive that looks back at us, the melancholia of a crowd disappearing into the darkness. It is this space and sound between the physical moment and a perceptual one that Radio at Night attempts to render.
The first in a series of Moving Image Commissions premiered in the Walker Cinema and released online June 1 for a limited run, Moyra Davey’s new 28-minute film, Notes on Blue (2015) is a response to the late British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Here, Bentson Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap discusses the artist’s exploration of mortality, color, and identity. Moyra Davey’s Notes on […]
The first in a series of Moving Image Commissions premiered in the Walker Cinema and released online June 1 for a limited run, Moyra Davey’s new 28-minute film, Notes on Blue (2015) is a response to the late British filmmaker Derek Jarman. Here, Bentson Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap discusses the artist’s exploration of mortality, color, and identity.
Moyra Davey’s Notes on Blue begins with a frank explanation of how it came to be: “I began with a first note to myself,” says Davey as she walks back and forth in front of the camera. “I made a list. But I’ll start in the middle with Blue Ruin, a one-minute movie shot on outdated film stock about a woman at the end of the day, threading her bra out from under her t-shirt, while pouring shots of gin from the freezer.”
Braiding together disparate observations and personal accounts, Notes on Blue is an episodic meditation on blindness, color, and the life and work of British filmmaker Derek Jarman (1942–1994). From the opening scene of her 28-minute video and throughout the work, Davey continually folds time back on itself. In her prefatory monologue the artist establishes a new orientation; she states that the beginning is not actually the beginning at all, but the middle. The middle to which she refers is, meanwhile, an anachronistic fragment: Blue Ruin, a film storyboarded ten years ago, a year before the artist went blind in one eye.
Notes on Blue is the result of Davey’s enquiry and responses to the work and legacy of Jarman the filmmaker, gardener, political activist and, perhaps most significantly for Davey, Jarman the writer. At the invitation of the Walker Art Center last year, Davey began her commission by poring over the late filmmakers notes and journals. Jarman was a prolific writer, whose voluminous autobiographical books and personal sketchbooks occasionally spilled over into autofiction. His style of writing — intimate and uninhibited — is an intriguing complement to Davey’s own confessional and lyrical writing that often takes the form of short essays and personal notes, published in parallel with her exhibitions of photographic work or else employed as spoken-word monologues to her essay films, including Fifty Minutes (2006), Les Goddesses (2011), and, now, Notes on Blue. Davey amassed her personal reflections on Jarman, rewriting them into her own pre-existing texts, spawning new ones, and incorporating these alongside her own Super-8 and digital video footage both recent and old.
In Notes on Blue, Jarman’s experience with blindness as a consequence of AIDS is paralleled with Davey’s own blindness as a consequence of Multiple Sclerosis. Both draw on illness as a site of production, a catalyst for thought as much as a subject. Jarman’s blindness was the subject of his final film Blue (1994), a single continuous shot of Yves Klein’s International Blue (the color Jarman said he could see when he went blind), accompanied by a 79-minute autobiographical monologue. It is this Blue to which Davey’s work refers, occasionally paraphrases, and intersperses with her own typically wry reflections on illness: “My first reaction was relief I didn’t have a brain tumor and, like many patients, I enjoyed being the actor at the center of my own drama,” says Davey on finding the cause of her blindness. “Thus began a different way of life.” (Unsentimental and direct, both Davey’s responses and her invocation of Jarman’s are reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s own reflections in her book On Being Ill. As the latter wrote: “Incomprehensibility has an enormous power over us in illness, more legitimately perhaps than the upright will allow. In health meaning has encroached upon sound.”)
Together with an associative and personalized array of quotations, diary entries, and anecdotes, the reflective thrust of Notes on Blue also takes detours into the personal lives of American poet Anne Sexton, Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges, German filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder, and British musician PJ Harvey. Each of these figures are amalgamated into Davey’s personal constellation of equivalences, and their words are suspended epigraphically within her own narrative — a spoken monologue that is itself mediated through a prerecorded audio prompt that plays over headphones worn by the artist as a form of aide memoire.
The structuring principle of Notes on Blue — the form of the personal note — is embedded both in the work’s title and its opening monologue. As something that always seeks to encapsulate an event or impression, the primary function of the personal note is to preserve and transport intimate observations about the present into the future; and, as the future becomes the present, the personal note becomes an archive. Maintaining some details at the cost of obscuring others, the personal note can be a compulsive form. Responding sympathetically to Roland Barthes’s apparent addiction to note-taking (a habit that regularly interrupted his conversations and walks with friends), Davey wrote in her 2007 essay “Notes on Photography and Accident,”
Reading and thinking about note-taking gives me a form of security, a thrill even. […] I’m drawn to fragmentary forms, to lists, diaries, notebooks and letters. Even just reading the word ‘diary’ elicits a frisson, a touch of promise. It’s the concreteness of these forms, the clarity of their address, that appeals and brings to mind Virginia Woolf’s dictum about writing, that “to know whom to write for is to know how to write.”
As Davey explains by way of Woolf, the inner logic of the personal note collapses reader and writer together. It excuses the need for linear narrative and permits content to jump between times and places. Subject matter is meanwhile arbitrarily bound together by physical proximity on the page as much as in the mind of its author. It is in this vein that Notes on Blue traverses its episodic sketches, purposefully constituting its own interior sense of time.
Davey’s preoccupation with noting and recording the quality of time and its effects has recurred throughout her expansive practice. Her art directly engages with the interplay between personal time and the narratives it produces, whether through her analogue photographs of fridge-freezers, clocks, or dust (all portraits of time accrued or suspended); videos that re-examine her formative family portraits and illustratively places them alongside the diarized lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and her family and lovers; or her short and informal collection of published texts that intersperse quotes from critics, poets and artists with her own reminiscences and responses. Integral to Davey’s inquiry, too, is the artist’s inhabitation of domestic time and space — a site that might offer respite from the industrialized clock of work time, as well as the potential to withdraw from social interactions that would inhibit personal reflection and interiority.
In many of Davey’s previous photographs and videos, her New York apartment has served as the private backdrop, where the residue of home living is observed and captured: lint is glimpsed gathering under furniture, incongruous patches of floor tiling are flattened out photographically in two dimensions, groaning bookshelves and stacks of old records provide their own indexical drama. But in Notes on Blue the space of the artists’ home is not simply a feature to be observed, but an architecture that is subjected to a domestic choreography. As Davey recites her monologue, she paces the corridors, moving back and forth between doors that swing open and closed as if she and the architecture are part of the same metronome, her movement demonstrating depth and space for the benefit of the screen. Rooms become a stage for the recitations of her personal notes, and Davey’s wandering is akin to didactic memory game of Roman Rooms. As the artist’s voice attentively heeds her audio prompts, so too her movement through the apartment finds its own rhythm and familiar, measured gravity. The home gradually takes on its own character, becoming an unlikely witness and container to histories that would otherwise remain separate.
Windows, too, are a key feature in Notes on Blue. They initially appear as occlusions to vision; their brightness casts the room in shadow, and the artist stands before the camera in murky silhouette. The intensity of the interior is amplified, and the brilliance of the outside is rendered a blank — an extremity of vision, or perhaps a lack. Such qualities recall the attitudes of Austrian architect Adolf Loos, who once remarked that a cultivated man does not look out of the window, “his window is ground glass; it is there only to let the light in, not to let the gaze pass through.” And yet, as Notes on Blue begins to unfold to include dream-like sequences that appear like tarot cards evenly distributed through the work — an abandoned bird’s nest, a dazzling moon, a dog vanished through jump-cut, a young woman wearing angel wings in a New Jersey train station, and an auspicious shot of construction laborers suspended between Davey’s apartment block and her neighbor’s — the apartment windows emerge as dilating apertures opening out onto the world, climaxing with a wide open shot of the city at dawn.
Notes on Blue is a work that is always attempting to gather an atomizing identity. Just as she compares Jarman to “Pasolini, by way of Fellini,” so too Davey’s own subjectivity is similarly distributed among her sources and influences. Her irrepressible stream of personal notes and lyrical associations occasionally tip the narrative over into the fantastic, where the spoken monologue and the images to which it is tied abrade each other in perpetual and productive tension. Towards the end of the film, Davey acknowledges that the shift between her use of the analogue technologies she once knew but is quickly forgetting and the digital ones she is struggling to learn has produced a “strange suspension” in her life. Notes on Blue shrewdly articulates this particular feeling of suspension by straddling different technologies, eras, mediums and ideas. Its common thread, then, is not only the figure of the artist — the conduit and protagonist who reorders events and materials into a personal pattern of correspondences — but the sustained register of intimacy, whose language composes a delicate treatise on the daily experience of aesthetics and mortality.
In high-contrast black and white, the opening scene of this film fades up on a large and airy room. A small man stands in the middle distance, dramatically spot-lit and faces a large sculpture that dwarfs him. A second man enters from a doorway at the end of the gallery, back-lit in silhouette, and whose […]
In high-contrast black and white, the opening scene of this film fades up on a large and airy room. A small man stands in the middle distance, dramatically spot-lit and faces a large sculpture that dwarfs him. A second man enters from a doorway at the end of the gallery, back-lit in silhouette, and whose confident voiceover booms out on the soundtrack as the two men turn to face each other on camera.
Voiceover: In the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a collection of paintings and objects by a man whose unique view of life has greatly influenced modern art.
[Cuts to diegetic sound]
Man: So here you are, Marcel, looking at your big glass.
Marcel: Yes. The more I look at it, the more I like it.
This highly staged opening scene is from the January 15, 1956 episode of NBC’s series Conversations with Elderly Wise Men, where the director of the Guggenheim, James Johnson Sweeney, interviews artist Marcel Duchamp.
Beginning with Duchamp’s The Large Glass (1915–23), the pair walks around the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s galleries, stopping in front of recent acquisition of the artist’s sculptures and paintings. They talk amiably about the parallel chronologies of Duchamp’s life and work, as well as his influences—Cubism, Impressionism, and his love of playing chess.
The dramatic Hitchcock-esque lighting and the pair’s stilted conversation (not to mention the program title I initially read as “Conversations with Elderly White Men” and which wouldn’t be a mischaracterization of the series as a whole) dates this interview as something of a conversational fossil in comparison with the online informality to which we have become accustomed in HuffPost Live interviews and Reddit AMAs. But even so, the Duchamp/Sweeney interview reveals as much about the function of the public presentation and broadcast of the “artist in conversation,” as it does Duchamp’s own recollections of his work.
What artists say in public—about their life, influences and their own readings of their work—has always been of great significance in museum and scholarly interpretation, even when what is said is completely contrary. (During a different interview with art critic Calvin Tompkins, for example, Duchamp suddenly reflected on the format of what they were doing together: “I don’t believe in talking. Here we have been talking for hours! But don’t believe what I say.”)
And yet the coaxing out of thoughts, and the broadcast of such reflection to a public, remains a central part of how museums bridge the interaction between artists and the audiences. The question of what it might mean to be a spokesperson for one’s own art is still an urgent one. And although this Duchamp/Sweeney interview is a rarity within the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection (a collection that is almost exclusively dedicated to the collection and preservation of artists’ moving image art works, not descriptions of them as this interview appears to be), the artist-in-conversation format nonetheless remains a central part of the Walker’s public programs, and is a cornerstone of the Walker Dialogues program that broadcasts its conversations within the Walker Channel.
Some artists are experts at the public talk format. Filmmaker Stan Brakhage, for example, was a master of monologging and especially of the elongated personal andecdote, where his articulate projection of his artistic vision through his own descriptions seemed as if it were a parallel broadcast and commentary on and with his work. But the pressure to “explain” or for the artist to function as an articulate ambassador to one’s art work is no easy task. For some, it is incompatible with making the work; for others, it simply becomes the work. German artist Martin Kippenberger’s various video interviews, for example, often appear to be standalone performance in themselves, which deny the format’s desire to talk about work by replacing it with another art work or a series of “public selves.”
In contrast to Brakhage and Kippenberger’s incorporation of the in-conversation as an extension of artistic narrative, Duchamp was traditionally professional; on the one hand there was the work, and on the other there was him talking about the work. In short, they were separate entities with distinct functions. That Duchamp gave so many public interviews was testament to his own capacity to speak about his work with great ease and accessibility to general audiences. His love of the formal qualities of the work and the pleasure of making something could be easily understood.
Although first broadcast by NBC in 1956, this Duchamp interview was recorded in 1955. The timing is significant: the recording took place in the same year in which the artist was officially recognized as a US citizen. Duchamp’s increasingly widespread recognition as a highly influential artist merged that year with the public identification of Duchamp as an American. And although it’s hard to tell from the polished sheen of this formal interview, there was also a particular intimacy between interviewer and interviewee; Sweeney (along with then-MoMA advisory director Alfred H Barr and art collector James Thrall Soby) attended as a witness to Duchamp’s naturalization ceremony. This film thus stands as a document of transition of an individual within a widening audience: it locates a moment of shifting national identity of an artist, and the acquisition of his work into a major American public collection. These things can be read implicitly as the “in conversation” has shifted from broadcast item to historical artifact.
Public in-conversations that occur with an audience present, as well as those simply recorded for an at-home audience, are deep resource documents for public and professional scholars and, like Duchamp on NBC, such materials can be read implicitly as well as explicitly, critically as well as illustrative. These conversations are, after all, crucial moments of public interface, which provide oral histories to the artworks we encounter, and sometimes even challenge the hierarchies between supporting interview and artwork. I’m reminded here of pianist Jason Moran’s 2005 sampling of an Adrian Piper interview, where Piper discusses the artists communication with their audience, as she explains, “If artists intentions and ideas were more accessible to the general public, I think it might break down the misunderstandings between the art world and artists and the general public.” It was not without a certain shrewd self-reflexivity that former Walker curator Bartholomew Ryan inserted Moran’s recording as an introductory soundtrack to his in-conversation talk between artists Liam Gillick and Hito Steyerl, the opening of which is captured in the clip below.
In its most basic form, the format of the artist in conversation traditionally looks a bit like that of a talk show. It comprises an interviewer (a professional interlocutor, or expert of some kind) and a subject (the artist). The third element—the public—doesn’t need to be present at the time of the conversation necessarily, but present or not, it is still the primary reason the conversation takes place at all. It is this public that provides the unspoken pressure for the conversation to “go somewhere”—to be engaging, surprising, argumentative or revealing.
The interviewer and the interviewee must become co-producers of their own social scenario. Both must piece together narratives, stitch together anecdotal evidence, partial memories, and occasionally confessional material that, when combined, allow the audience to slip between the feeling of eavesdropping on a one-on-one conversation while watching two people engage in something akin to a performance. It is this rather vertigiousness movement between intimacy and information, between dialogue and monologue, that gives the in-conversation its allure, not to mention the entertainment produced by accident and spontaneity.
But as the formal manners of Duchamp’s NBC interview have waned, the personalization of time and broadcasting has changed, and audiences have become increasingly sophisticated and responsive listeners. Artists, meanwhile, have increasingly taken control of their own mediation through the non-scarcity resources of online self-publishing. Questions, too, have been raised over the authenticity or productiveness of fatigue-based public conversations, like the Serpentine’s annual Marathon series (where artists, writers, scientists, film-makers, choreographers, theorists and musicians come together for a hectic schedule of non-stop talks and events).
The desire to cut out the middle-man interviewer has had great success in Reddit AMAs, though notably outside of the sphere of visual art discussion. But the logical extension of cutting out the middle-man is to undo the format completely—to begin a conversation not with the interviewer or even the artist, but the artwork. In many ways, that’s the dialogue that the artist seeks to establish with their work in the first place.
Friends, colleagues, and champions of each other’s respective careers, artist Stan Brakhage and curator Sally Dixon had a life-long relationship. Their history of swapping letters and sharing neighborhoods, as well as the gifting of works and other ephemera, clearly demonstrated that there was many routes through which Crystal Clips — the Walker’s as-yet unidentified 16mm film believed to […]
Friends, colleagues, and champions of each other’s respective careers, artist Stan Brakhage and curator Sally Dixon had a life-long relationship. Their history of swapping letters and sharing neighborhoods, as well as the gifting of works and other ephemera, clearly demonstrated that there was many routes through which Crystal Clips — the Walker’s as-yet unidentified 16mm film believed to be a Brakhage “work in progress” — could have passed between Brakhage and Dixon’s possessions.
As I mentioned before, Crystal Clips had been found among Dixon’s gift to the Walker of Brakhage 16mm and 8mm film cans. The original film can bore a typed-up sticky label with the title, a largely anonymous piece of information without any handwritten marks, although the wear and discoloration on the tape matched that of the neighboring Brakhage containers. The 16mm film, meanwhile, had been transferred to an archive-safe can and stored in the Walker’s archive freezer so as to minimize the inevitable degradation to which all objects (celluloid or otherwise) are subject.
After Crystal Clips was pulled from the archive freezer and spent three days thawing out, I went down to the Film/Video archive, a temperature-controlled room in the Walker’s basement, to meet Caylin Smith, the Bentson archivist. While Caylin unpacked the film, she pointed out a handwritten note she’d found accompanying the film. The paper was clearly the same type Sally Dixon often used in her own notes, and the writing — a list of films, which presumably was meant to correspond to the contents of the reel — likewise matched Dixon’s hand. Also included was a yellow Post-It written in the hand of Walker Archivist Jill Vuchetich, which most likely recorded a comment made by Sally Dixon at the time of the gift’s acquisition.
Caylin booked a screening slot with Joe Beres, the Walker’s Film/Video projectionist, so we could see the film in the cinema. We’d have to wait for a quiet gap between the Walker’s regular print checks (when projectionists inspect the quality of the film or video material as it comes in from a distributor and prepare it for the public screening program) and the regular public screening schedule.
Caylin suggested we look at the Crystal Clips reel by hand. She carefully unspooled the film on a light-box. It clocked in at approximately 50 feet long, so it was clearly a short film, likely no longer than three minutes. Entirely black and white, and without a sound-strip to signify accompanying audio of any kind, Crystal Clips resembled the kind of compilation reel that keen cinema enthusiasts could order from public distributors such as Blackhawk Films. The contents of the films varied slightly from the accompanying blue note, and I recorded it thus from its interspersed title cards:
Dr E.J. Marey, Studied in Animal Motion, c. 1887, France
Charles Urban, The Electrolysis of Metals, 1910, Great Britain
Georges Melies, The Dreyfus Case (Clearing the court-toom), c. 1900, France
Victor Turin, Turksib, 1929, USSR
Clearly a personalized edit of a longer reel, I wondered whether it had in fact been a teaching aid of some kind, rather than artistic material put aside for a “work in progress.” This educational use seemed possible, given that Brakhage’s first engagement with Dixon was via her invitation to lecture in Pittsburgh.
I took a few reference photographs on my cell phone before the film was spooled up to pass on to the cinema and returned to the Walker’s main archive room to look through Dixon’s correspondence folders and consult publications of Brakhage’s writings and lectures held in the Walker’s library next door.
As is generally known, not to mention heavily evidenced through their correspondence, Brakhage and Dixon both regularly taught the history of cinema. Dixon taught during her role as Carnegie’s film curator, while Brakhage lectured at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later as the distinguished professor of film studies at CU Boulder, retiring from his post only a few months before his death in 2003. (Brakhage also taught a master class when he was at Film in the Cities, while Dixon was director.)
Whether from Dixon’s curatorial position or Brakhage’s artistic one, they both contextualized their own work in the field of artists’ film within a highly individual canon: they would discuss their work and the work of Kenneth Anger, James Broughton, and Jonas Mekas, as part of a historical trajectory of artists’ film that began with the Lumière Brothers, Hans Richter, and Georges Méliès. But the significance Brakhage and Dixon both attached to teaching artists’ film came not only of a desire to share their work in context, but also to fill what they saw as a vacuum of understanding around the arts, and how the artists’ film was a key part of that under-served discussion. As Brakhage lamented in a conversation with Mekas much later in 2000,
All the arts, what we traditionally call the arts, have suffered from this breakdown of terminology, this lack of serious critique. Here is a discipline far older than any other we know of human beings, but when it’s taught in public schools, in fact in colleges, it’s taught as a playground for finger painting and for expressing yourself.
Brakhage was a skilled historian and teacher. His courses were wide ranging, and included Painting and Film, Biographical Film, Avant-Garde Cinema, Documentary Film, and Transcendental Film. He lectured extensively on early cinema, with idiosyncratic style and underscored by romantic lyricism and unabashed bias. (His presentation on D.W. Griffith, for example, begins: “They named him David: and he was to grow up to become a giant and slay himself.”) In Dixon’s personal papers, I found a copy of writer and poet Guy Davenport’s introduction to a public Brakhage lecture which beautifully describes the discursive nature of the latter’s lecturing style:
He is going to climb this mountain by wrapping it with his footprints; he will come down again when he is halfway up, climb another mountain by way of digression, and then go back up the first one. He shows us that to be interested in anything we must be interested in everything. This kind of mind is not an American tradition. We are raised to respect conviction rather than analysis, persuasion rather than interpretation. Brakhage uses up the average man’s portion of speculative thought every day.
Analysis and interpretation was arguably key to both Brakhage’s and Dixon’s teaching styles, as they sifted through, ordered, and presented what was then a nascent history of artists’ moving image and established a context for their own practices.
In the library, I read a first edition of The Brakhage Lectures (since reissued as a free pdf by Ubu Editions). Brakhage delivered these lectures at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the Fall/Winter semester of 1970–1971. As Ian Robertson’s afterword to the publication records, Brakhage screened 43 films, and it is this list of film works that were a key source in cross-referencing the films listed in the Crystal Clips reel and its accompanying note.
Dixon, meanwhile, included some of the titles of Crystal Clips at the workshops she presented at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, where she was an instructor. In “Personal Film,” a 1976 course that she evocatively described as “a vision workshop,” Dixon walked her students through her own interpretation of artists’ film, where the surrealist shorts of Salvador Dalí and Francis Picabia were followed by screenings of work by her contemporaries: Bruce Connor, Marie Menken, Jonas Mekas and, of course, Brakhage. Dixon always sought to succinctly define the operational and practical characteristics of artists’ intentions: the Lumière Brothers “specialised in actualities, views”; Edison “specialized in theatrical and staged scenes”; while Méliès was concerned with “fantasy, fiction, illusion.”
But all three, Dixon explained to her students, depicted how,
the materialist mind of the nineteenth century had their [sic] eyes open onto the world. Any interesting visual phenomenon, commonplace or exotic, was material for the early short films. They were “gathering in” a world newly opened by improved transporation, intentions and communications. They were seeing both “out” and “in.”
Dixon’s notion of “gathering in” images and knowledge via travel and communication seems to me an apt description of Brakhage’s and Dixon’s own roles as primary disseminators of a new history of artists’ moving image work. And within this scenario, Crystal Clips had significant practical uses to both the artist and the curator. Both Brakhage and Dixon referenced these particular works frequently in their lectures and personal notes.
The assigning of provenance to work is fraught with obstacles both practical and legal. While it’s not necessarily my place or responsibility to verify provenance, I can make some reasonable estimations based on the following: Dixon believed Crystal Clips to be from Brakhage when she gifted it on to the Walker; the discoloration of the can and the reel was similar to the degradation of her other Brakhage works; and Brakhage frequently donated works, books, and other ephemera that he though would be useful to her. The material on Crystal Clips itself, meanwhile, looked to be an extracted copy of a larger and more general reel that presented the history of early film. While examining the back catalogue of the Huntley Archives, another film distributor of early cinema, I found a reel with a similar composition of films. Crucially, the intertitles from Crystal Clips matched the typography of the Huntley reel, the latter of which was in general circulation for educational and reference purposes.
Emily Davis, a former Walker researcher who is now Senior Research Associate for the Time-Based Media Collection at the Carnegie Museum of Art, was in touch with Dixon following the acquisition of Dixon’s gift and archive, of which Crystal Clips was a part. Keen to get her opinion, I sent Davis some of the snapshots I’d taken of the filmstrip, and she generously fed into my research. Speculating that the film was a reversal print, she shrewdly noticed that the filmstrip showed evidence of a “printed-in” splice:
In other words, evidence that the source material has a splice. If that’s true, this would lead me to think that this is a contact print of a “working print.” Stan could have complied the “working print” or he could have simply printed this copy for Sally, another aspect to think about.
Once Joe the projectionist had found us a cinema slot, the Walker Film/Video department — Caylin, Sheryl Mousley, Dean Otto and Kate Rogers — assembled in the cinema to view Crystal Clips. Joe pointed out the traces of optical printing, while Dean noted how “dupey” the print looked — possible evidence of a small-scale reprinting, rather than something more industrial. In the cinema, it was clear that Crystal Clips was not a Stan Brakhage “work in progress” but most likely a custom-printed educational reel, shared between two friends who were also teachers.
Despite the fact that the image is now heavily deteriorated, Crystal Clips races through the invention of cinema as a new visual culture in three compelling minutes. It specifically foregrounds the intersection dramatic narrative and technology — from the breakthroughs of E.J. Marey’s sequenced photographs of animal locomotion, to the construction landscapes of the Turkestan–Siberia Railway captured in Viktor Turin’s Turksib.
As a film, Crystal Clips provides an illustrative role. Its historical contents rely on a guide, on supporting notes delivered by another voice that might unpack and describe the dense excerpts of cinematic innovation.
But as an artifact within the Bentson Collection, Crystal Clips reveals something else. The work and expertise that goes into something as simple as following up a small note like “may have been compiled by Stan Brakhage / work in progress” not only shows the collaborative endeavor of archival research, but also exposes the informal networks through which artists’ moving image circulates both then and now: through the casual passing of hands, out of a common syllabus or a mutual interest, and a desire to share and exhibit an experience beyond one’s own intimate circle of enthusiasts and specialists.
The films included on the Crystal Clips reel were critical tools that Brakhage and Dixon deployed in order to carve out the basis for what we now consider to be the development of artists’ moving image in the western world. Despite the fact that both had initially shown relentless boldness to compare their work and the work of the contemporaries with the great technologists of early cinema, their narrative is nonetheless sustained, amended, and expanded today. And, regardless of provenance or authenticity, the circulation of artists’ moving image has always relied on acts of generosity. As Brakhage himself noted:
I like to share films with people. I think I’ve behaved in the same way that a person would if they saw some precious thing drifting out to sea. You try to rescue it.
Speaking with the Walker’s Bentson Film Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap, New York–based artist Ericka Beckman revisits the making of Frame UP, a double-channel video work from 2005. Commissioned by the Walker during construction of its new Herzog & de Meuron–designed expansion, Frame UP uses chance elements of the construction landscape and its workers to conceive of the Walker as a vast pinball […]
Speaking with the Walker’s Bentson Film Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap, New York–based artist Ericka Beckman revisits the making of Frame UP, a double-channel video work from 2005. Commissioned by the Walker during construction of its new Herzog & de Meuron–designed expansion, Frame UP uses chance elements of the construction landscape and its workers to conceive of the Walker as a vast pinball machine. Frame UP is on view in the Walker Lecture Room through March 29 and in New York on High Line Channel 14 through March 11.
Isla Leaver-Yap: How did your double-channel video installation Frame UP (2005) come to be? The key “figure” in Frame UP is the construction site where the Walker’s Herzog and de Meuron–designed building was being made in 2005. Building sites seem to be particularly fecund spaces for the projections of desire – they’re microcosms of world-building, especially in relation to the construction of cultural value (in this case the Walker). Could you say a little about the commissioning process and how long it took to make the work? How did the shooting and editing work practically? Were you seeking specific shots, or was the primary work in the edit?
Ericka Beckman: When Sheryl Mousley [the Walker’s senior curator of Film/Video] commissioned me to do a piece involving play and the construction site, I thought I would learn from the process. Which I did! In 1999, after my film HIATUS, I decided that it was time for me to work outside the studio in real locations. Frame UP is the second project I filmed outside the studio. (The studio being a black box where I created everything from a set of rules, and where each film project proceeded directly on the back of the other one.)
I was attracted to architectural sites – particularly industrial sites – because they reveal the process of construction. So having access to a construction site was developmental to me; it allowed me to investigate and observe how things get made.
I met Sheryl when I was shooting Cinderella (1986) in Minneapolis in the mid 1980s. I have been intensely aware of the role the Walker plays in the support of performance, film, video, and in all forms of temporal art for many decades. The Dada works and Fluxus objects, plus the films and documentation in the Walker Collection were instrumental to my commitment as an artist. Once I was offered this commission I felt I should like to make a piece that is in dialogue with that collection.
I was invited to film at the Walker during the construction of the new facility. I was restricted in my vantage point to the outside of the construction site, so I set up many recording cameras in various places to capture the site through time-lapse photography. These varied in formats, from Super 8 and Hi-8 to very low-definition VHS cameras. I also was unable to be there for the length of this commission (2003–2004), so I hired interns from the Walker’s Film/Video department to manage my cameras and send me the materials. I edited throughout the shooting process. I was on site in June to set up the situation, I returned once in December to shoot 16mm film, and then I returned in 2005 for the opening.
Leaver-Yap: In a 2012 interview with Frieze you mentioned keeping a notebook of your shots for reference during the edit of your works. I’ve always been interested in the how shoot-for-edit filmmaking has this quality of looking both forward and back throughout – a kind of in-built anachronism that is a process unique to artists’s moving image work. What parameters did you set yourself in the making of the work?
Beckman: From my description you can see that this was a “film for edit” project. However, I went into the project with the plan to make a game and, in place of real planning, I embraced chance and experimentation in the gathering of materials as well as in the editing.
The construction site became the pinball “backglass” for the structure of this film. I looked at the workers as dancers. With my camera, I followed the movement of materials through this space and, specifically, how they were transported and handled by workers. I looked for various pinball references on the construction site – that meant looking for shafts, for paddles, inclines and sockets.
Leaver-Yap: The action on both of the screens is antagonistic, and this notion of competition of course resonates in your earlier works, like You the better (1983), where the narrative builds on competition and accumulation. Did this notion of a double-channel work come right at the start?
Beckman: The idea of using two screens came early on, when I visited arcade centers where multiple players play games side by side. The games may have various backglass themes but the core mechanics are the same. Two players in the pinball arcade actually behave very similarly, hitting paddles, knocking balls around and trying to get them into slots. It’s a solo game but players are in competition for the score.
Leaver-Yap: For me, Frame UP probes the structural aspects of how one looks/reads/frames a space, and how that framing produces – even in its most minimal and least-ornamented form – a narrative quality. And games, of course, are totally committed to narrative in this way. In Frame UP, the balls lead the eye, and this double-channel form (perhaps a “binocular” presentation) produces a way of looking. How did you consider the sound in relation to this narrative-making, and were considerations of other formal qualities like color significant in determining what you were looking for in the shoot, as well as afterwards, in the editing of the digital overlays?
Beckman: The sound for the work came from actual recording on the location, plus many found sounds from department store recordings, where I recorded toys and games and of course an actual pinball machine.
Editing is where the chance or “play” aspect was featured. Since I had multiple cameras covering the same day’s labor, I assigned cameras and shots to each screen. Then I linked game sounds to all the shots I chose to work with. At this point there was no linear structure just a “bin” of shots and their sounds.
Then I turned “off” the video monitor and cut a soundtrack from the found sounds. I gave myself one rule: I would start in unison and then build a separate soundscape for each screen. This allowed me to let go of building a competitive relationship between the two screens. Then I opened the video monitor and took a look at my action cuts. This first edit governed everything that came after – the graphics, the length of the shots. My second rule was to heavily rework the first edit.
It was a joy for me to take a very important architectural site and turn it into a simple pinball game, and to make the workers of a remarkable structure turn into handlers for the game. And why not? Isn’t that a joy itself to turn work into play?
Leaver-Yap: I’m not sure if this resonates with you, but I was reminded of some formal similarities in this work to Hilary Lloyd’s videos and Rosalind Nashashibi’s films (specifically Lloyd’s Untitled multi-channel projection piece of a Glasgow building site from 2009 and Nashashibi’s Bachelor Machines Part 1 from 2007) – where these works are shot and edited by a female artist occupying a usually masculine environment or behaviors. This occupation of specific genders has often been true in video gaming, too (and recently problematic). Did you think of the camera eye or the viewer in a gendered state?
Beckman: I do not want to diminish your question about gender viewpoints. I am often asked the question if I understand what I’m doing from a gendered camera. But what struck me about the materials my camera shot was how varied in age these men where on this Mortenson construction site. They defied my stereotype of construction workers. For the most part, the workers multitasked. One day they would be building scaffolds, next laying rebar, then doing the wiring or steel welding. They seemed very well trained and very secure, and there was no stress visible on site. I did ask questions about the M.A. Mortenson Company – their hiring process, their loyalty to their workers, and their reputation in the Midwest. I learned that they are a union company and only hire a union workforce.
Leaver-Yap: Re-presenting Frame UP now at the Walker, ten years on since you made it, I’m conscious not only of how the institution looks back on its own biography, but also how Frame UP migrates to other contexts, namely where it is concurrently being shown on The High Line in New York, a Chelsea location with its own diverse cultural history, but also one of construction, accelerating skylines, high-speed capital and its own competitive rules of engagement. I was wondering if you find the resulting work significantly different from how you wanted to respond to the commission invitation more than a decade ago?
Beckman: This Minneapolis worksite now stands in sharp contrast with what I see going on all around me in lower Manhattan, where much of my immediate community is in a state of renewal or, better said, expansion. The buildings are going rapidly up by the hands of subcontracted non-union workers. When I look at these buildings I don’t see craft but capital, with no regard for the community, the workers, or even the inhabitants who will have to face management that does not care about the building.
Speaking specifically about the Minneapolis work site, I did see and follow a few young female workers on site. They were athletic, strong, and exceedingly involved in various work tasks, like their male counterparts. This reinforced what I saw as a very young female child growing up on the military base. I am not proud of this background, but it did form a strong viewpoint. My father was not an officer so, at his level in the military service, there were many women sharing the tasks of running the base operations. They both wore the same drab uniforms, and marched alongside their male counterparts in full display at military functions. This cut through many of the stereotypes of gendered bias in labor and probably gave me a utopian view of labor politics at a very young age.
Looking through the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection recently, a short note caught my attention. It read: reel may have been compiled by Stan Brakhage work in progress The reel in question was Crystal Clips, a 16mm film that was gifted to the Walker in 2005 by Sally Dixon, one of the most significant curators of artists’ film […]
Looking through the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection recently, a short note caught my attention. It read:
reel may have been compiled by Stan Brakhage
work in progress
The reel in question was Crystal Clips, a 16mm film that was gifted to the Walker in 2005 by Sally Dixon, one of the most significant curators of artists’ film from the 1970s. The reel’s status as a work by Stan Brakhage, one of America’s foremost experimental filmmakers, was as yet unconfirmed. I requested that it be brought up from the archive’s preservation freezer for closer inspection.
It takes about a day for a celluloid film reel to thaw and, on the cautious side, another day for the film to acclimatize to room temperature so one can safely handle and examine the material up close. So, while I was waiting, I set about sorting through other information that was more readily available, identifying the following questions: What was the relationship between its unconfirmed source (Stan Brakhage) and its eventual owner (Sally Dixon), and how might that inform the provenance of the reel? How and when was this film made and displayed? And, most crucially, was this indeed a Brakhage “work in progress”?
Answering the first question didn’t immediately demand a viewing of the film, and so below I attempt to answer it with historical context and some facts I do know for certain. (The other two questions required patience, a projectionist, and bookable time to run the print in the Walker Cinema; I’ll come to that in Part 2.) Here are some things I do know: Crystal Clips first came into the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson collection among 30 rare films in Dixon’s possession, most of which are works by Brakhage.
The curator and the artist first worked together in 1970, when Dixon had just established the Carnegie Museum of Art’s dedicated film section (later named the film department), which was only the second of its kind after MoMA’s film department in New York. At the Carnegie, Dixon hoped to develop greater museological context around artists’ film, a medium she considered as “the 21st-century art form.” She invited Brakhage to premiere a number of his recent films and, as he recalled, to bring him on as a lecturer in Pittsburgh.
It was through invitations such as this that Dixon began her career as a film curator. Her work went on to uniquely broaden the field of artists’ moving image, not simply because she was one of the only female curators working with moving image at the time, but because Dixon brought the work of an incipient generation of avant-garde filmmakers to new audiences throughout the Midwest. She cultivated a new appreciation and scholarship of these emerging artists’ film practices as they unfolded and grew.
She screened and discussed the work of artists including Kenneth Anger, Bruce Baillie, Robert Breer, Hollis Frampton, Ernie Gehr, Storm de Hirsch, Chick Strand, Carolee Schneeman, and many others—in addition to organizing tours for shows at other galleries and cinemas, working with Film in the Cities in St. Paul, and, later, founding Filmmakers Filming in 1979. At the Carnegie, Dixon was one of the first advocates for paying artists working with moving image (MoMA did not initially pay artist-filmmakers for the presentation of their work), a fundamental source of income to artists who were often struggling to afford to produce their own work. In an illuminating letter Schneeman wrote to James Tenney on August 9, 1973, she noted her own encounter with Dixon:
“Very hard to come by jobs lately. Only one thing for fall (Nov.) workshop & film retrospective at Carnegie Tech—which is great—no, Brakhage had nothing to do with it! Program run by a woman which means delight, curiosity, emotional generosity in all the dealings/arrangings.”
But it was primarily Dixon’s work in organizing the production of artists’ films—securing access to facilities, providing equipment, hosting her artists, as well as occasionally starring in a number of roles in front of the camera—for which she is perhaps better known, and it was this work as a commissioner that established her friendship with Brakhage.
In a letter in the Walker’s Sally Dixon Archive, Brakhage wrote to Dixon on September 8, 1970, to confirm his artist fee and travel arrangements to the Carnegie, adding:
“Thank you: Looking forward to the world premiere of these three new films—to get them happily out of my hair and into the eyes and knowing of the world… via this mysterious city Pittsburgh I’ve heard/seen so much about but never been able to visit.”
While picking up Brakhage from the Pittsburgh airport, Dixon and the photographer Mike Chikiris listened to the artist describe an unmade work he hoped to shoot in the back of a police car. In his hometown he hadn’t been successful in securing permission to ride with the Boulder Police Department. Dixon and Chikiris took on Brakhage’s project and arranged access for the artist to shoot in a number of Pittsburgh locations, including a police car. And so a year later, in the fall of 1971, Brakhage returned to shoot what was to become his Pittsburgh Trilogy (1971), also known as the Pittsburgh Documents. The Trilogy darkly documents the civic spaces of the police, a hospital, and a morgue; and respectively comprises eyes, Deus Ex, and, one of Brakhage’s most famous films, The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes.
Although Dixon left the Carnegie in 1975, she kept in close contact with Brakhage, exchanging a huge volume of letters, notes, films, programs, essays and newspaper clippings. Along with the voluminous number of letters she received from Brakhage, she also collected and was gifted a large number of his films, both on 8mm and 16mm. (While working my way through both collection and ephemera, I also found a hand-painted, 70mm trim among their correspondence, possibly from the period Brakhage worked with the format for Night Music (1986) and, a year later, for The Dante Quartet.)
Brakhage sent many of these films as gifts, in acknowledgement of Dixon’s relentless championing of his work. And when the Walker received Dixon’s film collection in 2005, the original cans, reels, and packaging were removed, and the films were transferred to archival plastic containers and placed in the archive’s freezer to keep the films stable.
Brakhage’s original packaging was kept together, and it was among these boxes that I located the original can for Crystal Clips—the most likely rationale behind the assignation of the reel to Brakhage. The grouping of the packing materials at the Walker mirrored Dixon’s own storage sequence for the films themselves but, even so, provenance of Crystal Clips was far from confirmed through its proximal location to other Brakhage works. That said, this did explain the “may have been” description that caught my eye in the first place. The question would have to be answered in relation to the content of the film itself.
When filmmaker Derek Jarman publicly declared himself HIV positive in 1987, he acknowledged that the public would “expect” a response within his work. “I left it as long as possible, because making a film about illness is jolly difficult.” The result is Blue (1993), a 35mm film comprising a single and continuous 79-minute image of […]
When filmmaker Derek Jarman publicly declared himself HIV positive in 1987, he acknowledged that the public would “expect” a response within his work. “I left it as long as possible, because making a film about illness is jolly difficult.” The result is Blue (1993), a 35mm film comprising a single and continuous 79-minute image of International Klein Blue (IKB), accompanied by a voice-over in the form of Jarman’s personal autobiography.
Now an iconic piece of cinema, this film emerged from many different incarnations and displays. In fact, Jarman went through several titles before settling on Blue. Here are a few of them:
Blue protects white from innocence
Blue is Poison
Into the Blue
My Blue Heaven
Most memorably, though, it was earlier referred to as Bliss—a title which adorns Jarman’s hand-painted notebook of the same name. Jarman initially thought of Blue in the form of a performance, wherein songs, poems, and tracts meditating on the immateriality of Yves Klein’s work would be recited. As his biographer, Tony Peake, notes, the dramatis personae would include “Klein himself, St. Rita, the Knights of St. Sebastian, and IKB, a blue, mercurial messenger of the gods.”
Blue is often described as a film without image, a film without materiality. In this way, the work could be said to follow the logic of avant-garde structuralist filmmaking. But this description of a dematerialized film is not only a conceptual interpretation of the work, but also a description of some of the ways in which this film practically functioned. Although its primary release was to cinema distribution, the BBC broadcast a “simul-cast”: presenting an audio dub version of Blue on the radio; and distributed a postcard of IKB, so that its audience could gaze upon the colored card in the privacy of their homes and listen along with their transistor radios. Similar incarnations of the film appear in poster form, performance, and television. Blue was thus not only a film emptied of image, but it could be a film without film, a film without cinema.
The Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection houses a pristine 35mm celluloid print of Blue, soon to be shown as part of the forthcoming “Commemorating Derek Jarman” film series, and screened in relation to Jarman’s approach to his filmic apparatus. But when the Walker originally presented the film in the galleries (outside of the cinema context), conservation concerns over wearing down and scratching this 35mm print through months of looped projection led to a different solution: a flickering projector (aided by a piece of kit called “The Flicker-O-Meter,” whose manual can be found in the Walker archives) would beam through a projection window coated with a blue gel. This filmless projector would thus throw a perfectly IKB shade, accompanied by a CD dub of the soundtrack. Again, Blue was a film without film.
Both then and now, Jarman’s masterpiece raises intriguing technical questions of how to show a film, particularly regarding its digital presentations. While a recent transfer of Blue from 35mm to Blu-Ray has offered a new standard for the digital presentation of the film, questions of display has now turned to the surface on which the work should be projected, most notably with a recent screening of the work at the IMAX in London where the modern screen, which is digital and 3D-ready, was noted in returning a slightly different shade of Blue.
Such technological queries are explicitly foregrounded by Blue’s simplicity and minimalism. Indeed, throughout his career, Jarman was acutely aware of the properties and limits of the mediums in which he worked, most notably his love of Super-8 as a “cinema of small gestures.” So too, the flicker of 35mm celluloid insists on a filmic grain that emulates the original material and surface of IKB: the painted canvas — Jarman’s first medium as an artist.
As Blue fluidly migrates between the medium of celluloid, digital, audio, and the printed page, the primary concern of the work — the depiction of Jarman’s experience of HIV and AIDS — also leverages its power from the ineffable. The virus, and the experience of it, lacks an iconic image, body, or definition that can fully convey the overwhelming devastation and the complexity of its occurrence. AIDS necessarily exists in multiplicity of people, narratives, and times. By the time Jarman came to finishing Blue, complications from AIDS-related illness and its treatments had left him partially sighted, leaving a haze of blue in place of vision.
Emptying out the image, removing the comfortable props and traditions of cinema in favor of a filmless and perhaps even placeless meditation thus offers a glimpse of the unfamiliar landscape that Jarman rendered in parallel to his own life with and death from AIDS.
On a white cotton sleeveless t-shirt, now housed in the V&A Collection in London, the following words are printed: Open T shirt to Derek Jarman from Vivienne Westwood JUBILEE I had been to see it once and thought it the most boring and therefore disgusting film I had ever seen. I went to see it […]
On a white cotton sleeveless t-shirt, now housed in the V&A Collection in London, the following words are printed:
Open T shirt to Derek Jarman from Vivienne Westwood JUBILEE I had been to see it once and thought it the most boring and therefore disgusting film I had ever seen. I went to see it again for afterall, hadn’t you pointed your nose in the right direction? Rather than I deal with spectacular crap as other film makers do, you had looked at something here & now of absolute relevance to anybody in England with a brain still left let’s call it soul. I first tried very hard to listen to every word spoken in the flashbacks to Eliz. I. What were you saying? Eliz: ‘This vision exceedeth by far all expectation. Such an abstract never before I spied.’ And so she went on – fal de ray la lu lullay the day! And John Dee spoke ‘poetry’ according to Time Out (those old left overs from a radio programme, involving a panel of precocious Sixth formers, called “Cabbages & Kings”, whose maturity concerns being rather left from a position of safety) though even now I can remember no distinguishing phrase from amongst the drone, only the words, ‘Down down down’ (Right on)! And Ariel who flashed the sun in a mirror, & considered a diamond & had great contact lenses: ‘Consider the world’s diversity & worship it. By denying its multiplicity you deny your own true nature. Equality prevails not for god but for man’s sake.’ Consider that! What an insult to my VIRILITY! I am punk man! And as you use the valves you give to punks as a warning, am I supposed to see old Elizabeth’s england as some state of grace? Well, I’d rather consider that all this grand stuff and looking at diamonds is something to do with a gay (which you are) boy’s love of dressing up & playing at charades. (Does he have a cock between his legs or doesn’t he? Kinda thing)…
And so this response continues on to the back of the t-shirt, accompanied with a Union Jack. This is designer Vivienne Westwood’s lengthy 1978 response to British director Derek Jarman’s then-controversial film Jubilee, which was released in the same year. Soon to be shown as the opening film for the Walker’s “Commemorating Derek Jarman: Ideal and Ideas (Part 1)” this month, Jarman’s second feature film depicts a time-traveling Queen Elizabeth I thrown into a post-apocalyptic punk future.
The work commanded Westwood’s remarkable attention and vitriol, but that she responded so publicly to the film is perhaps less surprising when given some context. Not only did Jubilee’s young actor Jordan, in the role of the brazen punk protagonist Amyl Nitrate, work for Vivienne Westwood at the time (Jarman met Jordan behind the counter of Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s boutique on 430 Kings Road called Sex, later renamed Seditionaires), but historian Jim Ellis suggests that Jarman based Amyl Nitrate on Westwood – a none too flattering parallel perhaps.
Two years prior to the release of Jubilee, Jarman had acerbic words of his own, describing the British punk scene as comprising:
…petit bourgeois art students, who a few months ago were David Bowie and Bryan Ferry look-alikes – who’ve read a little art history and adopted some Dadaist typography and bad manners, and who are now in the business of reproducing a fake street credibility.
Jarman’s analysis that punk’s close relationship to fashion might be a compromising situation for its views on capitalism were, of course, made all the more explicit in Jubilee. A deeply ambivalent portrait of punk, Jubilee is admiring of the boldness of punk’s ire for establishment, and yet he is doubtful of how its binary politics might be achieved: either through sloganeering and violence or capitulation.
Indeed, the sloganeering and vernacular contained in the dialogue of Jubilee is paralleled with an endgame of capitalism. Just as Jordan ascribes to the phrase/song “Don’t dream it, be it,” the film’s dark impresario and record label producer Borgia Ginz pulls strings and flaunts his power that extends beyond his ownership of property and people, to an ownership of language. As Ginz declares, “BBC, TUC, ITV, ABC, ATV, MGM, KGB, C. of E. You name it, I bought them all… and rearranged the alphabet.”
In 1992, Westwood was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II.* Jarman noted the event in his diary:
Vivienne Westwood accepts an OBE, dipsy bitch. The silly season’s with us: our punk friends accept their little medals of betrayal, sit in their vacuous salons and destroy the creative – like the woodworm in my dresser, which I will paint with insecticide tomorrow. I would love to place a man-sized insectocutor, lit with royal-blue, to burn up this clothes moth and her like.
Westwood and Jarman did not reconcile over the film or the t-shirt, and the filmmaker’s bitter journal entry recalls the words of the Ginz’s final summary, “they all sign up in the end!”
*In 2006, Westwood accepted an advanced order, the title of Dame Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (DBE) for her services to the fashion industry.
Opening sequences, title cards, interludes, subtitles, end credits: typography in cinema and television is quickly evidenced and it is never neutral. To consider some key precedents one need only think of Maurice Binder’s stylish and fluid transitions between abstract graphic, typeface, and gun barrel at the beginning of James Bond film Dr No (1962), the […]
Opening sequences, title cards, interludes, subtitles, end credits: typography in cinema and television is quickly evidenced and it is never neutral. To consider some key precedents one need only think of Maurice Binder’s stylish and fluid transitions between abstract graphic, typeface, and gun barrel at the beginning of James Bond film Dr No (1962), the clean unobtrusive lines of Walter Murch’s design for Francis Ford Coppola’s surveillance thriller The Conversation (1974), Richard Greenberg’s Futura distortions and adaptations for Ridley Scott’s Alien, or – more recently – the unorthodox use of Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Willow typeface for FX’s television show American Horror Story.
Indicative of his commitment to the visual form, meanwhile, director Satyajit Ray famously insisted on designing all the accompanying material for his films, including the poster and title sequences, and developing his own typefaces, both architectural (replicable) and calligraphic (non-replicable).
But the most prominent pioneers of cinema typography is Saul Bass, the New York graphic designer influenced by Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism. Bass’s title sequences for Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm, as well as his extensive work with Alfred Hitchcock on Psycho, North by Northwest, and Vertigo, were key in expanding the representation of on-screen language from mere typeface communication to cinematic narrative.
“My initial thoughts about what a title can do was to set a mood and the prime underlying core of the film’s story, to express the story in some metaphorical way,” Bass said during an interview with Film Quarterly’s Pamela Haskin. “I saw the title as a way of conditioning the audience, so that when the film actually began, viewers would already have an emotional resonance with it.”
While my initial examples specify typefaces and title sequences rather than indicate the discipline of typography as a whole, Bass’s strategy of “conditioning” is nonetheless a particularly useful way to think about how typography is deployed and interrogated in artists’ moving image.
Typography can generally be described as encompassing the rational, structural and spatial coordination of written language. It takes a modular approach to words, where those words are not simply demonstrations of language but also its artifacts. The static nature of typography thus presents a complex relationship with the moving image: a space where sign and meaning intersect with sound and image. “Conditioning,” then, is concerned with the effects of such intersection on its viewers.
Typography’s pragmatic investment in navigating through the moving image – either through indicating spatial awareness, temporal movement, or narrative progress – makes the discipline a key factor in considering how artists approach written language in film and video. And yet despite the many reasons to relate typography to the practice of moving image, I am surprised at the relative lack of discussion into what is undoubtedly a highly codependent relationship between the two.
This is not to say that artists are disinterested in the subject of typography. Artist Robert Nelson’s highly self-conscious use of language, both written and spoken, features in his playful Bleu Shut (1971), a film that engages directly with such conditioning. Punctuating the film, Nelson’s capitalized Helvetica lists, made up of received phrases and nonsense variations, seek to question and comically undermine the use of the visual language as a space for narrative logic, clarity of communication, and a platform for external authority. Indeed, as it unfolds over 33 minutes, the awkwardness of language becomes the primary subject of Bleu Shut.
Innovative and experimental at heart, Nelson’s strategies of destabilizing language can also be evidenced in the work of British artist John Smith, in particular Smith’s short 16mm film Associations (1975), his composite of excessive image-word puns; the text-only 16mm films of Peter Rose, most notably Secondary Currents (1982); and the more recent videos of artist Laure Prouvost, especially It, Heat, Hit (2010), a work that presents the highly antagonistic relationship between image, text and narrative – a visual dismembering of cinema’s intertitle.
Kinetic text (originally achieved via the Rotoscope, and now the mainstay of Adobe LiveType with AfterEffects) is also a key tool in the practices of German film and television auteur Alexander Kluge, who uses scrolling text under talking-head interviews to transmit basic biographical information as well as his own personal observations of his speakers; and to Elizabeth Price’s anonymous ribbons of text that communicate the narratives of an unidentified and often ambivalent cultural commentator throughout her work, including The Woolworths Choir of 1979 (2012) and Sunlight (2013). While the subject for these aforementioned artists can broadly be described as the structural logic of language and its cultural effects, it is worth noting that they nonetheless excavate typography’s attributes of symbolic logic, conscious appearance and style, as well as its inherent relationship to interpretation.
To extrude this relationship further, theories of typography may offer different approaches to artists’ moving image works that don’t necessarily display written language, yet still evoke a typographical concern for syntax, space, and structure. Here, I am thinking again of the artist Peter Rose, though a different, earlier work, Analogies: studies in the movement of time (1977).
This 16mm film begins with a recording of a simple movement: the cameraman descending a staircase (a Duchampian nod, perhaps). Rose’s original image is then split into a simultaneous network of diachronic images, each occupying a different time-delay. The effect is one of revealing gesture, consequence and abstraction. With striking to resemblance to the lyrical, glissando experiments of the German artist Peter Roehr (1944-1968), Analogies exhibits a language of movement that is structural and spatial – it is a sequence that must be “read.” Although typographer Anthony Froshaug (1920–84) wrote “Typography is a Grid” ten years prior to Analogies, his essay anachronistically provides an indirect but productive interpretation to Rose’s work. Froshaug writes:
Follow the poets: they play the ‘normal’ language (as much as fools or advertising agents, they base their shocks and base their basic meanings on the norm, quite often by departing from it, but always allusive to it)… To find the text, to stipulate the ways in which it gets manipulated, to cohere all the mutually-destructive (as they may, at first, seem) requirements into a still center of quiet meaning: this needs a knowledge and a recognition of typography. Admit constraints: then, having admitted, fill with discovery.
Froshaug’s pragmatic approach – demanding that one find and accept the constraints of the material, as well as identify the concerns of the reader in order to engage the creative process – highlights Analogies’ structural limits, semiotic concerns, and control over the image.
Meanwhile, in his remarkable 1996 essay “Outside the Whale,” typographer Peter Burnhill (1922–2007) describes the state of typography after 1945 as largely owing to three factors: firstly, a reaction to the horrors of the Second World War, and the need for transparency going forward; secondly, the technology of decoding acquired and developed through the war; and thirdly, the publishing and dissemination of Noam Chomsky’s Syntatic Structures, a landmark linguistics study which famously declared that the human disposition to produce original sentences is a biologically determined state. Burnhill’s tripartheid analysis is useful when reflecting upon experimental works such as Mothlight (1963), Stan Brakhage’s 16mm film of clear tape that contains fragments of moth wings, leaves of grass, and flower petals. Although Mothlight is experienced as the flickering of light when projected, viewed with Burnhill in mind, it emerges as an encoding process that structures natural ecology into abstraction, where the projection apparatus produces the cognition of movement. Mothlight transmutes artifact into effect.
As Froshaug and Burnhill’s writing demonstrates, typography and the articulation of its history (either in print, or public exhibition) have continued to develop with sensitivity and critical shrewdness inside its wider discipline of design theory. And while typography proves to be a fecund tool and subject within artists moving image, its uses and implications have been largely overlooked in contemporary moving image theory. A new conditioning seems especially timely.
While I was writing about Jack Smith’s sumptuous film, Normal Love (1963–65) as part of the Walker’s Art Expanded exhibition, the show’s curator, Eric Crosby, sent the above image to me as a thoughtful aside. This is a photo of a remake of a re-performance of a performance. To be more precise, this is a photograph of a reconstruction of Ron Vawter’s […]
While I was writing about Jack Smith’s sumptuous film, Normal Love (1963–65) as part of the Walker’s Art Expanded exhibition, the show’s curator, Eric Crosby, sent the above image to me as a thoughtful aside. This is a photo of a remake of a re-performance of a performance. To be more precise, this is a photograph of a reconstruction of Ron Vawter’s stage set, designed for his re-performance of a Jack Smith slideshow. If that sounds complicated then maybe I’m getting somewhere.
How one talks about this photograph, how one should title it, and what to describe as its contents—these questions are similarly complex, and relate to the procedure of unpacking or quantifying the function of documentation. Such unpacking may extend to determining the value of performance documentation that is both photographic and video-based; the description of objects and props as artifacts in their own right, and how they are used as stand-ins for the performance that is no longer possible; as well as considering the other residues of performance (sketches, lighting cues, scripts, etc.) as possessing archival worth.
So, some facts: The photograph above depicts stage elements from the “Jack Smith” portion of Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, Ron Vawter’s original one-man play, co-commissioned by the Walker Art Center in 1990. Vawter was a regular actor in the Wooster Group, and performed on stage, film and television, as well as authoring his own solo projects, of which Roy Cohn/Jack Smith was his last. His final play was a double portrait of the title characters, and he performed both of the consecutive monologues: a speech by the notoriously homophobic yet closeted gay attorney Roy Cohn and a performance by filmmaker and queer artist Jack Smith. Both were extremes living in a New York society in the era of AIDS. And, like Vawter, both were HIV-positive gay men.
The “Jack Smith” portion of the play was based on meticulously reconfigured parts of Smith’s 1981 performance What’s Underground About Marshmallows? To obtain the sluggish pace of Smith’s particular drawl, Vawter used an auto-prompt in the form of concealed headphones playing a cassette recording of the original performance. Vawter’s version was first presented at the Walker’s Jack Smith Revisited evening, November 3, 1990. Initially titled Death of a Penguin, Vawter’s performance was later completed with the “Roy Cohn” section in 1992, and he performed both monologues together later that year at the Performing Garage in New York.
The photo comprises some of the elements the Walker stage that was designed by Vawter, his partner Gregory Mehrten, Clay Shirky, and Marianne Weems, and originally included a chaise lounge, throw cushions, a toilet base, a chandelier, plenty of fabric and costumes, a penguin, stage props, flood lights, step stool, slides, videotapes and audiotapes—although it looks like a few of these items are not visible in this photograph. Originally owned by the Pomodori Foundation (which was founded by Vawter, Gregory Mehrten, and Rosemary Quinn), the stage set was donated to the Walker in 1996, and it was exhibited in Composing a Collection: Recent Gifts and Acquisitions in the same year, alongside Jill Godmilow’s video work that comprises documentation of Vawter’s performance at The Kitchen, New York, 1993.
Filed in the Walker Archives under what would generally be assigned a value of illustration (or perhaps even a guide for future re-installation), this photograph is remarkable for its multiple commemorations, which, listed in reverse chronological order include the exhibition for which it was assembled shortly after it was acquired, the Vawter performance, and Jack Smith’s original event.
This “nested” memorialization is useful to consider in relation to the paradoxes in the material legacy of early cinema pioneer and stage conjurer, Georges Méliès, whose films are in the Ruben/Bentson Collection. Méliès is undoubtedly a very different artist from the likes of Vawter and Smith, but his props, performance ephemera, designs and stage sets are similarly encased in and highly mediated by documentation of his working process.
While little contents remains of his glass-walled studio at Montreuil-sous-Bois that was destroyed in World War II, the resurrection of Méliès’s vision and work depends on surviving stage models and set designs, original costumes and personal correspondence, not to mention the re-stagings and reinterpretations of his work by other filmmakers and animators (both during and after his liftetime) who produced work that moves between homage and ripoff. Sifting through these satellite objects for evidence of intention, film scholars have noted that Méliès’s habit of both sandbagging and concealing his methodology leaves the task of attributing value to the artist’s remainders is a particularly hazardous task without conclusion.
In the case of the Vawter stage set photograph, however, the question is less about the intention of Smith’s original work and Vawter’s reconfiguration; it is about the intention of its residue.