Our Film/Video staff surveys the world of moving image art from classic to global, experimental to digital.
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 study 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 study 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 Film and Video Study 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.
The essay is the primary form of scholarly dissemination. An investigative space where a scholar’s ideas meet an audience, the power of the essay necessarily comes from two sources: its narrative articulation and its circulation. Traditionally, the writer and editor would be responsible for narrative, and the publisher for circulation. But in an era where […]
The essay is the primary form of scholarly dissemination. An investigative space where a scholar’s ideas meet an audience, the power of the essay necessarily comes from two sources: its narrative articulation and its circulation. Traditionally, the writer and editor would be responsible for narrative, and the publisher for circulation. But in an era where articulation and circulation have become profoundly interwoven through the burgeoning availability of self-publishing platforms, the essay has persevered as a remarkably contemporary form. After all, the conventions of the essay already incorporate crucial attributes of contemporary circulation: translation, interpretation, quotation and citation, and an indefinite lifespan of reprinting (legally or not). And while the essay has continued to be the mainstay of traditional scholarship, its malleability has allowed it to filter into other contexts similarly engaged with issues of narrative and circulation—nowhere more so than “essay film.”
A notoriously murky genre, essay film is nonetheless emphatic about its authorship, often rendering argument through voice-over commentary and presenting images as if they were evidence, despite the fact that essay film draws equally from both fiction and fact. Film critic André Bazin was one of the first to define the term “essay film” in his review of filmmaker and artist Chris Marker’s Letters from Siberia (1957), where Bazin described the film’s persuasiveness as follows:
I would say that the primary material is intelligence, that its immediate means of expression is language, and that the image only intervenes in the third position, in reference to this verbal intelligence.
The essay’s characteristic self-consciousness about process, language, and structure—essentially, its hyper-attentiveness to its own form—is what allowed it to so seamlessly insert into the obsessions of narrative filmmaking, like Marker’s. But there are two key differences of use between essay and essay film: firstly, where the scholarly essay hopes to present a truth, the artist’s essay film seeks to engender vision; and where the scholar maintains the conventions of the essay, the artist regards it merely as a strategy that can be redirected to other ends.
Attentive to such distinctions, artist Thom Andersen examines the porosity between essay film structure and subject in Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1967), a feature-length work on the life and motivations of its titular protagonist, arguably the forefather of moving images. Through voice-over, sequencing, criticism and philosophy, Andersen renders Muybridge as a nebulous character whose biography appears and recedes as much as his photographic work. Andersen notes in voice-over (spoken by an actor):
Each of Muybridge’s exposures lasted only one-hundredth of a second, so less than a thirtieth of the movement is actually photographed. The rest is lost.
Here, Andersen offers up a kernel of his inquiry: the absence of information is a crucial structuring principle of both narrative and circulation. (It’s interesting to note that this is a detail Andersen assimilates into his own filmic medium—16mm celluloid, running at 24 frames per second.)
Although essay film can easily be attributed to the practice of Andersen, Marker, and others including Agnès Varda, Jean Luc Godard (particularly resonant in his new film Goodbye to Language, 2014), Alexander Kluge and Helke Sander, the genre has also produced some unlikely inheritors and contemporary modes. The use of Powerpoint, for example, should certainly be considered as a performative decedent of the film essay, with its mode of montage with voice-accompanied narrative and system of argumentation. Coming to terms with the principles of essay film can also be instructive for assessing the context and role of expanded cinema. In this years’ Oberhausen Short Film Festival, the annual thematic program curated by Mika Taanila was called “Memories Can’t Wait—Film without Film.” Largely examining the legacy of expanded cinema and structural film, Taanila’s programme re-enacted previous artistic attempts at the emptying out of cinematic space.
While the reconstruction of once-radical moments are perhaps always destined to fail—previous radicality always adrift and merely illustrative in a contemporary context—there is something useful about considering expanded cinema not as a turn away from essay film, but as a redirection. Where once essay film was narrative image and sound, committed to celluloid, and passed between cinemas, the expanded film (or the “film without film”) became a repository for the fragmentary narratives of an audience careering towards post-modernity. Muybridge’s strobing images of bodies in movement, projected on a cinema screen, metamorphosed into Tony Conrad’s “flicker”—a field of black and white, able to be projected on to bodies-as-screen. And from there, the strobe and its multiple narratives have been exploded into the split subjectivities of techno space—an essay film on the dance floor.
In the second installment of a new series on working terminology in contemporary art, three Walker staffers—Senior Curator of Cross-Disciplinary Platforms Fionn Meade, Senior Curator of Film/Video Sheryl Mousley, and Bentson Visiting Film Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap—discuss how artists practically relate to “the moving image.” This conversation begins where our first installment, “Moving Image” History and Distribution, left off. […]
In the second installment of a new series on working terminology in contemporary art, three Walker staffers—Senior Curator of Cross-Disciplinary Platforms Fionn Meade, Senior Curator of Film/Video Sheryl Mousley, and Bentson Visiting Film Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap—discuss how artists practically relate to “the moving image.” This conversation begins where our first installment, “Moving Image” History and Distribution, left off.
Fionn Meade: I thought we could bring in examples from artistic practice regarding making decisions to use formats in certain ways and with certain contexts and viewing conditions in mind. Sheryl, you recently brought artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen to Minneapolis for a Walker Dialogue. There are some interesting aspects to the way McQueen thinks and talks about his practice and the history of his practice, but also his identification with the moving image.
Sheryl Mousley: McQueen comes out of the artistic practice of painting and sculpture, and started by making films as short works specifically to be installed into gallery and museum settings. He is very assured about presentation. Yet the content of some of these works—and I am thinking about Drumroll (1998), for example—are really about how the frame works. He was always very conscious, cinematically, about the movement within the frame, how the activity happens, and he emerges from that sensibility rather than from an abstraction or a desire to manipulate the image. It’s very physical. It’s often about bodies. It’s about moving in space. In Illuminer (2001) the viewer sees the luminescence of a television screen over his body lying down in bed. The television reflects a documentary on French television of soldiers deployed to Afghanistan. These things come out of an interest and fascination, I think, with the cinema, with television, with moving image and how it affected him and how it affects the viewers.
Meade: Into an active spatial context.
Mousley: At the Walker McQueen talked about making the transition to feature films with Hunger (2008). He mentioned that Bobby Sands and the IRA was a story that he saw on television as a child, and recalled how the number of the days on hunger strike added up daily on the television screen. It called out to him and he knew it had to be a feature film. It was not a short film. It was not a sculpture. It had to be a feature film. He had never made one before, so it was interesting to hear him talk about figuring out how to do it, and of how the experience was different from making the earlier films. I use the word “film” very generically here, as McQueen often shot his art films on Super 8, 16mm or 35mm. He moved into the feature-length scenario by telling this story. Of course, he’d worked in three very distinct ways within this single film. The opening section is about resistance; the middle section or transition scene is a single shot of two people, Sands and the priest talking; and the third is the resolution and death. He used a different film language to frame the story than a traditional feature filmmaker would.
Meade: I think of McQueen’s earlier works shown in gallery contexts, and how much of an awareness and influence of work from the 1970s there appears to be—one could even talk about Derek Jarman here—but also evident is an engagement with Dada filmmaking. In particular, there is an emphasis on choreography, gesture, the performing body, and gestural emphasis. McQueen’s early works have such a particular resonance with avant-garde history. When you then you see this vocabulary then get translated into the feature-length film format, it’s still there. It really distinguishes his vision, his voice, and also challenges the feature-length format in an interesting way.
Isla Leaver-Yap: He’s also one of the few directors who produces films in an anti-narrative way or, rather, he produces very short narratives that nonetheless rely entirely on cinematic conventions. This non-narrative impulse, for instance, is evident in 12 Years a Slave (2013)—there we have the narrative in the title. Hunger, again, has the narrative in a condensed titular way. Each have the quality of a study. This quality, and this performative aspect you both refer to in terms of bodies, is a particular mode we think about in terms of artists moving image, as opposed to cinema. This is not to say short or non-narrative doesn’t exist in artists moving image work, but it’s presented as a pliable structure. Fionn, just recently you were talking about working with Laure Prouvost, for example, who presents a strong anti-narrative style within her moving image work, but completely outside of the vernacular of cinematic gesture.
Meade: There’s a great moment in 12 Years a Slave that was particular to seeing it in the cinema; it was a very powerful experience. In the audience, I could see a lot of people from different backgrounds or various levels of familiarity (or unfamiliarity) with Steve McQueen came to see that film, including kids. There was a moment where the main character Solomon Northup confronts the camera. He has this moment of address looking at the camera, holding his gaze for 15 to 20 seconds. A very powerful moment, I thought, and really well-timed. Behind me, after the movie, I heard someone saying, “That was a really great movie, but what was up with that part with ‘the pause’?” That person’s comment was a moment of questioning; it wasn’t dismissal. The audience was interpreting the film through that moment, or trying to go back and think about the film through this particular gesture and moment because it was unfamiliar to them. It wasn’t a familiar cinematic concept or approach. And I say that because it returns to the idea of avant-garde awareness and gestural emphasis deployed in McQueen’s feature-length work.
With Laure Prouvost what’s fascinating is that she’s bringing back to life the cinematic convention of the inter-title. While the voice-over narration is addressing directly the viewer (almost in a form of come-on or seduction), you have inter-titles giving you editorial commentary that deviates form what is being said. And, in some cases, subtitles appear, as well. So, you have subtitle, inter-title, voice-over—these are all different cinematic conventions of using language. It relates a lot to Alexander Kluge’s principles of montage in certain ways, but it’s also embracing the conditionality of, say, Snapchat, or how we send people a text with a video or GIF attachment. Laure’s work responds to a sea change in the moving image, where rapid-fire montage is now part of our daily lives. She takes that condition, accepts it and mixes it with past conventions into a tragicomic form of storytelling. She uses all kinds of things, from stand-up like comedy to performance art to music video, to make a unique form of storytelling that’s very much hers, and yet it accepts the fragmentary condition of the moving image. She’s one of the most interesting artists from a younger generation to create a very unique storytelling voice out of that condition, not about that condition. In other words, she’s telling her stories the way she wants to tell them, but through an acceptance of that condition, not through saying it’s about the status of the moving image (how boring). Instead, she’s giving us dynamic, vital stories in the tragicomic tradition, but through the acceptance of our montage condition or symptom.
Leaver-Yap: Laure’s ingested the way the use of the contemporary image has morphed. It reminds me of the artist and critic John Kelsey who asks what the difference is between distribution and dispersion. Dispersion would be, in his words, something that is less concerned with the finished product. In that way, one might think of film distribution as sending out discreet objects into the world. Whereas when I think of Laure, there is a sense in which the video that she has shot is totally extruded from the language of appropriation. She appropriates from her own life, her techniques of seeing it, but also of other people’s techniques of seeing, and in this way she acknowledges that that is a collective way of viewing and collective way of interpreting. It is a situation in which everything “counts” as material.
Meade: That’s increasingly a part of contemporary viewing and contemporary thinking. Artists can have very acute presentation formats in one context where they really want it to be presented in a particular way, but then are willing to experiment in other situations with aspects of the same material. This sense of translation, of migrating formats is very prominent with the moving image, and perhaps increasingly with art in general.
Mousley: It also recalls the work of Meredith Monk, and the interest you have, Isla, in performance within the moving image.
Leaver-Yap: Yes, and particularly in relation to Fionn’s discussion of Laure. It’s perhaps useful to think of Laure’s recent performance in St. Mark’s in New York, in relation to an atomized legacy of Meredith Monk. Monk has a very expansive idea of appropriation, and continues to pursue a highly interdisciplinary practice. In 1966, when Monk was in her early 20s, she made a performance called 16 Millimeter Earrings. (I should also say that what we see when we look at 16 Millimeter Earrings on film now is the same performance re-staged in the 1970s for documentation, shot on 16mm film.) In the original performance, Monk had recently graduated and the piece was performed in the Judson Church. This performance was occurring in or perhaps just after a seminal minimalist period in dance, where Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton and Simone Forti were really emptying out and stripping down ideas of performance. But Monk’s performance was really about throwing all of this material back into the frame. 16 Millimeter Earrings has a lot of appropriated dialogue; the text she uses as a voiceover is extrapolated from Wilhelm Reich’s ‘The Function of Orgasm’, overheard conversations, and folk songs. In terms of physical material, Monk uses her own body as a screen space—not in an expanded cinematic context—but a canvas upon which to project pre-recorded 16mm images of her own body. There is this very strange feeling that when you’re watching it on the 1977 documentation, you’re seeing an expression of both a younger version of and a more mature performer. For Monk, anything could be material; it could be her hair, her own body, anatomical diagrams, her own crossed eyes. This is taken more as a given now, a contemporary condition. It’s interesting to look back on Monk’s long relationship with the Walker in terms of both her music and performance. It was Siri Engberg (Senior Curator in Visual Arts) who recently told me the Walker acquired the props and scenography from 16 Millimeter Earrings. There is something about Monk that feels very pertinent to contemporary forms of appropriation, materiality, not to mention the circulation of both of these strategies. But it’s important to remember that it was very unfashionable or, in any case, very rare then, at a point of high minimalism.
Meade: There’s also an awareness within the Walker’s history of the way in which moving images actually have been shown, and the different range of possibilities that we’re talking about here. There’s a really interesting cross-disciplinary history that resides in these practices and also in the archives—not just in terms of the knowledge of a given artistic practice, but also in terms of knowledge about the conditionality of the moving image and its moments of transition. There is an analogous moment happening right now with performance-based work, as it’s now being collected, editioned, and acquired.
Specific artistic practices are often the best examples in emphasizing instances that we can use to help define how these terms function in the present and future tense, rather than just some sort of abstract, theoretical kind of argument. In short, this amounts to thinking of these as “working terms” and the terms of production. Meredith Monk is a great example of that.
Mousley: Artists have worked in many different forms for a long time, often with the idea of crossing disciplines, if you will, or not even using the word “discipline.” With Meredith Monk, I first think of her with music and performance, and then moving images support that work. But been there’s so much crossover, that it’s hard to define these terms, then and now, as we go back and talk about history. It is time for looking forward, yet we struggle with this because the Walker is described as a multidisciplinary organization. We’re unique because we present distinct disciplines and artists can do one or all of them at the same time. But it doesn’t feel like we’ve yet defined it. We’re also reluctant to keep the word “discipline” at all, yet we haven’t found a replacement because it’s at the core of the way it’s been discussed. Discipline relates to format, presentation, or something that’s very clearly defined in an artistic practice, and that’s what we’re trying to get rid of. How do we shake off that consciousness and just move forward without this discipline-based integration. I think, these words and definitions are part of our struggle. What is the new word? What is the new way of talking that can help us step out of this and into something else? That’s what we’re working toward.
Meade: I think one thing is clear: artists think in formats and not necessarily in mediums or disciplines. For instance, it was 1964 when Merce Cunningham developed his “Event” and “MinEvent” frameworks as ways of excerpting from across his repertory to present more agility and site-responsive flexibility and possibility, from the ruins of Persepolis in Iran to a basketball gym here in Minneapolis. That’s a re-formatting invention and a significant one. And it’s no small matter that among the first dancers to perform “Events” in 1964 were Deborah Hay and Steve Paxton. That’s not to say that the histories of modernism and its disciplines aren’t relevant, of course they are. But I think the living aspect of working with collections is about pushing the intelligence embedded in the work itself, and that often immediately gets us into the discussion of crossing formats and using formats differently rather than strictly saying, “Here’s my new post-medium work.” Artists don’t talk that way.
There’s one more question I have. If we are in an “after” status of mediums and disciplines (a big “if,” I know), perhaps it’s important to notice that we’re not actually reliant upon a negation of terms that came before as a classic avant-garde strategy of defining “the new.” Rather, if we’re in an “after” status that has much more to do with circulation, dispersion, and formatting, then the condition of the moving image seems all the more important to thinking about visual culture more generally.
Leaver-Yap: Or just a more thoughtful space in which to use those terms. I think they still have functionality. I think the way we put these words together has created useful, sometimes contradictory composites, and we’ll presumably continue to do so.
Meade: You’ve organized some things explicitly with the term we started with.
Leaver-Yap: Yes. Last year I organized the second annual edition of the Artist’s Moving Image Festival, at Tramway, Glasgow. The terminology of the festival’s title operated as a way of being able to encompass different types of work. Practically, then, I used the idea of “artist’s” literally and possessively, in that the entire festival was programmed exclusively by artists. So, regardless of previous descriptions of the material screened, it necessarily became “artist’s moving image.” To briefly mention a couple of examples: the artist Sarah Forrest screened an interview of Kathy Acker and excerpts of Acker reading one of her own books. Forrest paired this documentary video with her own “interlude” text which she read aloud. Later on, the artist Kathryn Elkin presented Stuart Sherman’s videos (which are largely documentation pieces), and Elkin performed her own monologue about Sherman alongside his work as an embedded, direct dialogue. The AMIF screenings were about influence, but also about lived contact with those influences. The terminology of “artists’ moving image” (and my excessive and perhaps dogged literalness to interpreting that phrase) became a more malleable way to deal with moving image as both an art form and a medium at the same time. The fact that it is an umbrella term is useful; it presents an array of paradoxes and contradictions that one can nonetheless hold in the mind, and use productively.
Mousley: Similar to that, the entire listings of the Ruben Bentson Collection is held in the database under the title of “Moving Image.” I think of Hollis Frampton represented by text and image as a moving image, especially his work Critical Mass, and how Kerry Tribe takes the moving image and performs disjunctive text as if it were a live film. There’s a lot of synergy in past and present, projected and live moving images.
Launching a new series on working terminology in contemporary art, three Walker staffers—Senior Curator of Cross-Disciplinary Platforms Fionn Meade, Senior Curator of Film/Video Sheryl Mousley, and Bentson Visiting Film Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap—discuss “the moving image” and its relationship to frequent synonyms “film,” “video,” and “cinema.” For part two of this discussion, read “Moving Image” In Practice. […]
Launching a new series on working terminology in contemporary art, three Walker staffers—Senior Curator of Cross-Disciplinary Platforms Fionn Meade, Senior Curator of Film/Video Sheryl Mousley, and Bentson Visiting Film Scholar Isla Leaver-Yap—discuss “the moving image” and its relationship to frequent synonyms “film,” “video,” and “cinema.” For part two of this discussion, read “Moving Image” In Practice.
Isla Leaver-Yap: We’re here to discuss this term “moving image”—how the terminology has appeared, what we might mean by that phrase, and also our personal experiences of working with the moving image in recent years. So, let’s talk about some basic terminology.
To begin, we could say “moving image” is an image that moves by itself without some form of human interruption, for example: dynamic images, like an animated cat .GIF and MP3 visualizers from iTunes, as well as movies and YouTube clips. They encompass a vast array of image types. But “moving image” is also an umbrella term that we use within artist cinema, artist film, artist video, and also artist installation work.
One general distinction we could draw is how this differs from cinema. “Cinema” we typically understand as a situation in which we are seated and the projected image moves. But in moving image there’s no such specificity. This morning, I went on to Wikipedia and typed in “moving image,” and it’s not by accident that I was automatically redirected to the “film” page. So, moving image is clearly still a term that’s up-for-grabs. Film, meanwhile, is an interesting case as a moving image because it’s static images that appear to move at 24 frames per second. Movement is an illusion. This history emerges out of photography, namely Edward Muybridge who took sequential photographs of bodies in motion—the human body, of horses, of people wrestling, dancing, and so on—and animated them in his machine, the zoopraxiscope.
This is the early point of cinema. But by the 1960s, artists began to depart from those cinematic conventions, and move out from the cinema and into the space of the gallery, which is really where the moving image becomes a functional term. It’s the beginning of intermedia, it’s the beginning of expanded cinema. Essentially, it’s the spatialization of a temporal form.
Fionn Meade: I think “moving image” is a term that’s being revised and negotiated because it has more currency at the moment. Perhaps because of the ways in which everyday people use the moving image in a much more prominent way. We’re editing moving images ourselves, and the editorial thinking of the moving image is becoming a bigger part of daily life. One could say it’s approaching the status that the photographic image previously held as far as something we identify with in every facet of our life. I would say we identify with the moving image in personal and cultural terms in very different ways than, say, even 15 years ago.
Also key to this conversation is the availability of digital transfers, as well as the ability to bring things from different periods into a more consistent and (to some degree) stable, shared status, which is what we are currently doing with the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Collection. As opposed to a situation where you can say “film is film,” by its material definition, the moving image starts to become perhaps more accurate as a negotiable space for the different formats, conventions, and periods that we actually are working with in museological contexts, including exhibition and screening contexts.
So, we have a newly popular, cultural prominence of the moving image as editorial and familiar. And then we have the moving image within our field as a negotiable space for thinking through the relationships between cinema and film as an art form, video as an artist format, and installation art as something in-between.
Sheryl Mousley: If we go back and take a look at history—these terms and where some of them came from—it’s interesting to see flipbooks, the zoetrope, and how moving image was based on photography. It comes back to this idea of moving image because motion pictures were really a distinction from the still photograph. This was then shortened to “the pictures” before. And then, in the 1960s, filmmakers (I call them The Renegades) revolutionized the use of the moving image by taking it out of the motion picture world, which was then Hollywood and movie theatres, and asking where else can we show moving image art? Alternative spaces sprang up. Showing them in your house, in a gallery, in some kind of non-movie space, because there wasn’t yet a subset of cinematic experience for art films. They were never intended to be in a movie theater; they were outside. Film artists changed the rules completely. So then we had the motion picture industry and an independent film industry, which chose the word “film” because they were using celluloid at that point.
But when artists started using video, it was a different kind of form. Video was in the galleries, video was installation, another kind of moving image. Here at the Walker, a department was started 40 years ago that was called the Film Department. In the 1980s, with the acquisition of a lot of videotapes from artists, we added the “/video.” Over the last several years, we have been asking: “How outdated are these two words?” We keep going back and saying, “Well, film means celluloid, and video means a type of projection and presentation format. But at this point neither of them really exist anymore.” So, why would we use those two words? They have a historical reference back to these historical eras. But if we’re looking forward, “moving image” certainly moves us in that direction and encompasses, as you’re saying, so many other things, other than just the cinema or the gallery.
Meade: Exactly. It’s built into the term as a kind of translation between formats, but also between periods. But that’s also where it needs the expertise that you ably demonstrated. It’s not about leaving the conventions of film or the conventions of video art behind. Rather, it’s about bringing them into dialogue and in closer proximity with the way we historicize things. For example, you have the Portapak video format prominent in New York in the 1960s and 70s, and a lot of video art came out of a certain moment in gaining access to easy to use new technology. But that’s also when you have experimental film experiencing its New York heyday. The formats cross paths but with very different strategies, and yet they’re part of the same moment. In some ways, even then, the moving image might have been a helpful term.
Mousley: Yes, it would’ve solved a lot of problems and ended a lot of conflicts between organizations. In the Minneapolis community in the 1970s and 80s, there were two organizations: Film in the Cities, which was a film education and presentation program, and University Community Video—two very separate entities because no one thought these two formats would unite. Film and video were so distinct in what the words meant; they were opposites and had to take different paths. Coming back together in a new way would have solved this concern if we could have used the term “moving images” right from the start, and let it develop and evolve. But it feels like it’s going there now. It’s certainly an evolutionary moment, a looking forward.
Leaver-Yap: I think some of these histories that you were referring to, Fionn, come up a lot just in even how organizations currently describe themselves—most notably, the distributors of moving image. Notably in a museum context, we have the Museum of Moving Image, which opened in 1988. But, in terms of how moving image distributes on an organizational as well as a commercial level, we’ve got a number of key distributors that all articulate their activities differently. This is very pertinent because the Walker has acquired collections from Electronic Arts Intermix in New York, which defines itself as “a resource for video and media art”; Video Data Bank Chicago, which describes itself as “the leading resource in the United States for videos by and about contemporary artists.” And then we have slightly slippery terms in Europe. We have Lux, which is very explicitly articulating itself as an “artist moving image distribution agency,” in contrast to Paris, where we have we have Light Cone, which talks about itself as being a center for the “distribution, exhibition, and conservation of experimental film.” One is constantly negotiating these terms within their collection, or within their circulation. Light Cone still distributes celluloid and U-matic tapes, whereas Electronic Arts Intermix can now provide clients with a download on their website. Moving image relates to the new networks of circulation as much as it does its own material support.
Mousley: Lux and Light Cone contain the words light, lumen, lumiere, as an idea of projected light. But this is also going to change. It used to be that images were projected and now they’re not. Handheld screens are luminous, as well, but the idea of light projected into our eyes is more a cinematic way of seeing.
“Working Terms” continues with “Moving Image” In Practice.