Paul Sharits


Paul Sharits bio

Paul Sharits bio

Sharits negates filmic illusion, and places the focus on the function and materiality of film, as well as on the viewers’ subjective perception. In N:O:T:H:I:N:G [1968] or T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G [1968] he replaced the earlier »color fields« with associative images, and thereby extended the reduced »flicker film« concept. Increasingly the sound track also developed into an equally important, rhythmic and independent element within his films. Later works focus more strongly on the physical materiality of the film strip, in as much as it is worked over, scratched, and damaged. In 3rd Degree [1982] Sharits associated the fragility of filmic material with the vulnerability of the human body.

The Frozen Film Frames [1960s-70s] are serial arrangements of film strips, which- like the sketchy Scores – visualize film’s overall structure. With the Locational Film Pieces [beginning in 1971, among them Epileptic Seizure Comparison of 1976], Sharits shifted from the context of a frontally oriented movie theatre into the gallery space, and extended reception possibilities via its open structure and the interactive play between various synchronicities. Sharits has documented filmic thinking not just in films and film installations, but also in excellent theoretical writings. His installations with multiple projections have not just extended filmic time and space, but rather pictorial space in a general sense, including that of painting. As a member of the Fluxus movement in New York, he also produced objects and performances of a profound expressiveness.

Within a non-hierarchical juxtaposition, Sharits investigated the most varied means of representation, extending from film to painting. At the beginning of the 1980s, abstract but also expressionistic image backgrounds with figurative elements were produced. Frequently he took up motifs or ideas again, moved them from one medium into the next, and made thinking’s circulating process itself into a focus of attention. Paul Sharits taught from 1973 until his death in 1993 in the Department of Media Study at SUNY, Buffalo.

“What has taken us time to fully grasp and then aesthetically accommodate is the radicality of the break Sharits made. He had abandoned painting by the mid-’60s, seeing in film a practice that provided a greater range of philosophical and aesthetic registers. In short order, he created a series of canonical 16-mm works exploiting the flicker effect, including Word Movie/Fluxfilm 29 (1966), N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968), and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968). His subsequent shift to installation—what he termed “locational film pieces”—returned his work to the gallery and brought “the act of presenting and viewing a film as close as possible to the conditions of hanging and looking at painting.” What made these works manifestly ready for the white cube was in part his singular rejection of film’s representational content, its traditional reliance on mimesis and language, and in part his willingness to take the technology in hand and refashion it for his own needs. He composed his films using color-coded scores and fabricated them from nonobjective sources. His deployment of the standard apparatus for exhibition—the motion-picture projector—required an alteration of the transport and shutter mechanisms. For his first locational piece, Sound Strip/Film Strip, 1971, Sharits shifted the standard aspect ratio of film by projecting the images sideways, and for Shutter Interface he serially aligned the projectors in a manner that critic Rosalind Krauss described at the time as “muraliz[ing] the field of projection.” Even the visible presence of the projectors—a taboo for nearly all forms of cinema, from commercial to avant-garde—created what Krauss termed a “sculptural” presence and revealed “the work’s involvement in its own material basis.” Bruce Jenkins on Paul Sharits, ‘Out of the Dark,’ Artforum (2009)

An excellent book about Paul Sharits was edited by Yann Beauvais.

You can find out more about it, and order it here: http://www.lespressesdureel.com/EN/ouvrage.php?id=1118

You can visit his website here: http://www.paulsharits.com

Eight films and the Gerald O’Grady interview are available for preview at Ubuweb.

(Sears Catalogue 1-3 (1965), Dots 1&2 (1965), Wirst Trick (1965), Unrolling Event (1965), Word Movie(1966), Epileptic Seizure Comparison (1976), Tails (1976), Bad Burns (1982))

http://www.ubu.com/

Another excellent book containing vital Paul Sharits info is:

Buffalo Heads

Media Study, Media Practice, Media Pioneers, 1973-1990

Edited by Woody Vasulka and Peter Weibel

Art by James Blue, Tony Conrad, Hollis Frampton, Gerald O’Grady, Paul Sharits, Steina, Woody Vasulka and Peter Weibel

You can order it here: http://mitpress.mit.edu/catalog/item/default.asp?ttype=2&tid=11304

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Notes on Films by Paul Sharits (1969)

Notes on Films/1966-68 by Paul Sharits

Film Culture 47, Summer 1969, p.13-16.

(OVERTURE: “All writing is pigshit. People who leave the obscure and try to define whatever it is that goes on in their heads, are pigs.” Antonin Artaud)

GENERAL STATEMENT FOR 4th INTERNATIONAL EXPERIMENTAL FILM FESTIVAL, KNOKKE-LE ZOUTE: I am tempted to use this occasion to say nothing at all and simply let my films function as the carriers of themselves – except that this would be perhaps too arrogant and, more important, a good deal of my art does not, in fact, “contain itself.” It is difficult for me to verbalize about “my intentions” not only because the films are non-verbal experiences but because they are structured so as to demand more of viewers than attention and appreciation; that is, these works require a certain fusion of “my intentions” and with the “viewer’s intentions.”

This has nothing to do with “pleasing an audience” – I mean to say that in my cinema flashes of projected light initiate neural transmission as much as they are analogues of such transmission systems and that the human retina is as much a “movie screen” as is the screen proper. At the risk of sounding immodest, by re-examining the basic mechanisms of motion pictures and by making these fundamentals explicitly concrete, I am working toward a completely new conception of cinema. Traditionally, “abstract films,” because they are extensions of the aesthetics and pictorial principles of painting or are simply demonstrations of optics, are no more cinematic than narrative-dramatic films which squeeze literature and theatre onto a two-dimensional screen. I wish to abandon imitation and illusion and enter directly into the higher drama of: celluloid, two-dimensional strips; individual rectangular frames; the nature of sprockets and emulsion; projector operations; the three-dimensional light beam; environmental illumination; the two-dimensional reflective screen surface; the retinal screen; optic nerve and individual psycho-physical subjectivities and consciousness. In this cinematic drama, light is energy rather than a tool for the representation of non-filmic objects, shapes and textures. Given the fact of retinal inertia and the flickering shutter mechanism of film projection, one may generate virtual forms, create actual motion (rather than illustrate it), build actual color-space (rather than picture it), and be involved in actual time (immediate presence).

While my films have thematic structures (such as the sense of striving, leading to mental suicide and death, and then rhythms of rebirth in Ray Gun Virus and the viability of sexual dynamics as an alternative to destructive violence in Piece Mandala End War), they are not at all stories. I think of my present work as being occasions for meditational-visionary experience.

RAY GUN VIRUS/SYNOPSIS FOR 4th INTERNATIONAL EXPERIMENTAL FILM FESTIVAL COMPETITION: The film was made to induce the sense of a consciousness which destroys itself by linear striving, fixated on achieving the “blueness” of inner vision yet caught up, by that very intention, in obsessive cycles – consciousness hung up in patterns external and in opposition to its own structure. Weakened by its own aggressiveness, infection sets in; progressive vicious cycles of decay amount to a self-induced death, a mental suicide. Through the blank darkness, consciousness is freed to turn inward upon itself and is reborn on its own organic terms. The film does what it is. Non-filmic images and stories are not allowed to interfere with the viewers’ awareness of the immediate reality while experiencing the film. Light-color-energy patterns generate internal time-shape and allow the viewer to become aware of the electrical-chemical functioning of his own nervous system. Just as the “film’s consciousness” becomes infected, so also does the viewers’: the projector is an audio-visual pistol; the screen looks at the audience; the retina screen is a target. Goal: the temporary assassination of the viewers’ normative consciousness. The film’s final “image” is a faint blue (attached by not striving for it) and the viewer is left to his own reconstruction of self, left with a screen upon which his retina may project its own patterns.

PIECE MANDALA/END WAR/SYNOPSIS FOR 4th INTERNATIONAL EXPERIMENTAL FILM FESTIVAL COMPETITION: This work was made for an anthology of films the general theme of which was to be For Life, Against The War; the film was not completed in time to be eligible for inclusion in that anthology and thus stands on its own as a statement of that theme. Piece Mandala is not narrative drama; instead it is meant to provide a short but intense meditative experience. “Meditative” implies suspension of linear time and spatial direction; circularity and simultaneity are basic characteristics of mandalas, the most effective tools for turning perception inward. In this temporal mandala, blank color frequencies space out and optically feed into black and white images of one love-making gesture which is seen simultaneously from both sides of its space and both ends of its time. Color structure is linear-directional but implies a largely infinite cycle; light-energy and image frequencies induce rhythms related to the psychophysical experience of the creative act of cunnilingus. Conflict and tension are natural in a yin/yang universe but atomic structure, yab/yum and other dynamic equilibrium systems make more cosmic sense as conflict models than do the destructive orgasms the United States is presently having in Vietnam.

(More truthfully, I had no idea of what I was actually doing while making Piece Mandala. My wife and I had been separated and I began the film immediately following our reconciliation; since then, in our unending attempt to understand what the film might mean, we have come to understand that that search – and then, the film – has been of the deepest significance in the reconstruction of our marriage. Only recently in Providence, while travelling with the poet David Franks, after awaking from nightmares and writing the following note to Frances, did it become clear to me that the film is properly dedicated to her: “seeing, at last, your mind as it must be at times in unendurable anguish, a series of events leading to that sense of self as burden, Artaud making art of it, misery, saw your minding of such in my own horror, shocked, shaking my head to get a feeling for what is dream and what is not, my head a crazy catalogue of images, classical symbols, cartoons of grief – but it is not always so and it is that lack of it which has to stand in for joy in the absence of blessings – and there are, in rare instances, blessings and you are often there at those places and I have a total sense of sense and you are absolutely cream, having to step on plastic flowers, my mind bursting, blossoming – someday I will tell you my dreams when it is quiet and I am more willing to let the tragic have its due warmth – that comes later; now I am content that my dreams were dreams”).

RAZOR BLADES/FROM AN APPLICATION FOR A GRANT: The film is made to be projected from two reels, the images appearing side by side; speakers are to be placed to create a stereo sound environment. Razor Blades begins as a mandala; the mandala is visually sliced open (as if one had passed through the center of the mandala, “through a looking glass” into a realm of pure imagination – consciousness dissected (and as the film’s “theme” gradually expands it becomes less and less rational. After the midway point in the film, the themes-images become more coherent again, begin to “re-center”; at the end of the film the mandala is reformed and the overall sense of the film is that a large cycle has occurred. Since Razor Blades ends as it began, an infinite loop is suggested – metric time is destroyed. Apart from the beginning and ending footage, which is linear, the film is made up of 14 loops which, staggered, play against (“slice” back and forth, interpenetrate) each other. Each loop, in itself, is made so that one can chart variations in one’s own consciousness of speed, rhythm and image recognition; when these loops are projected side by side, so that both images are seen as one large image, because of their differences in cycle length, this variability of consciousness is geometrically increased; since there are constantly different pairs of images on the screen, the repetitive characteristic of loops is transcended. Since Ray Gun Virus I have attempted to subtract from my imagery all potentially discursive – symbolic – dramatic-narrative meaning so that each film might create its own particular filmic “meaning”, so that each film will be a living system in itself. These “meanings” may be partially associative since recognizable images appear; still, these images are intended to be primarily plastic, even physiological. A “theme” which preoccupies my everyday being and that which recurs in most of my film work is that of the cosmic, dynamic unity of opposites, the orders of disorder, the sense of constant circularity … paradox as fundamental fact. In this work there is not only a formal sense of cycle but there is also a sense of the Life Cycle: mundane activity slashed open, revealing the positive-negative dynamics of sexuality, birth, growth, clashes at levels of reality, horror, confusion, absurdity, suicide; then, the “other side” of death-filled visions of life – the razor used to slash a wrist becomes Medicine (the life-giving scalpel) … ends becoming beginnings.

N:O:T:H:I:N:G/FROM AN APPLICATION FOR A GRANT: The film will strip away anything (all present definitions of “something”) standing in the way of the film being its own reality, anything which would prevent the viewer from entering totally new levels of awareness. The theme of the work, if it can be called a theme, is to deal with the non-understandable, the impossible, in a tightly and precisely structured way. The film will not “mean” something – it will “mean,” in a very concrete way, nothing.

The film focuses and concentrates on two images and their highly linear but illogical and/or inverted development. The major image is that of a lightbulb which first retracts its light rays; upon retracting its light, the bulb becomes black and, impossibly, lights up the space around it. The bulb emits one burst of black light and begins melting; at the end of the film the bulb is a black puddle at the bottom of the screen. The other image (note that the film is composed, on all levels, of dualities) is that of a chair, seen against a graph-like background, falling backwards onto the floor (actually, it falls against and affirms the edge of the picture frame); this image sequence occurs in the center, “thig le” section of N:O:T:H:I:N:G. The mass of the film is highly vibratory color-energy rhythms; the color development is partially based on the Tibetan Mandala of the Five Dhyani Buddhas which is used in meditation to reach the highest level of inner consciousness – infinite, transcendental wisdom (symbolized by Vairocana being embraced by the Divine Mother of Infinite Blue Space). This formal-psychological composition moves progressively into more intense vibration (through the symbolic colors white, yellow, red and green) until the center of the mandala is reached (the center being the “thig le” or void point, containing all forms, both beginning and end of consciousness). The second half of the film is, in a sense, the inverse of the first; that is, after one has passed through the center of the void, he may return to a normative state retaining the richness of the revelatory “thig le” experience. The virtual shapes I have been working with (created by rapid alterations and patterns of blank color frames) are quite relevant in this work as is indicated by this passage from the Svetasvatara Upanishad: “As you practice meditation, you may see in vision forms resembling snow, crystals, smoke, fire, lightning, fireflies, the sun, the moon. These are signs that you are on your way to the revelation of Brahman.”

I am not at all interested in the mystical symbolism of Buddhism, only in its strong, intuitively developed imagistic power. In a sense, I am more interested in the mantra because unlike the mandala and yantra forms which are full of such symbols, the mantra is often nearly pure nonsense – yet it has intense potency psychologically, aesthetically and physiologically. The mantra used upon reaching the “thig le” of the Mandala of the Five Dhyani Buddhas is the simple “Om” – a steady vibrational hum. I’ve tried to compose the center of N:O:T:H:I:N:G, on one level, to visualize this auditory effect.

From a letter to Stan Brakhage, late spring 1968: “The film is about (it is) gradation-progression on many different levels; for years I had been thinking that if a fade is directional in that it is a hierarchical progression, and that that exists in and implies forward moving ‘time’, then why couldn’t one construct inverse time patterns, why couldn’t one structure a felt awareness of really going thru negative time? During the final shooting sessions these past few months I’ve had Vermeer’s ‘Lady Standing at the Virginals’ hanging above my animation stand and have had the most peculiar experience with that work in relation to N:O:T:H:I:N:G (the colons ‘meant’ to create somewhat the sense of the real yet paradoxical concreteness of ‘nothing’ … as Wittgenstein so beautifully reveals). As I began to recognize the complex interweaving of all levels of ‘gradation’ (conceptually, sensually, rhythmically, proportionately … even the metaphoric level of subject making music, etc.) in the Vermeer I began to see what I was doing in the film in a more conscious way. I allowed the feelings I was getting from this silent dialogue between process of seeing and process of structuring to further clarify the footage I was shooting. I can’t get over the intense mental-emotional journeys I got into with this work and hope that the film is powerful enough to allow others to travel along those networks.

Light comes thru the window on the left and not only illuminates the ‘Lady at the Virginals’ but illuminates the subjects in the two paintings (which are staggered in a forward-reverse simultaneous progression creating a sense of forward and backward time) hanging on the wall and the one painting the inside lid of the virginal! The whole composition is circular, folds in on itself but implies that part of that circle exists out in front of the surface. What really moved me was the realisation that the light falling across the woman’s face compounded the light-gradation-time theme by forcing one back on the awareness of (the paradox of) awareness. I.e., one eye, itself dark, is half covered with light while the other eye is in shadow; both eyes are gazing directly at the viewer as if the woman is projecting music at the viewer thru her gaze (as if reversing the ‘normal’ role of ‘perception’) … I mean, the whole point is that the instrument by which light-perception is made possible is itself in the dark.”)

(POSTSCRIPT: Interrelated proportions welded into a formula consisting “of terms, some known and some unknown, some of which were equal to the rest; or rather all of which taken together are equal to nothing; for this is often the best form to consider.” –Descartes)

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Obituary (1993)

Paul Sharits, 50, Avant-Guardist Whose Films Explored the Senses by Roberta Smith (New York Times, July 15, 1993)

Paul Sharits, an experimental film maker widely known in his field as a master of abstract film and film-projector installation, was found dead last Thursday in his home in Buffalo. He was 50. He died of natural causes, said his son, Christopher Sharits of San Francisco.

He was born in Denver on Feb. 8, 1943, and began experimenting with film while a teen-ager. He received an undergraduate degree in painting at the University of Denver and a graduate degree in visual design at the University of Indiana, founding experimental film groups at both universities.

In the early 1970’s, he developed an undergraduate film program at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. From 1973 to 1992, he was the director of undergraduate studies at the Center for Media Study at the State University College at Buffalo. Of Sensory Perception

Mr. Sharits’s work was regularly included in film and video festivals around the world, and he exhibited his work in art galleries and international art exhibitions, especially during the 1970’s. Most of his efforts pushed at the limits of sensory perception. His installations of continuously running film clips, which often involved multiple projectors, could inundate the viewer in rich, rapidly shifting hues, flickering images and pulsating light, creating effects that were variously called hallucinogenic, aggressive and elegant.

Made with the use of elaborate drawings that plotted the color of each frame, these films sometimes resembled a kind of moving abstract painting. But Mr. Sharits insisted that his work was not abstract and that it simply exploited the physical realities of the movies: transparent film, projector and light beam.

A retrospective of Mr. Sharits’s films was held at the Anthology Film Archives in the East Village in 1978. His work is represented in many major museums, libraries and film centers in the United States and Europe.

Mr. Sharits’s marriage to Frances Niekerk ended in divorce.

In addition to his son, he is survived by his father and stepmother, Paul and Grace Sharits of Canon City, Colo., and two grandsons.

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Postscript as Preface by Paul Sharits (January 1973)

The pieces printed here, due to their highly personal qualities and their lack of any clear aesthetic declaration (one being a letter of sorts and other a set of intimate journals), really demand somae introductory notes. The curious urge some artists feel to reveal the life and (cluttered) thought bases of their work is certainly not a valid mode of art criticism – “intentions” are not the proper concern of formalist analysis. However, one of the most pleasant characteristics of Film Culture has been its continual attentiveness to the personal statement. Perhaps this is because the American experimentalist filmmakers have a passion for “confession”; the beginnings of this cinema being “psychdramatic” further illuminates proclivity but does not explain it.

It may be that those who are drawn to cinema have some natural penchant, even though they might spend their careers trying to undercut it, for the diary, the chronicle, the dramatic – in short, for the “narrative.” In some senses, all of my films (with the exceptions of Word Movie, Inferential Current (which is a comedy despite its lack of plot or development) and Sound Strip/Film Strip, if they are not strictly narrative, they still do have temporal interior and exterior shapes akin to those of the narrative; but the films are so distilled, so conceptually-aestheically edited, that they do not always seem to come from the chaos of “life’s narrative.”

In my writing, I often forgo taste so that I might discover something more personally valuable: a reference frame for the spirit, from which hopefully richer surface structures may be generated. Certain incidents in a creative person’s life may not be an observable part of the concepts and/or forms that that person gives over to the world but those incidents may nevertheless be cardinal substructurally; those incidents may even be interesting, at least to those who care as much for the spirit as they do for its manifestations.

It is extremely interesting to me that Chomsky’s boat voyage to Europe in 1953 provided him the time and (desert-like but literally deep-structured) space for what must have been his agonized meditation on the ambiguities of structural linguistics; how marvelous it would be if we could “relive” those moments of confused reflection and inspiration which crystallized into formulations of the major premises of his post-structural theories – as it was, he had a struggle getting even the theories as such into publication!

The writings of mine which follow issue from a tumultuous two-year period in my life which I view as pivotally transitional. I look back on those years from an evolved pespetive and I am now able to both respect and be amused by them. The period was characterized by anxiety; personal and aesthetic transvaluations had to be performed but during nearly every moment of that time the most prominent and often violently exaggerated concern was with what was “real” and what was ethical. Tormented by the implications of film as a physical strip, I terminated my exclusive involvement with the film frame and the symmetry of my “mandala” series. This was coincidental with the collapse of my seven-year marriage, summer 1969. I had never been able to really separate the aesthetic and the ethical (Wittgenstein) and this new set of crises undercut my every confidence. I consciously violated my previous values, churned up the “subconscious”, experimented rashly in life style and filming modes; this was not pleasant. Finally, out of this sometimes comic but usually terrifying and often depressing state of being, I managed to finalize S: TREAM : S : S ECTION : S ECTION : S : S :S ECTIONED, December of 1970, the only work I wsa able to complete in two years. To me, this was a major aesthetic breakthrough; however, my life and spirit were still in their “season of hell”; another relationship collapsed and I frantically traveled back and forth from coast to coast, searching for something I now feel but still cannot express. I found what I was craving, several weeks after I completed typing up the fragments from my journals concerning S ; S ; S ; S ; S : S. Somehow, even while moving in and out of large east and west coast cities at a near self-destructive pace, I knew that the confrontation I needed to clarify my multitudinous confusions as to be found not in cities and peole and not in myself but in the vast quiet of the American southwest. (Therapy had been of some help to me but until I confronted the “ultimate deep structure”, the “existential terminus” which awaited me, it could not provide a belieavbel aid to self-regulation; after the experiences I will describe, Dr. Leonard Cobbs, had been suggested all along.)

In June of 1971 I set out on an elemental six week journey through the deserts of California, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico with my dear friend Hank Saxe, who had one of my most brilliant students. Even while Hank was able to explain every fault structur and rock or soil compound, this was more than a geologically edifying excursion: it was a most lyrical visionary experience. We visited volcano sites, grandly peculiar erosion vistas, a meteor crater, hundreds of miles of flat silence and spent several delightful days with a master Hopi jeweler and his family on the Shongopovi Reservation. We paid our silent homage to Georgia O’Keefe by assimilating what we could of the area around Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu. Each day I shot footage of earth and sky formations; a sense of relaxation was emerging. Then, several days deep in southern Utah’s “otherworldly” Escalante Canyon, backpacking with a small Sierra Club group, on the day of the summer solstice, lying on my back in a shallow part of the river, the water and the sun fusing, a distinct message was granted me; I seemed to be receiving revelations and instructions and they enabled me to feel at last a vital peacefulness and purpose. Months later, back teaching at Antioch, when I finally felt enough courage to process the 2,000 feet of thousand of images of cloud, rock, sand and dirt surfaces I had “taken” in the southwest (sometimes risking my life, climbing along steep, slippery boulders and what not), I was not devastated to find that the camera I had used had a light leak which pretty much negated all but perhaps 200 feet of imagery. In fact, this “negation” made the act of shooting (which had gotten me so much in relation with the earth and its atmosphere) an even more intensified spiritual engagement that it would have been if it had been “successful.” I now realize that the sky is a desert of sorts, and I have continued amassing 1 frame to 48 frame long pictures of its infinite configurations, regardless of what I am at on Earth’s surface. Or where I am located in blissful flight within my “subject.” To put the diary-like writings in further parentheses marks I submit a few of the specific theoretic findings which surfaced during this period which are still significant to my current analytical research, wherein I am making documentary films about the parameters of film stock. The following paragraphs are from a piece I wrote in fall 1979, “Words Per Page”; these paragraphs are not in the first publication of the essay, but conveniently together here, they can act as a forward to the more automatically written letters and journals.

Stan Brakhage’s massive work is too expansive in its implications and richness to discuss here except to mention that his use of the camera as a behavioural extension, his forceful modulation of distinctive, “distractive” “mistakes” (blurs, splices, flares, frame lines, flash frames, etc.) and his decomposition and reconstitution of “subjects” in editing, because of their cinematically self-referential qualities (they reveal the system by which they are made), bring cinema up to date with the other advanced arts. And, in another manner, Andy Warhol has demonstrated in his early work that prolongations of subject (redundant, “non-motion” pictures), because they deflect attention finally to the material process of recording-projecting (eg. To the succession of film frames, and, by way of consciousness of film grain, scratches and dirt particles, to the sense of the flow of the celluloid strip) are perhaps as revealing of the “nature of cinema” as is consistent interruption of ‘normative’ cinematic functions…

It is interesting to consider some phenomenological differences between painting, music and film: in viewing painting our experience is changing while the painting’s existence is enduring; in music both our experience and the existence of the music are changing; however, in film we have a case where we can experience both a changing and an enduring existence – we can look at the “same” film as an object, before or after projection (and it not a “score”; it is “the film”), and as temporal process, while it is being “projected” on the stable support of the screen. This equivocality of object/projection is further complicated when we admit that there are occasions when we are looking at a screen and we don’t know whether we are or are not seeing “a film”; we cannot distinguish “the movie” from “the projection”…

A listing of what constitutes filmic elements is confounded by the object/projection “dualism”; but at least a crude breakdown of the modes that the system can embody can be made; this seems necessary before “elements” can be located. There are at least: processes of intending to make a film; processes of recording light patterns on raw stock (films can be made which by-pass this mode); processes of processing; processes of editing; processes of printing; processes of projecting; processes of experiencing. The problem of whether or not “concepts” like “intention” are “elements” complicates the issue; that is to say, even those “things” which are observable, such as “emulsion grains”, can be shown to be essentially “concepts.” Remembering this difficulty, a partial list of elements which can be observed should be made as a (tentative) fundamental frame of reference. We can observe cameras, projectors and other pieces of equipment and their parts and their parts’ functions (shutters, numerous circular motions of parts, focus, etc.). We can observe the support itself, its emulsions before and after “exposure”, sprocket holes, frames, etc. We can observe the effects of light on film and, likewise, we can note the effects of light passing through the film and illuminating a reflective support. There is a remarkable structural parallel, which is suggestive of new systems of filmic organization, between a piece of film and the projections of light through it; both are simultaneously corpuscular (“frames”) and wave-like (“strip”)…

One thing we can say for sure about the release print of a film is that it is a long single “line” of film stock and during its projection, even though it may be structured according to retrograde vectorial concepts and even be experienced as temporally negative, it is, in fact, a straight line in our actual overall isotropic timefield. And the frames on the strip, as well as the image frame on the screen, regular and repeating. So, a homogeneously structured film would be as valid an amplification of the nature of film as would be a vectorial oriented work. In fact, from this angle it would seem that film experiences which had any variation would disrupt this sense of linear homogeneity and would in effect be anti-filmic. However, by considering one of cinema’s most basic syntagms, “the fade,” we discover a most natural way of reintroducing structural directionality, without negating either the continuous nature of the strip (the fade emphasizes the linear quality of the strip) or the flat, modular nature of the individual film frames (because the flat screen, being the most direct projection/image of the frame’s morphology, constantly refers our attention across its even surface in all directions to its edge, i.e., rather than looking through a “frame’ into a picture, we find ourselves looking “at” an image of the film frame).

My work of the past five years has been based on the importance of the fade; it provided a believable model for the vectorial construction of those works. My interest in creating temporal analogues of Tibetan mandalas, evoking their circularity and inverse symmetrical balance, led me to making what are basically two vector, symmetric works in which the first part’s forward directed structure is countered by the second part’s retrograde direction. A complex form of this vectorial approach, which issues a sense of isotropic homogeneity rather than a sense of developmental directiveness, can be obtained by overlapping or regularly intersecting two opposing vectors (i.e., superimpose a forward progression “over” a backwards progression); the whole work is, so to speak, a conceptual “lap dissolve” and will have the curious quality of constant but directionless motion. In 1968 I abandoned the mandala-like structures and am now working with a single vector form rather than dualistically balanced vectors; I have come to believe that while they provide discrete experiences, the latter are too closed and death-evoking in their over-stressing of “beginning” and “ending” and are, in this sense, models of closed systems.

Once the screen frame is regarded as a projection of a total film frame, we must begin to think about the appropriate scale relationships such as distance of camera from subject to distance of screen and projected subject, and viewer, and consequently, the size of the image to the size of its frame, and the size of the screen-as-image to the size of the wall on which it is projected. These features are normally regarded as arbitrary. Surface division of the projected frame has also been regarded as arbitrary; the flat film frame does not have the deep space most “shots” containing diagonals evoke, yet directors do not hesitate in using diagonal shapes in their compositions; rarely do these diagonals refer to the rectangular shape of the frame. If the film frame is a valid subject of footage, then footage should be considered a valid subject within the screen frame. A continuous scratch across frame lines down the length of film refers not only to the footage as a flowing strip but is also a valid internal division in its congruent relation to the verticality of the right and left edges of the frame image. An intensified splice not only refers to the horizontality of the top and bottom edge of the frame but it also interrupts the flow of our experiencing a film in such a way that we are reminded that we are watching the flowing of footage through a projector. When a film “loses its loop” it allows us to see a blurred strip of jerking frames; this is quite natural and quite compelling subject material. When this non-framed condition is intentionally induced, a procedure I am currently exploring, it could be thought of as “dis-framing”. I am developing another approach to simultaneously reveal both the frame and strip nature of film (both of which are normally hidden due to the intermittent shutter system), by removing the gripper arm and shutter mechanism from the projector…

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Red, Blue, Godard by Paul Sharits (1966)

Godard’s first colour film was Une Femme Est Une Femme (A Woman is A Woman, 1961), two years later he dealt with colour for the second time in Le Mépris (Contempt). In both works the colours are dominantly primaries (“In Le Mépris I was influenced by modern art: straight colour,’pop’ art I tired to use only the five principal colours.”1)

Red and blue are the colours appearing most frequently in both A Woman is a Woman and Contempt; the recurrence of these hues in a variety of contexts suggests thematic implications. The films are also related in that their primary themes are love triads (a motif which later became geometrically equilateral in A Married Woman); in both, female nudity has the important function of finalizing a precarious relationship. Both are parodies, the former more obvious and comic while the latter is complex, oblique and tragic.

It is well known that working in colour often creates new problems for the intelligent director – an excellent description of these problems was given by Antonioni when he was interviewed by Godard.2 Godard, through his experience with A Woman is A Woman, seemed to learn that if colour was to function thematically, he would have to extend the length of single shots and slow down his camera movements to allow the viewer adequate time fo concentrating on the composition of colours.

Even a simple and incomplete inventory of the recurring colours in A Woman is A Woman indicates the importance of hue in relation to characterization and narrative development. Angela, the character who motivates the film’s action, is first seen in a red nightclub; her eyelids are shadowed blue. She is shown wearing a white coat and lives in a white apartment with her lover Emile. Camille and Paul, in Contempt, also live in a white apartment. In both cases, the white seems to underscore conditions of neutrality and/or situations whose final outcome is still ambivalent – Angela very much wants a child by Emile, but Emile, who is cool to the idea of Angela having a baby, wears predominantly blue clothing.

The neutral ground of the apartment contains a balance of red and blue objects: window awnings, clothespins, drinking cups in the bathroom, a sports poster on the wall in the living room, flashlights, a red lampshade and a blue bedspread. Seen through windows there are blue and red neon signs that consistently comment upon the emotional climate of each scene which occurs in the apartment. Angela is also characterized as indecisive at several points; one time she wears one red and one blue stocking, and another time she wears a red and blue plaid dress. There are red dots on her underpants. After being repeatedly refused by Emile, Angela goes to Emile’s friend Albert to conceive. Albert, the film’s straight man, wars grey and feels no real affection for Angela; he is, however, delighted to help her out. At this point Angela is wearing a blue dress and has switched to a black coat. When she returns to Emile, after having intercourse with Albert, she still wears blue and the dots on her underpants are also blue. When she informs Emile, however, the action is still ambivalent and Angela again wears the white coat. The film ends with Angela and Emile in bed, still under a blue blanket; both are sad and confused. Then Angela thinks of a way to solve the dilemma: red neon light pulsates into the apartment and Angela takes off her nightgown for a willing Emile.

Very rarely, since Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, has colour in a commercial feature been used except to add market value. When it has been dealt with at all, it has been used primarily for the enhancement of mood in separate scenes. Godard has attempted a more ambitious function for hue in A Woman is A Woman: colour is used as a leitmotif which parallels and comments upon the narrative theme.

If a colour leitmotif is to be used, some system for structuring the colours must be created. In regard to the red and blue motif of A Woman is A Woman, Kabuki make-up authority Masaru Kobayashi’s comments are important: “…the basic colours employed in kumadori are red and blue. Red is warm and attractive, blue, the opposite, is the colour of villains…”3 These stylized, symbolic colour values are more than likely formalizations of direct sensual experience, formalizations based upon relationships of hue sensation and inner emotional states (what Wassily Kandinsky called “der inner Klang”). Eisenstein felt that these alleged correspondences of sensation and emotion could not be the basis for the systematic organization of colour due to the high degree of variation in subjective responses persons have to hues; instead, he suggested that each film creates its own “functional” system of organization, using arbitrary chosen but consistently recurring colours of values.

Godard’s colour system is in accord with Eisenstein’s theory insomuch as it is “functional” and its colours do not act upon the viewer in a direct sensual way. Godard admitted this himself when he made the following comment about a film in which each composition (through filtering and juxtaposition of hues) creates colour “auras” that establish emotional responses in its viewers: “I was very impressed with the new Antonioni, The Red Desert: the colour in it was completely different from what I have done: in Le Mépris the colour was before the camera but in his film, it was inside the camera.”4 On the other hand, Godard’s dominant thematic hues were very likely not chosen arbitrarily since they have such obvious symbolic references to emotional states.

Contempt follows the pattern developed in A Woman is A Woman but where in the former colour loosely parallels the narrative development, in the latter the leitmotif is more fully conceived, more complex, more visually apparent and becomes, in itself, a formative theme. Another difference in the film is that the blue and red system of the first is inverted in Contempt. While Angela sings of love in the nightclub of A Woman is A Woman, a revolving coloured spotlight casts first blue, then red light on her face. Immediately after the credits in Contempt, Godard again used a filtered effect: Camille and Paul and lying in bed talking about their love for each other, the shot is a deep red monochrome which abruptly shifts to “normal” polychrome; even in polychrome the scene remains warm in tonality (dominant oranges and yellows), but as the camera makes a slow overhead dolly her tone becomes cooler; then the shot shifts to monochrome again, this time to deep blue. In both films these filtered shots establish colour “keys;”in Contempt this prepares us for the overall movement of mood from warmth (red) to ambivalence (white, pink) to coldness (of course, blue) or, literally, from love to contempt.

Paul, a French detective story writer , has been asked by the repulsive, extroverted American film producer Jerome Prokosch (Jerry) to come to Rome to rewrite the script for his production of The Odyssey. Jerry I not pleased with the way in which his director, (the real) Fritz Lang, is insisting on the filming the book (i.e., the way it was written). Jerry wants to modernize the epic by inserting into it factors of causality (the very thing Godard consistently suppresses in his work). Even by accepting the assignment, Paul makes the first step in a series of steps which leads to his total self-demoralization. In these first scenes, Jerry wears a blue coat and a red tie; he drives a red sports car. Jerry is composed of both blue (dominant) and red so we may infer that the attraction he will toward Paul’s wife Camille, will be lust rather than love. Paul wears much the same colours (dominant grey and bits of blue) throughout the film and this is evocative of his passiveness and apparent lack of emotion. Camille, the most complex character, first appears in navy blue and white and wears a blue band over her blond hair; she wears the same colour in her last appearance, and, since she is in a constant process of changing mental states and garment colours throughout the film, this implies a cyclic development. Godard, in his treatment of Camille’s garment hues, seems to have broken with what he may have felt was a too-obvious colour system. Camille, because she is in love with her husband at the beginning of the film, “should” be wearing red; however, the cyclic motif that occurs in regard to Camille’s development has a particular irony paralleling Contempt’s development with that of the Homeric Odyssey. Francesca, Jerry’s secretary and lover, while a minor character, supports the colour key as a whole. Normally she is seen wearing a yellow sweater and grey skirt, but, during a scene in which she arouses Paul’s desire, she changes to a red sweater.

Camille and Paul are invited by Jerry to accompany him to Capri where Lang is doing the shooting for the film. Camille is dressed in pink (faded red) and grey (the first note of passiveness). Paul wears white and blue and Jerry has on a grey suit with a red and black tie. They are on the deck of Jerry’s boat, from which the Cyclops episode of The Odyssey is being shot; Paul is sitting in a blue chair. Jerry asks Camille to return to his temple-turned-home with him but she leaves the decision up to Paul; he consents, failing her again, Camille and Jerry leave in a speedboat which disappears from sight in a symmetrical shot, the top of which is blue sky and the bottom, blue sea. It is as if the boat had been swallowed by the water; Neptune’s kingdom now becomes the image of Camille and Paul’s fate.

When Paul returns to the temple with Lang, he sees Camille kissing Jerry and seems to partially realize the seriousness of the situation. He tells Jerry he is quitting but even now he won’t state the actual reason and says that he simply does not care for scriptwriting. He then looks for Camille and finds her sunbathing nude on the temple roof. She is lying on a yellow robe and next to her is a discarded red robe – discarded for good. She is now numb and when she says to Paul that she is barren of all feeling (she wears nothing) she is no longer acting. She puts on the yellow robe (perhaps a regaining of feeling, indicative of the beginning of a new cycle – one which excludes Paul) and they walk down, descend, to a ledge overlooking the sea. The composition of this series of shots is brilliant; as they get closer to the water, the relatively warm composition changes as progressively larger areas of the screen are filled with the blueness of the sea. Camille says, “I’ll never forgive you,” removes her robe and dives into the sea. While she swims, Paul falls asleep (Godard may have exaggerated Paul’s passiveness here!); we are watching Paul sleep while we hear Camille’s voice reading the letter she has written telling that she has left for Rome.

The scene is abruptly changed to Jerry, wearing a red sweater driving Camille to Rome in his car. Camille wears the same colours as she did at the beginning of the film, implying the completion of a metamorphic cycle. Like Odysseus, she and Paul have been on a voyage, a voyage ending with the submersion of their relationship. Camille, at least, has regained her original stability – somewhat in the was that Odysseus has regained his homeland (Odysseus, in Lang’s picture, wears blue when he returns to Ithaca). Jerry stops for gas and while waiting he picks a small red flower. He pulls out of the gas station in a characteristically reckless way and just before they collide into the side of a petroleum truck, we see the final words of Camille’s letter while hearing the crashing sound of the collision. Then there is a cut back to the wreck – a slow dolly toward Camille and Jerry’s dead bodies; cut again to Paul, suitcase in hand, walking up the staircase of the temple at the film site where Lang is shooting the return of Odysseus. He passes Francesa (wearing blue) who is walking down the stairs; he pauses but she ignores him; Paul continues up to the roof.

This study by no means exhausts the wealth of colour imagery in Godard’s two works. Due to the relative inaccessibility of the films, there are necessarily many gaps in this analysis and interpretation. It is a certainty, however, that Godard has shown a new way of effectively using colour, at least in commercial filmmaking. (Stan Brakhage’s Anticipation of the Night, made several years before A Woman is A Woman, has as complex and systematic use of colour as Godard’s films.) Within the realm of the commercial film, Godard has accomplished the unique task of casting colours effectively in major dramatic roles.

Notes

1. Godard in the New York Film Bulletin, no. 46, 1964, p. 13.

2. See the English edition of Cahiers du Cinema, no. 1, 1966, pp. 28-29.

3. Sergej Eisenstein, Jay Leyda, The Film Sense, Faber and Faber, London, p. 137.

4. New York Film Bulletin, p. 13.

Correspondence with Stan Brakhage

May 20, 1966

Dear Mr. Brakhage,

In my article – RED, BLUE, GODARD (an analytical study of A WOMAN IS A WOMAN and CONTEMPT) – whish is to be published in the Summer Film Quarterly, I say in conclusion: This study by no means exhausts the wealth of colour imagery in Godard’s two works. Due to the relative inaccessibility of the films, there are necessarily many gaps in this analysis and interpretation. It is a certainty, however, that Godard has shown a new way of effectively using colour, at least in commercial filmmaking. (Stan Brakhage’s Anticipation of the Night, made several years before A Woman is A Woman, has as complex and systematic use of colour as Godard’s films.) Within the realm of the commercial film, Godard has accomplished the unique task of casting colours effectively in major dramatic roles.”

I’ve only been able to see ANTICIPATION a few times but I feel sure that I am correct in what I say about it in the Film Q article. Your notes in METAPHORS seem to reinforce my intuitions. However, I have never been able to verbally interpret the functions of colour in your film and it has recently occurred to me that I cannot intellectually defend my position. As I’m sure you are aware, I’m not after an easy way of understanding (via some literal-symbolic “key”) your film. What I am asking for is an indication of the perspectives thru which I might more successfully respond to your colour. Even your briefest clarification on this issue will be heartily welcomed.

I was able to see your PRELUDE several years ago when you brought it down to a Denver University film group showing. Recently I was able to see it and all the following sections of DOG STAR MAN (at once of the meetings of the Indiana University EXPERIMENTAL CINEMA CLUB which I sponsor-direct – our initial, Spring ’66 program was made up entirely of New American Cinema). Am I wrong in my feeling that PRELUDE has been re-edited? I am sure that several shots and sequences have been removed (one involving cunnilingus) and that the order of the film in general has been rearranged.

I’ve always had intense responses to your work but, after having taken LSD several times between the first viewing of PRELUDE and this recent viewing, I feel my involvement in and understanding of the work has been very much increased. This experience was even more vivid for a close friend of mine: he laughed at DOG STAR MAN when he saw it a few years ago in NY but at this recent showing he nearly had as intense a psychedelic experience as he had had with LSD – he also attributes his more empathetic perception to the chemical experience. I view of these personal responses, we were both startled when we were informed that you seriously object to LSD.

I hope you will be able to see my recent film RAY GUN VIRUS when the EXPERIMENTAL FILM GROUP at CU shows it this August.

Thanking you in advance,

Yours very sincerely,

Paul Sharits

Late May, 1966

Dear Paul Sharits,

Yes, okay – to be brief, then…

It seems as silly, to me, to write a long (or short) dissertation on the aesthetics of Godard (or any of the other so-called “New Wave” film-makers, and/or the “big splash” Swedish film-makers, Bergman, etc. and/or almost all those who come onto us via “Art” with a cap. “A”) as it would to write on the aesthetics of Zane Grey (a “Pop Art” joke, at best) and/or John O’Hara, for that matter (which DOES happen seriously in the so-called “Serious” ((with a cap “S”)) “Lit.” ((with, etc.)) magazines) – shit… come OFF it. The fact that Godard/Trauffaut (Sic)/Renais?/et-al make escape movies for tired intellectuals rather than, as of most Hollywood, for sex-frustrated teen-agers DOESN’T elevate their efforts to the stature of an art: and all the statues-and-tutes in the world won’t, thank lucky real stars! Alter that fact… other than to sow the usual confusion among the confused as usual – what I take YOU to be doing in writing the article you’ve described. Until you learn that “The Cremation of Sam McGee” –type-movies AND the “I-think-that-I-shall-never-see-a-poem-lovely-as-a-tree”-type (French-serious/despairing)-movies are EQUALLY escapist/fiction (in the sense: “making up a story,” as Charles Olson nailed ALL fiction) and to distinguish them from film as art you won’t know a Joyce Kilmer from a James Joyce of the film medium. Throw away our perspectacles AND your,like everyone else-academic, sense of “successful” – all that which would make you worry about whether or not you can “intellectually defend” your position on ANTICIPATION OF THE NIGHT – and you’ll… th’ there is some point to seeking advice on aesthetics (and/or giving it, writing about it) when a approach to art as an historical form is in quest-shun, because aesthetics is a complex a subject as physics, for instance, and an historical perspective on a work of art as difficult as any more than superficial understanding of E = mc2: but do NOT, please, anticipate any more respect out of me for an article on the aesthetics of Godard than you would from any competent scientist for one on the science of teeth brushing… and don’t expect to get any further “perspectives thru which (you) might more successfully respond to (my colour” so long as you’re involved in treating high-brow entertainment and escapism as if it were anything more than just exactly THAT. What a lot of wishy-washy wasted effort is all this apologetic pedantism which purports to find significance and to point out in lurid detail the influence of, say, some great classic on, say, the latest best-seller: but you, and most other film critics, don’t even aspire to that or you’d be doing an essay – or what-did-you-call-it? – “analytical study” – on ANTICIPATION OF THE NIGHT as an influence on Godard or some-such… which wouldn’t interest me either.

As to PRELUDE: DOG STAR MAN – No, it hasn’t been re-edited (I don’t re-edit)… it is made to be seen a number of times(as all my work of the last, say, 10 years – except “Blue Moses”) and, as such should reveal a different complex of meanings at each new viewing (one of the primary distinctions between works of art and anything else in say, lit, paint, movies, etc. being the “lastingness” either in terms of remembrance or repeatability of the experience of the former as other than the latter.)

When you take LSD (and/or any other drug, etc.) you are in to your whole physiology – your psychological response to this being creased tho’ distorted, thru biological desperation, percept-ability (the other side of the coin of academic spectacles)… what’s the matter? … aren’t there enough imposed crises’ upon you to keep you kicking/high-stepping, etc.? … or are you in fact shunning these more natural crises’/life-given responsibilities (if you’ve ability to respond) in a fake/controlled/mechanistic drug take? – I don’t know (I’ve never felt the need of it – regard my chaw of tobacco as betrayal of my sensibilities which I must beat my habit-bound way out of… I mean, I want to have “my life to live” in some way Godard can’t even, apparently, dream of) …okay, you tell me –sometime when you’re clear about it. (But get clear about this right now: I’m not forming some anti-LSD league, don’t “seriously object” to it in the sense you implied in your letter: I just don’t feel any need of it and wish my friends, actual & potential, didn’t either in the same sense I wish they wouldn’t commit suicide, sell-out to Hollywood or Mad Ave, etc. … i.e. – I want to live in the same world with them.)

Blessings

Stan Brakhage

June 3, 1966

Dear Mr. Brakhage

Thank you for yr (venomous) “blessings” & for the “perspective” they unfortunately reveal in regard to your work. I kept saying to myself “he’s putting me on… this is jus his game… he can’t be serious…”

But, I guess you are… serious.

I’ve destroyed a lengthy reply because it was vile & could only lead to further misunderstanding, etc. My letter was misunderstood but whether this was my fault or yrs matters little. Please let me clear up my “position” – it’s really impossible to begin – things, are, seem to be more complex than you suggest. First, a few misunderstandings… then, out-rite disagreements:

I am not (for g’s sake) a “film critic” – I am merely a bundle of cells who SEES worth in more than one of life’s dimensions – apparently in several dimensions which yr clear, open vision has chosen to disvalue.

I don’t care – nor did I write for – your “approval” “respect” “endorsement” etc. I believe I am aware of yr position in regard to European directors. By the way, have yu SEEN Mr. Griffiths INTOLERANCE?

My article has nothing to do with ART. I leave that subject to the actual pedantics. I am concerned with what I see, not what I have been trained to ignore. While yu struggle with yr tobacco addiction, I struggle with my preconceptions. (All shit is Art)

What amazed me most about your letter was its extreme academicism (sage to student, grave concern with the preservation of conventional/established Values, the Good, True & Beautiful)… in a word (a mouthful at that): ART ((my “per-spectacles”?? my closedness to potential incoming data?? my distortion of nervous system?? – the nervous system, I am told, is an open system until it is willingly/gamefully deformed by elementalistic, “know it all,” either-or, static, absolutist, imprinting/conceptualizations such as concepts – rather than the “formulations” – of “real,” “natural,” “fiction” etc…)) and so forth…

ON “FICTION” is making up a beard & long hair & then removing said props from head…? Are yu wound on a film reel titled DOG STAR MAN? Angry answer anticipated: “no, I am obviously not my films, they are constructed in such ways that they are themselves thus, not fiction. Next question: is this not true of any of man’s products? Zane Grey et al? A matter of degree?

FURTHER I certainly hope that Mr. Markopoulos (one yu seem to have shared much with) doesn’t fall into THE GREAT FICTION BEAST category. If so, shall he be slain? Or is he somehow an exception to Mr. Olsen’s TEN EASY RULES & YU CAN GAIN A ‘POUND’ OF ART PER DAY?

ON ‘TIRED INTELLECTUALS’ Of course I have nothing to defend or protect but I hope yu have not put Mr. Olson in this category since he despairs certain changes in New England; I hope Jonas Mekas is not in this category because he is able to SEE Dreyer, Godard, etc.; I hope yu don’t place yrslf in this category due to yr concern/despair over “Pop Art” (whatever that “is)) degenerate escapsism, duped masses, etc.

ON SIN IN THE ACADEMIC SUBURBS, DOPE FIEND, POISONED SOULS… I am finding it very difficult to type, being as I am, in this abnormal DRUG STRUCK STUPOR. If I can ever kick this monkey & get back to Real non-mechanistic responsible down-to-earth lusty well adjusted noble savage rugged individualistic Thoreau-like conditions, perhaps my thoughts will clear up a bit. I’m not going to argue to try to convince anyone about the virtues of pot-lsd… T. Leary (particularly in ETC, Dec ’65) is much better with that sort of thing. That yu can actually believe that culturallylearned defense mechanisms are the Totality and peak of “what is Natural for man”… well, incredible! Now, if I were to say (& I am going say) that yr films tend to imply, even induce psychedelic states, wld this bother yu? Just imagine: DOG STAR MAN the stimuli for an entire audience “flipping out” of their old response patterns! Immoral?

Yes, IMMORAL!

Perhaps one of these days yu will SEE for yrslf & maybe your per-spectacles will be transformed to in-sits. For being anti “Pop art” yu certaintly concur with the READERS DIGEST on this issue.

Well, fuck… I have still ended up writing a vile letter & I have no right to do so. I wouldn’t say anything like this to someone who didn’t count with me. I’ll have to send this quick before I get rational & reconsider what I’ve said… It just bothers me that I’ve been reproached by the “other side” for being enthusiastic about yr work for the exact converse reasons that yu… etc… (actually it doesn’t bother me at all; I enjoy playing the Total Dupe Game – definite lack of good old-fashioned Integrity).

In ending – your work has always & will no doubt continue to “turn me on” (whether yu like it or not). I hope you won’t mind that I shared yr letter with Henry Holmes Smith (photography prof & pioneer ((neglected pioneer)) of dye transfer printing & photograms). He was more empathetic to your letter than myself (an up-start kid) – he was quite touched by what yu said & asked that I pass on to yu that he felt privileged to have seen DOG STAR MAN (a sentiment I share) & that he will book a sequence of your works in the Fall program of our club (I won’t be around in the Fall so he will be doing the programming).

Earnestly,

Paul

P.S. Enjoyed yr piece in YALE MAG, even though it reeked with intelligence. I think, however, yu have underestimated Burroughs. I was disappointed, by way of that journal, to learn that Sitney has adopted the “party line” – I wonder how long it will take for Mekas to weaken.

Early June, 1966

Dear Paul Sharits,

Hey-look… I apologize… I mean: I didn’t intend my blessings to be “(venomous)” – wow! I was sick last week, and broke, AND bugged by just about everything: and I guess you got some too much brunt of it in that letter. I don’t think I wrote you anything I don’t believe to be true; but it was only “a piece of my mind,” like they say… certainly not even a balance of pieces, if I can judge by your reply. I do remember stressing apropos LSD, etc. that I wasn’t writing “moralistically:, but then, perhaps, I was being moralistic – between-the-lines – again, to judge from your reply – and I’m sorry, if so… okay?

Anyway, as to “story”- I think every film of mine has one, some story-level operating thru the interstices of whatever complexity… only in most of the works, and certainly in all the latter ones, story arises out of the necessity of the art taking shape, NOT t’other way round (THAT process making “illustration” of painting, “program” music, etc.): and I think those latter works are more “true to life,” like they say (just because it is not some – “holding a mirror up to nature” – such which seems to me a trickiness, an artifice and, as such, certainly not an art) – those latter work seems to me more organically coming into being, having more a life each of its own, then: and that seems (again I stress, to me) a distinction I honour and, more importantly, a loveliness worth working for. I also find that ‘competition’ is an idea destructive to my creative processes: and so I seek to make distinctions so that I can honour each thing for its self’s being. I do not think that a great work of art is more important than a great escape movie – it certainly is not to a man at a moment when he needs an escape movie (a position I’m often in) – except, perhaps, that the former is more rare and hard to come by, thus often more needed. I admit to an annoyance (and sometimes a raging prejudice) against what seem to me to be escape movies – which-are-advertised-as-works –of-art; but I must also admit that I have no absolute way to determine the one from the other (except my own senses of need, which have often been frustrated by the commercial “Art” theatres), that I am assuredly wrong, to others, in many of the distinctions I’ve made and very likely wrong for myself, even in time (I mean I brood a lot about the fact that Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and James Joyce all disliked and discredited each other; and I fret about who’all I’m not seeing because of proximity of vision, etc.) and am absolutely wrong to write disparagingly about your piece of writing (which I haven’t seen) about that particular Godard film (which I haven’t seen)… okay? But, out of my own anti-competitive necessities, I feel impelled to go on attempting distinctions (even at the risk of being called “academic” – aghhhrrrr, I guess that was a fair blast back from you after I’d hurled “critic” at you), because if it is all a “matter of degree,” as you suggest, then that would make Beethoven top-dog over Zane Grey, etc. which seems to be a dangerously nebulous proposition.

We’ve got a little money in the bank this week, and I’m well again, and I’ve begun labor (which was a long-pregnancy time coming) on “23rd Psalm Branch,” and I’m joyful to some realizing-myself extent that I don’t give one damn whatallever I’ve written about anything (including that whole book of mine which I can only hope will be helpful to others and won’t hang them up like it did me for awhile a couple of years ago)… and except to hope you’ll forgive me for being such, apparently, cranky letter writer last week – okay!

Joy to you, Stan

June 11, 1966

Dear Stan Brakhage,

Your letter was very welcome! Words are ass-holes aren’t they? Not always. As yu say, distinctions are operational. In my suggestion of a continuum of degrees I didn’t mean to suggest hierarchical valuing… that is what I’d like to get away from… again, as yu say “words/words”… well, it’s is all very confusing to me, and very exciting because of that, so…

Highest regards,

Paul

Mid-November, 1966

Dear Paul,

(…) but my enthusiasms after seeing your film “Ray Gun Virus” was such that I would have sent you a telegram if I could have afforded it! I think I do really have a very western union with you over that film in that we are working along the same West Ho!

Cultural line of development, viz: the un-masked flash!

I showed Gregg (Sharits, Paul’s brother) the 1st ten min. of my work-in-progress called “Scenes From Under Childhood” and he/we – all were amazed at certain specific similarities: and then also the “23rd Psalm Branch” of mine is integrally involved with the physiological rhythms of memory re-call (as the optic nerve flashes in the act of memory). Anyhow, I really do think you have a very fine film there of magnificent subtlety in its by-play with the texture of film and eye’s grain, etcetera; and I do very much want to spend a great deal of time talking with you about seeing it again and again (…) We also, apparently (from current Film Culture) share something with Tony Conrad (I don’t know what, as I haven’t yet seen “Flicker”) – and, of course, Peter Kubelka (his portrait of “Arnulf Rainer”). What would really be a focused occasion would be a seminar involving us four (and Kubelka will be back in the country by that time – he has a job now at the U.N.): but I suppose you’ve already made your plans with regard to USCO, etc.

Anyway – looking forward…

Joy to you,

Stan

Undated (probably late November/early December 1966)

Paul Sharits/Fine Arts/St. Cloud State College/St. Cloud, Minnesota

Dear Stan,

I am really overwhelmed by your letter – ie. having someone whose vision I greatly respect respond favourably to my work… thank you! it’s pretty hard for me to say anything terribly specific or coherent about ray gun virus because it is, in a sense, the integration of a number of feelings-ideas developed over about a five year period of working mainly in sculpture and painting (which I’ve given up for film in last few years)… as a student.

I’d like to explain some of my thoughts-ideas-feelings “on” film to you – not very radical, probably confused-sounding, started in rather narrative-dramatic way (an interest in haiku, metaphor, etc.); got more & more interested in visual structure; have always & still do resist idea of “abstract cinema” for several reasons: because my work in painting/sculpture was never figurative (it was “abstract”/”non/objective”) but I wanted to preserve my independent-of-school work in film from falling into those (…) terms; I am wary of categorization (“abstract cinema”) and the idea that one can “understand” something by labeling it (labeling has, for me, always led to “putting aside,” “feeling comfortable with,” etc) I keep trying to cancel out of my work any specific meaning. Seeing anticipation of the night was a very strong directive experience for me (I was upset though with your notes on the film for Brussels… I didn’t want to ever know what the film was “about”) to a degree, chemical “psychedelic” (crappy word anymore) experiences have influenced my work of last several years, the experience allows for an intensification of the senses (perhaps simply by blocking higher cortex evaluation patterns such as “visual constancy” and so forth), gives on the feeling that he is perceiving perception itself and throws one into intense, direct, immediate, non-verbalizable consciousness of “reality.” Gave me the chance to see that single colors are not single at all – I saw several colors at once, where, in normative experience, I would see only one rather flat material-like (rather than light-like) solid hue. “color flicker” intrigues me because it has certain parallels to the feeling that you are looking at pure light color (which we are always doing but do not recognize as such). As you know, rapid successions of 1/40-of-a-second flashes or images creates merging of after-images. I like that idea of not being able to see what is “out there” but seeing your own processes of perception (something like “art as a mirror”). I am concerned with the kind of assaultiveness joseph albers was talking about when he said something about “art looking at you.” I want the film I do to be somewhat resistive; someone told me that they were apprehensive, uncomfortably so, when watching ray gun virus (it’s just a movie, light flashes on a flat screen – why am I here with this strange assembly of individuals, in the dark, eyes trained on a spot of light as if something is going to happen”). This is great; that’s the way I feel myself about the thing… I become aware of the ritual when I become aware of how mundane the film is, the sense of hyper-mundane-ness is similar to that stage in the “psychedelic experience” when one sees that it is not fantasy that is magic that that it is the harshly mundane that is awesome full of magical beauty. Like kandinsky (or perhaps because of kandinsky) I am interested in optical sensation only inasmuch as it leads to striking inner spiritual chords – “der inner klange.” O the other hand, I am very sympathetic to art which is not very physiological at all, for instance, the works of tobert morris, frank stella, donald judd, etc. as contradictory as it may be, I am response to opposite ends of the “art continuum” – from redon & his closed-eye worlds and Gauguin, the music of color, mondrian, duchamp…to Warhol. I even like very much theatrical-narrative-illusionistic cinema (godard, resnais, et all) most everybody tells me I am tasteless for one reason or another.

Warm regards,

paul

Undated (early march?), 1967

SAINT CLOUD STATE COLLEGE

SCHOOL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES

DEPARTMENT OF ART

SAINT CLOUD, MINNESOTA

Dear stan,

During your visit you made some remarkable statements about visual perception… an area you seem to have empirical understanding of than any psychologist I know of – I particular I am thinking of the data on methods by which one may see I negative, black and white, up-side down… grain & inner light, etc. later we both agreed that yoga was strangely devoid of visual training methodology, probably due to its ultimate non-sensual goals; this seems to a specific case of a general neglect of an enormously important area of human experience… & the notion of physiological art…neglect in art literature of processes artists have – do use to regain or attain non-conceptual responses to the world. A few random reflections: surrealists meditating on white surfaces for long periods of time in order hallucinate… yogic use of mandalas and yantras… my brother’s interesting concept of eye blinking as biologic splice (if I can ever find what he wrong on it, I will send you a Xerox)… my favorite pastime of paying equal attention to 5-7 or 8 separate things going on in the visual field all at once & without allowing myself to gestalt these into one rhythmic totality… general semantic methods of visually concentrating on a common known object until one loses his word for the thing (kozibski has good statement on value of “silent levels of abstraction” on page xlix of MANHOOD OF HUMNITY)… a book called GESTALT THERAPY is also of interest… an article on light effecting the pineal gland (and consequent changes in visual perception – in schizoids & lsd experience) is found in a fall issue of atlantic monthly, called “lsd & the third eye”…. Dr. oster’s article in an issue of the psychedelic review on grid structure of eye which seems to account for optical moiré effects… extremely interesting chapter on brain waves & epilepsy (and relation between pre-seizure an& schizoid perception & “genius”) in book THE MACHINERY OF THE BRAIN by woolridge… sound psychology’s findings on cultural differences in perception… etc…. oh yes, sensory deprivation findings in book called THE BLACK BOX….

Mcluhan of course plays down visualization but perhaps he isn’t aware that we are rapidly entering THE LIT EAGE & that light is basically received through the eye. Technology finally develops to the point where our culture is a material manifestation of the most fundamental metaphor of all religions (enlightenment, clear light, burning heart, halo, the Word Is the Light, et al). I am just remembering what maria gruver was telling us about blind children – that their world isn’t dark but populated by inner light/and orgone light (someone ought to see if it is possible to project, perhaps by laser, light from orgone box… orgone beam, orgone strobe, etc). anyway, what I am getting at is: (1) that we are both very concerned with virtual, time-color, equivocal shape thru color frequency (open eye phosphenes)… PHYSIOLOGICAL MAGIC… and… THE MORALITY OF USING SUCH MAGIC (shall it be white or black magic?); (2) you should write some essays or something on these things. I would be willing to work somewhat as an understudy of something & help collect data if you would be willing to program all this into something coherent. Perhaps you are already involved with something like that. Perhaps there would be other artists who would supply their knowledge – I am thinking in particular of jud yalkut and tony contrad who probably could make some important contributions… and of course, kubelka, this could be a hell of a lot more significant than most “aesthetic criticism” that is going on. Just an idea, randomly stated; maybe it will capture your interest.

April 18, 1968

Dear Stan,

The riots here were frightening – fires burned near by, troops patrolled the neighborhood; it was a struggle to keep working as I kept visualizing Molotov cocktails crashing through my studio window. (…) The vitality of the Negro, the rising rhythms of the ghetto are somewhat an emotional inspiration to me, this, work I’ve been contemplating, finally I am feeling the possibility of actually doing it. I am silently dedicating it to the American Negro, for his struggle, his seeking of joy and liberty – as misguided as much of his “revolution” is.

After years of anxiety and agony I feel like I’ve come somewhat full cycle (that agony, cyclic/symmetric/polarity/struggle, has consciously and, I’m sure, non-consciously formed itself in all the work I’ve done after RAY GUN VIRUS) and will be ready, after finishing TOUCHING (the most clear statement of my nearly schizoid obsession with extreme polarities: sex/death, rebirth through death, etc.), to get on with non-symmetrically balanced “ode of/to pure joy” … somehow life is coming to that point, non-manic but vital feelings of being alive & becoming. I’ve been slowly formulating the overall structure of the film and in general it will be a series of movements rising upward in spirit (i.e., becoming inwardly more intense), dropping back down (but even these “falls” get higher as the work progresses) and rising up again. This summer I will get deeply into “scoring” each section precisely. I think, to achieve the full potential of the form-theme (Cezanne’s “motiv” would be the proper word if it weren’t so overused) I’ve evolved, this work will be necessarily in four approximately 15 minute long, relatively separable movements-secti9ons. It will be a two screen film and will have to be projected in absolute synch (even if I have to build motors, shafts, etc. myself). The screens will each be equally sectioned in four vertical divisions… a gap the width of one section will be between the screen images when projected side by side; the gap is both to separate the screens enough to allow for a clear dialogue between them (the importance of space between instruments in musical composition) and to leave a void to be filled with images-colors from the “retinal projector.” I’ve learned a great deal from my most problematic work RAZOR BLADES (the new version I can finally accept) a necessary (& often painful) stage toward this new conception which I wish to be as clear and constantly energy-balanced as possible. Aside from Haydn & Mozart, I’ve been trying to experience as much Bach as possible… and Vivaldi’s THE SEASONS has become more meaningful than ever before. Since I borrowed the complete Beethoven symphonies I have come to more adequately perceive his remarkable genius; yet, his flights of emotion are often too overpowering for me to bear. Perhaps as my personal-everyday life becomes more organized & simplified, I will be able to allow yourself to experience more deeply. Since I am in a musical train of thoughts I must tell you again how amazed and deeply moved I was by seeing the complete 23rd PSALM BRANCH – aside from MOTHLIGHT which we view frequently since I got a small projector, the 23rd PSALM BRANCH is the most perfectly realized visual parallel/equivalent of great music I’ve ever seen… SCENES FROM UNDER CHILDHOOD is as great as the works of our finest Western painters… I can hardly believe the miracle! Film as Art! Realized!

Here’s a sketch of the work I’m conceiving… I mean a few of the infinite possibilities of lateral and temporal relationship.

Warm regards,

Paul

May 18, 1968

Dear Stan,

After several years of deliberation, tests, purification and apprehension, I’ve finally completed an approximately 35 minute long film, N:O:T:H:I:N:G, which I feel is better than RAY GUN VIRUS… well, it is different so I should say I feel it is the first film since RGV which I am very satisfied with… but I must view it more… I still don’t have a print & am afraid to ruin the original. If all goes as I have planned, I will be able to show a release print of the Kalamazoo thing. Thee is perhaps 3 minutes of sound total… used exactly and only where I felt it was essential formally-thematically. The film is “about” (it is) gradation-progression on many different levels; for years I had been thinking that if a fade is directional in that it is a hierarchical progression, and that that exists in & implied forward moving “time,” then why couldn’t one construct inverse time patterns, why couldn’t one structure a felt awareness of really going thru negative time? During the final shooting sessions these past few months I’ve had Vermeer’s “Lady Standing at the Virginals/hanging above my animation stand & have had the most peculiar experience with that work in relation to N:O:T:H:I:N:G (the cons “meant” to create somewhat the sense of the real yet paradoxical concreteness of “nothing” … as Wittgenstein so beautifully reveals such). As I began to recognize the complex interweaving of levels of “gradation” (conceptually, sensually, rhythmically, proportionately… even the metaphoric level of subject making music, etc. infinitely) in the Vermeer I began to see what I was doing in the film in a more conscious way. I allowed the feelings I was getting from this silent dialogue between process of seeing and process of structuring to further clarify the footage I was shooting. I can’t over the intense mental-emotional journeys I got into with this work and hope that the film is powerful enough to allow others travel along those networks. God, that painting is amazingly beautiful… I can’t stand to give it back tot he library! Light comes thru the window on the left & not only illuminates the “lady AT the Virginals” but illuminate the subjects in the 2 paintings (which are staggered in a forward-reverse simultaneous progression – creating a sense of forward & backward time) hanging on the wall and the 1 painting on the inside lid of the virginal! The whole composition is circular, folds in on itself but implied that part of that circle exists out in front of the surface. What really moved me was the realization that the light falling across the woman’s face compounded the light-gradation-time theme by forcing one back on the awareness of (the paradox of) awareness. I.e., one eye, itself dark, is half covered with light while the other eye is in shadow; both eyes are gazing directly at the viewer as if the woman is projecting music at the viewer thru her gaze (as if reversing the “normal” role of “perception”)… I mean, the whole point is that the instrument by which light-perception is made possible is in the dark. I’m not being very clear but anyway here is a sketch of what I meant by the 3 paintings within the painting creating simultaneous progression forwards & backwards:

June 28, 1969

I’m not well versed in mathematics and became, last year, quite disturbed because I could not understand Wittgenstein’s book on mathematics. Also, the problem of “symmetry” and/or “asymmetry” (each, in themselves, based upon Cartesian assumptions) dualism has crystallized after years of probing; I feel as if it may become possible to transcend both concepts (after all, they are both subsets of each other’s logic) for a more process-oriented, livable, non-algebraic “composition. Before “going all the way” with this, I’ve decided I must make a thorough investigation of the extent of algebra so I am taking a night school course (pleasantly “above my head”!) (supposedly a terminal theory course for math majors) wherein we are systematically studying the theoretical relationship of abstract algebra and symbolic logic. Am having a fine time; my method has always been to study by cross-reference rather than rote (i.e., to withhold from myself operational abilities in a system until I have approached the central concepts from a variety of problem sets) & am doing readings fro S.K. Langer to Korzybski as well as from some standard texts; by the end of the summer I hope to be into Russell and then Wittgenstein. I am beginning to believe that the ideogram can be _ “structurally” speaking of course” – precisely understood in terms of set theory and its extensions. It’s funny that all this comes so suddenly together since the completion of T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, my last “mandalic” work.

I’m going to take an Electronic Music Seminar (an all day weeklong workshop in use of multi-track recording, Moog operation, et all) so that I can get to use a variable speed control for tape recording… a relatively rare item I need for the kind of speed gradations I need fo projector sound superimposition and lap dissolves. I was kinda bugged one day a moth or two ago talking to Robert Morris about the films he’s working on when he mentioned that he might use amplified projector sound; however, he’s working from a point of view which is entirely different from my own and I think that will be quite apparent to viewers. I’m intrigued with parthenogenesis, which has some relation to the new film and toyed with the thought of titling the film REPROJECTON; before than I had decided that since the film was being structured in a way which might be thought of as non-algebraically tautologic, I would title it PROJECTIONPROJECTION; now it seems better to return to my first title: either PRINT PROJECTION or simply PROJECTION. I’ll have to decide soon as the title (and the “section labels”) must be organic to the entire film (in fact, unless I !_B roll, which I dislike doing, it will be virtually impossible to shoot the film without absolutely integrating the proposed word-imagery!)

I’m also working with my first serious multiple projection systems/locations. The whole thing gradually grew from a film I shot of the creek which runs partially thru Aspen; I shot it thinking that it would be a film for children and would be presented in a way so that at various points fireworks (variously attached to the screen) would physically merge with the “illusions” of water currents. However, what occurred (as I say, gradually, over nearly a year now) was that filming the stream as I did, I have become very interested I the relationship of emulsion current “illusion” to actual film current running through the projector (…)

Joy to you & the family,

Paul

& thank you again for walking the tightropes!

Excerpt from a letter from Paul Sharits to Stan Brakhage, undated

(following January 24, 1971)

dear stan, the stars of darkness shine alone up: on “me” but

“i” am strong with a sense of inner grace, understanding, at

last (hearing transcribed purple vapors) that “my” unshaken

inner “being,” because of its polarities, does not s-p-e-l-l:

“d,i,s,a,s,t,e,r” but can, as in the “case” of st. francis, be a launch-

ing-pad-for-joy – “my” title for the piece on MY MOUNTAIN has

changed to “MY MOUNTAIN: A PHEONOMENOLOGICAL PEAK OF IRONY,” informed by the

writings of husserl, bergson & ingarden (& a flash of wittgen-

stein/FOUNDATIONS of MATH ((p 170/”V-12”)) on the intricate harmony

of “contradictions”) – naturally you have a set of authors, painters

moods which you associate with “that work” M;M (like that

“solid” Hollywood: princess:angel: deveil) and yet I hope those “authors,

painters, moods which “I approach the work “thru” are

at least, in the end, of some amusement to you – I wish

to compile a few years of notes as (“BOOKCOVER” GRAPHIC) – I want to go

back out, after over a decade, to (“ “ ) the American

desert, to make ‘SKY: EARTH: MIND: FRACTION:” – records “of” a new

vastness I feel within myself (to bridge “it” I am

reading st. teresa, st. Augustine, st. francis, st. john, Buddha

& NANCY AUTOTUNES & flaubert’s EDUCATIONAL, SENTIMENTAL and

others, roussel, Wittgenstein always, more & more Baudelaire,

back into burroughs (you once objected to his “cutting” a

certain “c(h)ord” but I’ll bet if you re: read him now you (…)

back to top


Mental Funerals: an interview with Paul Sharits by John Du Cane and Simon Field (London, 1970)

John Du Cane: Could you talk about your beginnings in painting and how that led to an interest in film?

Paul Sharits: Actually the work didn’t originate from painting, in fact before I was interested in art at all, I was making films strictly for the pleasure of making them. I destroyed all those early works. When I was in high school I was pretty anti-social and had not begun to think seriously or critically. I felt that society didn’t merit intellectual consideration and I was making films that were very much involved with my own adolescent sexual feelings. Like most of the early psychodramatic works of the 50s, they were about sexual neuroses. We made them in 8mm with my friend’s parent’s camera. When I began studying painting and sculpture I just kept making films, though I didn’t want to study film. It was at the end of abstract expressionism when it was a sin to do figurative work. I felt that this is the kind of work I’ll do in my films so I don’t have to be evaluated on it. This is strictly my own conception, my own development, and it really didn’t bother me that it was just a past time.

Eventually it become more engaging and I was very surprised that theories I had developed about a sort of ‘haiku’ narrative film structure were very similar, theoretically, to Eisenstein’s montage. At first I was quite depressed, because I thought I’d figured out this thing that I never saw in regular movies, and then I found it in Eisenstein.

In graduate school at Indiana University I was making films, but not studying them. I didn’t think there was any place where it would be valuable to study film. Henry Smith encouraged me in photography, and I quickly learned its technical aspects. He said why don’t you go ahead and make films and I’ll give you credits. He was always very helpful to me and allowed me to devote a lot of time to my work and even helped a little with financing. I found directing a bore as it was not the thing I wanted to do with film. I started fragmenting my narratives to such an extent that I felt that this was the subject matter. The way I was editing/thinking made the acting and drama increasingly extraneous. There was little sense of beginnings or ends, everything overlapped, and I suppose many of my ideas were informed by my studies in the visual arts. But all along I felt I wasn’t going to apply theories and ideas from painting to film. You can’t apply the principals of painting to a medium that’s not painting. I was very much against abstract film and I remain uninterested in the traditional abstract film.

John Du Cane: When you say abstract film, which filmmakers are you really talking about?

Paul Sharits: I’m thinking about the early avant-garde European movement, for instance, the films that were influenced by Constructivism. It’s not that I dislike them, I just don’t think they’re theoretically viable. Maya Deren also attempted to point this out. I think most people are somewhat aware of this. In any event my own work… I didn’t want the work I was doing in painting to directly inform my work in film. I was going to keep my film work off to the side so that it was completely free of any teaching. Well, I was getting ideas from all kinds of things, but they were my own synthesis, not pre-formulated conceptions of what film should be. I think it would be very bad for a serious filmmaker to go to a school and learn technique with the idea that after he learns the technique he will then have the tools to create intelligent, technically adequate forms. This seems silly to me; one doesn’t study sculpture by going through four years of woodworking. The attitudes those schools imbed subvert personal growth. Even if it’s not openly done, simply the training in what is right and wrong prevents one from seeing certain things through one’s own vision. Very few people survive this, even if their intentions are good. It’s like acquiring a lot of knowledge that you just have to suppress… I feel.

John Du Cane: How did you come to make Razor Blades?

Simon Fields: Making Razor Blades was presumably a distinct step from what you had been doing before.

Paul Sharits: No, first there was Ray Gun Virus, which I don’t believe has been shown here at all. That film, I think, is the most radical film, if not the most accomplished. It was a break for me because the only subject matter was the film grain and the structuring of colour in time. The soundtrack is the continuous sound of the actual sprockets of the film. This is where I became…

I suppose it is true that I made an abrupt cut, the look of the work radically changed. I was very apprehensive about this, but I felt like I was coming very close to having a breakdown, so I tried to see through my own preconceptions at that particular time and that led me to try to eliminate absolutely everything and start from the most basic elements. I think I overlooked many of the basic elements, and I did not have a very sophisticated conception of how to approach this, but I was very conscious that I was eliminating a great deal. At that time I wrote on the way Godard was using colour in some of his early work. This was the sort of thing I wanted to do using a very pure form. I was still thinking in dramatic terms, in the sense that I felt the basic system, the machinery, could be compelling drama. I feel that I ‘m going through another big transition at this point in that I realize more and more that that is a conception I must break through. I must allow myself to negate this desire to make anything with dramatic qualities. So that I will be able to perceive from a new base again. This is why I no longer did any mandala-structured works after T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G. T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G is the end of my involvement with worrying about, or thinking about, films that should have some appeal to the cruder emotions. I want a cinema that is more distant from the whole theatric tradition. Even though film has been stripped down to changes in colour, the impulse remains to make something dramatic, it’s still being influenced by theatre. I made Ray Gun Virus and then became interested in using things I’d discovered with colour and this brought about a synthesis with my interest in Tibetan mysticism and my own experiments with Yoga meditation and to some extent an interest in drug experiences to make a meditative kind of cinema. This is not the normative idea of something being dramatic, but I see it as drama now, I see it as a stage. T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G was a dramatic film. I could go on making more dramatic films, I’ve learned enough about how to structure it that way, but I simply don’t want to. I think that it’s a quality that has to be negated to get to other levels.

John Du Cane: You feel you were using dramatic imagery?

Paul Sharits: Besides the imagery, the rhythms are dramatic, though they might seem mathematical, even geometric. I know that I could evoke certain sorts of feelings without images, simply with the rhythm of the film. One could conceivably do a film that would leave people weeping via some variation on the black film form.

John Du Cane: It strikes me that something like T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, besides being meditative, is also an exorcism.

Paul Sharits: Yes, yes. At that time I believed that film could be a lovely, magical object, a charmed experience. This is very personal, but I don’t particularly wish to do that any longer. I may change my mind some day but now there’s a big break.

With Ray Gun Virus I had imagined a form that had no end or beginning. I was thinking of a very long film with reels that could be played in any order. It wouldn’t show progression or development. There would be no overall shape to the film. None at all. Any part would be as appropriate as any other part.

Of course that’s not the same kind of drama that is involved in the mandala films. My intentions… you see there are so many things operating… we are talking about the idea of the mandala and the irony of structuring a film like that, that tries to put a centre in the film, which at once cancels the possibility of that film doing what a mandala does. Formally, to have a complete mandala in film, is to negate the possibility of an extended, meditative experience. Defining the overall shape negates the possibility of a true meditational experience; it’s a fragment of the meditative experience.

John Du Cane: I think there seems to be a conflict in your desire to remove meaning from your films, at the same time that there is, let’s not say an obsession, but a great concern with death, which is probably one of the reasons why your films remain dramatic.

Paul Sharits: I don’t think many of us in Western culture are trained properly in seeing or responding to our eventual death. I’ve been struggling with this – to see life as a series of deaths and births. I think the body of work I’ve made struggles to present myself with certain questions on a formal level about death. I think it’s interesting that I’m doing it with a dying medium, as I think cinema is, in the form that we’re working in, technically obsolete, and will eventually be looked upon as quaint gizmos. But I love them, they have many interesting aspects that I’m just beginning to recognize. At first one thinks that a machine cannot be simply the delivery system for a process. The idea is that these machines have to serve us, they need to be used for something. To use them simply to amplify their own nature is not often thought interesting. Dadaists like Picabia made jokes about machines and the idea of machines. But I’m more interested in the Russian Constructivist reaction to the Industrial Age than the negative Dadaist reaction.

John Du Cane: I think one thing that you are obviously developing is a completely different sense of humour which ties in with your feeling for paradox. This humour might have been lacking a little in your earlier work, perhaps this absence didn’t allow you to have such a balanced understanding of the oppositions you were working with in your films.

Paul Sharits: I have so many different moods. Sometimes I think about my things in a very serious manner. At other times I think it’s so absurd I just laugh. Sometimes I laugh when I see T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G because I think it’s very funny. But other times I feel a great horror. Sometimes I feel completely detached and just observe it.

John Du Cane: Could you talk about the oppositions you worked with in those films, in terms of the sound, colour and rhythms?

Paul Sharits: The whole aesthetic was an attempt to synthesize opposites. Or not so much a synthesis but a plausible co-existence of opposites. No, not even opposites, but whatever lies beyond the opposites of irony, paradox and conflict. I just try to do whatever I feel is necessary.

John Du Cane: So the theory develops in the making?

Paul Sharits: Sometimes everything seems theoretically very clear and other times it seems hopelessly complex and confused. I don’t mind contradicting myself; I think I probably contradict myself quite frequently. This is directly relevant to the kind of things I’ve been working with in my film. My life is very confused; so part of my struggle with these films was to find ways that made these things coherent to me. Intercutting positive and negative footage is an obvious way of dealing with dualities, for instance, or having opposing vectors in the temporal shape of the film.

Simon Field: Was that the reason for using two screens in Razor Blades?

Paul Sharits: Yes, I wanted a dialogue that would begin in Razor Blades with a harmonious relation until gradually more non-relational syntax (and symbology) were introduced. It gradually introduces various levels of meaning in the structure and in the referential qualities, then returns to a more related dialogue. But the dialogue is altered because of the previous changes. I’m not sure whether people experience the film this way or not. My idea is that these images slash at each other.

Simon Field: And the same holds true for the stereo sound?

Paul Sharits: Yes, one track is exactly inverse to the other track.

John Du Cane: Could you talk about the importance of seeing movies as a procession of discrete events appearing 24 frames per second, comprised of single frames with pauses between each frame?

Paul Sharits: If you see a movie there is an illusion – it’s not an illusion, it’s a physiological event in your nervous system – that you’re seeing a continuous light. But in fact the light is not on screen all the time. The soundtrack is different, because the sound is not interrupted by a shutter. The sound is continuous. So the sound can act in a way that the image cannot; the image cannot be on the screen continually. But the sound can be continual and mark out segments of time very exactingly, by emphasizing each frame, for instance.

Simon Field: One film we haven’t talked about so far is Piece Mandala/End War.

Paul Sharits: Well, I said I would talk a little about the magical aspect. I’ve given the impression at times that meditation itself was a major formative and generating source for the mandala films, but another reason they have that form is the magical aspect. This is not magic as Crowley would define it, this is a more personal sense I have that we make things, and if they’re devoid of normal usage then it’s possible, if they’re structured in certain ways, to have other effects. They have other usages that I can’t define exactly, but would name “magic.” I don’t mean magic in the “magician” sense of conjuring up an illusion. I mean an object, or an experience, that is charmed. One traditionally charms objects by making them oneself, or at least acquiring the materials oneself. This is one prerequisite of magical objects. And although you may be using very classical principles, another thing that’s important is your intention, which is an invisible quality. You really have to believe, and belief can’t be measured except in the effectiveness of the experience.

I don’t mean for my films to be magical to strangers. In many ways, I direct them to people that are close to me. I understand that Harry Smith at one time did not care to show his films to the public because he felt they were magical and were addressed to people he knew. I don’t know if you can address this kind of magic to strangers. I don’t know if film can do those kind of things to people that you don’t know, care about or think of while you’re making the thing; because part of the ritual of construction is intention. Piece Mandala/End War has a great deal to do with the relationship with my wife at that particular time. We are separated now, but at that time we had been separated for a short while and we got back together. Then the form crystallized for me: how could I make a film that would have a magical effect in our relationship? The film is dedicated to her.

There’s an image in the film of me shooting myself, that is also un-happening. I don’t what suicide is like, but there are other forms of suicide that I’ve practiced in my life that allow a rebirth. They’re not pleasant, I think of them as a form of death. Giving up whole frames of reference. One evening in the country, in the company of several very close friends, my wife and I performed a ritual of throwing away the charmed objects of our marriage. This was an event that my wife programmed for me to understand her frame of reference, so we threw away our wedding rings. What we were trying to do was find new levels of coordinating our relationship and get more intense.

A film like T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G is trying to negate certain forms of negation in several people, including myself. This film is directed towards a couple of other people who, like myself, are self-destructive. I wanted to frame this for us to study and respond to. The dedication of the film has never been formally accepted, and I believe it has been informally rejected by my brother. I don’t know if he’s seen the film or not, that certainly isn’t the level on which the acceptance or rejection would occur. But it was a film for him and for the people in it. The main image shows David Franks, a very close friend of mine, who I think is a very fine young poet, and his – how shall I say it, we have to be careful about this on tape – his lady at the time. She appears in the film scratching his face. It was a very intense occasion when we filmed this. Of course she didn’t really scratch his face; we applied streaks of glitter to his face, but we had to do it in such an intense psychological manner that she fainted. I became very incensed and had to transcend my personal feelings to care for my friends and insist, absolutely insist, that she get back and hold this posture properly, and become almost trance-like while shooting. It was a very intense occasion, part of the process of charming and investing the object-film with these intentions and vibrations, and so forth. Although it’s been condemned at times as being a sadistic work, I feel that the film essentially has to do with healing. It’s anti-sadistic.

John Du Cane: Can you talk about the image of the operation and the people making love?

Paul Sharits: The image of sexual intercourse and the image of the eye operation do not have to be recognized as such. The only thing that’s necessary is that they’re briefly shown on the screen at certain moments to create an ideogram that tries to show an image of two creative forms of human contact. Both cases feature a probing or touching. In one case, a chrome instrument is put into the new lens of the eye. The sense of vision is constantly referred to, as well as the sense of creation. The poet and his tongue. The filmmaker and his eye. David’s eyes are closed until the end. When his eyes open, the screen collapses. The lust image frames the eye, or is in relation to the eyes and the mouth in such a way that it focuses on those areas, and in both of those shots the mouth is closed and the eyes are open.

John Du Cane: In Razor Blades there’s a similar kind of magic related to your mother’s death. In N:O:T:H:I:N:G you do this with death itself via the falling chair.

Paul Sharits: Yes, the chair falls on its own, there’s no cause. It’s like a purified form, an uncaused negation. That film does not have any references to any particular function that I might impose on it. Whether it operates that way or not I’m not sure. With N:O:T:H:I:N:G I felt different, there was a struggle that was going on within me. T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G is also directed at myself. I spent several terrifying years in Baltimore, there’s a great deal of crime and anxiety there. In New York City the energy is not as neurotic and purely anxious, it creates things. In Baltimore, at least in the world that I knew there, there was a non-generative anxiety. It did not generate any forms, except more anxiety, and I was reacting to these kinds of things.

Many images come in dreams; most of my films would be full of images if I would have made them upon first conception. What I’ve done is eliminate images. In N:O:T:H:I:N:G there is a process of three years of eliminating images conceptually before I began shooting the film. In the beginning, the film was densely populated with images. I edited and edited and got to a point where I felt I didn’t need to eliminate any further. As you suggest, in Razor Blades, the sort of joke poem about suicide for my mother, who committed suicide… yes, that’s like a mental funeral for me. My mother influenced me in many ways that I must still probe. I feel that she has spoken to me several times after death, and I’ve had the sense that she has asked me to give up this life. But I don’t want to talk too much about that.

John Du Cane: I see a connection between the falling chair and dying and the light bulb. The same sort of magic is involved.

Paul Sharits: Well, one of the aims of magic is to negate the concrete body state. As Crowley says, what you must do is convince yourself, finally, that you’ve become light. You’ve just become light instead of a being. And death, of course, is the most obvious form of negating the body, at least for the spirit or consciousness. The falling chair is a very evident image of death. My son Christopher was three years old at the time, and he regarded it as a dying chair. He asked me about that. But then to test where his level of symbolic understanding was, I wanted to see if he thought that objects had spirits in them. How could a chair die if it was not imbued with an anthropomorphic sense of being? I asked him why he wouldn’t give his pillow a drink of milk. He said because the pillow has no mouth, but what he meant was that the pillow didn’t have a spirit.

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Words Per Page by Paul Sharits (1970)

First published in Afterimage, no. 4, Autumn, 1972. Reprinted in: Film Culture – Paul Sharits, no. 656-66, 1978, pp. 29-43.

This essay was originally presented as an introduction to a course in film production at Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio, in 1970.

Can we begin in the present? If film is to be “an art,” it will measure itself in terms of the maturity, rigor, and complexity of the “other arts” (advanced painting, dance, sculpture, music, and so on). Although the specific problems of film (temporal) are not the same as the problems of, say, sculpture (spatial), there seems to be some general aesthetic interests shared by contemporary arts (one of which is, “paradoxically” self-definition – “Painting as the subject of painting,” etc.). Being “contemporary” is not a simplistic matter of being “abstract” rather than “realistic” in subject choice; probably any “content” is valid – what is more problematic is attitude and systems of forming. Certain attitudes (nonintellectual, nonreflective, self-indulgent, noncritical, “intuitive-emotional”) seem a bit out of place in the 1970s. Certain forms of organization (“the story,” “metaphor-allegory,” reference to “psychological states”) seem to be somewhat expended. Older forms need not be negated but can become transformed through radical restructuring (Bresson and Dreyer) or through a purification wherein, say, “the story” may become “direct autobiography” (Jonas Mekas’ Diaries) and then investigation or “measurement” or “document” (wherein the less interesting the subject is, the more interesting the procedure of recording becomes: methodology as subject matter; “the story” as a map of actual behaviour). I would like you, in this “course,” to regard your art as research, research in contemporary communication and “meaning” systems. Anticipating objections that this may be “sterile” and/or “nonexpressive,” I would like to suggest that current research methodologies such as general systems, information and communication theory, structuralism, cybernetics, and others which are more involved with “form/function” than with “content/substance” are not isolated nonhumanistic fads. Because they are increasingly significant in anthropology, linguistics, sociology, economics, natural sciences, community planning, communication and transportation systems, engineering, medicine, psychology, and so forth, they are defining our environment and, as such, they must have some significant implications for culturally relevant art.

Before saying anything more about film, it is necessary to point out a few general concepts that have emerged in the last several years in painting and new three-dimensional work. The idea of “wholeness” is obviously not new, but recently it has taken on a meaning different than the accepted “organic unity” principle, which Eisenstein stated so lucidly: “…in an organic work of art, elements that nourish the work as a whole pervade all the features composing this work. A unified canon pierces not only the whole and each of its parts, but also each element that is called to participate in the work of composition. One and the same principle will feed any element, appearing each in a qualitatively different form. Only in this case are we justified in considering a work of art organic, the notion ‘organism’ being used in the sense which Engels spoke of it in his ‘Dialectic of Nature’: “The organism is certainly a higher unity?” (“The Composition of Potemkin”) This idea of a unity of tensional relationships (“collisional montage”) and Kandinsky’s, Mondrian’s and, Malevich’s ideas of “dynamic” asymmetrical balance are quite different from Pollock’s influential nonrelational unity of the entire visual field; Pollock’s “overallness”, directness, flatness gives his works the “presence” of autonomous objects. In all cases, in the structural “self-sufficiency” of early nonobjective art and in the literalness of recent work, an attempt is made to segregate the works from “reality,” so that the works take their place as part of rather than representative of that reality; the works define rather than mimic actuality. “Objecthood” is achieved by: intensification of materiality (repetitive stress of “flaws” in a process, over-use of a variable accumulation, intersection, allowing materials to shape themselves, and so forth); equal internal division of parts to create a sense of isotropism and to allow an easy enough gestalt so that the whole seems nonrelational; use of a priori systems of serial or nonhierarchical or chance or random or numerical ordering. Often serial structuring has the dynamic effect of shifting organization of the whole out of the work so that the perceiving mind is actively engaged in perceptual and conceptual creation. Before rejecting the viability of systematic approaches, because they sound “mechanical” and “nonemotional,” think of the power of Bach’s Art of the Fugue; at the very least, a priori decisions regarding ordering or nonordering have heuristic value in that surprising forms may emerge from their use which could never be preconceived or developed intuitively. Along with these phenomenological means, new ontological approaches have been highly developed. “Self-reference,” through both formal tautology (as in Stella’s edge-referring internal surface division in his “striped” paintings) and conceptual tautology (as in (Jasper) Johns’ early “target,” “map,” and “flag” paintings) generate convincingly self-sufficient works.

When Andre Bazin asks, “What is Cinema? he answers by describing the interesting ways in which cinema has been used to tell stories, enlarge upon theatre, cinematize “human themes.” If we dispense with such nonfilmic answers, do we have anything left? I believe that we can turn away from the cinema that began with Lumiére (using cinema to create illusions of nonfilm movement), and which developed through Mélies, Griffith, Eisenstein, and so on up to today’s Bergman, Fellini, and others, and we can ask a new set of questions that greatly expand the possibilities of the system. There is no doubt that there is a great deal of value in the nonfilmic tradition of cinema, in the accepted descriptions of cinemas as illusionistic representation and as “documentary”; but any further developments of these areas, without acute reappraisal of their metaphysical premises, will lead most probably to mere elaborations and effete indulgences in a time of massive cultural transvaluation. This is not to say that cinema should be, say, “nonrepresentational.” Film, “motion picture” and “still” film, unlike painting and sculpture, can achieve an autonomous presence without negating iconic reference because the phenomenology of the system includes “recording” as a physical fact. And the linear-temporal physicality of motion pictures allows for a kind of “representation” suggested by Barthes in his essay “The Activity of Structuralism.”

“The aim of all structuralist activity, in the fields of both thought and poetry is to reconstitute an ‘object,’ and, by this process, to make known the rule of functioning, of ‘functions,’ of this object. The structure is, therefore, effectively a representation of the object, but it is a representation that is both purposeful and relevant, since the object derived by imitation brings out something that remained invisible or, if you like unintelligible in the natural object. The structuralist takes reality, decomposes it, and recomposes it again… ‘something new’ is brought into being, and this new element is nothing less than intelligibility: the representation is intellect added to the object… (the structuralist activity derives) from a ‘mimesis,’ founded not on the analogy of substances (as in ‘realist’ art) but on the analogy of functions…”

Not denying the viability of this proposition, I would extend this ‘mimeticism” (by involution) and suggest that the “recoding “ of the structure-process of recording can free cinema from referring to anything beyond itself; cinema can then legitimately become “meaningless” syntax. It is, of course, too soon to define limits; numerous areas provoke interest and potentiality – some involve first-order mimeticism and some do not. The question, “What is cinema?” is rather open. At moments, when faced with the overwhelming, confusing clutter of physical and conceptual definitions of cinema, that set of random anthropomorphic accumulations which is only understandable in its muddled definitions, is a worse point of departure for an understanding of human communication than is the more precise concept of “linguistics.” Perhaps the vague term cinema should be abandoned with all its anthropomorphic, pseudopsychological presuppositions and, instead, the less fashionable term cinematics should be used as a base for our fresh systems. A lot could be gained from a study of linguistics if one wished to build a comprehensive and usable “cinematic” model. As a process, film is related to language in that both are on many levels linear systems; for example, “the sound wave emanating from the mouth of a speaker is physically a continuum” (Malmberg, Structural Linguistics and Human Communication) – this is easily demonstrated by looking at the way speech is patterned on an optical soundtrack of a film. And, as Ferdinand de Saussure pointed out, “The signifier, being auditory, is unfolded solely in time from which it gets the following characteristics: (1) it represents a span, and (b) the span is measurable in a single dimension, it is a line.” (Course in General Linguistics) I am not prepared to make or support at this time the hypothesis that “cinematics” is a viable analogue of “linguistics,” but I am convinced that thought in this direction is not without value; it is easy to see how these concepts in the following quotation are relevant to such a case.

“A structure, according to everyday usage, is made up of parts or elements having a certain mutual relationship, as opposed to a mere accumulation of mutually independent items. If human language is said to be structured, this should be understood in such a way that any language is built up of so-called discrete elements (that is, sharply delimited from each other and without any possible gradual passage from one to the other). Language consequently is analyzable into minimal independent units, which are restricted in number and the functions of which are determined by their relations to the other units with which they are combined, within a system of communication possibilities (a paradigm) and within the actual speech sequence, the chain (or the syntagm)…. If linguistics is called structural, this consequently implies that its main concern is the description and analysis of its functional units (its discrete elements) and the relationship between these.” (Malmberg)

We see that it is highly problematic (to determine) which of the parameters of “cinema” can be legitimately regarded as “elements”; in fact, it is clear that our definition of what we shall regard as our “morphemes” and “phonemes” will predetermine what paradigms we can create. How can we discover “elements”? Certainly not be conceptual logic along. William Burroughs suggested that his “cut-up” writing method could reveal the essence of a political speech more easily than a careful analysis of the unaltered speech; that is, cut the thing apart and scan over the random reassembly of words and phrases and the deeper logic of the statement becomes glaringly apparent. A method of empirically probing the cinema system, aside from looking at the system one part at a time, is to allow several redundant and permuting parts to “rub against each other” in time; emergents from such systematic interactions can be regarded as “natural” macroscopic representations of “microscopic” “cinematic” elements. So-called “defective parts,” which in “cinema”: are regarded as “mistakes” are probably the most adequate parts to deal with in “cinematics” approach; obviously, flaws reveal the fabric and “cinematics” the art of the cinema’s fabric. (For the sake of brevity, I have decided into to develop the “cinematics” model any further in this introduction; so, I will most often use the conventional term cinema, rather than “cinematics” when referring to our “subject”; however, before leaving “cinematics”, it is worth nothing that because this approach is structural-informational, because it provides a means of creating powerfully direct perceptions, it is as fruitful an approach for the politically motivated filmmaker as it is for pure researchers. Godard has begun to understand this in newer works such as One Plus One (1968) where he seems to be cautiously moving away from traditional narrative-dramatic modes towards the sort of compellingly blunt recording style Warhol has invented. But these are not convincing examples for the truly radical political filmmaker because while Godard’s films “contain” political sentiments, they are not ultimately politically activating because they are viewed not by “masses,” who need to be activated but by a group of persons who are no doubt already convinced of at least the possibility that a form of revolution is occurring. Truly effective political statements have not been made yet; however, the important experimental filmmakers working in Russia after the Revolution of 1917, by scrutinizing what they believed to be the syntax of film, came closest in making radicalizing films.)

Stan Brakhage’s massive work is too expansive in its implications and richness to discuss here except to mention that his use of the camera as a behavioural extension, his forceful modulation of disjunctive, “distractive” “mistakes” (blurs, splices, flares, frame lines, flash frames) and his decomposition-reconstitution of “subjects” in editing, because of their cinematically self-referential qualities (they reveal the system by which they are made), bring cinema up to date with the other advanced arts. And, in another manner, Andy Warhol has demonstrated in his early work that prolongations of the subject (redundant, “nonmotion” pictures), because they deflect attention finally to the material process of recording-projecting (to the succession of film frames, and by way of consciousness of film grain, scratches, and dirt particles, to the sense of the flow of the celluloid strip), it is perhaps as revealing of the “nature of cinema” as is consistent interruption of “normative” cinematic functions.

At one points some artists felt that painting had evolved irretrievably away from “reference.” Delaunay even believed that he was not only making “nonobjective” but also “shapeless” (pure-color) paintings. Because his semantic culture set did not recognize, as we recognize today, that regularly bounded color fields can be regarded as subsets of the concept “shape”, he was unaware of the referential nature of his forms. Definitions of “reality” change. It is hard today to make distinctions between what is “nonobjective” and what is “symbolic” and/or “referential.” “Reference” is no longer an adequate axis of differentiation, but there are those who still hold simplistic notions about the “intrinsic realism” of film (Kracauer). Further, most critics and historians still regard the tentative experience of perceiving a film as “more real,” in their definitions of cinema, than holding in their hand a nontentative strip of celluloid that has a measurable length and width and that has a measurable series of “frames,” degrees of opacity, and so on. It is interesting to consider some phenomenological differences between painting, music, and film: in viewing painting, our experience is changing while the painting’s existence is enduring; in music, both our experience and the existence of the music are changing: however, in film we have a case where we can experience both a changing and an enduring existence – we can look at the “same” film as an object, before or after projection (and it is not a “score”; it is “the film”), and as temporal process, while it is being” projected” on the stable support of the screen. This equivocality of object/projection is further complicated when we admit that there are occasions when we are looking at a screen and we don’t know whether we are or are not seeing “a film”; we cannot distinguish “the movie” from “the projection.” Let us say that the room is dark and the screen is white; we may believe that the projector is simply throwing light on the screen, because there is no indication that a film is being shown; yet, in fact, the projector may be casting images of a succession of clear-blank frames onto the screen, projecting not “light” but a picture which represents motion (the motion of the strip of film being projected); so, unless we are in the projection booth and thus experience both the film as object and as projection this “viewing” would be incomprehensible. Even Cage’s “silent” piece for piano does not present this problem because we can see the performer “nonperforming” the music without having to look “behind the scene.”

There are even deeper implications issuing from the apparent dualism of film’s “being” that those who acknowledge only the projected “movie” as a source of their metaphysics tend to impose a value hierarchy that recognize the frame and the strip of film only as potential distractions to the flow of a “higher” process, that temporal abstraction, “the shot.” Notice that in normative cinema we neither see the motion of the filmstrip (unless the strip is scratched) nor are we aware of a succession of frame units (unless the projector is “improperly framed”). The cameramen who shoot such “movies” utterly and disdainfully ignore the frame structure of their medium, when the cameraman “frames” a “shot” he is thinking in image boundary abstractions rather than acknowledging the basic modularity of his image support. On the other hand, a filmmaker like Man Ray, in his Return to Reason, directions attention to the fact of film’s frame structure in his rayogram constructed passages where there is discontinuity from frame to frame. Brakhage, in Mothlight, allows the natural length of his “subjects” to determine their duration on the screen – in the unforgettable passage where it seems as if a long thin leaf is passing us (rather than it seeming as if the camera is tracking over the leaf), we get an immediate fix on the filmstrip process which is in fact occurring; this remarkable film “feels frameless” and congruently, has no frame lines!

This problematic equivocality of film’s “being” is perhaps cinema’s most basic ontological issue. George Landow’s films coherently frame these issues, particularly Film in Which There Appear Sprocket Holes, Edge Lettering, Dirt Particles, Etc; wherein one becomes involved in the perceptual differentiation of the dirt/scratches as image (those which refer to the printed frame) and the dirt/scratches that are actually on the surface of the particular print, the particular strip of film passing through the projector. One is reminded of Vermeer’s multiple mappings of mapping procedures in The Painter in His Studio.

To begin getting a clear perspective on these complex questions, it would be valuable to regard cinema as an informational system, rather than staring with a priori metaphysical theories or with a fully developed aesthetic or with the kind of exclamatory presumptions that Vertov’s “Kino Eye” concept typifies (the drawing of morphological analogies between the human body and the nonhuman instruments). Let us investigate the system as it exists in a descriptive, concrete modality of comprehension. It would be a mistake to be initially concerned with the intentions that formed the system, the naïve pseudo-aesthetic that “caused” the technological development of photography (“capturing a likeness of the world”) and cinematography (“Capturing a likeness of the world in motion”) – after all, the system exists today, with or without our “intention” that it do this or that. The system simply exists, and a taxonomy of its basic elements seems a more appropriate beginning for analysis than propounding rashly abstract, speculative “reasons” for its existence. This latter case, in its simple overgeneralizing has led, from the very beginning, to premature, so-called “languages of the film,” “grammars of the film”. Such a beginning accounts for the normative postulate that “the shot” is one of cinema’s irreducible particulars. As if their remarks were analytically suggestive, “informed cineastes” speak of “mise en scéne.” My hypothesis does not exclude the formation of higher abstraction classification; I only suggest that there is nothing to be gained by starting with highly abstract and highly questionable presuppositions. Lumiére was so emphatic in his belief in “the shot” that he constructed both the internal structure and external boundaries of his film with one and the same shot.

A listing of elements is confounded by the objection/projection “dualism”; but at least a crude breakdown of the model that the system can embody can be made; this seems necessary before “elements” can be located. There are at least: processes of intending to make a film, processes of recording light patterns on raw stock (films can be made that bypass this mode), processes of processing, and processes of experiencing. The problem of whether or not “concepts” like “intention” are “elements” complicates the issue; that is to say, even those “things” that are observable should be made as (tentative) fundamental frame of reference. We can observe cameras, projectors, and other pieces of equipment and their parts and their parts’ functions (shutters, numerous circular motions of parts, focus, and so on). We can observe the support itself, its emulsions before and after “exposure”, sprocket holes, frames, and so on. We can observe the effects of light on film and, likewise, can note the effects of light passing through the film and illuminating a reflective support. There is a remarkable structural parallel, which is suggestive of new systems of filmic organization, between a piece of film and the projections of light through it; both are simultaneously corpuscular (“frames”) and wave-like (“strip”).

Warhol, in his early “static” films, by disregarding the normative idea that a film is composed of parts and that its timescale (its duration) is the sum of those heterogeneous parts, made the important discovery that the internal structure of a film (the natural duration of its “subject”) could define, be congruent to, be a parallel of, the perimeter of a film’s shape; this is a temporal analogy to Jasper Johns’ making the edge of his “flag” works congruent with their surface area image. Ironically, this freed film from its “scale” being dependent upon arbitrary subject-oriented judgments; now we see that even when there are internal subdivisions in a film, the “edge” of the film can be generated by, rather than arbitrarily contain, the internal structure of the film; a sort of natural (“necessary”) wholeness is possible. As P. Adams Sitney has pointed out, the edges of the temporal shape of some new films are highly emphasized; this is because a film’s shape, its time-surface area is comprehensible as a discrete unit. The factor of “wholeness” is central to this discreteness. In time, this wholeness is sensed in homogeneous structured works as a constantly simultaneous gestalt, whereas in developmental works, senses of linear direction through nonsimultaneous, nonredundant time gives a sense of coherent overall duration-shape (in other words the “edges” of the duration-shape of a film are not just the beginning and ending measurements but have as much to do with defining the shape(s) of the time after the film begins being projected and all during the projection until the film stops being projected); in these works, which appear to have the kind of cohesiveness wherein shape and edge are indistinguishable, one cannot speak of “beginning” and “end” because this would imply a fragmentation of the film’s shape and a truly one-part temporal shape cannot be apprehended as such if we make it three discrete shapes (“beginning” “ending,” and “middle”). What an irony it is that such a discrete shape does not have the boundaries of the beginning and ending! Somehow, these new films achieve the quality of being revelatory fragments of a larger system patterned after the prototype of the film itself. Warhol’s “actual scale,” in works like Sleep and Empire, because it documents cyclic ideas such as sleep/wakefulness/sleep and night/day/night obviously implies larger cyclic systems; another homogeneous work, Snow/Wieland’s Dripping Water, does not imply a cycle of any kind because there is no predictable measure of where the dripping began or ended or whether it even began or will end – so, since there is no definable boundary such as “end,” this noncyclic work implies, that it is a segment of a larger noncyclic system. One can conceive of many forms of homogeneous and nonhomogeneous overall time-shapes. In what senses can these shapes be regarded as cinematic? Snow understood the vectorial implications of the projector light beam and this seems to account, at least in part, for Wavelength’s directional structure. Physically, the conic shape is directed toward the projector lens; yet, we sense the internal projectiveness of the beam directing itself toward the screen, as if magnitude was its target. In 1966 I became aware of the projectory beam, in a piece called Unrolling Movie Screen, and to a certain extend allowed the beam’s projective and volumetric vectorial characteristics to inform the overall structuring of the piece. The piece involved the projection of a film loop called Instructions, which depicts one conventional way a roll of soft white tissue can be used; using rolls of that white tissue, I gradually, physically actualized the light beam while I delivered an informal lecture on the logical necessity of developing movie screens that would realize the projected image at every point, from the projector lens to the screen. The piece ended when the screen finally became a volumetric, tautological metaphor of the projector beam.. One could say that because time itself is “an arrow,” it is impossible to avoid vectorial directionality in articulating temporal media and that one inevitably ends up with a sort of story form. But this “story,” if it is such a form, is a physical or procedural one and what it tells us is analogous to what we are actually perceiving while it is being projected. Besides, approaching film from these new frames of reference, we are free to conceive of not only forward-oriented vectors but any vectorial direction; negative vectors come to mind easily but they are something which are not intrinsic to narrative development logic. Last Year at Marienbad and other works that shift temporal arrangements out of linear order nevertheless do not ever achieve retrograde vectorial structures.

One thing we can say for sure about the release print of a film is that it is a long single “line” of film stock and that during its projection, even though it may be structured according to retrograde vectorial concepts and even be experienced as temporally negative, it is, in fact a straight line in our actual overall isotropic time field. And the frames on the strip, as well as the image frame on the screen, is regular and repeating. So, a homogeneously structured film would be as valid an amplification of the nature of film as would be a vectorial oriented work. In fact, from his angle it would seem that film experiences that had any variation would disrupt this sense of linear homogeneity and would in effect be anti-filmic. However, by considering one of cinema’s most basic syntagms, “the fade,” we discover a most natural way of reintroducing structural directionality without negating either the continuous nature of the strip (the fade emphasizes the linear quality of the strip)or the flat, modular nature of the individual film frames (because the flat screen, being the most direct projection/image of the frame’s morphology, constantly refers our attention across its even surface in all directions to is edge, rather than looking through a “frame” into a picture, we find ourselves looking at an image of the film frame). My work of the past five years has been based on the importance of the fade; it provided a believable model for the vectorial construction of these works. My interest in creating temporal analogues of Tibetan mandalas, evoking their circularity and inverse symmetric balance, led me to making what are basically two-vector symmetric works in which the first part’s forward-directed structure is countered by the second part’s retrograde direction. A complex form of this vectorial approach, which issues a sense of isotropic homogeneity rather than a sense of developmental directness, can be obtained by overlapping or regularly intersecting two opposing vectors (that is, superimpose a forward progression “over” a backwards progression); the whole work is, so to speak, a conceptual “lap dissolve” and will have the curious quality of constant but directionless motion. In 1968 I abandoned the mandala-like structures and am now working with a single vector form, rather than dualistically balanced vectors; I have come to believe that while they provide discrete experiences, he latter are too closed and death-evoking in their overstressing of “beginning” and “ending” and, in this sense, are models of closed systems.

Once the screen frame is regarded as a projection of a total film frame, we must begin to think about appropriate scale relationships, such as distance of camera from subject to distance of screen and projected subject and viewer and, consequently, the size of the image to the size of its frame, and the size of the screen-as-image to the size of the wall on which it is projected. These features are normally regarded as arbitrary; the flat film frame does not have the deep space most “shots” containing diagonals evoke, yet directors do not hesitate in using diagonal shapes in their compositions, rarely do these diagonals refer to the rectangular shape of the frame. If the film frame is a valid subject of footage, then footage should be considered a valid subject within the screen frame. A continuous scratch across frame lines down the length of film refers not only to the footage as a flowing strip, but is also a valid internal division in its congruent relation to the verticality of the right and left edges of the frame image. An intensified splice not only refers to the horizontality of the top and bottom edge of the frame, but it also interrupts the flow of our experiencing a film in such a way that we are reminded that we are watching the flowing of footage through a projector. When a film “loses its loop”, it allows us to see a blurred strip of jerking frames; this is quite natural and quite compelling subject material. When this nonframed condition is intentionally induced, a procedure I am currently exploring, it could be thought of as “anti-framing.” I am developing another approach to simultaneously reveal both the frame and strip nature of film (each of which are normally hidden due to the intermittent shutter system) by removing the gripper arm and shutter mechanism from the projector.

Light and color are obviously primary aspects of cinema. However, even in fine cinema works color has not very convincingly realized its temporal potentialities. Some works use color as a “functional/symbolic tool, in an Eistensteinian sense, or for psychological reference and physical effect, or for definition and clarification of images in the picture. In many lesser works, color is decorative and ornamental or is used nonphilosophically merely for its stimulatory values; this latter use of color to produce essentially nonfilmic “psychedelic effects” is conceptually uninteresting and is better suited to video works where color more intense than cinema’s reflected screen color can be obtained. This area has elicited very little systematic concern from filmmakers and film critics. In many cases a great deal of attention is paid to getting “proper color balance” for no good cinematic purpose, this technical “attentiveness” is not what I mean by “systematic concern.” The vast problems of cinematic light and color structuring call for a separate discussion.

Perhaps the most engaging problem of cinema is the relationship sound may have to visual image. Although Warhol and Snow have used synchronous sound in convincing ways, an uncritical acceptance of this traditional mode of correlation usually leads to work in which both sound and image are mutually weakened: this is true in both the “lip synch” of anthropomorphic works and in the simplistic paralleling of sound and image effects in non-narrative works. Eistenstein’s idea of “vertical montage” is a classical point from which one can consider nonsynchronous uses of sound. It may be that through a controlled continuous collision of sound and image an emergent psychophysiological heterodyne effect could be generated. Both light and sound occur in waves, and in optical sound composite prints are both functions of interrupted light, that is, both are primarily vibratory experiences whose “continuous” qualities are illusional. The major difference, aside from obvious differences in physical qualities between the two systems, is that the soundtrack operates in terms of continuous passage over the projector sound head while the image intermittently jerks in discrete steps through the film gate – there are no frame lines in the soundtrack. From this angle it is apparent that drawing direct relationships between systems that have significant structural differences is an illusional oversight. There is also no intrinsically filmic relational logic supportive of the use of “mood music,” whether it be the electronic music background for so-called “abstract movies” or Bergman’s use of Bach fragments to act as psychological backups to certain key visual passages in his film Through a Glass Darkly. The variations on sound systems that are basically supportive of visual images are innumerable and vary widely in their levels of conceptual relationship to visual images. Whether or not the audio and visual systems should be discrete and powerful enough in themselves so that they achieve mutual autonomy is a serious question. What possibilities are there for developing both sound and image from the same structural principle and simply presenting them side-by-side as two equal yet autonomous articulations of one conception? Of course, sound need not be considered as a primary aspect of cinema; the wealth of films that succeed on visual levels alone is enough to justify silence. Aside from a few eccentricities, the first projectors had no sound option; the sound variable could be regarded as an arbitrary addition to an already complete visual system. (If we regard works that have no soundtracks as “silent films,” then why don’t we regard listening to music without visual accompaniment as “blind music”?) Only a few types of sound can be regarded without doubt as cinematic: the case in which the sound of a synch sound camera might be recorded and projected in synch with the visual “recording”, the case in which the drone sound of a projector projecting a visual “projection” might be head, and the case in which one hears the sound of sprockets acting as a commentary on the length each frame of visual image has in time.

In the end, cinematic process as the “subject matter” of a new cinema, as in a work like Ken Jacobs’ brilliant Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son, which is literally a film of a film, or in more filmically concrete or conceptually filmic works, has already proven its viability. When a focus on highly general and prematurely fixed narrative or narrative-like forms is blurred in shifting perception to more distinctly contemporary focal lengths, then that “blur” measures wide angle lengths from “reality,” telephoto lengths to micomorphological understandings of “cinema” and, lengths of temporal modulation in what is ultimately an omnidirectional grammar. Certainly an analysis of the focussing process itself is necessary; but “focusing” does not necessarily mean “reductiveness.” It may be that by “limiting” oneself to a passionate definition of an elemental, primary cinema, one may find it necessary to construct systems involving either no projector at all or more than one projector and more than one flat screen, and more than one volumetric space between them. A focused film frame is not a “limit.”

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Paul Sharits: Illusion and Object by Regina Cornwell (1971)

(Artforum Vol. X No. 1, September 1971)

“At the risk of sounding immodest, by re-examining the basic mechanisms of motion pictures and by making these fundamentals explicitly concrete, I feel as though I am working toward a new conception of cinema. Traditionally, ‘abstract films,’ because they are extensions of the aesthetics and pictorial principles of painting are simply demonstrations of optics, are not more cinematic than narrative-dramatic films which squeeze literature and theatre onto a two-dimensional screen.”

When Paul Sharits submitted Ray Gun Virus and Piece Mandala/End War to the Selection Jury of the Fourth International Experimental Film Competition, Knokke-Ale Zoute, in 1967, he wrote the above as part of his “Statement of Intention.” These and his subsequent works indicate his preoccupations with the nature of the film medium, its dualities and complexities, Ray Gun Virus (1966) and Peace Mandala/End War (1966) and most of his other works to date are flicker films: Word Movie/Flux Film 29 (1966) and Razor Blades, N:O:T:H:I:N:G and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, all completed in 1968.

While still a graduate student in design at the University of Indiana in 1966, Sharits was completing Ray Gun Virus when he picked up The Village Voice and read in Jonas Medas’ “Film Journal” that Tony Conrad had just made The Flicker. This and Peter Kubelka’s work came as a total surprise, if not a shock to him, at that time. And it was an understandable surprise because the flicker film as a genre was then and still is relatively new.

It had its beginnings in Vienna when Peter Kubelka made Adabar in 1956 and Arnulf Rainer, begun in 1958 and completed in 1960. But as a fundamental principle, flicker is as old as, in fact older than, the camera and projector. Awareness of flicker is revealed in the use of the term “flicks” for films or movies or motion pictures. “Motion pictures” and “movies” are descriptive names for the illusion evoked from film which is actually composed of separate still frames, whereas “flick” or flicker actually characterizes the nature of the intermittent illusion more literally. It is the intermittent movement of the film through the camera in registering the image and the shutter mechanism blocking out light as the image passes down and the next image is registered, and the duplication of these operations in projecting the image, combined with the persistence of vision which creates the illusion of a constant and uninterrupted image on the screen. At any time all one need notice is the projectile of the light beam as it travels toward the screen to observe the flicker effect created by the revolving shutter. In this way, one is reminded of the composition of the film strip – of separate still frames moving at 16 or 24 frames per second through the projector gate.

While the occurrence of flicker on the screen had always been thought of as an unwanted distraction, the flicker genre explores this phenomenon, indigenous to the light-time medium of cinema, considering the absolutely fundamental elements of film and the mechanisms of its operations. Taking its cue from the shutter and the intermittent movement of camera and projector acting upon the strip of separate frames, the flicker film in its fashion emphasizes the nature of the separate frames, the rapid movement of the frames, and through analogy and by way of hyberbole, the flicker effect of the shutter.

The flicker film can be described phenomenologically as the short and very rapid succession of recurrent images which flutter or fluctuate in various structures throughout the work. In Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer and Tony Conrad’s The Flicker (1966) it is the structuring of black and white frames, while Sharits’s Ray Gun Virus is dominated by solid chromatic frames with some black and white. Yet it need not be composed purely of solid chromatic or achromatic frames, as evidenced in Kubelka’s black and white silhouette work, Adabar, and in N:O:T:H:I:N:G and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, and Sharits’s other flicker works in which there are recurrent referential images which animate with the solid chromatic and achromatic frames. While in much of the film work of Robert Breer there are rapid successions of images with some recurrences as in Recreation (1956) and Blazes (1961), and in much of the work of Stan Brakhage there is also rapidity of movement as in Mothlight (1963) and of movement and cutting as in Dog Star Man (1961-64), these are to be distinguished from the flicker film. For the brevity of the arrangements of recurrent structures of blank frames with or without referential images creates the quick light flickering punctuations which have become the overt forming or shaping principle of the works known as flicker films.

Sharits had begun to explore the narrative film, but then left it due to his growing concern for the materials of film itself, and Ray Gun Virus was his first result. In working notes, Sharits describes the film as “striving toward blue.” The chromatic structure of the film proceeds from a dominant yellow through a red centre until it reaches blue. Briefly, black and white flicker formations follow the title, succeeded by very faint colours – faint to the point of barely being distinguishable from white, as if they were grasping for their existence – and then into a section dominated by yellow, flickering with other colours. The flickering red centre is succeeded by fades from yellows to black and then fades from various hues to black. A random section follows, with no repetitions of colour patterns in fades to white. These fades, which are at first long and smooth, become more abrupt and erratic and finally terminate in flashes. The film ends on the faint and unflickering blue.

As a further part of his “Statement of Intention: for Knokke-Le Zoute, Sharits wrote: “I wish to abandon imitation and illusion and enter directly into the high drama of: celluloid two-dimensional strips/individual rectangular frames/the three-dimensional light beam/environmental illumination/the two-dimensional reflective screen surface/the viewer’s retina screen, optic nerve and individual psycho-physical subjectivities of consciousness.”

Ray Gun Virus confronts these questions head-on, centering attention on the process of making and the perceiver’s relationship to the projected work. It reduces the medium to its simple components while at the same time revealing the complexities of those components. Sharits deals consciously with the strip of film as a strip of individual frames of film, each frame of which is exposed to varying degrees of colour and light, each frame having its own light/colour image. In purposefully relinquishing film’s traditional capacity to record the three-dimensional illusion, Ray Gun Virus projects its chromatic and achromatic frames onto a flat screen to create its own illusions and illusions of illusions. The image on the screen is in itself an illusion, once removed from the strip of film in the projector, twice removed from the original print. Just as any film is an illusion in this sense. But in confronting black, white and colours here, the viewer becomes more conscious of the fact that he is facing an illusion, and paradoxically, at the same time, this illusion is an immediacy in time. It is one that is experienced in the present time and that does not, as with a representational illusion, refer back to a prior time and place. Malevich, in Essays on Art, II, speaks of a new realism attained through Suprematism and the other radical art forms of his time, and of the perceiver’s relationship to those works: “…the new arts for the most part insist on the expression of the real content of any given sensation, a reality that will always remain real for the spectator.” And, crystallizing it further: “A real picture is also a new factor which does not bear us off to anywhere but compels us to perceive and experience it on the spot.” 2 Such is the case with Ray Gun Virus.

The flicker is the hyberbolic analogy of the shutter mechanism indigenous to camera and projector creates various afterimages and illusions in its interactions with the solid frames. In a note, Sharits commented that he thought he had in Ray Gun Virus “actualized a sense of Pollock”3 here referring to the overall homogeneity of the surface, inhibiting a focal point for the viewer. Indeed, at times, the very quick pulsating flicker creates polymorphic patterns throughout the screen, but one cannot seize and focus on any of these patterns. Sometimes for longer durations of individual colours there almost appears a center point, but it too is elusive and its duration too short-lived. Quick successions of colours cause, through afterimages, the effect of a “superimposition,” a combination of two colours co-existing in the frame. One perceives, particularly with lavender and green, an overall movement of grain patterns. To add to the illusory ambiguity, there are both patterns of film grain and patterns of the paper grain from which the colour footage was shot. One does not know if he is perceiving the illusion of the filmed paper. And as if to ward off the possibility of the viewer conjuring up other more figurative kinds of virtual illusions from the patterns which appear on the screen in conjunction with his own psycho-physical operations, occasional splice marks appear on the screen to remind him that they are only illusion, and indeed film illusions of the most immediate kind.

In various ways in Ray Gun Virus the perimeters of the screen becomes the instrument of illusionary space. Most strikingly, Ray Gun Virus actualizes in film in analogous fashion, an idea derived from painting, Michael Fried’s notion of deductive structure. The structure is dictated by the form of the materials themselves, and here in film, by way of light, colour, and flicker as they affect the screen. It is a simple psychological phenomenon whereby changes of colour alter eye convergence which in turn creates the illusion of alteration in size. And for the perceiver of Ray Gun Virus, the screen does measurably change its size. While the frenetic flicker patterns which vibrate in and out form the boundaries of the screen seem to keep the screen size constant, the slower movements from one colour to another cause it to seem to shrink and expand. And the ambiguity of the experience is heightened even further because no one colour reacts the same way each time. For instance, at first reds and yellows might appear to extend but later they seem to shrink the screen size, depending upon the flicker rate and the preceding and following colours. So the film means – light, colour and flicker – acting upon the screen, create out of themselves a new stage for illusions.

And to carry it one step further, the fade-outs to black utterly obliterate the space of the screen. Colour and light acting in time create the space of Ray Gun Virus and their absence annihilates this space altogether. The quick flashes to white serve the same function, but more elusively, because they momentarily blind one. The very negation of the screen is the negation of space, colour and light. During these moments one becomes aware of another phenomenon, alluded to in Sharits’s “Statement of Intention” above. The colour and light create and transform the space between the projector and screen and most particularly between the viewer and screen, so that this space as well as that of the screen is shaped through projection of the colour by the light in time. And this other space participates and becomes amalgamated into the experience, actualizing the “three-dimensional light beam.”

Ray Gun Virus’s ambiguity arises out of the structuring of its highly reductive materials and their hypersensitive reaction upon and conditioning by both the perceiver’s psychophysical state and the environment in which the work is projected. Even the film’s simple, straightforward sprocket-hole sound may take on illusionistic associations, contingent upon the sound equipment itself, making it, as well as the visual experience, highly ambiguous.

By way of their structural symmetry, the mandala films Peace Mandala/End War, N:O:T:H:I:N:G, and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, contrast sharply with Ray Gun Virus which is linear but asymmetric in its structure. Each has a definite and pronounced centre with the sections preceding and following the centre, inversions of each other. Piece Mandala/End War and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G are dense with referential imagery which operates within the flicker system, while N:O:T:H:I:N:G has sparse ordered flickering imagery with solid stretches of chromatic and achromatic flicker frames. This last is the longest of Sharits’s flicker works, more than twice the length of Ray Gun Virus, and bears comparisons to it in these colour stretches.

A graphic light bulb makes its appearance in six short interspersed sequences in the first and again in the third sections. This cartoon-like bulb which is at first white gradually loses its radiance and becomes black; after the middle of the film the black bulb proceeds to drain out its black light to the bottom of the screen, in this way completing its inversion. In the middle of the film, a chair appears upright and falls in animated flashes. Accompanying it is a complex of telephone sounds which acts as an inversion to the chair image. As Sharits explains it in working notes: “Where the visual image is redundant, the auditory image becomes active (begins falling), the auditory becomes redundant.” Otherwise the overall silence of the film is punctuated by several discrete sounds – shattering, pouring, telephone signals and a cow’s mooing – which serve to create more reversals.

Comparing Ray Gun Virus with N:O:T:H:I:N:G, one’s eyes feel the differences in flicker effect, and one begins to grasp the fertility of the colour flicker genre. While in Ray Gun Virus there are some frenetic passages, the overall flicker in N:O:T:H:I:N:G could be described as violent and assaulting. The former film has stretches of smooth and graduated changes in colour value, and while the latter has what could be described as slow rotations of colour analogous to the gradual changes marked in Ray Gun Virus, it is composed largely of short bursts of colour. These bursts of one to three frames each of two or three colours with similar subsequent clusters of other hues, the filmmaker describes in working notes as “open eye phosphene” segments. These are simulations of oscillating fields and other visual sensations affected when one closes one’s eyes before falling off to sleep. This is one part of what Brakhage refers to as ‘closed eye vision.” But while Brakhage seeks to create this and other “closed eye vision:” illusions by filming images which approximate his own vision, Sharits, distinct from Brakhage, works with and through the solid chromatic and achromatic film frames, allowing them to act directly upon the eye and nervous system of the viewer. Brakhage asks the perceiver to share his own personal visions while Sharits allows each viewer to create his own illusions.

N:O:T:H:I:N:G employs a greater range of dark colours in contrast to Ray Gun Virus which overall, has lighter, fainter, and gentler colours. And more black and white is used in N:O:T:H:I:N:G, with another interesting reversal: white is more frequent in the first part and black more so in the last. And both achromatics appear in many of the “open eye phosphene” segments, intensifying their frenetic qualities. Because white and black are used so heavily in this way, there are fewer and less distinct fades and the screen size remains more constant in N:O:T:H:I:N:G.

The film is a complex combination of light and colour affirming itself and then canceling itself out through inversions. Elements of the unexpected and the predictable on both the audio and the visual levels operate in waves and counter each other. When one sees the bulb, one anticipates its reappearance, but one doesn’t expect the oxymoronic image of the dripping black bulb; then again, once it begins its dripping, one can anticipate the completion of that action. One doesn’t expect the pouring to follow the shattering, or the cow again at the end which, as Sharits suggested in an interview, is the source of the pouring liquid.

In the earlier mandala work, Peace Mandala/End War, its symmetrical inversion takes place through two motions of lovemaking. The two separate lines of action alternate with each other from frame to frame in flicker fashion through the first and third parts, interrupted by the center. The woman is lying down; in one action her head is on the right side of the frame as the motion begins with completion of a kiss and the man moves down her body into a cunnilingus position; in the other, where her head is on the left, lovemaking starts with cunnilingus and ends with a kiss. In this way action alternates from one side of the screen to the other. The two lines of gesture move through the film strip in time, becoming the inverse of each other from beginning to end, end to beginning, so that the opening gestures have essentially reversed places by the end of the film. While the two acts never fuse, their opposite lines of direction cause them to become, as Sharits describes it in Film Makers’ Cooperative Catalog No. 5: “… one lovemaking gesture which is seen simultaneously from both sides of its ‘space’ and both ‘ends’ of its time.” In the film’s centre, Sharits, who is the male lovemaking figure, appears alone in an absurd suicidal posture.

An acquaintance told me that after showing Peace Mandala/End War to his students, they went immediately to the projector to examine the strip of film. Sharits’s film elicit this kind of reaction, underlining one of his concerns – the dualism of the film as projected and experienced image and the film as a strip of frames. In Peace Mandala this dualism becomes experientially hypertrophied. The fast animated montage of flickering colour frames and alternating figures, cause the figures in instances to seem superimposed, at other times, to arc out from the screen into space and then circle back. Straight lines, diagonals, crisscrossed formations result.

There are no actual superimpositions, although there seem to be. A wide range of colour is used for the flicker, but one really perceives red, blue, green, and some yellow; absorbed by the black and white action footage, many only perceive red and green flicker. When one tries to count the number of different shots of the alternating actions, one sees four or perhaps six on the screen, when in actual count, on the strip of film there are twenty-two different shots used for these two animations. The actions on the screen become ambiguous and diffuse by way of the careful optical strategies used. The control of the individual frame, the meticulous scoring of the whole, the unity of the two actions by way of their inversions in time and space serve to emphasize the paradox of the film system as strip of frames and projected illusion.

Ambiguity operates in each of Sharits’s flicker films, whether in the perception of colour and optical illusions as in Ray Gun Virus and N:O:T:H:I:N:G or in the perception of the figurative images in Peace Mandala/End War. If the ambiguity in the latter film serves to create a frenetic effect, it does this in T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G as well, and to a greater degree. Ambiguity functions here in several ways, to make T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G Sharits’s most frenetic film to date.

On the audio level it operates by way of the one-word loop, repeated without pause throughout the film, interrupted only by the silent center. On seeing T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G for the first time one usually assumes that there are several word combinations which recur. With the single loop word, “destroy,” one hears such things as “It’s gone” or “It’s off,” “It’s cut,” “His straw,” “History,” and more. And, having been present at screenings where spectators actually did not hear “destroy” at all, but other word combinations, it does operate as Sharits once described it at Millennium Film Workshop in New York (Dec. 26, 1970) when he commented that “destroy” actually destroys itself. Altering and annihilating itself in this way, the word correlates with the film’s visual ambiguity and frenzy.

The title T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, written with each letter set off by a comma, signals the ordering of the film which is separated into six equal parts and a distinct middle section. If the bulb in N:O:T:H:I:N:G could be described as cartoon-like, certainly the dominance of lavenders, oranges, and yellows in the flicker system and the use of glitter create a consciously gaudy, cartoon-like effect, heightening the visual frenzy. In all but the middle, poet David Franks appears in medium close-up; and in five of these six parts he is involved in two basic actions which occur at different stages. In one Franks initially appears with his outstretched tongue between green, glitter-covered scissors; alternating with this, he is seen with a red glitter-streaked cheek, and a woman’s long green nails extending across his face from the side of the screen. As the film progresses, the two actions begin to move confusedly and indecisively toward and then away from the face, neither act assuming a definite direction. The indecisiveness continues into the fifth section, though with less action directed toward the face, and it ends with both hand and scissors withdrawing. But this development away from violence and potential destruction only finally becomes unambiguous in the last section where Franks appears with open eyes and without the glitter of destruction. Once in each section, including the centre, are segments of alternating close-ups of eye surgery and sexual intercourse that are not readily perceivable as such. They too look ambiguous and suggest ominousness and violence; yet both are positive forms of touching. The incipient destruction involving Franks through touching gestures never actualizes itself on the screen and the ambiguity, while serving the visual frenetic effect, finally prevents the destruction from taking place.

In T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, a symmetrical inversion, typical of the mandala films, occurs on the sound level through the rhythm of the drum-like beat which accompanies “destroy.” The beat moves from a slow to a fast rhythm and then reverses itself after the center. Yet there is another and more important inversion, a spatial inversion, operating in an asymmetric and less pronounced fashion. It continues a developmental line which has its origin in Ray Gun Virus. The raised scissors and hand, particularly in their quick successions of alternations and variations, seem to deepen the screen space. And when scissors and hand are poised at the edges of the screen, or moving from or to these edges, they fix the frame size. But then in the last section, Franks’ image seems to extend out from the screen as the framing shapes figured in apparent superimposition flicker over his face and then vanish; finally, between frames of colour, Franks’s image appears as if on a rotating wheel, popping up from deep space and out to inhabit the theatre space – to extend and create new space as does the colour flicker in Ray Gun Virus. So that the frame, so strongly reaffirmed earlier in T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, also seems to destroy itself in breaking out of its space.

Sharits describes his shortest film, the 3 3/4 minute Word Movie/Flux Film 29 in Film Makers’ Cooperative Catalog No. 5: “…approximately 50 words visually ‘repeated’ in varying sequential and positional relationships/spoken word sound track/structurally, each frame being a different word or word fragment…” As a brief example, the letter “c” remains positionally fixed in the frame, serving as structure for each different word frame, as with:

Splice

Screen

Space

Incision

And so on, shifting from one letter cycle to another in this fashion throughout the film. A two-colour flicker system, alternating one colour per frame, back and forth through a letter cycle and then changing one or both colours on the nest letter cycle, correlates with the word system. The sound bears certain structural correspondences to the visuals: two voices are heard, alternating with each other, each reciting a different, unrelated text, one word at a time.

More than any of Sharits’s flicker films, Word Movie most closely literalizes the flicker effect of the shutter mechanism through its use of the separate word for each frame coupled with the single frame units of colour. The word structure as a single unit becomes an analogue for the individual film frame. And at the same time as serving that function, the word emphasizes the screen frame perimeters as certain words are horizontally cut off by the frame line. But the word structure serves in another film analogy, one which is in contrast to the word/frame comparison. Sharits completes the above catalogues description, saying: “…the individual optically-conceptually fuse into one 3 3/4 minute long word,” the length of the film. Later at Millennium (December 26, 1970), he contrasted it to the symmetrical mandala films, saying that “Word Movie feels like a straight line going through time.”4 In this sense one can perceive it as a link to his preoccupations with the film as strip as evidenced in his most recently completed work S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED (1970), although Word Movie only begins to intimate this linearity through the cycling of its fixed letters.

While the flicker form stresses the single-frame and facture through control of the frame system and illuminates one of film’s dualities, another aspect, film as a strip or, as Sharits refers to it, “ a line in time,” suggests a different emphasis and dichotomy. While the film is projected at 24 frames per second, one perceives only one constant screen-frame with movement of the recorded illusion inside of it. But one does not perceive the actual passage of the film as it moves as a vertical strip or “line in time,” for the shutter mechanism and the intermittent movement of the projector combined with the persistence of vision prevent one from seeing this. S:S:S:S:S:S attempts to deal with this aspect of the film system.

Perhaps everyone who has ever seen a film has noticed or rather tried not to notice scratches in the work. A scratch is generally considered a negative factor which distracts from and eliminates the illusion by cutting away at the emulsion base of the film itself. But in S:S:S:S:S:S, Sharits makes the scratch a positive factor in its additive and subtractive relationship to the recorded film illusion. And, at the same time, he uses the scratch to emphasize the linearity of the film material and its passage through the projector.

The film is composed of three repeated 14-minute sections of water current, each section beginning with six superimposed layers of current moving in different directions, decreasing through fades to one layer of current. Almost five minutes into the work, what Sharits describes as “scratch currents” begin, with three vertical scratches increasing in three systematically over the length of the film until there are twenty-four scratches. Pronounced splice bars, horizontally halving the film frame, are peppered throughout, serving as film analogues to the images of rocks and boulders which appear on the screen. In conjunction with the splices, a beep is heard. Also on the sound track, a word is repeated for a section; another is added to it for a second section, equal in length to the first. This additive process continues until there are six phonetically related words which have none other than a structural correspondence to the visuals.

One usually thinks of a current, in this case a water current, as having direction, but one is not usually made aware of the vertical movement of the film through the projector. This situation is essentially reversed in S:S:S:S:S:S. The superimposed moving current layers cross over each other in pairs – horizontally, vertically, and diagonally, making it impossible, most of the time, to discern their direction; while in contrast, the film suggests its real direction through the projector by way of the scratches.

The scratch units appear in entropic fashion upon the screen, interacting with the illusions of the water images. While the scratch deals directly with the current illusions, cutting through the film emulsion itself, subtracting from the illusions, at the same time, it is another illusion, adding to the images, altering and developing them as a continuous “line in time.” As the scratches continue, they begin to accumulate the rough scraped emulsion forming dark patterns along their sides – in this way “re-creating” new illusions out of the discarded emulsion of the original filmed illusions.

Here as in Sharits’s flicker works, there is a conscious concern with space. At first the over-all movement of the current seems flat, hovering on the screen, but when the first scratches appear, they seem to set the current illusion back in space. A tension is set up; as more scratches are added, there is a curious oscillation: at times the current image or its fragments extend out of the screen beyond the scratches while at other times the current or fragments move back. Gradually the white scratches with their emulsion scrapings almost overtake the water currents, though they are still present beneath. The space is transformed again, to an almost flatness. And the illusory water currents are in large part removed in time by the illusory film current. As Ray Gun Virus creates the space and illusions out of the film materials, in a very different way, S:S:S:S:S:S modulates and transmutes its space through the illusions carved out of the strip of film itself.

When he premiered S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED at Millennium, Sharits commented that he didn’t think that there was as yet an aesthetic of the scratch and so consequently he didn’t know whether or not he had used the scratch technique well. Yet, all of Sharits’s work pose this kind of question. Ray Gun Virus was the first colour flicker film made and his subsequent figurative flicker works are unique to themselves. His work asks questions and challenges the forms and materials of film itself. At the same time, he challenges the viewer as well. All the things which the perceiver has learned in time to take for granted without questioning – the frame, the strip, the projector, light, space, and even his own responses – Sharits asks him now to reconsider. If art is about perception and perceiving it in new ways, the importance of Paul Sharits’s work is unquestionable. He is working now on a slide piece concerned with the projection of the light beam back on itself, as well as working on at least four or five film projects. Among them is a work called Reprojection, whose title verifies the continued direction of his concerns.

1. Razor Blades, 25 minutes, black and white/colour, two-screen projection, stereo sound. Because of its two-screen projection, it was not possible to arrange viewings of the work for purposes of analysis. For this reason it has been omitted from the following discussion.

2. Kasimir S. Malevich, Essays on Art: 1928-1933, II, trans. Xenla Glowacki-Prus and Arnold McMillin, ed. Troels Andersen (Copenhagen 1968), pp. 26 and 119 respectively.

3. In a note to P. Adams Sitney, dated August, 1969.

4. My thanks to Bob Parent for providing me with a tape of the Millennium proceedings.

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A Cinematics Model for Film Studies in Higher Education by Paul Sharits (September 1974)

(Centre for Media Study at SUNY at Buffalo)

An important, thoroughly independent and personal art cinema exists, despite the conspicuous absence of a viable language through which this cinema could be discussed and thereby be more deeply understood. This is not to say that attempts at discussion of the independent cinema have not been made; however, a diagnosis of these attempts most often reveals a deep rupture between the structures of the films and the structures of conventional language modes. This structural rupture is traceable, in part, to typical art school and film school curriculums, which tend to reinforce “naturally learned” (non-self-critical) behavioural and cognitive habits.

During my more than eight years of teaching various art making, art thinking and art historical courses I have noted with distress that most students have enormous difficulty in experiencing-regarding-discussing their worlds in dynamic terms; these students tend to force rationalistic-static (“everyday,” grammatically linear) patterns over dynamic fields (“poems,” “paintings,”1 et al) and then wonder why they make so little progress in their growth as artists. This problem of having largely static sensibilities becomes acute when the students approach cinema, with its often intricate modulations of temporality, spatiality, and logical or fictive structure. For most students there exist only two basic, crudely divided senses of time – “normal” linear-metric and “psychological” time; corresponding to this simple Cartesian view, students often have likewise limited conceptions of spatiality and of the potentially multidimensional levels of narrative and non-narrative order relations. What I am calling “cinematics” amounts to an attitude which is both critical of natural-naïve conceptions of cinema and which is insistently open to new definitions of the film viewing and making enterprise. This cinematics attitude can generate a comprehensive curriculum which is centered around a cinema of exploration and which has the thrust at its every point of opening up for continual reexamination its premises and objects of research; cinematics naturally supports a milieu wherein change is normative. Dr. Gerald O’Grady, Chairperson of the Centre for Media Study/SUNY at Buffalo, after having read the first draft of this paper,2 directed my attention to Robert Graves’ “In Broken Images,” a poem which forcefully expresses the kind of analytic research attitude which forms the vortex of this cinematics orientation:

He is quick, thinking in clear images;

I am slow, thinking in broken images.

He becomes dull, trusting to his clear images;

I become sharp, mistrusting my broken images.

Trusting his images, he assumes their relevance;

Mistrusting my images, I question their relevance.

Assuming their relevance, he assumes the fact;

Questioning their relevance, I question the fact.

When the fact fails him, he questions his senses;

When the fact fails me, I approve my senses.

He continues quick and dull in his clear images;

I continue slow and sharp in my broken images.

He in a new confusion of his understanding;

I in a new understanding of my confusion.

My usage of the term “cinematics”3 may seem problematical and its genesis should be explained. In a paper entitled “Words Per Page,”4 first presented as an introduction to a course in Film Production at Antioch College in 1970, I suggested that the term “cinematics” replace “cinema” so that the analytical mode of work/thought I was suggesting to the students would be emphasized. The term was suggested to me by the term “linguistics.” I did not fully develop the model in that initial paper; in this paper I intend to more adequately define the concept and to suggest its operational application to film instruction on the college level.

Because the cinema, as documentation, sociology, entertainment, or art, normatively involves a “communicative” function, it is not surprising that metaphoric phrases such as “language of film”, “grammar of film,” and the like are appealing. It should be made clear that while my use of the term “cinematics” was suggested by the term “linguistics,” I do not intend to make any isomorphic transpositions. Still, “linguistics” – because it is not “language” but “the science of language”, and because, as a methodology, it offers innumerable morphological, syntactical and semantic tactics applicable to film composition and comprehension – is a more exacting term than “language” and “grammar.” In “Words Per Page” I stated:

“The word ‘language,’ with its muddled definitions, is a worse point of departure for an understanding of human communication than is the more precise concept of linguistics.’ Perhaps the vague term cinema should be abandoned with all its anthropomorphic, pseudopsychological presuppositions and, instead, the less fashionable term cinematics should be used as a base for our fresh systems. A lot could be gained from a study of linguistics if one wished to build a comprehensive and usable “cinematic” model. As a process, film is related to language in that both are on many levels linear systems; for example, “the sound wave emanating from the mouth of a speaker is physically a continuum” (Malmberg, Structural Linguistics and Human Communication) – this is easily demonstrated by looking at the way speech is patterned on an optical soundtrack of a film. And, as Ferdinand de Saussure pointed out, “The signifier, being auditory, is unfolded solely in time from which it gets the following characteristics: (1) it represents a span, and (b) the span is measurable in a single dimension, it is a line.” (Course in General Linguistics) And Malmberg added: ‘“A structure, according to everyday usage, is made up of parts or elements having a certain mutual relationship, as opposed to a mere accumulation of mutually independent items. If human language is said to be structured, this should be understood in such a way that any language is built up of so-called discrete elements (that is, sharply delimited from each other and without any possible gradual passage from one to the other). Language consequently is analyzable into minimal independent units, which are restricted in number and the functions of which are determined by their relations to the other units with which they are combined, within a system of communication possibilities (a paradigm) and within the actual speech sequence, the chain (or the syntagm)…. If linguistics is called structural, this consequently implies that its main concern is the description and analysis of its functional units (its discrete elements) and the relationship between these.” (Structural Linguistics, pp. 5-6) We see that it is highly problematic (to determine) which of the parameters of “cinema” can be legitimately regarded as “elements”; in fact, it is clear that our definition of what we shall regard as our “morphemes” and “phonemes” will predetermine what paradigms we can create.”

Despite the rich analogues interfacing cinematics and linguistics, it is wise to stress that cinematics is not subsumed under linguistics. Roman Jakobson, in his notable attempt to locate “poetics” (which deals with the question, “What makes a verbal message a work of art?”) integrally within linguistics, points out that a case could be mad that linguistics is not an inclusive enough system to deal with poetics: “In short, many poetic features belong not only to the science of language but to the whole theory of signs, that is, to general semiotics. This statement, however, is valid not only for verbal art but also for all varieties of language since language shares may properties with some other systems of signs or even with all of them (pansemiotic features).”5

If we accept the concept that linguistics is a subset of semiology, it is obvious that a purely linguistic base for cinematics is untenable. Even an area so deeply influenced by linguistic models as “structuralism,” another methodology important to a general cinematics, has in recent years shifted away from linguistics:

“Linguistics has for some time provided a leitmotif orchestrated in the works of Barthes, Lacan and Levi-Strauss. It was said of linguistics that it should have provided a theoretical methodological model and a universal matrix for understanding all human phenomena (at least at the interpersonal level)… (but) … structural linguistics itself unknowingly perpetuated the Hegelian inheritance… Foucault’s apocalyptic announcement in The Order of Things of the immanent disappearance of Man restated the necessity of renouncing the burden of our Hegelian metaphysical heritage while situating us this side of its crepuscular horizon. And his proclamation that the last man is both younger and older than the death of God states succinctly the inevitably relationship that such an enterprise has to Nietzsche’s. Nietzsche has now come to occupy the central position that… was held by the Gallic Hegel.”6

Nicolas Ruwet, writing of linguistics and phonetics, makes an even more specific statement:

“We are not only interested in carefully separating the object of poetics from that of linguistics; we must also remember that structural linguistics represents only a movement – now in the past, since the development of generative grammar – in the history of linguistics… I will add that there still exists, on a different level, a real danger, one which lies in the development of a ‘structuralist aesthetic.’ By this I mean the tendency, against which we should protect ourselves, to ascribe undue value to those few features – among all of the possible aspects of a work of art – which are now able to describe with a certain rigor through terms drawn from the concepts of structural linguistics.”7

It should perhaps be pointed out, since confusions still exist, that the “structuralist aesthetic” that Ruwet mentions and, for that matter, everything that has been discussed as “structuralism” in this paper is not at all related to P. Adams Sitney’s well known designation of the phrase “structural cinema” to what he sees as a class of related films made in the middle and late 1960s.8 In conversation and correspondence I have come to know that Sitney fundamentally disagrees with traditional structuralism; he regards traditional structuralism as a “repugnant academic discipline.” Sitney’s concern with the blandness of much academic thinking is easy to share; nevertheless, structuralism has demonstrated its not so bland capacity for continual self-reorganization, exhibiting a high-spirited openness which makes it valuable to cinematics.

What follows in this paper is: first, a discussion of some of the problems involved in discussing contemporary film art; second, an explanation of the kinds of film (and video) making courses which complement the cinematics model; and third, an overview of various approaches to historical and theoretical courses which can form the armature of a cinematics curriculum. This viewpoint is evolved from personal experiences in filmmaking and film teaching. Thus, the paper is not at all intended to be a strict blueprint; it is open for expansion, revision and clarification.

There is a history of the kind of independent film art considered to be of central importance in this paper. In the 1920s number of “experimental” (“avant-garde”) film works were made, primarily by European painters and sculptors. These works challenged works being made by commercial producers; already, in various degrees and styles, the normative linear time plotting and the illusionary three-dimensional spatiality of the “feature” film were being seriously complicated. However, these impressive art films were not widely appreciated and no branch of art criticism or area of university study was developed to accommodate their new articulations of time/motion/space. Only in Russia, where “formal-minded” filmmaking existed during the 1920s in the “feature length” mode, where there developed systematic, theoretic frames of reference which dealt with non-typical film forms (Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Vertov); problematically, “montage” theories, as interesting and inventive as they were, were interwoven with political conceptions which are less compelling and appropriate today than they were for Russia during the first post-revolutionary decade. A resurgence of art filmmaking occurred in America after World War II but it was only during the mid 1960s, when a large enough body of significant works existed, that the “New American Cinema” was finally recognized as more than an “underground” (seedy, nihilistic) movement. Only the journal Film Culture had been consistently critically supportive of the new cinema; no real recognition of the importance of the new work was given by the academic world. Toward the end of the 1960s some private art institutes attempted to integrate experimental film studies into their curriculums but, for the most part, could not or would not adequately budget these areas and most such programs have basically failed. In the early 1970s the situation has radically changed; established art journals have begun to publish art film criticism and a few large universities are developing properly financed film programs. In spite of this hopeful development, a coherent and sophisticated language about film has not evolved at the same rate as the ever advancing new cinema; more and more artist filmmakers are teaching and so the problem may resolve itself in time. Nevertheless, there is not much communication between filmmakers regarding their teaching approaches and it is hard to estimate congruities of approaches, if indeed any exist at all; there appears to be even less interchange between film artists and film critics on this level (consequently, most criticism seems less than inspired).

Forced to dismiss normative, literary and psychological film theories, just where can one look for models of understanding a cinema which is not primarily narrative or dramatic? A number of filmmakers whose work is under discussion formerly were painters or photographers and a number of the critics currently interested in their work were critics of abstract art. It is noteworthy that during the 1950s and 1960s a relatively successful vocabulary (“formalism”) was employed by critics of painting and sculpture. It was a mode which bypassed the artists’ intentions, dismissed “poetic” interpretations, and focused on apt description of the art object; the aim was a certain discreet “objectivity.” Recently this form of discussing “static” art objects has been used in criticism of independent films; while the intelligence and rigorousness of this approach is laudable, this writing, when applied to film, reads more like a description of a series of connected paintings than as an explication of a unified temporal structure, the film “object.” After years of the “poetic” indulgences of normative film criticism, clever as it often was, it is a pleasure reading the level-headed descriptive analysis of the formal-oriented critics; however, the built-in assumptions of many of these current analyses, based in non-moving and non-temporal art object structural logic, undercut their fine intentions.

Are there descriptive languages of transformation which are applicable to film? Both calculus and the theory of information (mathematical communication theory) are rooted in mapping dynamic systems; Piaget’s interpretation of “structuralist” analysis makes transformation a cardinal assumption; and, a case might even be made for including some aspects of cybernetics as relevant to filmic consciousness. Until the middle 1960s, the vocabularies of poetry and music, evolved over centuries to deal with transformation, proved helpful as models for discussions of independent cinema. But, with the emergence of analytical, ontological, and information oriented works, these two strategies appear relatively non-applicable. An argument could be made for the relevance of certain composers’ works and theories – eg., those of John Cage and Iannis Xenakis, as well as those younger composers, Steve Reich, Phil Glass and La Monte Young, whose work has a curious resemblance to the film works under discussion – except that most cinema involves both a music-like concreteness and non-musical semantic information (Rosalind Krauss has made a strong case for the sense of non-co-presence experienced in perceiving photography and film9 and Annette Michelson, borrowing from Pierce’s icon-index=symbol semiology, convincingly locates photography and film within both indexical and iconic sign levels10). Seen in the light of film’s semantic information, poetry might appear more related to cinema than music; yet, film’s referential icon and index character is not necessarily symbolic, if we accept Pierce’s distinctions between sign types. Given these problems, how can a curriculum guide students into truly filmic discourses? Before approaching this most difficult question, an important premise and its implications should be explored: the relation theory is to have with practice.

It seems reasonable to suggest that for a student of film to make valuable contributions to the art, either by way of making new works or by critical discourse, the student must have a grasp of both technical and theoretical problems particular to what is being designated here as the art of film. It should be made clear at this point that a continual balance of theoretical inquiry and actual filmmaking is integral to a cinematic curriculum and that an undergraduate should not be forced to specialize in either one or the other mode. Following this logic, it is important to suggest a larger curriculum which would support and complement an art oriented cinema studies area. Art schools which exist totally autonomous fro liberal arts colleges cannot probably fulfill these requirements as they most usually have incomplete and/or poor “non-art” curriculums; I make this statement after having taught in an art institute for three years and from several years of making extensive lecture-screenings in art schools in America and Europe. In part, the failure of art schools to support the new art of personal cinema is due to economic difficulties beyond the control of these institutions. What is most distressing is the chronic conservatism of the typical art school; I believe this is due to dependence upon style (rather than upon thought) in “free-wheeling” art school contexts. Styles in art naturally change when the thought bases which they manifest shift-grow, but many art schools, because they are often over-specialized and removed from larger social concerns, attempt to sustain curriculums in the image of their faculties’ own styles. These are the reasons for which I felt compelled to leave the art school context.

In 1970 I began developing Antioch College’s film program, which I believed could succeed because the range and variety of “non-art” stimulation afforded students of film art in that context was vast in relation to what could be afforded the in art schools. The problem did succeed, in a way which it could not have done in an art school; it is a healthy and productive program. My interest in joining the new Centre of Media Study at the State University of new York at Buffalo was founded on the premise that SUNY’s larger and more diverse resources could facilitate even more intensely students’ development of cinematic consciousness. The resources and enthusiasm at SUNY at Buffalo seem capable of not only developing a viable cinema program but a comprehensive temporal media program, including video studies.

Aside from normal liberal arts requirements, I believe it is helpful for the film art student to take courses in: psychology (social and perceptual), psychophysiology, semiology, linguistics, mathematics, information sciences, computer programming, art history, poetics, literary studies, theatre studies, music theory, studio art courses, electronics, physics, natural sciences, and, above all, philosophy (particularly those branches of operational philosophy dealing with generalistic-interdisciplinary modes such as general systems.)

A media study centre would be incomplete without extensive studies in: film history (experimental cinema, documentary, classics of the feature film), video history, film criticism (the modes of criticism which have been used, are being used and could be used in interpreting and evaluating various modes of filmmaking), video criticism, media teaching modes, film analysis (viewing-discussion courses), video analysis, and, of course, film-and video-making courses. All of these general courses can take a multitude of different formats; variation and even contradiction are essential for a dynamic, open and self-organizing system.

Pursuing the conception of an integrated theory-practice situation, a further premise suggests itself: that students simultaneously study both modes with the same filmmaker-teacher. The reason for this is opposite to the not-unheard-of tendency of some teachers to indoctrinate students. Ideally, the teacher, by splitting his functions into two contexts, can at once be open to and respecting of student defined forms of enterprise in studio courses as well as being free, in the theory context, to elucidate his own thoughts and others’ thoughts on what constitutes an aesthetics of film. The teacher furthers the student’s growth by having empathy with the student’s unique motives (helps the student discover these motives) and, on the other hand, by presenting new thoughts to the student, thereby clarifies and/or challenges the student’s own conceptions. The teacher need not suppress his unique formulations in order to guide the student toward self-realization. Seen in this light, it is obvious that to force “theory” into “practice” situations would be to distract the student from organic, creative growth. Cinematics cannot be simply a system of perceiving and regarding cinema but should be likened to a multidimensional field of inquisitiveness, wherein relativistic-probabilistic attitudes coexist with more axiomatic views. Flexibility and humor facilitate serious engagement. Certainly some basic principles, shared by all those engaged in a research mode, would also seem necessary – yet, the search for such principles is much of the substance of research itself and so definitive principles are difficult to form (perhaps it is this that lends the task its richness and seductiveness). Many different modes of method, thought and form can be integrally subsumed in a general cinematics process-frame (e.g., the often stated differentiations between “narrative” and “non-narrative” are not to be regarded as conclusive – so many ironic and straightforward convolutions of these “disparate polarities” have been woven into convincing films that to think of them as distinct categories is now impossible). The most basic principle of cinematics, its very vortex, is that student and teacher share the analytic research attitude; exploratory, experimental behaviour is of higher value than any specific methodological stance or any specific designation of acceptable content. Still, works and theories exhibiting experimental analytical concerns form the most compelling research area. (Note that “research,” in this context, refer both to “study” and to “creative work.”) What might distinguish this approach from scientific approaches is that no solution to the issues raised is necessarily postulated; attitude and behaviour – “process” – are more important than conclusiveness.

There are probably innumerable ways in which a research frame of reference can manifest itself in film- and video-making courses. However, there exists one approach which is as damaging to creative development as it is common to normative filmmaking courses: this is the approach which overstresses technical “professionalism,” assuming the innate correctness of whatever (arbitrary) school of thought it follow. The appeal of this approach is evident: it easily gratifies the student’s desires for absolutes and it relieves the instructors from confrontation with the individual student’s actual needs as a unique creator. It is interesting that most of the film artists presently teaching filmmaking and knowing courses never had “formal” technical training in film. When deciding upon what my graduate school education should be, I consciously and morally rejected “studying film” in what were then the existing “film study” programs, even while firmly realizing that I would pursue cinema as my life work – these programs were and are destructive to personal expression. I would suggest that no program be based upon traditional (i.e., ultimately “commercial”) technical production models. This fact – that my potential as a film creator would have been damaged by traditional technical film studies – has motivated me to search out a means of teaching films without destroying the individual student’s unique capabilities and inventiveness. It would have been helpful to me to have had some technical training, if it could have been in a creativity-oriented context; as it was, I had to learn the simple facts from very painful experience. This waste of time, I believe, is avoidable, but it is not easily avoidable. The program which avoids destruction of individuality while providing the student with basic skills is no casual matter; this problem forms the core of my suggestions for a curriculum. While traditional “professional” techniques and procedures should not be the core of introductory filmmaking courses, some of these techniques are valuable for the student to know from the beginning. These techniques should presumably be presented in logical-pragmatic progression but should not be permeated with an air of being “fundamental”; these techniques should be regarded both as simply operational and as having some organic relation to the unique motives which arise for the student as a whole human being and artist. This apparently paradoxical proposition does not disclose a hopelessly impossible conception; the Bauhaus, with at least some small success, faced such a task and something from the Bauhaus concern with “the whole man” must be somehow applicable to our problem. The easiest solution may be found in having the student begin his studies in a proto-cinema framework so that the subsequent technical developments of cinema proper would naturally suggest themselves, before being presented in the introductory filmmaking course.

Another sort of course might be of value is one in which the most broad investigation of the documentary-recording functions of cinema would be undertaken, without any particular stylistic goals being stressed. Rather than stressing the typical social and/or anthropological approach, attention would be given to film’s pure indexical structures (light types, lenses, emulsions) and procedures (microcinematography, photo-spectrometry, time-lapse, thermography, “Kirlian” or radiation field cinematography, etc.) The use of fluorescent, ultraviolet, polarized, infared, laser, x-ray and other radiation systems would be experimentally studied in their image forming relations with variously sensitized film stocks. The iconic and symbolic limit and implications of recording-projecting should be the ongoing centre of discussion in such a course; the large danger that such a course could become purely technical and sterile would have to be continually, consciously checked. Technical, perceptual, and conceptual dimensions should be reflected back and forth amongst each other at each level of study. In recent years a great deal of the most interesting art has in some way or another interfaced with scientific and/or philosophic investigations, in either subjects or techniques. There is no reason why this tendency could not find a secure place in a cinematic curriculum.

Video-making courses would be pursued in a manner which would explore imagery and techniques that are implicit in the structure-function of video as a perceptual and physical system. Students might even be required to work with both film and video; these mediums obviously share characteristics but it is important that students study their many differences. One way the crucial differences of these media could become explicit is by developing a course in which the student would transpose imagery back and forth between the mediums, attempting a balanced hybridic synthesis while also noticing and emphasizing the transformation of the imagery which would occur at each stage of such an interplay.

As mentioned before, at intermediate and advanced film study and making levels more and more complex recording systems should be presented and explored for their imagistic potentials, while, simultaneously, the student should also be encouraged to follow deep personal inclinations. However, a flexible curriculum will also respect the value of some more structured courses: if the artist-teacher is personally intent on deeply exploring a particular system it is obvious that, properly presented, the course of this investigation could be profitably followed by students – probably the students’ work could also be of aid to the artist-teacher. The artist who teaches knows full well how much these two roles often interface and at times become indistinguishable. It is possible that this can cause confusion and distress to everyone concerned, the teacher, the students, the administrators of the program. It is also possible that a wonderful symbiosis between all these elements of the general system can occur, benefiting each member of the relationship and, form this, effect a continual betterment of the system itself. Most institutions recognize this in at least one sense: the faculty, whose technically defined role is “to teach,” is also encouraged, by various “faculty development awards,” to go on learning and growing in their special area. Institutions with graduate programs also appoint graduate students to teachers as research and teaching assistants. This often does not work well in art departments because of displaced notions of “individualism:; this is hard to precisely define but I believe most art educators have encountered and understand this selfish form of “individualism” (which makes potentially valuable group projects in studio classes so hard to guide). The “individualism,” a form of subjectivism which is usually dignified by recourse to romantic interpretations of art historical figures, is not the kind of student self-development and self-realization which can exist in a research oriented, democratically structured cinematics curriculum, where sharing is essential and a mood of friendliness is most pragmatic. An open, symbiotic system can be modeled by extending and developing the teacher’s special interests in to graduate level courses wherein the students can peer directly into their teacher’s art making processes and expand their own abilities by participating in the creation of the teacher-artist’s projects. It is assumed that the teacher’s special interests and style of working are more advanced that the students’ and that the teacher is a worthwhile enough artist that he ahs something creational to impart to the student in such a learning-by-doing situation. My own work is exploratory and expanding, not an attempt to polish more and more carefully a particular style; during the past three years I have found that by having several of my best students work with me on my projects – salaried and doing twenty to thirty hours of work a week – that these situations allow me to teach more of what I know of my art that do normative classroom situations. In working with me, the student assistant is called upon to be technically inventive and to participate in creative formulation of the project, and not just to do tedious dirty work. The student learns, in an adventurous and professional context, advanced techniques and, more abstractly, learns my modes of problem solving, scheduling, ways of organizing complex projects, and inventing alternative financial strategies, things which are impossible to impart effectively in the typical studio classroom, where I am attempting to focus my attention on the students’ not so complex self-defined projects. The assistant can selectively draw upon this more practical knowledge in structuring his or her own life-work as an artist. I have had the great pleasure of noting how my former assistants have become more serious with their own work after having worked with me; aside from the pragmatic aspects of this sort of team-work, an increase in the enjoyment of working and a deepening of friendship with an assistant makes this relationship of central value to me, and, I believe, to the assistant as well. At this moment I have more projects and problem areas to pursue than I have time to deal with by myself in a single life-tie. I can envision a graduate level course wherein, through the help of an inquisitive class, a research assistant and a teaching assistant, I could explore these areas, presumably with the same mutual advantages that exist in my relationship with my hired student assistants.

Group work is not an innovative conception of student-teacher relationships; it has been a general practice in many research oriented university departments and has been used where group study is normative (i.e., dance and theatre). Nevertheless, group work has specific problems and probably cannot be jumped into without some degree of gradual adjustment for both the teacher and the student. An intermediate step from personalistic to group work situations can be construed. This kind of course should not be specifically product oriented and should not be structured solely by the teacher. In fall 1974 I worked with a small group of advanced students in such a situation and am encouraged by the fruitfulness of this approach. The course was described as follows:

“Restricted to graduate and/or upper division undergraduate students who have already demonstrated considerable theoretical and production skills in cinema. This is not an apprenticeship situation, although the problem areas have direct and indirect relation to the instructor’s thinking and filmmaking; a ‘group dynamics’ approach, allowing for individual creativity will be employed. In general, traditionally ‘non-art’ areas such as mathematics, natural sciences, philosophy, linguistics, psychophysiology and computer sciences will be explored for models relevant to cinema; in some cases conceptual analogues will make the end of the research but, in other cases, these analogues will be materially realized. The methodology which will be most usually employed is as follows: the instructor will outline a variety of interesting areas; the student picks out a problem which is personally interesting; the student, or small teams of students, appropriately studies the problem for one or two weeks and then makes a presentation of findings, verbally or with the use of charts or other visual aids; each week, after each data presentation, the whole group responds by way of ‘brainstorming’ (this is the reverse of ‘critique’; everyone’s intelligent speculations are taken up by the group and expanded to their furthest operational conclusions); at this point, the data is either rejected as infertile, or a need for further research is suggested, or an applicable cinematic model has been developed. In some cases, applicable models might be realized materially in the seminar context. However, in most cases, the models ‘belong’ to anyone in the group who wishes to use them in personal contexts.”

When “film art education” is posed in these terms, one can begin to envision the transactional relation of teacher-student as a “research team”; this is in opposition to hierarchical patriarchal interactional teaching systems, which non-democratically mask the “teacher” as intrinsically superior to the “student.” Observed this way, cinematics has its axiology.

The range of theoretical and historical course which complement the kind of making course I’ve suggested remains to be discussed. Where does the student begin to grasp the state of his or her art? How does he or she progress towards more and more depthful and subtle understandings?

The central concern of the curriculum I am proposing is with the “avant-garde” film but this does not preclude interest in the history and theory of the normative documentary cinema and the commerical “feature-length” cinema. Certainly there are overlappings of concerns and techniques and these should be studied. As already stated, the student should have as comprehensive an understanding as possible of the totality of human temporal ordering. This means that traditional values and concepts should be explored, if only to critique and dismiss them as too insufficient for operational usage. It would seem that “film criticism” courses would adequately explore such traditional conceptions (i.e., the theories of Bazin, Kracauer, et al). Historical studies would concurrently round out such critiques. In these areas perhaps a semiological approach, typified by Christian Metz’s Film Language: A Semiotics of Cinema11, is reasonable. However, it seems unlikely that the semiological study of narrativity has much bearing on works which do not conceal their deep structures within a fictive order,. Responding to and understanding non-fictive, often self-analytical works (which are the primary consideration of cinematics) presents different sets of problems. Many intellectuals of the semiological persuasion have a fondness for applying analytical models to work which does not itself exhibit analytical or experimental intentions and, indirectly, this begs the question: can what is already an analysis be fruitfully the object of analysis? This is a question too complex to be fully treated here, but it will be generally assumed that reflection upon reflection is not only possible but necessary; furthermore, all analytical models should be tested to see if they can (non-tautologically) analyze their own structures. An interesting analogy between this problem and a problem in cybernetic models of thinking exists. Frank George, Chairman of the British Bureau of Information Sciences, in discussing why certain self-reflective subroutines must be built into some computers, states:

“If, as seems necessary, a computer program is to show the property of being proof against ‘bluffs’ or indeed if it is to have the capacity to change its own goals or subgoals, it must… carry an internal model of its environment., This internal model must involve calibrations of the reliability of information sources, details about people and things, both in particular in general terms.

As far as bluffing is concerned this involves the need to analyze the motives in other external human-like sources. It is, of course, obvious that these are complicated probabilistic activities and are likely to be unreliable, but this is not our present concern as such. What we are concerned with is the fact that having an internal model of the external environment also entails a model of the people in it and their characteristics. It also involves a model of the self, i.e. the program must contain some representation of itself. This self-representation can be picturesquely thought of as being like the bear on the label of the treacle tin; he is holding a treacle tin in the picture and on is a bear holding a treacle tin and so on. This is surely one aspect of consciousness and self-awareness.”12

It is usual that a discipline is introduced to students from a historical point of view; however, there is no way of insuring that the understanding of any one film will occur by following chronological development of styles – in fact it is likely that this approach, used exclusively, will reinforce the “natural attitude” (atomistic categorization as a way of “knowing”) and mislead the student. Historical knowledge of any area is indispensable to the serious student of that area; but, if one of the primary aims of education in film is to enable the student to develop a sense of transformational structures, then a purely rationalist, static, linear view of film will obviously obfuscate that intention. The diachronic view could be of use if it framed itself within a specifically focused thematic context (e.g., following the threads of the seminal American “psychodramatic” film form through later subjectivist manifestations to the eventual reversal of the film viewer’s role, from being an observer of a protagonist’s inner world to direct self-refection during the act of observing). But the whole logic of studying art form thematic reference frames, grouping works by style characteristics – by and far the most prevalent ‘appreciation course” technique – could stand some scrutiny; certainly, if the student is offered this approach exclusively and from one point of view, it will be crippling to the student’s individualistic growth. The student may be able to group together sets of works, which has some value, but may still not have gained a capacity to deeply experience any one work. This ability to group works together, even when done with wit and finesse, may not be of central use to the student who desires to make films. It should go without saying that both of the above discussed chronological and thematic survey modes are valuable; what I am stressing is that these approaches have limitations and if they are employed exclusively one can make strong predictions that the students’ education will be incomplete, perhaps in fundamental ways.

The purpose of what follows is to suggest the forms a cinematics approach might take in the esthetic studies dimension. A basic three-level division of types of study will be described; they are described in a progressive order; interpretative cinematics, analytical cinematics, an speculative cinematics. There is not just one mode of interpretation or of analysis or of speculation so it is obvious that I am not speaking of simply three courses with fixed form and content. On the contrary, each of these three general approaches will take any number of varying emphases.

Interpretative courses are those which present and discuss works in the above mentioned historical and/or thematic modes. While mention can be made of specific analytical methodologies, it is not the tasks f these course to deeply analyze individual works. Here, the student is introduced to the longitudes and latitudes of the cinema which has been called “experimental,” “poetic,” “underground,” “non-narrative,” “psychodramatic,” “personal,” etc… The task is to give the student an overview of the art film movement, to interpret its general tendencies, to become aware of its most important artists and of their stated esthetic intentions. At higher course levels, an interpretive course might intensively study a particular historical period and the relationships the films might have to other concurrent art forms, for intense study of a particular style (say, surrealism and automatism) could be pursued, or in-depth studies could be made of single artists who have created a significant body of work who have had measurable influence on the development of film art.

What distinguishes analytical courses from what I call interpretive courses is that the films which are viewed analytically need not have any historical or stylistic connection. In fact, the works shown should be highly differentiated so that what is consistent is the testing of specific analytical modes; the search is for discovering or developing a general language, capable of application to any number of film works. The individual film – largely divorced from the contexts of its maker’s intentions and its stylistic or historical relations to other films is what is being directly attended to. Such analysis could proceed along, say, structuralist or phenomenological lines. A structuralist approach would stress the syntax of the film works while a phenomenological approach would investigate the layers of consciousness which different works elicit in viewers. I personally feel that phenomenological research should be clearly distinguished form the sort of psychoanalytical interpretation of “meaning” of content which is so typical in literature courses and in courses dealing with narrative cinema; naturally, some surrealist and psychodramatic works can be interpreted as dream-like but I would suggest that these films do not constitute the most appropriate kind of work for phenomenological analysis because while they “picture” the dream state and invite viewers to participate in dream logic, they do not induce a dream state in an individual viewer. Some “minimal” films, which do not guide the viewer along a narrative or a directive formal development, provide viewers with an open field within which the individual viewer can enter “dream-like” states of consciousness; these “synchronic” films may be most appropriate to phenomenological analysis. Films which are themselves “dreams” or are dream-like are perhaps better analyzed with structuralist tools. Either structuralist or phenomenological analysis could proceed along any number of other emphases. Within structuralism there exists a great deal of debate as to what constitutes its range of subject material and its basic methodologies (as is shown in Macksey and Donato’s anthology, The Structuralist Controversy); the same is true in the area of phenomenology, where there exists a definitive growing away from the seminal concepts of Husserl (as is revealed in James M. Edie’s anthology New Essays in Phenomenology). So, we see that these areas are rich in potential applications.

Fro a structuralist perspective, we are concerned with the loosening of macrostructures into networks of parts, the microstructures of works. It should go without saying that one must be aware of the dangers of such atomistic probings and recall the lessons of the Gestaltists. Furthermore, the dynamics of structure should be emphasized, rather than static notions. Chomsky’s transformational grammar models of surface and deep structures. Piaget’s insistence on the transformational reversibility of true structures, Moles’ concern with the time dimension of structures, and von Bertalanffy’s definition of open systems are cardinal lessons.13 Echoing Bertalanffy, G.J. Klir states:

“If the system exhibits a particular behaviour, it must possess… certain properties producing the behaviour. These properties will be called the organization of the system. Since, according to the definition given, the behaviour of a system can change (fro the viewpoint of local relationships), we must assume that its organization can also change. It will be of advantage to define the constant and the variable part of the organization of system. Let us call the constant part of the organization of a system the structure of the system, the variable part, its program.”14

Information theory is a structuralist analytical methodology. Several years ago, using Moles’ Information Theory and Esthetic Perception, I tried to introduce the theory as part of a general “information” theme: first, in a course called “An Esthetic of Information,” in which film’s information potentialities were related to other recent information oriented approaches in painting and sculpture (mathematical and conceptual art and the documenting tendencies in earthwork and body art forms); and , in a course called “Structure a Information Matrices,” comparisons were made between certain film forms and painting-sculpture modes which serialize, schematize, and/or use progressions or accumulations or otherwise stress interior structure as “ content” (here the “grid,” which perceivers scan in “static” work and follow in certain film works – such as Hollis Frampton’s Palindrome and Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity – is a useful frame of reference).156 More recently, my class and I followed Piaget’s Structuralism, attempting to apply his dynamic models of structure to a wide variety of films. 16 Both the information theory and the dynamic structure models proved useful. Yet, neither approach can properly account for the subjective factors in experiencing films; so, most recently, I’ve attempted to adapt Edmund Husserl’s phenomenological method for film analysis situations. What is clearly needed is a means of interfacing both the structural and phenomenological modes, preserving the strengths of each system.17

Phenomenology, in the most general sense, is the attempt “to limit oneself to the data which are presented in consciousness – describing rather than explaining them.”18 Husserl’s phenomenology is valuable in that it posits relatively dynamic models of consciousness, especially of “internal time consciousness”. His conception of “bracketing” (suspending) one’s “natural attitude,” and thereby accomplishing perception of one’s perceiving during the act of perception, is invaluable in attempting to bridge the gap between the structures of film and the responding self. However, Husserl’s own logic is full of gaps and many of his models of perception have been superseded by the psychophysiological research of the last decades. Many of his propositions concerning reflection, memory, imagining, pretending, etc, have been thrown into doubt. Yet, he frames many of the areas which must concern those who are involved in transformational media. It has recently been demonstrated, primarily in the area of “biofeedback,” that a large part of our awareness exists on levels not readily available to rational consciousness. An advanced course in phenomenology might be team-taught with a psychophysiologist, using instruments which would measure alterations in brain waves, blood pressure, galvanic skin responsiveness,, etc. during the act of experiencing various film and video works. The same devices could then be used to allow students to modulate music and/or video synthesizer systems according to their learned control of their previously subconscious perceptual apparatuses.19

In introducing speculative cinematics, some points should be made concerning the role of humor in creative work. Perhaps the tone of “objectivity” which runs through this paper will lead the reader to assume that it presents too severe a model for an art curriculum. In fact, just as there exists a great deal more humour in so-called “minimal”/”structural” cinema than most viewers at first recognize, there is more lightness in my views that might immediately be inferred. These views are predicated on the belief that self-development, which does depend on the opening and releasing of the “subjective self,” does not necessarily involve neurotically morbid excesses or autistic self indulgence but that the individual’s inner world coincides positively with external reality and social life (the “objective” dimension); Iannis Xenakis, speaking of “metamusic,” states this lucidly in criticizing current romantic-subjectivist tendencies in music:

“I shall not say, like Aristotle, that the mean path is the best, for in music – as in politics – the middle means compromise. Rather lucidity and harshness of critical thought – in other words, action, reflection, and self-transformation by the sounds themselves – is the path to follow. Thus when scientific and mathematical thought serve music, or any human creative activity, it should amalgamate dialectically with intuition. Man is one, indivisible, and total. He thinks with his belly and feels with his mind.”20

The late Robert Smithson, perhaps the most outstanding earthworks artist (and author of the lovely film Spiral Jetty), advocated a “fourth dimensional humour,” which fits well in cinematics at its highest level.21 More operationally, Zen Buddhist uses of humour to bring about collapses of subjectivity into reflective embraces of objectivity are instructive to cinematics. Integral to humour is playfulness. (“To keep your art young you have to imitate animals. What do they do? They play.” Constanin Bruncusi) To speculate is to play. Speculationi is a natural activity in a relativistic, probabilistic world. At a certain point, where one might measure, if one could, a 180 degree shift in the angle of sensibility, the student hopefully reocognize the humor inevitably attached to a pursuit of an essentialistic cinema. This humor may or may not be a laughing matter but it certainly can be used to generate a speculative subject matter. The problem which presents itself is: how does one tell what is humorous, in ddistinction to what is serious but idiotic, or what is absurd but which “feels” utterly pedestrian, or what is substructurally humorous but masks itself in an attempt to remove itself from the level of joking, or what is joking without being funny? Fortunately, one is not called upon, in speculating, to be sternly comic; the alternative to rigid humour is not crystalline seriousness but an outlook aimed at what lies beyond both humour and seriousness – the unthought, the undone, the unfelt. “Brainstorming” is an effective way of pursuing concepts through their possible implications, but what is an equivalent form for a group searching for what it cannot define? The most important consideration in determining the nature of what such hypothetical thinking should be is, finally, its functional outcome for the student, what will facilitate his growth when he is beyond the security of studenthood. By graduate school, the student has gained another form of security: a grasp of his subject. This means that the student cannot only withstand a bit of irony, and appreciate it, but also may need it to loosen up what may have become for that student a premature calcification of attitude and style. Humour and seriousness may coexist in a singular pursuit or object or thought; an idea which at first appears humorous, may upon deeper reflection reveal itself as being very serious – this is the kind of irony which could be employed in construing areas for speculation. The speculation cannot be mere fantasy, innocuous toying about. It should involve the posing of difficult questions, perhaps questions which are ultimately unanswerable but which can serve to direct the mind into realms beyond logic. Many an important artist has set for himself goals beyond what can be possibly achieved and has left for us marvelous, if not absolutely successful, tracings of his reaching ever beyond himself (one thinks of Cezanne, in his very old age, complaining endlessly that he just could not get “it” right).

Anyone who would venture to “teach” a speculative course would have to have, personally, some self-challenging unanswered (perhaps unanswerable) art questions and would have to have a willingness to share these questions with students. Curiosity about something is not strong enough to guide such a course; there must be an intensity in the wondering process to sustain it through its inevitable “dead-end” frustrations. I am interested in this kind of course because there are some questions, at the hear of my own filmmaking which at once elude me and guide me on. One of the most interesting of these questions – one which may even appear anti-cinematic and self-contradictory – is that of non-temporality in film.

Film is normatively distinguished from painting or photography insomuch as its metrically successive unfolding in the linear time continuum afford it its illusions of “actual” movement and heightened three-dimensionality. Yet, as stated before, the linearmetric or “psychological” time duality is an oversimple limitation in conceiving of orders and types of “time.” “Time,” being a human abstraction, can be thought of and modeled in perhaps unlimited ways. Over the decades numerous films have tested the normative, limited notions of time bases, most particularly the linear time base in which they are supposed to exist. One thinks immediately of narrative or narrative-like works in which plot movement or plot tension if intensified by unexpected ellipses, of those which contain compressions of some stages of their development while expanding other stages, of those which poetically suggest instantaneousness, or of those which, in a quasi-surrealist manner, play with the intersections of simultaneous or incongruous times. The independent-personal cinema has almost always exhibited a depreciation of of the linear time base and it would be tedious to begin listing all those works which in one way or another attempt to distort, convolute, invert, subvert or ignore temporality. Some of these works, both those which contain traces of narrativity and those which are intentionally non-narrative, appeal to ritual-based cyclic time or to a mythic timelessness. Some of these works, notably “abstract” films, do not even seem to confront the issue of temporality but simply exist as isotropic “modulating durations.” However, other works which do not seem in any way to represent or refer to temporality nevertheless do have developmental structures which formally infer or evoke the narrative “moving-towards-a-point” time base. Using the hypothetical proposition that a non-temporal cinema is possible, and searching for the means of defining what that cinema might be, why it could or should exist, will form the base of a speculative course I am planning. Not only will the history of time manipulation in cinema be explored but, pursuant to that, there will be a scanning of the history of time conceptions in philosophy and an investigation of recent psychophysiological research in the functions/structures of retentiveness, data processing and “protentiveness” (Husserl’s term) in perception and memory.22

My point in describing a projected course in ”non-temporal” cinema is to emphasize how an apparently humourous, absurd or paradoxical contention can lead to a serious reappraisal of the many roles a fundamental – but too often taken for granted – aspect of the medium can take and how such a reappraisal can provide a rich base for creative playfulness. (It should also be stated that while the notion of a non-temporal cinema can be regarded as purely speculative – or, ludicrous – I do believe that such a cinema is coming into existence and that it can be an entirely valid cinematic mode, despite its many ironies.)

In summation, what is being argued for in this paper is an educational milieu which allows for and encourages a synthesis of rigorous thought and independent inventiveness – a seriousness free of dogmatism. The “optimal student” is one who will graduate in possession of necessary technical and theoretical skills without being bound by them, who will utilize these skills as tools and not as ends in themselves. This intelligent and imaginative student has as much confidence in his/her sense of self as in the contents of his/her education.

Notes

1. In my view, paintings and other creations which involve temporality in their making and in our experiencing of them should be regarded as “dynamic” rather than “static” even though these objects are not physically kinetic.

2. I am indebted to both Dr. Gerald O’Grady’ and to film critic and educator, Ms. Regina Cornwell, for their careful reading of the first draft of this paper and for their most helpful suggestions in making its final form coherent.

3. It should be pointed out that there exist strong criticisms of this usage. Hollis Frampton and Annette Michelson make convincing arguments for the use of “film” over “cinema” when discussing certain modes of independent filmmaking. (Hollis Frampton, “For a Metahistory of Film,” in: Artforum, (September) 1971; Annette Michelson, “Paul Sharits and the Critique of Illusionism,” in Projected Images, Walker Art Center, 1974). “Cinematics,” because it is derived from “cinema,” which refers more to film’s illusions of movement than it does to the immanent tangibilities of the film object, may not reflect well enough the ontological and/or epistemological orientations of the filmmaking which I wish to portray. Yet, I have not found a term which comfortably replaces “cinematics;” words such as “filmatics” seem somewhat clumsy. Also, my approach does not strictly deny the reality – in consciousness – of film’s illusions of motion and spatiality.

4. Paul Sharits, “Words Per Page,” in: Afterimage, no. 4 (autumn) 1972.

5. Roman Jakobson, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in: Thomas A. Sebeok (ed.), Style in Language, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1966, p. 351.

6. Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donate, “The Space Between – 1971,” in Macksey and Donate (eds.), The Structuralist Controversy, John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1972, pp. Xi-xii.

7. Nicolas Ruwet, “Linguistics and Poetics,” in Macksey and Donate (eds.), The Structuralist Controversy, pp. 296-297.

8. P. Adams Sitney, “Structural Cinema,” in Film Culture, 46, (summer) 1969.

9. Rosalind Krauss, “Problems of Criticism, X: Pictorial Space and the Question of Documentary,” in: Artforum (November) 1971.

10. Annette Michelson, “Art and the Structuralist Perspective,” in: The Future of Art, Viking Press, New York, 1970, pp. 37-59.

11. Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of Cinema, Oxford University Press, New York, 1974.

12. Frank George, Models of Thinking, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1`970, p. 146.

13. Noam Chomsky, Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1965; Jean Piaget, Structuralism, Basic Books, New York, 1970; Abraham Moles, Information Theory and Aesthetic Perception, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1966; Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory, George Braziller, New York, 1973.

14. G.J. Klir, An Approach to General Systems Theory, Van Notrand Reinhold, New York, 1969, pp. 43-44.

15. Texts which have proved helpful in comparing such ordered spatial and durational matrices were John Elderfield’s “Grids,” in: Artforum (May), 1972, Mel Bochner’s “The Serial Attitude,” in: Artforum (December) 1967, John Coplan’s Serial Imagery, Pasadena Art Museum, 1968, and M. Tribus and E.C. McIrvine’s “Energy and Information, in: Scientific American (September) 1971.

16. Other texts useful in pursuing structuralist analyses are Roland Barthes, Writing Degree Zero and Elements of Semiology, Beacon Press, Boston, 1970; Jacques Ehrmann (ed.), Structuralism, Anchor Books, Garden City, New York, 1970, particularly Sheldon Nodelman’s “Structural Analysis in Art and Anthropology,” pp. 79-93; Jack Burnhma, The Structure of Art, George Braziller, New York, 1971; and those by Macksey and Donato and Michelson cited in notes 6 and 10 above.

17. One critique of Husserl which frames many of the problematic aspects of such an undertaking is Jacques Derrida’s Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL, 1973.

18. Quentin Lauer, Phenomenology: Its Genesis and Prospect, Harper, New York, 1965, p. 1.

19. Readable and applicable texts for such research and experimentation include: Robert Ornstein (ed.), The Nature of Human Consciousness, Viking Press, New York, 1974; Lloyd Kaufman, Sight and Mind, Oxford University Press, new York, 1974; and David Shapiro, et al. (eds.), Biofeedback and Self-Control 1972: An Aldine Annual on the Regulation of Bodily Processes and Consciousness, Aldine Publishing Co., Chicago, 1973.

20. Ianis Xenakis, Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1971, p. 181.

21. Robert Smithson, “Entropy and the New Monuments,” in: Artforum (June) 1966, pp. 26-31.

22. At the onset of such a course, these provocative essays could frame the issue: Jorge Luis Borges, “A New Refutation of Time,” in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, New Directions, New York, 1962; Hollis Frampton, “Eadweard Muybridge: Fragments of a Tesseract,” in Artforum (March) 1973; and Paul Valéry, “Time,” in: Aesthetics, vol. 13 of The Collected Works of Paul Valéry, Pantheon, New York, 1964, pp. 259-277. Other texts could be W. Gray Walter, The Living Brain, Norton, New York, 1953; Ludwig Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics, MIT Press, Ambridge, MA, 1967, Jean Piaget, The Child’s Conception of Time, Ballantine Books, new York, 1969; Edmund Husserl, The Phenomenology of Internal Time-Consciousness, University Press, Bloomington, IN, 1964; R.M. Gale (ed), The Philosophy of Time, Anchor Books, Garden City, NY, 1967; Roman Ingarden, Time and Modes of Being, Charles C. Thomas, Springfield, IL, 1964; Benjamin Lee Whorf, Language, Thought and Reality, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1956; Robert E. Ornstein, On the Experience of Time, Penguin Books, Middlesex, 1969; and H. Yaker, H. Osmond and F. Cheek (eds), The Future of Time: Man’s Temporal Environment, Anchor Books, Garden City, NY, 1972.

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Regarding the “Frozen Film Frame” Series: A Statement for the 5th International Experimental Film Festival, Knokke by Paul Sharits (December 1974)

Originally published in: Film Culture – Paul Sharits, no. 65-66, 1978.

During the years 1958, when I began making 8mm film studies of a “psychodramatic” nature, until 1965, when I abandoned overtly narrative forms, I was also engaged in making photographs, abstract paintings and sculpture. These so-called “all-at-once” modes were, for me, also temporal objects (the complexity of the photograph and painting unfold in perceptual time and sculpture temporally unfolds in the observers’ movements around/through it.) My last paintings, constructed by overlapping and intersecting layers of metallic fields/shapes, changed constantly, in relation to light sources and viewer position; some shapes appeared while others disappeared so that no one viewing point or tie instant defined a work’s whole structure. So, even then, it was becoming natural for me to simultaneously conceive structures as both spatial and temporal.

In my quasi-narrative films of that period (all destroyed in 1966 in a rage of non-narrative commitment), I was radically fragmenting normative continuity in order to attain a sort of haiku immediacy, wherein the temporal film object could be sensed as a single, instantaneous image-compound. These works were plotted out in my mind’s eye as all-at-once structural fabrics.

In 1965, I made a definitive break from the narrative-bound “imagistic” form and began work on Ray Gun Virus, the first film intended to be both a projected time-light experience and spatial (Frozen Film Frame) object. At that time, I began mapping out my films in a way similar to musical scores and modular drawings. Some of the works were asymmetric (e.g. Ray Gun Virus) and some were symmetrical (e.g. T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G); seen as Frozen Film Frames – wherein strips of the film are serially arranged side by side from beginning to end, from right to left, between sheets of plexiglass – these structural strategies become transparent to even the most naïve viewer, thus enriching the understanding of a given work and emphasizing the basic structure and tangibility of film itself.

Recently, while working on drawing scores for a new four-screen film piece (to be displayed in an ongoing, no beginning or ending, constantly variational form, for a gallery-museum context), I noted: “This process of making, at the same time, both a temporal ‘score’ and an all-at-once ‘drawing’ oscillates consciousness at a rate of change which propels one into wholly unexpected tributaries of the ‘stream’ of filmic consciousness (which is the specific perimeter-boundary conditions of the film’s total structure); within these perimeters, the ‘scores’ are recordings of coexisting maps of intersected layers of ‘pattern-consciousness’ and maps of gestalted time zones (which are time order within time orders within a larger ‘rule’ of time order) – four-dimensional crystals…”

The Frame Study series are both scores for generating films (wherein each color mark is equivalent to one color frame of 16mm film) and drawings. The score is read like a book, from upper left to right, one line after another from top to bottom, as a drawing, it is read as a typical all-at-once structure. Frame Study 15 is a study for the final score (Frame Study 17) of the 3,600 frame long (90’) film Specimen II. Specimen II, approximately three minutes long, is both a work in itself and the subject matter of rephotography for the four-screen film installation piece, Oscillation (which shows Specimen II, sprocket holes and all, moving in one direction, at varying slow speeds of passage, superimposed over Specimen II going backwards, moving in the opposite direction to the first exposure); Specimen II is used to generate each of the ten minute long film loop comprising Oscillation.

The Study for Frozen Film Frame series are exact renderings of what the films generated by the Frame Study scores-drawings would (will) look like if those films were (are) cut into equally lengthed strips and hung vertically, side-by-side, serially from left to right, sandwiched between sheets of clear plexiglass. In this case, we see what Specimen II would look like in the Frozen Film Frame format. We note that, in transposition from the score structure to the Frozen Film Frame structure, what appear as horizontal bands of dominant color zones in the score appear as vertical bands in the Frozen Film Frame format.

Because the relationship between the scores-drawings and the Frozen Film Frame studies derived from them are so absolute the works form sets which should be kept together and displayed together, either side by side or one above the other (the score either to the left side or above the Frozen Film Frame study).

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Program note for the Whitney Museum of American Art’s New American Film Series by Paul Sharits (January 1975)

My work between the years 1965 and 1970 emphasized the individual film frames as basic units. Successions of these highly individual frames, in themselves flat, generate the so-called “flicker effect” which, in turn, creates senses of protrusions from the flat screen surface. Works made after 1968 subsume “the frame” and progressively focus in upon the physical linearity of the filmstrip as subject. The latest work, Color Sound Frames, intends to bring both of these concerns into a dynamic equilibrium, interfacing the frame-like successiveness of film and its ribbon-like continuousness. The general tone of my work since 19698 has been quieter, more contemplative and analytical than the earlier “flicker” films. I view this change as representative of a more radical insistence on differentiating film as art from movies as dramatic, or comic entertainment. These newer works would like to be observed more than followed, with their viewers becoming more and more self-reflective and less passively engaged in my “inventive gymnastics.” This shift in “tone” is not simply a matter of a shift in iconography, but has just as much to do with a new way of composing the works in their temporal structure, that is to say, overt structural complexity has given way to an evenness and obviousness of time shaping which thereby allows the viewer to bypass decipherment and enter directly into deep conceptual presentness (something which painting and sculpture have traditionally accepted as a fundamental condition). To accomplish this, a variety of compositional modes have been explored. In STREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:SECTION:S:ECTIONED (not shown in this program) one quickly observes that a relatively predictable logic is being developed and thereby feels free to explore the individual moment of spatial tension – shifting, color movement relations, and sound-image heterodyne modulations which are the most significant manifestations of this film, a film which questions, in developmental transformation of its images, the duality of illusion flow and actual film flow through a projector. In Inferential Current, developmental logic is dispensed with so that an even more direct apprehending of film’s illusionistic “movement” and “spaces” can be considered, even enjoyed. Axiomatic Granularity is so self-generative that one can completely forget about its “maker” and feel the kind of awe that one feels when watching any intriguing natural phenomenon. Still, in all these works, which intend to “lay bare” the actuality of film, to modulate film in terms of film itself, I have had to realize what may prove to be the ultimate irony: that is, in revealing the structure of the magic lantern’s illusionism I have arrived at a cinema more illusional than the normative cinema, which naively accepts its indexical nature and counts on its audience to “suspend disbelief.” Color Sound Frames is related to several larger scale, multiple-screen, ongoing gallery of museum (“locational”) film pieces, such as the two-screen work Divergent Intersecting Vectors; the three-screen piece, Synchronoussoundtracks (exhibited at Bykert Gallery last spring); and the six-screen silent work, Variable Area Optical Soundtracks. All of these recent works map out the possibilities of oscillatory composition, they are non-conclusive, non-dramatic and non-developmental. They are not so much “expressions” as they are aesthetically articulated specimens of our first medium of moving representation and manifestations of my own deep appreciation of their intrinsic suggestions for expansions of our potential sensibility.

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Cinema as Cognition: Introductory Remarks by Paul Sharits (August 1975)

Film Culture – Paul Sharits, no. 65-66, 1978. pp. 76-78.

Premise: there is the possibility of synthesizing various, even contradictory concepts of perception-consciousness/knowing-meaning into a unified, open (self-reorganizing) systems model, through a close analysis of he most fundamental levels of what I call “cinema.” We have to look “below” the usage level of cinema (its typical “documentation” and “narration” functions) to its infrastructures, to its elementary particles of signification. Films have to be made which amplify cinema’s general infrastructures. The task is curious since, on the one hand, we have to )speculatively) analyze it – build micromorphological structure-function models – in order to rebuild it. Two sub-premises are implied and they are cybernetically “bound” together: first, that “cinema: is a conceptual system; an second, that there is submerged meaning it he primary-material (“support”) levels of the cinema apparatus. If this is so, then both the kind of (anti-phenomenological) “structural” analysis proposed by Levi-Strauss and the kind of “phenomenological”analysis proposed earlier by Husserl must be somehow interfaced, as improbable as this may appear.

After several years of involvement with painting, in the early and middle 1960s, I abandoned that system because it did not seem rich enough for a generalistic philosophical investigation. The temporalization of (what I call) “signs” in cinema and the re-representational irony of film-sign projection (the “grain” we see on the screen first signifies the “grain” of the filmstrip emulsion and then signifies, indexically, iconic formations related to prior time-spaces) lend the filmic enterprise a set of characteristics which suggest processes of human knowing. When cinema is viewed in the ways I propose, its analysis becomes so complex and difficult a task that a research team investigation – employing the tools of linguistics, mathematics, information, theory, structuralism, phenomenology, psychophysiology, cybernetics, general systems and semiology (including its psycho-analytic-political implications) is required. The proper study of any of these areas is necessarily a lifetime preoccupation and I make no claims of adequately grasping even one of them. Nevertheless, I am more interested I the thought of such figures as Wittgenstein, Pierce, Husserl, von Bertalanffy, Chomsky, Saussure and Derrida than I am in the thoughts of art historians and art critics. This was not always so but, since 1971, I have considered “art” merely as a tool, a convenient tool, for generating a body of film works which are propositional (rather than formal or expressional).

The question has been asked: “Since Conceptual Art employs many written notes, is the use of film for you a substitute for written language or a simple record of your physical performances? (This question is probably more useful for Conceptual Artists that do films. But it is difficult to define your position between artists and filmmakers. Can you advise?): (Letter from Ester Carla de Miro d’Ajeta, Universita di Genova, Italy.) Because I have learned form and respect the work and thought of both “groups,” this is a difficult question to answer. Despite the fact that my more philosophically focused work of 1971 onwards – stripped of the emotional-dramatic-psychological structures and “formalist tactics” of my work of 1965-1971, has been generally better received in the museum-gallery art context than in the theatrical art (“film-making”) context, I do not regard myself as either a “film-maker” or an “artist who makes films”; rather, I view my activity as prototheoretical and I view myself as an artisan of infrastructural cinema. If my propositional models fail to amount to philosophical objects then they are, I should hope, thoughtful analytical documents of the first system of temporalized representation. However, in all humility, I am most grateful to the museum-gallery world for having provided me with the most usable situations within which my most ambitious propositional displays can function. To me, the linear-directional-finite theatrical mode of film display is structurally antithetical to the more general outlook I wish to project. Still, many of my works are made for this linear spatial-temporal mode of study, just as my sentences and paragraphs have their sequentiality and beginnings and endings; but, these works, like my sentences and paragraphs, are only fragments, fragments which, in the eventual outcome, will have to synchronically reflect off of each other and that which is deflected outwards through this undoubtedly flawed paradigmatic system will perhaps amount to a definition of cognition. Needless to say, a good part of what is to constitute the paradigm will not be singly or multiply projected films but, also diagrams, films as objects, written language and whatever else is necessary to form the conjugations and punctuations between the projected works, which will enable them to be properly read by others.

My “locational” exhibitions can be thoughts of a microcosms of the kind of paradigm I have suggested. In a museum-gallery space I can display together not just the outcome of an investigation (i.e., a film or a film piece composed of several ongoing, recycling, variational-permutational films-in-relation-to-each-other) but the whole thought and making process which has formed the film(s) (the infrastructural “Blow up”). In proximate spaces one can observe: scores which have generated a film; that film can be viewed as an object (seen as physical strips serially arranged and encased in plexiglass sheets); and, the projection of my analysis of that film object. There may also be follow-up diagrams and drawings concerning the findings of the inquiry. The esthetically minded critic may find such an all-at-once presentation of a concept disconcerting or troublesome because it refuses to locate its meaning in one object or hierarchy of objects and because the synchronic reflectiveness of the parts implied intentionality as an issue; however, the critic can easily ignore the paradigmatic design of the exhibition and be satisfied in observing the elements of the system as discontinuous objects.

This traditional, esthetic reading is somewhat understandable; yet, as I have tried to suggest in these notes, it is the paradigmatic logic involved in constructing the film which is of interest to me.

I am interested in the questions they might suggest – not questions such as “what constitutes a shot?” or “what codes are implied in the ‘zoom function’?” but deeper questions concerning the grain particle, the frame and its duration, the shutter and its rotation, and other infra-structural units of information, signification and meaning.

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Statement Regarding Multiple Screen/Sound “Locational” Film Environments – Installations by Paul Sharits (1976)

Originally published in Film Culture – Paul Sharits, no. 65-66, 1978

“Film” can occupy spaces other than that of the theatre; it can become “Locational” (rather than suggesting representation of other locations) by existing in spaces whose shapes and scales of possible sound and image “sizes” are part of the holistic piece.

I have found this form of filmmaking and display, using “more than one projector”, more and more meaningful (and imperative if I wish to truly actualize my intent of developing a clear ontological analysis of film’s many mechanisms and dualisms.

In 1974 I wrote: “In both my single-screen and multiple-screen works, what is primary to me is this: our first motion recording mode is nearly obsolete and, before it disappears into vague memory, ontological documents of its objects-processes should be registered. The film artist must put social responsibility above esthetic motives. At present, it is understandable that not many persons are deeply engaged by cinema’s subtle dualisms, perhaps because the medium still seems so accessible. This attitude gives rise to a general view that what is uppermost is what one does with the medium, how one uses it, rather than what its modes of being are. I do not share this general sensibility. Nevertheless, I am very deeply concerned with extending my work to a ‘general public’ and, by way of ‘locational’ display of cinema, allow that public to share with me a respect and enthusiasm for the primary structures of cinema. I would like to bring cinema into a new non-exclusive, non-theatric mode of presentation. Frank Lloyd Wright convincingly dedicated himself to an architecture which, in its very form, would be ethical and democratic. I believe that cinema can manifest democratic ideals in several ways: (1) if it exists in an open free, public location (the materialism of commercial cinema, and its typical exhibition in authoritarian, directive, illusion inducing theatrical space precludes this very basic condition); (2) if the form of presentation does not prescribe a definitive duration of respondent’s observation (i.e., the respondent may enter and leave at any time; the film’s basic nature, like Nature, should be evident to the respondent at a glance so that the respondent is not coerced into spending time awaiting the so-called unfolding of a ‘plot’); (3) related to the preceding axiom, if the very structure of the composition is non-developmental; thee should be a naturalness, an openness, a flow of variations on an immediately apprehensible system of elements; in Nature there exists a dynamic of oscillations and cycles and this should constitute the primary compositional principle of democratic film forms (whereas the classical Russian directors used the ‘montage principle’ to formally express the essence of Marxism); (4) if the content of the work does not disguise itself, a diagnostic analysis of the qualities and functions of film as physical-perceptual fact is called for (this is not say that the work lacks the duality of engagement and interest; I only wish to stress that it should not engage the respondent by way of being, in itself, of consequence – but rather should emulate the reflecting surface of a large body of water, which has an intriguing structure but which is neither didactic nor narrative.

As an incidental note I’d like to mention that I felt deeply rewarded by the responses my first multi-screen installation piece elicited when it was premiered at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, March 1972. Respondents, in particular, children, the most difficult audience for the contemporary artist, enjoyed the piece to the extent of coming-going-coming-back-leaving-again-returning (like the looped films themselves) bringing with them other persons, some of whom grasped the primary conception, appreciated it and left quietly.

So, in these locational pieces there exists both an uncompromisingly aesthetic-analytic devotion to document the structure of cinema and in intent to display the work in a manner accessible to any interested person.”

I have a more open view of the situation now than I did when the above was written – the issue of “ontology” has receded from the position of being a high priority and concerns with behavioural psychology and medical pathology have become increasingly prominent; human images, given up for images of various filmstrips in 1968, returned to my work in 1976, a reflection of the new concerns.

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Paul Sharits interview with Gerald O’Grady (1976)

From the series “Film-Makers,” WNED, Buffalo.

http://rhizome.org/editorial/2861

Gerald O’Grady: The filmmaker is Paul Sharits, he was born in Denver. He was the founder of the film program at Antioch College, and he now teaches film at the Centre of Media Study at the State University at Buffalo. Wherever experimental work is shown around the world, whether it’s at Montreaux in Switzerland, or at Knokke-le-Zoute in Belgium or the Whitney Museum in New York his films are shown. His films are in the collections of most major museums around the world. In the fall of 1976 the Albright-Knox Gallery here in Buffalo is going to accord you a complete retrospective of your work and some of your drawings and compositional columns that we’re going to look at in the program. I think of all the contemporary filmmakers your work, your films, your movies, relate to other contemporary art movements.

Paul Sharits: Well I do feel very comfortable in the gallery/museum context. My background in college had been studies in visual design, painting, sculpture and art history, although I don’t like to think of my work as coming out of painting, for instance, although it has a certain relation to abstract painting. If I might characterize the work I suppose it has more to do with contemporary art I think well for many years it has been constantly searching for valid subjects, testing the boundaries of what it is supposed to represent since the invention of recording instruments like cameras, cinematography and so forth, those functions were abandoned in a way by painters and sculptors. But I find myself that there’s a crisis in the image, I cannot accept illusionism without criticizing it, somehow within. My subject has become actually more the physical qualities of film, the structuring process of making films.

Gerald: Ordinarily when we go to a movie, or a film we tend to look for a representational image of someone acting out something. There’s generally an actor involved. And yet your work people often say: what’s happening? Maybe we should look at one of your early works, N:O:T:H:I:N:G, and perhaps you can talk about what’s going on. What is the subject here?

(N:O:T:H:I:N:G excerpt shows on a screen behind the two speakers)

Paul: OK. Yes. My work is concerned with perceptual responses, so in a sense the subject becomes the viewer of the work. This is a film wherein the frames are differentiated by solid colour at a rate of speed that causes certain kinds of optical phenomena. The idea of the work is a little difficult to articulate…

Gerald: Because we’re just seeing a few minutes…

Paul: Yes, I should think that the idea of the film would be more available if we would see the entire film which is 36 minutes long but we can’t so what I’d like to concentrate on in this particular film there are a few images that set up a conceptual context for the work. The subject here is the film frame itself, there are 24 of them going by each second, the, their existence becomes the subject. And of course I’m using their rhythms and patterns that vary throughout the film, in fact, gradually change from a slower rhythm to an increased rhythm, a very definite point in the centre of the film is emphasized, and then the whole structure reverses itself. The theme, there are several themes in the film that also do this on different levels, some of them representational, the light bulb imagery. There’s an image of a chair falling over backwards, without any apparent reason.

Gerald: The subject is the frame itself, and elements such as colour, flicker and rhythm, in other words the subject of the film are the material qualities of the basic elements of celluloid and emulsion itself.

Paul: Yes, there are so many, in my way of thinking, there are so many subjects that it’s rather hard in a condensed way to enumerate them all. But those are basic to that kind of work. There’s, I think, perhaps we can make some of these ideas more clear if we present some slides. This is a series of strips from the film, arranged in a manner that allows us to see what was generating some of those optical effects and rhythms. This sketch here on the left, we see a little sketch of a Tibetan mandala, it’s a symmetrical meditational device, I tried to, on the right, find a way to, of mapping that kind of… the mandala is a single image, a symmetrical image. I tried to find a way of modeling that into a time dimension.

Gerald: Which is at the top.

Paul: Yes. Here’s another way of viewing it, from the left to the right, you can see there is a definite centre to the film, and a progression of colour that inverts, it goes to the centre and then inverts. That’s an overall picture of the whole form of the film. The shape of the film becomes a subject, in a sense. These are some sketches to show a little bit about how I was diagramming some of the various movements, and rhythms and colour developments in the film. This shows general overall patterns of movement and frequencies of fade ins, fade outs, different kinds of colour formations. This is another way… I would actually visualize, as if it were a film strip, the relative distribution of colours and so forth. This is a few seconds, about 20 seconds actually, drawn in a way that would look something like a filmstrip that would result in following this kind of score, if we could call it that. In later work, scoring films that are actually shot on an animation stand, I can make a score and someone else can actually shoot the film knowing how to read the score, as if you would read a book. So that you’re reading from the top left horizontally to the right and then down. Now if that were to generate a film and I were to take the strips of that film and hang them, this is reading horizontally, if I hang the resulting film vertically, I can see here that it will form certain kinds of patterns, that are obviously related to the way that paintings are…

Gerald: This drawing is done with coloured pencils on graph paper.

Paul: This is a study for what that score would look like if it were what I call a frozen film frame. This is a series of strips from another film that’s related to the film N:O:T:H:I:N:G. This is the first colour film I worked on with this idea of the film frame. This is another little section of it. You can see some of the spatial forms that these temporal directions…

Gerald: What you’ve done there is to take the film…

Paul: These are actual film strips.

Gerald: … that goes through the projector as one strip, and then you’ve cut it into strips and put them into a grid side by side.

Paul: In a serial arrangement. This might make it a little bit more clear. This is the entire film, Ray Gun Virus, 14 minutes long, put into a serial arrangement of strips. It’s sandwiched between plexiglass. This is another film that’s symmetrically made, you can see in the centre there that there’s a different sort of emphasis than out on the edges.

Gerald: This is a black and white photo of an installation.

Paul: Yes. These are pieces that have been exhibited in galleries and museums I continue to work on. In other words, when I’m planning a film I’m planning it for a temporal projection, of 12 minutes in the case of this film T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, and in the spatial format of the frozen film frame, the film sandwiched between plexiglass…

Gerald: It’s interesting because in some of the sketches you’re actually using the five line structure of music. You’re actually using musical composition musics, and in others you’re using graph paper, thinking of it spatially and in the same time in a temporal way.

Paul: Yes, I think that my background as a child playing classical music certainly informs the structuring of the work. It’s not based on mathematics, it often has that look but it’s a system that I’ve developed myself. From the frame to the frozen film frame pieces with the strips I had become more interested in literalizing the actual film strip. And I’d like to show a film now Inferential Current which is a nine minute long film, the subject is a film strip, two film strips superimposed.

Gerald: How was this made?

Inferential Current excerpt plays

Gerald: What is the sound structure on that film?

Paul: We’re hearing the latter part of the film, it’s in three parts. It’s the word miscellaneous which has been taken apart into parts: misc, sel, lane, eous, and compounded in various ways. We’re hearing the last two fragments.: lane, eous, overlapped, phasing in and out of relationship, somewhat in the way that the two superimposed filmstrips are moving at different rates. I’m interested in trying to handle the sound structurally in the same, or in a related manner to the visual aspect of the film. Rather than the sound being an over-narration, as in a travelogue, or synchronous.

Gerald: Was that shown on multiple screens?

Paul: That is a work that is related to another film called Soundstrip/Filmstrip, and perhaps we can take a look at some slides. This work is an installation in a museum and it’s a four-screen piece. These are four projectors in the middle of the room, the image takes up the entire wall, eight feet high, thirty feet wide. The four images are turned sideways. The image is like the one in Inferential Current. It’s of a filmstrip, and here as they’re lined one after the other, at times they look as if they’re one long filmstrip. The arrangement is a sort of metaphor of a filmstrip and the subject itself is a filmstrip with scratches, illusional scratches and sprocket holes… I was interested in here is the physical linearity of the film as a contrast to the flickering pulse of the frame oriented work, the earlier work,.

Gerald: You can see that these are the four screens as they’re actually being projected on the wall.

Paul: Yes this is, the scale of this is thirty feet wide and eight feet high, and we’re getting cut off on either end. The image there is images of film that were rephotographed on a system that I’ve built specifically for this purpose that will see the entire strip of film. In recent years this preoccupation with the strip of film as a linear, modulating flowing element has been interfaced with the earlier concern with the abrupt change from frame to frame into work which is a rephotographing of film frames which, if they were normally projected, would have a flickering effect. So I’ve kind of compounded I believe both systems. The fourth section of the twenty minute long film I’d like to show now, Color Sound Frames>, the sound actually is the sprocket holes which are in synch with the image,. Perhaps we can have that before we discuss it any further.

Color Sound Frames excerpt plays

Gerald: When you’re conceiving of a film, in your mind, when you’re thinking of the film going through a projector and being projected on a screen, as we see ordinary films, at the same time you’re thinking of it as a frozen frame that you can cut up and sometimes show in space, but within plexiglass, and at the same time you are, in a way, thinking of it almost in terms of performance, in what you call “locational”pieces. I know you’ve talked about Frank Lloyd Wright and a democratic space where people can enter in. So you’re actually thinking of it in at least three ways,.

Paul: Yes, I continue to make films for regular theatrical presentation. Films with beginnings and ends. On the other hand, I see that that space is a bit authoritarian in that ever yone is directed towards a particular image at a particular time. The locational work, the works I do in the gallery and in the museum context, don’t really have a duration, and they don’t really place the viewer of the work. The viewer places himself in relationship to the work and comes and goes at will.

Gerald: We even have a set of slides that will probably show some of the generation of the…

Paul: Yes, in this slide we’ll see how this last film that we’ve seen, Color Sound Frames, is related to a gallery piece which we’ll come to in a moment here. This here is some scores that are oscillating lines that intersect and create flicker footage. There are ten drawings here that create a five minute long film. This is just three of the drawings. So it goes from this drawing stage, and then we have the five minute long film we’re seeing here in a frozen film frame of it, it’s matted a little bit by the TV format, and I made a film of this and that would be Color Sound Frames. I also made another film that is an installation piece that was first done in the Bykert Gallery in New York and then it was shown in another show Projected Light work at the Walker Art Centre last year. This again is a format of putting the work into a particular space, the film is on loop projectors and it doesn’t have any specific duration. These go in and out of sync, these images, the film, filmstrips, so that there is no concept here of beginning or end, there is just duration. It’s a spatial experience, and you look at yourself within it.

Gerald: You can actually look at it for a month without repeating.

Paul: Yes, the amount of information. However on the other hand I would like to make them so that in the immediate moment of seeing them, there is an all at once quality to them that is much like the presence one might sense in a painting or a piece of sculptural wholeness to it. This shows some of the variations. This is a sketch to show the variations in the kinds of movements that can occur in this three-screen format that is similar to Color Sound Frames film. This film is actually called Synchronous Sound Tracks. This is a work I’ve been working on now that’s silent, Oscillation, working with the principle of oscillation, a four screen work in an environment, a locational piece.

Now there’s another kind of thing that I’d like to talk about a little, to work with the idea of developing the stages of a work as being the subject of the work. These are some scores, four scores, let me just go through them, that even, with some of the distortion, that perhaps we’ll have with the video we can see that there’s a relationship between these drawings in that they all have colour that’s somewhat related. This generated four different films that were five minutes long, and I project them in variations of overlapping screens. Now these are flicker works, going back to the earlier like N,O,T,H,I,N,G. But for the first time I developed them for a locational situation.

Gerald: This is the piece you did in Artpark this summer?

Paul: Yes. This was continuously projected for a couple of weeks. Now I changed the relationship of the projectors so the screen overlap would be different. I found that the best format was finally this last one, right here.

Gerald: So as you were watching your own work at Artpark, you began to create a new set of sketches for another work, based on that almost.

Paul: Yes. First they started out as theoretic sketches. Let’s have a look at a couple of those. This is one is to explain the… one of the basic ideas there is that the shutter blade in an out-of-phase, in-phase, relationship.

Gerald: The shutter blades of a projector.

Paul: Yes. The film is kind of about the shutter blades of a projector abstracted into a whole idea involving colour, movement, and rhythm and so on. This is another drawing. A rather schematic and didactic. I’d just like to show, rather quickly, a series of drawings that are not particularly didactic but rather a metaphor for the kinds of, what I thought would be the very creational possibilities of this approach. So we just go through this sequence of slides now.

Slide sequence plays.

Paul: This is from a series of about 50 drawings and I found it very interesting that in this case I was able to use the final film as a resource or subject for a series of drawings which I believe will perhaps inform me of some other direction to go in developing a film concept again. So the process of thinking about the work is not just from the beginning sketches to the film, it has now extended beyond the film back into the sketches and perhaps from those sketches then onto another film.

Gerald: In some ways, getting back to the question I raised earlier in the program, about what’s happening, what’s on the screen. In some ways what’s on the screen, now, and more and more, in this fashion, seems to me the process of thought itself.

Paul: Yes, that’s the way I think of the work and that’s why I like it to be broken down into different stages so that the different part of the processes can reflect off of each other and crate sort of paradigmatic structure of how an idea can be seen and felt and responded to at different levels.

Gerald: The works show this, you show us a sketch, compositionally you project it, you show it in what we call locational arrangements, people can follow that trajectory, this interaction with yourself, your own perceptions and of course their perceptions,.

Paul: Yes, ideally all the work would be seen in a relatively proximate space as you see the film piece in one room you’d see these sketches, diagrams in another space and some of the frozen film frames also. So that would set up a kind of conceptual space, rather than one thing being hierarchically superior to another, it’s more of a reflective process. My hope is that even in limiting myself to the kind of subject that I have decided is valid film subject matter, I have a richness to work with.

Gerald: I think we’re out of time. Thanks very much for coming.

Paul: Thank you.

Credits

Host: Gerald O’Grady

Producer/Director: Dan Healy

Film-Makers is produced in co-operation with Media Study, Buffalo and is a video tape production of WNED Buffalo.

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Paul Sharits by Rosalind Krauss (1976)

(Paul Sharits: Dream Displacement and Other Projects, exhibition catalogue, Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 1976)

What is it like to be convinced by a work of art? Our model for the aesthetic experience is drawn primarily from encounters with objects that have already been validated – where the question is not of establishing the status of the work, as art, but of internalizing its significance, re-affirming for ourselves its manner of meaning. But with work that is really new, there is a different problem, and the model for established art does not serve. Instead, we are more likely to find ourselves interested, or intrigued, by what we see, without that interest carrying with it the claims of aesthetic certainty until, like a puzzle we have stared at for a long time, the pieces suddenly fall into place and the work’s aesthetic status is irrevocably part of our experience.

The films of Paul Sharits come from that kind of uncharted territory. Not that they do not connect to the relatively brief history of American Independent Cinema; they do. It will be the task of this essay, in part, to describe the manner of that connection. Yet they emerge from that tradition in a way which challenges and extends some of its presuppositions. And so, for a while, they have the quality of being suspended in one’s consciousness – a visual fact, surrounded by questions: why those choices and not others; why those self-determined limitations; why the expansions in that direction, now? And then, the pieces fall into place. One realizes that one is not only looking at work of obvious filmic interest, but one is also in the presendce of an extraordinary achievement of cinematic art.

In my own experience of Sharits’s films, the moment when this certainty dawned was in the encounter with Soundstrip/Filmstrip, a work he made in 1972. Sharits’s mature career begins much earlier, of course. By the time of Soundstrip/Filmstrip he had made several works which are securely established in the canon of experimental film. Ray Gun Virus (1966), N:O:T:H:I:N:G(1968), T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968), S: TREAM : S : S ECTION : S ECTION : S : S :S ECTIONED (1970), all precede Soundstrip/Filmstrip. It may therefore be a bit eccentric to begin an account of Sharits’ art at appoint that is closer to the middle of its development rather than at its inception, yet I do so because Soundstrip/Filmstrip summarizes the ideas and directions of the previous work and in that summation renders them profoundly abstract. It is in his capacity for abstraction that I believe Sharits’s strength is to be found.

Soundstrip/Filmstrip muralizes the field of projection. In the installation where I first saw it, the image filled the entire long wall of a gallery1, giving it the effect of that kind of panoramic spectacle we recognize as cinemascope – which is only fit for the presentation of snakes and funerals as Godard has the filmmaker Fritz Lang say, in Contempt. Yet cinemascope is by now the standard field of viewing for commercial film. This is because it more forcibly promotes the effects of illusion than the academy ratio of the normal movie screen. By more nearly filling the viewer’s field of vision, the panoramic screen has a tendency to liberate the fourth wall of the room in which the audience sits, waiting to be transported to another place. And for Soundstrip/Filmstrip, where illusion is part of its subject, the launching-pad of this wide-screen field is a necessary ingredient.

Yet the plane of illusion is undermined, or bracketed, almost immediately, for the space of Soundstrip/Filmstrip (the gallery in the case I’m describing) contains the implements of its projection. The four machines from which the composite image emerges are mounted on four monolithic bases, and these are placed, free-standing, within the room, like furniture or objects around which we are free to move. Right away, then, we realize that we are not in the middle of the filmic illusion, as we would be when seated in a theatre, oblivious to the hidden machinery in the projection booth mounted behind us. We are, instead, at a tangent to the illusion, forcibly aware of the generative pair: projector/projected; aware, that is, of the mechanisms that are closer to the birth of the illusion. Indeed, the experience of film in relation to that pair has a history within the very beginnings of cinema. We are told, for instance, that in the earliest screenings of film in Japan, the theater managers set up rows of seats parallel to the line of projection, so that some of the audience, if it wished, could look not only at the filmed image, but also at the beam of light transversing the space between projector and screen.2 Somewhat later, in Dziga Vertov’s The Man with a Movie Camera (1929), this need to acknowledge the agent of the image’s production impelled Vertov to include a filmed “overture” of the starting up of the arc-lamp and the threading of the projector itself.

In Soundstrip/Filmstrip the presence of the projector in our space does not simply qualify the experience of the illusion by stating, “This is a projected reality.” Through the sculptural isolation of the projectors and their stands, it establishes the work’s involvement with its own material basis.

The filmic image is carried on a strip of celluloid coated with emulsion. That, we might say, is the material support of the image. Yet the simple fact of that strip is not what we could call the mechanical support of the experience of film. For the latter to occur, there must be a sense of motion, and the mechanical basis for that is located in the material correlative to the physiological fact called the persistence of vision. Everyone knows by now that what we experience as motion in film is in reality a sequence of separate still frames, fired at us at the standard speed of twenty-four per second. Both the camera which took those stills, and the projector which fires them onto the screen, have revolving shutters. Opening and closing, they capture and release intermittent intervals of darkness and light. The filmstrip’s connection to the shutter is the bridge between the still image and the moving one. The filmstrip’s testimony to that connection is the row of sprocket holes it must carry on one side: the material witness to its passage through the mechanical registry of time. Emulsion, strip, sprockets, shutter, frame, are the complex reality which comprises film’s material basis. It is to this complex that Sharits addresses himself in this work.

In Soundstrip/Filmstrip the major portion of the screen is taken up by an image of the film’s emulsive coating: a plane of coloured light disturbed by two parallel stripes, each stripe the evidence that Sharits has marred the fragile surface of the film with a scratch-mark: a furrow with particles of matter clinging to either side. These two lines of scratches, however, do not come from the same point of time in the process of making the film. For with each strip of film, the celluloid was scratched once, and the film projected and reshot onto another strip which was scratched again, in a different place. There are therefore two generations of scratches, one rather blurred and the other extremely distinct. The first is a recorded image, distanced from us in time. The second is an actual presence on the strip of film we are not looking at, a fact of the presentness of projection, much the way our hand raised to intercept the beam of the projector’s light, and casting a shadow on the screen, would be the intervention of time-now onto the image of time-past.

These real scratches, passing sometimes over the image of sprocket holes which occur at the top of the fields of colour, help us to recognize that two generations of process are combined within the single image, for the sprocket holes are from the first (recorded generation). The sprockets of the film we are viewing now are, of course, invisible, meshed within the mechanism of the projectors. One must amend, then the statement that the content of the film’s image is the emulsion made present to one’s vision, because this image of emulsion is as well an image of recording, of film’s condition as document.

As document, seen through projection, it holds past and present in a strange synthetic relation to one another. We realize that the material support of Film is being shown to us from within the context of Time.

And with film, of course, time is motion. I have said that Soundstrip/Filmstrip uses four projectors and is a composite image. What we are actually looking at are four separate loops of film, the projected edges of which meet to create the illusion of single continuous band of four film-frames passing before us from right to left. The separateness of the frames is marked by the differing colours and by the random interrelation of the scratches each frame contains. In the sinuous glide of this image of movement there is contained a further commentary on the nature of film’s relation to time.

The image of the strip of film is about seeing what is never seen in the theatre of our ordinary experience. The filmstrip – its separate frames distinct and visible, its sprocket holes flanking one of its edges – is the object with which the filmmaker works as he edits. It is what he holds between his hands as he manipulates the object later to be projected and, in this projection, to be seen as a single, animated picture. The quadrupling of the frames, by referring to the filmstrip as a physical object, also refers to it as a static object: film in potentia because film not-yet-projected. This static object – the filmstrip – which we might be tempted to call the “real” film or the film-itself, in fact establishes its essential being only in relation to the intermittent time of projection, because only through projection does it gain the illusion of continuous movement. In this movement the individual frames are erased as separate integers; they are subsumed within the condition of continuity. Thus, in relation to motion, Soundstrip/Filmstrip offers a double-level image parallel to the double-levels of the treatment of each separate frame. It provides us with the image of the static, material object of the strip, coupled with its continuous glide into the condition of time.

The soundtrack of the film parallels what I have been describing as its visual impact. From each projector the separate syllables of the word “miscellaneous” are emitted. Each syllable is of course a phoneme without meaning, an inert building block in the auditory structure of language. “Sense” comes only with this temporal coupling and combination, made possible in this case by the viewer who physically traverses the space of the room of the film.

Time, then, is the subject of Soundstrip/Filmstrip; time, in relation to what might be called the analytic mode of consciousness. The experience of film is normally about being caught up in the flow of time, of being so enmeshed within the process of duration that one suspends all sense of the fusion of past and present occurring within that experience. The analytic act – the standing back from the experience in order to ask what it is and how it is made – obviously rends the fabric of duration. In tearing it apart in order to examine it, one has not duration but stasis; one has an analytic movement and an inert object of reflection.

Sharits’s will in Soundstrip/Filmstrip is to give us that moment of reflection without destroying its object; to give us at once and the same time the abstract components of film and the reality of its experience. So that what we see, then are two “objects” of tremendous beauty: the powers of thought to reflect on its own process; and the unified field of our cognitive reality.

That will towards abstraction runs deep within the tradition of Independent Cinema. Its most aggressive, because single-minded, emergence has been the work of the last ten years in what P. Adams Sitney has called the Structural Film. With this title Sitney refers to the work of Michael Snow, George Landow, Hollis Frampton, Tony Conrad, Ernie Gehr and Joyce Wieland, as well as that of Sharits. By this term he means to indicate “a cinema of structure in which the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified, and it is that shape which is the primal impression of the film.”3 In speaking of the “shape” of a film, Sitney alerts us to the fact that for this group of filmmakers there will be a concern for the tension between motion and stasis which I have described as the central effect of Soundstrip/Filmstrip. There will be, that is, an attempt to find a very simple gestalt, or outline, of the type that objects have, and to impose that outline of the filmic material in such a way that that course of the temporal experience acquires the profiled precision of an object in space. That outline is, of course, not arbitrary. It is, rather, a diagram of some essential ingredient of the filmic experience – a kind of unified image which continually flashes before us the compressed information that we might call a concept about the nature of film. The reduction and synthesis that is needed to arrive at such a diagram is what we recognize as the process of abstraction.

Thus, in Wavelength (1967), Michael Snow imposes a shape on the fourty-five minutes of his film by using a single, continuous zoom through which the viewer of the work is very gradually propelled across the expanse of an eighty-foot loft space, coming to realize that when the camera’s lens finally “arrives at,” is entirely filled by, the wall at the far end of the loft, the film will have reached completion. In that sense, the shape of the film acquires the finite, perimetric definition of a bounded room. By giving the film this shape, Snow creates a spatial analogue for the experience of time. The camera becomes a machine which traverse space, according to a fixed rule: namely, that it cannot look back. What it has passed through is behind it, and what is behind it is, by the nature of its irrevocable advance, not retrievable. By mapping this image of space traversed onto a temporal progression, Snow makes extremely real and rather terrifying, the idea of time as something that extinguishes the past, something that relentlessly advances, leaving in its wake only abstractions or generalization about the past, only the past as a “shape.”

Wavelength is a film of far greater complexity that I have indicated here. There are human events that interpose themselves in the path of the advancing room to create a reduced and schematic narrative; and there are filmic events (colour filters placed in front of the lens, short sections of the film in negative, superimpositions of the images) that interrupt without diverting the continuity of the movement. But I have focused on the film’s abstract sense of temporal inexorability because that is the quality Wavelength has in common with the early films of Sharits.

These works – Ray Gun Virus (1966), Peace Mandala/End War (1966), Word Movie/Fluxfilm 29 (1966), Razor Blades (1968), N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968) and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968) – explore and develop the medium known as the flicker film. Their basic structure involves optical pulsations caused by extremely short spurts of visual information. (By “short” one means anything from a single frame (one-twenty-fourth of a second – somewhat below the threshold of actual visibility) to a sequence twelve frames in length.) Although the later flicker films contain passages of recognizable imagery, the predominant visual texture of these works is composes of frames of solid colours, or black, or white. In their alternation the colour bursts, or colour and achromatic bursts, establish a slightly varying stream of light/dark pulses. The metronomic beat of these pulses is what then structures these films.

In using the flicker effect, Sharits was, of course, analyzing and exploiting the kinetics of cinema – its capacity to create the illusion of motion. As Regina Cornwell writes, “As a fundamental principle, flicker is as old as, in fact older than, the camera and the projector. Awareness of flicker is revealed in the use of the term ‘flicks’ for films or movies or motion pictures. ‘Motion pictures’ and ‘movies’ are descriptive names for the illusion evoked from film which is actually composed of separate still frames, whereas ‘flick’ or flicker actually characterizes the nature of the intermittent illusion more literally. It is the intermittent movement of the film through the camera in registering the image and the shutter mechanism blocking out light as the images passes down and the next image is registered, and the duplication of these operations in projecting the image, combined with the persistence of vision which creates the illusion of a constant and uninterrupted image on the screen. At any time all one need notice is the projectile of the light beam as it travels towards the screen to observe the flicker effect created by the revolving shutter.”6

A flicker effect, well below the threshold of perception, is intrinsically a part of the phenomenology of film viewing. What the flicker film does is magnify this effect, raising it above the perceptual threshold, but maintaining nonetheless its rapid-fire impact. In this way, the optical information on the screen becomes the visual correlative of the mechanical gearing of lens and shutter.

In this synthesis of film optics (how we see) and film mechanics (how what we see is produced), Sharits is also combining the notions of stillness and motion, for the flicker hovers midway between a reference to the inert filmstrip, an inanimate object of discrete frames, and the realization of movement caused by blurring the distinction of each frame through the agency of speed.

And indeed it is a sense of breathtaking speed that forms the basic impression of most of Sharits’s flicker works. The extraordinary forward momentum of films like Ray Gun Virus or Razor Blades (where the use of double-screen projection sets us a kind of visual metaphor for a race between the two sets of images) creates an abstract correlative for the relentless passage of time. It is this production of an image of forward motion – reduced to the concept of “pulse” – that joins the early aspirations of Sharits and Snow. Added to which is their shared attitude towards stillness as the antithesis of speed.

In Wavelength I said that each moment of the film was informed by an image of its shape-as-a-whole, and that there was a tension between the static, diagrammatic nature of this shape and the experiential flow of temporal motion. This tension between time flowing and time stopped is given an almost visceral presence by Sharits’s flicker films. His use of the flicker makes it seem that one can catch the single frame as it comes by projected; that one can actually see each single moment of which motion itself is composed. This feeling of being able (almost) to stop the flow of time in order to “see” it, promotes an extraordinary tension within the viewer.

In our ordinary experience we have, through our capacity for reflection, the ability to stand off to one side of our lived experience. We can, that is, analytically regard our own process of cognition. Yet that act of standing outside experience in order to observe or dissect it stops time, interrupts experience, changes it. It leaves one with a sense of the tension between analytical reflection and a consciousness fully embedded in the drift of experience. Consciousness is thus involved in a situation of paradox – a battle between experience and reason. Deep within the very grain of film is the same tension: between the sinuous flow of movement through time and the single frame whose potential for analysis is realized only by interrupting that flow. If one tries, in the flicker, to catch the “reality” of each frame, one is left with the diagram of movement, the analysis of film’s components, the absence of kinesthesis. One is left, that is, with an abstraction and not with film. In Sharits’s work there is a dual experience of what it means to be film (in motion) and to analyze it (in stasis). The emotional impact of the flicker films, and their success as art, arise out of this evocation of the dual terms of consciousness.

The later flicker films, as I have said, weave strands of recognizable imagery through the fabric of solid frames that had been the exclusive medium of Ray Gun Virus. In doing so, Sharits explores, in his own way, yet another aspect of the grammar of cinema that was of general concern to the experimental filmmakers of his generation. The very titles of N:O:T:H:I:N:G and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G with each of their letters bracketed by marks of punctuation, create a visual/verbal analogue for the idea of montage.

Montage is another word for editing, or physically joining separate segments of film. The editing process could be used, of course, to create a complete visual miscellany, and some of the experimental films using found-footage have done so (for example Bruce Connor’s A Movie (1958)). But the normal task of editing is to correlate separate shots of reality – to break down a sense of their disparateness, and to create a unified field of action, or a single physical space. The cut-away, the reaction-shot, the change of angle as one moves from far-or medium-shot to close-up, the cutting back and forth between two parts of a single locale, are all parts of the editing process, by which one can fashion a sense of dramatic or psychological continuity.

Although it is not his exclusive concern, many of the films of Hollis Frampton have been involved with analyzing the fictive reality created by the techniques of editing. Poetic Justice (1972), for example, is a film about editing, even though the space at which one looks throughout the fourty-minute course of the film, never changes. A fixed camera focuses in medium-shot on a table top on which there are assembled a flower pot, a coffee cup, and a sheet (in the passage of the film to become a sheaf) of paper. On this paper, in large, hand-written letters, is the description of the first ‘shot’; and as, every ten seconds, a new cut brings a new sheet to the growing stack on the table top, an imaginary filmic space unfolds – one that the viewer/read constructs out of the script. Divided into four sections or “tableaux” (each containing sixty ‘Shots’), the editing grammar to which the script alludes becomes progressively complex – referring to the reproductive capacity of the photographic medium to create an elaborate self-reflexive network. So that in Poetic Justice the procedures of montage move from the idea of fleshing out the simple space of narrative (“You are looking out a window”; “There is a blue jay on a branch,”) to the complex inversions of self-reference (involving descriptions of scenes followed by the ‘shot’ of someone holding a still “photo of the same scene”).

In Poetic Justice, the “cut” is abstracted insofar as it is rendered purely imaginary – an act of mental elision – while the camera stares unremittingly at an unchanging reality. In this way the film essentializes the psychological basis of dramatic continuity, as opposed to the purely optical basis of cinematic motion.

In a very real sense, the flicker film can be said to be the ultimate exercise in montage. Alternating pulsations of light and dark can be obtained by filmic strategies that differ from the construction of the flicker, ones that do not have to do with the separate shots of which Sharits’s films are composed. For example, a very rapid pan along a picket fence will produce a strobe-like exchange of light and dark (an effect that Godard produces in various ways in Alphaville in his shots of a revolving fan, for instance). However, the pan is an example of one continuous camera movement exploring space through a single, extended shot. The flicker film, on the other hand, produced by a single-frame technique not unlike that of animation, creates its affective reality under the composite conditions of montage.

The psychological correlative of montage is expectancy, the anticipation of change. (A woman stands in a room; the door opens, her expression changes; what does she see?) The mechanics of the psychological condition are what Sharits begins to explore – without, however, requiting them – in N:O:T:H:I:N:G and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G. In those films, certain narrative ‘events’ occur: in the former, as punctuations in the course of the flicker, making the cyclical (or mandala) structure of the film explicit (the image of a light bulb gradually fills with black and then, half-way through the film, the black begins to drain out of the object); in the latter, ‘events’ work as an emotional embodiment of the abstract condition of the montage.

In T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G two sets of recurrent images flash within the passages of colour-frames. One set involves the action/reaction aspect of the editing lexicon: a hand passes over the frontally posed face of a young man, leaving coloured tracks of scratches; the young man holds a scissors up to his extended tongue, seeming about to maim himself. The other set refers to the associative or metaphoric capacities of montage: a close-up of an eye being operated on creates a visual and emotive comparison between itself and a close-up of male and female genitals in the act of coitus. If this latter sets of images – violence to the eye and explicit sexuality – reminds viewers of a particular, earlier work within the history of film, the reference thus made is no accident. The Bunuel/Dali film Un Chien Andalou (1929) opens with an eye being slit and progresses towards images of both physical lust and violence. Within the canon of Surrealist Film Un Chien Andalou was an early statement of the intention to create a montage space out of unconscious reality rather than one tied to the parameters of external space. By driving the offices of montage inward, Surrealist Film is an early example of cinema’s exploration of the processes of association.

This mentalizing of the space of film is obviously the course that Frampton takes in Poetic Justice, and it is in part the course to which Sharits wishes to refer in T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G. I say “in part” because the Sharits film is a complex set of interlocking metaphors that are meant to combine to create a unified psychological field. The sexual imagery, with its roots in the unconscious, mirrors reciprocally the flicker material with its experiential basis in the involuntary network of physiological optics – the firing of retinal cells and the muscular movements of the eye. The film is once again a powerful statement of what it is like to be caught within the gears of that phenomenological machine of our experience; and, simultaneously, to have an analytic perspective upon it.

With the introduction, in the flicker films, of alternating passages of colour-field and photographic imagery, Sharits created for himself a situation in which the cinematic field oscillated between the abstract, luminous flatness of the ‘empty’ frames of colour (and the still emptier ones of after-image), and the aggressive three-dimensionality of the frames with objects. Trained originally as a painter and then as a graphic designer, Sharits is acutely aware of the problems in juxtaposing those two orders. In 1965 in a series of graph paper drawings of grids, he had experimented with the superimposition of three-dimensional objects (razor blades, hair) on the idealized and withdrawn order of the grid space. It is therefore not surprising that T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G would be followed by a work which turns its attention not to the simple juxtaposition of flatness and depth, or abstraction and documented reality, but to their synthesis.

S: TREAM : S : S ECTION : S ECTION : S : S :S ECTIONED (1970) is not a flicker film. It is instead a work that emerges from the grammar of superimposition. Each of the film’s three fourteen-minute sections is composed of the same ‘ground’ of visual imagery. This imagery is of moving water, shot from a rapidly flowing river, taken at differing focal lengths and screen directions. At the beginning of each section six of these shots are superimposed on one another, forming a self-cancelling depth, a network of moving current that criss-crosses itself into a flat, circular rhythm. As the film proceeds, five of the layers fade out in succession, leaving a single photographic image free to enforce its sense of palpable, physical depth.

However, by the time this has happened, the hollow of that photographic space has been partially countered by a set of marks that begin to block the viewer’s way to the image. Some four minutes into the beginning of the film three vertical scratches appear on the surface of the image. These scratch-marks, furrowing up the emulsive coating of the film, at first appear to stand in front of the image, like bars on a window. As each new three-part set is added (at regular three-minute intervals), one begins to realize that these scratches will gradually ‘erase’ the illusionistic matter that appears behind them. (Indeed, the film ends when the addition of one more set of scratches would entirely obliterate the image of the river-stream, wholly supplanting it by the stream of scratches.)

With this realization comes an enforced sense of the fact that the scratches are literally not in front of the recessive space of the water, but within it. For they have gouged off the light-sensitive surface of the film, exposing the flat band of celluloid which is the physical support for the image. The scratches expose a ground which is in that sense behind the image, fundamental to its very being. The photographic imagery which is itself oscillating (through the strategy of superimposition) between flatness and depth is progressively trapped or sandwiched between two other layers of flatness: the first, the image of the scratch which establishes the flatness of the screen; the second, the unveiling of the celluloid which establishes the flatness of the filmstrip, the physical object moving through the gate of the projector. For film, the world of experience – all photographic experience – is trapped between these two parallel flatnesses; and the dramatization of this fact is the basic subject of S: TREAM : S : S ECTION : S ECTION : S : S :S ECTIONED.

Soundstrip/Filmstrip, the work with which I began this discussion, follows logically from the concerns of S: TREAM : S : S ECTION : S ECTION : S : S :S ECTIONE… There, a photographic representation of three-dimensional space of the gallery through which the viewer circulates as she regards the film. In this move towards the inclusion of the real, physical environment, Sharits sandwiches not the images of water but the viewer’s actual experience between the parallel planes of screen and projector. It is in this direction which Sharits takes towards environmentalism that he breaks with most of the work of his peers in Structuralist Film. This attitude marks much of Sharits’s recent activity: the “location” film pieces” like Synchronousoundtracks (1973-74), Damaged Film Loop (1973-74) or Shutter Interface (1974-75). Because it characterizes the pieces installed within the present exhibition, a detailed discussion of the premises of this type of work will take up the next section of the catalogue. But this sketch of Sharits’s development would not be complete without stating the other way in which his work differentiates itself, in general, from that of his contemporaries.

Very simply, that difference is the depth of his commitment to abstraction. No matter how optically beautiful Sharits’s films might be, their intrinsic difficulty for most viewers lie in the (relative) absence of recognizable imagery in them. That Sharits has restricted himself to a loss of representation – as that is normally understood – and has understood the goals of representation to be instead an engagement with the display of the physical and optical codes of the film experience, is the sign of an abstract logic at work. That it works so powerfully, both conceptually and emotionally, is the sign of significant art.

Notes

1. The Bykert Gallery in New York City, in the fall of 1972. See my review of the work at that time “Paul Sharits/Stop Time,” Artforum 11 (Ap[ril 1973), pp. 60-61.

2. Noel Burch, “To the Distant Observer: Towards a Theory of Japanese Film,” October, no. 1 (Spring 1976), p. 36.

3. P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), p. 407.

4. See Sitney’s discussion of it in Ibid, pp. 412-423; and the analysis Annette Michelson gives it in “Toward Snow,” Artforum 9 (June 1971), pp. 30-37.

5. The Austrian filmmaker Peter Kubelka has created the first flicker film in 1960 (Arnulf Rainer) and in this country Tony Conrad had produced The Flicker in 1966, either concurrently with Ray Gun Virus or shortly before. Kubelka’s and Conrad’s films are wholly in black and white, whereas Sharits’s independent desire to explore the flicker came from his interest in colour and the notion, gained through his experience of the work of Godard, that one could develop film themes purely through the use of colour.

6. “Paul Sharits: Illusion and Object,” Artforum 10 (September 1971), p. 56.

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Hearing : Seeing by Paul Sharits (1976)

Originally published in: Ausgabe #2 Summer 1976, Film Culture #65-66, 1978 and Afterimage #7, 1978.

It is the middle of the year 1975, ten years after I began work on the film Ray Gun Virus, the first segment of my project of deconstructing cinema from a very particular frame of reference, a frame which is still not wholly defined. I had made films prior to 1965, but those works – sketches and some “imagistic,” haiku-like pieces involving actors/actresses and rather fragmented narratives – while c ritical of “cinematic illusionism” at a sort of Brechtian level, were not central to the more focused and intensive analyses of film which characterize the current project; to emphasize the irrelevancy of the early works, I destroyed them some years ao. This is not to say that concerns with narrativity were immediately dispensed with; there is a formalization of narrative structures in Ray Gun Virus (1966), Piece Mandala/End War (1966), Razor Blades (1965-68), N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968), T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G ,(1968) and, to a certain extent, STREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:SECTION:S:ECTIONED(1971), but that formalization is not a primary feature of these films in terms of the more radical “meaning building” they propose. I do not want to discuss these issues in this context because many of them have been dealt with elsewhere,1 and because there is one aspect of my involvement in film which has never been expressed, by others or by myself, upon which I would now like to make a few comments.

Speaking rather generally, one could claim that much of the critical writing about a group of independent films made in the middle 1960s and early 1970s (including my work), in establishing the importance of the qualities of “wholeness” in these films, underemphasize the specific articulations of their internal parts, implying, perhaps unintentionally, that the filmmakers were constructing strictly from the outside inwards. This emphasis on the works’ macrostructure did help clarify what some of the more general aesthetic strategies were in the making of these films but it also led to an underestimation of the importance of their qualities of inner complexity. My own published statements regarding my work also tend to be overly general (or, more questionable, some of the statements are so diaristic and impressionistic that they confound theory with emotive mania and a kind of cartoon romanticism). At my most reasonable, I have at best suggested only certain concerns – analysis, information documentation, problems of filmic representation and signification but have not indicated other concurrent involvements, such as the frame-by-frame ordering of images and sounds. I’ve approached this micro/morphological level of construction from a number of perspectives, including the logical and mathematical, but what I want to focus through here is a perspective which, for lack of a better term, I will call the “musical.”

While I was studying painting in the early 1960s – involved, naturally enough, with some of the prominent issues of “formalist” art – I was also making films, those which no longer exist. I stopped painting in the middle 1960s, but became more and more engaged with film, attempting to isolate and essentialize aspects of its representation. I had also become most intrigued with the differences between reading and listening, or, more inclusively, the larger discontinuities between seeing and hearing; film, sound film, appeared to be the most natural medium for testing what thresholds of relatedness might exist between these perceptual modes. In making films, I have always been more interested in speech patterns, music and temporal pulses in nature than in the visual arts for exemplary models of composition (perhaps because I had studied music as a child and had internalized musical forms of structuring). I do not wish to suggest that I was or am captivated by the notion of “synaesthesia” and I hope that what follows will be clearly distinguishable from such a notion. I am not proposing that there exists any direct correspondence between, say, a specific color and a specific sound, but that operational analogues can be constructed between ways of seeing and ways of hearing (and sometimes, when such structural analogies are composed, one can thereby experience those levels of ultimate difference between the two systems).

My early “flicker” films – wherein clusters of differentiated single frames of solid colour can appear to almost blend, or, each frame, insisting upon its discreteness, can appear to aggressively vibrate – are filled with attempts to allow vision to function in ways usually particular to hearing. In those films of 1965 to 1968, the matters of “psychological theme” and perceptual analysis of filmic information were part of a set which included regard for the way in which rapidly alternating colour frames can generate, in vision, horizontal-temporal ‘chords” (as well as the more expected “melodic lines” and “tonal centres”). The fades and lap dissolves of these films function not only as theoretic metaphors of “motion but also flow along with and into the more discretely differentiated frame sequences, acting as ‘active punctuation” for the “sentences” being visually enunciated.2

The sprocket soundtrack of Ray Gun Virus works towards establishing an accurate representation of technological modularity, framing – and thereby noting – the ultimate matrix of 16mm film’s capability for visual representation (there being one sprocket hole for each fame of image along the filmstrip). The even meter of sprocket sound is found mirrored in spoken word forms in some of my alter films. In these word-soundtrack works, linguistic meaning levels, which form a sort of horizontal commentary to the streams of vertical harmonic relationships with the flow of visual pulses, are both equally operable. Having brought sound(tracks) into his discussion, it is a good point to begin developing my basic thesis by posing a question: can there exist a visual analogy of that quality found in a complex aural tone, the mixture of a fundamental tone with its overtones?

One can think of paintings which by various means – resonation between colour-shapes, echoing forms, etc. – create such a sense; Matisse went so far as to explain the curved lines emanating from around his subject in his painting of 1914, Mlle. Yvonne Landsberg, as being overtonal. 3 But how can one film frame of solid colour possess such a quality? It cannot. Yet, a series of single frames of different colours, which creates “flicker,” can, depending upon the order and frequency of the tones, suggest such a quality; but, it can only suggest, because to truly stimulate the sense of overtones one must have several visual elements existing within the same space. This problem intrigued me from the days of my earliest studies with so-called “flicker,” it continued as a concern throughout my work and is still an element of consideration in my works-in-progress. While it is not a primary, formative consideration, it is a kind of subtext operating actively within the larger propositions I wish to make about cinema; the rest of this discussion will revolve around “overtonality.”

If painting can achieve effects of overtonality in the spatial frame, then why not just borrow from painting those methods and adapt them to the film frame? Aside from the comical hybridic rush such an approach would constitute (music to painting, painting to film), there were, for me, other objections. It was obvious that it was necessary to somehow divide the frame into “parts,” to introduce enough complexity into the instantaneous image so that overtones could be legibly generated. However, having taken certain “modernist” conventions rather seriously, I could not simply complicate the surface of my images in just any manner – was convinced that any such complexity, to have its “integrity,” would have to be generated through an attentiveness to the natural qualities-textures-images of film, in terms of the film’s material and filmic processes.

It occurred to me that one alternative to surface division might be to multiply the single screen and in the two-screen film Razor Blades, I attempted to create various levels of dialogue between the side-by-side screens, color and shape dialogues and agreements and conflicts between meanings. In the final section of T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, I wanted to visualize “inverse pain” as a kind of imploding reverberation of the picture edge – the screen appears to collapse, in rhythmic pulses, into itself. This latter mode – of introducing shapes into the frame which were reflective of the film frame’s perimeter shape and which acted as a commentary on the state of consciousness of the film’s protagonist at that point in the (backwards) “narrative” – struck me later as being somewhat too related to strategies of painting, as did other aspects of my films of that earlier period.

After 1968, I wanted to remove from my work all influences of painting; also, I wanted to remove from the work literary structures and dramatic psychological themes. In relation to the removals of painting and literary elements, colour rhythms which evoked or produced senses of emotionality also would be eliminated; more sophisticated levels of “feeling,” derived from intense contemplation of filmic realities, were to replace the earlier, less specifically filmic methods and images.

In STREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:SECTION:S:ECTIONED I finally came to use superimposition, as a way of attaining both “chordal depth” and the possibility of “counterpoint;” united with these “musical” motivations, there was the larger concern with the relationship of water’s directionalities and the flow of film through a projector. (By stressing the “musical” model, I am running the risk of oversimplifying other, more theoretical factors I the making of the films being discussed; it is hoped that the reader will recognize this and not jump to the conclusion that “musicality” is the primary intention behind the films.) The (emulsion) scratch, a very natural surface dividing actuality of cinema, became a prominent image generating method in S:S:S:S:S:S, referring always back to the vertical movement of the filmstrip downwards through the projector as well as serving as countermovement to the currents of the water images. Planes of water imagery interact with (white) textural planes composed of groupings of individual scratches.

The soundtrack, composed of superimposed layers of word loops – oscillating from high to low frequencies – functions on several levels in relation to the visual images, creating deeper “harmonic spaces.”

In later works where flat fields of film grains are enlarged – in Axiomatic Granularity, which is concerned with the fundamentals of image formation in/on emulsion, and in Apparent Motion, which deals with the basis of the filmic illusion of movement – undivided coherent surface are maintained, as in the “flicker” works, but, since the surfaces are particlized and appear to be “moving,” when they are superimposed over each other, harmonics, resonances and a sort of “overtonality” within the frame are possible.

Other works of the past few years are composed by rephotographing strips of “flicker” footage in a home-made system, wherein the projector element has no shutter blade or gripper arm and thereby allows the “subjects” – the “flicker” filmstrips – to be observed as continuous strips of film, with their sprocket holes visible, not only is there a natural horizontal and vertical division of the frame but there is also a possible laying of colour planes (when the strips are projected at a rapid speed and rephotographed, their differently coloured frames begin to blur into each other, forming whole images of shimmering colour bars and planes, several appearing at a time within the frame, some assuming dominance – like fundamental tones – while others pulse around/behind the dominants, as if they were their overtones.) The works which are make this way – such as the single-screen piece, Color Sound Frames, and the three-screen piece, Synchronoussoundtracks – are certainly more complex than I have described them: because their images “move” at varieties of speeds, contain superimpositions, have sound elements (sync soundtracks of the sprocket hole images’ rates of passage), etc., these factors also contribute to the films’ total “chordal fabrics.”

Something else having to do with “musicality” should perhaps be noted: all of the single screen films since S:S:S:S:S:S are made up of very definite and equally lengthed sections. (Inferential Current has three sections, Axiomatic Granularity and Color Sound Frames have four sections, Apparent Motion has two sections and each of the Analytical Studies series has from four to seven sections.) On one level, this sectioning has to do with a desire to create logical propositions and with an analytic desire to set up elements for comparison; on another level, this also indicates my interest in developing cinematic ideas in the form of “movements,” as in the sonata and/or other related musical forms.

The spatiality of music, the separation of instruments which determines the physical scale (width and depth) of a performed piece of music and which constitutes a compositional dimensionality beyond the simpler horizontal and vertical ordering of tones, is obviously something the single-screen film would have difficulty approximating, even if film could visually approximate all of music’s devices. However, if one had several screens to work with, arranged properly, one might be able to begin composing in ways at least related to the ways a composer might approach, say, a quartet: one screen could state a theme and another could answer it, elaborate upon it; the other screens could respond to this dialogue, vary it, analyze it, recapitulate it, etc.

There were numerous motivations for the work I began with multiple screen, installation pieces (“locations”); one of those motives was to approach the complexities of music’s spatial dimension. In the making of the first of these “locational” pieces, Sound Strip/Film Strip, I had in mind some of the forms I had come to admire in Beethoven’s late quartets. When several filmmaker friends previewed the piece with me, before its first public exhibition, one of them, Michael Snow, commented that the work reminded him of the Brandenburg Concertos. Beethoven or Bach, either way, it was gratifying to me that my sense of the work’s “musicality” was not a singularly personal delusion.

I have only sketched out, rather briefly and generally, some of those factors in my work which have to do with their internal structures. I’ve pursued one of many possible models – the “musical” – in discussing this inner level of construction and have made a few comments on the general impact that musical form has had upon my work of the past ten years. A detailed account of what I have only mentioned would necessitate specific examples accompanied by colour reproductions of the films’ scores and clips from the films; the magnitude of such a task is clearly beyond the scope of this set of introductory remarks. I hope that I have given at least some access to a part of my work which has otherwise remained undiscussed.

Notes

1. Chronologically: Regina Cornwell, “Paul Sharits: Between Illusion and Object,” Artforum (September 1971); Rosalind Krauss, “Paul Sharits: Stop Time,” Artforum (April 1973); P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film (N.Y., Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 423-427; Annette Michelson, “Paul Sharits and the Critique of Illusionism: An Introduction,” Projected Images (Minneapolis, Walker Art Centre, Exhibition Catalogue, 1974).

2. My notions concerning the relationships of film construction and signification to linguistics are not central to the present discussion but I do want to at least make some allusion to them in referring to a string of film frames as a “sentence.”

3. Frank Trapp, “Form and Symbol in the art of Matisse,” Arts Magazine, Vol. 49, No. 9 (May 1975), p. 57.

4. In 1929 Sergei Eisenstein enthusiastically proposed a visual (“montage”) model of the aural overtone. I am in general agreement with his concepts but have developed my own model from an essentially different set of circumstances and suggest that interested readers who wish to make their comparisons see “The Filmic Fourth Dimension,” Film Form and The Film Sense (Cleveland, World Publishing Co., 1963), pp. 64-71 (FT).

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An Interview with Paul Sharits by Linda Cathcart (1976)

(Paul Sharits: Dream Displacement and Other Projects, exhibition catalogue, Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 1976)

Linda Cathcart: Where does the title Dream Displacement come from?

Paul Sharits: From Freud’s discussions of dreams. I fall into reading various things at various times. Then they move into the work or the work moves through them. It’s often blurred as to which came first. For a while I was very interested in structuralist and phenomenological writings and linguistics, but more recently I’m rereading Freud. It seems that (the film installation) Dream Displacement is acting as a way of getting at some sort of forgotten dream image. I feel like I’ve displaced some significant data and I’m trying to locate it or at least recapture the mood through a particular combination of sound and image.

Linda: Can you talk more specifically about those emotions or experiences you are after in Dream Displacement?

Paul: I can’t really say. I know it is composed of a couple of different emotions superimposed, and the sense of it, which I’m trying to get at, is one whole feeling but the only way I can express it is to pull it apart – a bit like classical montage – so that the collision of the sound and the image starts to suggest something whole. However, it is not going to ever be the emotion – it’s not going to ever have that kind of actual and total wholeness.

One thing that is happening in Dream Displacement is a conflict between sound and image. They seem on the surface to be somewhat disrelated. It’s almost as though the film frames within each screen image are going against each other which is more coherent than the sound which is that of glasses breaking and yet that image is more distant than the sound of glass breaking.

Linda: This work, which consists of four loop projectors and a quadraphonic sound system, is enclosed in a single room – the four loops are projected as a single image. Does this filmic expression relate to Freud’s discussions of the compaction of experience in our dreams?

Paul: Yes, I want to create intensified places. In a single-screen film you can only build up to a point or develop themes or crisscross them and so forth whereas I’d like the space itself to have a feeling of being ritualized. If you go into a movie theatre everything else is gone – you just move off into that other space – you go right out the window. I want to keep within that real space. I want the space to be a place – a whole place.

Linda: Is that desire for wholeness at odds with the notion of displacement? For example, there is a lack of visual sources for the sounds in Dream Displacement.

Paul: In traditional film there is always the image as a visual source for the sound. In these “locational” works (Dream Displacement and Shutter Interface) it seems almost by accident that the sounds and images happen to be in the same space. I have the feeling that the relationships they have is part of a distant feeling or memory. The general psychiatric definition of displacement is the transference of an emotion to a socially inappropriate object. I do that quite a lot. I take an emotion and try to transpose it onto a set of illogical objects or experiences. Behind them is some emotion or some cross of an emotion and an image. I have to take hints or work intuitively because how could I approach that layer of my feeling or memory by doing something logical? If I do something logical it’s never going to lead me there.

Linda: There is in Dream Displacement and Shutter Interface (as with your other locational or multi-screen pieces) an assertion of the physicality not only of your medium but of the images and sounds you use, as well.

Paul: I want the films to have a physical presence and there is also a kind of physical adjustment I want to get between the sound and the image. It’s not any rational measure or anything – I’ve just got to figure out how to get it to be the right balance so that one is constantly threatening the other. One element threatens with violence, the other with beauty.

Linda: In Dream Displacement the sound works to emphasize the circularity of the film which is on loops. Having a speaker in each corner allows the sound to go around the room. Also the noise itself has a circular quality. Throwing the glasses by hand is almost a circular gesture one can hear – lifting, dropping, lifting, dropping.

Paul: I wanted a certain kind of rhythm. It was interesting shooting the tests for the film. I kept finding it was too fast; I had to keep slowing it down. The sound has to be slow too – the rhythm couldn’t be staccato, it would destroy the whole mood I want to set up. I used a quadraphonic sound system so the spatial locations of the crashes shift from one speaker to the next without any apparent pattern.

Linda: It occurs to me that as one approaches the projection location, one is able to hear the sound before one can see the images.

Paul: I never really thought of it that way – I like it though – it stresses the importance of the sound. Rather than it being a backdrop or a postscript, the sound becomes the first holistic image of the piece. I want people to have to walk into the space and past the projectors (which are free-standing and exposed to view) to get to the visual image – by the time they do that the sound is going to be all-pervasive.

Linda: The sound/image relationship seems to be quite a bit different in Shutter Interface – do you agree?

Paul: I certainly do agree. For Shutter Interface I wanted a sound rhythm and a visual rhythm that would have something to do with high-amplitude alpha waves. I think that’s why it’s such a pleasant film. I did some biofeedback to listen to the sound of my alpha rhythm and I tried to approximate it in the piece. I wanted that sound to fit with the flicker and it does exactly. Every series of frames of colour – which are each from two to eight frames long – is separated by one black frame and the sound is in direct correspondence to those black frames. The black frames are like little punctuation points.

Linda: Shutter Interface seems to very straight forward because the sound/image relationships are less complex and subtle than those in Dream Displacement, which seems closer in feeling to perhaps, S: TREAM : S : S ECTION : S ECTION : S : S :S ECTIONED, where your realization of the levels of meaning involved is slower. Do you feel there are those differences?

Paul: Yes, I think that’s true. I kind of drift back and forth between wanting to express what I know about my medium in a kind of grand form and, on the other hand, wanting to create a problem for myself which throws me into another mood. My work has been back and forth between these two polarities through the years: on the one hand I attempt to be declarative and, on the other hand, I’m generating questions which have no apparent ready-made answers. The films sometimes seem rather “pure’ and sometimes they appear somewhat violent, psychologically and even physically; often these aspects get mixed up as in T,O,U,C,H.I,N,G where they kind of mesh. Also, I’ve always been interested in the differences between sound and visual image – I’ve usually rejected associative relations between sight and sound – for instance where sounds create images or where an image is obviously the source of its sound. That bores me.

Now the sound in Shutter Interface does have a very direct relationship to the visual aspect. The sound is only where there are black frames. There is this constant field of colour punctuated by these black frames that you can’t really see – this is where I chose to put the sound and that creates a firm relationship. You can’t directly observe this relationship but you feel it. It is so smooth an experience you don’t ask why it works. You don’t question it. But, if I’d chosen yellow frames and associated sound with them, the whole thing would have been too obvious. I think there is a little bit of a mystery as to why the piece works as it does.

Linda: is what we’ve been referring to as relationships (between colours and sounds) really some sort of perceptual dialogue?

Paul: I would say, in general, that a lot of the work deals with perceptual thresholds. It brings us to the limits of our perceptual abilities so that often one cannot tell whether or not what one is experiencing is in the work or in oneself. So I think there is a kind of a dialogue between the viewer and the work in the sense that there’s a perception that’s a kind of outcome of both of them interacting. A great deal of perceptual confusions and actual misperceptions can occur at such levels.

Linda: Maybe dialogue is the wrong word, maybe orchestrated is a better word.

Paul: Well, yes. Shutter Interface is a kind of a quartet. Physically the way the screen s overlap creates three overlapped areas that are actually physically involved in a pulsating dialectic. The four screen images are fluctuating, sometimes they’re acting in unison, sometimes they’re having a kind of argument – going off in different directions. So there’s a kind of flux or drifting between continuity and various kinds of discontinuity. The whole idea of dialogue or, more generally speaking, dialectic, is operating.

Linda: Many of the things you do seem to test the qualities of time. These new installation pieces are a little bit reminiscent of your earlier flicker films where time is not of interest because they are continuous projections. The new works, because of their circularity, allow you to feel you can come into the projection space and stay there however long you want. You don’t feel like you may have missed something by coming in in the middle. There seems to be a way of getting into the experience sideways and not having to worry about beginning, middle and ending.

Paul: I agree. There is a quality that is very typical of dramatic narrative film: it’s a kind of temporal anxiety. You just want to sit through Gone with the Wind again and again and again. I’ve had that feeling many times watching a film I particularly enjoyed – a dramatic narrative film – that I didn’t want it to end. I wish it would stay at a particular moment and just do variations of itself.

Linda: So that’s what your films do!

Paul: Yeah. I prefer to have this sort of operatic situation where the scale and the volume of the space you’re in becomes significant. It’s more non-linear, non-temporal – not without time but not dependent on the flow of time.

Linda: Have you been influenced by mathematical or frequency theories of time?

Paul: I’ve been very concerned with relativistic ideas about time. Some of my work seems to be metric, repetitive, and even, but actually there’s a lot of internal variation which is testing one’s ability to realize that there is variation. Making these films I use a polytemporal scale so the time measure is always shifting slightly. It’s like stretching part of a tape measure and contracting another part of it a little bit.

Linda: These temporal shifts are heightened by your use of unexpected elements. In N:O:T:H:I:N:G there is the sudden appearance of a light bulb.

Paul: That film also has unexpected sounds – like milk pouring into a glass and cows mooing at the end. There are a series of relationships but they are not linear. In N:O:T:H:I:N:G I was particularly interested in having the light bulbs occur between long colour flicker intervals. The images of the bulb are all metrically spaced but the colour intervals between them are so long that I don’t believe anyone could have the feeling that in the next two seconds they’re going to see an image again; they come as a surprise almost. You get to the point where you almost forget the whole development which is going on and then there is an image which reminds you again of the chain of logic (or illogic) which is very gradually being enunciated at the level of referentiality. They are markers – real metric markers – markers of time. But they are markers which you are experientially unable to relate to rhythmically.

Linda: Is that kind of abstract linearity (in Shutter Interface and Dream Displacement) somehow connected with horizontality for you?

Paul: I seem to be drawn to a horizontal way of doing things… It always seems painting that are mythic are horizontal. Very horizontal paintings seem to take a series of time layers and symbolically hold them all together on the same level. Verticality, to me, has an entirely different feeling, one which borders on being non-corporeally representational.

Linda: Maybe it’s that surface you relate to rather than the shape?

Paul: Maybe. My recent work, Epileptic Seizure Comparison, moves towards being vertical, since one of the two image projections is above the other. The usual 16mm format is a 3’ by 4’ horizontal rectangle but when one screen image is projected above another – “stacked” as it were – the screen area becomes a 6’ by 4’ vertical rectangle. But even in this work, I use mirrored walls so the film flashes out laterally (along the sides of the reflective-metallic enclosure). I wanted the sides to function so you couldn’t quite see the films’ images reflected on them but you’d still be aware of the surface. Most of my films set up an experiential field wherein the film is not constantly imposing itself on you yet has enough consistency that you can “move through” yourself rather than just follow the development of the film. All the films have a little bit to do with meditation. These locational works becomes the ultimate field for that kind of contemplative reflection. It becomes like watching fireflies or water flowing over a dam – something that’s moving. A fire or a candle flame – it’s shifting – but it doesn’t change its form dramatically

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My painting (& film) for Galerie A by Paul Sharits

I should try to clarify what relationships exist between my work in film and in painting/sculpture.

Painting and filming were familiar to me as a child. I drew a lot and I was fascinated by my uncle Philip Romeo’s paintings; for nearly eight years I studied classical trumpet with him, and the musical structures which became embedded in my consciousness are important in my filmmaking. My uncle and godfather, Argelio Romeo, was the family’s 16mm chronicle. He gave me my first movie camera and a lot of out-of-date film, and I made my first “psychodramatic” films, films dealing largely with sexual themes, loneliness, anxiety, fear. I’ve always been pulled in two presumably different directions, in both my films and painting activity: towards the formal (musical) world of abstraction and towards the psychological/emotional world of figuration; in some works the two poles coexist but in others I’ve consciously tried to obliterate/deny one or the other. Traditionally, an artist is supposed to work basically in one media and stick to one set of concepts/techniques, and develop a cohesive body of work. However, my own inclination has been to deal with both temporal and spatial forms, emotional and formal impulses, two and three dimensions, delight (light) and gross (heavy) feelings. I have been attracted equally to abstract, surrealist, Futurist, Expressionist, Dadaist and neo-Dadaist kinds of art. But it is always with some struggle –often great anxiety- that I allow/force myself to move through the multiple contradictions which compose the field of “my world”; it actually sounds rather melodramatic: “pain and joy”, “laughter and tears,” etc. Nevertheless I am compelled to at least try to make works which come from this often perplexing jungle of fear, ambiguity, rational and irrational structures, despair, humor. I should point out that what most people regard as my severe “abstract” films, I often find full of humor and in my presumably “abstract” paintings I believe I have encoded layers of anxiety. I really do find it very difficult to draw definite lines about/around anything.

At “J-D” High School, I painted in a rebellious way, trying to be “sloppy” = man/woman = Pollock. I was very naïve then, without awareness of art history. I was interested in abstraction, though uncle Philip was against it, just as he was against me playing jazz. I purchased my first real art book about El Greco. I was mostly getting into surrealism and magic realism and uninterested in “art of the past” but something in El Greco’s work really grabbed me (I still have the book and still love the work). Totally fanatic about art, the world of art, and being an artist (which I objected to only a few years back for being for mostly old squares, straight, intellectuals, sissies). But there I was, my life totally transformed, by painting. And I had already been making little 8mm “psychodramas” with my pal Dicky Lucero, using his mother’s home-movie camera. Dicky acted and I shot: he was always a loner and sexually frustrated and there were some “weird,” “dreamy” scenes and “strange symbols” and so forth. Dicky always complained that I cut too rapidly. We decided we would become “beatniks” and I started hanging around coffee shops (including the one which launched Judy Collins’ career). All that seemed “groovy,” “cool,” while painting still remained ignored (except that I tried, in oils, to emulate my uncle Phil’s mountain scenes, and still lifes, always having difficulties with water, skies, glass and what to do with backgrounds. I have no idea if any of these very naïve works still exist.

Contrary to my parent’s idea that I should become a dentist, my idea was to get out of the boredom of school and drive trucks. Dynamite trucks over the Continental Divide in winter seemed the most macho possibility. I managed to graduate from high school, taking art classes my last semester, and was introduced to a whole new world. Suddenly I found myself a now-willing student, studying painting and sculpture at the University of Denver. In a night summer school class at the university, the painter Jack Canepa opened the doors to abstract art. “Abstract expressionism” was big then, though I didn’t care much for Pollock – such an irony since later I came to regard him as the Greatest. I loved De Kooning and actually tried to “copy” his brushstrokes and compositional structures.

I Studied all the 20th century isms and emulated directions, if not direct styles. There was Mondrian and Malevich – texture and collage. I became obsessed by change, shape, color light shifts from different viewing points, textural fields using metallic sprays, and splattering metallics with oil paint and commercial enamels. I also made abstract sculpture but was always more drawn to painting, color, color, color. First experiments in abstract films, using color lights and then interposing “blank solid” images – but still mostly entranced by “structuralized” narrative. I regularly started seeing Bergman, Antonioni and so on, then saw Bunuel’s first surrealist movie Un Chien Andalou. I learned about “underground films” and started the Denver Experimental Film Society in order to see these “oddities,” and classics from the Museum of Modern Art Collection

Then I saw Christo’s wrapped motorcycle and thought I would never get to that level of “concise thoughtfulness” and decided to drop painting and help “save the world” by becoming an industrial designer. But almost immediately started doing un-straight graphic “design,” painting small editions of books somewhat related to “concrete poetry.” Dr. Elbert Elsen’s courses on contemporary art history pulled me back toward painting.

Halfway through grad studies there was a Big Emotional Crisis, perhaps related to my mother’s suicide and the new pressure of being a parent and having to face an unsure future (What I would do? I’d given up being a painter and a designer and all I was really interested in was a very unnatural kind of filmmaking (very expensive and financial unrewarding). Stopped work on Illumination, Accident, began Ray Gun Virus and graph drawings.

Insert A

it was in those years at the university of Denver that I first saw and immediately recognized the importance and was probably influenced by the work of Stan Brakhage. I was knocked out by Dog Star Man. I wrote him once that he was the Cezanne of film and I believe that now. Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art became a bible and I studied his work closely. Also the works of Johns and Rauschenberg. I studied philosophy and was told by a theologian that I should enter that field. But I had just decided that I was no longer a Catholic. I briefly went to a Unitarian Church where I had the first screening of the Denver Experimental Film Society: Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of The Pleasure Dome. Then “went” zen. Through Dr. Elsen’s course I came to adore a multitude of late 19th and 20 century artists: naturally Matisse, but more immediately influential was Duchamp. I was very moved by Munch, van Gogh, Ensor and some German Expressionists. I made a long compassionate comparison of De Chirico’s work in relation to Resnais/Robbe-Grillet’s Last Year in Marienbad. I read all Robbe-Grillet novels along with a lot of William Burroughs and Wittgenstein.

I felt like committing suicide but decided that if I presented as if “I” had already died, then I could do whatever I wished, in film. I put aside the movie Illumination, Accident which had gotten so complex I couldn’t remember what it was supposed to be “about.” (It had to do with the break-up of a couple variously related to automobile accidents and ideas coming from reading Burroughs and Robbe-Grillet).

The photographer Henri Holmes Smith allowed me to make films in his photography courses and helped me pull together my essay on Godard’s first two color (and color-structured) films. He will never forgive me for abandoning Illumination, Accident – he believed in the footage, the ideas. He gave me money to be able to keep working on it; he, and the Kinsey Institute, helped me recover some “erotic” footage which a lab had seized. But, for me, the thing was disappointing and an albatross. I had to let it go (later, I burned the footage in my fireplace, along with other quasi-narrative works I had done). I was then free to make a film without actors, and without any images. Yet it had a theme (a sort of movement of consciousness towards and through “mental suicide” to rebirth) and this theme was the basis for its color structure (which is “all” there is to see – aside from some interest in the grain of film emulsion, visible splices and other “self referential” images). RAY GUN VIRUS (a titled obviously influenced by Burroughs) was my death/birth; it’s the first of my mature film works, and a base which I continually return to, in various ways. In fact, my work in progress, an “abstract (pure color) narrative” PASS ON, more or less takes up where RAY GUN VIRUS “ends.” Once again it features a flow of consciousness through chronological experience, though its form is totally open and it has no ending.

Insert B

The “graph” drawings. A brief return to the world of painting. Just as I (the new “I”) had decided that film frames could be the subject of films, I likewise thought that the graph lines on graph paper could be their own subject. This series began as ways to emphasize the graphness of graph paper. The square modular reality of graph paper is related to the modular rectangles of film strips – (later, most of my films were planned/scored with color ink coding on/in graph paper). However, when I saw my first Agnes Martin paintings (in an exhibit in the Indiana N. Gallery) I was very shocked. It recalled the “Christo crisis” and after trying to “graph” various items such as hair, glitter, tinsel, razor blades, etc. I gave up the series and concentrated only on filmmaking.

Discovery of Fluxus (The Avant-garde Institute of Hinduism). This related to the sort of humor involved in “graphing” hair and to the books and experimental graphic/word-play things I was doing. I started making Fluxus items and even a Fluxus film, WORD MOVIE (Fluxfilm 29). At last, there was an outlet (“form”/ “container”) for my sort of humor! Sometimes this humor is rather black and or self-mocking, but often I find others are unaware of things in my films that I find particularly funny. (Two major exceptions are Brakhage and Hollis Frampton, who seem to get it all).

My world is the visual world. I gained a new preoccupation with paintings of eyes and damaged/diseased eyes. Just before my swing towards abstract painting in 1960, I remember working on a corny “surrealist” oil painting prominently featuring an eyeball in a “strange” environment. Odd that Freud, who developed interesting theories of eyes symbolism, had eye troubles; odd that I was though to have been blinded by very rough treatment by the army doctor who forced me from my mother’s womb. For the first several weeks after my birth, my black and blue eyes were swollen shut (little scars remain near both eyes). I’m filled with horror and fear whenever I see a blind person.

“On painting”

I would like to keep my career in painting separate from that in film for aesthetic reasons and also to diminish the inevitable comparison between them. They are two different mediums, polar opposites. Although I admit to having thought of film largely in terms of current problems of painting, and have made films which aspire to some of the pictorial viewing conditions of paintings. I even presented frozen film frames as static, all-at-once painting-like pieces. On the other hand, I have been attracted to make paintings which challenge physical stasis by using reflective materials, so that paintings actually change from different angles and under different light conditions.

Film turns its back on all traditions at a certain point. It remains defiantly and very consciously on its own turf (or so I thought at the time). I did develop new forms and perceptions on what film could be

Painting comes from a desire simply to make good work, to engage enough of the self to be personally challenging without having to define new terrains. I fluctuated between figuration and abstraction. One’s mind, while “segmentable,” is one unit, more or less, so it’s inevitable that whatever one thinks/does will have relationships. The way into painting was long and frightening, and undertaken with extreme modesty and an attention towards recent traditions. I idolized painting, the highest and most progressed form apart from film. The colour coded symbolisms eachshared, the attention to picture form as opposed to purely functioning temporal codes.

In “Striped” I wanted to challenge certain aspects of proper formalist painting –totally flat painting application, its serious look (as my wiggly, tooth pastry 3d lines, which in repeat allude to plane sand vague shapes but, at first, adhered to non-figuration, with an emphasis on opticality/colorism (versus concerns of sculpture) non-relational composition/and general effect over-allness. While pigment gives it a third dimension (like a cartoon), the “picture” remains very flat.

To dwell upon the obvious, simply to indicate the most basic level of difference. The art of films form usually must be held in our minds in memory, or in re-viewing (a marvelous passage of one image succeeding one another and building in time and gestalt meaning (montage); a deliciously appropriate camera movement, connecting one segment of space or image to another. A temporal model of relations and change.

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Apparent Motion and Film Structure: Paul Sharits’s Shutter Interface by Stuart Liebman (1978)

(Millennium Film Journal Vol. 1 No. 2, New York, 1978)

Legend has it that Max Wertheimer, the influential cognitive psychologist, first became interested in the phenomenon of apparent motion while contemplating the physiological and psychological conditions of the cinema. The story may be apocryphal, but it highlights film’s value as a medium through which the very foundations of our perception may be isolated and reflected upon. The story also underscores a fact that often passes unmentioned in most discourse on cinema. Simply stated, what is generally identified as film – the illusion of a coherent, “realistic” world in motion – is, in truth, a complex but fragile perceptual construct. Such illusions are dependent upon a precise co-ordination of various cognitive processes acting upon specific features in the visual display. If one or more of these conditions is not present, the basic representational system of cinema is put into jeopardy. The ability to produce a familiar Renaissance space and a progressive, “objective” temporality – the essences of that system’s pictorial conventions – are threatened. It is from this perspective that one must view attempt by filmmakers committed to such representational systems to reduce if not, indeed, to suppress any reminders of the perceptual and intellective acts that constitute their works.

These perceptual mechanisms, however, have been pushed to the centre of the concerns of formally advanced filmmakers during the past dozen years. By analytically interrogating the material conditions of cinema, “Structural” and “Structuralist” film artists have generated novel film forms which restore certain modes of cognitive experience to us with an intensity and comprehensiveness unavailable in other arts. Their films have made the active exercise of our cognitive facilities into a criterion of value. In their various ways, they have focused on and partially realized Brakhage’s prophetic project for a cinema that would be a continual adventure of perception.

In what has come to be called their “critique of filmic illusionism: in which the representational mechanics of conventional cinema are dismantled and reassembled,” Wertheimer must be regarded as a seminal, if largely unacknowledged figure. Knowing or inadvertently, this generation of filmmakers has used concepts he developed more than 65 years ago to rehearse the “crisis of representation” which they, like other modernist artists, have accepted as an essential part of their aesthetic statements. Wertheimer’s investigations into the conditions of apparent motion perception and of figural coherence in a succession of stimuli, respectively published in 1912 and 1923,2 forecast the terms in which the basic illusions of dominant film culture have come to be explored. At the centre of the anti-illusionist concern which has energized much of the best conceptual and formal innovation in cinema since the mid-1960s, lies the exploration of the apparent motion phenomenon that Wertheimer was the first to investigate systematically.

Apparent motion is the name given to the peculiar capacity of our eye and brain to generate perceptions of movement from a sequence of static figures. Wertheimer’s now class experiments conducted in 1912 tested the threshold of its appearance and defined the character of its principal forms. By successively illuminating various series of discrete, static figures, Wertheimer was able to generate and dissipate a perception of motion. His results led him to postulate three principle types of illusory movement which he called “partial,” “phi” and “beta” motion. The distinctions must be maintained because each form has an importantly different phenomenological character. Properly speaking, partial motions lie on the threshold of apparent motion. They appear as a kind of visual stutter as the first illuminated flash seems to move part way across the screen toward the second flash which is momentarily displaced from its location before continuing to move toward the terminal point.

The distinction between phi and beta movement is especially important for phi motion (also known as the “phi phenomenon”) is sometimes misleadingly used for both types of true illusory motion. As Paul Kolers has remarked: “Phi motion correctly refers only to global ‘figureless’ or rapid ‘objectless’ apparent motion, analogous to the very rapid passage of a real object across the field of view too quickly for its contours to be made out.”3

Phi movement thus appears as a kind of oscillating transport of light. Beta motion (synonymous with “optimal motion”), however, appears as the smooth transformation of a well-defined object traveling continuously from one location to another. To continue the metaphor offered above, beta motion is analogous to the slow passage of a real object across the field of view.

Only when the conditions for beta – not phi – motion exist, Wertheimer believed, do real and illusory motion become functionally equivalent. Beta motion, however, is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for “normal” cinematic representation.4 The illusion of seeing complex figures moving through space emerges only when various further conditions are imposed on the successively illuminated displays. Wertheimer again did pioneering work in this 1923 monograph on rules governing closure and coherence of figures as they evolved in time and space.5 In brief summary, he postulated that seeing a recognizable shape evolve coherently in time (and, by extension, through space) occurs when, within the total field of successive stimuli, the number of similar shapes is maximized. Furthermore, the temporal interval separating the slightly discrepant shapes should be minimized. If the whole figures formed out of these clusters of stimuli are relatively simpler than other competing alternatives, then the figure will remain stable. Translated into film terms, once the ordering of the phases of action captured in the single film frames approaches the sequence of the profilmic event, and the figural construction is aligned with the smooth, fluid pulse of beta motion, then the illusion of an object moving in a coherent space and time is created.6 Illusionist cinema – including most documentary and many avant garde films as well as the fictional forms of the mass entertainment industry – has reified and privileged such images as a normative representation of the process of vision.

Such illusionistic forms, of course, are neither comprehensive representations of how or of what we see. For those filmmakers seeking to undermine the authority of such conventions, an attack on beta motion on which all other conditions of cinematic illusionism depends has been a logical starting point. Four major types of challenges aimed at this vulnerable point can be distinguished. (Obviously, there are many films which use more than one strategy, and other devices with similar effect can be readily imagined. The scheme presented is admittedly only a rough taxonomy.) First, there are films which principally attempt to undermine the existential authority of the represented event or of the illusory spatial depth represented in the filmic image. While “distancing” the illusionistic footage by using film loops or otherwise obviously manipulated cycling of shots (i.e. repetition with various degrees of elision), films such as Landow’s Bardo Follies (1967) or LeGrice’s Berlin Horse (1970) also stress the formal qualities of motion. Beta motion is no longer relegated to begin the transparent carrier of meaningful actions. Rather, it is emphasized as an active creator of filmic effects.

In a second group of films, the investigation of apparent motion is more central. By rapidly moving the camera (as in Gehr’s Field, 1970) or, more directly, by removing the shutter mechanism from either the camera, printer or projector (as in LeGrice’s Little Dog for Roger, 1967), such films create visual blurs which allude to phi motion effects as well as underscore the illusion’s dependence on a complex of regulatory mechanisms: the camera, projector, etc.

In a third group of films, pixilation, various animation techniques and rapid editing procedures are used to explore the threshold between beta and phi motion. In Robert Breer’s Recreation 1 (1956) or the Heins’ Work in Progress (Part 6, Reel A, 1969), bursts of imagery, often only one to several frames in duration, subscribe only intermittently to the figural conditions of illusionistic representation. When such conditions obtain, beta motion buttresses the spatio-temporal illusions. Otherwise, the flickering optical vibrations of phi motion appear. Gehr’s Serene Velocity (1970) is exemplary in this regard, for as the differences in zoom position increase throughout the work, the initial beta motion effects are gradually modulated through stuttering partial motions. 7

Lastly, there is a substantial number of films which explore the parameters of partial and phi motion. The flicker film format is adopted most often. Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer (1960) is a well known early example of this genre. Tony Conrad and, more recently, Vicki Z. Peterson in the United States, are other artists who have worked in this form. Though photographic images or frames with variegated surface patterns may be included, flicker films usually exclusively employ varying combinations of flat chromatic or black and white frames. The reduction to the most abstract, basic materials of cinema, the simple whole frames that are the infrastructure of any film, signals the genre’s allegiance to the tenets of formal modernism. A familiar series of consequences and strategies ensure from this commitment. Projected, the flickering frames acknowledge the flatness and the rectangular boundaries of the screen. Though the rapidity at which the frames pass and the differing articulations of colour stimulate after-images that may coalesce into virtual forms (modified by the individual spectator’s attention and associations), reference to objects or events external to the system is radically reduced if not entirely eliminated. Most importantly for our present concerns, the flicker, more than any other imaginative form exploring apparent motion, affirms, the kinetic effects of the phi phenomenon as the epistemological ground for all motion perception in cinema. Released from any representational burden, the films can concentrate on the production and dissipation of extraordinary kinetic effects out of the oscillating shifts of coloured light. Watching flicker films, one must share Wertheimer’s great excitement as he contemplated his ambitious project to survey and elaborate the originary perceptual mechanisms underlying the cinema.

Because of the duration of his commitment to the colour flicker format and the significance of his achievements working with it, Paul Sharits has become the most resourceful and articulate exponent of this film genre. With only a few prominent exceptions, his work has been based in what might at first appear to be a rather limited mode. Anyone assessing Sharits’s oeuvre from Razor Blades (1965-68) through N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968) and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968) to his masterworks Soundstrip/Filmstrip (1971) and Colour Sound Frames (1974), however, must be impressed by the incredible variety and complexity of forms he can construct by modulating the organization of coloured frames. 8 Inserted in a matrix of other filmic elements – sprocket holes, frame lines, etc. – or presented in its “pure state,” the flicker based form seems to become an infinitely extensible combinatory system whose initial premises, once accepted, are capable, like mathematics, 9 of generating an endless variety of Utopian structures.

Despite variations in stress and structure, all his films, related drawings and “frozen film frame” works are unified by their concentration on uniquely filmic process and/or materials. This inherently modernist attempt to determine and use only the basic features of the medium has been characteristic of his concerns from their earliest incarnation. His explanatory statement prepared for the Fourth International Experimental Film Festival at Knokke-Le-Zoute remains a comprehensive summary of his aims.

“I wish to abandon imitation and illusion and enter directly into the higher drama of: celluloid, two dimensional strips; individual rectangular frames; the nature of sprockets and emulsion; projector operations; the three dimensional light beam; environmental illumination; the two dimensional reflective screen surface; the retinal screen; optic nerve and individual psycho-physical subjectivities of consciousness. In this cinematic drama, light is energy rather than a tool for the representation of non-filmic objects; light as energy, is released to create its own objects, shapes and textures. Given the fact of retinal inertia and the flickering shutter mechanism of film projection, one may generate virtual forms, create actual motion (rather than illustrate it), build actual colour-space (rather than picture it), and be involved in actual time (immediate presence). 10

Despite Sharits’s dedication to modernist principles, however, his films are never bluntly didactic. Though comprehensively and systematically organized by an abstract schema drawn up in advance, 11 his films cannot be reduced to a mere rendering of the formal procedures constituting the work. Experiencing their sensual complexity remains an integral part of the films’ statements. His cinema is ultimately less committed to an analytic reflection on the materials, filmic processes and psychological conditions of the medium than they are to celebrate the intricacy and variety of their combinations and consequences. To paraphrase Roland Barthes’ characterization of the ancient soothsayer: Sharits is content to speak the locus of filmic meaning but will not name it. 12

In 1970, if not before, Sharits proposed to expand his film works beyond the confines of the conventional projection circumstances. “It may be that by ‘limiting’ oneself to a passionate definition of an elemental, primary cinema, one may find it necessary to construct systems involving either no projector at all or more than one projector and more than one flat screen.” 13

Anticipated by the two-screen version of Razor Blades, Sharits has pursued this suggestion in a series of what he calls “locational” pieces. These multi-screen works set up for continuous play in art galleries and museums permit him to explore the psychological and material foundations of his art at a scale and with an intensity that the single screen format cannot offer. The scale of installation is particularly important for Shutter Interface (1975), Sharits’ most recent locational piece to be seen in New York City (at the Droll/Kolbert Gallery during December, 1977). The enormous breadth of its four overlapping screens amplifies the dynamic energy of the lateral phi and partial motions on which the work concentrates.

Initially, at least, Shutter Interface might be characterized negatively with respect to the locational pieces which preceded it. The complex pictorial vocabulary of sprocket holes, emulsion scratches and blurring film strips which were an integral part of Soundstrip/Filmstrip and SYNCHRONOUSSOUNDTRACKS (1973-4) has been eliminated. Gone too is the co-ordination of the screens to resemble an enlarged film strip lying horizontally. 14 In its place is a series of rectangular screens of different sizes that is less recognizably a reflexive metaphor for the film strips running through the projectors.

As in his other installation pieces, one enters a gallery space in which the films play continuously. The entire room seems to pulse in the coloured light emitted from the four 16mm Bell and Howell projectors fitted with “Eterna” loop cartridge systems set on stands 4 1/2 feet high, twenty inches wide, and spaced 34 inches apart. Unlike conventional projection situations, the projectors are not invisible and merely passive accomplices in the performance. In Shutter Interface, they become sculptural presences in the viewing space, strong columnar forms modified by the same oscillations of coloured light that fuse all features of the room into a totality. Their position, however, makes continuous projection (that piously defended convention of normal cinematic performances) somewhat precarious, since careless movements of spectators exiting or entering can momentarily, at least, block portions of the screen.

In Shutter Interface, four different but related five-to-six minute long colour flicker films are projected. In the work’s “optimal” arrangement (assorted studies and sketches for alternative arrangements numbered one and four are in Droll/Kolbert’s files) the relatively narrow, even spacing between projectors and the short throw distance (eighteen feet) create a complexly articulated screen of seven interlaced rectangles whose structure and proportion are indicated in the diagram. Twenty-two feet wide, the interlocking images define an almost CinemaScopic width/height ratio of more than four to one. As the illustration makes clear, the large flanking rectangles A and D contain five smaller inner frames (AB, BC, C, CD) formed by overlapping the projector beams. No one sub-unit dominates the balanced, symmetrical arrangement. The inner articulation of rectangular units remains fairly stable, though the boundaries occasionally fluctuate when adjacent screens momentarily flash similarly coloured frames.

A 59”

AB 29”

B 30”

BC 29”

C 30”

CD 29”

D 59”

(64 inches high, 22 feet across)

The film loops themselves are composed of varying two to ten frame units of colour punctuated by single black frames. It is difficult to identify the colour schemes of each loop directly off the screen because of the speed at which they pass as well as the superimposition and afterimage effects. Examination of the 1974 film frame studies for each projector’s film indicates that lighter colours (pale pinks, yellows and greens, flesh tone and sky blue) dominate A. Dark purple, pink and navy blue are the main colours in B and D, though each has different contrasting and complementary hues: pale pink, yellow and green with burnt sienna in B, rose, sky blue and ocher in D. C is composed principally of forest green (which contrasts the pink of A) as well as by several shades of pink and light ocher.

The experience of the work is literally dazzling. In each inner rectangle, the colours pulsate and shift. The individual loops and the overlapping areas set up chromatic fields which simultaneously contrast or complement the colours in the other screen units. An analogy with musical structures is strongly evoked. At any moment a dominant colour “chord” – pink and purple are the principle tonal centers – accented by “overtones” of greens and blues, glows across the entire wall. The chords (and the analogy) are sustained for brief intervals and then are swept away as the tonal relationships in the screen’s internal divisions and across the entire wall surface shift continually.

The colour saturation is consistently modulated by the frequency of the intermittent black frames. 15 Based on the 1000 cycles per second beep tones which synchronously accompanies each black frame, the sound also has a modifying effect on the colour. Because at any moment there is a high probability that at least one black frame will be projected, the discrete tones dissolve into a continuous whine varying in pitch and volume (depending on the number of black frames projected) and location (depending on which of the four “Realistic” speakers equally spaced along the screen wall the sound emerges from). As the sound’s dynamic level rises and moves back and forth underneath the images, the colours seem to become more vibrant. As one watches, the quadraphonic whine fuses inextricably with the optical flux, reinforcing the glowing spatial environment which the piece creates. In a simple, elegant and convincing way, Shutter Interface realizes an ancient dream – a dream we know Eisenstein shared 16 – of removing the barriers between sight and sound to create compound synesthetic sensations that become the basic psychic materials for a continual and perfect sensual ravishment.

The motivating animus of the piece remains its powerful elaboration of lateral partial and phi motions. The colour harmonies and contrasts trigger the apparent movements. When the distance between similar colours is great, the more percussive, saccadic pulses characteristic of partial movements appear. If closely valued hues appear in several adjacent rectangles, however, a gently rippling chromatic wave washes across the wall. Because of the lightness of the palette composing A, both sorts of movement seem to flow from left to right, though many countering motions consistently break the momentum and reverse the direction.

No marks of beginning, middle or end punctuate the undulating vibrations of colour and sound. No protocols of the conventional projection situation help to orient the spectator in the work’s dynamic process. Chronology and sequence are abandoned; time seems suspended. All reference is swallowed by the hypnotic, glowing profusion of coloured lights animated by skeins of objectless motion. One is transported to some visionary source of cinema at the farthest possible remove from the narrative, illusionistic modes dominating conventional films. 17 Watching Shutter Interface evolve within an elemental continuity becomes – in an analogy Sharits himself has proposed – “like watching fireflies or water flowing over a dam – something that’s moving. A fire or candle flame – it’s shifting – but it doesn’t change its form dramatically.” 18 Like these simple, natural subjects, Shutter Interface cultivates an infinite chain of changing hypnagogic imagery 19 continually renewed by the work’s splendid indirection and its fascinating, almost erotic elaboration of the perceptual conditions of its appearance.

Notes

1 There seems to be little hope now of suppressing P. Adams Sitney’s term “structural.” Though he used the term only to describe some general characteristics of Landow’s, Snow’s, Sharits’ et al. work, the belief that he meant “structuralist” as in the French school of anthropological and literary study generated more than a little confusion, especially in England. Ironically, the ensuing debate stimulated the production of a series of films antithetical in inspiration to that Sitney claimed for those he called structural artists. Though the article did not directly suggest film forms adopted by those calling themselves either “structuralist” or “materialist” or some variant compound of the two terms, it does appear to have accelerated and clarified trends that had only begun to be explored. A term with so dense and complicated a history cannot be easily jettisoned.

2 Max Wertheimer. “Experimentelle Studien Uber Das sehen Von Bewegung.” (Experimental Studies on Motion Perception). Originally in Zeitschrift fur Psychologie, 61, 1912. pp. 161-265. Translated in part in T. Shipley, ed. Classics in Psychology. New York: Philosophical Library, 1961. C.f. also Note 5 for reference to the second set of studies.

3 Paul A. Kolers. Aspects of Motion Perception. New York: Pergamon Press, 1972, pp. 9-10. The phi phenomenon was discussed in the theoretical literature on film as early as Huge Munsterberg’s The Photoplay, A Psychological Study (1916) which was reprinted by Dover Press in 1970.

4 Ibid. C.f. pp. 174-177 for first point and pp. 195-96 for second.

5 Max Wertheimer. “Untersuchungen zur Lehre von der Gestalt.” (Research towards Gestalt Theory). Originally in Psychologische Forschungen, 5, 1923. pp. 301-350. Translate din part in W.D,. Ellis, ed., A Sourcebook of Gestalt Theory. New York: Humanities Press, 1950. Also recently reprinted in part in Gerald M. Murch, ed, Studies in Perception. Indianapolis: Bobbs Merrill, 1976.

6 As Munsterberg noted long ago, “The psychological causes for this perception of depth with one eye are essentially the differences of apparent size, the perspective relations, the shadows, and the actions performed in the space.” Op. Cit., p. 21. Considered today, these conditions would be deemed inadequate to explain the perception of pictorial depth, but the quote underlines the complexity of the perceptual coordinations which must take place.

7 Perhaps unknowingly, Gehr demonstrates in the film that beta and veridical motion are not true equivalents (contrary to what Wertheimer thought). Kolers, op. Cit., p. 176 comments on the absence of aftereffects for beta motion in terms that could serve as a description of Serene Velocity. “The continued inspection of beta motion needed for an aftereffect to develop, induces beta motion to break down instead. The physical stimuli seem to flicker in place, but no motion is seen between them for some interval; suddenly, the appearance of motion returns, only to disappear again. The alternation between motion and flicker represents, as it were, two states of an ambiguous perception.”

8 The most extensive reviews of Sharits’ career can be found in Regina Cornwell. “Paul Sharits: Illusion and Object.” Artforum, Vol. X, No. 1. September 1971. pp. 56-62. C.f. also Rosalind Krauss. “Paul Sharits.” Catalogue essay for exhibition at Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, N.Y., 1976.

9 Certainly it is hardly coincidental that neatly transcribed in the hectic volume of notes and sketches for his important (non-flicker) films S:tream:S:Section:S:ection:S:ectioned are three consecutive passages from Wittgenstein’s Remarks on the Foundations of Mathematics which could appropriately serve as a credo for all of Sharits’s work.

165 What, then – does it just twist and turn about within these rules? – It forms ever new rules: is always building new roads for traffic; by extending the network of the old ones.

166 But then doesn’t it need a sanction for this? Can it extend the network arbitrarily? Well, I could say: a mathematician is always inventing new forms of description. Some, stimulated by practical need, other, from aesthetic needs, – and yet others in a variety of ways. And here imagine a landscape gardener designing paths for the layout of a garden; it may well be that he draws them on a drawing board merely as ornamental strips without the slightest thought of someone’s sometimes walking on them.

167 The mathematician is an inventor, not a discoverer.

Sharits’s notes are available in the files of Anthology of Film Archives, New York City.

10 Paul Sharits. “Notes on Films.” Film Culture, #47. Summer, 1969. p. 13

11 Sharits’s precise notations of colour frame patterns make his preparatory sketches approach the status of a score. C.f. Nelson Goodman. Languages of Art. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1968, pp. 177-201. This working method directly counters the Romantic stance of a Brakhage for whom such preparatory scripting denies the authenticity of the moment of filming. C.f. Brakhage. “His Story” in Metaphors on Vision, 1963.

12 Roland Barthes. “The Structuralist Activity.” In R. and F. de George, eds., The Structuralists from Marx to Levi-Strauss. New York: Anchor Books, 1972. p. 42.

14 It may be that Sharits has also reverted to his earlier concern to represent emotional states as he did in N:O:T:H:I:N:G and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G. In an interview with Linjda Cathcart published in the Buffalo exhibition catalogue, Op, Cit., he notes: “For Shutter Interface, I wanted a sound rhythm and visual rhythm that would have something to do with high amplitude alpha waves. I think that’s why it’s such a pleasant film. I did some biofeedback to listen to the sound of my alpha rhythm and I tried to approximate it in the piece.

15 According to Sharits’s text which accompany the Droll/Kolbert show, “Double Signification of the Absence of Light as a Prime Function of Film Shutter Interface,” the black frames are also supposed to signify the shutter blade mechanism and the 1/48th second darknesses it creates to prevent blurring and generate the illusion of continuous coherent figure motion. This reflexive, modernist gesture is not successful in establishing its referent. The black frames’ relation to the shutter’s action is highly arbitrary at best. Such a meaning is therefore “symbolic,” but it neither spontaneously emerges from his articulation of the filmic materials not from any conventions or regularities governing their relationships. The sense Sharits attributes to these frames is imposed by fiat.

16 Sergei Eisenstein. The Film Sense. New York: Meridian, 1967, pt. 87.

17 Also cited in Sharits’s notes available at Anthology Film Archives is a passage from Gide’s Journals that neatly summarizes the energy behind his cinema’s formal contradiction of conventional modes: “…to negate with conviction one must however have looked at what one negates.” Though he has not followed this stricture, the quote is indicative, perhaps, of the singlemindedness of his creative pursuits.

18 Sharits in Cathcart interview, Op. Cit.

19 For a discussion of hypnagogic imagery, c.f. Jean-Paul Sartre. The Psychology of Imagination. New York: Washington Square Press, 1968. pp[. 45-65.

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Paul Sharits Tribute in Baltimore (2004)

“A conceptual romantic – rigorous vision pushed his art/life to its barely endurable edges. Film

installation light and color; intellectual brilliance – meticulous, inventive: film, time, frame, unique as sequences in space. Volatile, confrontational, falling out of his power and physical beauty.” Carolee Schneeman

“…destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy

destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy

destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy

destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy

destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy

destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy destroy

destroy destroy destroy destroy…”

-David Franks

Saturday April 24, 2004

The Creative Alliance at the Patterson

3134 Patterson Avenue Baltimore MD

http://www.creativealliance.org

8 PM; $10, $8 members

Paul Sharits::

T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968)

S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:S:ECTIONED (1970)

David Franks::

d.e.a.d.l.e.t.t.e.r.s

Finally, lo these years, we are presenting two of the greatest films created here in Baltimore, films of numbing, mind-melting psychedelicism and quick, true structural solidity, films which can not be denied, and films which are virtually forgotten to their native city. They are a part of the second most celebrated body of films created here – all due respect to the guy with the funny little moustache – which are shown all over the world to film and art savants and which will live for decades to come, but which are largely lost to even the most far-out heads that our city prides itself on celebrating. Finally, we’re gonna sit together and watch the films of the late Paul Sharits, as they need to be seen, as a part of us.

This Saturday, poet and performance artist David Franks, who worked on the stunningly brilliant soundtracks to both films, “starred” in one, and was a life-long friend of Sharits’ (friend isn’t strong enough a word for a meeting of the minds which Sharits and Franks shared), will introduce to masterpieces (MASTERPIECES!) by the legendary filmmaker, with comments on Sharits’ time here in Baltimore and a performance of his piece d.e.a.d.l.e.t.t.e.r.s, dedicated in part to his late friend, a structural tour-de-force of guts and intellect to match the power of the films. I just couldn’t be happier that this show – a dream of mine for the three-plus years I’ve lived in Baltimore – is finally happening.

Who is Paul Sharits and why don’t folks talk about him? Sharits moved here in 1965 and left in 1968. He was 24 years old when he arrived and 28 when he left in the midst of an emotional crisis of the sort which plagued him throughout his life until his death by his own hand in 1993.

A native of Colorado, Sharits was at first a painter and writer before he became a protégé of Stan Brakhage’s and made “personal cinema.” His earliest films were destroyed by his own hand in the early 70s, but by the time he moved to Baltimore with his wife and son to teach design and film at the ICA he had already established a reputation with the films which he spared: “Word Film” (on the Flux Film Anthology, edited by George Maciunas, next to the likes of Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, John Cale and Dick Higgins), “Ray Gun Virus,” and “Piece Mandala/End War.” The latter two films in particular defined the style of his early films – flashing frames of individually colored frames, arranges in symmetrical or near-symmetrical patterns on the strip with minimal imagistic, much less narrative, content to define a specific inner experience of a radiant and illusory visual field which, far from the gobbledy love-isms of their time, embraced the anxieties, impulses and violences of “normal” experience with in a rigorously framed crystalline structure.

“T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G” was the first film Sharits completed here in Baltimore. Like “Piece Mandala” before it, it is an overwhelming stream of flashing colors which obliterate each other in succession as the viewer’s eye hangs, as if suspended in the field of vision, within a brilliant approximation of the reality of the succession of frames past a light-beam. Within the field, votive-like, hangs the image of a young man (David Franks)’s bust. He gazes down at the pair of scissors he holds open around his out-stretched tongue. He seems forever about to slice the fucker off in a moment of ecstatic self-mutilation. Unlike the silent “Piece Mandala,” however, “T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G” has a soundtrack. Composed by David Franks, the sound component to “T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G” outdoes Steve Reich’s early tape-phase pieces in its raw, direct message: a singe word, spoken at the height of counterculture, at the height of the Love Generation, over and over on top of itself seemingly a million times so densely that the ear hears entire sentences spun from its single sound: DESTROY DESTROY DESTROY DESTROY…

The film which followed, “N.O.T.H.I.N.G,” perhaps Sharits’ greatest work in his entire career upped theante from “T,O,U,C,H,I,,N,G” by multiplying its duration by two, its structural complexity and narrative elements several times, and its grim humor by a hundred. Stan Brakhage called it “the most beautiful film I have seen.” That it has not been screened here in the city of its making – despite continued interest in it in New York, Germany, Austria, England, Japan, etc. – in many, many years is a mystery best not contemplated. That “Razor Blades,” the film which followed “N.O.T.H.I.N.G” is rarely screened at all is due largely to its technical requirements, which demand two simultaneous and synched side-by-side projections, foreshadowing Sharits’ 70s work as an innovator in installation.

“S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED” begun on vacation in Colorado, largely edited here in Baltimore and finished in Ohio represents both the breakthrough, to put it in one light, and the breaking point, in another, which sent Sharits to other physical

locations. “STREAMS” is the first of his mature films not to rely on a cyclical structure to achieve his trademark sense of hovering stasis. It is, in effect, what it is: a stream, a sequence, a superimposition of time-senses upon consensus reality. Sharits lovingly obliterated (with a specially-made high-accuracy device for scratching the emulsion from the film surface) a lovingly-edited film of flowing water (originally made as for his two-year old son). The technical qualities and obsessiveness of it are staggering. But beyond that is, once again, the soundtrack. Stan Brakhage told the story in one interview. To sum up: in the midst of an extended late-night film-scratching session in his Baltimore studio, Sharits began to hear the sound of a woman’s incanted whisperings. Stopping his work, he saw nothing around him but couldn’t make the sound go away. He woke up his wife who heard nothing. Over the next few days, he realized that he had heard the film’s soundtrack, another stream of superimpositions and sequences which he then recreated on tape with meticulous care to match his film with David Franks assisting him.

In the midst of a divorce, nervous breakdown and period of questioning, Sharits fled Baltimore in 1968, the year the charmer with the moustache made “Mondo Trasho,” landing first at Antioch College in Ohio and then quickly at SUNY Buffalo, where Dr. Gerald O’Grady was founding a film department by hiring Shartis, Tony Conrad and Hollis Frampton in one foul swoop. Sharits worked at SUNY for the rest of his life, and over the course of the 70s and 80s became one of the most internationally celebrated experimental filmmakers on earth. He saw massive retrospectives of his work undertaken in many of the most well-known museums on earth and continued to create extraordinarily innovative and probing work throughout his life.

David Franks retained Baltimore as a home-base, becoming a notorious, highly creative and beloved creator here.

-Ian Nagoski, April 20, 2004.

*please note: some dates may be inaccurate because of problems with my memory. Please see the 1976 issue of Film Culture dedicated entirely to Sharits for dates.

**David Franks’ poetry may – SHOULD – be seen at http://www.davidfranks.net

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Paul Sharits by Kristin M. Jones (2009)

(Frieze Magazine Issue 124 June-August 2009 RSS)

Greene Naftali Gallery, New York, USA

If any film installation can be compared to an endlessly prolonged execution of cinematic illusion by firing squad, it’s Paul Sharits’ Shutter Interface (1975). In this hypnotic work – recently restored by Greene Naftali and Anthology Film Archives to its long-unseen, four-screen version – a quartet of 16mm projectors stand, figure-like, side by side on imposing pedestals facing a long wall. Four looped films of varying lengths are unspooled and respooled in jewel-like swathes of colour interspersed with single black frames, creating the flicker effect Sharits – who died in 1993 – was the first to explore in colour films. The images thrown onto the wall overlap at their edges, producing ghostly paler bands where hues mix within the wide polychrome rectangle, complicating patterns that emerge like waves, horizontal pulses or, more eerily, cards shuffled by invisible hands. When the black interstices disrupt the chromatic flood, the soundtracks emit high-frequency, cicada-like tones via speakers placed underneath the projected images, aurally mirroring the whirling shutters.

To best view an installation of Shutter Interface, you have to duck before the line of whirring machines and sit on the floor in front of them. Even when stationed between the projectors and the corresponding images, however, you get the sense of being a witness to a wrenching event, both a viscerally engaged and a detached observer. As Rosalind Krauss noted of another four-projector Sharits installation, Soundstrip/Filmstrip (1972), the panoramic field formed by the overlapping images echoes the Cinemascope format, but the glorious illusion typically associated with widescreen movies is continuously disrupted by the insistently sculptural projectors and bases. Instead of being enveloped, we are, as Krauss wrote, ‘at a tangent to the illusion, forcibly aware of the generative pair: projector/projected; aware, that is, of the mechanisms that are closer to the birth of the illusion.’ Sharits viewed such works as ‘locational’ installations, which he intended to be shown outside of the context of the cinema and saw as having ethical dimensions.

Also on view in the show were an array of drawings and studies, many of them intricate ‘scores’ for films Sharits made with coloured pencil or marker on graph paper – a method of composition that came naturally as he had studied music as a child, and one that reflected his preoccupation with bridging the boundaries between visual and aural modes of perception. Another group of sketches from the late 1970s depict detailed plans for an inverted ‘light-pyramid’ to be projected with a mirror-and-lens system onto Mayan and Aztec monuments, alongside vivid musings in which he imagines an ecstatic immolation in the ‘pursuit of light/art’.

In an article published in Film Culture during the same period, Sharits noted that he had moved away from ontological concerns toward a greater interest in ‘behavioral psychology and medical pathology’. This shift is evident in numerous marker drawings from the 1980s in which horizontal rows (loose or tightly filling the page) of garish, furiously jagged, electrocardiogram-like lines suggest an impending tsunami – a metronymic rhythm threatening to tip into engulfing chaos. In one variation, Spasmatic Pain I (Boulder Community Hospital) (1981), the frenzied lines break formation to become a whirlpool near the centre right of the drawing and are partially crossed out further down. These and other works evoke Sharits’s personal turmoil, including his bipolar disorder, but emphasizing such connections can detract from appreciating his many metaphorically rich explorations into the relationship between consciousness and perception.

Sharits’ ties to Fluxus were evident in the subversive humour animating a smattering of erotically charged ‘Flux-fashion drawings’ (c. 1990–3), energetic sketches of fanciful costumes, mainly for women, such as one depicting a ‘slut’ in a micro-mini and pubic hair bra; other designs incorporate ants, rotten fish or razor blades. These shade into puerile fantasy but are also compelling reminders of the intersection between carnality and aggression in even Sharits’ earlier, more controlled and transformative work. As P. Adams Sitney wrote in Visionary Film (1974) of a trio of Sharits’ inventive flicker films, ‘The metaphors of T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G [1969] totalize the suicidal and sexual inserts of Ray Gun Virus [1966] and Piece Mandala/End War [1966] and represent the viewing experience as erotic violence.’

That aggression and erotic pulse also lend an elemental power to works like Shutter Interface, which he structured according to ‘a dynamic of oscillations and cycles’ similar to that found in nature. These days it’s not so strange to find a 16mm projector parked in a gallery, but Sharits’ work gains a particular dynamism in this ‘locational’ context, at a time when his idiosyncratic achievements are ripe for rediscovery. He went far beyond an analysis of the materials of cinema: in his multi-projector installations, the extermination of illusion also represents an anxious, equally extended rebirth.

Copyright: Kristin M. Jones

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The Avant and the New by Martin Rumsby (2009)

Paul Sharits, The Whitneys, Len Lye & New Media

or

What To Do When Finding A Particle in Your Pixel

It was one of those languidly oppressive days of an Auckland spring. A moist tropical air mass had drifted down from Fiji and parked itself over the top half of the North Island. The cloud ceiling, a bright grey, hung over our earth and ocean creating an inversion layer, bouncing the heat of the volcanic isthmus back down onto us. A rainbow arched across the western sky and the clouds released a slow steady drizzle which set in and settled amongst us like a mortgage. I was walking across Albert Park toward the university when the drizzle turned to rain so I ducked into the Main Library for shelter. On Level Three, the film section. I saw a copy of William Wees’ book LIGHT MOVING IN TIME. Opening Wees’ book at Chapter Six there was a quotation from Jonas Mekas which Wees related to the films of Paul Sharits, Jordan Belson and James and John Whitney.

“For what is cinema really if not images, dreams and visions? We take one more step, and we give up all movies and we become movies: we sit on a Persian or Chinese rug smoking one dream matter or another and we watch the smoke and we watch the images and dreams and fantasies that are taking place right there in our eye’s mind … This is the ultimate cinema of the people, as it has been for thousands and thousands of years. ” (Wees, 1992 p67).

What could that be about? Maybe something of the romantic aspect of art mixed with the utopian optimism of America in the 1960s. (Or should I say those privileged Americans not fighting in Viet Nam or struggling for recognition of African American civil rights? I mean who was sitting on a Persian rug ‘smoking one dream matter or another,’ watching the smoke and watching the images and dreams and fantasies in our eye’s mind? George W Bush playing Puff the Magic Dragon? Remember the African American grunt in Oliver Stone’s PLATOON (1986) saying something like, “You got to be rich to think like that. Rich people always fool the poor”. With apologies to my own experiences of African Americans). Mekas’ statement recalls Brakhage’s eloquent, “Imagine an eye unruled by man made laws of perspective….” Though I prefer Martin Luther King’s, “I have a dream….”)

Certainly I would not ally Mekas with the Wees’ hippie sentiments as evidenced by Wees’ interest in Carlos Castaneda. The first time, I believe that I have ever seen either source quoted in a consideration of avant-garde cinema. I think of Mekas as a modernist. Maybe he believed in technology and hoped that we may be on the verge of a new era in artistic communication. That cinema was about to deliver us to some new realm of understanding. Of one mind talking to another in notions of images and dreams. (And the scary prospect that we all understand each other and come to think the same). From the point of view of cinema history think of the climaxes of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) and Nicholas Roeg’s PERFORMANCE (1970). Both of these films appropriated experimental film techniques in attempts to take us on a semi-psychedelic journey to the centre of another’s vision. Both made money and resulted in the sale of much lysergic acid. (Having said that I would add that the opening sequence of Kubrick’s 2001 contains one of the finest examples of landscape filmmaking that I have ever seen).

What is technology and how may it help achieve new shared visions? Paul Sharits is one of the best of American avant-garde filmmakers to put this question to. And he offers many answers. Sharits is even more interesting in the light of absolute visions. His were works of investigation. Of applying his intelligence and his knowledge of art to the mechanics of cinema then harvesting the fruit of that dialectic.

Sharits lived in the eastern United States, the area most infected by contacts with European modernism from the 1930s onwards, as exiled artists like Piet Mondrian, Marcel Duchamp and Hans Richter sought refuge in America. His works reflect that modernist influence in their analytical formality. It is as if Sharits asked, “What is cinema?” His answer, a series of still pictures which can create the illusion of movement when moving through a motion picture projection machine. Is there a type of movement, divorced from illusionism that is inherent in the motion picture projection process? Yes. Sharits’ films illustrate that. By taking the basic element of film, the film frame and juxtaposing positive and negative versions of the same still image one against the other (in rapid movement when projected) Sharits does what all narrative filmmakers do. He composes in time, creating movement and conflict. Sharits shares with us what it is like to see through cinema. How this particular technology may alter our way of viewing ourselves and our world. He is inviting us to think of perceptual, mechanical and life things. If his works also suggest an erotic violence then he is only being honest. In T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G (1968) he uses one word in the soundtrack: “DESTROY? repeated over and over so many times it is as if it has been cut up like the film. Are we hearing the word ‘destroy’ or are we hearing ‘his straw’ or ‘history?’ Maybe it is just his story. The tempo of beats in the soundtrack increases as the film progresses, then there is a period of silence during which we may contemplate the screen. When the sound resumes the tempo slows down then stops abruptly at the end of the film. The images consist of a still of a young man holding open scissors to his tongue as if to cut it off, then another still of a hand scratching a face. (Are the scissors on his tongue the scissors he cuts the film with? Is the hand that scratches his face the projector that scratches the film? Or is Sharits referring to the physical violence of cutting film? Like a sculptor chipping at stone. Maybe it is about cutting out language. Of finding new ways to say things: Destroy the past. There is violence in his life and there is violence in art. Every time the film is shown it degenerates. It acquires scratches, becomes worn and will eventually fall apart. Just as Sharits did. What did Jean Cocteau say? Something like, Every time I look into a mirror I see death at work. Each time I look in the mirror I am closer to my death. And Sharits takes the violence even further, creating a film that assaults the audience’s senses. It is an aesthetic cinematic violence. Sharits’ use of the WORD is also like modernist poetry. Recite Gertrude Stein’s ROSE IS A ROSE IS A ROSE saying it over and over again and slur the words a little so that it may become ROSE IS ARROWS IS EROS IS SORROWS meaning a rose is a symbol of love and love involves suffering or maybe it is the short biography of a woman named rose and her struggles through birth, sex and death. Speaking of which we also see genitals and a body being incised in Sharits’ film. Histoire destroys his straw. Or, alternately, his straw destroys histoire. Meaning that time threatens to erase all trace of his existence but his production of artworks may help him overcome time. In art we can redeem ourselves.

Andre Breton said that beauty should be convulsive and Sharits took this to heart in his film EPILECTIC SEIZURE COMPARISON (1976). Broken down from a two screen installation piece, black and white footage of two male epileptics entering convulsive states are interspersed with colour frames to create a flicker effect. The Mexican American filmmaker Willie Varela told me that when Sharits showed this film in El Paso an epileptic in the audience did actually go into convulsions. Sharits successfully involved the audience in his work. As he said,

“Everything was done to allow the viewer to move beyond mere voyeurism and actually enter into the convulsive state, to allow a deeper empathy for the condition and to also, hopefully, experience the ecstatic aspect of such paroxysm.” (Filmmakers Coop Catalogue No 7, 1989 p436)

This really gives new meaning to the American idea of an artist establishing a direct connection with nature. Sharits here, in manipulating the nature of film, hopes to affect the nature of the viewer. To induce us into some other state of nature. To alter our experience and perception of reality. Sharits anticipates interactivity, by going right into someone else?s consciousness and stimulating reactions. Though not for reasons of control.

In N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968) Sharits goes so far as make nothing out of something. We see a still image of a light bulb, cutting almost frame by frame from positive to negative. The light bulb of illumination and its opposite. It is like a question, “How can we know the unknowable?” As in T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G the titles are spelled out between the frames, introducing the notion of text as well as adding a structural compositional element leading us to believe that the film will finish sometime after we see the letter G. We are given a hint of the film’s duration. (Hopefully it will finish before the restless get bored or confused and begin dreaming of California).

North America’s West Coast is very outward looking, they know that the Pacific Ocean is out there and they are interested. Following the Second World War many US servicemen were stationed in Japan and, later, Korea. The more inquisitive of them picked up notions of Asian traditions and ideologies, such as Buddhism. These ideas began filtering back to the United States. Maybe some of these influences came to bear on Jordan Belson and James and John Whitney.

I would have to say, upfront, that I have a few problems with Belson and the Whitneys. Though there is no denying their achievement. Obviously all three were ahead of their time and must have been dismayed to see their films reduced to visual aids for 1960s psychedelia. There is a high level of art and craft in their work. There is a lot of work in their work. And this work is backed up by utopian ideals in a strange synthesis of western and eastern transcendentalism. In various ways they hoped, through their films, to elicit meditative, possibly even ecstatic, states in the viewer. To maybe help turn the viewer away from western acquisitiveness toward more holistic and centered realities. Theirs were futuristically inclined visions which may be best described as Spiritual Science Fictions. (Although I note that Jordan Belson looked at his films as documentary representations of spiritual states). The problem that I have with Belson and the Whitneys was stated by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger in his book ON THE WAY TO LANGUAGE. Heidegger said, “Modern thinking … concentrates all available energy and ‘interests’ in calculating how man may soon establish himself in a world less cosmic space. This type of thinking is about to abandon the earth as earth … All the rest that follows from such thinking is already the explosion of power that could blast everything to nothingness. All the rest that follows from such thinking, the technical processes in the functioning of the doomsday machinery, would merely be the final sinister dispatch of madness into senselessness.” And, “We cannot see it any other way as long as we calculate, that is, compute the sufficient reason which rationalizes beings as the result of reason, reason’s effects, and thereby satisfies our conceptualizations.” (Heidegger, 1971 pp84, 86) This being a variation on McLuhan’s the medium is the message, as our method is our madness. The tools that we use to achieve our goals determine the outcome of those goals. It is the domain of art and philosophy to somehow retool those tools and reorient our goals, hopefully in the direction of something ancient and authentic. (For example, Len Lye’s Old Brain Thinking). For McLuhan, each new medium represented new possibilities for experience and thought.

At a lecture that I once attended at the Art Institute of Chicago Fred Camper said that he could tell that a film was from the West Coast even if his eyes were shut. This was on account of their eastern influenced, dream woven soundtracks. Camper has a point. Belson and the Whitneys use sound to complement the image rather than interrogate or extend it. So they, and Len Lye, use sound in the way that rock videos do. Of course, Belson, Lye and the Whitneys were doing this long before the first now dead rock star ever walked onto a stage and started appropriating experimental films in rock videos.

Jordan Belson’s SAMADHI (1967) comes to us as something like the view of a spiritual astronaut traveling through inner space. In what looks like electronically generated imagery we see circular shapes, like planets, surrounded by auras which evoke cosmic genesis and evolution as they transform and metamorphize toward a union of subject and object. Interestingly, in the 1980s Belson was commissioned to create images of certain cosmic intangibles for the feature film THE RIGHT STUFF (1983) about the beginnings of the American manned space flight programme.

James Whitney’s film LAPIS (1963-66) is realized in a precise, graphic way. Tiny dots swirl in circular motions around the screen in transformations of colour, scale and speed. The film evolves from black and white to colour and back to black and white again. The form of the film suggests the cyclical nature of life. At times its superimpositions and swirling, circular shapes resemble Busby Berkeley’s cinematic choreography for Fred Astaire. At other times they evoke Australian Aboriginal depictions of dreamtime or imagined views through an electron microscope. In this it reminds me of Len Lye’s TUSALAVA (1929) whose swirling biometric forms derived from an unconscious fused with Australian Aboriginal, Polynesian and modernist art. In TUSALAVA, Lye created forms which move in a circular motion, evolving to consume themselves before regenerating into new life. Whitney’s representation lacks the tactility of Brakhage’s THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS (1981)(See Landfall 210), the violence of Sharits’ T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G or Lye’s TUSALAVA. For all of its technique and painstaking craft LAPIS is a little too orderly, a little too perfect. It is a utopian ideal of a place too far away. It is perfect Abstract Illusionism.

Now here is a scary thought. (It is horror movie time). In the films of Belson and the Whitneys, some made over 60 years ago, we see the beginnings of computer graphics and digital imagery in cinema set to soundtracks either akin to electronic music or representative of other states. And all done for a reason, to represent ‘higher purpose.’ We see in their primeval computer like imagery, motion graphics and computer controlled camera movements, the beginnings of contemporary media art practices as represented in the recent crop of circular TV One (New Zealand) promotional logos through to Pat O’Neill’s intricate single frame pans across land and cityscapes in WATER AND POWER (1989). Indeed, much that is heralded as the new can be traced back over a century of art history as themes that have moved from generation to generation, from medium to medium as restatement and reinterpretation in different media. So much of the ‘new’ owes its existence to its predecessors in Dada, Fluxus and conceptual art.

Marcel Duchamp, with his shifting of priorities from object to concept, was a key influence. Going on from film, the new seems to extend the idea of collaboration, from that between filmmakers and film technicians to a convergence of artists, engineers, programmers and scientists, bringing the theories and practices of media arts and the sciences together. Today, artists internationally are combining old and new technologies in interesting ways. Contemporary artists such as Eija-Lissa-Ahtila and Doug Aitken shoot on film, transfer to video and project digitally. Mathew Barney shoots on video which he then transfers to film for projection. These and other artists, such as Tracey Moffat, William Kentridge and Rodney Graham, exist at the cusp of intermedia, negotiating the intersection of film, media and new technologies. Notions of spectatorship and audience involvement with new media have also changed as an aesthetic based on depth, narrative and meaning is being overhauled by sensual experience and spectacle. The idea of the moving image has evolved from pictures that move toward transformational images, images that can be digitally manipulated to evoke different senses of reality and representation, maybe even a different sense of the possibilities of life and art.

In Australian Jeffrey Shaw’s THE LEGIBLE CITY (1988-91) the viewer navigates their way through a simulated city represented by words and phrases formed into buildings and streets through which the viewer can peddle and steer a stationary bicycle. Computer generated 3-Dimensional letters that form words appear on screens before the viewer/cyclist as he glides through a textual architecture based on maps of actual cities. The viewer/cyclist/reader constructs his own narrative by choosing a path through the labyrinth. In so doing the divide between the library, the gymnasium and the art gallery is bridged as the viewer’s consciousness, perception and prejudices shapes the narrative. Has the gymnasium been brought into the gallery or has the gallery invaded the gymnasium? The borders between art and life are blurred as the viewer actively participates in the reading of the work and creates their own unique experience of it.

New media may now be about to redefine our expectations of artistic pleasure as something that no longer needs to take place in an arts centre and no longer need to be called art. The best that we can hope for from new media is that art and its power relations as we have known them will disappear and be replaced by something more decentralized and democratic. Internet art, created on the world wide web, such as New Zealander Josh On’s THEY RULE (2001) (www.theyrule.net) may help to bring about autonomous reality communities, activist groups linked by telecommunications networks and defined by consciousness, ideology and desire. Art without dealers, curators and other economic intermediaries. Who will broker artificial art produced by artificial intelligence for artificial audiences? (Were knights in armour the first cyborgs and the invention of God our first attempt to create artificial intelligence?)

The invention of photography and cinema seriously questioned painting’s status as a privileged medium of representation as artists began to incorporate technology as another tool of seeing and thinking. Technology such as telescopes, microscopes, and cameras help us see what is not normally visible to the naked eye, or select and isolate passing moments or phenomena to allow closer examination and analysis. And what was seen and analyzed through technology, say Edward Muybridge’s DESCENDING STAIRS AND TURNING AROUND from his photographic series ANIMAL LOCOMOTION, (1884-85) was later brought into play as art by Marcel Duchamp in his painting NUDE DESCENDING A STAIRCASE, (1912).

Today, digital technologies have overhauled photography in the same way that photography overhauled painting. Whilst painting and photography will remain with us their meaning and their status within the visual arts has changed. New technologies create new textual experiences and new ways of representing the world and experience, new conceptions of selfhood and community and new ways of reading.

Nancy Burson’s BEAUTY COMPOSITES (1982) and HUMAN GENE MACHINE (2000) uses digital technology to question notions of photographic veracity and conventional aesthetics and to help us to maybe think and see in new ways. Burson creates what seems to be a photograph of someone who does not exist. In BEAUTY COMPOSITES Burson morphs the faces of several female movie stars into a single face, thereby synthesizing a contemporary ideal of female beauty: this is how we see or what we look for and what does it tell us about ourselves?

Former Japanese model Mariko Mori has taken control of her own image in a series of digitally manipulated images which blend Buddhism with Japanese kitsch and western concepts. Describing herself as Andy Warhol’s daughter and Marcel Duchamp’s granddaughter she appears, today, as Jeff Koons’ transcendental Asian cousin.

Fascinated by the possibilities of technology Mariko explores relationships between fantasy and reality. In BIRTH OF STAR (1996), Mariko appears as a plastic Japanese pop star doll coyly playing to a camera. But something dark seems to lurk behind her representations. Whilst recognizable, Mariko’s work also appears to be new, it is freshly familiar. She plays with our desire; we want it even though it is unattainable.

Of course technology does have a sinister aspect, one only has to marvel at the television representation of the pyrotechnic gymnastics of ‘smart’ weapons blasting emerging economies back to the middle ages and the surveillance of virtually every living thing on the planet, the notable exceptions being Osama Bin Laden and approaching TSUNAMIS. It is mistaken to believe that today we are all wired together in some transphysical community – many forms of labour, transportation and communication are still based on physical activities. As are the creation of communication technologies, synthesized from toxic materials in developing nations.

Australian Denis Beaubois addresses his concerns about the sinister side of technology in his work, IN THE EVENT OF AMNESIA THE CITY WILL RECALL (1996). For this videotaped performance piece Beaubois selected twelve public surveillance sites in Sydney, Australia. He then visited these sites for three days and attempted to engage the surveillance cameras in a dialogue. Standing before the cameras Beaubois addressed them with a series of messages written on large hand-held cards, attempting to initiate a conversation with his unseen surveyors. Technology may have infiltrated almost every aspect of our daily lives but how much input do we have, what can we can access and to what extent can we participate in and derive benefits from technology?

Technology is sold to us as a labour saving, productive means, a greater efficiency for the benefit of humankind, but for many it has resulted in less privacy, longer and more stressful working hours (often for less pay), or unemployment. Our New World economies may be performing miracles but those at the bottom of the heap are increasingly marginalized as the benefits of increased productivity are siphoned off by employers, bureaucrates and politicians. Notions of equality and equitability are rapidly disappearing from New World societies and so the need arises for cameras to scan public and workplace environments looking for deviant behaviour. We will only be equal as consumers. Our decentered, supersized, franchised new world exists within margins leaving room for plenty of people outside those margins. We are being protected from ourselves. Beaubois’ work offers just the slightest glimmer of hope, humanity and humour in the human presence at work behind surveillance technologies when he asks the cameras to respond to his requests. The camera nods up and down in assent, or waves sideways in dissent. Yes, we can communicate with our hidden surveyors, but only in a primal vocabluary couched in less linguistic ability than a parrot.

Could it be that the computer and digital forms of image manipulation represent a New World in themselves, affecting our view of the world and our relation to it? New media and digital art, drawing on something of the Whitney’s precedence, could help to redefine our notions of cinematic reality and realism. (Whatever future currency that realism may have within art). The physical world may begin to fade from view as ideas become more important than physical representations and how we think becomes a more important principle than how we see. We can go on from there to examine the very root of our ideas and thought processes, how we form them and where they come from, possibly leading us to change the way that we think. If that sounds familiar it is because they are key concepts of avant-garde artistic activity now being reapplied in digital art forms. Although, in our time, nothing is in more danger of becoming tired, oppressive and empty than the new.

With all this in mind and a break in the weather I made my way up to Karangahape Road to attend the Particles to Pixels Symposium, subtitled Moving Image Culture in the Footsteps of Len Lye. The very name of the event caused me trepidation. Was this to represent the bypassing of our experimental filmmaking history in attempt to establish a whakapapa between Len Lye and contemporary digital artists to confer validity on the new whilst continuing to bypass our still living, or should I say still born, experimental film history?

The great thing about preconceptions is testing them and discovering the error of one’s prejudices and, hopefully, growing as a result. I had such enlightenment at the Particles to Pixels Symposium which was ably organized by Miriam Harris, Janine Randerson and Eu Jin Chua of the Design School at Unitec. The Symposium included such luminaries as Roger Horrocks, Wystan Curnow, Stella Brennan, Tessa Laird and the American animator Stephanie Maxwell. It was a friendly and, at times, light hearted gathering. All of the speakers professed a debt to Len Lye as discussion ranged across Lye’s movement aesthetic,

it’s relationship to the body, poetics, irrefutable proof of Lye’s Asian genealogy, visible and invisble phenomenologies, composing motion and music and Lye’s influence on a contemporary American media artist. All this and more interspersed by a screening of, mostly, graphic experimental films, videos and new media. For me the Symposium was a revelation. As Tessa Laird said at the opening of the second day, “I felt like I had met the extended family that I never knew I had, all these Len Lye enthusiasts that I never knew existed.” It was like a homecoming to discover a whole new generation of local media artists inspired by and working out of the tradition of avant-garde cinema.

The screening was bookended by the 1958 version of Len Lye’s FREE RADICALS at the beginning and TRADE TATTOO (1937) at the end. With COLOUR BOX (1935) in the middle. The programme of short films included flashes of brilliance, echoes of Brakhage, and the hope of the second (or is it the third?) generation of New Zealand experimental filmmakers.

FREE RADICALS is a black and white film in the barest sense of the word. White lines scratched into black film leader and synchronized to a soundtrack of African drumming. The scratched lines weave themselves through various two and three dimensional permutations as an elemental line, like lightning flashes, evoking creation in its most primal form.

In the symposium’s opening address Roger Horrocks talked about Lye’s aesthetic of movement as an original conception of art that continues to be relevant. How Lye trained himself to be sensitive to movement then began to apply that training to composing motion through motifs that he developed for representing motion: tense vertical or horizontal lines, zig zags or lightning flashes, accents triangles, pirouetting signs and asterixes that won’t stay put. Lye strove to break motion down to its essential elements then put it back together according to his cinematic and kinetic principles. His was a type of body art through which he channeled the movement of the world into a dance of his hands as he scratched wriggling, jumping, crazy lines directly into the surface of film.

FREE RADICALS is such an enduring classic of world cinema. It is truly interstellar. A zero point of cinema. The sort of film that should be sent off in deep space probes to communicate with other civilizations. On discovering FREE RADICALS 5000 light years from now, just left of the Milky Way, how grand these civilizations would think we were. Maybe they would even call us Gods. But then they don’t know what we know and without our art to guide them they never will.

Stephanie Maxwell’s REFLECTING POOL (7 minutes, 2004) Opens with an out of focus shot of light shimmering across the surface of a pool of sparkling waters. In this it is reminiscent of the opening of Stan Brakhage’s SONG 21 (1966). Pixillated shots of shells and stones intermingle in an abstract play of indeterminate colours, forms and shimmering reflections. Is this a reflecting pool of thought? The film builds to a crescendo of sound and image, an elemental chaos, followed by a more meditative phase with softer, out of focus, images evoking biomorphic forms.

Wellingtonian Lissa Mitchell’s BOWL ME OVER (6 minutes, `1995) was a scratched and hand painted direct film of an art historical journey through the South Island invoking the spirits of Rita Angas, Colin McCahon, Mina Arndt and John Gully. BOWL ME OVER bore an uncanny resemble to Donna Cameron’s NEW MOON (1989) (See Illusions #27) a film which Mitchell assured me that she had never seen. (Cameron, from Brooklyn in New York, also professes a debt to Len Lye). New Zealand experimental filmmakers seem to be gaining ground. In the early 1980s we were about thirty to fourty years behind the Americans. Now, on the evidence of the similarity between Mitchell’s and Cameron’s work, produced just six years apart, it really does seem as if some of us are beginning to break away from the social, from the story, and from the explanation.

Miriam Harris introduced us to the ennervating work of the Canadian film artist Steven Woloshen. For one familiar with the history of Canadian avant-garde cinema (see Illusions #28) Woloshen’s work is even more astounding in that it steps right away from the concerns with photographic representation, documentary forms of experimental filmmaking and ample funding. He is a true individualist a self funded filmmaker, earning his living as a driver for a cinema studio. Woloshen jokingly says, “George Clooney produces my films but he doesn’t know it.”

Woloshen describes DITTY DOT COMMA (3 minutes, 2001) as a motion picture musical salute to visual punctuation. An obvious homage to Len Lye, incorporating scratched, painted maybe even baked footage the film rollicks along on an ebullient soundtrack of jazz music.

For THE BABBLE ON PALMS (4 minutes, 2001) Woloshen appropriated film off-cuts, parts of the film that the cameraperson uses for tests, partially covering the lens with their hand. Woloshen then adorns the sucession of hands with vibrant camerlaless animations of exotic filagrees, spinning vortexes and crazy lines as a mad sort of sign language for psychic palm readers. The psychic realm is humourously underscored by a soundtrack of Indian music.

It can be easy to forget, amidst the babble of the new, that there are still filmmakers working entirely with film. Woloshen is one such artist and his work exuberant with the life, verve and the creative spirit of Len Lye.

Tessa Laird digitally reworked Lye’s first film TUSALAVA playfully re-presenting it as A FLIP AND TWO TWISTS (being a play on the title of Lye’s sculpture Trilogy) (3 minutes 32 seconds, 2005). Laird described her process thus, “… the closing sequence of … TUSALAVA, flipped on its side and given two twists – black and white becomes shades of green, and a soundtrack is introduced.” The mid-nineties psychedelic dance music track transforms TUSALAVA’s weta like head, revolving 360 degrees on its neck, extending it’s tongue, as a record player arm and needle, into the spinning disc, becoming a predatory dance music DJ, spinning discs, adding new meaning to the idea of the timelessness of art or simply updating TUSALAVA to a contemporary context (It worked. Not that there is anything wrong with the original TUSALAVA. Now there are two TUSALAVAS, one for our time and one for all time).

Stella Brennan’s 2-channel video ZenDV, (2003) seemed the polar opposite of Lye’s work. Whereas his films were painstakingly crafted and bore the unmistakable mark of his own hand Brennan privileges the artist’s mind. For her concept rather than craft are the territory of art. One half of ZenDV is a blue screen intersected by a scratch and specks of dust. The other half are colour bars used to calibrate video signals. These bars also include dust and dirt particles. As a fitting marker of our place in time it is all machine made.

Seeing still images of this work reproduced in, say, a catalogue one could assume that it is a work of high modernism. A flat blue plane intersected by a straight, white vertical line, lightly sprinkled with a few white specks and a hair. Or a rigidly symetrical arrangement of blocks of pure colour, again sullied by a random assortment of dust, dirt and hair. As such they may suggest a transcendent realm which admits something of the chaos and uncertainty inherent in life. Or maybe the impossibility of a higher order ever gaining ascendency.

But this is not quite so in Brennan’s work. As the dust and hair are electronically generated, rather than real, they create altogether different associations. The dust and hair are created by filters in the Final Cut Pro digital editing system. As such they are meant to lend texture and authenticity to digital images. In the same way that sepia tints create an aura of nostalgia and history in photography. Or woodgrained finishes on plastic radio and TV cabinets or automobile dashboards evoke notions of quality and craft. It is an odd feature of progress that as one technology usurps another it initally attempts to mimic that which it will replace.

Hence lightbulbs that look like candle flames. The very feature of dust and scratches on film that was so annoying to filmmakers and projectionists, who did everything they could to eliminate them, becomes, in the age of electronic cinema, a marker of authenticity, something desirable. Even if it is fake. The electronically generated dust, dirt and hair keep reappearing on the screen at exactly the same place and time. They are not random. They are programmatic.

Brennan has taken her cue from ZEN FOR FILM by Nam June Paik in which he continuously projected a loop of clear, transculent film which, as it passed through the projector, accumulated dust, hair and scratches. This, Paik may have asserted, is the true nature of film, its absolute materiality. The irony here is that digital images do not deteriorate the same way that film images do. Dust, scatches and hair on a video tape, video heads or in a hard drive register differently. Digital life processes are different from analogue ones. Every time a digital artwork is shuffled from one hard drive to another it will change. Each DVD copy that is burned from the original changes, being made again and differently. Every monitor the artwork is shown on will reproduce a slightly different blue. How is it that something can be always the same yet always different? Unchanging and changing at the same time. Is that Zen?

Jae Hoon Lee’s A LEAF (3 minutes 35 seconds, 2004) evokes Stan Brakhage’s THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS (1981) but once again we have moved from the analogue to the digital. A LEAF appears to be a continuous pan along a seemingly never ending leaf, set against a soundtrack of cicadas. Lee had scanned leaves for a year before digitally threading them together as evocation of the growth cycle of plants. One thinks of a strip of film passing through a movie projector.

In her paper, titled Accents and Silences, Janine Randerson introduced us to the sonic sculptures of Anit Pitaru. An Israeli artist resident in New York, Pitaru cites Len Lye as a major influence on his interactive animations which incorporate design, movement and performance. (See http://www.insertsilence.com http://www.pitaru.com and http://www.showstudio.com).

For her own interactive video installation PEACE IN SPACE presented at the Film Archive in Wellington through July and August, 2005 Randerson suspended four curved perspex

screens from the ceiling, hovering like flying saucers above the viewer, onto which she projected various images. Each dome had its own theme and title – Polar Shift, Pink Shift, Red Shift and Blue Shift, all different but related toward a greater whole. Mini borealis. Walking under one of these spiritual parasols, galactic equators or circles in the sky, the viewer triggered light sensors which in turn activate various programmed image, light and sound sequences. Randerson appropriated images of cellular and celestial bodies by scanning books on science, microbiology, internet sites and 3-D animation. PEACE IN SPACE harked back to Jordan Belson’s spiritual science fictions of the 1950s and 1960s (Belson collaborated with the composer Henry Jacobs on a series of concerts incorporating abstract and cosmic imagery combined with electronic sound between 1957 and 1959) and the musical compositions of Alexander Scriabin who attempted to correlate music and colour as a colour organ in his symphony PROMETHEUS, THE POEM OF FIRE (1910). Just as Scriabin attempted a synthesis between science and spirituality in art Randerson’s PEACE IN SPACE also represnts a convergence of art, science and technology as a collaborative work between her, the audio artist Jason Johnston and the Human Interface Technology Laboratory all toward the utopian ideal of the demilitarization of space.

Coming at a time when I had almost completely given up on the idea of experimental film ever being given its due in New Zealand the symposium was a welcome relief. We have had practitioners working continuously in this arena for 35 years now, many of them notable artists. Yet our arts and cultural institutions, particularly those mandated to support our moving image culture, have demonstrated a spectacular indifference to the idea of film as art. This being more ironic in that the greatest work by one of our greatest visual artists, Len Lye, were his experimental films. But then the New Zealand mentality is particularly adept at repositioning a cinematic art work such as FREE RADICALS as a rock video.

To a distant observer many of the New Zealand made media art works appeared to have been made by people removed from themselves, more willing to comment on external rather than internal events, their work more formal than self revealing or confessional. Some of it even seemed cold. A little more humour and revelation of human foibles and folly, maybe in the tradition of George Kuchar or Joe Gibbons would be welcome. Certainly any curated screening of works influenced by Len Lye are bound to be graphic but we could also incorporate something of the playful nonsensicality of Robert Breer or the zaniness of his daughter Emily into our tradition. That is a part of the beauty of Lye who was able to both encompass the formality of modernism whilst also infusing it with life and energy. Maybe our media artists could become a little more casual and careless about their work and their soundtracks a little less serious. Too often we heard portentous soundtracks sounding something like advanced European music of the early Twentieth Century. Active and imaginative interaction between sound and image have been a hallmark of the Amerrican avant-garde cinema, but in our work the sound seemed to be merely accompanying the images, rather than interrogating them. At times it seemed as if the makers lacked confidence in the power of their images and editing. Maybe they were trying too hard to reach out and communicate. The main thing, though, is that people are continuing to produce interesting work in genres derived from avant-garde cinema. It will be a great day when our legion of professional media arts office holders and educators start to support such work in an energetic and meaningful way with something of the depth and integrity of film artists. But maybe such hope is as utopian as Jonas Mekas’ dreams, imaginings and visions of cinema.

REFERENCES

Broderick, Peter: SINCE CINEMA EXPANDED: Interview with Gene Youngblood in Millennium Film Journal, Nos 16/17/18 Fall/Winter 1986/87 pp 55-66

Filmmakers’ Cooperative Catalogue No. 7, New York Filmmakers, NY 1989.

Frye, Brian: INTERVIEW WITH JONAS MEKAS, in Senses of Cinema www.sensesofcinema.com

Greene, Rachel: Internet Art, Thames&Hudson, London, 2004

Harris, Miriam: THE CANADIAN CONNECTION: Steven Woloshens’s Ebullient Creations. Talk at the Particles to Pixels Symposium, Auckland, September 3, 2005

Heidegger, Martin: ON THE WAY TO LANGUAGE,

Harper & Row, New York 1971

Horrocks, Roger: FIGURES OF MOTION. Talk at the Particles to Pixels Symposium, Auckland, September 3, 2005

Lister, Martin/Dovey, John/Giddings, Seth/Grant, Ian & Kelly, Kieran: NEW MEDIA: A Critical Introduction, Routledge, London 2003

Manovich, Lev: WHAT IS DIGITAL CINEMA?, http://jupiter.ucsd.edu/%7Emanovich/text/digital-cinema.html

Paul, Christiane: DIGITAL ART, Thames & Hudson, London 2003

Reminiscences of personal conversations with Fred Camper 1986-1995.

Rush, Michael: VIDEO ART, Thames & Hudson, 2003

Sitney, P Adams: VISIONARY FILM: The American Avant-Garde 1943-2000 Oxford University Press, NY 2002

Wees, William C: LIGHT MOVING IN TIME: Studies in Visual Aesthetics and Avant-Garde Film, University of California Press, 1992

© Martin Rumsby 2009

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Paul Sharits films

Wintercourse l2 minutes1962

Ray Gun Virus l4 minutes 1966

Unrolling Event (Fluxfilm) 5 seconds, silent 1966

Wrist Trick (Fluxfilm) 30 seconds, silent, 1966

Dots 1 & 2 (Fluxfilm) 30 seconds, silent, 1966

Sears Catalogue (Fluxfilm) 30 seconds, silent, 1966

Word Movie (Fluxfilm 29) | aka Wrote Movie 4 minutes, 1966

Piece Mandala/End War 5 minutes, 1966

Razor Blades 25 minutes, two screens, l965-68

N:O:T:H:I:N:G 36 minutes, 1968

T, O, U, C, H, I, N, G, 36 minutes, 1968

S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED 42 minutes, l968-7l

Inferential Current 8 minutes, 1971

Sound Strip/Film Strip, two screens, 25 minutes, 1971-72

Sound Strip/Film Strip, four screens, 8 minutes, 1971-72

Axiomatic Granularity 20 minutes, 1972-3

Damaged Film Loop (alternate title: The Forgetting of Impressions and Intentions)

Indefinite duration, two-screen vertical projection with one image above the other, quadraphonic sound, 1972-1974

Synchronousoundtracks 32.5 minutes, two screens, 1973-1974

Synchronoussoundtracks, 10 minutes each, three-screen projection, synchronous sprocket hole sound (triphonic sound), locational film piece, 1974

Color Sound Frames 6.5 minutes, 1974

Vertical Contiguity, 15 minutes, 2-screen projection, 1974

Analytical Studies III: Color Frame Passages 22 minutes, 1973-74

Apparent Motion 30 minutes, 1975

Element Studies: Earth/Water/Sky/Fire 15 minutes at 18fps, silent, two-screens, 1971-75

Shutter Interface 32.5 minutes, 2-screens or 4-screens, quadraphonic sound, 1975

Analytical Studies I: The Film Frame 25 minutes, silent l971-76

Analytical Studies II: Un-Framed Lines 30 minutes, silent l97l-76

Analytical Studies IV: Blank Color Frames 15 minutes, l975-76

Dream Displacement 25 minutes, 2-screen or 4-screen, quadraphonic sound, 1976

Epileptic Seizure Comparison 34 minutes, 1976

Tails 3 minutes, 1976

Declarative Mode 38 minutes (at 24 fps, 50 minutes at 18 fps), for one or two screens, 1976-77

Tirgu Jiu, 10 minutes, 2-screens, silent

Episodic Generation 30 minutes, single screen or 4-screens, 1978

I Specchi infinite duration, three-screen slide projection, three sound tracks, 35mm film, 1979-1980

Sketches in Hawaii 9 minutes super-8, two-screens, silent, 1981

3rd Degree 24 minutes, 3-screen projection and single-screen projection, 1982

Bad Burns 5 minutes, 1982

Brancusi’s Sculpture Ensemble at Tirgu Jiu 21 minutes, two screens, 1977-84

Figment I: Fluxglam Voyage in Search of the Real Maciunas 175 minutes, video, 1977-1986

Passare I (Italia) 30 minutes, silent, 1979-1986

Rapture 20 minutes, video, 1987

Wintercourse

12 minutes (18fps), black and white, silent, 1962

Discovered in summer of 1985, of a set of “haiku-imagistic films” I did before coming to my characteristic style, as in Ray Gun Virus; I thought I’d destroyed all these pre-pure films, in about 1969-1970, the time of my separation from my first marriage. The film concerns my marriage, which lasted seven years; it was shot during its first year, when I was a painting student at the University of Denver. It is full of apprehensions, in a montage style which counterposes “opposites”: sexuality and religion; seasonal opposites; hopefulness undercut by fears of eventual separation (the image of a statue of two women, arm in arm, reading a book). I find it visually and kinetically interesting, after all these years.

Ray Gun Virus

14 minutes 1966

Although affirming projector, projection beam, screen, emulsion, film frame structure, etc., this is not an “abstract film”/projector as pistol/time-colored pills/yes=no/mental suicide and then, rebirth as self-projection. “… just colors and strobe … ‘light-color energy patterns (analogies of neural transmission systems) generate internal color-time shape and allow the viewer to become aware of the electrical-chemical functionings of his own nervous system’ … It’s true.” David Curtis, International Times

Ray Gun Virus is a work in which no images appear yet one can get pure identity on film. … projected film itself makes the viewer aware of where he stands. Ray Gun Virus is not so-called ‘Psychedelic Cinema’ but even more and goes beyond it through Sharits’ bright clarification of the media.” Takahiko Iimura, Film Art

Statement of Intentions for the Selection Jury of 4th International Experimental Film Competition

I am tempted to use this occasion to say nothing at all and simply let my films function as the carriers of themselves – except that this would be arrogant for a young man to assert and, more important, a good deal of my art does not, in fact, “contain itself.” It is difficult mfor me to verbalize about “my intentions” not only because the films are largely non-verbal experiences but because they are structured so as to demand more of viewers than attention and appreciation: that is, these works require a certain fusion of “my intentions” with the “films’ intentions” and with the “viewers’ intentions.” This has nothing to do with “pleasing an audience” – I mean to say that in my cinema flashes of projected light initiate neural transmission as much as they are analogues of such transmission systems and that the human retina is as much a “movie screen” as is the screen proper. At the risk of sounding immodest, by re-examining the basic mechanisms of motion pictures and by making these fundamentals explicitly concrete, I am working toward a completely new conception of cinema. Traditionally, “abstract films,” because they are extensions of the aesthetics and pictorial principles of painting or are simply demonstrations of optics, are no more cinematic than narrative-dramatic films which squeeze literature and theatre onto a two-dimensional screen. I wish to abandon imitation and illusion and enter directly into the higher drama of: celluloid, two-dimensional strips; individual rectangular frames; the nature of sprockets and emulsion; projector operations; the three-dimensional light beam; environmental illumination; the two-dimensional reflective screen surface; the retinal screen; optic nerve and individual psycho-physical subjectivities and consciousness. In this cinematic drama, light is energy rather than a tool for the representation of non-filmic objects, shapes and textures. Given the fact of retinal inertia and the flickering shutter mechanism of film projection, one may generate virtual forms, create actual motion (rather than illustrate it), build actual color-space (rather than picture it), and be involved in actual time (immediate presence).

While my films have thematic structures (such as the sense of striving, leading to mental suicide and death, and then rhythms of rebirth in Ray Gun Virus and the viability of sexual dynamics as an alternative to destructive violence in Piece Mandala/End War), they are not at all stories. I think of my present work as being occasions for meditational-visionary experience.

Synopsis: For 4th International Experimental Film Competition

The film was made to induce the sense of a consciousness which destroys itself by linear striving, fixated on achieving the “blueness” of inner vision yet caught up, by that very intention, in obsessive cycles – consciousness hung up in patterns external and in opposition to its own structure. Weakened by its own aggressiveness, infection sets in; progressive vicious cycles of decay amount to a self-induced death, a mental suicide. Through the blank darkness, consciousness is freed to turn inward upon itself and is reborn on its own organic terms. The film does what it is. Non-filmic images and stories are not allowed to interfere with the viewers’ awareness of the immediate reality while experiencing the film. Light-color-energy patterns generate internal time-shape and allow the viewer to become aware of the electrical-chemical functioning of his own nervous system. Just as the “film’s consciousness” becomes infected, so also does the viewers’: the projector is an audio-visual pistol; the screen looks at the audience; the retina screen is a target. Goal: the temporary assassination of the viewers’ normative consciousness. The film’s final “image” is a faint blue (attached by not striving for it) and the viewer is left to his own reconstruction of self, left with a screen upon which his retina may project its own patterns.

Exhibition: Fourth Int’l Experimental Film Competition, Knokke-Le-Zoute; “Twenty Years of American Personal Film” anthology, National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo, 1966.

Collections: Museum of Modern Art, NY; Royal Archive of Belgium.

Piece Mandala/End War

5 minutes 1966

Soundtrack by Bob Grimes.

Blank color frequencies space out and optically feed into black and white images of one lovemaking act which is seen simultaneously from both sides of its space and both ends of its time.

“Thanks for the strip … it IS that/cut to the bone of some matter that does really concern me: how a man and a woman meet nakedly head-on among the colors … lovely: I can hardly wait to see the entirety of that vision ….” Stan Brakhage

Piece Mandala/End War reminds me very much of the back light (GoKo) which illuminates the spirit of Buddha – yet no image of Buddha appears; rather, a couple of naked bodies. I have never imagined that GoKo could really happen and illuminate as in this film.” Takahiko Iimura, Film Art

PIECE MANDALA/END WAR/SYNOPSIS FOR 4th INTERNATIONAL EXPERIMENTAL FILM FESTIVAL COMPETITION: This work was made for an anthology of films the general theme of which was to be For Life, Against The War; the film was not completed in time to be eligible for inclusion in that anthology and thus stands on its own as a statement of that theme. Piece Mandala/End War is not narrative drama; instead it is meant to provide a short but intense meditative experience. “Meditative” implies suspension of linear time and spatial direction; circularity and simultaneity are basic characteristics of mandalas, the most effective tools for turning perception inward. In this temporal mandala, blank color frequencies space out and optically feed into black and white images of one love-making gesture which is seen simultaneously from both sides of its space and both ends of its time. Color structure is linear-directional but implies a largely infinite cycle; light-energy and image frequencies induce rhythms related to the psychophysical experience of the creative act of cunnilingus. Conflict and tension are natural in a yin/yang universe but atomic structure, yab/yum and other dynamic equilibrium systems make more cosmic sense as conflict models than do the destructive orgasms the United States is presently having in Vietnam.

(More truthfully, I had no idea of what I was actually doing while making Piece Mandala/End War. My wife and I had been separated and I began the film immediately following our reconciliation; since then, in our unending attempt to understand what the film might mean, we have come to understand that that search – and then, the film – has been of the deepest significance in the reconstruction of our marriage. Only recently in Providence, while travelling with the poet David Franks, after awaking from nightmares and writing the following note to Frances, did it become clear to me that the film is properly dedicated to her: “seeing, at last, your mind as it must be at times in unendurable anguish, a series of events leading to that sense of self as burden, Artaud making art of it, misery, saw your minding of such in my own horror, shocked, shaking my head to get a feeling for what is dream and what is not, my head a crazy catalogue of images, classical symbols, cartoons of grief – but it is not always so and it is that lack of it which has to stand in for joy in the absence of blessings – and there are, in rare instances, blessings and you are often there at those places and I have a total sense of sense and you are absolutely cream, having to step on plastic flowers, my mind bursting, blossoming – someday I will tell you my dreams when it is quiet and I am more willing to let the tragic have its due warmth – that comes later; now I am content that my dreams were dreams”).

Word Movie (Fluxfilm 29)

4 minutes 1966

Approximately 50 words visually “repeated” in varying sequential and positioned relationships/spoken word soundtrack/structured, each frame being a different word or word fragment, so that the individual words optically-conceptually fuse into one three and three-quarter minute-long word.

N:O:T:H:I:N:G

36 minutes 1968

Based, in part, on the Tibetan Mandala of the Five Dhyani Buddhas / a journey toward the center of pure consciousness (Dharma-Dhatu Wisdom)/space and motion generated rather than illustrated/time-color energy create virtual shape/in negative time, growth is inverse decay.

“The screen, illuminated by Paul Sharits’ N:O:T:H:I:N:G, seems to assume a spherical shape, at times – due, I think, to a pearl-like quality of light his flash-frames create… a baroque pearl, one might say – wondrous! … One of the most beautiful films I’ve seen.” Stan Brakhage

“You are pulled into the world of color, your color senses are expanded, enriched. You become aware of changes, of tones around your own daily reality. Your vision is changed. You begin to see light on objects around you. … Your experience range is expanded. You have gained a new insight. You have become a richer human being.” Jonas Mekas

“In essence there are only three flicker films of importance, Arnulf Rainer, The Flicker, and N:O:T:H:I:N:G. … In terms of the subject we have discussed here, it is Sharits’s N:O:T:H:I:N:G that opens the field for the structural film with a flicker base.” P. Adams Sitney

“When Paul Sharits made his first colour flickers – Ray Gun Virus (1966) and Piece Mandala/End War (1966) – he further softened the inherent strong articulations. Pure colours when rapidly flashed one after the other tend to blend, pale, and veer toward whiteness. By the time he made N:O:T:H:I:N:G he had learned how to control these apparent shifts and to group his colour bursts into major and minor phrases with, say, a pale blue dominant at one time, a yellow dominant at another. From the very beginning the screen flashes clusters of colours, while the sound suggests a telegraphic code, chattering teeth, or the plastic click of suddenly changing television channels. In the middle of the chain of colour changes he shows us an image interlude of a chair animated in positive and negative. It floats down the screen, away into nothing, or the near nothing of the mutually exterminating colours. The interlude is marked by the sound of a telephone. From early on, the film is continually interrupted for short periods by the two-dimensional image of a light bulb dripping its vital light fluid. From the first occurrence of this image until the last drop of bulb fluid has leaked out, a series of static beeps is heard, gradually spaced further and further apart. In the end we see only long passages of colour clusters whose dominants are synchronized to the mooing of cows. Sharits molds the viewer’s attention and punctuates it by incorporating into his seemingly circular flicker films (the mandala is his chosen shape) linear signs for determining how much of the film’s time has expired, how much is yet to come. The dripping bulb is one such clock; we anticipate the film will end when it does. Ken Jacobs shows us the original Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son first so that we can gauge the development of his variations, only to trick us at the end, as Nelson does when he lies about the time of Bleu Shut. Sharits, however, seems to be interested in maintaining the purity of the relation between the duration of his films and the internal expectations and milestones they generate.” P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film

N:O:T:H:I:N:G/FROM AN APPLICATION FOR A GRANT: The film will strip away anything (all present definitions of “something”) standing in the way of the film being its own reality, anything which would prevent the viewer from entering totally new levels of awareness. The theme of the work, if it can be called a theme, is to deal with the non-understandable, the impossible, in a tightly and precisely structured way. The film will not “mean” something – it will “mean,” in a very concrete way, nothing.

The film focuses and concentrates on two images and their highly linear but illogical and/or inverted development. The major image is that of a lightbulb which first retracts its light rays; upon retracting its light, the bulb becomes black and, impossibly, lights up the space around it. The bulb emits one burst of black light and begins melting; at the end of the film the bulb is a black puddle at the bottom of the screen. The other image (note that the film is composed, on all levels, of dualities) is that of a chair, seen against a graph-like background, falling backwards onto the floor (actually, it falls against and affirms the edge of the picture frame); this image sequence occurs in the center, “thig le” section of N:O:T:H:I:N:G. The mass of the film is highly vibratory color-energy rhythms; the color development is partially based on the Tibetan Mandala of the Five Dhyani Buddhas which is used in meditation to reach the highest level of inner consciousness – infinite, transcendental wisdom (symbolized by Vairocana being embraced by the Divine Mother of Infinite Blue Space). This formal-psychological composition moves progressively into more intense vibration (through the symbolic colors white, yellow, red and green) until the center of the mandala is reached (the center being the “thig le” or void point, containing all forms, both beginning and end of consciousness). The second half of the film is, in a sense, the inverse of the first; that is, after one has passed through the center of the void, he may return to a normative state retaining the richness of the revelatory “thig le” experience. The virtual shapes I have been working with (created by rapid alterations and patterns of blank color frames) are quite relevant in this work as is indicated by this passage from the Svetasvatara Upanishad: “As you practice meditation, you may see in vision forms resembling snow, crystals, smoke, fire, lightning, fireflies, the sun, the moon. These are signs that you are on your way to the revelation of Brahman.”

I am not at all interested in the mystical symbolism of Buddhism, only in its strong, intuitively developed imagistic power. In a sense, I am more interested in the mantra because unlike the mandala and yantra forms which are full of such symbols, the mantra is often nearly pure nonsense – yet it has intense potency psychologically, aesthetically and physiologically. The mantra used upon reaching the “thig le” of the Mandala of the Five Dhyani Buddhas is the simple “Om” – a steady vibrational hum. I’ve tried to compose the center of N:O:T:H:I:N:G, on one level, to visualize this auditory effect.

From a letter to Stan Brakhage, late spring 1968: “The film is about (it is) gradation-progression on many different levels; for years I had been thinking that if a fade is directional in that it is a hierarchical progression, and that that exists in and implies forward moving ‘time’, then why couldn’t one construct inverse time patterns, why couldn’t one structure a felt awareness of really going thru negative time? During the final shooting sessions these past few months I’ve had Vermeer’s ‘Lady Standing at the Virginals’ hanging above my animation stand and have had the most peculiar experience with that work in relation to N:O:T:H:I:N:G (the colons ‘meant’ to create somewhat the sense of the real yet paradoxical concreteness of ‘nothing’ … as Wittgenstein so beautifully reveals). As I began to recognize the complex interweaving of all levels of ‘gradation’ (conceptually, sensually, rhythmically, proportionately … even the metaphoric level of subject making music, etc.) in the Vermeer I began to see what I was doing in the film in a more conscious way. I allowed the feelings I was getting from this silent dialogue between process of seeing and process of structuring to further clarify the footage I was shooting. I can’t get over the intense mental-emotional journeys I got into with this work and hope that the film is powerful enough to allow others to travel along those networks.

Light comes thru the window on the left and not only illuminates the ‘Lady at the Virginals’ but illuminates the subjects in the two paintings (which are staggered in a forward-reverse simultaneous progression creating a sense of forward and backward time) hanging on the wall and the one painting the inside lid of the virginal! The whole composition is circular, folds in on itself but implies that part of that circle exists out in front of the surface. What really moved me was the realisation that the light falling across the woman’s face compounded the light-gradation-time theme by forcing one back on the awareness of (the paradox of) awareness. I.e., one eye, itself dark, is half covered with light while the other eye is in shadow; both eyes are gazing directly at the viewer as if the woman is projecting music at the viewer thru her gaze (as if reversing the ‘normal’ role of ‘perception’) … I mean, the whole point is that the instrument by which light-perception is made possible is itself in the dark.”)

T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G

12 minutes 1968

“In T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G he spells the title out, letter by letter, beginning with the T and ending the film with the G. Here still images begin to assume equal weight with the colour flicker. Single frame shots of a shirtless young man flash in positive and negative, both colour and black and white. In some of the shots he holds his tongue in a scissors as if about to cut it off; in others a woman’s fingernails are scratching his face. Two different stills of the scratching, in quick succession, test the spectator’s tendency to elide them into an illusion of movement. Mixed with these icons of violence are a photograph of an operation in colour and a close-up of genitals in intercourse in black and white. All through the film the word “destroy” is repeated by a male voice in a loop. Eventually the ear refuses to register it, and it begins to sound like other words… The metaphors of T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G totalize the suicidal and sexual inserts of Ray Gun Virus and Piece Mandala/End War and represent the viewing experience as erotic violence.” P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film

“…the obscene luminosity of T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G reaches a quasi-three-dimensional state of cinema, rushing at the viewer rather than inviting exploration. We could plausibly describe this phenomenon as a sort of chromatic ejaculation of light over the audience, since T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G sprays us with cinematic light, accentuating the viewers’ physical awareness of their bodies and the space surrounding them. Irrational cuts and a zero degree form of representation posit this film at the doors of cinema’s dematerialization (or what has been addressed as expanded cinema). Whilst generating a concatenation of neurophysiological vibrations beyond movement, it explores the physical exultation the rotation of images communicates directly to the brain.” (Experimental Filmclub, Dublin)

“The film’s title (letters separated by commas) shows the physical conception of Sharits’ cinema: starting from discrete units (still frames) a fluid movement is created (the cinematic illusion). […] In this film there are three types of images which show physical contact: the hands performing various destructive actions around the face; a surgical operation on an eye; a photo of sexual penetration. […] As demonstrated by his project on epileptic seizures (…), Sharits’ goal is to penetrate us as deeply as possible through the eyes, to make us vibrate in resonance with his film”. (Chodorov and Deville, Understanding Paul Sharits. Madala Films, Re:Voir, Paris, 2003).

“Visually, the title T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G written with each letter set off by a comma, signals the ordering of the film which is separated into six equal parts and a distinct middle section. The dominance of lavenders, oranges and yellows in the flicker system and the use of glitter create a consciously gaudy, cartoon-like effect, heightening a visual frenzy. In all but the middle,, poet David Franks appears in medium close-up; and in five of these six parts he is involved in two basic actions which occur at different stages. In one, Franks initially appears with his outstretched tongue between green glitter-covered scissors; alternating with this, he is seen with a red glitter-streaked cheek, and a woman’s long green glitter nails extending across his face from the side of the screen. As the film progresses, the two actions begin to move confusedly and indecisively toward and then away from the face, neither act assuming a definite direction. The indecisiveness continues into the fifth section, though with less action directed toward the face, and it ends with both hand and scissors withdrawing. But this development away from violence and potential destruction only finally becomes unambiguous in the last section where Franks appears with open eyes and without the glitter of destruction. Once in each section, including the centre, are segments of alternating close-ups of eye surgery and sexual intercourse that are not readily perceivable as such. They too look ambiguous and suggest ominousness and violence; yet both are positive forms of touching. The incipient destruction involving Franks through touching gestures never actualizes itself on the screen and the ambiguity, while serving to heighten the visual frenetic effect, finally prevents the destruction from taking place.” (Castelli-Sonnabend Catalogue)

“The mechanics of the psychological condition are what Sharits begins to explore – without, however, requiting them – in N:O:T:H:I:N:G and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G. In those films, certain narrative ‘events’ occur: in the former, as punctuations in the course of the flicker, making the cyclical (or mandala) structure of the film explicit (the image of a light bulb gradually fills with black and then, half-way through the film, the black begins to drain out of the object); in the latter, ‘events’ work as an emotional embodiment of the abstract condition of the montage.

In T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G two sets of recurrent images flash within the passages of colour-frames. One set involves the action/reaction aspect of the editing lexicon: a hand passes over the frontally posed face of a young man, leaving coloured tracks of scratches; the young man holds a scissors up to his extended tongue, seeming about to maim himself. The other set refers to the associative or metaphoric capacities of montage: a close-up of an eye being operated on creates a visual and emotive comparison between itself and a close-up of male and female genitals in the act of coitus. If this latter sets of images – violence to the eye and explicit sexuality – reminds viewers of a particular, earlier work within the history of film, the reference thus made is no accident. The Bunuel/Dali film Un Chien Andalou (1929) opens with an eye being slit and progresses towards images of both physical lust and violence. Within the canon of Surrealist Film Un Chien Andalou was an early statement of the intention to create a montage space out of unconscious reality rather than one tied to the parameters of external space. By driving the offices of montage inward, Surrealist Film is an early example of cinema’s exploration of the processes of association.

This mentalizing of the space of film is obviously the course that Frampton takes in Poetic Justice, and it is in part the course to which Sharits wishes to refer in T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G. I say “in part” because the Sharits film is a complex set of interlocking metaphors that are meant to combine to create a unified psychological field. The sexual imagery, with its roots in the unconscious, mirrors reciprocally the flicker material with its experiential basis in the involuntary network of physiological optics – the firing of retinal cells and the muscular movements of the eye. The film is once again a powerful statement of what it is like to be caught within the gears of that phenomenological machine of our experience; and, simultaneously, to have an analytic perspective upon it.” Paul Sharits by Rosalind Krauss, 1976 (Paul Sharits: Dream Displacement and Other Projects, exhibition catalogue, Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 1976)

“Surrealist tour-de-force.” Parker Tyler

On “10 Best Films of 1969” lists of Soren Agenoux and Jonas Mekas.

Razor Blades

25 minutes, two-screens, stereo-sound,1965-68

Produced in association with the American Film Institute.

(Projection instructions: two 100′ reels to be projected side by side onto one very large screen or two normal size screens/projectors should be identical, same focal length lenses, same intensity bulbs, detachable speakers must be placed one on each side of the room, half way between screen and projectors, for stereo effect/synch ‘left’ and ‘right’ reels by aligning title/credits which appear at beginning of each reel/proper reels for ‘right’ and ‘left’ projectors indicated on head leaders)

A mandala opens to the other side of consciousness/since the film ends as it begins and because its inner fabric is made up of (14 different) loops, an infinite loop is suggested/the varied lengthened loops are constructed so that viewers may chart variations in their consciousness of speed, rhythm and image recognition/projected side by side so that both images are regarded as one large image, subjective variability is geometrically increased and “repetition” is transcended.

‘How refreshing, how relaxing, coming at the end of a generally dull program, Razor Blades really lit up the inside of my head…the banquet of images was especially pleasing & tranquil from the first row where I sat. I very much dug your treatment of the sound, and as for pictures – well that is a much longer communiqué than this! Some of the word experiments (& letters) were especially informative to me, as I have had some very long-term thoughts about word image intercutting relationships. Also notable to me were the lovely circle animations at head and tail…well, with such ideas buzzing in my head, & in the mild after-euphoria of a beautiful (& indeed) IMAGE show, I felt the urgency and perhaps your receptivity to my sending of these impressions.’ Tony Conrad.

‘In Razor Blades, Paul Sharits consciously challenges our eyes, ears and minds to withstand a barrage of high powered and often contradictory stimuli. In a careful juxtaposition and fusion of these elements on different parts of our being, usually occurring simultaneously, we feel at times hypnotised and re-educated by some potent and mysterious force. Razor Blades follows the tradition of the stroboscopic films which affect our eyes on a physical level, causing an almost hypnotic transference of light from the screen of our minds. However, Sharits explores psychological as well as physical sensations. He seems intent upon going against the grain of our perception and feelings, and we are forced to either stop the flow of images or to dive into them fully with total abandon. If we can do this we find the film deeply satisfying, because it is conceived to break down our defences and then to work on a subconscious level to initiate us into a new level of awareness. By opposing the eyes and ears against the mind, Razor Blades cuts deeply, both in our psychic and visceral bodies, and is a forerunner of what films some day may become – totally programmed visual, auditory and psychological environments.’ David Beinstock, Whitney Museum

“This complex and controversial experiment utilizes two screens and the simultaneous projection of two separate films working in tandem. Each consists of unrelated, compulsively recurring images, not more than a few frames in length, interrupted by carefully spaced blank or colour frames. A powerful over-all rhythm and stroboscopic flicker is created by the irregular but insistent alternations of image and blankness. The result is a powerful subliminal barrage of strong sensory impressions probing the audience’s physiological and psychological limits. Related to neo-Dada and Pop, the film is strongly structuralist and reductive in its avoidance of “meaning” or “plot” yet offers the satisfaction of pure response to colour, pattern, and – particularly – rhythm. The images, though intentionally without logic, are frequently “hot” and endlessly repetitive: a fetus, a nude woman (with a razor passing over her), a penis (flaccid or erect), some ambiguous toilet activity; equally ritualistic is the repeated appearance of single sense-less words printed over some of the images. An agitated, monotonous electronic sound accompanies the swiftly moving, constantly changing visuals and flicker patterns.” (Amos Vogel, Film as a Subversive Art)

“This first 40’ section acts as an “introduction” to the (loop) body of the film; the last 40’ of th film is this section inverted. A pulsating mandala image is formed by the two contiguous images; the single frame alternation of complementary colors creates virtual circular shapes and striations which evokes a picture of the retinal screen of the eye (getting back into the eye, to the real origin of the visual image). The half circles begin moving forwards and backwards at different speeds and the mandala gradually opens (imagine cell division; imagine an opening and closing eye diaphram, one on each screen, one for each of the viewer’s eyes). The circles move oppositely to each other, one continually getting larger, the other continually getting smaller. The circles penetrate the gestures of teeth brushing in (A) and (B); one half of the teeth brushing gesture is seen on the left screen (brush pushed to the left), he other half on the right (pulling the brush to the right); simultaneous with this set of oppositions, diagonal bars run toward-into each other. Each time (A’s cycle runs through the word “RAZOR” flashes and “BLADES”: flashes twice each time (B) runs through its cycle. (B) is next contiguous with (C), dot patterns constantly alternating in positive and negative flood forward while flashes of a penis in 4 (cartoon-like) stages of erection recur over and over. (D) is the inverse of (C) – passion spent. (D) plays again (E) which optically fuses fetal life with outer space explorations (single letters, one frame each, spread apart, ask an almost subliminal question: A-R-E-Y-O-U-D-E-A-D-H-U-H-?”) In (F) a figure, alternately male and female, rotates in a new order of movement which is ambiguously intercut with an image of raw meta being sliced in half by a razor and then covered with a shaving cream topping (reference to loop (K)’s strawberry shortcake-fetus) which is topped off with glittering stars. (H) is an instructional loop – a highly personal act formalized into a flickering, personalized ritual: at first this seems humorous but, through repetition, the mood becomes hideous. The hideousness is deepened by (I) in which a face constantly and radically changes expression; the face, changing in color and alternating in positive and negative, is mutely absurd but when paralleled with loop (J), also in positive-negative and an image of a man slashing his wrist over and over intercut with a banana opening and closing its own skin, the mood approaches horror… the face seems somehow connected to the arm and wrist being slashed. The cutting in (J) develops new meanings when seen with loop (K) which begins as a strawberry shortcake but gradually becomes an image of a monkey fetus being surgically removed from its mother’s womb. The same surgery, from a different angle, is intercut with words and a mouth opening in loop (L); a checkered circle spins in (L), formally balancing the symmetrical strawberry shortcake image of (K) and implying a return toward the opening mandala section of the film. (M) contains two images of the checkered circle and brings the viewer back to the mundane world… the man who was brushing his teeth in (A) & (B) is now shaving. (N) shows the man shaving (inverse, mirror image of him shaving in (M)) amidst an onslaught of nearly subliminal phrases simultaneously stating: “THIS IS NOT THE, END’, THIS IS THE END”, WHERE DID NOWHERE GO DID NOWHERE GO WHERE DID…” The mandala is formed again, consciousness is projected outward and normative vision restored – “beginning,” turned inside out, becomes end.

Soundtrack for Razor Blades/Paul Sharits

Each reel is to have a soundtrack: speakers are to be placed to create a stereo sound environment which parallels, affects and is affected by the “stereo” image projection. The sound system is structures so as to “push and pull” one sideways (constant awareness of polarity); this swaying of consciousness is related to the way the visual images frequently seem to transfer from one screen to another. Ever other frame in the film will have either a sound or a silence: this pattern of sound vibration refers the viewer back constantly to an awareness of the basic unit of cinema – the frame. The vibratory sound also attunes the body for the proper reception of the visual structures: the sound will have as much a physical effect as does the visual patterning. The left soundtrack is the inverse of the right; this is part of my overall concept of evoking temporal circularity, directionless motion, an auditory mandala.

Inferential Current

8 minutes 1971

A mapping of an image of the linear passage of “16mm film frames” and “emulsion scratches” onto an actual 16mm film strip (the unperceived film “print”)/the aural word “miscellaneous” is extended to a length of eight minutes by serial fragmentation, looping, staggering and overlaying/a variational but non-developmental strand thru time./Dedicated to Lynda Benglis.

“Like S:S:S:S:S:S, Inferential Current is concerned with the movement of film through the projector and with the distinction between the film strip itself and its image, as it appears on the screen. In this film, the image is that of a whole film strip, with sprocket holes. The movement of the sprocket holes shift speeds and creates illusions of motions (reversals of direction, etc.) but also alludes to the motion of the actual movement of the actual film going through the projector. There is an inter-play of two generations of vertical scratches, which provides an ironic effect.” David James, Art & Cinema

Sound Strip/Film Strip

two screens, 25 minutes, 1971-72

Sound Strip/Film Strip

four screens, 8 minutes, 1971-72

Sound Strip/Film Strip (1971, infinite duration, four super 8 loop cartridges for four Fairchild Seventy-07projectors, colour, sound. Constructed with the assistance of Fairchild Camera Corporation through AV Corporation, Houston: additional assistance from Emerson Plastics, In., Sterling Electronic and students from the Rice University Studio Art Department and the Unversity of St. Thomas Art Department. Voice on soundtrack: Barbara Kohn. Dedicated to Klaus Kertess.

Made with the assistance of William Brand for three-month exhibition at Contemporary Arts Museum, Texas (march-May 1972). Four related films are projected, sideways, one next to the other, in a serial manner which somewhat simulates the look of a strip of film frames (scale: 9’ high, 28’ long); the soundtrack, one word taken out of its normative temporal shortness and suspended in a linear space, is also 4-part (each loop has sound). The loops are ten minutes long; because they are asynchronous the work as a whole will rarely repeat its initial cycle. The structure of the piece is isotropic, non-developmental and oscillatory; the theme is “linearity.” Because the work has no beginning or end but may be projected continuously-indefinitely, I regard it as “location” rather than a “theatrical event”; its “subject” is the passage of celluloid through a projector and the passage of a word from time into space.

S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED

42 minutes 1968-71

A conceptual lap dissolve from “water currents” to “film strip current”/Dedicated to my son, Christopher.

“Yes. S:S:S:S:S:S is beautiful. The successive scratchings of the stream-image film is very powerful vandalism. The film is a very complete organism with all the possible levels really recognized.” Michael Snow

“In his earlier flicker films, Sharits explores the mechanisms of perception and projection, and now he takes his investigations to their logical extreme – to the nature of the film-strip itself. His analysis is constructed on close-up footage of water currents in a stream bed. In each of the three, fourteen minute loops, he progressively decreases the number of superimposed current directions from six to one. On this film he adds continuous straight scratch liens in multiples of three, so that by the end of the work the screen is a grill of twenty-four lines, behind which we see the coursing water. The soundtrack, operating on entirely different rhythms, is a series of word-loops. Superimposed are electronic “beeps” that phase into sync with their splice-dam referents. The fascination and energy of the film derive from its multi-dimensional dialectics, in which all available systems of experience are contrasted with their logical opposites/complements: sound against vision, film as representation against film as object, circular against linear structure, progression against regression, past against whole, meaning against abstraction. What makes this work especially compelling is that its succinct formal analysis is accommodated in the purely sensual experience offered by the free-form motion and colours of the stream, and the antiphonal approach and retreat of the voices. Sharits creates both lyricism and drama from celluloid itself.” David James, Art & Cinema

“A scratch is generally considered to be a negative factor which distracts from and eliminated the illusion by cutting away at the emulsion base of the film itself. But in S:S:S:S:S:S, Sharits makes a scratch a positive factor in its additive and subtractive relationship to the recorded film illusion. And, at the same time, he uses the scratch to emphasize the linearity of the film material and its passage through the projector… Here as in Sharits’ flicker works, there is a conscious concern with space.. As Ray Gun Virus creates the space and illusions out of the film materials, in a very different way, S:S:S:S:S:S modulates and transmutes its space through the illusions carved out of the strip of film itself.” Regina Cornwell, Art Forum, September 1971

“He makes similar use of the word “exochorion” in his subsequent film S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED, this time spoke fugally with similar words by female voices. On the screen we see, for the first time in a Sharits film, a moving image – flowing water. While the cycles of water current three times decrease in layers of superimposition from six to one, the number of vertical scratches on the film steadily increases in increments of three. The viewer clocks the film in relation to his expectation that when there is no more room for three additional scratches the film will end. The multiple superimposition of water flowing in different direction initially presents a very flat image in the opening minutes of he film. But the subsequent scratches, which are deep, ripping through the colour emulsion to the pure whit of the film base and often ploughing up a visual residue of filmic matter at the edges, affirm a literal flatness which makes the water seem to occupy deep space by contrast.” P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film

S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED (1970) is not a flicker film. It is instead a work that emerges from the grammar of superimposition. Each of the film’s three fourteen-minute sections is composed of the same ‘ground’ of visual imagery. This imagery is of moving water, shot from a rapidly flowing river, taken at differing focal lengths and screen directions. At the beginning of each section six of these shots are superimposed on one another, forming a self-cancelling depth, a network of moving current that criss-crosses itself into a flat, circular rhythm. As the film proceeds, five of the layers fade out in succession, leaving a single photographic image free to enforce its sense of palpable, physical depth.

However, by the time this has happened, the hollow of that photographic space has been partially countered by a set of marks that begin to block the viewer’s way to the image. Some four minutes into the beginning of the film three vertical scratches appear on the surface of the image. These scratch-marks, furrowing up the emulsive coating of the film, at first appear to stand in front of the image, like bars on a window. As each new three-part set is added (at regular three-minute intervals), one begins to realize that these scratches will gradually ‘erase’ the illusionistic matter that appears behind them. (Indeed, the film ends when the addition of one more set of scratches would entirely obliterate the image of the river-stream, wholly supplanting it by the stream of scratches.)

With this realization comes an enforced sense of the fact that the scratches are literally not in front of the recessive space of the water, but within it. For they have gouged off the light-sensitive surface of the film, exposing the flat band of celluloid which is the physical support for the image. The scratches expose a ground which is in that sense behind the image, fundamental to its very being. The photographic imagery which is itself oscillating (through the strategy of superimposition) between flatness and depth is progressively trapped or sandwiched between two other layers of flatness: the first, the image of the scratch which establishes the flatness of the screen; the second, the unveiling of the celluloid which establishes the flatness of the filmstrip, the physical object moving through the gate of the projector. For film, the world of experience – all photographic experience – is trapped between these two parallel flatnesses; and the dramatization of this fact is the basic subject of S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED.“ Paul Sharits by Rosalind Krauss, 1976 (Paul Sharits: Dream Displacement and Other Projects, exhibition catalogue, Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 1976)

“I am very clear that I receive instructions from outside… it’s something so simply wonderful as being granted responsibility for what’s been given you to do.. as distinct from being charged continually with forces you have absolutely no control over. I’ve seen may artists begin to make this transition. I’m watching Paul Sharits begin to make it, for instance. Actually in S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED, Sharits presented us with the voices of the Muses, literally on the soundtrack. Having done that, he had certainly a more comfortable relationship with them… Do you know the story about Paul, and how he came to that soundtrack? That was the sound he heard while working on some film – not I believe, this one – when he was sitting late in his little room in Baltimore. And he couldn’t stop the sound, it kept coming back. There are infuriating aspects to the voices of the muses which were captured beautifully for us by Rameau in that piece called “The Conversation of the Muses.” In fact, people should really listen both to the (Sharits) soundtrack, and that piece by Rameau. There can be no question, while we may not know what is being talked about – ‘Muse’ may be only a very inferior term – that there is something that artists share. Some refer to them as whisperings, some as outright visions, some as sounds, or ways in which sounds in the surrounding atmosphere gang up and produce effects on their nervous system.” Stan Brakhage, interviewed by Hollis Frampton, Art Forum (Jan. 1973)

In fact, I was editing S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED when I heard the voices; a description of this rather frightening occasion is included in my journals regarding that film, published in Film Culture #65-66.

Collection: Anthology Film Archives; Centre National D’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Paris.

Axiomatic Granularity

20 minutes, 1972-1973

Dedicated to Jonas Mekas.

“There is a paradox in such artistically special (and significant) films as Sharits’ very real and reflexively beautiful Axiomatic Granularity. It is that in becoming so accessible and authentic through its refusal to be anything but itself – emulsion grain seen in color and movement – the film for most viewers is likely to be impenetrable … the film begins to evoke a quiet flow of thought. That thought, however, is repeatedly returned to the light perceived on the screen as the film calls attention to itself through the random appearances of scratches, becoming simply and pleasantly what it is, refreshingly nothing more.” Anthony Bannon, Buffalo Evening News

In spring 1972 a series of analysis of color emulsion “grain” imagery was undertaken (the word “imagery” is significant because only representations of light sensitive crystals, or “grain,” remain on a developed roll of color film.) The investigation is preliminary to the shooting of Section 1 of RE:RE:PROJECTION, Variable Emulsion Density, wherein attempts to construct convincing lap dissolves of solid color fields with straight fine grain Ektachrome ECO proved unsatisfactory. It was thought that more “grainy” color field interactions might adequately prevent the undesirable smoothness of hue mixture resulting from ECO superimposition. A discreteness of individual hues, during superimposition is necessary; then, a switch to Ektachrome EF pushed extra stops in development, seemed somewhat reasonable. Still, unexpected (color blurring) problems arose and it was clear that a “blow up” of the situation was called for; a set of primary principles was needed and, particle by particle, Axiomatic Granularity seemed to formulate itself. Its “structure” lacks normative “expressive intentionality.”

i. Emulsion/Crystal Representation A (5 minutes)

Visual: Fades, shot on EF for ASA 1000 (pushed three stops); then enlarged four times (This extreme enlargement of surface are exaggerated flaws in the EF original, particularly base side scratched caused by projection. The scratches could have been eliminated by a “liquid gate” process at the internegative stage; however, it was decided that a completely authentic document of the EF was desirable – the scratches periodically return attention to the celluloid strip passage aspect of the film and enhance its specimen-like quality.); and each frame reprinted four times on an optical printer (Optix, Chicago, Spring 1973); “grain” is “pictured.”

Audio: Basic sound, 12 wine glasses of various shapes dropped from a height of eight feet onto cement floor (Antioch College, Winter 1972-73). This few second long crashing was looped and its sound was run through a Moog synthesizer, the envelopes of each sound particle being constantly and randomly altered by white noise generator control (SUNY Buffalo, Spring 1973)(; this induced a moderate “smoothing” of the still loop-like rhythm. This five minute track was then rerecorded into a three track mix, each track being recorded at a slightly different speed (normal, slower and faster than normal); the relatively continuous sounding, non-loop-like resultant forms the basic “crystal representation” and is heard in this mode in Section II (Motion Picture Sound, Cleveland, Spring 1973). Here, in Section 1, the track is heard backwards and at 1/2 normal speed, so as to thoroughly analyze crystalline decay sonics.

ii. Emulsion Crystal Representation B (5 minutes)

Visual: Lap dissolves, shot on EF for ASA 1000 (pushed three stops); the dissolves were shot in camera; as with “Representation A,” the footage was blown up in space and time (Optix, Spring 1973)

Audio: Sound of crystal fragmentation, as described above, heard forwards and in real time speed, so as to emphasize attack sonics.

iii. A + B: Linear Summation by Superimposition (5 minutes)

Visual: Fads of Section I and lap dissolves of section II are superposed in an off-set manner (staggered two frames); this increase in information and morphological complexity creates a more fluid “grain movement” and occasional smooth fields.

Audio: The backwards 1/2 speed and the forward real time speed representations are superposed. (Motion Picture Sound, Spring 1973)

iv. A+B 2: Temporal Summation by Interpenetration (5 minutes)

Visual: Non-staggered, Section I and Section II are united by alternately dropping out every other two frames of each and interlacing the two systems’ remaining information. This temporal reduction effects a likeness to the “normative”, agitated look of so-called “grain movement” (but still, this “movement is only 1/2 its normative “speed”) (Optix, Spring 1973)

Audio: The backwards and forwards tracks are also intersected, controlled by square wave pulse alternations of a Moog synthesizer (Motion Picture Sound, Spring 1973)

Collection: Centre National D’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Paris

Damaged Film Loop (alternate title: The Forgetting of Impressions and Intentions)

Indefinite duration, two-screen vertical projection with one image above the other, 1972-1974

Some 100’ footage broken into a 600’ roll and 900’ roll. The 600’ roll projected backwards at 16 fps, moves in/out of phase with 900’ roll projected forwards at 24 fps. Effect: as if pulling apart, as the original 32 frame long loop subject was “pulled apart” (in a destructive projector situation).

Synchronoussoundtracks

33 minutes 1974

Two-screen projection, sound on both reels.

Synchronoussoundtracks

10 minutes each, three-screen projection, synchronous sprocket hole sound, locational film piece, 1974

Made with the assistance of Steve Osborn and Claude Kervin.

Back wall: Three speakers arranged five feet apart and five feet from the floor. Each speaker is in logical relation to one of the three screen. The sound is of sprockets passing over a projector sound head. The frequency oscillates in direct (synchronous) relation with the sprocket hole images on the screen.

Front wall: Three seven by nine foot (sideways) images of filmstrips moving at slow-fast-slow speeds. Each image shows footage moving right-to-left superimposed with similar footage moving left-to-right. Each frame of the original footage is different in color so that overlaps constantly create new color mixtures (at high speeds the colors tend to blur-oscillate). Opposing vectors give the impression of a back and forth lateral motion–oscillation.

Color Sound Frames (Winding)

22 minutes, 1974

Color Sound Frames, like a number of his other works, was generated form the first section of Analytical Studies III, called Specimen, employing a three-cycle colour range interwoven into a flicker work. In Color Sound Frames flicker is not the issue, but rather the relationship between the strip and the frame. The images are refilmed strips with sprocket holes and frame lines visible. The field of direction and force may be upward or downward. For one segment a strip was reshot backwards (from end or tail to beginning or head of strip), and two sections have superimposed images of one strip on top of another. As it was being shot the film was travelling at varying speeds. The synchronous sound of the sprocket holes is heard passing over the sound head.

At the head of the film, the sections are listed as follows:

Section 1: Vector A: Upward (forward)

Section 2. Vector B: Downward (forward)

Section 3. Confluent Superposition: Vector A (forward) + Vector A (backward)

Section 4. Divergent Superposition: Vector A (forward) + Vector B (forward)

Color Sound Frames is a film about film and the kind of illusions which can result as film’s concrete properties create abstractions. Actual direction of movement becomes confused due to changes in speed. At high speeds the frame line is no longer visible. In the superimposed sections colours blur together, and form others and at certain speeds colours and sprocket holes seem to undulate.” (Castelli-Sonnabend Catalogue)

“Paul Sharits’ new film Color Sound Frames ran for a week at the Whitney Museum. It is a film in which Sharits sums up his researches in the area of film strip (in opposition to the individual frames). The film strips move horizontally and vertically; two strips move simultaneously in opposite directions; variations in color; action of sprocket-holes. Very methodically and scientifically he covers the area, presents the results of his findings, covers all relevant possibilities… Color Sound Frames advances one area of cinema or one area of researches in cinema (call it art if you wish) to a new climax, to a new peak: his exploration is so total, so perfect.” Jonas Mekas, The Village Voice, Jan. 127, 1975

Color Sound Frames by Sharits bears a title that’s a fairly good explanation of the film. Sharits has been exploring new ways of seeing for about ten years, and to say that his work is fascinating and unusual is to put it mildly… Occasionally one becomes aware of the film’s emulsion as a tactile feeling. There is an interplay between flashing and flickering frames, most of which have a translucent look. These films allude to what happens in your head as much as to what sits up on the flat plane of the screen. Obviously, Sharits has created a need for a vocabulary of operational light terms, that is, how we experience light in overlapping planes in time, the patterns that arise out of repeating light shapes and sounds, the magic of incantation and reification known to every Shaman and ritualistic artist before there was a word ‘Esthetics’ or even a written language. Sharits employs modern technology to say something very deep, very profound and very beautiful.” Leonard Horowitz, “Independent Films: Light/Environment,” The Soho Weekly News, February 1975

Shutter Interface

24 minutes 1975

Two-screen projection, sound on both tracks.

My primary involvement at Artpark was the installation of a four-screen 16mm color and sound film piece, Shutter Interface. The work had been conceived a year earlier and the scores for its footage and the shooting of that footage took place prior to my residency. What was special about the Artpark installation was that while I had conceived of the elements involved, I could not pre-conceive what final arrangement of the elements – in their actual spatial relationships to each other – would best express the central ideas of the piece; the Artpark situation allowed me to arrange the elements into a variety of relationships so that I could study each one for a significant amount of time; from this activity – or better, meditation – I finally arrived at an optimal configuration.

The central idea was to create a metaphor of the basic intermittency mechanism of the cinema: the shutter. If one slows down a projector, one observes a “flicker.” This flickering reveals the rotating shutter activity of the system. Instead of slowing down a projector, one can metaphorically suggest the frame-by-frame structure of film (which is what necessitates a shutter blade mechanism) by differentiating each frame of the film by radical shifts in value or hue; this metaphor was a guiding principle in my work in the 1960s, in my so-called “color flicker films.” I discovered, two years ago, that I could heighten this metaphor by partially overlapping two screens of related but different “flicker footage” and the conception of four overlapping screens began to evolve. For installation pieces, I prefer to use long film loops, each a slightly different length, so that the relationships within the system go through many phases, making the piece seem to be beyond duration, to exist as ongoing environments of visual-aural activity (I regard them as “locations”). For this work, each loop projector carries about six minutes of material. The final configuration of overlapped screens was 64” high and 24” wide.

While installing and observing the various configurations of Shutter Interface, I also shot footage of the impressive landscape at the Artpark site. Two three-screen sketches resulted: one was a study of the flow patterns of the Niagara River; another was of rock stratification structures along the walls of the river’s gorge. The results were gratifying and may lead to work in directions entirely new to me.

“For Shutter Interface I wanted a sound rhythm and a visual rhythm that would have something to do with high-amplitude alpha waves. I think that’s why it’s such a pleasant film. I did some biofeedback to listen to the sound of my alpha rhythm and I tried to approximate it in the piece. I wanted that sound to fit with the flicker and it does exactly. Every series of frames of colour – which are each from two to eight frames long – is separated by one black frame and the sound is in direct correspondence to those black frames. The black frames are like little punctuation points…

Now the sound in Shutter Interface does have a very direct relationship to the visual aspect. The sound is only where there are black frames. There is this constant field of colour punctuated by these black frames that you can’t really see – this is where I chose to put the sound and that creates a firm relationship. You can’t directly observe this relationship but you feel it. It is so smooth an experience you don’t ask why it works. You don’t question it. But, if I’d chosen yellow frames and associated sound with them, the whole thing would have been too obvious. I think there is a little bit of a mystery as to why the piece works as it does…

Shutter Interface is a kind of a quartet. Physically the way the screen s overlap creates three overlapped areas that are actually physically involved in a pulsating dialectic. The four screen images are fluctuating, sometimes they’re acting in unison, sometimes they’re having a kind of argument – going off in different directions. So there’s a kind of flux or drifting between continuity and various kinds of discontinuity. The whole idea of dialogue or, more generally speaking, dialectic, is operating.” An Interview with Paul Sharits by Linda Cathcart (Paul Sharits: Dream Displacement and Other Projects, exhibition catalogue, Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 1976)

Element Studies: Earth/Water/Sky/Fire

15 minutes at 18fps, silent, two-screen projection, 1971-75

Now, fall 1980, that I have begun embarking on a number of films from/of “nature,” it seems appropriate to release Element Studies. I am or will be shooting footage of volcano eruptions (Stromboli), diamonds (Diamond Institute, L.A.), swamps in Florida, dune structures in the Sahara, earth configurations in the American Southwest deserts, etc.

My work is usually characterized as highly perceptual “abstract” and/or self-reflexive of the film material/process; occasionally, an “inner landscape” is expressed (particularly in Razor Blades and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G). Aside from S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION…, I’ve issued no exterior landscape films. Nevertheless, I have attempted, over the years, a number of “nature” films. As early as the mid 1950s I shot 8mm sketches of grass, trees, rain, etc.; these have all been destroyed. During my “interior landscape period,” while living in Aspen, summer 1968, my prolonged immersion in the Rockies, the salvation of my childhood in Colorado, I not only shot the Roaring Fork River (for S:TREAMS….) but also shot rock surfaces/textures interwoven with solid color frames, culminating in a vibratory field where the rocks’ grains and moss spots became optically confused with the “open-eye phosphenes” caused by the blank color “flicker”; never too happy with that footage, I am reshooting Rock Dissolve again, in 1981, in the Rockies – 13 years later. (When my family and myself would leave Denver and begin the ascent into the Rockies, I always got literally high and I carry my love of those mountains with me everywhere/always. My favorite meditation is to imagine that I am deep-clear lake in the mountains. Whenever I have a choice, I become proximate to a stream or lake, preferably in a mountain context; I am also extremely fond of deserts and, of course, the sea.)

The footage, in order of appearance, is:

1. rock strata – along the banks of the Niagara River, before it empties into Lake Ontario, 1975, while an artist-in-residence at Artpark, Lewiston, N.Y. (Originally a three-screen panorama study);

2. flow patterns of the Niagara River. Same place/time as the rock strata. (Originally a four-screen panorama study);

3. fire juxtaposed to a rhythmic flow of cloud formations. Shot during S.W. American desert trip, 1971. The fire is a burning car which Indians had set on fire to attract and trick passing cars at night. The Indians sat off in the darkness, getting a great deal of amusement from watching concerned travelers come up to inspect the scene of the “disaster”; the Indians were having their laughs, as if watching a hilarious TV program. The clouds were shot to create a sort of inventory of “cloudness” – thousands of shots of thousands of different cloud formations; these are edited in rhythms like those of fire’s flame pulses.

Apparent Motion

30 minutes (18fps), 1975

Production assistance: Creative Artists Public Service Program (CAPS).

The images for this project were first obtained by enlarging, with an optical printer, frames of evenly distributed grain particles from a black and white strip of underexposed 8mm Tri-X film. The resulting 16mm black and white Plus-X copy was again blown up with an optical printer to make a negative on high contrast stock. In the final stage, using an optical printer, color gels were employed to code each of the up-to-six layers of superimposed images of grain fields; this was recorded on fine grain Ektachrome Commercial color stock. What began as dark grain particles in relatively clear (light toned) emulsion, in the 8mm specimen, at the last stage, have become colored images of grain particles in a dark field.

The first half of the film strictly documents the original 8mm footage’s frame to frame discontinuities of particle distribution allowing the various interactions of superimposed image layers to generate what appear to be patterns of “movements.” In the second half of the film, individual frames are extended in time (“frozen”) in various proportions so as to: (1) closely observe-analyze the bases of the illusions of further, more complex illusions of “movement” through forms of stratification of the image levels. The “phi” phenomena, described first by the gestalt psychologist Max Wertheimer (1912), begins to explain the subjective factors involved in viewing what appears to be continuous/directional motion where, as in this film, there is no such actual movement. There have been some claims made, in the last sixty years, that there is no essential difference between actual movement and apparent movement perception; however, even today the issue remains highly problematic and non-conclusive. An intelligent survey of the research done in the perception of movement is found in Lloyd Kaufman’s Sight and Mind (N.Y., Oxford University Press, 1974), pp. 367-408.

In photography and film the light sensitive silver halide particles which form images are distributed evenly and randomly in gelatin across the image support plane so that the images recorded attain high legibility while the granular infrastructure of the image itself is relatively unnoticeable. In film, with its succession of frames of such so-called “grain,” it is important that each frame’s particle structure be totally different from – discontinuous with – the particle structures of the other frames so that no infrastructural “movement” patterns occur, which would create for the viewer a conflict of perceptual attention as the viewer follows the illusions of movement of the recorded images. The random distribution of “grain” in the filmic temporal sequence should be expected to produce no more than an effect of non-directional “motion,” somewhat related to the auditory effect of “white noise.” However, what is ironic is that the human observer will perceive what appears to be definite forms of continuous-discontinuous motions in experiencing “grain,” when the “grain” is blown up enough to be observed as a field of discrete particles. By coding these fields, numerous forms of apparent motion may occur. What I am proposing in this project is that even at the infrastructural level – and contrary to its intended purposes – the bases of film’s illusionistic movement can be discerned. One might hypothesize that film is, in this respect, thoroughly illusional, on all levels from its most obvious recorded-image plateaus to its most primary image-forming depths.

Analytical Studies I: The Film Frame

25 minutes, 1971-1976

A set of short pure color studies, usually exploring one dominant hue. Most of these works were studies for longer projects. The last four “migraine” studies are rhythmically based around the five-cycle-per-second oscillation pulse of the typical fortification illusions preceding a migraine attack; this onset period, with its visually dynamic effects, is reported to be a quite vibrant and enjoyable state.

1. Modular Blue 2. Green Matrix 3. White Field 4. Orange Field 5. Pink Modulation A 6. Pink Modulation B 7. Temporal Frame A 8. Migraine Onset A 9. Migraine Onset B 10. Migraine Onset C 11. Migraine Onset D. (After titles, focus should be shifted to sharpen the edges of the screen.)

Collection: Centre National D’Art et de Culture Georges Pompidou, Paris

Analytical Studies II: Un-Frame-Lines

30 minutes, 1971-1976

A highly varied and playful series of short sketches involving induced camera “mistakes,” printing “errors” and various “assaults” upon film (some rephotographed) which in one way or another reveal the process/materiality of cinema. The “unframing” called for in this film (bringing the top frame line down into the viewing area as is possible by adjusting the projector framer) is a way of heightening the intended unmasking of the usually hidden vulnerability/fragility of the film strip.

Analytical Studies III: Color Frame Passages

22 minutes, 1973-1974

The film consists of seven sections: the first section, “Specimen I,” a “flicker” film, is the subject for the other sections of ANALYTICAL STUDIES III. … “Specimen I,” as with most of my other works, also exists as a “Frozen Film Frame,” wherein the entire footage of the film is cut into strips and aligned serially between sheets of clear plexiglas.

Section I: “Specimen”

Three spectral cycles intersecting into a “flicker” work that is the basis of … all that follows in this film.

Section II: “Divergent Strip Vectors”

Film of the first film. Two strips shot in real time are superimposed, one moving upward, the other downward. Other colors are created. Changes in speed cause various kinds of illusions.

Section III: “Document”

A documentation of how the films were shot. Shows Sharits and two assistants at work on Synchronousoundtracks. The film strip that they are shooting is superimposed over their images.

Section IV: “Strip in Strip”

A superimposition of one strip image over and a bit inside another strip image.

Section V: “Strip of Strip, A”

Not a superimposition of two strips but rather a document of an actual strip, moving upward, containing the image of another film strip, also moving upward, blurring at various speeds in rephotography.

Section VI: “Strip of Strip, B”

Same as Section V but the inner strip image is moving downward while the actual strip containing it is moving upward.

Section VII: “Strip of Strip of Strip B”

A document of Section VI; three film strip images and sprocket sets, one within another.

Analytical Studies IV: Blank Color Frames

15 minutes, 1975-1976

Contains: 1. Specimen II 2. Specimen III 3. Specimen IV 4. Diagonal Temporality B 5. Diagonal Temporality C 6. Temporal Frame B

Like ANALYTICAL STUDIES I, these short works each develop a different rhythmic and/or melodic idea using only rapid successions of color frames. The “Specimens” are called such because they are the “subjects” of (rephotography) analysis: “Specimen II” was intended to be the subject for the film EPISODIC GENERATION – although the footage, in itself, was successful, I did not find it adequate for its intended purpose; therefore, “Specimen IV” was created and was used (rephotographed) for EPISODIC GENERATION. The other works were studies for sections of the film Declarative Mode. (After titles, focus should be shifted to sharpen the edges of the screen.)

Note: All of the above films in the ANALYTICAL STUDIES SERIES may be projected at silent speed as well as sound speed.

Epileptic Seizure Comparison

30 minutes 1976

“Beauty shall be convulsive.” Andre Breton

Produced with the aid of a CAPS Award (1978). Sound portion made possible by the facilities of the Computer Science Center at Carnegie Mellon University and ZBS Foundation (through funding by the New York State Council on the Arts and the National Endowment for the Arts).

This is a single-screen version of a 2-screen, stereo sound installation piece (a “Location”). In that form, one image was above the other, so that one could compare different male epileptics entering convulsive states; their movements were altered on an optical printer an punctuated with colour rhythms, heightening their conditions. My fascination with this condition is not morbid (my views are made clear in Film Culture #65-66, pp. 123-4). This single-screen version has six equal-lengthed sections. The first three concern Patient A. In the first section one hears Patient A’s moans and perceives pure colour rhythms (rhythms related to the patient’s brain waves); in the second section, we see the victim and we hear synthesizer simulation of brain waves frequencies/amplitudes characteristic of such a seizure; in the third section, the two soundtracks are superimposed and the colour footage is interlaced with the black and white figural images (this would be the upper image in the 2-screen version).

The next three sections of devoted to Patient B, in likewise manner. This version is not only an analysis of convulsions, but also I is an analysis of its own means of generating the final sound/sight images. Here, the “comparison” aspect and the framed environmental perspective of the 3-screen location are gone (except insomuch as one can remember Patient A while viewing Patient B, later in the film); but, ironically, in some senses, seeing Patient A and then Patient B here, individualized, there is a deeper sense of engagement with each of them, with their struggles – one can truly focus in, whereas in the 2-screen version, which is generally electrifying, one’s attention is diffused and one is forced to make a difficult gestalt in comparing the two men’s struggles.

Of the 2-screen version the following on an installation drawing: “The room is a trapezoid (7’X22’X22”). The walls (stainless steel) flare out for the image as if they were a physical “reflection” of the projectors’ beams, an “inverse projection,” encapturing the viewer. Also, the walls act to reflect the light from the screen surface and thereby exaggerate the frenetic movements of the subjects and he pulsation of pure colour frames. In two ways the walls engage the viewers. The sounds (combinations of the moans made by the epileptic patients and electronic synthesizer simulation of their brain wave patterns during their seizure on-sets) is behind the viewer and it creates an inferential “wall”, or “closed door.” The films are of two patients, extracted from a medical film study of brain wave activity during seizures. Of course, the patients volunteered for these tests. The black and white footage of each patient entering convulsive stages was temporally and tonally articulated on an optical printer and rhythmic pure color frames were added to these images. Everything was done to allow the viewer to move beyond mere voyeurism and actually enter into the convulsive state, to allow a deeper empathy for the condition and to also, hopefully, experience the ecstatic aspect of such paroxysm.

“There are many varieties of epilepsy; some forms are quite mild, almost unnoticeable, while others are highly convulsive. Epilepsy is a sad malady because seizures are usually unexpected, uncontrollable and involve a lapse of consciousness. Seizures occur from a wide variety of causes; although the ultimate nature of the affliction I not conclusive, one common source of seizures is photic stimulation, which can occur in anything from light reflections and flashes in everyday environments to the regular (but usually unperceived) rhythms of even conventional film and television. A lot has been learned about the illness through the use of light flicker and the recording of brain wave patterns on the electroencephalograph (EEG). It is possible to generalize that epilepsy is basically an electrical disorder of the brain. Fortunately, drugs now exist which enable epileptics to lead completely normal lives.

While the convulsive forms of epilepsy are unfortunate, they are not in themselves painful, despite the fact that the victim appears to be in pain. Some notably creative persons have even reported that the state just prior to their seizures is often characterized as elative, insight-filled and inspirational. During the onset stage of a seizure, brain waves are often fast and symmetrical 9around 14 cycles per second – just above the alpha rhythm); then the seizure itself abruptly begins and brain waves reach an abnormally high amplitude (sometimes exceeding 400 uV) but their frequency slows down to 3-4 cycles per second. Shamans, voodoo practitioners and others, who for purposes of religious ecstasy-catharsis-insight, are known to self-induce physical states which appear similar to epileptic convulsions, often losing consciousness and exhibit muscular spasms. Even more interesting is the relation that the zen meditational state of high satori has to epileptic convulsions caused by photic stimulation (wherein light flashes of about 10 cps induce brain frequencies of 10 cps – an alpha rhythm; the amplitude of these frequencies make a crescendo and then the characteristic high amplitude 3-5 cycles per second seizure waves appear – theta frequencies). Advanced zen monks achieve satori in mediation by boosting the amplitude of their alpha waves to a high peak; then, still at a high amplitude, they move into these lower theta frequencies. This appears to be a form of controlled “seizure,” although it is not necessarily characterized by muscular spasms, as in epilepsy. It is also interesting to note that recent bio-feedback studies identify the theta state with creative insight (whereas the alpha state is merely a rather vacuous if highly pleasurable experience); to achieve the theta level, in bio-feedback meditation, one must first learn to amplify alpha. This brief review of relationships between religions and creative experiences and certain epileptic states may suggest to the reader some of the reasons why the artist is interested in creating a sound-image-space situation wherein sympathetic observers may begin to identify with the convulsive epileptic. The artist feels a warmth and compassion towards the subjects of this installation work, and that is (literally as well as figuratively) reflected in the work’s formal components and structure. The brain surgeon (and famous pioneer of electroencephalography and the study of epilepsy by light flicker), Dr. W. Grey Walter, in his scientifically important but also nearly poetic book, The Living Brain, states, “Flicker proved to be a key to many doors. We use it first as clinical aid. In the diagnosis of epilepsy, from the very first its revelations were fundamental in both clinic and laboratory. Observations of many thousands of testing records, taken from epileptic patients during a quiet phase between seizures, had shown that their brain rhythms tended to be grouped in frequency bands. It was as if certain major chords constantly appeared against the trills and arpeggios of the normal activity. This harmonic grouping suggests that if a masterful conductor were introduced, the brain could be made to synchronize in a grand tutti, to develop under controlled conditions the majestic potentials of the convulsive seizure.”

Epileptic Seizure Comparison is an attempt to orchestrate sound and light rhythms in an intimate and proportional space, an ongoing location wherein non-epileptic persons may begin to experience, under “controlled conditions”, what Dr. Walter calls “the majestic potentials of convulsive seizure.”

Viewers entering the trapezoidal-shaped space with its reflective, aluminum-painted walls, exaggerating the frenetic pulsing of the screen images, become part of the projected image beam. This is enhanced by the stereo sound which creates an inferred “wall” (closed door) behind them… seized as it were, in a convulsive space, becoming one with the two images of paroxysm. On the top two speakers of the quadraphonic sound system can be heard the natural vocal sounds the two subjects of the film made while entering their respective seizures (the lower screen image being one induced by photic stimulation and the other being a grand mal seizure). The lower speakers are soundtracks composed on a sound synthesizer at the Buffalo Media Centre with the technical assistance and theoretical consultation of Ralph Jones. Both tracks are based on the rhythm and structure of EEG’s: one of the brain waves of photic induced seizure and the other based on the somewhat different brain waves of a grand mal seizure.

Exhibits as installation: M.L. D’Arc Gallery, NYC (6 weeks, 1976); Dokumenta 6, Kassel, Germany ), (3 months, 1977)

Tails

3 minutes 1976

A series of tail ends of varied strips of film, with sometimes recognizable images dissolving into light flares, appear to run through and off of a projector. A romantic “narrative,” suggesting an “ending,” is inferred.

“In Tails, rolls of film are drawn past a camera and photographed in their passage. In a quite literal sense, its subject is film; film and the fimages it may contain is the sole iconic referent. The continuous movement of the photographed filmstrip is contrasted with the intermittent passage of the film projected, the latter making it possible to see the former. But whereas many of his earlier films, such as the Analytic Studies, have a certain didactic quality, Tails is unabashedly lyrical. It is self-reflexive, but not self-conscious. The sense of tension that animates Razor Blades is gone. Tails becomes an uncomplicated celebration of the most fugitive of cinematic pleasures, the passage of the end of a film roll across the projection beam. To play upon the current critical jargon, it is a post-structural-materialist film. It is a response to a series of films, beginning with Bruce Conner’s A Movie, in which sprocket holes, edge numbers, dirt particles, etc., appear. But it deflects this current of filmmaking from the realm of the sublime to the realm of the beautiful.

In Tails, we see an image violated by the indiscriminate action of light, by the fogging that occurs at the end of a roll when the film is unloaded from the camera. This degradation of light-sensitive film which occurs when it is simply exposed to light without first being focused by the lens, regulated by the shutter and diaphragm, and enclosed by the aperture plate, can produce a feeling of uneasiness, of malaise if projected. But in Tails, this exposure to light produces a range of new and unexpected colours which are beautiful in themselves. This celebration of colour for its own sake reminds me of the discovery of prismatic colours in the poetry of the eighteenth century, as in James Thomson’s “To the Memory of Sir Isaac Newton:” Myriads of mingling dyes from these result/And myriads still remain –infinite source/Of beauty, ever flushing, ever new.” Thom Anderson

Note: This film may be projected at either silent or sound speed.

Dream Displacement

25 minutes 1976

Two-screen projection, stereo sound.

“Paul Sharits, a film artist who is represented in the retrospective by a “locational” dual screen-projection entitled Dream Displacement (1976), pursued the study of the physiological aspects of film perception and their relationship to the mechanics of film more thoroughly than any other filmmaker this century. His films are conceptually engaging but their real worth lies in the eloquent beauty of the images blazing in front of the spectator on the screen. The shared presence of moving colors, shapes and forms is the great legacy of abstract cinema . The waves of pleasure granted through the experience of watching is paramount to any understanding of human consciousness past, present or future.” (Bruce Posner)

“As I approached the installation, I was prepared for a strong attack on my sense of hearing, because I could hear the sound of breaking glass from a considerable distance away from the room. When I entered the room, however, I was surprised to discover that the sounds emitting from the four speakers were not as shocking or irritating as I had expected. Instead, my attention was instantly diverted to the moving colors on the wall in front of me. I stood behind the four projectors for a moment before actually entering the space between the wall and the projectors, examining the surface. I resisted the urge to formulate an intellectual conclusion about the patterns of flowing colors and their relationship to the sound and simply stared at different points on the wall. I sensed rhythm, but not the sort of normally structured, simple rhythm that tends to set the mind into a comfortable, relaxed state of non-thinking. The rhythms seemed too complex, too chaotic to dismiss immediately. The sounds seemed less chaotic than the images because they were spaced apart rather than thrown into perpetual motion as the colors, vertical lines, and sprocket holes were. The image of pieces of sharply broken glass sprang to mind; I imagined that I was dropping a glass pitcher onto the floor and watching it shatter into thousands of pieces flying in all directions. I walked back and forth across the wall several times. During each pass, my shadow on that wall moved with me, and fell back suddenly three times; it was as though the border line between each screen pushed me back. As I stepped back from the wall, my shadow appeared in some places and didn’t appear in others. The border lines between the screens seemed to tie me down, allowing the moving color “blades” to violently slice my body (shadow) lengthwise. After being in the space for about fifteen minutes, I became more interested in the projectors and speakers. I imagined that the images and sounds emerged from the projectors. The wall seemed to be the passive victim of their attack; the sprocket holes seemed to be trying frantically to escape, to no avail. No one was in the room when I left; as I walked away and the sound slowly faded away, I imagined that the room was angry at me for leaving, but it could do nothing but make its repetitive noise in a vain attempt to draw me back again.

The screens on the wall form a rectangle which is analogous to a lake; waves are represented by color frames and border lines between them. The waves hit left and right shores and reverse direction to repeat the process indefinitely. The sound of breaking glass is analogous to the sound of waves hitting a shore. The entire rectangle can also be seen as a window of a moving vehicle passing a wall of colors, or as a window of a stationary room with movement going on outside. A definite rhythm is established with pairs of shapes. For example, a pair of sprocket holes may collide, bounce off each other, and collide again to repeat the process. Another rhythm can be perceived in the alternating acceleration and deceleration of shapes such as sprocket holes and frame borders. A single color occasionally “tries” to make its way across all four screens, but usually it is transformed into another color before completing its journey. The sound resembles the sound of the breaking of a large object such as a pitcher made of thick glass. If one were to drop a pitcher on the installation floor, the sound produced would be almost identical to the recorded sound radiating from the speakers. The room is too small to allow stepping back far enough to view all screens simultaneously. It must be read in pieces. This adds another dimension to the chaotic patterns of sight and sound. The freedom with which one can move within the installation space and the unlimited time one can spend there eases any shock and tension generated by the work. The title of the installation is appropriate; displacement is the essence of the work.

(Unknown author, November 18, 1976, in: Paul Sharits Archives, Burchfield-Penney Art Centre, Buffalo, NY)

Paul: It seems that (the film installation) Dream Displacement is acting as a way of getting at some sort of forgotten dream image. I feel like I’ve displaced some significant data and I’m trying to locate it or at least recapture the mood through a particular combination of sound and image… It is composed of a couple of different emotions superimposed, and the sense of it, which I’m trying to get at, is one whole feeling but the only way I can express it is to pull it apart – a bit like classical montage – so that the collision of the sound and the image starts to suggest something whole. However, it is not going to ever be the emotion – it’s not going to ever have that kind of actual and total wholeness. One thing that is happening in Dream Displacement is a conflict between sound and image. They seem on the surface to be somewhat disrelated. It’s almost as though the film frames within each screen image are going against each other which is more coherent than the sound which is that of glasses breaking and yet that image is more distant than the sound of glass breaking.

Linda: This work, which consists of four loop projectors and a quadraphonic sound system, is enclosed in a single room – the four loops are projected as a single image… the sound works to emphasize the circularity of the film which is on loops. Having a speaker in each corner allows the sound to go around the room. Also the noise itself has a circular quality. Throwing the glasses by hand is almost a circular gesture one can hear – lifting, dropping, lifting, dropping.

Paul: I wanted a certain kind of rhythm. It was interesting shooting the tests for the film. I kept finding it was too fast; I had to keep slowing it down. The sound has to be slow too – the rhythm couldn’t be staccato, it would destroy the whole mood I want to set up. I used a quadraphonic sound system so the spatial locations of the crashes shift from one speaker to the next without any apparent pattern.

Linda: It occurs to me that as one approaches the projection location, one is able to hear the sound before one can see the images.

Paul: I never really thought of it that way – I like it though – it stresses the importance of the sound. Rather than it being a backdrop or a postscript, the sound becomes the first holistic image of the piece. I want people to have to walk into the space and past the projectors (which are free-standing and exposed to view) to get to the visual image – by the time they do that the sound is going to be all-pervasive.”

An Interview with Paul Sharits by Linda Cathcart (Paul Sharits: Dream Displacement and Other Projects, exhibition catalogue, Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 1976)

Declarative Mode

39 minutes 1977

Note: now single screen only. Dedicated to Gerald O’Grady.

This work was made possible by a Bicentennial Grant by the N.E.A. and the N.Y. State Council on the Arts.

“This film, rather than being ‘structural,’ is ‘narrative-like.’ We feel as if we are on some sort of journey, where we never know/predict what is to ‘happen’ next. It is engaging, like a novel full of surprises. The ‘narrative’ feeling is like a soap opera, which just keeps twisting and turning, with no apparent resolution intended (but there is a closure on the purely formal level), as opposed to say Miami Vice wherein the dramatic line moves towards and achieves a weekly resolution. This work prefigures a long series of 30 minute chapters in a ‘Light Novel,’ PASSARE, which I am presently working on (which could finally reach 40 hours in total length before I die). Aside from a recurrent red, white and blue phrase, there is no repetition in the film (repetition conventionally provides structural order).” – P.S.

“With colors, therefore, in reciprocal relationships with each other within space and over time, Sharits creates new hues not actually present upon the film through their co-temporal blending and through after-image retention. It’s a complex phenomenon that yields sublime transitions across a spectral range, while the inner frame pulses with illusionistic movement as the hues change from warm to cool.” Anthony Bannon, Buffalo Evening News

Excerpts from a Letter to the Film Section (Museum of Arts, Carnegie Institute, Feb. 1977)

Dear Bill:

I am one of three persons in New York State who has received a Bicentennial Film Grant. My project is the only one of the three which is intentionally a work of art. I am in the process of producing a 45 minute long, wide screen, color and sound work which is described in the enclosed copy of my grant proposal. Declarative Mode will be an energetic, “abstract” celebration of Jefferson’s radical stance against slavery. The sound track is based upon a little-known section of Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration of Independence, in which he denounced racism and slavery: the text was omitted by Congress from the final draft of the Declaration.

…Although it is, in a sense, an abstract work, it is nevertheless a political statement and addresses itself to the Nation (a nation still troubled by racism). The film is being shot from 15, 17” x 22” color-coded drawings. From these drawings, 15 more drawing-studies from Frozen Film Frames are being made. (Frozen Film Frames are filmstrips sandwiched between sheets of clear plexiglass.) Declarative Mode is composed of five movements; each movement will be put into 5’2” X 6’ “FFF’s.” I am hoping that one of the six museums premiering Declarative Mode will care to also display either one or both sets of works related to the film.

Proposal for Bicentennial Film Project, titled Declarative Mode

I have long been an admirer of Thomas Jefferson and his ideals; during the past year, after having begun reading Dr. Dumas Malone’s six-volume biography, Jefferson and His Time my admiration has not only deepened but crystallized into a desire to make a dedicatory ‘tone poem’ to Jefferson, in the form of an intense ‘abstract-musical’ film – a film in which I would attempt to celebrate, by rhythms-melodies-chords of pure color and sound (computer articulated spoken text), the spirit and structure of a little-known part of Jefferson’s major statement, the Declaration of Independence (which he felt was his highest achievement). The text I am referring to is Jefferson’s anti-slavery statement declared adamantly but denied public existence by Congress. This will be enunciated in this homage to not only Jefferson and black Americans, but also and foremost, to progressive and open cognitive-ethical-esthetic systems. To be afforded the opportunity to undertake such a filmic enterprise seems, to me, a very appropriate Bicentennial project.

The style of the 40 minute long color, sound, wise-screen film I am proposing – which would be titled Declarative Mode – is a continuation of several recurring modes on my work of the past ten years; it would be a higher refinement and synthesis of these modes, an energetic amplification of films’ perceptual potentialities to support and emphasize the grand scale of sentiment and declarative spirit of Jefferson’s remarkable text. I would attempt to have the film’s sound and image relations correspond aesthetically to this text’s form, its ranges of semantic and syntactical structures, its passages of fluid, jubilant idealism to its staccato moments of outrage toward and condemnation of King George’s ‘repeated injuries and usurpations.’

Among the many colors which would compose the film, a leitmotif of fades of red and blue from white would recur. The colors would be shot from a specially controlled color video monitor so as to heighten their brilliance to the maximum degree. The soundtrack derived entirely from a spoken text of the Declaration of Independence, would begin by suggesting a sort of primal potentiality, from which meaning would gradually and rhythmically evolve. A computer would be used first to articulate variations and juxtapositions of phonemes from the text; then, gradually, morphemes would emerge; and finally, the coherency of the unmodified text would be enunciated. In counterpoint to the soundtrack, the visual structure would gradually move from a measured poise towards an ecstatic level of color-light pulsation (ending in micro-oscillations around five cycles per second, which is at once the most primary fade-wave cycle possible in sound speed 16mm film and is also a rhythm associated with certain neuron pulses during expansive, inspirational states of consciousness).

If produced Declarative Mode would be an aesthetic reaffirmation of America’s most basic principles, in a time of the nation’s shattered trust, insecurity, cynicism and aimlessness. I am anxious to begin the project soon, believing that its social relevance would be increased by its being premiered in 1976.

Episodic Generation

30 minutes 1978

Produced with the aid of a CAPS Award (1978). Sound portion made possible by the facilities of the Computer Science Center at Carnegie Mello University and ZBS Foundation (through funding by the New York State Council on the Arts and National Endowment to the Arts).

This is a 4 section, single-screen version of a 4-screen continuous projection film/sound installation (‘location’). The film was conceived to function in both formats. In the installation format, the images are all turned sideways and are aligned one next to the other, successively, each image is more complex and there is an obvious progression. As a single-screen work, each section of the film becomes more complex so there is a felt progression.

The first image is a filmstrip, apparently flowing downwards, the frames of this strip are just blank colours and some of the frames are black (what is being re-photographed is ‘Specimen IV’, part of the film ‘Analytical Studies IV: Blank colour Frames). On the right edge of the screen, sprocket holes are seen, on the left edge a white undulating line – an optical soundtrack – is seen, off center, to the right, in the frame area of the strip, there is a continuous white, jagged scratch which, while thinner than the optical soundtrack strand, has contours roughly related to it. We notice that the ‘movement’ of the scratch is constant even though the filmstrip image shifts speeds, in fact the scratch is not on the rephotographed strip but is on the actual filmstrip going through the projector – or so it seems. Another incongruity is noticed: the soundtrack is moving upwards, as if disjointed from the filmstrip it should be part of, its speed of movement is also quite out of relation to that of the strip.

Beginning with section II, each section of the film is a re-recording of the former section. The second section ‘encloses’ the first, in both image and sound, therefore now we see a set of sprocket holes – one strip in another. The third section ‘contains’ (and is a product of) the second (and the first). The fourth section ‘contains’ the images of Sections I,II and III. Of course, there are varied modulations of rephotographed speeds, giving rise to some curious images of strip ‘motion’. In the 4-screen version, it appears as if the strips from one segment flow into the next, becoming progressively more compressed, as if ‘collapsing’, from the first image of a single strip into the fourth image of all the succeeding sections.

The film’s soundtrack, a spoken text regarding the nature of optical soundtracks, through a series of analog-to-digital transformations, is a sort of sound analogue of what happens in the visual track: one hears the entire text section in Section I, hears it (compressed) twice in section II, and so on: the text is compressed in such a way that it does not change pitch, which is what normally occurs when a recording is sped up (‘compressed’). The first compression was done by a computer program created for me in 1973-4 by Christopher Copper, at Carnegie Mellon, all the pauses between words and the fragments of silences within words, were selectively removed by the computer, the text was jammed up making it half its original length, this created a very rapid, but still intelligible flow of speech, which seems intentionally rhythmical (whereas the text was actually spoken in an intentionally uninflected monotone).

The image one sees of the optical soundtrack is, in fact, made from this first compression, it is purely a soundtrack since all silences have been removed from the text. n 1978, the final work on the soundtrack was done at ZBS Foundation, using an analogue-to-digital processor called a harmonizer. The Carnegie Mellon tape was first re-expanded to its original length by ‘stretching’ it, without however reintroducing pauses and silences-it remained purely a soundtrack. The harmonizer can expand or compress sounds without altering pitch. This re-expanded track, which appears in Section I, is quite legible but its auditory effect is rather unnatural. In Section II the Carnegie Mellon tape is heard, twice. (Note: the sections of the film are exactly the same length.) The track for Section III was generated by compressing the Carnegie Mellon track about 70% and it is repeated about 3 times, here the text is on the very borderline of comprehension. In Section IV, the Carnegie Mellon track is compressed to about 50% and is repeated 4 times in succession, the text becomes unintelligible (but remains very rhythmic).

The visual ‘degeneration’ of the image of Section I, through successive rephotography, is parallelled by the compression of verbal information to the point of its loss of legibility, yet both the ‘degenerated’ sound and image are perceptibly engaging, even in the most advanced stages of ‘degeneration’. It is obvious why the film has its title, because of the strategies of its coming into being, but, paradoxically at the level of effect, its dynamics arise from its ‘Episodic Degeneration’.

Episodic Generation indicates Sharits’ increasing involvement with sound since 1973. His work of this period, the silent Declaritive Mode aside, constitutes an important achievement and the exploration in the area of sound alone.’ Brian Henderson

I Specchi

three-slide projection, three sound tracks, 35mm film, infinite duration, 1979-1980

In 1979-80 I lived in the lovely town, Positano, Italy, on the Amalfi Coast, south of Napoli, during a sabbatical.

Dedicated to Jean-Claude Lebensztejn.

During the winter months, I noticed incredible light streaks across the sea (from my vantage, I could see Capri) and the wonderful cloud structures above. I started making slides, from different vantage points in my nearly vertical village, always keeping the horizon line exactly in the middle of the frame. In quick succession, these random patterns appear to have a sequential order (that is, “movements” seem to occur – this is our brain, putting together data in logical patterns.) The piece flip flops clouds and sea patterns, to further stretch one’s brain’s capacity for order-seeking. Strange patterns overlapped, appeared to create patterns. To emphasize the regularity of the three projectors, each changing at once, each per second, all superposed together on one screen, contact mikes are placed on each projector so the changes of slides are amplified. These speakers are to be radically separated, emphasizing their (slightly out of sync) rhythm, but also stressing the fact that the slides are not in any order… that it is our minds which “connect” “sequences.”

I tried to re-film this all to make it simpler, but the piece really must be slide-projected to give a total sense of the paradoxes involved between knowing there is discontinuity a well as apparent continuity. The piece is dedicated to my dear friend Jean-Claude Lebensztejn. It can last for five minutes or five hours or five days or five weeks o five months or five years…

3rd Degree

24 minutes 1982

3-part single-screen version; also designed to be shown as a 3-screen/sound installation piece (continuous loop projection for gallery space. 3rd Degree premiered in its 3-screen/soundtrack version at the Hayden Gallery, M.I.T., Cambridge, Mass (Nov. 19-Dec. 23, 1982).

Special thanks to: Mary Ann Bruno (actress); Susan Mann (voice); Robert Franki (simulation of rattlesnake sound); Ken Rowe (sound production assistance); and Steve Gallagher (visual production and general assistance).

In Part 1 (or Screen A, in the 3-screen version),there is an image of a moving strip of film, showing sequences of a close-up of a match being waved somewhat aggressively in front of a young woman’s apprehensive face. The soundtrack: occasional match striking and rattlesnake warnings and the words, “Look, I won’t talk.” The strip of images flows at varying speeds, sometimes blurring and occasionally slowing and coming to a stop, whereupon the image/celluloid begins bubbling and burning then pulls away, flowing on and stopping, burning, flowing, etc.

The second part (or centre screen in the installation) is the first part rephotographed; again it’s “stop and go” – but here we also see images of burs, which sometimes stop and burn (a sort of second degree burning). In Part III we see the rephotographed image of Part II, which contains Part I, so it is a film of a film (of a film of the original film of the victi mbeing “interrogated” with the match); we see three sets of sprocket holes and images of burns being burned yet again. At the end of 3rd Degree we see the film still moving and kind of stubborn endurance is inferred.

The film is “about” the fragility of the film medium and human vulnerability; both the filmic and the human images resist threat/intimidation/mutilation: the victim is defiant and the film strip also struggles on, both “under fire.” It is a somewhat violent drama but it is also an ironically comic work and there is a formal beauty in the destructiveness of the burning film. While the film (from section to section) develops, becomes more visually complex, successively regenerates (as the figurative images degenerate), it nevertheless implies no finality; even in is 3-scrdeen “vicious circularity” form, 3rd Degree implies endurability, extension and on-goingness.

“Paul Sharits’s 3rd Degree, at the Whitney through May 13, consists of three film loops projected simultaneously side by side. The centre loop is a film of the right-hand loop, and the left loop is a film of the centre one, so that the triptych is actually three generations of the same footage. This footage – which appears as a horizontal strip of images rather than a single vertical picture – shows a woman in close-up being menaced with a lit match. “Look, I won’t talk,” she repeats, as if grilled by the Gestapo. Her assertion becomes the voice of the film, as title, action and material come together in a multileveled pun. As the film flutters by, often at high speed, it intermittently appears to stop, bubble up under the hat of the projector lamp, and melt into oblivion. This particular trompe l’oeil has precedents both in Sharits’s 1978 Un-Framed Lines and George Landow’s 1967 Bardo Follies. But it’s a profoundly (and always) dramatic sight; moreover, the installation produces a mild Rothko effect, with the two end panels appearing to slide behind the “floating” middle one whenever the tempo accelerates. According to Sharits’s program notes, the piece “is about the fragility of the film medium and human vulnerability. Both the filmic and human images resist threat/intimidation/mutilation: the victim is defiant and the film strip also struggles on, both ‘under fire.”” Elegant and witty, 3rd Degree might also be a metaphor for Sharits’s particular brand of modernism, which also struggles on, defiant under fire.” Jim Hoberman, Village Voice, 1984)

“The medium of film is conventionally viewed within a theatrical context in which the projected film image appears on a screen, before rows of seated spectators. In this traditional arena of narrative cinema, the technology of film production and exhibition is invisible to the viewer. However, within the aesthetics of modernism, filmmakers have sought to establish a commentary on the film production process and make that process part of the film itself. Since the development of multimedia arts and Happenings in the 1960s, artists have transformed our perception of film by, for instance, placing projectors in gallery and performance spaces. They seek to treat film as a flexible medium in which the projected image is created for, and projected onto, different materials and surfaces. One of the leading figures in this expanded form of film art is Paul Sharits, whose latest film installation, 3rd Degree (1982) explores the material of film and the technique of multiple projection within the gallery space.

As in Paul Sharits’ other film installations, 3rd Degree employs specially modified 16mm loop projectors that permit the twenty-four minute film to be shown continuously during gallery hours. In his earlier piece Episodic Generation (1979), four aligned projectors presented a continuous sequence of moving images. In 3rd Degree, Sharits positions the three projectors at different distances from the gallery wall so that each image differs in scale. He synchronizes the movement of the three films through the projectors to develop visual relationships between the projected images. Because the two larger images are successive re-filmings of the first, layers of time are created, thus disrupting and expanding the temporal dimension of the original footage.

In 3rd Degree Paul Sharits confronts the material basis of film celluloid by “burning” the individual frames. The exploding image of overheated film is not unfamiliar to frequent film users; when a film becomes caught in the projector gate, a frame is burned by the heat of the projector’s bulb and begins to bubble and melt. Sharits uses this “accident” as a means to alter the material of film: the film’s image becomes a painter’s canvas, with its representational surface image torn apart to expose a collage of new colours, textures and image-making qualities. This concentration on the film image made abstract through chemical properties of celluloid and the light of the projector removes film from its traditional setting and transforms it into a new kind of image making.” (John G. Hanhardt, Curator, Film and Video, Whitney Museum of American Art, The New American Filmmakers Series, April 17-May 13, 1984)

Bad Burns

5 minutes 1982

Two reels of mis-takes in shooting Part II of 3rd Degree. Film was loaded in camera improperly and the image slides about off-center and becomes blurred – creating some rather amusing and mysterious imagery. A made “found” object.

Brancusi’s Sculpture Ensemble at Tirgu Jiu

23 minutes 1977-1984

This film is a “chronicle” of a visit I made in 1977 to Romania to experience three of Brancusi’s most famous sculptures: “The Endless Column”; “The Gate of the Kiss”; “The Table of Silence”; (and the lesser known “Arcade of Pedestals,” the modular system of stools which lead from the “Gate” to the “Table”). These works are in the small, rural town of Tirgu Jiu, not far from the village of Hobitza (where Brancusi was born and spent his childhood). These works are shown in photographs and discussed as totally autonomous “abstract” sculptures simply placed conveniently around the town; but, in fact, they are also parts of a larger and very specific environmental (and symbolic) motif. Their placement suggests a metaphysical continuum; they span the boundaries of the town and while aligned in a (virtual) straight line, all three cannot be seen from any single point of view, so there is a temporal unfolding as one moves through the town to experience the relationship.

The works were commissioned to commemorate the persons from the area who had died in World War I, and the peace and the flow of life were to be suggested. The town is basically arranged as: River Jiu; town park; town proper. Brancusi placed the Endless Column on the outskirts of the town and the Table of Silence on the opposite end of town in the park, very near the River Jiu, the Gate of the Kiss is the entry to the park. In the middle of the town there is a church; all the sculptures are aligned through this centre. Without trying to interpret symbology, it is evident that the very arrangement of the pieces, aside from their individual forms-meanings, suggest themes of sexuality, the dance of life, the circularity of existence. There are various interpretations of the works, but one which I find intriguing has to do with the Table of Silence (which I see in part as a spatial-circular embodiment of the river it is placed next to). In a letter to me, Stephen Gerogescu-Gorgon, who actually worked with Brancui, erecting the works, speaking of the Table of Silence, recalls that Brancusi “…once explained to me that it was intended for the ‘hungry ones’, who came back from their daily work in the fields, and sat round it ‘in silence,’ to have their only meal. Hence the Table of Silence.”

“There should be other films like this about works of art.” Lynda Benglis, Sculptor

Figment I: Fluxglam Voyage in Search of the Real Maciunas

175 minutes, video, 1977-1986

A pseudo “rock video” which will never be shown on MTV. There are often visual resemblances between grief and joy and between mystical experiences and the varieties of body contortions of convulsive psychotic states (just as there can be a fine line between the “beautiful” and the “repulsive” – some of Goya’s late monster paintings are an example.) Rapture is defined as a sate of being ecstatically carried away. There is a thin line which I attempt to portray in these tableaux, the borderline between the sublime and the repulsive. I wish to have the viewer respond to the tape in an intense but very ambiguous way.

One interesting example of the relation of convulsive and ecstatic states is found in the similarities of brain waves of advanced Zen monks, at satori peak levels, and epileptics having grand mal seizures. At the onset of both the satori and seizure states there are greatly amplified alpha waves, which, at certain points of intensity, shift to high amplitude theta waves. The difference between these nearly identical patterns is that all of the epileptic’s brain waves become synchronized and his/her mind is flooded while the Zen monk is trained to allow only one region of the brain to move into a deep theta state and the monk will not visually exhibit any body convulsions. Also, as from Christian literature stating such things as St. Theresa lifting off the ground in ecstasy, it is well known that shamans, voodoo practitioners, et al. are known to self-induce physical states which resemble convulsions and who, for purposes of religious ecstasy/catharsis/insight, often collapse after muscular spasms. Perhaps the notion of catharsis is applicable in some of these rites.

At the technical level, the chief post-production tool was the ADO (Ampex Digital Optics), a two-channel digital video synchronizer which digitizes the entire screen image, allowing one to control size, shape, direction, movement, etc. of the whole picture. This is a device often used in TV commercials but is an “effect” which is used as one gimmick among many other electro-gimmicks. I’ve tried to use it as a creative device and to articulate it in a more extensive and meaningful way.

Passare I (Italia)

30 minutes, silent, 1979-1986

Made possible through funding of the National Endowment of the Arts.

Dedicated to Woody Vasulka.

Composed-scored in Italy in 1979-80 and finally realized in 1986, after innumerable technical and computer programming delays/revisions, utilizing an electronic color generator and optical printer deice invented and built for me by the computer-video artist Woody Vasulka. While composed of pure/blank color frames (often “flickering”), this is not a “Structural Film”; there’s no predetermined overall structure to the work (which is, anyway, only “chapter one” of a sort of “abstract novel” in progress, a novel which can become extremely lengthy in its projected series of chapters, a novel with a beginning, a middle but no preconceived ending). The film moves from “episodes” of different lengths and moods/rhythms/melodies, without any apparent cause-effect, like life itself, which passes on (“passare” – to pass, to pass on) from one unpredictable event/emotion to another. Each ‘episode’ is based upon some feeling, event or place and is aesthetically resolved; but there are no links from one episode to another. The episodes may be as short as one second or as long as ten minutes; each is my subjective interpretation of actual incidents, places, feelings, etc. into the terms of pure temporal color. Everything is in actual chronological order. One could regard the work as an “abstract chronicle” but my own sense of it is as an “abstract narrative” (because it does not “document” every experience but represents my editorial choice of which “scenes” to omit and/or include, join together. It is not important that the viewers “know” what any of the “episodes” represent; however, it is hoped that the viewers will have a strong sense that a life-like series of “scenes-emotions-psychological states” is moving along (this is a quality we are familiar with in music of the Romantic Era and in various impressionist or expressionist musical “tone poems” – we sense that there is a drama or narrative going on but we are unable to translate it into words, into a definite story; I believe successions of pure film frames can also suggest this sense of reality-life/narrative.

Rapture

17 minutes VHS NTSC, 1987

Rapture is a fierce vision of a Dionysian experience, a tightly controlled visual statement about the abandonment of self to heightened transportive states. It is also an exploration of the similarity between ‘religious’ and ‘visionary’ ecstasy and psychotic states.

Very rapidly altering frames of different colors in a video can produce an apparent infinity of iridescent color ‘chords,’ shimmering time-color fields. Sequential tensions and balances of these chords and solid units of a color characterize the leitmotif of this tape.

The only special effect used in this tape is the Ampex Digital Optics Computer which digitize whole image frames and controls their movement, size and location on the screen. This device was employed to perform a common digital articulation of the picture plane in a way that is more creative than is usually employed in broadcast TV, commercials ad so on, rather it has been manipulated as a truly expressive tool rather than a mere gimmick.

“There is another antecedent for this videotape contained in the remarkable paper print collection of films in the Library of Congress that includes a series of clinical documents of people afflicted with epilepsy filmed at the turn of the century. Those films present a paradox for the viewer: Observing events (seizures) where pain remains trapped mutely and invisibly within the confines of the body even as its shadow is projected as a measurable mass across the indexical grid of the cinematic recording device. I imagine Rapture as another look at the inarticulateness of pain – the inadequacies of the recording device for fixing the radical subjectivity of pain… or ecstasy. In Rapture we are presented with a wounded and relentlessly objectified body demonstrating, with almost clinical control, the varieties of its own objectification.” Barbara Lattanzi

Exhibition: CEPA Video Program, Buffalo; Kino Arsenal; Kino Eis Zeit; Infermental 7 (traveling exhibition of world video); Offensive Video Kunst, Dortmund, West Germany; London Film Festival; Int’l Audio Visual Experimental Festival, Arnhem, Holland; SF Cinematheque.

Distributors

The films of Paul Sharits are available from:

Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre

401 Richmond Street West, ste. 119, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M5V 3A8

phone: 416-588-0725

www.cfmdc.org

Canyon Cinema

145 Ninth Street, Suite 260

San Francisco, California 94103

phone/fax: 415-626-2255

www.canyoncinema.com

Filmmakers’ Cooperative

c/o The Clocktower Gallery

108 Leonard Street, 13 floor, New York, NY 10013

Phone: 212-267-5665

www.film-makerscoop.com

Lux

Shacklewell Studios, 18 Shacklewell Lane, London E8 2EZ, England

www.lux.og.uk

Lightcone

157, rue de Crimée, Atelier 105, 75019 Paris, France

www.lightcone.org

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