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Elastic Film, Mercurial Cinema
Bradley Eros




A LASCO C2 “running difference” image showing a “halo” CME blast beginning its journey toward Earth. Courtesy SOHO/LASCO C2 consortium. SOHO is a project of international cooperation between the European Space Agency and NASA.


The cinema involves a total reversal of values, a complete revolution in optics, perspective, and logic. It is more exciting than phosphorus, more captivating than love.
—Antonin Artaud, Questions and Answers on the Cinema

Ancient Persian possessed more than eighty words for love, denoting different qualities and valences of communal and erotic feeling.1 In today’s culture, the same word is often used, with little distinction, for everything from profound connection to superfluous whim. Film, too, is an elastic word, applied to myriad aspects of a cultural object/concept/activity/cinematic phenomenon. Cinema, however, is now on the threshold of stretching and morphing beyond recognition, of becoming a different medium entirely—“mercurial”—characterized by rapid and unpredictable change. Film and cinema may soon permanently part ways as we enter a postmedium condition (to use Rosalind Krauss’s term) or a postfilmic cinema, as the former retains its status as a mechanically projected celluloid object and the latter transforms into a digital technology, exhibiting mercury’s other qualities as a quicksilver messenger: ingenuity, eloquence, and thievishness.

Technology is neither a devil nor an angel. But neither is it simply a “tool,” a neutral extension of some rock-solid human nature. Technology is a trickster and it has been so since the first culture hero taught the human tribe how to spin wool before he pulled it over our eyes.
—Erik Davis, Techgnosis


The Trickle-up Theory

Cinema’s viral commutability of images infests the next technology of the social body with a genetic and mimetic ability to replicate, sometimes unconsciously. A rarely seen history “trickles up” through cultural osmosis from the experimental laboratory or the artistic hothouse of the avant-garde(n). Often without direct knowledge or awareness of the sources, new forms and ideas are “borrowed” and transmitted by daisy chain or travel up by social spore from the “cinema of the worm”—to some, this is a contemptuous source, abject, reviled, low; to others, fertile, underground, culture. From here, adaptations are fashioned into stylistic tropes, severed from the formal or conceptual roots from which they germinated, diluting the rich DNA of their deep structure or contextual gene, but spreading widely amid the cultural landscape through sporadic distribution.
However, this is the life cycle of the cultural meme—the conceptual mirror of the bio gene—developing into new forms, in some cases quite unlike the source. Creations and inventions incubated under the radar often twist into pilfered versions when filtered by dispersion and diluted by replication. These shards and fractures are grafted into new mutations, metamorphosing into hybrids through creative misunderstandings and misinterpretations that produce fresh translations. Whether flowers of evil or songs of innocence and experience, that’s how culture often thrives, through piracy, accident, and mistaken identity. The imperfect is alive!


Expanding & Contracting
(Rubbery Positions)


It appears as if film could mean almost everything, a metaphor for the whole world. A metaphor for what happened in Plato’s cave and equally for the birth of the universe in creation myths. The question What is film? generally assumes contraction as a consequence—a journey into the core in search of film’s essence. In contrast, the answer suggested here is that Film is more than Film.
—Alexander Horwath, on Gustav Deutsch’s Film ist. [2]

An artistic debate arises pinpointing tensions between hybridists and purists, between those who favor expanded cinema, a maximal approach of heterogeneous compositions inclusive of multiple media and additional “extra-filmic” elements, and those who prefer what I would call “contracted cinema,” reducing forms and materials to the essential by subtracting elements to reach the exclusively “filmic.
Both views derive from an artisan approach to the material nature of film and to the objectness of the whole apparatus of cinema. This plunges us into the “handmade,” where film is treated as a sculptural, “plastic,” or painterly material, suited for manual manipulations of the filmstrip and
its surfaces. In addition, the entire mechanics emphasizes an operational performance: an active machine generating visual or aural effects.
These positions are often bracketed as irreconcilable differences: “synesthetic cinema” or “intermedia” on the one hand versus “film as film” or “absolute essence” on the other, although some, myself included, embrace the entire trajectory, or at least favor the extremes. I believe the primary difference lies in the individual artist’s approach to the investigation he or she is focused on at a given time, as the parameters seem to shift with the specific inquiry.


Prying History Loose, Not Nailing It Down

Some of the best films I have experienced will most likely never be seen again. These celluloid projections—performative, ephemeral, expanded, paracinema works—have often vanished with time. In some cases, the artist has simply moved on, superseded by shifting interests or inspira-
tion. In other cases, the works were abandoned or retired. Some works and artists have disappeared entirely, and some works have died with their makers. There is no document of them, no studio version or live recording, no film or tape of the performance or screening, only experiences, memories, reports, if that.
In a few cases, instructions, notations, and materials exist for possible reconstruction. But often only the maker can properly execute the work with the necessary finesse and subtlety. Though they are often rehearsed and perfected by their creators, they are usually songs without scores, dances without choreography, buildings without blueprints, theater without a script, poems in space. They are certainly films without scenarios, meant to be live. But they are not less for being unrepeatable—only rare, unique, resonant, but often lost. Shining examples are unfixed works by Harry Smith, Jack Smith, Ken Jacobs, Valie Export, Guy Sherwin, Mediamystics, Schmelzdahin, and silt.


Ars Moriendi
(The Mortality of Art)


Some would argue that these are not films at all because they are not fixed. Because they are not objects or reproducible as copies, they do not count in the history of the media. It is hard enough for films with prints to remain in cultural view—with fragile originals or negatives in need of temperature-controlled storage vaults and preservation care, and prints that fade, scratch, break, or deteriorate. Phantom film performances and flickering operations made all the more transparent by being difficult to grasp and contain—live versions using recorded materials or a playback apparatus with unfixed elements—make for strange, unwieldy, and unlikely artifacts in the archive department or among the documents of art history; but digital capture may change all that, at least for traces of the seemingly untraceable.

The false immortality of the film gives the viewer an illusion of control over eternity.
—Robert Smithson, “A Tour of the Monuments of Passaic, New Jersey”

In the year of his death, Marcel Duchamp enunciated this thought:

I believe that a picture, a work of art, lives and dies just as we do…. That is, it lives from the time it’s conceived and created, for some fifty or sixty years, it varies, and then the work dies…. Art history begins only after the death of the work…. In that sense, I believe that the history of art is extremely random…. I am convinced that the works on view in museums and those we consider to be exceptional, do not represent the finest achievements in the world. [3]


Meta-Utopian

The survival, as object and practice, of the artisan film, especially performative and expanded cinema, requires an infrastructure of protection, or, at least, resistance to assimilation—a preserve, as it were, facilitated by critical, financial, and viewer support—a kind of spectral greenhouse for the experimental growth of optical orchids and other visual fungi.


Self-Determination

The belief in what you are doing is in the form.
—Donald Judd

The point is there is a danger that more selective histories will be written, as to date within the various histories of the experimental avant-garde there has been a gradual writing-out of an enormous body of narrative, expanded, technological and interactive moving image work that does not fit easily into categories. Perhaps it is the fault of the artists, who should have written their own histories. For future consideration we should start to challenge the way that the writing up of practice takes place.
—Jackie Hatfield [4]

I have never felt that any institution is wholly dependable for the proper preservation or contextualization of our artwork—though some occasionally are—so I have always embraced the initiative to curate, exhibit, organize, distribute, write about, and exchange—to place in context as an artistic process—my own works and others I cherish and support, as a radical gesture of self-determination. I feel a deep affiliation with other artists/activists who practice this in our temporary autonomous zones and a maverick resistance to co-optation or reification. There is much to be learned from the wolf, the owl, and the octopus.

The surest way of making useful discoveries is to diverge in every way
from the paths followed by the uncertain sciences.

—Charles Fourier


Paradigm Shift
(from hands to digits)


Films have a certain place in a certain time period. Technology is forever.
—Hedy Lamarr, actress and co-inventor of the model for wireless communication

Here the question of film’s elasticity is magnified, emphasizing which properties make it film qua film and which formal and material qualities translate cinema into the coming medium. It is especially significant at a moment of major cultural media transformation—a paradigm shift. In the last decade, the massive growth of computer and digital technology has affected film at all levels, engendering the discontinuity of film stocks and processing as well as shooting, editing, and projecting equipment and techniques. Though both television in the 1950s and video in the 1970s greatly influenced filmmaking and distribution, neither seemed to signal the demise of “cinema as film” quite like today’s threshold of high-definition digital developments.


Hidden Operations

The digital realm is a hidden operation, a literal sleight of hand, whereby all tricks are now concealed in a truly encrypted language. Though film may have once had elements of the veiled, compared to the latest technologies, it now seems absolutely lapidarian. (Perhaps to its solid advantage.)
Though it may be another decade before the popular world converts to a new medium of cinema, the film material as we know it—optical images of emulsive chemistry on thermoplastic celluloid—may soon be nothing but a rare archival medium for exhibition in historical muse-
ums, alongside other artifacts and relics of the cultural past (much as we experience it today in museums, galleries, archives, festivals, and revival cinemas—but only there).
Will the ones and zeros of the digital obliterate film’s preservation or extend it? Has digital technology nailed the ephemerality of cinema’s fragile material to an eternal code, stretching from zero to infinity? Will it be the mummy’s resurrection machine of longevity or the spike in film’s coffin?


Hijack the Inquiries

Artists should hijack forms, then subvert the conversation. Whether playing pirate or vampire—always keep your hosts on their toes.

Systematic investigations by contemporary film detectives.

Inquiries being made:
1. Modifications to the mechanisms that produce distillations of phenomena experienced in both nature and the city
2. Magnification of the materials to mirror cognitive as well as perceptual processes
3. Hybrid experiments with obsolete and advancing media to question aesthetic purity and conceptual rigidity
4. Dismantling of codes: social, gender, and visual
5. Shifting the context for reception to revitalize the structural / materialist debate
6. Initiating screening venues and situations to pry up history, disarm the canon, and provoke dialogue among makers, supporters, and dissenters
7. Constructing site and context for sculptural and architectural emphasis
8. Isolating chroma and velocity to emphasize kinetic and graphic qualities
9. Renewing light modulations to focus and fracture luminosity
10. Disjunctions and synchronisms of sound and image interfaces
11. Displacing lenses, gates, apertures, and shutters to reconfigure apparatus assumptions
12. Narratives: untold stories and untelling stories
13. Analog amplifications and questions of digital permanence: zeros and ones to infinity?

Art should raise questions.
—Bruce Nauman


Sins of the Cinenaut

In the tension between the object and the idea, obsession is formed.

Where no obsessions are to be discerned, I have no reason to linger.
—Harald Szeemann

Deep veins of celluloid continue to be mined by devotional artisans seeking a captured quality of light unequaled in the spectrum of sublime chroma and textured luminosity, though the true sine qua non of cinema may be the silver halide of the “lyrical” nitrate now all but lost to the
combustion of history.

A specter is haunting cinema: the spectra of light and color that only transparency and flicker can bring.

An “aesthetic tragedy” is played out in Tomorrow’s Memorial Cinemas: A perfumed ghost will frequent the digital theaters of the near future, its fragrant emulsion lingering like an afterimage in the mind of those who have cine’d in the past.

The plastic arts do not lament.
—Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages

What proves that cinema ever existed? The night is still here and the shadows are even deeper after the pain and promise of the twentieth century, inhabited by a clairvoyance only the dreaming can fully know. Intuitions about what film might have become, or any art for that matter, had it developed in a less cruel, insidious, or carnivorous sphere, where few have extended beyond the larval stage, and if success were measured not by agreement, but by divergence or, even better, that open exchange, expressed in Malcolm de Chazal’s “Declaration,” which “makes the mechanism of correspondences operate as far as the eye can see.” [5]


spider of the eyes

light traces caught in retina’s web
membrane of capture
the brain’s optic net at work

The spectator in the cinema reacts to the screen as if his brain was attached to an inverted retina at a distance.
—Edgar Morin, The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man

Film is plastic thought. A resilient form that thinks. It is light that touches the mind. A material vessel of immateriality.


Elasticity Generator
Stretching from the nineteenth to the twenty-first, it is a skein that envelops the century, an elasticity of consciousness and play. But what exactly made cinema the reigning philosophical toy? What urgency, what chance? What drive and circumstance? And to what lost experiments, overtaken by the flood of the narrative of economics and its vice (versa), will we finally return, now that obsolescence opens the gateway to the unexplored?

I think that what we valued most in cinema was its power to disorient.
—André Breton, “As in a Wood”

a. What radiation permits this?

b. What experience directs it?

c. What links it to the night?

… it casts light on the premonition that no other knowledge generating process is so alive, so open and capable of thought as film is.
—Alexander Horwath, “Flash”

What the black of the shutter carves into the white of the screen.

The cinema is solar in creation, but lunar in reception; for it needs the sun to generate, but its reflective light is selenographic in nature, related to transparent crystals. So, much as we absorb the moon’s hypnotic glow nocturnally, film’s flickering works best in darkness, for as de Chazal states: “only the Night has this power.” To which Breton adds: “the cinema is the first great open bridge which links the ‘day’ to this Night.” To which I add: “the elastic day to this mercurial Night. Your work is often completed in the mind of the spectator after she’s gone to sleep.”


Notes

1. See Daniel Pinchbeck, “Skeleton Women and Fisher Kings,” Arthur 1, no. 18 (September 2005): 11.
2. Alexander Horwath, “Flash,” essay in a booklet accompanying the DVD of Gustav Deutsch’s Film ist. (1998), published by Sixpack Film, Vienna.
3. Marcel Duchamp, filmed interview by Jean Antoine (1968), translated transcript published in Art Newspaper (April 1993): 16–17.
4. Jackie Hatfield, “Expanded Cinema and Its Relationship to the Avant- Garde,” Millennium Film Journal, nos. 39–40 (Winter 2003): 63–64.
5. Malcolm de Chazal, “Declaration,” printed in Curepipe, Mauritius, September 25, 1951, quoted by André Breton in “As in a Wood,” reprinted in The Shadow and Its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on Cinema, ed. Paul Hammond (London: British Film Institute, 1978), 42–45.


© Bradley Eros

This essay was originally published in Whitney Biennial 2006: Day for night, published by Whitney Museum of American Art (2006)


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