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by Carlos Kase

A Dissertation Presented to the FACULTY OF THE GRADUATE SCHOOL UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree DOCTOR OF PHILOSOPHY (CRITICAL STUDIES)

December 2009

Copyright 2009

Carlos Kase


For My Parents


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS During my time at the University of Southern California, I have had the benefit of learning from a group of scholars whose collective insight into the American avant-garde cinema is unmatched. Though I was well aware of David James’ extraordinary intellect before arriving in Los Angeles, I was pleased to learn that his warm generosity is its equal. He has given me the unqualified support that every graduate student desires in a mentor, while nevertheless providing a model for scholarship that exceeds the grasp of most mortals. I feel incredibly lucky to have had him as my advisor and dissertation chair. Akira Lippit is an insurmountable adversary in the realm of unscripted debate; the scope of his intelligence is boundless, and his advice has been incredibly helpful, from the very beginnings of this project to its conclusion. In my interdisciplinary adventures into Art History, Nancy Troy has encouraged my enthusiasm for expanding my field of reference into the discursive spaces well beyond cinema. Yet her diligent pedagogy and exacting scholarship have forced me to keep my ideas grounded in argument. Michael Renov was involved in this project in its earlier stages, continuously reenergizing my belief that experimental film is a non-fiction form, engaged in real encounters between people and history. Though she could not be involved in the final developments of this dissertation, Anne Friedberg was a steady voice of encouragement and a firm believer in my interdisciplinary ambitions. I hope that her health soon improves, so that she can


return to guiding graduate students towards pioneering scholarship in untried territory, like that she herself has produced. At USC, I have benefited from time spent with an inspiring group of colleagues. In particular, I would like to thank James Cahill, Jason Hill, and Paul Reinsch. It is through the arguments and debates that I have had with these creative thinkers that I decided how to carve out many of the conceptual, historical, and rhetorical directions of this project. Though this study was produced within an academic framework, it would have been impossible without the efforts of many people who research and support non-industrial cinema in other institutional contexts. Every single work that I discuss at length in this dissertation I have watched in its original format (with one exception). This was not an easy task; the experimental films referenced herein are not generally found at the local video store. It is largely the labor of film archivists that makes research into historical avant-garde cinema possible. In particular, Andy Lampert (of Anthology Film Archives) and Mark Toscano (of the Academy Film Archive) continue to preserve the material, celluloid-based legacy of experimental cinema. A number of archives and collections have also been incredibly helpful in providing access to films, paper collections, and libraries. These include the following: Charles Silver and the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Donnell Media Center, New York; M. M. Serra and The Film-makers’ Cooperative, New York; Electronic Arts Intermix, New York; the Pacific Film


Archive, Berkeley; Brad Arnold and The University of Colorado-Boulder (Stan Brakhage Papers); The Wisconsin Historical Society and The University of Wisconsin-Madison (Shirley Clarke Papers); The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (Carolee Schneemann Papers); and The Smithsonian Museum, Washington, D.C. (Bruce Conner Papers). Most importantly, Anthology Film Archives always held its door open for me. Many of the documents consulted for this project are located in the unique repository for art that lives on the corner of 2nd and 2nd. My thanks go to Robert Haller, who oversees the library, and my other friends there, including John Mhiripiri and Jed Rapfogel, who continue fighting to keep the ship afloat. I would also like to recognize the many filmmakers and critics who responded to questions via email, spoke with me in person or on the telephone, or had brief conversations with me after their screenings. In particular, I thank Annette Michelson, Jud Yalkut, Robert Nelson, Carolee Schneemann, Robert Breer, and Aldo Tambellini for taking the time to talk with me and fill in historical details related to their work and its cultural context that only they know. Lastly, I thank my family for their warm support. My parents, my brothers, and my sister have always been open and encouraging of my intellectual interests, however unusual they may seem. In addition, my partner and companion Liz Mahoney has been patient and supportive throughout the intense and often anxiogenic process of my producing a dissertation. Liz’s intelligence has helped


to make this a much better work than it would have been otherwise and her friendship has kept me sane.


TABLE OF CONTENTS Dedication Acknowledgments Abstract Chapter 1: Fist Fight and the Intermedial Conditions of AvantGarde Art in the 1960s Chapter 2: Performance and the Warholian Cinematic Imperative: Provocation and Distress in the Anxiogenic Underground Chapter 3: The Medium Is the Medium: Television, Experimental Film, and Expanded Cinema Chapter 4: Appropriation, Assemblage, and Collective Authorship on the West Coast Chapter 5: Somatic Cinema: Presence, Performance, Crisis, and the Problem of “Structure” Chapter 6: Paul Sharits, Perceptual Tumult, Bodily Trauma, and the Dilemma of the Film Artist Bibliography ii iii viii






380 427


ABSTRACT Contrary to the dominant narratives of art history, experimental cinema once played a meaningful role in American art. The filmic works discussed in this dissertation devised fresh modes of authorship and experimentation involving chance, collaboration, and interpersonal provocation that were as modern and innovative of those used in any art form. In this project experimental cinema is thus situated in close conceptual and historical proximity to other kinds of advanced art practice – including performance, video, assemblage, and installation art – that aggravated representational, artistic, ethical, and spectatorial anxieties, while challenging conventional divisions between art and media forms. By creating works that were often hostile and aggressive, these filmmakers attempted to undermine the smooth flows of information and entertainment that dominated the United States in the waning years of film’s significance as the nation’s dominant mass medium. Through its consideration of selected works by multi-faceted, multi-media artists including Robert Breer, Andy Warhol, Shirley Clarke, Nam June Paik, Bruce Conner, Carolee Schneemann, and Paul Sharits, this study argues that an interdisciplinary strategy provides the most effective means for understanding the intermedial art environment that defined avant-garde cultural production in the wake of Abstract Expressionism. In its aversion to conventional divisions between artists’ film, avant-garde film, and non-fiction film, this project thus attempts to reintegrate celluloid-based, experimental moving image works into the


Despite its fleeting presence in the popular mindset of the late 1960s. Because of its interstitial identity. and in critical hindsight remains so. and distinctive ontological challenges to representation. made them popular. This dissertation argues that the anxieties surrounding avant-garde art – related to its function as a mechanism for undermining conventional notions of pleasure. provocative mode of address. and historical networks that produced them and even. define it. experimental cinema never realized its promise as a transformational influence on the overall field of American art: it did not gain the economic support of gallery culture or the intellectual esteem of art history. ix . for a brief moment. it was an anxious object then. but may in significant ways. ethics.multifarious cultural. social. and craft – are not only central to experimental cinema.

as he saw it. In a 1985 letter to art/film critic and scholar Annette Michelson.Chapter 1: Fist Fight and the Intermedial Conditions of Avant-Garde Art in the 1960s: Arguably the most significant independent filmmaker of the 20th century. spent most of his life struggling to achieve both material sustenance for his family and some degree of critical acceptance as a major artist outside of his small community of fellowtravelers in this minority art practice. he maintained a dogged faith in film as a medium for meaningful artistic intervention. he and his friends had created: 1 . and being an independent filmmaker. by 1985. a symbolic spokesperson and representative of the movement’s greatest ambitions and achievements. Brakhage had learned that major industrial changes in cinema were leading the corporations that manufacture film to make significant cuts in the availability of 16mm film stocks. To him this material change also marked a shift in aesthetic and cultural values more generally. Despite the fact that he did not receive the kind of widespread recognition that is typically visited on a major artist in fine art. as well as its occasional tendencies towards didacticism and rhetorical excess. However. Stan Brakhage serves in many versions of the history of American experimental cinema as a kind of figurehead. he expressed a despondent attitude concerning the condition of the “branch” of film that. Brakhage began making films in the early 1950s.

Yes. his note also signaled some feeling of loss. which was designed primarily for amateur use. collection of the University of Colorado. I. thrashing about in a hostile landscape. caught in the wave of retrenchment of filmic resources and the onrush of video. 1 2 . Letter from Stan Brakhage to Annette Michelson. 1985. His sense of termination extended beyond the material limits of any particular variety of film stock. . In her written response to the filmmaker. 1985. experimental film. one begins. he and a small group of people had pioneered. who’ve resisted everyone else’s paranoia on this subject [the end of celluloid]. as he saw it. truly?2 This somewhat melancholy exchange between an artist and a scholar reveals a shared anxiety concerning the historical status of this minority art practice – what has come to be known variously as avant-garde film. Stan Brakhage Papers. to feel like a dinosaur. at the time) the end of a particular variety of film stock known as reversal film.] the knife came down so fast – the ‘finis’ so abrupt – that it was evening before I could begin to realize there’d be no continuence [sic] of this ‘branch’ of film I and my friends had made: we hang in the air. Michelson also expressed a sense of terminus concerning what she too felt might be the end of an experimental film practice as she had come to understand it. of nostalgia for a practice that. .1 Brakhage’s letter to Michelson was written partially in response to what he perceived to be (incorrectly. She writes. and into the space of cultural history.I. 2 Letter from Annette Michelson to Stan Brakhage. June 16. Stan Brakhage Papers. in my own way mourn what seems to be the end of an entire artistic practice. June 7. am now then (as of yesterday) forced to admit the end of independent film as I’ve known it and worked for it all my life [. collection of the University of Colorado. as in a Magritte painting. Are we such. However. too. resisted the crows of video makers.

It is an objective reflection on the indefiniteness of the function of art in present3 . In 1966.” defined by its special ability to be fundamentally indefinite. In hindsight. art critic Harold Rosenberg argued that avant-garde art was an “anxious object. and to replace conventional pleasures with a distressed searching. it is one that is not concerned with the aesthetic status of the art form itself.independent film. It also suggests a larger historical question that may relate to the status of artistic development in general. From their exchange it seems that the “retrenchment of filmic resources. its position within the social. In their correspondence. two of the most avid supporters of this artistic practice. Brakhage and Michelson. In 1985.” as Michelson understands it. but rather. this dialogue between Brakhage and Michelson conveys a profound critical anxiety about the status of the art circa 1985. […] Anxiety is thus the form in which modern art raises itself to the level of human history. – in which they were both deeply involved (albeit in different capacities). economic. to resist the classical social functions of art. an anxious interrogation of the limits between art and other human activities: The anxiety of art is a philosophical quality perceived by artists to be inherent in acts of creation in our time. and cultural sphere of the arts in the late 20th century. Though this exchange evinces a kind of crisis of faith. corresponds to a sea change in the artistic context of moving image media art. etc. felt that the narrative of the art form had reached something of a “finis” point. these advocates for non-industrial film suggest that a historical shift had taken place that was much more significant than the end of a film stock or a stylistic trend.

4 . and to effect historical action. It arises.” 16. not as a reflex to the condition of artists. emotional stimulation and communication. the most exemplary works of modern art – from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art – had always shared common anxieties about meaning. He explains: The anxiety of art is a peculiar kind of insight. social function. nothing that befalls the artist as a person. significant modern and contemporary art was an anxious object that continuously. to exert social influence. 4 Rosenberg. by definition. philosophical significance. Rosenberg argued that the ways in which art functioned in society were always shifting and continuously interacting with other cultural activities. 17. In fact. For him. to him this tension between cultural factors induces a condition of anxiety that is not only a symptom of its historical conditions but is the engine of its creativity. It was his position that this anxious and perhaps anxiogenic state of modern art was its defining attribute. 1966). as it interrogated the limits between different levels of cultural understanding and signification. Where this anxiety is absent. but from their reflection upon the role of art among other human activities. and the capacity to be historicized. will bring it into being.3 Rosenberg argues that art of the 1960s struggled with other cultural practices in an effort to define itself in relation to these other forces.4 As he understood it. engaged in a condition of ongoing social and aesthetic research. not even the threat of physical extinction. “Toward an Unanxious Profession. “Toward an Unanxious Profession” in The Anxious Object (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. The anxiety collectively expressed by Brakhage and Michelson in the correspondence quoted above conveys 3 Harold society and the possibility of displacement of art by newer forms of expression.

did experimental film engage with the major philosophical and aesthetic challenges of art more generally? This variety of film has always been. when had circumstances been different? When and how. I will argue. or cultural transformation. if avant-garde film ever held any kind of promise for bringing about artistic. again using Rosenberg’s language. but once.precisely this variety of tension. has lost its footing. which had once some force of aesthetic urgency as a mode of philosophical inquiry. The anxiety that Brakhage and Michelson express is a result of shifts in boundaries. and processes of valorization within the arts themselves. had fallen by the wayside. as it manifests a concern about the meaning of one artistic practice in relation to an entire cultural field characterized by a range of contributing media practices and social forces.”5 In this project. social. “Toward an Unanxious Profession. There is a shared worry in their writing that avant-garde film. however meager its cultural hold may have been. was in the past. If experimental film had lost some sense of its cultural urgency by 1985. results from “the possibility of displacement of art by newer forms of expression. obscure and little known (both to the general public and the art establishment). historically speaking. as well as popular culture. emotional stimulation and communication. However. which. and likely always will be. between 5 Rosenberg. 5 . it will be argued that American experimental film has always had a tentative footing within the realm of the fine arts. interactions.” 17. its era. as Brakhage and Michelson suggest in 1985.

it is clear that it was never again perceived to be “the magnetic center” of the American cultural landscape. this project aims to identify a number of its most provocative and remarkable efforts to engage with significant developments in aesthetics and artistic practice across a range of media and cultural forms. journalist John Gruen wrote confidently about avant-garde cinema in New York Magazine. it is filmmaking that acts as the perfect magnetic center for every restless impulse and expression. an entirely mainstream. in significant ways. it held an anxious promise for a measure of cultural potency. In 1966. its value. populist publication (these essays were later collected in his book The New Bohemia): It is safe to say that of all avant-garde manifestations in the New Bohemia. NJ: A Cappella Books.6 To anyone who is even passingly familiar with the history of avant-garde film. the underground film movement. 93. for all its deliberate derangement. as understood in this project. define it. In this study I argue that the anxieties surrounding avant-garde art – which Rosenberg located in collective social doubts about its meaning. but may. 6 . represents a liminal art-making praxis that is poised between the plastic and the 6 John Gruen. is the most active and the most daring. While the Combine Generation’s fever for joint creativity runs rampant in all the arts. The New Bohemia (Pennington. Experimental film. Rather than explain the reasons for the failure of this movement to achieve the transformations that its most ambitious supporters (including Michelson) at one point envisioned for it. 1966). its capacity to produce pleasure – are not only central to experimental film.roughly the mid-1960s and the mid-70s.

genres. between fine art and the entertainment industry. while also intertwined with other significant developments in aesthetics across a range of media. arguably. 7 . rather than determined by any inborn metaphysical purpose. As Rosenberg argues. the condition of avant-garde art is “an objective reflection on the indefiniteness of the function of art in presentday society. In New York.7 This project will evaluate a set of case studies of experimental film from the period in which. avant-garde film was central to the cultural zeitgeist of the period and occupied a significant position amongst a range of other media.” suggesting that the relationships between all of these terms shift over time in accordance with social and historical developments. “Toward an Unanxious Profession. isolated texts. Methodology: Anxiety and music. for a brief moment in time. anxiety and art – these are the raw materials for a new Bohemia. anxiety and sex.temporal arts. as in other 7 Rosenberg. between the histories of art and cinema. its production was most explosive and urgent. anxiety and dancing.” 17. These trends should all be understood in pragmatic terms as fundamentally social and contingent upon a variety of unpredictable cultural forces. outsider practice. and ultimately. between handcrafted expression and automated surveillance. and aesthetic strategies. Though it has always been a minority. Only when evaluated in relation to these larger artistic trends and cultural energies can it be effectively historicized and comprehensively understood as a praxis rather than a set of contained.

life in the United States reached a condition of pronounced anxiety. 6. a simple search for something other than the status quo. the gay rights movement. from a set of major public traumas and conflicts between dominant institutions and countercultural forces. the escalation of the conflict in Vietnam. The New Bohemia. these commodities run rife. the breakdown of the conventional nuclear family (which was partially a result of the rise of television).8 – John Gruen. the Chicano movement.cities throughout the world. poverty. which had resulted. The social and perhaps psychological impacts of the conflicts associated with these historical 8 Gruen. or aesthetic – then it becomes clear that this anxiety. and the implementation of a draft that catalyzed a powerful and aggressive anti-war movement. 8 . and if we mean anxiety to stand for racial tension. can release numberless creative and emotional explosions. narcotics. or displacement – intellectual. emotional. The New Bohemia. at least partially. race riots and the implementation of civil rights legislation that drew attention to the prevailing racism around the country. the rise of drug use and the counterculture’s embrace of psychedelics and later. female sexual liberation (associated partially with the development of the birth control pill and the Kinsey report). Intellectuals and critics from diverse disciplines and philosophical positions argue that this anxiety resulted from a variety of factors including the fear of extinction associated with the Cold War. when acted upon. The artistic actions and cultural experiences of this era often encapsulated the tumultuous sensibility of the time. 1966 It is a commonplace notion that during the era after World War II and particularly in the 1960s.

John F. the violent uprisings at the Democratic National Convention of 1968 (and the subsequent trial of the Chicago Seven).developments were profound and reflected the extreme cultural conflict and ideological anxiety of the age. the imprisonment of Black Panther Huey P. Kennedy. the bombings and social actions of the Weather Underground and the associated actions of COINTELPRO. the tumultuous historical casualties of the age concretely embody its social tensions. The Bay of Pigs invasion. the Stonewall riots. in a way that is perhaps more aesthetically urgent to the topic at hand. These anxious times. the Watergate scandal. Specifically. the murders at Kent State. Martin Luther King. Though this was the age of flower power and free love. the race riots of Los Angeles. the assassinations of Medgar Evers. the student revolt at Columbia University. and Chicago. with their general sense of social disharmony (exhibited partially by the numerous manifestations listed above). Experimental film of the period expressed these anxious cultural energies and sometimes directly addressed the historical traumas listed above. Newton (as well as countercultural icons John Sinclair and Timothy Leary). Malcolm X. Robert Kennedy. these historical conditions 9 . both popular and avant-garde. the shooting of Andy Warhol by militant feminist Valerie Solanas. Detroit. together symbolically encapsulate the energies of confrontation and social dissonance that underpinned the age. However. it was also a period marked by extreme violence and social dissonance. inscribed their collective energies of antagonism and conflict on a range of media forms in the period.

Bruce Conner. In some cases these works challenged particular social forces with confrontational strategies. sometimes.also escalated the capacity of the film medium – in ways that were formally. Robert Nelson. the War in Vietnam. cultural. Carolee Schneemann. In all these situations. like other artistic projects and cultural energies of the time. In other cases. Shirley Clarke. these works perfectly represented or embodied these tensions as documentary actions. and thematically experimental – to induce extreme perceptual. and Paul Sharits – collectively represent modes of encounter between cinema and other forces of American artistic and social history from roughly 1965 to 1975. The films that are the subject of this project directly addressed and showcased a range of aesthetic. therapeutic reconditioning of aesthetic experience. the influence of television on the public’s understanding of history. conceptual. Yoko Ono. Aldo Tambellini. This anxiogenic use of cinema. in an effort to combat and oppose. these film projects willfully provoked anxieties in the social and public spaces of their exhibitions in a kind of therapeutic effort to undo the perceptual and ideological structures that made the injustices and public traumas of the era possible. Andy Warhol. for example. directed itself towards a tumultuous. and psychological crises for the array of people who encountered the work. or the exploitation of women by the media industry. and. Stan Brakhage. Nam June Paik. personal anxieties. racial violence. and in still other cases. philosophical. socially. Jud Yalkut. the films discussed in this study – including those of Robert Breer. The films of 10 .

the image.these artists presented in the following chapters enacted anxiogenic confrontations with a range of social. unsettled historical condition. “The American Action Painters” in The Tradition of the New (New York: Da Capo Press. 27. textual function. 9 Rosenberg. this project’s title suggests a psychological metaphor: These films might be understood as efforts at “workingthrough” certain historical. these artworks were most significant because of their capacity not to show or represent something.”9 [emphasis in original] In this regard. philosophical. this confrontational aesthetic stance frames their interpretation within the overall argument in the study that follows. It is a rhetorical formulation that is directly indebted to Harold Rosenberg’s famous statement in which he described the paintings of Abstract Expressionist artists in terms of their ability to foreground the ontological contingency of an artwork’s particular mode of coming-into-being above its symbolic. and aesthetic forces. 1960). and perhaps psychological problems. Like Rosenberg’s text The Anxious Object. as embodied encounters between a range of social. aesthetic. signifying. 11 . but to be something: “What matters always is the revelation contained in the act. and aesthetic forces. To him. This dissertation’s title – “A Cinema of Anxiety” – sets up the evaluation of the American experimental cinema as an embodiment of an anxious. whatever be or be not in it. historical. like Abstract Expressionism. It is to be taken for granted that in the final effect. could be understood not only as texts but as social actions. will be a tension. this project analyzes a range of films that.

as a technologically automated recording of reality. the anxiety of these films might be inscribed in the realm of the profilmic (in the social space in front of the camera). Throughout this project. however. as process. This study concerns itself with filmmaking as praxis. As suggested above. these works may have come into being as therapeutic efforts to deal with hostile social. academic disciplines.However the potential scope of such a psychologically motivated interpretation far exceeds the intellectual goals of this study. which are partially defined by the anxious social spaces in which they come to be. or in the discursive space between media histories and critical. it will be argued that most (if not all) of these works demonstrate some degree of anxiety in all of these representational registers. to evaluate their efficacy in achieving such ends would far exceed the interests and capabilities of a film historian. the works’ exhibition (in the social space of spectatorship). 12 . In a sense. and the cinema that circumscribes an entire set of anxieties that bleed over into the territory of a more general cultural history. the subject of this project is a set of anxiogenic film texts. the anxious disciplines that frame their interpretations. that gives it a unique access to historical tensions and human contingency. historical. the filmic (in the literal space of the film frame itself). it takes the position that there is something about the medium of film. In this regard. and as such. Rather than explain precisely why these works came to be. this project will simply accept that they are objects embedded in a complex web of history that both defines them and makes them possible. and psychic forms.

effectively displacing film (as Brakhage and Michelson suggest in their exchange quoted earlier). when video had become an accepted technology for experimental work in the art world. in an international artistic landscape. regardless of how finely it is demarcated in rhetorical terms. The decade of 1965-75 that is a part of this project’s title is only a loose frame of reference. technologies. and cultural determinations. economics. For example. such artists as Nam June Paik and Yoko Ono have complex histories as artists born in East Asia who lived and worked in both Europe and the United States in the period at hand. Ono and Paik are international artists. The project begins with 1965. A few works will be discussed that either precede or follow this period. and who interacted vigorously with the international community of Fluxus artists. geographical.The boundaries of this dissertation are porous. it would be very difficult to define either of these artists according to any particular national identity. months after which Andy Warhol publicly disavowed painting in order to work in film. In a very real sense. this project accepts their filmic output as relevant to the discourses and trends of American experimental filmmaking. to greater or lesser degrees. all of the films discussed herein are inscribed. That being said. and it ends ten years later. because it is very difficult to put concrete temporal limits on a concept or a historical trend. and tastes that defies any country’s borders. Because of this complex network of historical. The same flexibility concerns the limits of “American” as presented in the title. 13 . Since the national identity of a media artwork is subject to a flow of people.

the work of West Coast practitioners is discussed in order to provide some degree of historical and conceptual perspective. should be understood as somewhat provisional. and though there may be an emphasis on New York artists. “The Two Avant-Gardes.” Studio International: Journal of Modern Art 190 (November/December 1975). – are not appreciated in San Francisco any more than they are in London. This dissertation is not a survey. However. “there is a sense in which avant-garde Co-op film-making in Europe is closer to New York than Californian film-making is. 171. few of the films discussed herein could be described as 10 He wrote. there were also marked differences. particularly concerning the social and cultural atmosphere in which the works developed. it must be admitted that the principal focus here is New York City. one chapter addresses the films of two West Coast practitioners of experimental media art whose work was firmly inscribed within a multi-media artistic landscape of advanced art in the San Francisco Bay Area. it is a selective project that ties together within the minority practice that is experimental film. national. and the leading New York critics and tastemakers – Sitney. though clearly delineated. in 1975 English filmmaker and theorist Peter Wollen argued that the New York avant-garde filmmaking sensibility had always been as distinct from that of San Francisco as it was from London. In fact. Though there were some significant overlapping strategies between avant-garde artists in New York and San Francisco. Michelson. etc. In this regard.10 The geographic.” Peter Wollen. the epicenter for experimental art of the mid-1960s to the mid1970s.In terms of geography. and temporal boundaries of this project then. in the analysis of work by Bruce Conner and Robert Nelson. 14 . Instead of analyzing dozens of films and presenting a comprehensive history of the totality of an art practice.

no. and the extratextual conditions of their aesthetic and social functions. and perhaps theoretical investigation into the way in which American experimental film engaged with the ontological challenges of both presence and plasticity. See Arthur.” Millennium Film Journal 1. the contexts of their mediation. “Structural Film: Revisions. to Paul Sharits’ Epileptic Seizure Comparison (which has been screened both as a single film projection and as a looped two-screen installation) function both as texts and events. Each chapter considers between one and three films in detail.11 In a sense. and it does so in relation to a set of aesthetic concerns that often connect the work of two or three filmmakers to each other and to other trends in the arts. Like the Abstract Expressionist works that were his subject. challenge the conventional understanding of the American avant-garde cinema as an expressive. and the Artifact. romantic endeavor of controlled and contained authorship. As Rosenberg suggested. the films described herein all demonstrate provocative ontological relationships between their materially contained textual spaces. this study is a historical. 11 15 . 5–13. conceptual.canonical. Originale). all of the films that are discussed in this project demonstrate unusual cases for the consideration of the relationship between a film text and the historical conditions of its production.2 (Spring 1978). as frozen artifacts and contingent performances. Moreover. All of the films presented here. an artwork can be understood both as a textual object and an extra-textual event. in his influential formulation of 1960. and in so doing. by redefining the textual and extratextual spaces of The notion that experimental films have a dual status as “artifact” and “performance” is an idea borrowed from film critic and historian Paul Arthur. from Robert Breer’s Fist Fight (which was presented as a part of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s theatrical experiment. New Versions.

must be understood as necessarily embedded in historical circumstances and cultural trends. economies. Michel Foucault and Giles Deleuze might be forced into contact with John Cage and Marshall McLuhan. like science. not because of their popularity today. art. it does so because their work directly and explicitly addresses the artists and cultural climate at hand (as in the case of contemporary work in film studies and art history) or had some determining 16 . this project recognizes that theory. or film theorists who were not in some way linked to the artmaking processes that it addresses. an effort has been made to include works that might partially augment the established and canonical history of experimental films of this period with both different film objects and fresh interpretative criteria. there will be no leaping across time and space in some kind of transhistorical theoretical fantasy in which. like the artworks that are its subject. This study references a number of theorists and critics – contrary to the dominant trend of related work in the humanities – because of their historical significance for the artistic practices and cultural milieus of the era in question. In this regard. has always been subject to the machinations of societies. This project argues that ideas. choices were made in order to emphasize works that have not been exhaustively studied in other critical volumes. When this project considers the work of art critics.cinema. and religion. As an historical undertaking. In addition. In this regard. for example. art historians. technology. cultural critics. in terms of the selective inclusion of certain films in this project. and intellectual fads.

influence (as in the work of theorists whose sensibilities were adopted by filmmakers and artists of the 1960s and 70s). 259.000 in its first six months). Historical Background: Experimental Film in the Realm of Art in the 1960s: In the 1960s the American avant-garde cinema reached the historical point of its greatest public awareness. quite simply.12 It was even reviewed in Newsweek. critic and filmmaker Jonas Mekas proselytized for the cause of the filmic avant-garde. as pragmatic. 17 . where it received surprisingly favorable attention. only half of these profits went to Warhol due to poor business decisions on his part. Bockris. This ambitious. MA: Da Capo. In its omission of any overarching metaphysics or overt political agenda. Though it was always a peripheral. three-and-a-half hour experiment in voyeurism was the first avant-garde film to reap substantial profits ($300. 2003). Noteworthy 12 According to Victor Bockris. and to popular sensibilities. in the pages of the widely read alternative New York weekly. having become popular enough to crossover from the underground into traditional theatrical venues. The Village Voice. Warhol: The Biography (Cambridge. By the mid-1960s. bringing it to the attention of the paper’s bohemian readership. this project intends to foreground a particular set of artistic practices by utilizing a historical methodology that might be described. Throughout the decade. in the surprise popularity of Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls (1966). perverse. American underground film (as it was popularly known) had achieved a minor economic triumph at the box office. it did gain significantly in its public awareness in this period. marginal part of the art and film worlds.

it seemed. art critics were largely ignorant of developments in advanced filmmaking of the period. including most notably Maidstone (1970) that was indebted to the experiments of alternative cinema. and it was thought everyone should. Warhol) began to utilize film in their multi-tiered art practices.”13 Though the public’s awareness of avant-garde cinema had expanded significantly throughout the decade and a half that followed World War II. which openly acknowledged the influence of Andy Warhol’s unique filmmaking approach. Notably. not everyone was paying attention. Annette Michelson argued that a fundamental transition was taking 13 Quoted by Arthur in “Films the Color of Blood” in The Film-makers’ Cooperative Catalogue. in the pages of Artforum magazine. In addition to these cultural interventions. vi. become a filmmaker. In this period. 1989). it was “a time when anyone could.tastemakers and public intellectuals responded excitedly to developments within avant-garde cinema. 7 (New York: Film-makers’ Cooperative. an enthusiasm for experimental cinema was contagious. such major artists as Richard Serra and Robert Smithson (and of course. renowned novelist Norman Mailer made a series of films. which spanned a variety of media. Turning his attentions to an unfamiliar medium. Susan Sontag wrote an enthusiastic essay on Jack Smith’s notorious Flaming Creatures (1963) that was published in The Nation and later compiled in her massively influential Against Interpretation and Other Essays. 18 . In 1971 (fourteen years before the correspondence with Brakhage quoted above). no. As critic Amy Taubin once observed. a text that was required reading for anyone interested in American art and intellectual culture during the 1960s.

and Paul Sharits). in 1971. these developments in experimental film were largely ignored by the art world establishment. she wrote. 9. Joyce in experimental film practice that deserved much greater critical attention than it had been given. To Michelson. but in contemporary art in general. as a massive transformation. equipped for the critical task on the level which the present flowering of cinema in this country demands. In her thinking. Specifically describing this circumstance. this issue of Artforum seemed to ask a question: why was a film such as Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) – 14 15 Annette Michelson. within mid-century America. as well as today.”15 The September 1971 issue of Artforum featured Michelson as its guest-editor and she took the opportunity to stage a noteworthy critical intervention on behalf of these neglected works. including the presentation of a number of articles featuring extended discussions of a range of experimental films (including work by Warhol.”14 Yet. Ibid. For her. in actuality. most FILM critics now at work are simply not. something was happening that was so fresh and aesthetically urgent that it begged to be understood. no. 1 (September 1971). this amounted to a crisis of sorts in that neither professional art nor film critics were quite up to the task at hand. As a provocation. not only in cinema. this work demanded “the urgency of recognition for an achievement whose importance will eventually be seen as comparable to that of American painting in the 1950s and onwards. “if most ART critics have not been ‘trying’ very hard. Ken Jacobs. “Foreword in Three Letters” Artforum 10. nor ever will be. 19 .

There are many historical.18 For the authors of these studies. economic. Thomas Crow. “Foreword in Three Letters.discussed at length in Michelson’s issue of Artforum – not of interest to other art critics of the era?16 Experimental cinema. Today. (New York: Knopf. though his presentation is far from authoritative: he only 20 . though no answer can ever prove to be truly definitive. Art Since 1900: Vol. The amply illustrated and researched work features countless references and illustrations of video art and “artists’ film” but only mentions two or three contributors to the American avant-garde cinema by name. Rise of the Sixties (New Haven. and institutional reasons for this marked neglect by the art critical and curatorial establishments. 17 Michelson. the vast majority of survey texts on postwar American art entirely omit the American avant-garde cinema. Robert Hugues. Buchloh. in 2009. It must be admitted that though Michelson proclaimed that the importance of midcentury avant-garde cinema would “eventually be seen as comparable to that of American painting in the 1950s and onwards” it never received the critical attention that she predicted. 18 See for example. revised ed. 16 Manny Farber took an interest in Snow’s film and was in fact the only mainstream film critic that wrote anything interesting in the period about the avant-garde cinema.” 9. D. cultural.17 The disappointment that resulted from this unrealized promise underpins her written lamentation of the death of independent film in her letter to Brakhage some years later. 1991). Perhaps the most egregious example of this historical neglect is the recent textbook by Hal Foster. and Benjamin H. The next few pages will offer some brief explanation for this strange disjunction between art practice and criticism. 2003) by David Joselit. because of its interstitial identity – is it film or is it art? – has always been a source of interpretative anxiety for art critics and curators. Shock of the New. Yves Alain-Bois. CT: Yale University Press. Rosalind Krauss. 1996). The notable exception is the provocative American Art Since 1945 (London: Thames & Hudson. 2004). 2 1945 to the Present (New York: Thames & Hudson.

and art historians that films are audio-visual texts that feature characters and tell stories.” He argues that this popular. and philosophical meaning is the result of a typically American “blend of overfamiliarity” with the movies and “an ignorance” of alternative or avant-garde art-making practices. 1992). When they fail to satisfy those expectations. despite the ample attention that he gives to other forms of media and video art. 19 David E. academics. troubled. and journalists as well. “If film is the medium practiced in Studio City. social. he writes. David E. art patrons. 21 . It is commonly assumed that film is largely the domain of popular.despite the recognition of Warhol’s centrality to vanguard art making. cinema is simply not part of what artists do. then the medium practiced by artists and Beats. This condition applies not only to the general public. this ignorance of alternative modes of filmmaking “fuels … prejudices [that have] for the past forty years surrounded the efforts of all who have envisioned for film the aesthetic.” James argues that this popular misunderstanding is shared by people both inside and outside of academia. James (Princeton: Princeton University Press. For James. in New York cannot really be film. curators. or cognitive functions claimed for painting or poetry. 3–4.”19 It is generally understood by most movie goers. film critics. Film historian David James has argued that there exists a “popular assumption of an unbridgeable gulf between the movies and high art. art critics. rather than artistic experimentation and social intervention. and prejudiced interpretation of film’s social. James. fictive entertainments. but to critics. aesthetic. Third World women and peace workers. they trigger a profound anxiety of discusses one filmmaker (Stan Brakhage). “Introduction” in To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the New York Underground. ed.

22 . Chrissie Iles. and art historians. Brian Frye.”20 This historical ignorance produces significant interpretative problems to responsible scholarship. Annette Michelson. Carolee Schneemann. Ken Jacobs. and economic reasons that American experimental cinema has not been assimilated into histories of art in the 20th century. An example of this quandary can be located in the recent scholarship on Andy Warhol by art historian Caroline Jones. The art world’s institutional and disciplinary aversions to film have not changed significantly. and art world people don’t know how to approach it. (like most art historians of her generation). in a highly acclaimed critical volume published in 1996. paradoxically perhaps. Jones. They don’t know where to find it either. In her chapter on Warhol. academics. an interest in the totality of the artist’s identity as a 20 Chrissie Iles quoted in Malcolm Turvey. 119. quite plainly. barely mentions his films. and Bruce Conner – the moving image work that they produced was simply not something that most art world professionals concerned themselves with. Paul Arthur. “Obsolescence and American Avant-Garde Film” October 100 (Spring 2002). practical.understanding and generally fail to draw the interest of the public. curator of moving image art at the Whitney Museum in New York recently said. Institutional Issues and Historical Boundaries: There are numerous historical. critics. Despite the fact that a number of the people who produced these films were in fact relatively well-known or established artists themselves – including Warhol. Yoko Ono. Iles. though she does claim. “It is difficult to look at and understand avant-garde film.

1996).’ and the Business Art Business” in Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press. his film work remains largely unseen. Though Warhol’s fine art has produced one of the largest bibliographies in recent art historical scholarship. what such circumstances also demonstrate is that Warhol’s cinema remains enigmatic and undigested in general. it is clear. Despite her imprecise and uniformed description of Warhol’s film. This is a function of the fact that most art historians have not been particularly cognizant of developments in moving image Caroline A. 256.cultural force (even discussing the clothes that he wore). ‘Commonism. The rhetorical and disciplinary blinders that guarantee such an interpretative error are a major hindrance to the comprehensive understanding of Warhol’s work. particularly in relation to his artistic output in other media. because of a number of massive errors in description. However. that she has not seen the work in question. Errors such as Jones’ description of Blowjob go unnoticed because of the collective disciplinary aversion that art historians demonstrate towards experimental cinema.. this description is entirely inaccurate: the camera never shows a second onscreen figure. Jones. above all. there is no camera movement. Such bold claims should depend on some degree of close analysis and actual exposure to the work being described.” As anyone who has seen the film knows. It might be presumed that her descriptive and interpretative errors result from the fact that Warhol’s cinema does not satisfy the particular rhetorical role in which she has cast the artist: as efficient businessman and industrialist. “Andy Warhol’s Factory. 236). she still feels capable of making summary judgments about large swaths of the artist’s filmography: “I believe the pre-1969 films are. exemplars of Warhol’s management style” (Ibid. She describes the opening of Blow Job (1964): “the film opens with a slightly wider shot that takes in the glimpse of a leather-jacketed shoulder of a figure bending down in front of the subject. When she does analyze one of Warhol’s films. Jones’ evaluation of Warhol’s work instrumentalizes it in a way that occludes the complexities and ambivalences of his multipart multi-media artistic practice. 21 23 . before the camera closes in on the subject’s face.21 Jones thus fails to take Warhol’s cinema seriously. the different shots of the film are all taken from precisely the same camera position and placement (on a tripod).

but one felt it very acutely there) – film was absolutely embattled. Frampton makes a number of important claims that help to explain why experimental cinema has been omitted largely from art history surveys and textbooks. then it is no surprise that they have largely ignored the work of lesser known filmmakers as well. and to lower Manhattan. the divide between fine art and filmmaking was also inscribed in the cultural climate of the era. Nevertheless there were a few pariahs. and in those circumstances a pariah. One. huddled together for protection against the icy blast from Castelli. to attempt to make films. and as Iles suggests above. we take you now to the year 1969. who persisted in making films. they simply “don’t know how to approach it. 2008). “Hollis Frampton in San Francisco. Thus other kinds of art-making. His first point relates to the critical perception that art was defined exclusively as painting and sculpture. Reprinted in Scott MacDonald. of course. including cinema – and performance and video as well – were not of primary Hollis Frampton. there was dance. In the 1960s.22 In the quotation above. Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor (Berkeley: University of California Press. 22 24 . the sort of boyars of the New York art 267. yes indeed. and very strong and adventurous work was going on. a few benighted and degenerate scumbags.” from a lecture at the San Francisco Art Institute. And Warhol of course had become fashionable long before he ever made films anyway. as a function of differing institutional assumptions about what defines art: We move now. at that time was to be certainly an outcast. but the rest of us mostly were. 1977. Art was painting and sculpture – that was it. before the critical histories were written. Filmmaker and photographer Hollis Frampton distilled the critical and economic details of the situation (in a succinct comment made in retrospect in 1977). was that at that time and in that place film was still (and still is. Yes. and the confluence of a set of circumstances.” If art historians and curators are unaware of the moving image work of perhaps the most significant artist of the second half of the 20th century. because it was undeniable there was music. April 21. as it were. To make films.

and Dan Graham. performance and video. a powerful art dealer such as Leo Castelli made artists’ careers by selling their work for lucrative sums. As suggested earlier. nor 23 Though many of filmmakers of Frampton’s generation found their ways into academia in the 1970s. it depended on its own independent organizations and cooperatives to distribute work and collect minor rental fees. 25 . though they may have been neglected initially. as an acceptable and respected medium. never resulted in reciprocal opportunities or additional interest from art journals or gallery owners. despite obvious correspondences with structural work [in avant-garde film]. despite protestations to the contrary. however. These support systems were lacking for American experimental cinema. as described by Frampton above. there was some interest in experimental cinema amongst a variety of established artists in the mid-1960s to mid-1970s. Film critic and historian Paul Arthur has distilled this circumstance as follows: The occasional forays into film by established artists such as Richard Serra. Robert Morris. it is also implicit in the filmmaker’s statement that he feels that the use of film to make art should be understood. and as a result. (However. this embattlement of film with various other cultural forces was partially a result of their differing economic specificities. have now found their way into the accepted art history narratives. yet integrated artistic landscape.interest within the art world of the time. a situation that insured significant financial comfort and cultural recognition for all parties involved. the two-fold critical and economic neglect of experimental filmmakers by the art world has had undeniable and marked effects on the history and historiography of this cultural practice. complex. for Frampton. as a part of a whole.23 Lastly. As he suggests above.) Secondly. that interest did not in fact compel any additional economic or critical support for that movement.

2005). and documentarians are somewhat artificial and do not accurately identify what is most salient and interesting about the works.was the avant-garde ultimately able to command regular coverage in the mainstream press. Frampton. 78. I will argue that the artistic strategies that influenced and guided major developments in the avantgarde of one medium often overlapped with the principal innovations in other 24 Paul Arthur. and in fact. filmmakers associated with the cooperatives. historical. the mainstream press. and the gallery community to be the work of two different social networks. they were perceived by art journals. In fact. Experimentation in film was not limited to any particular social unit. Smithson. Despite the fact that these two groups had different economic supports and institutional affiliations. the divisions between work produced by established artists. 26 . and Sharits). A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film Since 1965 (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press. or social levels.24 Arthur’s description of the institutional and disciplinary division between art world experiments in film and those of a purely filmic avant-garde demonstrates an important distinction that is perfectly congruent with Frampton’s statement. gallery-supported artists (for example. with mutually exclusive artistic strategies and philosophical interests. Serra. this distinction simply did not hold on aesthetic. Though there may have been aesthetic and structural similarities between the work of established. In this study. and Morris) and so-called avant-garde filmmakers (for example. the art establishment did not consider these activities to be part of the same network of media practice. Jacobs.

25 However. Nam June Paik. New York City). despite a lack of critical recognition of the underlying dynamic social processes. The most significant example of this hybrid identity and movement between film and art worlds is of course Andy Warhol. Jack Smith. and took place well beyond the cultural awareness of the art world (alongside the films of Stan Brakhage. fall 2007. as distinct from the fly-by-night film venues of the Filmmaker’s Cinematheque. 27 . Warhol publicly showcased his film work primarily in unglamorous underground film showcases that were often led by Jonas Mekas. Schneemann. Yoko Ono. The social networks that underpin the cultural history of the American avant-garde are not nearly as neat and clean in their cleavage between the art and film worlds (of New York or the San Francisco Bay Area) as most histories would have us believe. many of the artists who will be discussed in this dissertation moved fluidly between an avant-garde film enclave. Shirley and Gregory Markopolous). In fact. It should also be noted that a number of the filmmakers described in this project – including Breer. In fact. and Sharits – screened their films at galleries during this period as well. most of the other filmmakers who are discussed in any detail in this project. and an intermedial bohemian community that was not exclusively composed of either filmmakers or artists. many of the other filmmakers presented in this project also fluidly navigated the spaces between the experimental film community and other artistic networks of the time. Conner. Aldo 25 Though a number of the artists mentioned above showed their films in established galleries. both Smithson and Serra were known to be frequent attendees of the screenings of the so-called American underground (author’s conversation with Annette Michelson. Despite the fact that he was an international art celebrity. a position of art world recognition. Warhol. Jud Yalkut. including Robert Breer.

as an amateur’s practice. and star actors. She argued. has been well established and convincingly discussed by a number of artists and critics. Robert Nelson. and video art in the period. Bruce Conner. words. that the etymology of “amateur” was in fact related to the Latin term for “lover. and Paul Sharits. 28 . independent filmmaking. words. dialogue. because of its commercial freedom from conventional. the Filmmaker’s Cinematheque. happenings. and the fact that they reaped little to no profit from their work was a fact that they often celebrated as a mark of practical and political independence (despite the fact that as a result these artists were forced to live under the conditions of poverty that generally accompanied such an outsider status). Carolee Schneemann. all had some significant aesthetic connections to other trends in the arts. a venue devoted to the exhibition of experimental and independent film and organized by filmmaker Jonas Mekas. In fact. She writes. experimental dance. but related cultural trends in art-making. In the 1960s. industrial cinema.” and that. in 1965. The close social and historical proximity of these developments in expanded art forms serves to further emphasize the social overlap and interaction between these diverse. was perhaps one of the most significant venues and social spaces for the presentation of performance art. Maya Deren. could be free of the structural constraints of plot. including Brakhage and one of his major influences. This understanding of avantgarde film. “Artistic freedom means that the amateur film-maker is never forced to sacrifice visual drama and beauty to a stream of words. most experimental filmmakers were amateurs.Tambellini.

it was an autonomy that was won at the expense of a more widespread cultural recognition. in 2002.” The historical relationships between film and the other arts evidenced real cultural anxieties of critical.. but over the art market as well: “I love the idea of making work that can’t work into the art market. a filmmaker who has been making experimental work since the early 1960s. This institutional and economic framing of experimental cinema as an amateur’s practice has separated this group of artists philosophically and historically from both successful postwar painters (and their economic support system of galleries and critical tastemakers) as well as Hollywood filmmakers (and the infrastructural support of the studio system). to the relentless activity and explanations of plot. et al. claimed that the non-commercial status of the independent filmmaking mode was in fact a major triumph. or to the display of a star or sponsor’s product.words. yet as Frampton explains above. “Amateur Versus Professional” Film Culture 39 (Winter 1965). not only over Hollywood cinema. More recently. and economic 26 27 Maya Deren. in Frampton’s words. this amateur status differentiated independent and avant-garde film practices from those of the commercial film industry. Jacobs in Malcolm Turvey. “absolutely embattled.” 124. Ken Jacobs. […] I think it’s a real accomplishment. “Round Table: Obsolescence and American Avant-Garde Film. social. they also shared an apparatus with an industrial entertainment medium.” 26 For her. and thus found themselves. 45–46.”27 The distance of the independent cinema from the realm of professional artists was seen by many (as Jacobs suggests) to be a mark of its independence. 29 . Though experimental filmmakers shared similar aesthetic aspirations with their contemporaries in other arts.

” including those that reflect on earlier intermedial movements (such as Futurism or Constructivism. conceptual art. not all significant advances in art foregrounded the supposedly essential attributes of any single medium. 390. for example). this legacy remains massively important. with distinctive attributes.tensions that.13. impure modes of medial hybrids. despite the famous protestations by Greenberg and other art critics to the contrary. In terms of contemporary practice. and significatory properties. including assemblage. it might be argued that experimental film has no place within texts that present histories of painting and sculpture. More importantly. it might be argued that the most significant advances of the post World War II era were very much involved in combinatory. 28 30 . n. (This is the position that art historian Caroline Jones takes in her discussion of film in relation to postwar studio art. combines. It must be See Caroline Jones’s critique of Annette Michelson in conversation with Richard Serra in The Machine in the Studio. It could be claimed that film is an altogether different medium. most survey histories of 20th-century art also consider practices in performance. conceptual art. and expanded cinema.)28 However. aesthetic strategies. performance art. Instead. both in their tendencies to demonstrate the poverty of their means and to utilize a range of confrontational strategies in a variety of artistic registers. happenings. continue to the present. In accordance with the legacy of medium-specific in modernist art criticism (most often associated with Clement Greenberg). for many artists of the postwar period. in some degree. These tensions between different modes of artistic and cultural production are inscribed in the works. or “dematerialized art.

recognized that the projected moving image is now, more than ever, a major medium for artists, and these strategies must, for the sake of responsible criticism and scholarship, be connected to their historical precedents in experimental film art. In 2008, film and video curator John Hanhardt addressed the neglect of moving image art in contemporary curatorial practice: The presence of the moving image–whether projected, seen on a monitor or a flat screen, or constituting part of a CD-ROM or website–introduces complex historical and interpretative questions. Yet the rush by curators and historians to embrace emerging media artists occurs too often at the expense of earlier generations of artists working in similar genres and forms. Although the significance of film and video artists of the 1960s and 1970s is generally acknowledged, for example, curators and historians frequently fail to make connections between these earlier works and what is being created today. This oversight isolates contemporary artists and relegates curators to championing new art without being sufficiently aware of its potential historical links.29 As Hanhardt suggests, the origins of popular, contemporary multi-media practices, including the work of Douglas Gordon, Paul McCarthy, Matthew Barney, Pierre Huyghe, and others, must be connected to the historical precedents of other experimental work in moving image media. Though this project does not explicitly address contemporary video, film, and multi-media art, it nevertheless argues that, if this work is to be understood in any meaningful way (in the context of responsible curatorial or scholarly practice), then it requires more thorough investigations of the place of film within earlier American art history.


John Hanhardt, “From Screen to Gallery: Cinema, Video, and Installation Art Practices,” American Art 22, no.2 (Summer 2008), 2.


Pure/Impure Forms: Within the history of art criticism Clement Greenberg was perhaps the most influential voice of his generation, if not the entire 20th century. And though he did not explicitly address cinema, his intellectual authority was a determining influence on the entire timbre of post World War II aesthetics, influencing a range of critics and scholars who interacted with painting, sculpture, and even film. Greenberg’s thinking thus needs to be understood as the philosophical underpinning of any significant historical consideration of the relationship between media in 20th century avant-garde art. Greenberg famously argued for a teleological art history, a version of the 20th century art narrative that privileged a seemingly natural and logical progress towards forms of greater aesthetic purity. According to Greenberg, as art forms evolved, their most significant works would more forcefully address the precise conditions of their own materiality. As he saw it, the most significant innovations in advanced art would necessarily progress towards the more thorough revelation of the essential characteristics of their medium. In short, it was the project of advanced painting to become more immersed in opticality, the nonrepresentational use of paint, and the recognition of the canvas’s non-illusory flatness. It was Greenberg’s position (and that of his most influential follower, Michael Fried) that art had a kind of teleological destiny to fulfill, to strip away that which was extraneous to its essential purpose. (This was an argument that Greenberg derived, to a significant extent, from Immanuel Kant’s metaphysics).


By removing all that was figurative, as well as symbolic, representational, narrative, (and most importantly for Michael Fried, “theatrical”) the most significant American art presented, in Greenberg’s formulation, a tendency towards progressively more purified forms. To Greenberg and the group of modernist critics who followed in his wake, the most important developments in art followed the law “that the conventions not essential to the viability of a medium be discarded as soon as they are recognized.”30 Though this stripping away of figurative content was in fact central to many developments of the avant-garde, both in the United States and abroad, it did not define the totality of significant artistic practice. Greenberg converted an observation into a prescriptive philosophical axiom. This selective critical stance was dogmatic enough to lead critic Leo Steinberg to argue that, “Greenberg mistakes a special case for necessity.”31 It is a commonplace assumption within art criticism that Greenberg, however rigorous a thinker and compelling a writer (particularly in his early work), was misguided in his prescriptive teleological notions about the historical direction that avant-garde art would take.32 Though he correctly observed that advanced painting was venturing into more severe notions of its own materiality and pictorial flatness, he neglected

Clement Greenberg, “‘American-Type’ Painting” in Art and Culture: Critical Essays (Boston: Beacon Press, 1961), 208. 31 Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria, 77. 32 Two astute, but sympathetic critiques of Greenberg can be found in the work of philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto and art historian Thomas Crow. Arthur Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). Thomas Crow, “Modernism and Mass Culture in the Visual Arts” in Modern Art in the Common Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1996).



to recognize that some of the most significant developments in art would take alternative paths, as they moved away from the flat canvas and into the space that surrounded it. In both his writing and his art practice, artist and theorist Allan Kaprow provided a meaningful counterpoint to Greenberg’s predictions. In 1958 Kaprow argued that the gestural innovations of Jackson Pollock, the most famous of Abstract Expressionists, would point the way toward new directions, not into the essence of the painted medium, but off the canvas beyond its traditional material limits. What we have, then, is art that tends to lose itself out of bounds, tends to fill our world with itself, art that in meaning, looks, impulse seems to break fairly sharply with the traditions of painters […] to give up the making of paintings entirely […] Pollock as I see him, left us at the point where we must become preoccupied with and even dazzled by the space and objects of our everyday life, either our bodies, clothes, rooms, or if need be, the vastness of Forty-second street.33 For Greenberg, Pollock’s work was fundamentally significant because of its unique visual content. But for Kaprow, Pollock’s painting depended on a variety of gesture that strived to escape the physical limits of the very same frame. (This sensibility is perfectly congruent with Harold Rosenberg’s theorizations of painting-as-act, which are quoted earlier in this introduction.) The new directions and major developments of advanced art in the 1960s and 70s demonstrated that Kaprow’s premonitions would prove accurate while Greenberg’s criticism would seem more and more incapable of adapting to noteworthy changes in artistic
Allan Kaprow, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock” in Essays on the Blurring Between Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1993), 67.


production, as developments in performance, intermedial practice, Happenings, minimalism, conceptual art, and expanded cinema gained cultural footing.34 In 1968, in a seminal essay on the changing nature of art in sixties America, critics Lucy Lippard and John Chandler described the shifting contemporary landscape of the visual arts in a way that resonates with Kaprow’s suggestions. For those authors, it seemed that painting and sculpture had come to a standstill in 1958, after the heyday of Abstract Expressionism and color field painting. As a result of this condition, a number of artists had begun to expand into other media, including particularly the “dematerialized” practices that included conceptual art, process art, performance, and significantly, film.35 Ten years earlier, in his decisive essay, “On the Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” artist and theorist Allan Kaprow had prophesized this very condition. Kaprow claimed that artists who would follow Jackson Pollock in history would necessarily define, in their practice, a shift away from the canvas, as they would adopt new materials and subjects including “chairs, food, electric and neon lights, smoke, water, old socks, a dog, movies.”36 Here, Kaprow was likely referring to Hollywood “movies,” understood like “old socks,” as commercial detritus, as the refuse of industrial society. Nevertheless, he suggests that new developments in art practice would not favor any particular material platform or medium. Kaprow, Lippard,


A 2008 exhibition, “Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 1940–1976” at the Jewish Museum in New York City presented paintings by the Abstract Expressionists and juxtaposed the philosophically opposed attitudes and interpretations of Greenberg and Rosenberg, particularly as they relate to the critical evaluation of those works. 35 They explicitly discuss Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) as a major work in this context. 36 Kaprow, “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock,” 9.


and Chandler argued that artists would necessarily move their work away from pure plasticity and visual abstraction by emphasizing bodily contingency and presence, through performance and mixed forms in response to the gestural developments of Abstract Expressionism. This art emphasized interpersonal interaction, process, and the social spaces of art practice in which they come in contact with each other. It is significant that for Kaprow, a major catalyst for the intermedial energies of the 1960s, as well as Lippard and Chandler, early observers of these developments, film was indeed part of this multi-media cultural atmosphere. Like Kaprow, Lippard, and Chandler, theater critic and theorist of Happenings, Michael Kirby, observed similar trends towards temporal experimentation, interpersonal interaction, and impure, intermedial projects. He wrote in 1968 that there had been an alternative development to what Greenberg had predicted: While Greenberg sees history as purifying forms, I see it as breaking down the autonomy of formal definitions. One of the strongest tendencies in avant-garde art has been toward what Dick Higgins has called “intermedia” — art that exists between prevalent definitions or makes use of materials and concepts from two different disciplines […] it is primarily the “impure.”37 Kirby was direct in his efforts to divide the critical history of art between the purist teleology of Greenberg’s interest in medium specificity and a fresh hybrid practice that voluntarily challenged the differences between disciplines. The art

Michael Kirby, The Art of Time: Essays on the Avant-Garde (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1969), 13.



form in which Kirby was primarily interested was the semi-theatrical brand of public art known as happenings, in which artists would stage events that featured a variety of performers in interactive, semi-dramatic settings. This variety of interactive work often incorporated devices and structures from other art forms including dance, music, drama, and cinema. The totalizing social space of the happening was a frame in which a variety of media could meet. Sometimes the projected film image took part in these experiments. As Kirby writes in the passage quoted above, Fluxus artist Dick Higgins coined the term “intermedia” (in 1966). Higgins argued convincingly for a counter-narrative of art criticism that challenged the dominant modernist model. It was his position that the nature of art production in the post World War II period tended more and more towards hybrid forms, in which a variety of media were consciously blended and interwoven in practice. Significantly, Higgins credits this artistic shift towards interactive, multi-media practices to the mass media. In this regard, he makes a suggestion that is entirely harmonious with the ideas of influential 60s media theorist Marshall McLuhan. Higgins writes in his “Statement on Intermedia”: due to the spread of mass literacy, to television and the transistor radio, our sensitivities have changed. [...] As with the cubists, we are asking for a new way of looking at things, but more totally, since we are more impatient and more anxious to go to the basic images. This explains the impact of Happenings, event pieces, mixed media films [...] For the last ten years or so, artists have changed their media to suit this situation, to the point where the media have broken down in their traditional forms.38

Dick Higgins, “Statement on Intermedia” reprinted in In the Spirit of Fluxus, ed. Elizabeth Armstrong (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1993), 172–73.


The shift in forms described by Higgins, which includes “mixed media films” accompanied a social and aesthetic anxiety about representation itself, about the capacity of any medium to contain a meaning that is purely its own. Many artists of this intermedial milieu opposed Greenberg’s enthusiasm for medium-based purity, taking it to be an intellectual quagmire, a critical model that was made inoperable by the most noteworthy varieties of mixed media art-making practice in their era. As Higgins suggests, it is indisputable that the changing nature of art practice in the 1960s, which emphasized process, presence, chance, and hybrid forms, was significantly influenced by changes in mass media technologies, including the proliferation of television. Experimental cinema of the 1960s and 70s incorporates the energies described above, including an encounter with the materials and technologies of mass culture, as well as a new, cross-medial emphasis on more theatrical, performative modes of art making. In this sense, a reconsideration of the interaction of cinema with these other trends in experimental art may help to explain why journalist John Gruen described the avant-garde cinema “as the perfect magnetic center for every restless impulse and expression” of the artistic milieu of the mid-1960s.39

Impure Forms, Continued: “The Theatrical”: In the mid-to-late 1960s, modernist art critic and historian Michael Fried wrote a polemical essay that diagnosed the changing artistic landscape of the

Gruen, The New Bohemia, 93.


39 . like the criticism of Greenberg. he also presents a pointed polemic against the entire sensibility that embraces intermedial art (as described by Kaprow. it needs to engage not with a variety of cultural forces or art forms. it is fundamentally conservative. intermedial landscape of the 1960s.” was a call-to-arms that demanded of critics that they distinguish between “the frivolous” and “the serious” in art.. could all be described as theatrical. As a protégé of Greenberg.”41 Though Fried is primarily concerned with sculpture in this essay. or with the temporal or physical conditions of perception. and others quoted 40 41 Fried. His 1967 essay. He writes that. by dismissing all that was contingent upon experiential processes of perception. including all bodily.”40 Or: “What lies between the arts is theatre. To Fried. and persuasive in its rhetorical structure. which he felt were central to certain strains of minimalist sculpture. carrying the philosophical mandates of modernist criticism into the unlikely terrain of the aesthetically heterogeneous. they become impure. He argues that when art forms become mixed. 142. but solely with the conditions and history of its own medium. Yet. 141. and ultimately transformed – and this is the worst offense – into theater. and phenomenological aspects of interpretation. temporal. “Art degenerates as it approaches the condition of theatre. these tendencies. Higgins. Ibid. Fried continued the hard line of modernist medium specificity initiated by his mentor. rich in language. the essay is complex. diluted. Overall.period. a reiteration of the Greenbergian argument that for an artwork to be meaningful and serious (regardless of format or physical platform). “Art and Objecthood.

the performances of Jim Dine. To him. composer John Cage embraced an openness toward theatrical forms that was also profoundly influential.”42 To Fried. and in which the interests of diverse technologies. Towards the end of the essay he writes. “Experimental Music. That art more than music resembles nature. Wagnerian gestamtkunstwerk. CT: Wesleyan University Press. such work posed a problem.above). the semi-theatrical projects described above (with which film should be included) comprised a kind of assemblage art in which a range of both plastic and temporal structures blended. the messy and open-ended experiments of the 1960s blended the interests of various media and thus undermined the most powerful and significant possibilities that these forms offered individually. of any improvement in the overall quality of contemporary art. the multi-media events of Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable – this trend was not indicative.” Cage proudly welcomed a shift in music and art-making practices away from controlled structures of classical authorship and discrete artistic structures towards a greater openness in form. “Where do we go from here? Towards theatre. In a sense. and cultural phenomena melded in order to create projects that at times aspired to the ambitious scope of the multi-sensorial. “Experimental Music” in Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown. 12. as Fried saw it. Though there may have been an increase in the popularity of hybrid experiments in hybrid forms of art – like the happenings of Kaprow. In contradistinction to the suppositions of modernist art criticism. 1961). representational traditions. In the 1957 essay. operatic. to the chance-based processes of nature and the conditions of contingency. 40 . To 42 John Cage.

strategies.Fried. rather than textually remote and isolated. 300. transcendent.” a seminal essay that was published in Against Interpretation and Other Essays in 1966. produce a totally fresh cultural situation in which the function of art itself has changed. To other artists and critics of intermedial work. In that piece. entirely present opticality as realized in what he considered to be the most ambitious and significant painting and sculpture. he directs his antagonism against “One Culture and the New Sensibility. as well as “new materials and methods drawn from the world of non-art” (in a way related to Kaprow’s suggestions discussed above). It is 43 44 Fried. Sontag celebrates the breakdown of conventional limits between art forms and their associated modes of perception as she writes that “the most interesting works of contemporary art […] are adventures in sensation. In a footnote to “Art and Objecthood. it was precisely this condition of new art – its theatricality – that made it interesting and provocative. and technologies of other media forms.’”44 She argues that the blending of new art practices with the interests. “One Culture and the New Sensibility” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Picador.”43 Specifically. 41 . Susan Sontag.” Fried directly attacks the cultural criticism of Susan Sontag for what he describes as “perhaps the purest – certainly the most egregious – expression of what I have been calling theatrical sensibility in recent criticism. new ‘sensory mixes. 1966). what an emphasis on temporal and embodied experience entailed was a profound sense of duration and a phenomenological consciousness that was fundamentally opposed to the medium-specific requirements of pure. It is also implicit in her argument that the most relevant artistic experimentation of the era will be immersive. 141.

It is no surprise that Fried does not even mention experimental cinema in his writing.45 Sontag argues that new trends in art practice of the mid-1960s share a tendency to challenge the established cultural hierarchies that had previously provided stable criteria for critical evaluation. within the overall landscape of the avant-garde. Warhol. Robert Rauschenberg. expanded cinema. she argues that Cage. Fluxus. and Stockhausen all embodied new forms of authorship and cultural engagement that dramatically differed from the closed forms that were favored by “literary intellectuals. Though she mentions few artists by name. It is thus clear why the logic of Fried. Greenberg too.. or the one between “art” and “non-art”. multi-media art.clear. from the following passage. exactly why Sontag’s catholic perspective on avant-garde culture would aggravate him so thoroughly: All kinds of conventionally accepted boundaries have thereby been challenged: not jut the one between the “scientific” and the “literaryartistic” cultures. but also many established distinctions within the world of culture itself – that between form and content. 42 .” From her writing in “One Culture and the New Sensibility. was simply incapable of adapting to the artistic developments of the 1960s and the work of happenings. which was quoted by Fried. and in a sense. and John Cage. Her critical sensibility astutely responded to the changing conditions of culture across a range of disciplines and evaluated it based on its own terms. the frivolous and the serious.” it is clear that Sontag has a contemporary observer’s appreciation for the strategies and intentions of experimental art in the 1960s. 297. 45 Ibid. and (a favorite of literary intellectuals) “high” and “low” culture.

seemed artistically and socially libratory. To Sontag. it marked a transition away from values that she associates with “literary intellectuals. But Sontag also felt that cinema had a particular. To her. 304.” In her description of the new sensibility. multimedia aspirations. she too argued that in fact this contemporary trend towards the expansion of art into the contingent and theatrical spaces between 46 Ibid.In her evaluation of the changing aesthetic suppositions of the era. Sontag was particularly interested in the overall shifts in tone that accompanied the new strategies of artistic production and their appropriately fresh notions of pleasure and beauty. 43 . perhaps unique capacity to actually contain the other arts and achieve a variety of artistic synthesis that was the goal of “the new sensibility” and its genre-bending. the notion that new blends of intermedial interaction could encourage active transformations of perceptual and sensorial experience.”46 In its promiscuous blend of tones and media forms. catalytic art experience was also expressed in the comments and writings of some of the most significant media artists of the era. she is particularly concerned with the ways in which changes in form and media structures can catalyze fresh varieties of perceptual experience and aesthetic encounter between a spectator and an art object.. the timbre of much experimental work in the period represented a provocative and unprecedented blend of attitudes that was “dedicated both to an excruciating seriousness and to fun and wit and nostalgia. This belief in a transformative. Like Cage.

Romanticism. ed. Visionary Film. the volume was “instantly definitive. As David James describes it. “Introduction” in Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker. Adams Sitney. its detailed analyses and descriptions of the films. In Visionary Film. established its first ambitious scholarly book-length analysis.” He writes of Sitney’s book. in 47 James. Sitney proposes a teleological morphology of the history of the American avant-garde that proceeds through a series of chapters.” P. First published in 1974.conventional disciplines created the most urgent and compelling aesthetic experiments of the era. “there has not since been a work of equivalent analytic force or with as detailed and sensitive knowledge of the cannon or overall erudition. in his foundational study of the American avant-garde cinema. P. James (Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 44 . 2005). Adams Sitney. Sitney’s text was authoritative in its demonstration of an unprecedented awareness of the great diversity of avant-garde work. and its rhetorical persuasiveness. Sitney’s work was far from uncontroversial. and Visionary Film: The dominant historical evaluation of the American experimental cinema has been subject to precisely the variety of literary intellectualism that is Sontag’s target in “One Culture and the New Sensibility.”47 However. 12. It might also be argued that some of his willful omissions of cultural context relate directly to Sontag’s critique of “literary intellectualism” and its influence on the writing of critics and scholars in the 1960s and 1970s.

the lyrical film. 48 45 . and an exalted faith in the power of the imagination. but they allowed a Romantic faith in the triumph of the imagination to determine their forms from within. He suggests that the central tradition of the American avant-garde begins with the films of Maya Deren. expressive. Gregory Markopolous. Though Sitney’s argument is convincing in many ways. 2002). mythic structures. 370. “The filmmakers who followed her [Deren] pursued the metaphors of dream and ritual by which she had defined the avant-garde cinema. including the trance film. his embrace of a Romantic view of the American avantgarde cinema is a celebration of the demiurgic power of visionary.”48 He traces this sensibility through the work of a number of filmmakers including Deren. and mythical structures and strategies. and the structural film. Overall. the mythopoetic film. (Oxford: Oxford University Press. and others. In short. which emphasized dream states. symbolism. Sitney utilizes a variety of interpretative structures that are derived from the study of literature. and more specifically. Visionary Film: The American evolutionary cycle that features a succession of genres (identified by him). metaphor. English romantic poetry of the 19th century. 1943-2000. What does the interpretation of the work gain by being connected to this European tradition? Sitney. but ultimately appoints Brakhage as the principal heir to this project. one must wonder. imaginative. He writes. why he would need to continually relate a 20th-century moving image medium to the written poetry and poetics of an artistic tradition of one hundred years earlier. 3rd ed. Kenneth Anger.

46 . anecdotal formulations – perfectly contained artistic rituals of symbolic 49 Sitney. his argument depends upon the imposition of another privileged and historically removed critical nomenclature and philosophical system that is. Sitney converts the films into series of symbols that comprise a textual field through which he can distill them into literary. etc. Whenever possible. Nevertheless. xiii.Despite the fact that his film descriptions and analyses are largely unmatched in their detail and intelligence within the published scholarship on the topic. – might be understood as an effort to legitimize new experiments in moving image art. Sitney’s continual return to literary devices – including metaphor. I have attempted to trace the heritage of Romanticism. there are aspects of his overall strategy that still seem somewhat incongruous with the subject at hand. symbolism. in order to demonstrate some isomorphic relationship to previous traditions that may have shared some basic similar spirit. In one sense. by using language from another discipline. mythopoesis. an arbitrary imposition upon the work.49 Sitney is perhaps right to suggest that a model of film interpretation based on the heritage of Romantic poetics is more appropriate for the work of the American avant-garde cinema than “the Freudian hermeneutics and sexual analyses” (of critics like Parker Tyler) that he mentions. As a result. both in my interpretation of films and discussion of theory. Visionary Film. metonymy. I have found this approach consistently more useful and more generative than the Freudian hermeneutics and sexual analyses which have dominated much previous criticism of the American avant-garde film. in some sense. He writes.

It worked a little. In her essay of 1965. and blinded by their personal investment in the perpetuation of the older notion of culture. This method is entirely based upon his study of literature. She argued that contemporary developments in the avant-garde arts begged to be understood in relation to each other. Sontag indirectly provides a preemptive dismissal of a critical model of the avant-garde that privileges literature as an interpretative apparatus: “Simply ignorant of the vital and enthralling (so called ‘avant-garde’) developments in the other arts. 47 .”50 From what has been described of Sitney’s project in Visionary Film. and persuasive reduction of film texts into semi-narrative networks of characters and symbols. it should be clear that he presents a somewhat conservative argument and associated interpretative methodology that. however internally coherent it may be. Canyon Cinema. As Hollis Frampton argues. […] But that was the extent of the intellectual tool kit that he had to tinker and unlock this strange device. they [‘literary intellectuals’] continue to cling to literature as the model 50 Frampton quoted in MacDonald. 268. Visionary Film was “derived largely from an undergraduate seminar in romantic poetry with Harold Bloom at Yale. is entirely incongruous with the sensibility presented by Sontag and other cultural critics who felt that there was something markedly novel and fresh about new experiments in the arts during the period at hand. That makes something of a procrustean bed.and expressive imagination. precise. His strategy depends on the highly refined. not to the history of literature.

in Sitney’s project. […] One thinks 51 52 Sontag. In her critique of interpretation derived from literary criticism. architecture. there is little-to-no discussion of new technology. and a much cooler mode of moral judgment – like music. experimental music. The practice of these arts – all of which draw profusely. To him. or other developments in the temporal or theatrical arts of the period. painting. it seemed more appropriate to relate the work of the filmmakers that he discusses to artists of an entirely different cultural context than it did to consider the relationship that film had to contemporaneous experiments in other media. sculpture. 48 . like performance or avant-garde music. Interestingly. the most urgent forms of fresh artistic production expand beyond the textual limits of any one medium.” 298.for creative statement. “One Culture. films. upon science and technology – are the locus of the new sensibility. expanded cinema. Ibid. But the model arts of our time are actually those with much less content. 298–299. into the expanded spaces of immersive artistic experience.52 Here Sontag suggests that in fact. and without embarrassment.”51 Sitney was far from ignorant about new developments in the other arts. Sontag writes. Annette Michelson differed with Sitney concerning the use of a literary precedent as a critical model for the interpretation of cinema. naturally. Similarly. as she argued in 1966 that it would be better understood as part of an artistic network: “The extraordinary advantage of American cinema today does lie partly in the possibilities of these convergences and cross-fertilizations. dance. but he was nonetheless unconvinced that there was anything particularly novel about new trends in artistic practice in the period. happenings.

2004). theater. dance. 53 49 . P. Visionary Film helped to decisively isolate the American avant-garde from the rest of art-making in post World War II America. to responsibly Michelson. There remains a need. but neglects its interrelations with other trends in the arts including performance. such a historically situated model of interpretation has not been the dominant one in the study of experimental cinema. and sculpture. Matthias Michalka (Koln: Walther Konig. 420. Adams Sitney (New York: Cooper Square Press.of its already established. However. 47. contacts with a new music. “Film and the Radical Aspiration” in Film Culture Reader. ed. and the sensibility of abstract expressionism (a movement that was basically extinct by the time of his book). happenings. 54 Liz Kotz. Art historian Liz Kotz has recently critiqued this interpretative tendency that connects experimental cinema to painting. etc. and social space of others. Romantic poetics. theater. formal. as Kotz implicitly suggests. She writes. “It is ironic that so many efforts to locate experimental cinema in the history of visual art tend to situate it in emphatically pictorial or object-based lineages that themselves sever modernist painting and sculpture from wider contexts of avant-garde experimentation. 1970). Though Sitney does draw frequent parallels between avant-garde film.”53 As various media forms expanded into the aesthetic. he neglects the overall influential force of the cultural field of the 1960s upon avant-garde film practice. ed. painting. a number of critics argued that this cultural cross-pollination should stimulate new modes of critical practice.”54 Despite its erudition. though still embryonic. “Disciplining Expanded Cinema” in X-Screen: Film Installations and Actions in the 1960s and 1970s.

the author writes. 1989). Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press. Constance Penley and Janet Bergstrom. Video & Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press.” Since its original publication. 56 James. were motivated by a desire to reconsider the American avant-garde in feminist terms. there have been significant challenges to Visionary Film. Patricia Mellencamp. most of them have been primarily concerned with criticisms of Sitney’s politics and his influence as a canon-building critic. for example. and political contexts. Towards the end of that volume. industrial. “The termination of film’s social urgency bequeaths to the historian the task of preparing an account of film’s position among other mediums. 1990). 576-602. published in 1989. 55 50 . in which the author situates this artistic tradition. “The Avant-Garde History and Theories” in Movies and Methods. However. in her words. at the conclusion of a political investigation of the American avantgarde of the 1960s. “The Avant-Garde and its Imaginary. “wider contexts of avant-garde experimentation. Indiscretions: Avant-Garde Film. 2003). Power & Politics in the New York Avantgarde Cinema. and Patricia Mellencamp. including its Romantic aspects. Points of Resistance: Women.” Ibid. Constance Penley. 1943-71 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press. 1985): 287-300 and Penley. (A number of these critiques. Volume 1. ed.)55 But there have been also been a small number of more wide-ranging historical interventions into the interpretation of the American avant-garde film since the publication of Sitney’s volume. Lauren Rabinovitz.reconstitute a history of the ways in which experimental film both influenced and responded to. including those of Janet Bergstrom. within its material. The most significant survey of the American avant-garde to follow his project is undoubtedly David James’ Allegories of Cinema. Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 348.”56 The project of this dissertation is to initiate an at least See Lauren Rabinovitz..

partial response to this issue of the interrelation between experimental film practice and the other artistic mediums of the period in which. but to add historical detail. unruly field of multi-media art practice that extended beyond the self-contained clique of visionary. Like Carel Rowe’s Baudelarean Cinema. imaginative. This project does not aim to dispute Sitney’s foundational study. as James puts it. canonical works that fit within and support his framework are exhaustively exhibited and studied. In fact. the impression of “film’s social urgency” shifted markedly within the American cultural landscape. its representation in both scholarly historical writing and more popular media forms has often depended on established patterns of interpretation – critical shortcuts derived from Sitney’s foundational intellectual project – rather than original research. this study interprets experimental film as part of a diverse. romantic filmmakers that are his subject in Visionary Film. Because of the relative obscurity and rarity of experimental cinema. In this sense. Subsequently. This is not the fault of Sitney. The argument here is not presented in order to contest Sitney’s principal claims. while others that defy these strategies are frequently neglected. this project aims to recuperate other countertrends and deviations from the romantic. it is a testimony to the 51 . but to provide suggestions of other interpretative models that may counteract some of the domineering influence of his strategy. expressive tradition that Sitney establishes as the dominant one in the history that he both describes and constitutes.

Visionary Film remains the most 57 58 Author’s conversation with Workman. in what the filmmaker has described as a “classic comics version of avant-garde film history. journalist John Gruen wrote.” which addresses the work of Maya Deren. In 1966.rhetorical force of his work. As is suggested throughout this dissertation. Stan Brakhage. for all its deliberate derangement. In a most extreme example of derivative. It is safe to say that of all avant-garde manifestations in the New Bohemia. and largely forgotten intermedial experiments that situate these works within the countercultural. Though it was originally published over thirty years ago. the underground film movement. is the most active and the most daring. Jonas Mekas and others. short-hand history of the avant-garde derived from Sitney’s model. spring 2009. Kenneth Anger.58 This sense of experimental film’s cultural. This project aims to diversify the understanding of the American historical avant-garde cinema through an analysis of misinterpreted films. Gruen. it borrows from Sitney’s analytical and historical interpretation of the avant-garde. one could consider the forthcoming documentary by Chuck Workman. social.”57 As its title suggests. 93. neglected art practices. While the Combine Generation’s fever for joint creativity runs rampant in all the arts. and psychic urgency in the 1960s is entirely absent from Sitney’s account of the movement’s history. experimental art landscape of the sixties and seventies. but in a way that likely lacks the complexity and sophistication of the author’s work. 52 . other interpretative alternatives remain. it is filmmaking that acts as the perfect magnetic center for every restless impulse and expression. “Jonas Mekas and the Visionaries. The New Bohemia.

Experimental Cinema: Between Plasticity and Performance: Originale (1961. symbolic. and contingent encounters with formally. In the place of this sensibility. philosophically. meditative meeting with sensuous forms of symbolism and myth. Both within the 59 Sitney. and as such. Breer’s film draws attention to the anxious and unsure limits between different artistic traditions while it also presents its own particularly provocative strategies for assaulting viewers and unsettling the conventional authorial strategies of the expressive. This project does not propose a revision of his sensibility as much it disputes “the intensified Romantic inwardness” that he felt dominated the avantgarde cinema. and Romantic tradition of avant-garde cinema. reflective.59 Instead of conveying an introspective. 53 . the films that are the subject of this project embody aggressive. Breer presents a wildly heterogeneous assemblage work of aleatory associations and an unprecedented anxiogenic sensorial disruption that is achieved through the forceful use of jackhammer montage. and socially hostile forces. demands the critical intervention of counterarguments and supplementary histories. Robert Breer’s Fist Fight begins the historical trajectory of interdisciplinary interaction that this dissertation addresses. in the context of an all-star intermedial avantgarde theater performance. agitated. anxious.influential and widely read book on the American avant-garde. 1964) and Fist Fight (1964): Debuted in the fall of 1964. 290. Visionary Film.

one can see in this cultural moment a remarkable synthesis of the materials and concerns of a number of art forms including painting. (Richard Kostelanetz has described this particular overlap of performance and visual art as “The Theatre of Mixed Means. The Theatre of Mixed Means: An Introduction to Happenings. to the interactive climate of the avant-garde arts in the period. 54 . performance. Fist Fight forces the expectations of the art form into uncomfortable spaces of confrontation. and Other Mixed-Means Performances (New York: Dial. Within film studies. Breer’s performative presentation of the film. Kinetic Environments. 1968). In its presentation within Stockhausen’s intermedial experiment. Fist Fight functioned as one component of a multi-faceted event that meaningfully summarized contemporary trends in avant-garde culture. as part of a theatrical work.textual limits of the film and the extratexual space of its exhibition. historically speaking. including Michael Kirby. because in many cases these artists 60 Richard Kostelanetz. *** Many of the most celebrated performance and Happenings artists of the postwar era worked in a diverse variety of media that often included film.”)60 In these contexts. this intermediary episode described above poses a significant difficulty to historical assimilation. also suggests that the film experiments of the mid-1960s should be considered in relation. that these mixed means performances grew out of gestural painting and the “impure” mixed forms of collage and assemblage. more generally. It has been argued by many critics. and film. film often functioned as one component of a mixed media environment. So.

live music. three significant mixed media pieces were debuted. and Oldenburg’s piece utilized a projector without film as well as costume fragments shaped like film cameras.. Whitman’s and Rauschenberg’s pieces included projected images that interacted with live performers. as it was in the context of 1960s intermedial experimentation.produced paracinematic events and one-time performance encounters. it lost its claim to textual longevity and was instead granted a position of contingency and presence in keeping with other varieties of performance that were central to that era. These formally hybrid events included Robert Whitman’s Prune.” 55 . In addition to the artists who came to mixed-media performance from painting. in 1969. mixed with light shows. Claes Oldenburg’s Moviehouse. There was an extended argument on the genesis of this topic at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference in 2007 in Chicago. live performance. When cinema was made newly and overwhelmingly performative. there was also a significant group of artists working in mixed forms (featuring expanded cinema or paracinema) who were trained in experimental music. and other modifications of the projection apparatus. during the panel titled “Cinema by Other Means. the site of meaning was not the textual space within the frame but the social space of projection in which filmic images were interspersed in multiple screen projections. For example. art historian Liz Kotz argues.61 In such hybrid and contingent works. John Cage collaborated with Lejaren Hiller and Ronald Nemeth 61 The term “paracinema” has been attributed to either Ed Emshwiller or Jonas Mekas. Flat. and Robert Rauschenberg’s Map Room II. In 1965. in a program organized by Jonas Mekas and Fluxus artist George Maciunas at the Film-maker’s Cinematheque in New York City. each utilizing film or film projectors.

as well as his influence on the happenings generation as a teacher at The New School for Social Research. many of which were projected simultaneously. dance. concrete poetry. and theorist of happenings. working in music.62 Kotz also mentions Nam June Paik. Restaged in the summer of 1964 for the Second Annual New York Avant-Garde Festival (under the leadership of Charlotte Moorman). The semi-theatrical work had debuted three years earlier in Cologne in the fall of 1961.63 Yoko Ono too was a part of this crossover tradition. Avant-garde composer James Tenney and jazz critic and musician Don 62 Cage is generally considered to be the progenitor of happenings. performance art. in this era of impure. Tony Conrad. and experimental film. including experimental music. anarchic performance. artist. an intermedial art event that featured an all-star cast of the New York avant-garde community. and LaMonte Young as important exemplars of this tradition of continuity between advanced classical music and cinema as performance. named for its seven amplified harpsichords. and film. the revival combined the talents of a wide range of artists involved in a range of practices. mixed media performance. one can locate a rather remarkable artistic field that challenges the teleological notions of medium-specificity championed by Clement Greenberg. due to an untitled work that he organized in 1952 at Black Mountain College together with Merce Cunningham. “Disciplining Expanded Cinema” in X-Screen: Film Installations and Actions in the 1960s and 1970s. So. One of the most remarkable mixed-media events of this variety was the New York performance of experimental classical music composer Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Originale. 56 .on a multimedia performance. performer. Allan Kaprow served as its director. In its New York revival. This piece featured 100 films. 63 Liz Kotz. titled HPSCHD.

and occasionally. sometimes playing her instrument while lying on her back. composer. as in A Man and His Dog Out for Air (1957). Robert Breer has experimented with a variety of representational modes. As this historical encounter demonstrates. and videographer Nam June Paik performed idiosyncratic gestural actions with his body (Stockhausen described this as “action music”). projected his film Fist Fight as part of the piece. And artist-filmmaker Robert Breer played the role of “filmmaker” as he shot live closed-circuit video of the performance and. and representational languages.Heckman performed on piano and saxophone respectively. performative strategies. He has made some films that feature conventionally hand-drawn animated segments. filmmaker. film was sometimes a component of avant-garde performance within the mixed-media environment of the 1960s. but has regularly depended on the particular artistic resources that are provided by the film-specific technologies of 57 . most significantly for the concerns of the present study. and this interaction drew attention to the ways in which the artistic climate of the era blended and juxtaposed the interests of different technologies. while in other cases he has blended this approach with live action. Cellist-performance artist Charlotte Moorman appeared. Performance artist. Poets Allen Ginsberg and Jackson Maclow performed alongside the aforementioned Fluxus artist Dick Higgins and avant-garde classical composer Alvin Lucier. Breer has continuously experimented with heterogeneous methods of production. though he is primarily known as an animator. as in Fuji (1974). he has produced documentary-style film portraits. as in Pat’s Birthday (1962).

frenetic. With this method. Breer’s film Fist Fight. Some of his earliest work features an unusual. In addition to demonstrating some of Breer’s most significant artistic strategies. This variety of filmmaking is both meticulous and spontaneous in its combinations of single-frame composition (which is painstaking and laborintensive). This is his compositional strategy for Fist Fight. which blend the rapid. It is a kind of assemblage filmmaking in which the animation stand (a compositional device that holds the camera tightly in place while the filmmaker carefully makes slight incremental moves in his materials in order to simulate motion when the single-frame photography is projected) frames each discrete visual collage.animation. as well as found objects. the work is also intertwined in a social. two-dimensional figures. including hand-drawn. which was initially featured as part of the 1964 New York revival of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Originale. sequenced and organized through the use of single-frame photography. such that each composition can occupy a single frame. Breer devised a novel form of visual construction that is in some ways closer to assemblage than it is to drawing. producing a film organized into a string of assemblage tableaus. extratextual context of its intermedial 58 . confrontational style of his montagist filmmaking with a truly modern assemblage sensibility. historical. and collagic compositional logic (which is aleatory. is one of his most exemplary works of this assemblageanimation approach. idiosyncratic approach to film composition – a kind of pseudo-animation – that is often composed in the profilmic space of the animation stand. in which he assembled a diversity of objects. and spontaneous).

and would not likely be recognizable upon a single viewing. there is also camera movement across them. At times. including its composer. and Tenney. Stockhausen. multi-media event. as well as Paik. of both the adult and infant artists. In addition to the photographs of these recognizable and wellknown artists. These playfully juxtaposed images. Fist Fight: The film begins with a short prologue featuring images of the artists who contributed to the performance of Originale. Like all of the images in the film. Moorman. these images are still photographs that Breer has shot on his animation stand. its director. that includes musical 59 . this prologue section also includes a number of their baby pictures. which were provided to Breer for inclusion in the film. which creates the illusion of movement despite the fact that the basic materials of this section are still photographs. the photos are upside down – as with the film’s opening shot which is an extremely brief. flipped image of Stockhausen – and occasionally. are punctuated by sections of black leader.experimentation because of its presence within Stockhausen’s semi-theatrical. The soundtrack features a choppy blend of fragments of the performance of Originale (separated by abrupt fades). they pass quickly. Kaprow. The film thus has a double-status as it functions textually as a self-contained experiment in rapid fire animated montage and historically as a meeting point of different performative energies within the space of the New York avant-garde of the mid-1960s. in which it debuted.

brief blasts of hand-drawn animation. including Breer’s family photographs. magazine photographs of celebrities. Kontakte). it is extremely difficult to actually notate the totality of the film’s imagery. decollage. images of playing cards. he connected it directly to the historical conditions of its performance in Originale. It presents a wildly heterogeneous blend of extremely diverse materials. by adding indexical elements of the performance. comic books (including Popeye). bits of advertising imagery. Fist Fight is perhaps Breer’s most complete statement of his collage aesthetic. his own drawings (some of which have been recycled from his other films. and scrapbook elements and objects that have been taken from Breer’s life. Breer’s own drawings. the film becomes even more montagist. In his conversion of the film from a silent into a sound work. Its images fly by at breakneck speed. In this regard the film is an unlikely and idiosyncratic blend of original artwork. including images from A Man and his Dog out for Air). photographs of Breer’s gallery shows. as well as audience chatter and other sonic elements from the work’s performance at Judson Hall in 1964. children’s drawings. and even live action footage of a living mouse falling through the air. commercial advertisements. When the film was shown as part of Originale. pop art 60 . Following this prologue. Breer added this documentary component after the fact. and even after numerous viewings. scraps of torn paper. race cars. it had no soundtrack.segments (which feature Stockhausen’s composition. The film juxtaposes innumerable images from mass media (the faces of The Beatles).

because the film features extended sequences in which every single frame is different and visually discrete: one frame might feature a playing card. the next one a family photograph. the projection apparatus collaborates with the idiosyncratic biology of the human eye in order to create the illusion of continuous movement. its soundtrack. Because of its extremely rapid. The bristling. single-frame montage. When projected. rather than having a developmental structure. Fist Fight combines these disparate material elements into a visual frenzy that is so rapid that it undermines any impression of sequential progress or temporal development. In conventional live action cinema. the viewer sees one second of natural mechanical action when in actually. On occasion. and its exhibition history. And because of its prologue. explodes in a frenzied perceptual experience that overloads the viewer’s capacity for visual comprehension. and autobiography. staccato rhythm of the film patterns these images in such a way as to suggest a total collagic object that. It is difficult for the viewer to register and comprehend these images.quotation. when the images are intelligible. and the next a drawing of a geometric shape. When projected. what actually exists on the film strip are twenty-four discreet still images. these three discrete images occupy only one eighth of a second in total. the film is directly linked to extratextual conditions that inscribe themselves in the work itself. they are often only partly so. and thus 61 . when experiencing live action filmmaking. abstract geometric collagic juxtaposition. the images in Fist Fight move with an extreme speed that often defies visual comprehension.

picture film that doesn’t tell a story. In a 1962 interview. a tree. I felt that this very dramatic. drips. like an object.64 Breer has been interested for some time in demystifying the slight-of-hand upon which filmic illusionism depends. Breer rhetorically challenges conventional understandings of both illusionist and theatrical space. gives rise to an incredibly frenetic barrage of mostly still and singular visual compositions. A film with no escape from the pictures. and crashes. theatrical situation in 64 Robert Breer. by the fact that you have to turn out the lights and there is a fixed audience. Breer’s frame-byframe composition. In discussing his films. Film Culture 26 (Fall 1962).become almost incomprehensible to most viewers. non-musical. buildings. become an abstract dance. actually defies the continuity to which most animation aspires. as experienced in a work like Fist Fight. a non-literary. 57. It utilizes a radically disjunctive editing style that. an animator attempts to approximate in his or her series of drawings the slight shifts in movement that would be natural in real life. rhythmic slices of discrete photographic imaging. When creating a conventional cartoon or hand-drawn animated sequence. untitled. or deliver a message. and when you turn out the lights you turn on the projection light and you project the piece of magic on the wall. looking. A film that instead of making sense is sense. Hooray for a formless film. he said the following on this topic: I got disoriented by the theatrical situation of film. An experience itself like eating. running. instead of creating the illusion of continuity. thus simulating (by hand) the incremental mechanized shutter action of the motion picture camera that divides continuous physical movement into pulsatile. 62 . A film where words are pictures or sounds and skip around the way thoughts do.

Breer devised a cinema of extreme restlessness. robbed some of the mystery of film from itself. more clearly display the apparatus of their visual trickery. N. just by the environment of the movie house. and unrelenting assault. showing his films in atypical venues (as in the happenings context of Originale). Conducted by Charles Levine at Breer’s Home. To most filmmakers (and a number of viewers). because of its severe single-frame. It is a work that. However. including mutoscopes and early proto-cinematic devices. because of its feverish. in this film Breer also deftly utilizes hand-drawn. 58–59 . July 1970. 63 . and by experimenting with moving image devices that eschew projection entirely.65 In his efforts to challenge both illusionism (of the film text) and the theatrical spectacle (of its exhibition). These strategies in composition and assemblage can be located in Fist Fight as well. Breer experimented with variations on the filmic apparatus. staccato visual pace. montagic disruption. would be considered unwatchable. creating loops for gallery screening.” Film Culture 56 – 57 (Spring 1973). Against the conventional pleasures of narrative and visual continuity. Breer’s work in cinema. Approximate Date. single-frame animation to break down the continuity of illusionist cinema by utilizing the very same apparatical conceit – cinema’s rapid sequential advance of discrete still photographs – that creates the imaginary impression of movement. like that of many postwar 65 Breer in “An Interview with Robert Breer. this variety of film. which in their relative simplicity.. Palisades.some ways. calls attention to the constructedness of the filmic illusion as it jerks aggressively and rapidly between radically different representational spaces. visually heterogeneous composition.Y.

when combined with its astounding diversity of visual objects. In his juxtaposition of the most extreme kind of filmic materiality (single-frame composition) with the most openly illusionistic film technique (animation). Breer presented a kind of balancing act between the seemingly opposed artistic methods of illusionism and selfreflexivity. obliterate the possibility of the structural coherence that is usually involved in the symbolic formulations of Romanticism. the anxiogenic visual methods of the work. by openly reminding the viewer. In this sense. machine-gun montage disrupt the standard notions of visual pleasure that are generally associated with more subdued patterns of film editing. confrontational. Breer’s work stages a breakdown in film material. yet it also balances the opposing energies of materiality and illusionism.experimental filmmakers. His work openly incorporates seemingly paradoxical aspects of the medium by affirming its materiality as it simultaneously utilizes its unique capacity to conjure the illusion of movement. with the jolt of every single discrete frame. Breer directly confronts two opposing models of experimental cinema that might generally be associated with the plasticity of a Brakhagian cinema and an illusionistic sensibility that is linked to more openly dramatic forms. In addition. Through the dialectical juxtaposition of seemingly different representational strategies within Fist Fight. willfully tests the medium’s representational limits. that he or she is 64 . The conflictual strategy of Breer’s representational approach and its anxious.

In an essay on filmic illusionism. no. from film to film. and in fact corresponded with Clement Greenberg’s claims about medium specificity and the significance of artistic materials as determining influences upon artistic practice. 62.1 (September 1972). as in the work of Stan Brakhage. that there was something fundamentally political about this desire to expose the material conditions that underpin the production of filmic illusionism. through his use of animation and its open and playful complicity with the most artificial of illusions that film can create. However. published in 1972. by a tradition extending from the Bauhaus and Dadaism and. In this regard. to lie in both artists’ attempt to rethink the nature of cinematic illusionism.” Artforum 9. and in doing so to propose new structural modes. As derived in a general sense from Marxist thought.66 Michelson goes on to argue. this sensibility was extremely popular in the 1960s. Fist Fight might best be understood as a filmic realization of the perfect tension between materiality and illusionism that is always inherent in the film apparatus 66 Michelson. as in the work of Robert Breer. “Screen/Surface: The Politics of Illusionism. in a way that was congruent with the English structuralist filmmakers and theorists of the early-to-mid 1970s. Annette Michelson identifies what she believes to be the philosophical force of this modernist gesture: Central to that sense of renewal in American cinema of independent persuasion was the formal evidence of the manner in which it was nourished and sustained. 65 . The guarantee of success seemed. by Abstract Expressionism.watching a series of visual objects that have simply been linked through the plastic resources of film montage. Breer challenges the reductiveness of this interpretative model.

was asked to contribute a filmic portion to the work in its New York presentation. spring 2008. He found his way into that theatrical presentation through the social networks of the city’s avant-garde.) It was through this social network of the art world that Breer got to know the composer.itself (as well as in its social history). Breer was represented by the Galeria Bonino. New Versions. “Structural Film: Revisions. As a painter. Fist Fight functions simultaneously in a number of seemingly contradictory registers. it stipulated that the film to be included in the work would be “made during rehearsals and includes all of cast.68 (The same gallery also represented Paik.67 Fist Fight was devised to be shown as part of a multi-media happening that had been composed by Karlheinz Stockhausen. and as a result.” 68 Author’s conversation with Breer. for this rhetorical formulation see Arthur. The score for the piece indicated that a six-minute film be projected in the 79th minute of the event. Breer’s Expanded Cinema and its Place in History: Because of its special exhibition history. (Not in theater. and the Artifact. it should be clear that Fist Fight is a film that occupies a two-tiered ontological status as it functions both as film artifact and contingent performance. The filmmaker was in fact well underway with the making of Fist Fight before he was asked to incorporate his work into the New York performance of Stockhausen’s project. and that gallery also represented Mary Baumeister. 67 Again. In concert with many of the other most significant experimental films of the period. Not in costume. Los Angeles 66 . an artist who was also the romantic partner of Karlheinz Stockhausen. However.

The Music of Stockhausen: An Introduction (Berkeley: University of California Press. Each character’s actions. or both. (However. Special Collections. These scenes are grouped into seven ‘structures’ which may be performed successively as ‘normal’. Breer did make an effort to respond to this aspect of the score by adding the prologue as described above. “In part the exercise is designed to acquaint the composer with the techniques of a related art in which such collaboration is taken for granted. The structure of Stockhausen’s piece was based on “a set of dramatic actions conceived in musical terms. Breer.”71 The work’s seemingly chaotic blend of actions was in some ways carefully controlled by specific.Portraits for the most part.)”69 As described above. 71 Maconie. Allan Kaprow Papers. like the other contributors to the project was given significant artistic leeway. modular performance units. It has been described as follows: It consists of eighteen scenes in the form of instructions for the dramatis personae carefully placed in timeboxes. and in part to accustom his musicians to the new style of collaboration.” The project blends “simple role-playing” with “spontaneous invention on stage. arbitrary temporal limits that corral the kinetic diversity of visual and sonic actions into contained. 2005). 218–219. Robin Maconie.) In this regard. must take a specified number of seconds or minutes.”70 Biographer Robin Maconie explains. or simultaneously (up to three at once). Maryland: Scarecrow Press. as the score would suggest.72 Getty Research Institute. 1975). namely theater. Other Planets: The Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen (Lanham. Breer’s film does not actually include any documentary footage of the rehearsals. in other words. 70 69 67 . 218. 72 Jonathan Harvey.

James Tenney and Charlotte Moorman played piano and cello respectively. rather than actors. forming a bond that would produce some of the most interesting and controversial avant-garde performance collaborations of the decade. a musician plays his instrument. in the typical style and approach for which he or she had become known. a piano. By special request of the composer. the piece was meant to feature “originals. Nam June Paik had performed in the German debut of Originale in 1961.” people recognized for their own unique art-making approaches.73 Paik’s performances were significantly less predictable than those of the other artists in Originale. and various props. Allan Kaprow Papers). etc. Nam June Paik was allowed to devise his own idiosyncratic contributions that continued the experiments in eccentric performance that he had begun in Cologne in the early years of that decade. a “woman of fashion” tries on different outfits. on one evening some audience members actually handcuffed him to the scaffolding on 73 This phrase “action music” is written on the English score to describe Paik’s contributions. 68 .Each of these dramatic units featured an artist who would perform as him or herself. as translated by Mary Baumeister (Getty Museum Special Collections. a camera man films the performance. It was through this performance that Moorman met Paik. Paik returned for the 1964 restaging of the work. which often included somewhat absurdist gestures (including drinking water from a shoe). performing a series of gestures or acts which were associated with his or her particular artistic discipline and stylistic approach: a poet recites poetry. As a result of his particularly chaotic actions. the stage was populated by well-known artists of the early and mid-sixties avant-garde: Allen Ginsberg and Jackson MacLow read poetry. playing “action music” with his body. In this regard. So.

a cage of chickens). all of the performers photographed the audience with still cameras and flash bulbs. a number of animals milled about (including two German Shepherds. pre-determined length of time.74 Near the end of the performance of Originale Robert Breer projected Fist Fight within the dramatic space of the stage. “Music: Stockhausen’s ‘Originale” Given at Judson” New York Times. like the clock in Grand Central Station. The sonic and structural background to the work was a pre-recorded electronic piece of music titled “Kontakte. These conditions applied to Breer’s film as well. The film just started up at a certain time.” At the end of the event. In addition to Paik’s eccentric gestural contributions. Originale also featured a number of other unusual performance components.stage. Schonburg. Ginsberg read some sexually explicit poetry. there were extended monologues from ancient Greek literature and Shakespeare. September 9. for this reason the set featured a number of clocks distributed throughout it. Kaprow’s son played with blocks onstage. 69 . Breer describes the unusual performative projection of his film within Originale: At a certain point I walked over to the scaffolding where a projector was sitting and turned on the projector. And the stage was overridden by all the activities taking place. interactive atmosphere in which this variety of performance was encountered in the 1960s. We had an enormous clock. The structure of Originale dictated that each performer’s contribution occupy only a finite. There was a movie screen on the stage. in the center of large scaffolding. scantily clad women tried on clothes. a chimpanzee. 1964: 46. a fact that attests to the wild. in the middle of the acting space that everyone 74 Information taken from Kaprow’s original score (Getty Museum Special Collections. eggs were dropped and apples were thrown. Allan Kaprow Papers) and Harold C.

and functioned. performative 75 Lois Mendelson. I took the screen and moved it up to the projector and the image got smaller and smaller.) In this semi-theatrical context. (In addition. while the images were transmitted to a number of closed-circuit video monitors around the stage. Breer’s presentation of Fist Fight was flexible. big enough to cover the whole screen. So the film had to start up. And went right back into the projector. It was very nice. for the cue to start. Actors had all just expired and were lying on the floor. performative. it should also be noted that in other parts of the work. In this sense. So. 1978). Its presentation was entirely dependent on his physical. Breer moved around the set shooting video of the other artists. bodily presence in the space of the film’s projection. 194. […] As the film started up. As the film went on for a certain amount of time. lights died down on cue and it became the center of focus. to really obliterate the audience!). And I had to step over the actors to do it.75 As the quotation above explains. continue to x amount of time and then end. So I took the image. Breer controlled the actual projection of the film in terms of its performance and its dramatic presentation within the theatrical space of Originale. the film never got shown in its entirety which pleased me because I had made it too long (with the idea of Cage’s. like a butterfly net. I walked up to the screen and I made myself a hoop of paper on a metal frame. And as I remember I had someone following focus. “Robert Breer: A Study of his Work in the Context of the Modernist Tradition” (New York University: PhD Dissertation. about halfway through the film. moving. and spontaneous.had to refer to on the second. as a contingent component of the work’s realization within the social space and time of its public presentation. in-person modifications of its creator. Breer’s pliable. and I took that and I walked back to the projector with it. The projection of his film was subject to the real-time. 70 . like the other elements of the performance.

projection represented an intervention into film exhibition that should. multiple projectors. made efforts to modify the formats and spaces of film projection by often including elements of other media. How. in fundamental ways. when understood in the cultural 71 . As suggested above. These developments aimed to expand cinema beyond the controlled parameters of industrially determined and mechanically organized time and space. affect how we interpret the work as a historical construction. provides an interesting example for the history of experimental cinema that foregrounds the difference between film (the material substrate of the medium) and cinema (the historical and social conditions by which it comes to be experienced in a specific space and time). multi-artist work of avant-garde theater. Most specifically. for example. The 1964 inclusion of Breer’s Fist Fight within the context of an interactive. analyze. works like this. they are difficult to recuperate. since these interventions. were ephemeral and contingent in terms of their spatio-temporal realizations. should we modify our understanding of Fist Fight as a cultural object that is inscribed in history. film loops. or comprehensively understand. live performance. working in the 1960s and 70s. and modified exhibition spaces. what this encounter between Breer’s film and Stockhausen’s multi-faceted theatrical event demonstrates is a telling and perhaps forgotten case study of a development in experimental art that has been sometimes described as expanded cinema. like that of Breer. if we reflect upon its inclusion as part of Stockhausen’s seminal intermedial experiment? In a very real sense. A number of artists.

context of avant-garde art. Yet. As a result of this absence of stable performance texts. Art events like Originale were one-time occurrences that. can only be recuperated via anecdotal description and scant visual documentation – a situation that is significantly dissimilar from that of film texts. Liz Kotz argues that cinema “becomes immeasurably more difficult to theorize when it incorporates live performance elements and strategies drawn from experimental theater […] Yet however undertheorized.”76 The complex historical identity of Breer’s work perfectly demonstrates this condition in which the extratextual conditions of its production and exhibition mandate a reconsideration of the work’s function both within Breer’s practice and the cultural landscape of avant-garde art more generally. 76 Kotz. 45. this variety of performative mixed-media work remains a difficult object for historical recuperation. cannot ever be replicated precisely. if these mixed-media works of expanded cinema were a significant part of the postwar environment of the arts in America. like most performance art. which are generally understood as uniform and repeatable. then it must be admitted that they form a chapter that. like performance art. this multidisciplinary profusion was central to many 1960s avant-gardes. This is particularly the case in the United States. 72 . pose major challenges to the contained textual limitations that are generally prerequisites for conventional film analysis (including those varieties that are particularly dependent on the model of literary criticism).

and performance. intermedial. 73 . Originale functions almost as a manifesto of intermedial art and a summary of avant-garde trends across a range of media that foregrounded indeterminacy. Tony Conrad. Involved in this protest were George Maciunas. collaborating within a shared practice that challenged the disciplinary dividing lines between media. but as an integral part of the fabric of postwar avantgarde art practice. which preceded it historically. and Henry Flynt. In this regard. arbitrary framing structures. 2008).Originale represents a microcosm of the vibrant mid-sixties avant-garde scene in which a wide range of artists interacted with each other. 77 This performance catalyzed another art event. It also forces us to reconsider the significance of experimental film for American art history during a moment in which the interaction between art forms – which has been a constant fact throughout the history of aesthetics – was raised to a fever pitch by people like John Cage and Allan Kaprow. Allan Kaprow. as they presented radically new notions of interactive. experimental film played a significant role. authorially flexible art practice that induced extreme paroxysms of anxiety and distress for audiences and reviewers alike. See Branden W. In retrospect. Joseph.77 Within the context of Originale. not as a minority filmmaking tradition that was a peripheral alternative to Hollywood filmmaking. 153–212. it fulfills the predictions of critics Lippard and Chandler above. in the form of a protest from another faction of the New York avant-garde in the period. This encounter between a range of forms and media constitutes a compelling historical counterargument against the conceptual straightjacket of Greenbergian modernism. as well as those suggested by the work’s director. Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage (New York: Zone.

Breer is an artist who has worked in a number of media forms – including painting. with its quickly moving visual family album. geometric shapes.It seems only fitting that Breer involved himself in an environment of such radical intermedial interaction. and proto-cinematic devices – and as a filmmaker. sculpture. Visually Breer translates the heterogeneity of his multi-media practice into a radically diverse compositional logic in film. as we can see in Fist Fight. a catalog of performers in Originale. hand drawn simple line cartoons. This encounter between various cultural energies and aesthetic strategies foregrounds a number of tensions that underpinned the wider range of avant-garde arts in the period. Such an exhibition atmosphere seems entirely appropriate for this work that posed such an open assault on conventional film structure. etc. drawing attention to the fault lines between the art world and an amateur filmmaking community. between an understanding of film as an object or artifact and the sense that the medium had performative and 74 . visual plasticity and those that foreground simple presence. between artistic strategies that emphasize an expressive. unresolved aesthetic and social tensions of artistic exhibition in the era of the mid-1960s. and as such foregrounds some of the most potent. A consideration of Fist Fight in relation to Stockhausen’s intermedial event necessitates some restructuring of our inherited tools of film analysis and the inherited conceptual toolbox of interpretative strategies derived from literature. his collagic interest in the radical juxtaposition of diverse art-making practices has been transposed into the realm of moving images. live action footage of a mouse.

communicative possibilities that were substantially more contingent and unpredictable than the contained textual space of conventional film analysis would allow. This aggressive and unstable work embodies a telling variety of anxious and anxiogenic encounter between different cultural and representational registers. 75 . Fist Fight challenges conventional notions of film pleasure and textual construction. while simultaneously threatening the disciplinary boundaries that surround it through the attack that it mounts against normative models of cinema experience. it was not alone in its capacity to enervate viewers and disrupt the traditional conditions of motion picture spectatorship. Though it was an exemplary work in this regard. In many ways. Even its title conveys these confrontational energies.

often produced real-life episodes of spontaneous psychodramatic conflict in which profilmic space is more appropriately likened to a boxing ring than a theater stage.Chapter 2: Performance and the Warholian Cinematic Imperative: Provocation and Distress in the Anxiogenic Underground The underground cinema of the 1960s often utilized discomfort as an aesthetic resource. and Yoko Ono (and John Lennon’s) 76 . or expressive tool. Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967). sexual. A number of exemplary films of this era utilized acts of profilmic provocation in which real clashes between filmmakers and subjects were arranged or triggered for the benefit of the camera. These moments of aggravation. or taboo content (Jack Smith’s polymorphously perverse Flaming Creatures (1963)). The chapter that follows will reflect on films by three filmmakers that each emphasized this anxiogenic register of interpersonal confrontation and thus serve as examples of a compelling. as in the case of films with extremely extended durations (Andy Warhol’s eight-hour Empire (1964)). physical. Much of the better (and infamous) work of this type distressed viewers through either uncommon form. conceptual. However. be they verbal. which has been rarely discussed or even recognized. or psychological. be it a rhetorical. Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls (1966). yet relatively unrecognized subgenre of underground cinema of the 1960s. there is an additional register of distress and anxiety that is central to the underground cinema of the 1960s.

these works were produced and determined by the shared historical experiences of the cultural milieus of the midto-late 1960s that birthed them: They do not reveal or reflect something about these historical contexts as much as they encompass a confrontational and psychodramatic mode of thought. Adams Sitney. Interestingly. have never been addressed together in the same critical context – reveal a remarkable number of aesthetic and conceptual similarities that cannot be simply attributed to synchronicity or happenstance. demonstrating that his interest was not in considering the independent cinema as part of a cultural fabric. these three films – that. being. provocative. but rather as an isolated and privileged mode of art-making that was somehow unaffected by cultural trends and historical 77 . to their connection to the cultural zeitgeist of the period. yet this historical detail has been omitted from many histories of American avantgarde cinema because of the formalist and romantic leanings of many of its critics and practitioners. and performance that was shared with other work produced within the counterculture of the 1960s. and arguably sadistic. The Chelsea Girls and Portrait of Jason were two of the most commercially successful and popularly viewed non-industrial films of the period.Rape (1969) all embody a particular semi-documentary filmmaking mode that is confrontational. perhaps. to the author’s knowledge. literally combative. The simple economic and social fact of these films’ popular success attests to their influence and. Rather. Interestingly neither of these films is discussed in the foundational and canon-making study of the American avant-garde by P.

and instead privileges the presence of its performers. if not singular. there have been a small group of filmmakers who directed their creative attentions almost exclusively towards the space in front of the camera – the area described by film scholars as the profilmic – and utilized it as the primary. it minimizes the romantic or expressive possibilities of film’s visual plasticity as championed by the lyrical first-person tradition of the avant-garde cinema that is most significantly represented by the work of Stan Brakhage. However. This mode of production also differs markedly from the rigid. As such. The Warholian Set-Up and The Chelsea Girls: Within American avant-garde cinema.conditions. almost mathematical work of the so-called structural cinema. as exemplified by Hollis Frampton or Michael Snow. locus of meaning in their work. only by considering these films within a set of shared aesthetic and historical concerns can we begin to understand and recuperate the historical significance of these thorny. volatile works. In short this is an approach to filmmaking that emphasizes the subjectivity of its subject in front of the camera rather than that of the filmmaker behind it. as embodied by the films discussed in this essay. conceptually scrupulous. foregrounds performance in an almost hyperbolic way: editing is minimized (or eliminated) and camera movement is either spontaneous and slight (as it responds to character movement) or haphazard (in a kind of denial of symbolic significance). The filmmaking mode that is addressed in this chapter might be best 78 . This mode.

is probably best known for his earliest group of somewhat notorious film experiments.78 Warhol. both silent. a generic subset of the semitheatrical mode that featured Andy Warhol as its most significant filmic practitioner. and structurally deliberate – all details that are markedly different from the semi-dramatic mode described herein. Historically speaking. as a filmmaker. When Warhol was preparing to Andy Warhol’s earlier silent films. Warhol’s sound films of the mid-60s may be determined by history to be as significant as.described as semi-documentary psychodrama. the changes that he made to his filmmaking mode in this period were truly significant: his move to sync-sound technology marked a major shift in his cinema. carefully executed. including Sleep and Empire were both described as precursors to the “structural film” movement by Sitney in his Visionary Film. This category is a highly disputed one. However his semi-dramatic sound films of the mid 1960s. In 1964. These projects tested audience stamina in their use of extended duration as well as silence. In short. his earlier critically established efforts within the medium. the historical idiosyncrasies of the subculture in which he worked. this term serves as a functional shorthand for many different modes of filmmaking that were rigorously pre-determined. included in this group of works are Sleep (1963) (almost five-and-one-half hours) and Empire (eight hours). and will be discussed in detail in chapter four of this study. 78 79 . for the purposes of the discussion above. minimalist cinema to semidramatic sound films. However. Warhol made the shift from silent. 349. and the significant and under recognized aesthetic continuities that Warhol’s cinema shared with other modes of artistic production of the era. including The Chelsea Girls (1966) may ultimately prove to be more historically significant in their capacity to represent the performative and cultural tensions of the age. if not more so than.

something that would resemble. was particularly forthcoming and precise when he asked Tavel to construct “not plot. 113–134. 1973). told him to. To this end Warhol recruited poet and playwright Ronald Tavel to provide loose scenarios and minimally scripted dialogue for his new experiments in filmed drama. including. 63). Screen Test 2 On this piece of guidance. Warhol.”80 Interpersonal conflicts were central to a number of Warhol-Tavel collaborations. a man known for his extremely limited explanations of his artistic intentions. “an inquisition. Tavel claimed that. but incident. “go home and devise an inquisition. Art historian Douglas Crimp has concisely identified the tensions that catalyze the unusual interaction between Warhol’s filmmaking strategies and Tavel’s scriptwriting in the production contexts in which these films’ were made. Douglas Crimp. “It must have been the most specific statement he ever made to me” (Stephen Koch.”79 It was Tavel’s job to catalyze reactions in the performers through his semi-scripted scenarios by using relatively simple set-ups of interpersonal provocation that were designed to psychologically unsettle the unstable people that were their principal subjects. Warhol asked Tavel to set up situations of extreme psychic pressure. he decided that he would need dramatic content in order to generate audience interest. In his telling preparatory suggestions to his collaborator. Volume 3 of the SoCCAS. 80 In first describing his ideas for the early sound films. in the artist’s words. 481. 2008). In fact. Andy Warhol’s Art and Films (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press. “The Rise of Coming Together: Ronald Tavel’s Screenplays for Andy Warhol’s Film” in The Aesthetics of Risk. Stargazer: Andy Warhol’s World and His Films (New York and Washington: Praeger Publishers. but they did serve fairly specific aesthetic purposes for the filmmaker. 1981). 79 80 . the series of Screen Test features. The screenplays that Tavel produced were not terribly elaborate in terms of dramatic action. according to Tavel.” (Patrick S. most significantly. ed. Smith. Welchman (Zurich: JRP-Ringier. John C.shoot with sound. including Screen Test #1 (1965). Warhol.

Vinyl (1965). 81 . beating his head against the floor of the Factory. Though they were partially the result of some degree of planning. It was Tavel’s assignment to catalyze reactions in the performers using psychodramatic set-ups that exposed their insecurities. Tavel would often intersperse insults regarding the sexual attitudes of the films’ queer subjects. These conflicts within the profilmic were forcefully heightened by the pressure that Warhol’s unblinking camera placed upon its performers. and Horse (1965). Screen Test (aka Suicide) (1965). For example.) In the Screen Test series of sound films. though these films were more reliant on scripted dialogue.(1965).” which number almost five hundred in total. three minute single-roll “Screen Tests.81 (A related aesthetic strategy was utilized in Kitchen. The results often featured emotionally explosive or physically violent episodes in which profilmic tensions were intentionally and willfully escalated for the sake of producing a reaction. presents a series of somewhat absurdist bits of sadistic homoerotic sexual dialogue that repeatedly culminate in unplanned violent encounters in which most of the performers assault one of their collaborators. In this performance context. sync sound works that were entirely different from Warhol’s ambitious series of silent. though it was a scripted film. 81 These three films from 1965 were feature length. or a number of on-screen performers. Horse. Warhol directed his unmoving camera towards a single subject whom Tavel interrogated from offscreen. He would devise interactions between either an off-screen interrogator (himself) and a subject. the filmed results of these collaborations were often unpredictable and spontaneous. Conflictual strategies served as the determining structures for much of Warhol’s film work in this period.

Warhol’s collaborator described the particulars of this situation: “[I]f you want to capture spontaneity. the accident. but submerged layer of emotive subjectivity that is realized through spontaneous encounters between people and technologies.85 Tavel’s semi-dramatic set-ups provided the conceptual arena in which the performers James. “The Warhol Screenplays: An Interview With Ronald Tavel. provide any psychologically believable character motivation. understanding that it had to allow for accident and the unknown. 49. unlike its role in Hollywood cinema. the accidental. in which the dialogue has a secondary function that did not.”82 This quotation suggests that Warhol and Tavel were interested in capturing spontaneity and improvisation. 82 82 . artistic attributes associated with Abstract Expressionism rather than the Pop Art and postmodernism that are usually linked to the artist.).). the unexpected. and thus contradicts the many short-sighted critics who have ignored Warhol’s film output in order to create simple oppositions between his pop art and the Abstract Expressionist milieu which preceded it (Ibid. Tavel has described this dramatic space as “an environment” of action. you must set up an environment in which the spontaneous. improvisation. 85 “I prepared a script. 52). will take place.. I fully understood what the script had to allow to happen. 84 Tavel does not consider these philosophical registers to be mutually exclusive. And it was an environment” (Ibid.84 In their application to Warhol’s cinema. the improvisational.” Persistence of Vision: The Journal of the Film Faculty of the City University of New York 11 (1995). Tavel’s dramatic set-ups functioned less like screenplays that provided character motivation or acting cues and more as framing structures that defined a demarcated performance space. and so forth. 83 This seeming conflict in cultural values between a beat infused aesthetic of emotional expressivity and a more postmodern detachment is addressed by James in his interview with Tavel (Ibid.83 Tavel’s description thus provides an interesting and telling link between the supposedly cold distance of Warhol’s art and a present. allow to become.

a former lover of Sedgwick’s. Like the orchestrators of happenings and other varieties of experimental theater. slings a variety of 86 Tavel in the BBC documentary Warhol’s Cinema: A Mirror for the Sixties (1989). happen.”86 This taunting of on-screen performers continued through Warhol’s collaborations with Chuck Wein. Tavel’s replacement following his voluntary departure from the Factory. in its neglect of conventional character direction and motivation. 83 . In fact. They set up these encounters by interviewing the performers beforehand in order to learn their insecurities. as well as their realizations in front of Warhol’s camera. but tense. and probably would. Tavel has said that in order to evoke the most dramatic responses from the performers he would “literally torture the performance out of them by being as cruel as possible. Wein. these scenarios. In a sense. and thus partially defined the space in which the profilmic event would take place. In an effort to provoke an emotional response from the film’s subject. though Wein did not write scripts or provide dialogue for the films’ performers. is more akin to the embodied non-fiction performance that one might encounter in the happenings. Tavel and Warhol created an open-ended. demarcate performance spaces that function differently from those of most other types of cinema. The Warhol-Wein collaboration culminated in a legendary onscreen skirmish between Wein and Edie Sedgwick – Warhol’s most well known and perhaps most tragic “superstar” – in Beauty #2 (1965). these films embody a performance sensibility that. and radical theater of the era.would interact. performance art. pressurized environment in which something could.

her sexuality. criticizing the lack of feeling and authenticity of her performance as he provokes her saying. Edie. Wein plays the role of a Hollywood director who is jealous of his leading lady. performative environment that turns tense and progressively more volatile. as the filmmaker and his co-director. and was adopted subsequently by a number of other underground filmmakers working in the period as a resource for semi-sadistic.psychosexual insults at her concerning her intelligence. and her authenticity as a performer. these attacks are particularly pointed. shot a number of one. Because Wein knows her intimately. The films begin with a playful.and two-reel sequences that would eventually become the three-and-one-half 84 . her companion in the film. In Warhol’s films this combative approach reached its apex in the summer of 1966. semidocumentary film encounters. and finally climaxes in some kind of emotional outburst (often tears) on the part of the subject. Paul Morrissey. she drops her façade of coolness and throws two ashtrays (one of which is of the heavy glass variety) at her offscreen provocateur. As she feigns an unconvincing sexual interest in Gino Piserchio. followed by insults and berating. Do it like you could’ve thought of it. These Warholian collaborations hinged on a particular performance pattern. “Do better than that. c’mon.” In response. as she rolls around dispassionately in bed with a boy that does not excite her in the least. This dramatic structure underpinned much of Warhol’s work in the mid 1960s. she seems like an uninterested high school girl taking a dare.

Paul Morrissey had replaced Ronald Tavel and Chuck Wein as Warhol’s most significant film collaborator and assistant-provocateurs. The film was composed entirely of uninterrupted thirty-three-minute reels shown side-by-side in double-screen projection. a formal detail that naturally heightens the interpersonal and aesthetic tensions at work within the dramatic space of the film. Formally. and drug-induced confessionals. it too was a rather uncommon spectacle. all of the encounters were shot indoors. to mainstream sensibilities of 1966. the Chelsea Hotel. 85 . the film was shot in various locales around New York City. In this regard. In its early stages of public exhibition.hour film known as The Chelsea Girls. with three reels in color. confessional episodes. including violent arguments. It was primarily a performance vehicle for the queer amphetamine users who dominated the social and aesthetic spaces of Warhol’s Factory in this period. and a variety of private apartments (one of which was the living quarters for the Velvet Underground). The Chelsea Girls was a film that showcased the taboo behaviors and experiences of the subcultures that produced it.88 87 By the time Warhol began shooting the material that would later become The Chelsea Girls.87 These sequences generally featured the Warhol “superstars” acting-out in moments of liminal experience. psycho-sexual play. The Chelsea Girls was once (as its title suggests) conceived of as a kind of voyeuristic cinematic compilation of peepholes into the fugitive lifestyles of the legendary bohemian enclave of the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. 88 In actuality. The Chelsea Girls was a rather threatening cultural object. In short. in enclosed spaces. including Warhol’s Factory (at its first location on 231-41 East 47th Street). Mostly filmed in black & white. both in public and onscreen.

they fulfill Sontag’s diagnosis of 89 This practice is a significant extra-textual and conceptual component of the work. the two filmmakers encouraged the performers’ insecurities – as Tavel and Wein had before – by spreading false rumors about them and insulting their most sensitive attributes. was described by author-critic Stephen Koch as one of “taunt and betrayal. In 1965.89 This method. something that should be central to how we understand performance in Warhol’s films. one of the most prominent performers in The Chelsea Girls. Warhol and Morrissey intentionally unsettled their performers. and from nonsensical to tragic.” 302. the film’s extreme tension and hostility perfectly exemplify the variety of art-making that cultural critic Susan Sontag identified as exemplary of the period. 92 Quoted in Bockris. Ondine was the stage name taken by Robert Olivo. which had been typical at the Factory for some time. 258. Stargazer: Andy Warhol’s World and His Films (New York: Praeger Publishers. as “a living torture test”91 and he called the final product itself “the most horrible movie ever made. 68.”90 The film’s dark production atmosphere and its anxiogenic sensibility were described by Ondine. In order to achieve this end. “One Culture. 86 . 1973).”93 As Warhol’s films shift unexpectedly from playful to dark. however playful and abstract and ostensibly neutral morally it may appear. 91 Smith. 430. 93 Sontag. a major figure in Warhol’s circle of the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s.Through their direction of the filmmaking environment of The Chelsea Girls. 90 Stephen Koch. she wrote that “the interesting art of our time has such a feeling of anguish and crisis about it.”92 In tone. throughout the production of the project they fomented tension and discomfort in their cast.” something that would “induce the inevitable responses of shock and anger or shame and confusion.

strips off his clothes as he ruminates on the thanatophilic thought of what it would feel like to be a drop of sweat swallowed up. In preparation for the filming of The Chelsea Girls. titled “Pope Ondine. The most famous episode of The Chelsea Girls takes place in what is generally shown as the work’s second-to-last last reel. a significant extra-textual component of the art itself. In keeping with this mood of heightened psychic chaos and danger. deranged by LSD. The filmmakers created an “environment” (to borrow Ronald Tavel’s word). Warhol and Morrissey set up the performers by magnifying the already ever-present paranoia and insecurities of the troupe of amphetamine users that constituted its primary cast. and one in which a male “superstar. that would make this performance-based work cohere around a set of interpersonal tensions and psychodramatic hostilities. Warhol and Morrissey caused the event of the work’s production to cohere into a dark. By magnifying the antagonism and distrust of their performers (and their filmmaking situation).sixties art with its strange and idiosyncratic interplay of a disinterested nonchalance and tangible emotional tension.” the young bisexual Eric Emerson. literally annihilated. One of the most significant aspects of Warhol’s legacy as a filmmaker was his ability to create anxiogenic performance contexts in which these kinds of liminal psychosexual behaviors were catalyzed by his unflinching camera. aggressively negative film happening.” 87 . by another person. there are two scenes in which characters inject amphetamines intravenously on camera.

we have some idea of what to expect. Then. that she confess her sins to him: “My dear. At the beginning of this later appearance. in a statement of subcultural authority performed in a patriarchal. To many viewers and participants. I’m not trying to be anyone. She explains: “I cannot confess to you. He asks.” She does not accept Ondine’s playful. there is nothing that you cannot say to me. a dramatic exchange is initiated. She then 88 . Ondine suggests to this young woman.” The relatively ingenuous young woman responds to this challenge by playfully questioning the legitimacy of his performance as this fictive character of The Pope. Ondine first showcased his loudly outspoken. it remains the most shocking in Warhol’s entire cinema. “You’re hardly a human … you’re a subspecies. Ondine injects amphetamine intravenously.Towards the beginning of the film. willfully cruel character of The Pope whom he reprises here towards its conclusion. about three hours earlier. a young woman walks onscreen and sits next to him on the Factory couch. “What was your first sexual experience?” He insults one woman. what results from this encounter on the couch could hardly have been predicted. Ondine forcefully insulted and berated a pair of women. campish posture of Pope-hood: in her criticism and behavior. following an extended extemporaneous monologue from the performer. saying. my dear.” So. You’re not even a vegetable. Nothing. because you’re such a phony. she deems him inauthentic. when The Pope reappears in reel eleven. In his earlier appearance in the film. mock-papal tone. However. as he demanded sexual confessions while engaging in a feigned psychoanalytic performance.

Get the hell off this set! Get out!” As the force of his verbal tirade escalates. He then makes a number of exclamations in dire seriousness. for him. my dear little Miss Phony. The woman runs out of the camera’s range and the people who are operating the film and sound equipment – probably Morrissey and Gerard Malanga – attempt to follow the action (as the performers’ voices are heard offscreen). Ondine then returns to the couch where the scene began. “How dare she! Who does she think she is? Who is she to challenge The Pope?” It is made clear by his explanatory monologue that.taunts him more actively. repeatedly. Stephen Koch’s exceptional book length study of Warhol’s cinema. Onscreen. repeatedly calling him a “phony. he then reaches forward and slaps her in the face. You’re a disgusting phony. as if seized by some kind of paroxysm. he claims to have been overwhelmed spontaneously. the legitimacy of his performance is not subject to the questioning of some outsider from the straight world whose notion of authenticity is markedly different from his own openly queer performative attitude. all the while continuing his deluge of insults. let me tell you something. as he shouts. he agrees that the challenge of sincere performance interpenetrates the film at every level. In Stargazer. He responds to young woman’s charges of “phoniness” with an extremely violent outburst: “Well.” The profilmic tensions escalate and Ondine lashes out verbally at this seemingly innocent participant in Warhol’s film project. appearing befuddled by his own actions. May God forgive you … you Goddamned phony. He 89 . “Whore! Whore!” He is now screaming in an uncontrollable rabid fit of anger. as he yells. You are a phony.

97 This sequence illustrates the emotional extremes to which Warhol was willing to go with his film 94 95 Koch. by the problem of authenticity. Mary Woronov. in Ondine’s spontaneous paroxysm of violence. Ondine supports this theory as well. 96 Mary Woronov. that he had seen the sequence countless times and was overcome by such a tumult of anger and hostility that he still had no idea what had happened. 94. But. 39. “The Chelsea Girls is haunted. Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory (London: Serpent’s Tail. See Smith. 445. A number of people have suggested that Morrissey encouraged and provoked Page to confront Ondine. In a compelling turn-of-phrase. This scene is the result of an encounter between a violent and unpredictable amphetamine addict from the Factory’s inner circle and a seemingly unsuspecting young woman who was not committed to the performative sensibility of the group’s drug-scorched and sexually polymorphous nucleus.95 So. 90 .”96 Ondine said in 1978. was not scripted or planned in any traditional sense. 445. 97 Smith.writes. dominated.”94 The victim of Ondine’s seemingly authentic and spontaneous hysterics was a young woman named Rona Page who may have been encouraged to appear in the film on rather unsuspecting terms. described Ondine’s willfully unbalanced personality – something that boiled over into his approach to performance – when she wrote that he “carried chaos around with him like a pet. the encounter that followed. 1995). another of Warhol’s performers in The Chelsea Girls. over twelve years after the film was made. it seems that there was something of a set-up here.

99 98 91 .. Up until this. curator and historian Callie Angell described his unique production method as one that depended upon the presence of “interpersonal tensions” and “destabilizing elements. This was something new. In an essay that may be the most concise critical summation of Warhol’s cinema to date. 181. Menken appeared in a number of Warhol films including The Chelsea Girls. 1994). His dramatic. it is a difficult scene to watch. everything is permitted. with The Chelsea Girls Warhol had gone about as far as he could in saying that. is widely rumored to be based on the fiery relationship of filmmakers and Factory regulars.. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe. I’d always turned the camera off. the filmmaker claimed to have been so surprised and frightened by this confrontation that he ran off of the set. even if I had to leave the room. [. it was so for real that I got upset and had to leave the room – but I made sure that I left the camera running. “Andy Warhol.” a dramatic study in sadism.projects. Callie Angell.] But now I decided to get it all down on film. Marie Menken and Willard Maas. in his work. Warhol and a number of his collaborators have described the dramatic atmosphere of these works as being indebted to a Andy Warhol. 100 Albee’s play. when people had gotten violent during any of the filmings..98 Because of the real hostility and violence that it documents. 131. Angell suggests that Warhol’s work (because of this tendency) shares methods with the historical lineage of performance and performance art. In response to the sadism and violence of this episode. He wrote that when Ondine slapped the young woman. and Maas is likely the man who performs offscreen fellatio in Blowjob (1964). In this sense.”99 In her explanation of his rather unsettling approach. Filmmaker” in The Andy Warhol Museum (New York: Distributed Art Publishers. 1980). Popism: The Warhol ‘60s (New York: Harper & Row. 100 In a related sense. semi-documentary film work of the mid-sixties willfully created an arena for brutal interpersonal conflicts within the shared social space in front of the camera.

variety of often unrecognized influences from theater and drama. including the hostile dramas of playwright Edward Albee and the experimental Theater of the Ridiculous (to which Tavel was the principal contributor). as a major influence on his film (Gerard Malanga. his cinema of this period is largely determined by the contingencies and whims of volatile individuals as they act and react spontaneously. 92 . Warhol argued that its emotional severity was actually a tribute to its humanism. “My Favorite Superstar: Notes on My Epic. 19621987. an awareness of those overlapping tendencies in performance-based arts may help us to better understand the unsettling and idiosyncratic nature of Warhol’s work in cinema. released during the same summer in which he shot The Chelsea Girls. in real time in front of his camera. 2004). when he wrote. in their emphasis on human presence.101 The connections between Warhol’s cinema and the theatrical and performance art developments of the 1960s have been largely neglected in the critical and historical evaluations of his work. This is to say. are significantly different from the supposedly 101 Warhol was an acquaintance of Edward Albee. I feel is all right. Paul Arthur has argued that Warhol’s cinema calls attention to certain attributes of his art that. Chelsea Girls” in I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews.”102 In their emphasis on the uncritical observation of people’s actions. Warhol’s films incorporate a degree of unpredictability that is conditioned by human behavior. However. […] anything to do with the human person. ed. In terms of the ethical concerns of this film’s somewhat sadistic approach. Kenneth Goldsmith (New York: Carroll & Graf. 129). “The Chelsea Girls is an experimental film which deals in human emotion and human life. he cites the Mike Nichols film. and in an interview in from 1966 with Gerard Malanga. 102 Ibid.

” 103 As Arthur suggests. that Warhol’s cinema “is thus a meta-cinema. 93 . do we need a humanist Warhol. She writes. “The art historical interpretations of Warhol as the critic/celebrator of the pleasures of consumer culture become ludicrous in front of many of his films. 104 Patricia Mellencamp. performative identities. Warhol. in short. Arthur asks.”104 As he unflinchingly directed his camera towards the interpersonal space in front of it. 1990). 197. ed. the filmmaker. He writes. 1992). Video. Playing his own devil’s advocate. Film scholar Patricia Mellencamp shares Arthur’s opinion of Warhol’s films. and thus a corrective is needed for the popular critical approach in which Warhol is “being paraded as the father of postmodernism (a mantle tirelessly promoted by Peter replicating machine who was responsible for the Campbell’s soup cans and the Brillo Boxes of his pop art production. 152. “Flesh of Absence: Resighting the Warhol Catechism” in Andy Warhol Film Factory. Barbara Kruger. concepts that relate directly towards humans and their social. “Why on earth. one might ask. Michael O’Pray (London: British Film Institute. and Feminism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. might be best understood as an artist obsessed with presence and authenticity. he attempted to engage with an ontological and representational question that goes back to the earliest theoretical considerations of cinema: Is film actually capable of inscribing human presence within its textual limits? Film historian David James suggests that this is one of the most fundamental concerns of Warhol’s film art. an 103 Arthur. and others). a tender purveyor of individual autonomy (minus interiority) and social significance?” He answers his question by suggesting simply that this is the Warhol that these films present. Indiscretions: Avant-Garde Film.

In almost all of his six hundred films the human face is of central significance.107 In such statements – and in his cinema more generally –Warhol presents his art as a conceptual riddle concerning the ambivalent and complex interaction of the artist’s volition and the mechanicity of technological mediation. human portraiture is perhaps his central generic frame. his statement was not so much an utterance of a sincere fantasy as an acknowledgment of the sheer impossibility of such a prospect.”105 As James suggests.R. He thus draws our attention.) When Warhol famously claimed that he wanted to be a machine. that eagerly engages with all the contingencies of the uncontrollable world that it records. Part 1” in I’ll Be Your Mirror. the eight-hour portrait film of the Empire State Building. “What Is Pop Art? Answers From 8 Painters. rather paradoxically perhaps. 107 “The reason I’m painting this way is that I want to be a machine” (Warhol in G.inquiry into the mechanisms of the inscription of the individual into the apparatus and into the way such inscription has been historically organized. 105 106 94 . catalyzed. and provoked into being – a kind of street theater for the camera’s benefit. Allegories of Cinema. As he turned his camera on the band of tortured extroverts that peopled the Factory. 68. but a series of semidocumentary encounters featuring an uncomfortable variety of profilmic performance art that he set up. Warhol’s cinema devised a series of mediations on the possibility of etching subjectivity into the cinematic apparatus. Swenson. to the ontological potency of presence and the limits of art’s capacity to represent it. A notable exception is of course Empire (1964). In this sense Warhol’s James.106 (As in his painting. 18). what he revealed in his new medium of choice was not the post-modern cynicism of the machine that he is so often credited with.

Sitney also implicitly admits the limits of his own historical interpretation of the American avant-garde cinema in his Visionary Film. Clarke and Warhol both used the same unusual variety of film camera: an Auricon single-system camera that was designed primarily for sit-down television interviews. “In The Chelsea Girls I found three of the most extraordinary sequences of the cinema I’ve ever seen. in 1974. Visionary Film. a gay 108 In this astute observation. She too would make a semi-documentary film in which her subject would be given free reign to express himself.109 It was Clarke’s idea to elaborate upon Warhol’s aesthetic breakthroughs in psychodrama and confessional cinema. For roughly twelve hours. 350). And. the experimental filmmaker and documentarian Shirley Clarke shot a film titled Portrait of Jason that was her direct and conscious response to Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls.108 Performance and Public Self-Effacement: Portrait of Jason: In 1966. For Portrait of Jason. Adams Sitney wrote. However. to further extend the extratextual determinants that Portrait of Jason shares with The Chelsea Girls. 95 . while largely omitting the films of Warhol because of their fundamental incompatibility with the romantic paradigm that he celebrates (Sitney. Anyone seriously interested in films must see Warhol’s new movie because it goes into a whole new dimension” (Bockris. Carl Lee) and their subject.films share more with the concerns of performance art. It is for this reason that film historian and critic P. a text that describes the work of Stan Brakhage as its most significant achievement. thus situating her film in the same space of production in which portions of The Chelsea Girls was made. but an entire feature film. It is a heavy camera that is intended to be used only on a tripod. 258). Clarke used her apartment in the Chelsea Hotel as her set. and documentary filmmaking than they do with an abstract or plastic film practice. happenings. she would allow her subject not one or two reels to unwind psychologically. I’ve been continuously haunted by the movie’s beauty and power. 109 She said. that Warhol’s cinema makes the rest of American avant-garde films all look incredibly similar. Since seeing it. Clarke filmed a performative interrogation between the filmmakers (she and her partner. a movie that she found mesmerizing.

Her film. she did not know how it would end. an experiment: when she initiated her project of interpersonal provocation. 289. shot basically from one camera position and featuring only Holiday as its onscreen subject. would be quite literally. He delves deeply into his own autobiography. I was able to give up my intense control and allow Jason and the camera to react to each other. sordid sexual exploits. as he chronicles childhood traumas. 1972). 96 . Clarke edited the evening’s filmed encounter into a feature-length film. She explained the improvisational spirit of the project: “For the first time. Over the course of the film. 1959–1971 (New York: Macmillan. Portrait of Jason features what is basically a one-hundred-and-five-minute monologue as Holiday chronicles his life story and his personal struggles while reliving them aloud for the benefit of a unflinching camera and its audience.”111 The film that resulted from that evening’s endeavors was an assemblage of (mostly) long takes edited together in their original performance sequence. He willingly embraces the liminal 110 111 Throughout the film he refers to himself as a “houseboy” for a variety of employers. And it is clear from his stories and their emotional delivery that he has suffered significantly because of his outsider status. Mekas. Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema.110 He went by the pseudonym. as he describes his experiences with psychological problems. Holiday tells many candid and tragic tales from his own life. Jason Holiday. Yet Holiday never presents himself as a victim. anxiety. Always central to his autobiographical presentation is his discussion of race and sexuality. and his involvement in a variety of criminal activities. and psychoanalysis.African-American prostitute who once worked as her housekeeper. like the largely unscripted The Chelsea Girls.

Madison). Aaron Payne (his birth name)?114 A tangle of names underpins these works. 97 . because of an affinity and appreciation for Billie Holiday (who was also bisexual). which is a put-on.position that he holds both psychologically and socially: He performs in drag and openly discusses his sexual encounters with a candor that is both rare and extremely brave for a gay man on film in the mid-to-late 1960s. as they command him: “Tell me about your mother.112 Throughout the filmmaking process. Philly Joe Jones. a performed identity that cannot quite be equated with that of the person on screen. Both of these films also feature a significant semantic slippage: When should the performer in The Chelsea Girls be called Pope Ondine (the character) vs. Robert Olivo (his birth name)? Similarly. a performer of great emotional weight. Dina Washington. As an extremely talented black artist. demonstrating that for both films fluid. 113 There is some evidence to suggest that he may also have taken LSD. including Miles Davis. Ondine (his most common title) vs. she would have embodied a whole set of associations that his performance within the film suggests. 114 Because of his frequent references to his jazz musician friends. there is something in Holiday’s demeanor. He openly drinks alcohol and smokes cigarettes and pot continuously. and a tragic victim of racism and sexual and drug abuse. like Holiday. 112 Ondine. openly discusses his homosexuality on camera in a number of Warhol’s films.” Or when they ask. like that of Pope Ondine. an even more potent drug for the encouragement of unguarded psychic states (Shirley Clarke Papers in the Wisconsin Historical Archive at the University of Wisconsin. when are we referring to Jason Holiday (the stage name of the performer-hustler) vs. for Aaron Payne. Holiday willfully engages in the destabilizing psychodramatic inquisition that Clarke has set up for him. a logical guess would suggest that he likely assumed the surname of Holiday. and in the process he does not dodge any of the faux-psychiatric questions that are presented from offscreen by Clarke and Lee. and Carmen McRae. when discussing Portrait of Jason. “Have you ever made it with a chick?”113 Yet.

It is clear throughout that part of what we are seeing is a rehearsed nightclub routine. drunken. (Like a variety of Warhol’s film projects. Though Clarke did indeed compress the night’s events into a feature length film (through the act of editing and selective shooting) in the final film she maintains a rough historical integrity by keeping the filmed events in the basic order in which they took place.” In their attacks on Holiday.”) In 115 This has been claimed by Clarke on a number of occasions.115 As the film develops. Clarke and her partner Carl Lee insist.” is not being “real. and his clearly practiced impersonations of Mae West and Scarlet O’Hara. Nevertheless. something that is evidenced by his repeated catchphrases (“I’ll never tell”). into a register of performance – between play and critique – that undoubtedly contains some detail of true autobiography. that all the while. in a manner like Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor. hustler. the lines between Jason Holiday (the character. as heard from offscreen. performer) and Aaron Payne (the person) become progressively more compromised as he begins to teeter closer and closer to the dark. his a capella performances of Broadway songs. This becomes clearer as Jason’s level of intoxication increases and his performative façade begins to collapse. and is confirmed by her lengthy film logs that document the totality of her footage from the night (Shirley Clarke Papers in the Wisconsin Historical Archive at the University of Wisconsin. Madison). and queer notions of performance and identity frame the social experiments that they present. confessional abyss of his unmediated emotions. that all blend. 98 . this too is “an inquisition. Clarke and Lee loudly claim that all of his imitations and stories are really only fictive roleplaying. Holiday “is not coming down front.transgressive.

As Holiday suggests equivalence between humility and phoniness. multi-layered tensions between race. you won’t believe this – I said I was a sick queen. and sexuality: Clarke: You lonely? Holiday: Lonely? I’m desperate. An exchange between Clarke and Holiday tellingly demonstrates the film’s complex use of shaded colloquial language to evoke thorny. right? Especially when you look at a colored boy and say. […] H: I declared insanity. H: Yeah. […]. C: What do you mean by “humble?” H: I was phony. yet these conflicts between queer performers and straight provocateurs also reflected a fundamental incongruity between the performative values of these differently sexualized communities.the film’s final sequence. That’s what humble means. “You’re humble. but it also explicitly lays out an interesting set of concerns by way of an unusual linguistic correlation. C: You’re not suffering. but I’m cool. I got weak and I was humble and I needed sympathy. C: You should be lonely. Clearly a performed “phoniness” was anathema to the underground artistic subcultures of the 1960s. he implies that being artificial or inauthentic is tantamount to being subservient. His statement implies that the conditions of this 99 . Lee even calls Holiday a “phony.” the same insult that Rona Page leveled at Pope Ondine a year earlier in The Chelsea Girls. I said I was sick – oh.” This difficult exchange not only further cements the viewer’s understanding of the intricate relationship between Holiday’s outsider social status and his volatile psychology. I should suffer because I have no rights. performance.

This moment of pathos marks the film’s success as an observational document of interpersonal interaction.” like a psychiatric patient who has made a therapeutic breakthrough. Towards the end of the film.” to be true to himself. […] Do you know how much that hurts?” And like the subject of psychoanalysis. Unlike Ondine. As Portrait of Jason progresses. his breakthrough is accompanied by a real moment of catharsis. the interrogators become more combative as they challenge Holiday to “come clean. there is nevertheless a kind of bullying – an act of profilmic aggression – that occurs in 100 . long time. both on film and in life. as he is sobbing uncontrollably now. the anguished expression of his pinched mouth and eyes. … And if you’re real you’ll think of it a long. he discharges the following statement. He explains his emotional state when he says. I guess I never really had any fun at all.” Because of Holiday’s emotional frankness. And I just spent too much time being a nervous wreck. yet it is also the source of great ethical discomfort and anxiety for its viewers. Holiday eventually admits to being “a phony.” Eventually Holiday reaches his breaking point as he collapses into tears and admits the failures and falsities of his life.challenge “to be real. he lets down his performative façade. using words that are punctuated with pauses of significant emotional heft: “You only have so much energy. there is a trace of real disturbance here. and in so doing. Though Clarke claimed to have ceded control to her subject. the tears on his face. “It only hurts when you think of it. is all the more difficult and rife with potential pitfalls for the person of color.

Clarke. no. The film resembles Angell’s description of Warhol’s cinema in relation to performance art of the period. there is also a deliberate organization. “Choreography of Cinema: An Interview With Shirley Clarke. was aware of the fact that some people might interpret the film as exploitative. I knew that I would have to get Jason to face the truth at some point. I was going to let Jason do whatever he wanted to as long as I could and then I was going to challenge him to come clean.” Afterimage 11. particularly as it reaches its climax. and Lee. tell the truth. Holiday is contained within the apparatus as it films him and is later edited according to Clarke’s specifications. Holiday’s performance was 116 Lauren Rabinovitz. as something that depends on “interpersonal tensions” and “destabilizing elements. but he only responds with: “I think you’re full of shit. He is not the one orchestrating the event. 101 . as she explains her orchestration of the film’s conclusion: I had every intention of having a climax of something taking place.116 Despite the seemingly shared improvisatory sentiment and collective authorship of Holiday. a pre-planned confrontational plot that catalyzes the filmmaking process and the emotional breakdown of its subject.” Clarke suggests that this act of aggression was partially planned before the film even began. in her mind.” culminating in a filmic act of provocation and a presentation of self-effacement.the film. But I wasn’t positive how. In other words. like any viewer. so within the sphere of production. At the end. 5 (December 1993). However she claimed that she was ethically justified in her project because. In one sense. Holiday is the victim of Clarke and Lee’s aggression. Clarke. Holiday expresses a need for emotional affirmation from Lee. 11.

I wondered if people would think I was homosexual. “I will not allow people to exploit themselves if they don’t win in the end. and thus demonstrated his survival and perseverance in the face of social oppression: She explained. dig it? Thanks to Miss Clarke and Carl Lee. within the film there is indeed a sense in which Clarke and Lee are looming over their subject. 119 Mekas.”119 It is clear from Holiday’s commentary that perhaps what may have been most controversial about the film.a kind of success in the face of hostile threats. bisexual. at least partially. (The same candidly queer sensibility 117 118 Ibid. I think the chick and me are even. or heterosexual. is manipulated (or perhaps directed). a gay African-American male. a heterosexual white woman. in pre-Stonewall era New York.”117 According to Clarke. In an interview with Jonas Mekas. 102 . I wondered if I was great enough to convince them that I am all three. was the subject’s open admission of his own queer sexuality.118 Obviously there are many ethical issues at stake in this film’s exchange of power as it confronts issues of race. class. However. “World you’re gonna hear from me. “Movie Journal. published in The Village Voice in September of 1967. I said: try anything as long as there is money in it.” The Village Voice. They are never seen onscreen. dig it? I’m being told by some people that Miss Clarke has used me. Jason Holiday addressed these topics. 1967: 31. Holiday overcomes the exploitative frame in which he appears. as he explained. though their voices are heard. by Clarke. The three-sided figure makes a triangular – trisexual. and Lee. a heterosexual black male. September 28. thus allowing them to partially penetrate the profilmic space. like Ronald Tavel in Warhol’s films. as aggressive interrogators wielding a sadistic power from behind (or beside) the camera. and sexuality: Holiday. though in soundtrack only.

Holiday hired a lawyer to acquire monetary compensation from Clarke for his 103 .” “bonafide freaksville. after the film’s release. and in fact. Holiday plays the part not of a gay man. Holiday suggests that though he may have been “used” by Clarke.” and he discusses in some detail a number of his male sexual partners and queer sex acts that he has performed. in his quotation above.” The hostility is certainly strategic. as he repeatedly calls him a “rotten queen. In his quotation above. Lee attempts to provoke an emotional response from Holiday. acknowledging his polymorphous sexual identity as well as his occasional work as a male prostitute who had sex with men.) In fact. as he pleads for Lee’s friendship and love. would likely induce some anxiety and discomfort in a straight white audience of 1966.” “a male bitch. but of a pragmatist without sexual preference. Holiday describes himself as “a stone whore. yet the emotional sincerity of Holiday’s response is undeniable.contributed to both the scandal and the popularity of The Chelsea Girls a year earlier. Towards its end. The graphic and frank back-and-forth of the film.” “an experimental queen. In this regard Holiday’s performative openness and his candidly queer sexual energy determine the irreverence of the film’s content. In the film Holiday frequently refers to himself in sexual terms. This seems a naïve response. he and she are in fact “even” because the film gave him some public exposure. both in its sexual and its racial candor. perhaps in an effort to retroactively downplay the sexual candor of his performance in the film.

there is no evidence that she did not fulfill her part of the agreement (Shirley Clarke Papers. ask leading questions. making it clear that his emotional undressing is being done. Clarke used the camera as a catalyst to trigger a confrontation. in which the filmmakers and their camera relentlessly probe their subject. 104 . including the profilmic hostility that Clarke and Lee produce. at least in part. as a kind of experiment in psychodrama. Like many documentarians of the cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema movements. Portrait of Jason does not resolve any of the ethical difficulties that it presents. Wisconsin Historical Society. the camera’s relentless long take documentation. Madison). Despite the fact that Holiday contracted a lawyer. as they taunt him. If anything.500). revealing its central aesthetic function – in a way related to the work of Warhol described above – as the literal embodiment of social and psychic tensions. as a psychotherapist might. the emotional severity of Holiday’s performance. film critic J. into a public reflection upon his life’s experiences. the agreement made between the filmmaker and her subject required that she pay him 10% of the film’s gross profits after recouping the production costs (which were $21. In an interview for a recent BBC documentary on Warhol. for its benefit. and the criminal and sexual frankness of its content.120 (In 1971. also claiming that the artist did not sufficiently compensate him for his work.) Portrait of Jason is uncomfortable for many reasons. As Holiday confesses for the camera. Tavel too sued Warhol.involvement in the film. This is a distinctly Warholian strategy. and push him. and ultimately a confession. he continually affirms its presence. University of Wisconsin. it inflames them. Hoberman eloquently distilled the psychodramatic exchange that was central to Warhol’s cinema: 120 According to correspondence between Clarke and Holiday’s lawyer in 1968.

121 This explanation perfectly describes the ways in which both Ondine and Jason forcefully tested their own limits of public behavior in the films described above. In the era of the film’s production. it aimed to undermine the social conventions or art-making in postwar America. 121 122 105 . Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. but in a more outrageous. This appeal to the outrageous and the taboo shared something important with other contemporaneous efforts of both documentary and fictive realism. Movie Journal. 281.122 In this regard. to “break down the phony privacy walls” that filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas located as the targets for the new cinema. Mekas. that these works document previously unexposed cultural actions. including “the social activity of making life itself into a work of art. 1995). 123 Parker Tyler.Part of Warhol’s originality in his direction of actors was the recognition that the camera gives people license to dramatize themselves […] In the mid-60s this notion had tremendous force and I think that what he inspired was a sort of art form where people would hold forth: they would be themselves. Many projects of the Direct Cinema too made distinct efforts to expose hidden personalities and private aspects of character. art and film critic Parker Tyler wrote. 69. more compelling manner. in which the filmmakers made an effort to disarm the public façade and expose the multi-layered personalities of John F. then presidential candidates. both films described above are evidence of this movement’s effort to undermine social convention. Underground Film: A Critical History (New York: Da Capo. filmmaking as practice – that its primary social meaning is determined as an interpersonal act Hoberman in the BBC documentary Warhol’s Cinema: A Mirror for the Sixties (1989). using performances as its artistic resources performances that were more psychologically and sexually open than those of any previous era.”123 It is through the process of Jason’s production – that is. in his book Underground Film. In its efforts to reveal something hidden about its subjects. one of the most famous early examples of this approach is Primary (1960) by Robert Drew Associates.

124 106 .and a subcultural performance.124 For this reason. both Portrait of Jason and The Chelsea Girls paraded a circus of misfits so that a ticket-buying public could gawk at their marked otherness. the uniquely extraordinary part of making Portrait of Jason was the shooting experience itself” (quoted in Mekas. The profilmic space of Jason provided a forum for a public investigation of selfhood within certain hyperbolized conditions of performance and mediation. In fact. Movie Journal. “For me. a medium that loudly proclaims its preference for presence over plasticity. Yet there is also a sense in which these films interrogate the forces of surveillance and voyeurism. 289). as they make private encounters public by openly engaging with scopic pressures that mimic the rapidly expanding mediascape as it was becoming more and more dominated by television cameras and other mechanisms of public recording. Clarke has explained that the work’s greatest value as a forum for humanistic knowledge and understanding can be traced primarily to the event of the film’s production and to the profilmic interaction of its participants. just as Portrait of Jason does. she said. perhaps voyeuristic public privileged access to the most private thoughts and anxieties of an outsider and fugitive from bourgeois culture. Art/Rape: Clarke’s Portrait of Jason was a film that gave a curious. In one sense. In 1967. process-based media formats of interactive and closed circuit video. it is no surprise that Jason would be her last completed film before moving into the more immediate.

throughout a variety of media. 107 . New York. provocative. Ono was a prominent contributor to the loose international aggregation of artists known as Fluxus whose work embodied a particular variety of 1960s anti-art that was playful. extremely international. The experimental work of this group was often conceptually oriented in its efforts to devise novel ways to challenge public conventions of the relationship between art and life. much work of the avant-garde from the 1960s and 70s directly tackled a growing awareness of visual technologies in public life. In addition. and anarchic. this work in cinema represented a culmination of activity in various other art forms. permanently relocating to the United States in 1971. she presented a famous performance work. Rape. but relocated to the United States on a number of occasions in childhood and adolescence. developed out of her work in other media. In addition. Ono was born in Japan. Ono and Lennon moved back and forth between London and New York during the late 60s and early 70s. like that of Warhol. Though Rape was filmed in London. Also. and throughout her career. before eventually getting a green card in 1976 and later becoming a citizen. Before being romantically and publicly linked with John Lennon.125 Yoko Ono’s involvement with cinema. addressed these anxieties in an almost hyperbolic fashion. Cut Piece. Yoko Ono and John Lennon’s 1969 film. Ono was already somewhat notorious as an artist-provocateur. but spent significant amounts of time in New York throughout the 1960s and 1970s. (And Lennon was of course English. Ono was granted permanent resident status and remains a long-time resident of the United States. and 125 Because of their international stature as artists and public figures. For many artists of Ono and Warhol’s generation. it is difficult to establish a national frame for the interpretation of the film projects of Ono and Lennon. In 1964-65. its filmmakers worked in a milieu that was in some sense. produced performance based work around the world. It follows that Ono’s cinema was inextricably linked to her previous performance pieces and conceptual art projects. in Japan.) Though Rape was produced in the UK. it is significant that the film’s primary performer was an Austrian national and that the film premiered on Austrian TV. their artistic milieu was truly international in its well-known connections with a number of artists and movements in Europe and the United States.

and asked the audience to cut off her clothing. a simple script-like framing device that featured sparse lists of commands and actions to be enacted by an artist or performer. She then sat down. tension. One of the principal artistic strategies of these artists was the use of the event-score. and scopic violence are closely related to Ono’s efforts in cinema as well. which they did to varying degrees depending on the performance. which has as its content only the following instruction: “Walk all over the city with an empty baby 108 . she walked on stage carrying a pair of scissors. A number of these films grew directly out of conceptual projects that Ono had produced as a member of the Fluxus art group. In it. for example.London. Apotheosis (1970). Ono and Lennon collaborated on a number of films including Film #5 (Smile) (1968). Rape (1969). Freedom (1970). Ono’s strange and provocative City Piece (1961). placed the scissors on the floor. and Erection (1971). Consider. These registers of controversy. Fly (1970). It was a project in which she put her own body at the risk of public humiliation for politically symbolic purposes by engaging in performance with the forces of visual and physical violence that frequently directed their energies towards the bodies of women in everyday life. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s. Ultimately. the performance of the piece (how the people interacted with Ono) and its final outcome (how much clothes she was left wearing) were entirely determined by choices made by the audience.

language. though Rape. However. Also see Screen Writings: Texts and Scripts From Independent Films. 128 Quoted in Chrissie Iles. and art-making. A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press. etc. and. but there is a way to get around this.carriage. 22. 151. the chase should be made with girls of different age. 127 Conner in MacDonald. it also conveys something 126 Yoko Ono. Abrams. 2000). unpaginated.”126 The Fluxus event-scores are simple and haiku-like in their succinctness. Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions by Yoko Ono (New York: Simon and Schuster. colour synchronized sound. by yoko ono copyright ‘68128 The film that resulted from this idea largely follows the first half of Ono’s event score above. MacDonald (Berkeley: University of California. ed. 1970). 216. 1992). if possible. “Erotic Conceptualism: The Films of Yoko Ono” in Yes Yoko Ono (New York City: Japan Society and Harry N. The cameraman will be taking a risk of offending the girl as the girl is somebody he picks up arbitrarily on the street. 109 . A cameraman will chase a girl on a street with a camera persistently until he corners her in an alley. until she is in a falling position. Rape had its genesis in one of these event scores that Ono had conceived a number of years before its filming. Depending on the budget. because of their structural economy they are also powerful in their ability to draw our attention to the somewhat arbitrary conventions that govern human interaction. 1 ½ hr. in some ways fulfills the succinct and sometimes absurdist dictates of Fluxus performance. the chase and the running should become slower and slower like in a dream.127 It reads as follows: RAPE (or CHASE) Rape with camera. using a highspeed camera. May chase boys and men as well. and as it goes towards the end. 1995). As the film progresses.

David James eloquently distills the force that Warhol’s camera places on its performers: “The camera is a presence in whose regard and against whose silence the sitter must construct himself.significantly more unsettling in its sadistic treatment of its subject. she initially engages with the work in a lighthearted manner before the interaction begins to turn dire.”129 The Warholian 129 J. as the camera crew follows her across a graveyard. Rape is a particularly brutal dramatization of the Warholian discovery that the camera’s implacable stare disrupts ‘ordinary’ behavior to enforce its own regime. “In one sense. or tries to escape from them in a cab. they follow her. a camera crew finds a young woman on the streets of London and follows her relentlessly around the city. at which point she breaks down in tears – as Rona Page and Jason Holiday did in the films discussed above – having reached the end of her patience and the limits of her emotional restraint.) She grows progressively more distressed and frustrated as it becomes clear that she does not speak English and is unable to communicate with the people who are stalking and relentlessly pursuing her with their camera. at the film’s conclusion. 110 . The work’s subject is at first playful and inquisitive. In Ono and Lennon’s film. When she runs away from the filmmakers. 1991). J. “Raped and Abandoned: Yoko Ono’s Forgotten Masterpiece” in Vulgar Modernism: Writing on Movies and Other Media (Philadelphia: Temple University Press. the crew has chased the young woman into an apartment. The process becomes continuously more aggressive until. an Austrian illegal resident named Eva Majilata. Hoberman explains both the brutality of this film and its relationship to Warholian film aesthetics when he writes. Hoberman. (Like the performers in Clarke’s and Warhol’s filmic psychodramas. 186.

camera of performative provocation is relentless in its stare and its efforts to trigger emotionally extreme and often ethically troubling reactions. (In this regard. was first exhibited on television in Austria. through public events such as their Bed-In demonstration of 1969. of what would normally be described as their private lives. Rape’s subject has little to no control over the profilmic interaction. Like Portrait of Jason and The Chelsea Girls. She did not speak English. and mobile recording media. Allegories of Cinema. and beyond her control. showcases the dramatic and unsettling tensions between public and private space that were magnified markedly by new technologies in the surveillance. though shot on film. It is significant that Rape. audio-visual transmission. these tensions and energies become As it makes performance inevitable. Though she had been set up for the encounter by her sister. cruel. she herself had no knowledge of what was going to take place. it constitutes being as performance” (James. In a situation that is even more disconcerting perhaps than that of Jason in Clarke’s film.)130 The film thematizes the ways in which the motion picture apparatus. she falls into a trap that is absurd. through its conflicts between people and mediating technologies. penetrate the lives of individuals. as well as the related technologies of television and video surveillance. and as an illegal immigrant who is the victim of a series of Kafkaesque acts that she does not understand. Ultimately. and in fact reenacts and dramatizes the exploitive relationships that television film crews often have with their subjects. it is no surprise that a number of critics have seen the film as an allegory of the media’s treatment of Ono and Lennon in the media-frenzy of the post-Beatles years. 111 . 69). 130 It is worth recognizing that Ono and Lennon also occasionally invited scrutiny. Rape is a film that.

thus providing an affective and corporeal index of its sadism and unflinching aggression. aggravate her frustrations. tightly edited work of most avant-garde filmmakers.manifest on the tortured face of the film’s assaulted subject. and in some ways reflects the style and ontology of live television and video work. filmmaker Stan Brakhage described the working method of the independent filmmaker-artist as one in which he or she exercised control over every aspect of the work’s filming. for seventy-seven minutes. 112 . This aesthetic sensibility represented a significant shift from the hand-crafted. Open Forms and Experimental Art in Context: Contrary to the creative process described above. and a variety of cinematography that focuses primarily upon the tense and dramatic actions and interactions of its subjects. Rape foregrounds the actions and statements of its subject by utilizing long takes. As in the two other projects discussed in this chapter. Like the other two films discussed in this chapter. in which ultimately. using only the motion picture camera and its related audio-recording apparatus to frighten her. a film crew (without Ono or Lennon present) chased and attacked a young woman. as it registers the extreme social and interpersonal anxieties of the work’s production. the filmmakers’ fundamental purpose was to demonstrate the camera’s capacity to provoke real affective breaks in their subjects. In Rape. she is brought to tears. and trigger a breakdown. minimal editing.

” Millennium Film Journal 47/48/49 (Fall/Winter 2007/2008). and assembly. would likely have seemed somewhat antiquated to other visual artists of the 1960s. the conceptual artist Sol Lewitt famously established a personal distance from his art objects. “The idea 131 Brakhage. 67. 113 . November 4. A craft-based understanding of authorship.composition. an absolute control of the film craft “wherein the maker is called upon to work with what he or she doesn’t know at every frame’s existence. spinning crane in a remote region of Canada). In this era. process art. 1977. In a somewhat heated public presentation and debate during the 1970s. and Fluxus performance. as he argued that once the concept for the work was realized it did not matter who actually executed the assignment: In his words. a film shot by a robotic. like that applied by Brakhage. during the age of conceptual art.”131 This statement summarizes the personal notion of artistic control that dominated the American avant-garde cinema. Brakhage argued that “the most valuable of the parts of the process of creativity” are the moment-to-moment choices that the artist makes throughout the continual and uninterrupted intervention of his or her hand in every instant of the film’s coming into being. however in the age of Cage and Warhol such a sensibility would face significant challenges. Whether it shall be or whether it shall not be […] as an act of absolute urgency. Brakhage openly revolted against new trends in impersonal authorship. “Some Arguments: Stan Brakhage at Millennium. particularly as they utilized pre-determined structures or mechanistic modes of production (like that of Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale (1971).

as the examples above suggest. the avant-garde filmmaker’s poverty of means was taken to be a virtue of the amateur’s dedication. and thus foregrounding the performances that they present as the primary source of their meaning. 114 . However. 1969).”132 In a related fashion. Craft. the filmmakers discussed in this chapter broke from conventional notions of controlled and virtuosic textual space by privileging profilmic events. theorist. and talent are sometimes mistaken for significance. “The Art of Time: Aesthetics of the Avant-Garde” in The Art of Time: Essays on the Avant-Garde (New York: E. Dutton & Co. In 1969. for both aesthetic and practical reasons. “The Art of Time: Aesthetics of the Avant-Garde. The generative idea and the conceptual frames that bind the films’ executions function as the artists’ principal authorial products. In his major essay on the avant-garde aesthetics of the era.133 Though Kirby’s evaluation of art practice was commonly accepted in most advanced circles of art making in the 1960s. as he described the principal distinctions between classical values and those of late modernist practice.” artist. “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art. The point is that the ease with which a work of art is made (or the apparent ease with which it is made) has nothing to do with the significance of the work. 49. as exemplified by Yoko Ono’s simple script for her film.becomes a machine that makes the art. 79–83 . Often. no.. the model of authorship that privileged a single controlling subject still had significant force within the American avant-garde cinema. one-reel units. he wrote. […] But there is no reason that an artist actually has to make the physical work himself as long as he determines its characteristics. Michael Kirby.” Artforum 5. and drama critic Michael Kirby eloquently distilled the shifting aesthetic sensibilities of vanguard artists. 10 (June 1967). or Warhol’s arbitrary use of thirty-three minute. technique. it was not the 132 133 Sol Lewitt.P.

Clarke. This trend in filmmaking reflected other artistic strategies of the era in which the dominant model of an earlier modernist expressive author had been replaced by experiments with chance.only sensibility in practice. In a sense. sharing overlapping strategies with developments in artists’ video that emphasized performance. semi-documentary mode that privileged contingent encounters with uncontrolled forces. extended duration. in their opening up into the extratextual social and historical spaces beyond the limits of the controlled film frame. it in fact has an extremely important philosophical and aesthetic precedent in this semi-documentary undercurrent within the history of experimental cinema. and interactive display. many filmmakers of the 1960s utilized an observational. Though the innovations of artists’ video have been tied almost exclusively to the new technology and its documentation of performance. these films of the mid-to-late 1960s predicted what was to come. 115 . these films (by Warhol. extreme performance. The films described in this chapter (along with much of Warhol’s other cinematic output) partially shifted the terms of experimental cinema away from the plasticity of pure abstraction and the dreamy imaginings of artists toward a filmmaking approach that emphasized process and contingency. In fact. and collective authorship. process. and extended duration. and Ono) emphasized the embodied presence of the films’ subjects and the contingency and the spontaneity of their thoughts and gestures. In their attention to unflinching observation.

and so on) as a formal and structural device. 116 . of a whole new world of narrative forms involving shifts in the role of the camera (from actual participant to passive spectator. a medium that often utilizes live transmission of unscripted events. and filmmakers – but it was also an attribute of television. This confluence of historical factors reflected a cultural situation in which the 134 Noël Burch. 116. as the very basis of film discourse. artists. the aggressive trend in film practice described above was acknowledged by contemporary critics.134 Interestingly. theorist Noël Burch (writing in France on developments in both American and European cinema) recognized and commented upon new filmmaking trends in his writings in Cahiers du cinéma (in columns that were later translated into English and compiled as Theory of Film Practice). This discovery was the source of cinéma vérité in all its manifestations and. from a mere “provocateur” of events to active dictator of them. Burch creates a link between the “spontaneous chance reality” of television and the uses of open forms and chance structures in advanced art and experimental classical music. In the late 1960s. As he saw it. this trend towards a more extreme profilmic cruelty was linked to a greater openness to chance structures for avantgarde composers. in general. Theory of Film Practice (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1973).Though not typical of the dominant approaches to avant-garde filmmaking of the period. Burch credited this shift toward provocation partially to lessons that artists had learned from the strategies of mass media: One of the most important insights to have come from television was the realization that the camera’s relationship to this imperfectly controllable. “spontaneous” chance reality was not necessarily that of a spectator: The camera could also participate in a reciprocal exchange.

and were being challenged by neo-avant-garde sensibilities. He wrote. he often used The Chelsea Girls as one of the central examples of this burgeoning confrontational relationship between camera and reality. In this discussion. When he wrote this piece. including those associated with experimental music. pop art. 135 Here Burch wrote the most significant theoretical commentary on the relationship between chance and contingency in the new cinema. 115. and individualistic controls that an artist had generally exerted over his or her work were starting to seem romantic and old-fashioned. new forms and new structures could result. in the late 1960s. film directors essentially attempted to eliminate. conceptual art. any intrusion of mere chance. Only relatively recently has anyone become interested in aiming a camera at this uncontrollable world […] with the awareness that. Burch explained that the use of chance compositional strategies had been practiced for some time in experimental music. the traditional. but in cinema. 117 . there were few artists willing to experiment with a variety of 135 Burch. Over the last fifty years or so.mass media opened onto the contingent possibilities of reality as classical composers and artists began to cede certain authorial controls to this same world that was coextensive with the profilmic space of cinema. out of this confrontation between camera and contingent reality. and performance. including most notably by John Cage. of the contingencies of everyday reality. Burch rightly saw this aesthetic shift as a fundamental revision of the conventional divisions between the filmmaker and the world towards which he or she directs the camera. as much as possible. authoritarian.

and the cinematic apparatus – in Burch’s words. one of the most meticulous and romantic of all artisanal avant-garde filmmakers described the philosophical innovations of John Cage’s as a conceptual trap. the natural world. 242–243. Stan Brakhage. It was rather a function of unplanned and uncontrollable interactions between humans.” In this regard. performative. as “the greatest aesthetic net of this century. 1970). P.136 Burch recognized in the work of Warhol and other advanced filmmakers a blend of chance and aggression that extended beyond the romantic expectations of an artist like Brakhage. who was more sympathetic to an earlier aesthetic model derived from Abstract Expressionism. In fact. ed. Adams Sitney (New York: Cooper Square Press. rather than the forms that followed its formal. he observed that a number of filmmakers and artists were mounting a challenge against the stilted structures of conventional authorship by what he eloquently Brakhage. a “confrontation between camera and contingent reality. 136 118 .” Brakhage acknowledged the philosophical appeal of Cage’s thinking but nevertheless interpreted the authorial or textual openness that the composer encouraged as a trap of sorts.textual openness that required any real sacrifice of authorial control. and social imperatives into the 1960s. “Respond Dance” in Film Culture Reader. however. was not something that was determined by aleatory organizational procedures (like those produced through the use of the I Ching). something that one has to “go beyond” in order to assert one’s own authorial voice. The cinematic use of chance that was Burch’s subject and a resource for the filmmakers discussed herein.

Portions of The Chelsea Girls were indeed scripted. and Ono all feature filmic interactions with an unscripted reality that in some compelling ways maintain the conditions of contingent encounter that define them as unpredictable and spontaneous. what would result from these encounters was unknown to everyone involved (including the filmmakers).138 For example. I started to trust Jason and the camera and not insist on being the controller. I finally became part of the situation myself […] one with Jason and the camera. and I could relax and.described as “the joyful and lucid abandonment by the composer [or artist] of a portion of his conscious control over the work. more important. the stalking of a stranger – but until the end. 289. Movie Journal. with no preconceived judgments. respond to the emotions spinning around the room. In this regard. 139 Mekas.”137 Though none of the films described herein actually engage with indeterminacy as extreme as the music of John Cage. by Ronald Tavel.” In their performative openness. a semi-psychoanalytic interview. albeit in a rather unconventional way. Clarke. these works of Warhol. an idea was at least partially conceived before the shooting – a verbal confrontation between two people.139 In all of these works. these films effectively exemplify the conditions for what might be described as 137 138 Burch. an “abandonment” of a portion of “conscious control over the work. 119 . Those portions of the film are not central to the argument here. 106. At last I found the ability to swing along with what was happening spontaneously. in Burch’s words. they do represent a loosening of authorial control. Clarke explained her experience in shooting Portrait of Jason in terms of a set of spontaneous reactions: Suddenly it was as if a great weight was lifted.

In 1957.” though most accept avant-garde film as a sufficient but imperfect descriptor.” In terms of classifying the particular strain of semi-documentary. or avant-garde film has suffered somewhat from a lack of linguistic precision. In the place of “avant-garde film” Stan Brakhage simply wanted the descriptive phrase of “film art” to be applied to his work. as Noël Burch did.experimental rather than avant-garde art. and artists have proposed “underground film. it might be best to turn.” and “critical cinema.” “personal cinema. He argued that the modern artist should willfully expose the work’s process to the world outside of his or her authorial control by “opening the doors of the music to the sounds that happen to be in the 120 . as well as a fresh understanding of what artistic authorship entails. who. left a wake of influence across the whole artistic landscape of post World War II art-making. historians. non-narrative. these works satisfy a definition of experimental art as presented by John Cage. Cage explained that this shift to an experimental understanding of art required new practices and strategies. The history of writing on independent. like Warhol. beyond any particular medium. to sources outside of film history and criticism. Others theorists. an artist and theorist of art-making in general.” “poetic film. such a terminological distinction should benefit the historicization of these practices.” “independent film. In their openness to unplanned and uncontrolled events. temporally open-ended filmmaking described here. Many filmmakers have revolted against both the idea of “avant-garde film” and “experimental cinema.

In this regard. Ibid. what Cage describes is an expansion of the artistic processes of both composition and performance in order to incorporate uncontrolled and contingent environmental conditions. this change is “psychological and seems at first to be a giving up of everything that belongs to humanity.” Such a move would entail a sacrifice of the classical identification that an author has with his or her work. Revisions in Authorial Strategies: In addition to sharing strategies of assault and shock. Cage argued for an artistic practice that would escape the isolated subjective space of the artist and incorporate the historical conditions of life’s flux in a way that was dissimilar from earlier approaches of the avant-garde. providing it is understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure. 8. 13. This structural openness presents a situation in which. without controversy. these experiments in postwar performance-based cinema also revised conventional notions of 140 141 Cage. a major theorist of this shift away from a romantic identification with the art object.”140 Ultimately.environment. can be described as experimental. Silence. but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown. Following Cage.”141 Like a number of artists who came to prominence in mid-20th-century America.. the artists and the filmmakers described above might best be understood as working within a subset of the avant-garde that. “the word ‘experimental’ is apt. 121 .

though it was the preferred method for documentarians (including those associated with direct cinema. Popism. And in fact. sensory meditation. though at one point the performer addresses “Paul” while looking at the camera. he may or may not have been during the shooting of the Pope Ondine section.authorship. Clarke. all of the films described above were produced by small crews shooting 16mm synchronous sound. 122 . we can see Warhol away from the camera in the wings of the factory (Andy Warhol. The canonical American avant-garde films have generally been described as the products of lone amateur authors engaged with a particular set of individual concerns that culminate in work of personal expression. Warhol. The films of Warhol.142 It is well known that 142 Warhol claimed to have been operating the camera during Ondine’s spastic episode. and Ono utilized production processes that were significantly more collaborative than the work of most avant-garde filmmakers of the period. Though most independent and avant-garde filmmakers of the era shot and meticulously edited their work themselves – a situation that made the attribution of authorship fairly straightforward – the films described in this chapter present alternative models of creative control in the filmmaking process. In their collective shift away from the more individualist. expressive mode of the avant-garde. In fact. Clarke. Though Warhol was certainly behind the camera at some point during the shooting of The Chelsea Girls. This format was rather rare for experimental filmmakers in the 1960s. and Ono described above interestingly revise these strategies of the avantgarde. the vanguard of documentary film practice in the United States). after this moment of extreme drama. 188). which is described above. or philosophical statement.

143 To some critics of his cinema this posed a problem. Their camera person. such that she worked as a news director might. New York). that no filmmaker could be considered a contributor to the new cinema. the critic. audio recording in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art. articulated this artisanal sensibility when he stated at a public roundtable at the New York Film Festival in 1967. Still. Jonas Mekas. Wisconsin Historical Archive.Warhol did not always operate the camera in his films. So. her role in the film was by no means entirely distanced from the creative process. individualistic production process was the standard for most independent and avant-garde filmmakers of the period. Nic Knowland shot footage for the film on the streets of London according to the 143 In Horse. 144 Here Mekas was actually explaining the difference between so-called European art cinema and the more personal filmmaking of The New American Cinema. he was not even on set. Warhol can be heard engaging in an offscreen telephone conversation while the film is being shot. filmmaker. “The day Godard will pick up the camera and will start shooting his own films he will become a part of the New Cinema” (“Is There a New Cinema?” roundtable (1967). to the medium’s most advanced trends. overseeing the interview in person and giving direction to the technicians. 145 She did oversee and direct the edit of the footage. For example. and spokesperson for the New American Cinema. though he was an avid supporter of Warhol’s work in film. It must also be admitted however. University of Wisconsin. that she made significant modifications to the film in its post-production as she oversaw a number of changes to it through the use of optically printed zooms and freeze frames. For Portrait of Jason Clarke utilized a crew that included a camera person and an editor. but not directly controlling the filmic action. His exact words were. though Clarke oversaw and directed these changes they were actually done by a lab technician (Shirley Clarke Papers. until he or she picked up his or her own camera.144 This pride in a personalized.145 The case of Ono and Lennon’s film is even more extreme in that they were not even present for its shooting. and in fact it has been reported that on some occasions. Madison). 123 .

and it marks an interesting shift in both production strategy and aesthetic sensibility that foreground extended performance and historical contingency. The Chelsea Girls. utilizing a hired crew and a sync sound film process. A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews With Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press. “I was generally in charge of the editing … I mean I would have a film editor working with me – I don’t know the technology” (Ono in Scott MacDonald. 1992). Production Strategies and Experimentation: This literal experimentalism is realized in rather concrete ways through the specific production methods that the films employ. 151). neither the filmmaking nor the editing was directly executed by Ono and Lennon. He then offered successive versions for their consideration.artists’ specifications. personal approach. these works featured formal traits that demarcated the historical relationships to the events that they displayed in ways that were not typical of other projects within American avant-garde cinema. but as she explained to Scott MacDonald in 1989 she did not do the cutting. 124 . they relied upon the labor of other technicians. though again. Ono claims to have closely overseen the editing of each of her films. In their open production strategies and relative disinterest in extensive post-production manipulation. it is also closer to a model of conceptual art than it is to an expressive.146 This mode of filmmaking. After the shooting was complete they oversaw the edit. Their structural idiosyncrasies are the evidence of their unusually contingent historical attributes. was far from the standard model of avantgarde filmmaking in the 1960s. until he came upon an execution of the concept that Ono and Lennon approved. because as she said. like a number of Warhol’s other films of the mid 1960s. is composed of entirely unedited five- 146 So.

independent film production. into a two-hundred-and-five minute film in which reels were projected simultaneously side-by-side. which last for thirty-three minutes each. a heavy. In its earliest days of exhibition at the Filmmaker’s Cinematheque in New York City. Most sync sound recording in this era allowed the film and sound equipment to function independently and with greater freedom of movement (and was thus known as double system sound). for a total of twelve reels. Because of its formal idiosyncrasies that required the microphone to be directly attached to the camera. the historical integrity of the sound-image relationship is maintained in Warhol’s films in a way that is strikingly different from Hollywood cinema.147 After these scenes were shot. making for an atypical format known as singlesystem sound film. tripod-based camera that was designed for sit-down television interviews. The film’s soundtrack is also an unbroken and evidentiary document because of the unusual conditions of its recording directly onto the film stock itself. this technology was used primarily for television news in which no post-production mixing would be necessary. through various orders and combinations. the historical integrity of each of the film’s half-hour units is always maintained. Because of the absence of editing. 125 . such that there would be no need for the postproduction synchronization of sound and image. such that the 147 In addition. and avant-garde film. the projection conditions of The Chelsea Girls were unusually elastic. their projection sequence within the somewhat epic project evolved over time. Since the sound recording did not need to be added to the visual footage after the fact. This camera was designed to be used with single system sound-on-film recording. the camera that Warhol used in this period was an Auricon.hundred-foot magazines of 16mm film.

148 126 . there was no mechanism designed to mechanically synchronize two projectors. their timing may vary significantly because the relationship of the left and right screens is entirely dependent on the projectionist’s actions. no. so the relationship between the two projected images was achieved by the film’s projectionist. 7 (September/October 1971). see Peter Gidal’s chart in his text.projectionist was encouraged to act as a performer. and as a result. So. and even bouncing the projector’s beams off of the theater walls. Though the two sides always play in tandem. and always will be. and determined somewhat by his or her timing choices. “My Life and Times With the Chelsea Girls. During one projection. by virtue of the unsynchronized simultaneity of left and right screen projections (and the accompanying sound mix) every projection of the film has been. a particular event on the left and right screen may appear to be intentionally synchronized. a filmmaker who was also the projectionist for The Chelsea Girls’ first public screenings (Bob Cowan. when in another projection. somewhat different. 1989). 87. Materialist Film (London and New York: Routledge. 149 For the standardized projection instructions to the film. see a short essay by Bob Cowan. there is some leeway regarding their timing and perceived synchronicity. spontaneously modifying the sound mix between the left and right projectors.149 Still. 13). using gels to modify color.” Take One 3. such that some degree of chance will always play a role in the For more details about the film’s early projection history. its projection conditions needed to be standardized so that it could play in a number of theaters across the country without technical incidents of the type that would likely result from the strange exhibition requirements of side-by-side 16mm double screen projection.148 The Chelsea Girls was a surprising financial success.

indicating that visual footage is missing. as it flaunts the traces of its own temporal contingency in order to give the 127 . (In industrial cinema. Clarke’s unusual formal choices were engineered to create the illusion that the film is presenting us with an unadulterated. the evidence of these truncated recordings was simply left in the film. (Clarke also used a heavy tripod-restricted Auricon camera for Portrait of Jason. Though the atypical formal structuring of Jason may self-reflexively call attention to its own constructedness. such a decision would be unheard of. observational document. exposing the physical limits of the medium. Clarke adapted Warhol’s technique of exposing the film’s material limits. while onscreen we see black leader. almost live. it still serves the rhetorical function of suggesting to the viewer that the work is rather rough and unprocessed. because it would distract forcefully from the diegetic illusion of the work.) In this sense. realist. When film stock or audiotape would run out in Portrait of Jason. which had served as its inspiration.) When Warhol’s reels ran out in the camera. For example. These unusual exhibition conditions thus demonstrate another aspect of Warhol’s efforts to dismantle the textual control of the artist over his or her’s multi-screen projection. he left the end flares intact in the final film. as Warhol had on The Chelsea Girls. Like Warhol’s film. throughout Jason we occasionally hear Clarke tell the technicians to reload the camera. Jason too featured many performance segments of extended duration. the film and its soundtrack were carefully edited to create this manufactured impression. However.

like Jason. For example. zooms. there is evidence to suggest that the soundtrack was edited rather thoroughly by Clarke after the film was shot (Lab receipts in the Shirley Clarke Papers. and shifts in focus were added by an optical printer after the film was processed. Though these films are unusual in their capacity to capture a unique degree of the historical and ontological integrity of the encounters that they document. self-reflexive mode that features its own degree of rhetorical and stylistic manipulation. University of Wisconsin.150 A Cinema of Cruelty: American Experimental Cinema and the Legacy of Artaud: After having considered the ways in which these performance-based experiments in filmic provocation differed from other poetic and Romantic modes of experimentation. though much of it is disguised. Similarly. This open exposure of the film’s production process creates an illusion of historical integrity and performative authenticity. Wisconsin Historical Archive. it will be suggested that this mode of art-making based on interpersonal attack was partially derived from a set of earlier ideas that had been imported into the New York avant-garde of the early 1960s by a range of artists 150 Portrait of Jason was actually subject to a significant degree of post-production manipulation. though such details would not be obvious to the untrained viewer. However. 128 . Rape is carefully edited.impression that it was only barely mediated. Madison). a number of the camera movements. A similar false guarantee of faithfulness is included in Ono’s Rape in that each segment of the film begins as the filmmakers introduce the slate (or clapboard) in order to suggest to the viewer that these segments of audio-visual documentation have not been sutured together by Hollywood style editing or postproduction voiceover. which might disguise their material and historical limits. they nevertheless function within a bracketed self-aware.

filmmaking was necessarily involved in the avant-garde’s circulation of creative sensibilities. towards greater degrees of cruelty and hostility. As a component of the artistic landscape of the 1960s and 70s. this film used the camera as “an instrument of torture. 151 129 . 105–135.151 For him. The Chelsea Girls was the definitive example of this new mode of filmmaking based on provocation.”152 In Rape and Portrait of Jason. a radical theorist of an almost impossibly hostile dramatic practice. critic Noël Burch drew some important connections between these works and a range of artistic practices in a variety of media. 118). 152 This is Burch’s phrase to describe the use of the camera in The Chelsea Girls (Burch. One of Burch’s most significant observations in his volume (Theory of Film Practice introduced above) was his recognition that some of these innovative filmmaking strategies utilized aggression as a powerful and previously untapped creative resource. if it is considered in the context of a range of trends in provocation and pressure in other performance based arts that drew philosophical inspiration from the principles of Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty. *** In his consideration of these new and provocative shifts in film aesthetics. There is an important sense in which the performative sensibility of Antonin Artaud. This branch of filmmaking can be better understood in relation to its cultural climate.working in musical and theatrical modes. the camera is applied towards the same ends as it enacts an unflinching Burch’s discussion of these aesthetic devices can be found in the chapters “Chance and Its Functions” and “Structures of Aggression” in Theory of Film Practice. took hold of the avant-garde arts of New York in the era that is the subject of this study. in his words.

confrontational. Warhol and his milieu addressed related cultural and aesthetic registers to those of the interactive radical drama of the Living Theatre. For the artists described above. were useful aesthetic tools. a number of other drama and performance-based artists of the era created works in which acts of violence and provocation were willfully – sometimes sadistically or masochistically – enacted in order to trigger a psychological rupture or destabilization in their subjects or audience. the social experimentation of Allan Kaprow and the 153 Burch discusses an opposition between “structures of aggression” that were developing in various avant-garde cinemas and “the mathematics of form” that are the typical formulaic structures of conventional fiction filmmaking (Ibid. In their aggression and emphasis on real-time social interaction and conflict. Meat Joy (1964). their unpredictability posed a significant challenge to the controlled. both profilmic and filmic. 134). 130 . and Interior Scroll (1975. what Burch described as “the mathematics of form.. both of whom incorporated significant doses of explicit sexuality and violent symbolism into their body art performances – in works such as Pryings (1971).” in a way that is similar to. and graphic performance art of the period.“inquisition. and partially derived from. Seedbed (1971). including that of Vito Acconci or Carolee Schneemann. regulated. 1977) – shared a philosophical sensibility with Warhol and other filmmakers who worked in the mode of profilmic provocation described above. as well as many other artists and thinkers of the 1960s. As Burch described it. and mechanized structures of narrative and ontological containment that were typical of most cinemas. Some of the most aggressive. the strategies of Warhol’s cinema. violence and aggression.”153 Like the filmmakers described above.

the aesthetic and philosophical influence 154 Interview with Ronald Tavel. Warhol. and Ono shared privileged cultural and artistic connections to the New York based performance avant-garde of the 1960s (partially because of their social networks). In an era well known for its rhetoric of “mind-blowing. These films. it is clearly inscribed on all of the works described above.happenings movement.154 Clarke. Warhol. Clarke. making a counterargument (based primarily in New York) to West Coast hippiedom and the romantic poetics of self-realization. According to Tavel. Clarke. and social transgression. using the controversial structures of psychic and social disorientation. had also worked with The Living Theatre in her production of The Connection (1962). 480. 1978 in Smith. As such. And Ono was perhaps more experienced as a performance artist than as a filmmaker. October 8. forcefully confronted and challenged both their subjects and their audiences. or the cultural anarchy and danger of Fluxus performance. Warhol first communicated his concept for a film approach based on “inquisition” during a happening by Yvonne Rainer at the Judson Church. and Ono were all intimately familiar with the most advanced trends in performance and experimental theater of the period. a trained modern dancer. and though they may not have openly acknowledged this influence. the bodily extremes of the Judson Hall dance group.” spiritual transformation. 131 . like much art of the sixties. they represent the filmic apex of a negative sensibility that had pervaded significant parts of the American counterculture throughout the Vietnam era.

made explicit here by a French dramatist writing thirty years before the artworks described herein. Artaud arrived in America as a major influence in the late 1950s and early 60s. 132 . is what the public is fundamentally seeking through love. crime.” In this massively influential manifesto. or insurrection. The Theater and its Double (New York: Grove Press. perfectly encapsulates the most radical and extreme of artistic strategies of the 1960s and 70s. as it also calls for us. Artaud’s thinking poses a sympathetic model for understanding the hostility of the art of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Artaud’s work prescribed an assault on the senses that was perfectly attuned to the neo-avant-garde of the era. drugs. The following statement from Artaud’s “The Theater of Cruelty (Second Manifesto)” could easily have been uttered by countercultural icon Abbie Hoffman or experimental theater director Julian Beck: “Admittedly or not.of French dramatist and theorist Antonin Artaud could not have come into contact with the New York avant-garde at a more appropriate time. 1958). to reconsider Artaud’s influence on the arts in America after World War II. both because of its popularity 155 Antonin Artaud. by virtue of its conceptual congruence with this age’s sensibility.”155 This sentiment. the poetic state. 122. largely as a result of a then recent translation of his writing. a transcendent experience of life. conscious or unconscious. war. Artaud continues to explain that the purpose of his radical and confrontational aesthetic project was “to restore … a passionate and convulsive conception of life. Though he wrote his best known work in the late 1930s.

and were very much aware of the cultural energies of a New York avant-garde that was encouraged by his thinking. aggression. as well as the intellectual trends that helped to determine its directions. We can better understand the art of this period if we extend our mode of interpretation past its textual limits. and aesthetic details. it is the argument here that for both philosophical and historical reasons.156 However. Artaud’s significance for experimental work in that epoch has never been considered in relation to cinema. 156 Historically. and anxiety. In this sense. etc. partially because his writing bears a somewhat ambivalent relationship to the medium. As has been argued throughout this project. a consideration of Artaud’s thinking in relation to the avant-garde performance-based artists of the 1960s can help us to understand a forgotten artistic legacy of hostility. On one count they share a particular openness to reality. yet as has been argued herein. scripting. particularly during his early involvement with film as an associate of the surrealists. and dismissive. as opposed to the predetermined structures of conventional fiction genre that era and its conceptual resonance with the work and the cultural milieu of the time. as Noël Burch has argued. Artaud’s writing on cinema has vacillated between enthusiastic. 133 . the three films discussed above are exemplary of an aggressive mode of experimental cinema that shared certain philosophical. because of the heavy dependence of conventional cinema on textual content. structural. to social and cultural spaces that made it possible. The work of the filmmakers described above has not been evaluated in relation to Artaud’s thinking. these artists were all intricately connected to postwar performance. By considering these unsettling film projects in light of Artaud’s influential sensibility we can make better sense of their belligerent aggression and hostility.

particularly as determined by the changing relations of various media. Media theorist. He Artaud. (Cage had learned of Artaud during his travels in Europe. Paul Hammond (San Francisco: City Lights Books. John Cage recommended the text to her while they were both at Black Mountain College. “Sorcery and Cinema” in The Shadow and its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema. He was particularly distrustful of the predictable. particularly upon a variety of performance-based artists within the avant-garde community of New York City. roughly twenty years after its publication in French. whose own popular influence trumped that of almost any other public intellectual of the period. literary critic. ushering in a major influence on American performance of the 1960s.) The short book proved to be massively influential. ed. the legendary experimental intermedial arts school in the mountains of North Carolina. He wrote that “stupid order and habitual clarity are its [cinema’s] enemies. Mary Caroline Richards translated Artaud’s Le théâtre et son double into English. through fellow avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez. 157 134 . almost algorhythmic nature of conventional filmmaking with its dependence on written language and generic structure. argued that a shift in theatrical sensibility correlated directly with other cultural transitions.”157 *** In 1958. and trans. 105. 2000). The transformative theatrical actions envisioned by Artaud too challenged the systematicity of controlled texts based on streamlined cause-and-effect narratives.these works contest “the mathematics of form” upon which industrial cinema is built. and cultural icon Marshall McLuhan.

His writings on The Theater of Cruelty presented a notion of dramatic performance intended to cleanse the aesthetic landscape of all mannered and conventional approaches to constructing art.” He explains that Artaud’s confrontational and transgressive theater was popularized by dramatists like Peter Weiss to function as a “probe of the violences and dislocations of the multiconscious global village of 1963 and after. described by him as “the theater of blood and cruelty which Artaud called for. Watson. but perhaps that of McLuhan or his co-author.159 In many ways. 158 135 . 1970). it is possible that this error was not the typesetter’s. as theatrical trends shifted tone from the allegorical to more confrontational forms. 2000).explained that the modernist Theater of the Absurd (associated with Beckett and Ionesco) had lost its cultural relevance. having left considerable traces of influence throughout the expansive and intermedial network of performance based art of the period. Edward Scheer (Sydney: Power Publications and Artspace. It would do so by utilizing methods and manners as extreme as necessary and appropriate to the cultural timbre and Marshall McLuhan with Wilfred Watson. however it is indisputable that certain general details and rhetorical emphases of Artaud’s thinking were uncannily congruent with other artistic trends of the 1960s. From Cliché to Archetype (New York: Viking Press. 237–262). 9. Inexplicably.”158 The extent to which the artists of the 1960s actually understood the irrational and contradictory writings of Artaud has been debated by many. 100 Years of Cruelty: Essays on Artaud. Artaud’s radical anarchic vision of social transformation was entirely congruent with the aesthetic and social attitudes of post World War II America. 159 See Douglas Kahn’s essay “Artaud in America” in which he disputes this claim (Kahn. the text repeatedly misspells Artaud as “Arnaud.” Since it is done three times in one paragraph. ed.

but was more compatible with the total transformation of understanding that was suggested by John Cage. “Introduction” in Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings. a blending of all other art forms.”160 In his writings. 161 136 . aggressive. 162 Susan Sontag. Ibid. In his Theater of Cruelty Artaud envisioned revolutionary theater as gestamtkuntswerk.”162 In this regard. He wrote. “The Theater of Cruelty will choose subjects and themes corresponding to the agitation and unrest characteristic of our epoch. 1976). utilitarian. he encouraged a destabilizing approach that would combat conventional understandings of art and life by attacking the desensitized sensibilities of the public with hostile. experimental dramatists (Julian and Malina Beck). it poses an unusual model of revolutionary. Sontag (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. xli.”161 As he saw it. ed. so too would theater be. In the words of cultural critic Susan Sontag. the theater would be so extreme in its means that it would upset all conventional understandings of rational behavior and social structure. He advocated an anarchic theater of agitation and aggression.tone of other aspects of civilization. Artaud argued that. but apolitical transgression that was not simply playful or absurdist (as were some trends in postwar art). The Theater and its Double. and technical streamlining of the world. For this reason. 122. something that would challenge all structures of control and systematicity. in order to serve the anarchic purpose of “resisting the economic. if the times were anxious and volatile. even cruel form and content. Artaud’s approach was “not interested in satisfying either the political or the ludic impulse. though his popularity amongst the happenings artists (Allan Kaprow). performance 160 Artaud.

But there is no way of applying Artaud” (lvii). xxix. see Sontag’s introductory essay to Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings. she wrote that for him.artists (Carolee Schneemann). xxxvi.163 Though Artaud’s vision was one of a transformed experience of the drama. in a reflection partially on Artaud’s influence.”164 As Sontag explains in a thorough and sympathetic summation of Artaud’s drama. In fact. changed by Artaud. she writes: “To detach his thought as a portable intellectual commodity is just what that thought explicitly prohibits. drained of its power to disturb – by being admired. in America. beginning in the late 1950s (or perhaps earlier). and San Francisco poets (Michael McClure) may have been well known. But eventually. by becoming relevant” (lviii). as Cage had done. an emphasis on theatricality and 163 On this topic. On the inassimilable nature of Artaud. As Sontag argued in the early 1970s. 165 Ibid. […] One can be scorched.”165 In fact. by being (or seeming to be) too well understood. neutralized. it had far reaching implications in a variety of other media. “All art that expresses a radical discontent and aims at shattering complacencies of feeling risks being disarmed. spontaneous. essays. intelligent life of the mind. he at times also considered cinema as a possible nomination for his preferred ur-medium. xvii-lix. 137 . carnal. “Introduction” in Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings.. Artaud “assimilates all art to dramatic performance. as an art form that could transform and contain all of the others (however his interest in cinema waned due to his distaste for the final “literary” results of film projects in which he was involved. his notion of theater extended well beyond the limits of any medium. including The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928)). and influence on American cultural history. some critics have debated the capacity of these often ideologically committed aesthetes to truly embrace the cultural threat that Artaud posed to both civilization and art as it had been previously understood. 164 Sontag. “theater became his supreme metaphor for the self-correcting.

the theory of “symbolic interactionism” as popularized by Herbert Blumer in his 1969 book of the same name. social. antitheater. particularly in sociology. some of these theater. 166 138 . The urge toward performance in the separate arts. as well as the aforementioned trends in performance art and happenings. as she suggests that its unique experiments resulted from a shared fundamental dissatisfaction with established cultural forms. 1993). and art performances could be traced back to a common inspiration.performance had influenced many aspects of cultural production and its associated history of ideas as a result of a series of new intellectual trends. Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body (Durham and London: Duke University Press. then we can recognize its relationship to significant philosophical. the various dissatisfactions with the respective reigning aesthetics — brought artists in disparate fields toward similar actions.166 Sally Banes. the anthropological performance-based interpretations of social behavior by Erving Goffman (whose The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life was published in 1959). She writes. 28. Included in this group are the gestalt therapy popularized by Paul Goodman. while originating in different sources — among them. And it may be that. Dance and performance historian Sally Banes explains the overlapping efforts in performance within this period. in Artaud. If we understand the experimental cinema as a medium that sometimes too emphasizes performance. and aesthetic trends of the period that shared similar concerns.

In his shift away from textual and dramatic control Artaud advocated an approach to drama and other temporal arts that would “put an end to the subjugation of the theater to the text.” eliminating the dependence of theatrical events on scripted. pre-determined formulas. Artaud’s writing was celebrated by John Cage as well as happenings innovator Allan Kaprow. 139 . but instead a continuity. Similarly. when he writes that. a group well known for their unusual and active interaction between performers and spectators.” He goes on to relate this understanding of a fluid relation between an artistic event and its surroundings. “Anyone who has watched a scene of a movie being film will understand exactly 167 Artaud. he writes. like those that developed around the hostile and aggressive energies of a variety of performance that is the heir to Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty. The Theater and its Double. 89.Her description above explains both the boom of performance in the 1960s as well as the overlapping energies that produced surprising and sometimes unrecognized confluences of attitude and influence. “between life and the theater there will be no distinct division. for its willingness to break down the artificial boundaries that social convention interposed between art and life. by explaining it in relation to the profilmic space of cinema and its environment.167 He envisioned an embodied performance art that would transgress traditional boundaries between event and audience. It was for this reason that his aesthetic and philosophical sensibility was so beloved by Julian Beck and Malina Beck of The Living Theater. In his Second Manifesto.

168 Ibid.. What Artaud acknowledges in this quotation is that the frame that a filmmaker imposes upon the space of the world is something that is only determined by the arbitrary structure of the film frame inscribed by the cinematic apparatus. that the extratexual context of a filmmaking event is a major determinant of its ontological and historical function. emphasizing performative presence rather than filmic plasticity. Artaud’s provocative and incendiary writing presents a series of manifestos concerning the relation between art and life. “there are no separate works of art – only a total art environment. For this reason. as does much of this essay. which is magical. Portrait of Jason. it is telling. 126. this quotation above suggests. 140 .”168 It is rather remarkable that Artaud described his revolutionary theater in terms related to the ontology of filmmaking practice. in Sontag’s words. for our purposes here.what we mean. His intermedial sensibility encouraged a situation in which. confrontational theater resonated with experiments in cinema that also directed themselves towards the traversal of textual boundaries and spectatorial discomfort. fusing revolutionary interests with an attitude towards art intended to totally destabilize normative modes of thinking and distinctions between media forms. and Rape. In a sense. in which performance is hyperbolized and made more central than in other works of the independent or avant-garde cinema. But. Artaud’s radical vision of an open-ended. This is particularly true of films like The Chelsea Girls.

both dissociative and vibratory.”171 This provocative. Ibid. in his words. As the relationships between artists and audiences changed. and finally. ruder form of confrontation with its audience. or the Vortex Concerts of Jordan Belson. outside the museums and legitimate showplaces. but with visual and sonic distress. this dissertation will consider works in cinema that provoke their viewers not with dramatic or ethical discomfort. the Movie Drome of Stan Vanderbeek. “Introduction” in Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings. many artists utilized the cinematic apparatus as a device not to create distraction and coherent stories. xxix. Sontag. l. but to disrupt psychology and sensibility with action that was. there arose a need for new alternative art spaces. 171 Artaud. opaque.”169 This too was predicted years earlier by Artaud’s belief that in Sontag’s words. “art seems to require a more daring scene. of a “dissociative and vibratory action upon the sensibility. purgative. During the period of the mid-60s to the mid-70s. The Theater and its Double. as conventional dramatic theater had. In later chapters. as in Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. and expanded cinema. 89. and a new.. almost clinical vision of artistic attack was also congruent with trends of the era in laser light shows. happenings.paroxysmatic. in Artaud’s stimulating words. 170 169 141 .”170 In this “total art environment” he encouraged an approach to dramatic action that was capable.

conceptual.Chapter 3: The Medium Is the Medium: Television. Raphael Montañez Ortiz). the Artaud inspired experiments in drama presented by The Living Theatre. Wolf Vostell. 1966172 In the 1960s an aggressive performance sensibility began to assert a significant influence throughout various practices within the international art community. but only in constant interplay with other media. Al Hansen. 26. 142 . who was responsible for the legendary performance work. for example Yoko Ono. the extreme volume and duration of LaMonte Young’s minimalist music. the dramatic embodied encounters between animal carcasses and human flesh in Carolee Schneemann’s Meat Joy (1964). This energy manifested itself in the explosive and riotous presentations of the Destruction in Art Symposium (1966) (which featured an international assemblage of artists including Gustav Metzger. the performances and happenings of the Fluxus group (which included. Experimental Film. Directed towards sensorial. and aesthetic shocks these experiments collectively exhibited a shared artistic aim to disrupt the networks of exchange that underpinned the socio-economic structure of the art world while simultaneously attacking the normative expectations and sensibilities of their audiences. Cut Piece). and Expanded Cinema “No medium has its meaning or existence alone. 1994). Otto Muhl. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge. MA: MIT Press.” – Marshall McLuhan. and the machine-gun barrage of flicker films by artists like Paul Sharits and Tony 172 McLuhan.

a number of artists intervened ideologically into the flow of television imagery. many of the most compelling intermedial exchanges of the period blended gestural. dance. This seemingly contradictory blend of embodied performance elements and the technologies of mass media framed a number of experiments in film. A number of artistic and countercultural practices of the mid 1960s aimed to counteract the dominant uses of corporate media by repurposing its technologies for use in experimental and avant-garde moving image audio-visual art. with the express intention of creating a series of shocks and disturbances to the mainstream sensibilities that circumscribe it. The volatile cultural and artistic energies of the 1960s and early 70s encouraged an open assault on the senses that mirrored the onslaught of media that was becoming more and more pronounced in the years after World War II when more homes were dominated by television imagery and more public space was claimed for corporate interests. utilized an anxiogenic. surprisingly. political. and conceptual strategies that were theoretical and abstract in nature. In their efforts to shake a media saturated American public out of its normative consciousness. even convulsive artistic register in order to attack and disarm the 143 . and cinema – with ideological.Conrad. often. music. by applying performative strategies. like those described in the previous chapter. video. visceral energies – as realized through performance. and television that interrogated the basic limits between media. In this chapter of media history. As suggested in the previous chapter. happenings. many artists.

As a cultural force. strategies of mass cultural appropriation by the avant-garde were not entirely new. and thus effectively eliminated the boundaries between these two registers as it surpassed both printed media and film as the dominant mass medium of the age.dominant attitudes of a populous whose consumerist ethics of distraction kept them from realizing that the boundaries between life and art are fundamentally arbitrary. almost fifty-three million American households had television sets (93% of the nation’s population). and technology of television. and experimental film. happenings. famously incorporated scraps of newspaper – the popular news and advertising medium of the day – into the spaces of their 144 . television’s influence on post World War II America could hardly be overestimated. beginning with George Braque and Pablo Picasso. It was the primary source of both information and entertainment for most people. the use and repurposing of mass media images and technologies mirrored other artistic practices in which the materials of consumer culture were transposed into the aesthetic register of fine art. including painting. By 1965. One influential strategy for staging an encounter between fine art and mass culture was realized through the filmic repurposing of the iconography. collage artists. In an earlier phase of modernist art. The rise of television had major ramifications for a range of artistic practices due to its vast reservoir of found images that was recontextualized and repurposed throughout a diversity media. artists have always repurposed resources taken from industrial culture. video art. However. content. In this sense.

television provided yet another. further utilizing elements from print sources and expanding their field of reference to the interaction and public influence of electronic media. as well as Cubism. including Dada.173 Though the surrealists were particularly enamored with mass cultural detritus. Though experimental film had. the medium upon which television had the most significant influence is likely that with which it shares its principal technology: video art.” which was in fact an advertising catchphrase from a major French department store of the era. in largely unrecognized ways. a largely antagonistic relationship with conventional Hollywood fiction filmmaking. Futurism. In the so-called “neo-avant-gardes” of the post World War II period. Though it influenced a variety of art forms and practices. “Au printemps. Un chien andalou (1929). Constructivism. television was a significant determining influence on experimental film as well. made considerable use of visual and sonic iconography derived from mass culture. a surrealist masterwork of early avant-garde film ends with a superimposed phrase in cursive script. most of the early European avant-garde art movements. and continues to have. Early efforts in avant-garde film also borrowed language and iconography from the mass media. perhaps less significant source of ideological and 173 This is a fact that Annette Michelson has mentioned in her classroom. To my knowledge it has not been recognized in print. Yet.paintings. It is indisputable that television was then the most significant electronic apparatus for the transmission of information and influence over both the public and private spaces of the United States. 145 . artists continued to engage with their mediascape. despite the extensive writing that exists on this canonical film.

undated). This chapter will address the significance of television by exploring its influence upon selected case studies of experimental film artists working in the intermedial artistic landscape of 1960s and 1970s America. and its normative ideological system. its one-way information transmission. By repurposing television’s imagery. Filmmaker’s Distribution Center. but that drugs are more effective (Notes on New American Cinema Group. while it simultaneously presented a communication apparatus that was anathema to many media artists and filmmakers of the period. and Filmmaker’s Coop.formal opposition. mass distributed visual information. a number of these artists also envisioned for television more utopian possibilities. The works discussed in this chapter were made on film. its structural apparatus. demonstrating another 174 Here. 146 . media artists made significant efforts to undermine television’s corporate rhetoric. but did so by creating work that was directed. against the very medium itself and its associated cultural networks of exchange. of course. at a meeting of The Filmmaker’s Cooperative “Dope is better than TV. and most importantly. and its means of transmission. Yet. In the practices of some. its apparatus.”174 As suggested above. many artists working in an array of media and artistic traditions utilized both the content and technology of television. these critical and hopeful sensibilities worked in tandem. in a figurative sense. papers of Anthology Film Archives. This discussion will consider the ways in which this relatively new medium provided fresh technological and formal possibilities. but utilized the technology and content of television. Artist and filmmaker Michael Snow likely expressed the majority opinion of experimental filmmakers when he once said casually. Snow is suggesting that drugs and television aspire to the same effect. mass produced.

significant cultural exchange between a variety of media. Outside of countercultural film critic Gene Youngblood’s seminal work. the artistic hybrids of television and film (and to a lesser extent. cultural traditions. intermedial atmosphere. and art practices in which cinema as inextricably involved. the artistic experiments described herein also provoked philosophical consideration of the limits between broader. video) produced by Nam June Paik. In general terms. mass culture. and Aldo Tambellini. Expanded Cinema. have been largely omitted from most histories of experimental film. even nonartistic realms of human activity. This project aims to reintegrate these interstitial art objects/events into a more wide-ranging understanding of the historical interaction between avant-garde art practices. including science and industry. Nam June Paik and the Mediascape of the 1960s: In 1964. this chapter will also discuss the more general ways in which selected avant-garde artists expanded their experimental media practices into hybrid registers of performance and exhibition. these trends will be presented in relation to a confrontational notion of art practice (as well as criticism) that embraced the breakdown and subsequent expansion of traditional artistic categories. In their cultural and historical contexts. In addition to considering the specifically televisual component of the era’s interactive. His arrival marked the entrance of an eccentric performer who 147 . Jud Yalkut. and experimental film. Fluxus artist Nam June Paik moved to the United States from West Germany.

one of the central figures of this study and its consideration of the relationship between experimental film and fine art practices. as it forged a series of aesthetic and social negotiations between the replicating technologies of mediation (and electronic representation) and the singular force of human presence. he attempted.operated in the interstices between various media and art-making traditions (including his notable appearance in the New York performance of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Originale which was discussed in the first chapter). despite its marked heterogeneity and anarchic sensibility. but filtered and modified through mass media technologies. Yet. broadcast television. Arguably. It is significant that this aesthetic tension is also defines the media art of Andy Warhol. In Paik’s creative use of both bodily presence and electronic ephemerality. his artistic output is impressive both in its scale and in its conceptual diversity. to engage with the central tensions in American culture between. When considered as a whole. on the one hand. this stress could be described as the philosophical mechanism that drove the work of both Warhol and Paik. he showcased an aesthetically promiscuous creative sensibility as he doggedly experimented with a wide variety of performative and representational strategies. and installation art. expanded cinema. in aggregate the work contained common themes. Both artists reflected on the social and artistic challenges presented by 60s-era America by pursuing intermedial strategies that produced extreme displays of human affect. concurrently with Warhol. video. and later robotics. Working in performance and avant-garde classical music. a commonly held belief in 148 .

149 . particularly in its consideration 175 Frederic Jameson and Peter Wollen both frequently invoke the name of Warhol as a symbolic representative of the popular tendency to blend the modernist emphasis on formal innovation with economic strategies of replication that is typical of the period that they describe. as a poster child for postmodernism. 11–15. 111–125. Colin MacCabe. individuality. predictable. featured an alternative response to the enveloping force of the American mediascape of the 1960s and 70s. ed. 1997). Peter Francis. particularly in cinema (and its representations of performance). a popular affection for the mechanized. and Frederic Jameson. eds. “Andy Warhol: Renaissance Man” in Who Is Andy Warhol?. infinitely replicable images of mass media. Paik’s work too. 1983). The reason many art historians and critics have disregarded this aspect of the artist’s work is that they simply have not seen or studied the films.175 As suggested in previous chapters. algorhythmic. occupies a much more ambivalent position in relation to mass culture than most people have generally assigned to the artist’s oeuvre. Often these histories have simplistically featured Andy Warhol as an uncritical mascot of mass culture.uniqueness. and visual space of popular or mass culture. Paik’s response to the medium of television makes an important counterargument to the histories that present late modernist or postmodernist art as something that openly and straightforwardly embraced the social. “Postmodernism and Consumer Society” in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture. and Peter Wollen (Pittsburgh: British Film Institute & Andy Warhol Museum. autonomy. Warhol’s work. however enigmatic and rhetorically mute it may have seemed. between the free gesture of the human hand – the abstract expressionist index – and the mechanized object of mass media representation that is television. commercial. and on the other. See Peter Wollen. Hal Foster (Port Townshend. and freedom. WA: Bay Press. The central tension of Paik’s work operates in this liminal space of early American media art of the 1960s and 70s.

In the work of both artists. though he had yet to apply such strategies to moving image media. the artist often claimed that Cage brought him to America. and handcraftedness interpenetrate their experiments leaving philosophical markers of embodied. Dutton & Co. gestural art practices that were entirely dependent on the unique force of human presence.of the unique challenges posed by television as a technology for the dissemination of ideas and images. John Cage – the composer and artist to work most extensively with chance processes and indeterminacy – was incredibly influential for Paik. however. 176 Gene Youngblood. traces of noise. and the transformation of social structures. “Indeterminism and variability are underdeveloped parameters in the optical arts. In his consideration of the relationship between changing aesthetic strategies of the mid 1960s. 303. Paik produced work across a range of media that interrogated and interacted with the various forces and functions of mass culture and media. but did so by utilizing somewhat more anarchic and confrontational techniques. 150 .P. Expanded Cinema (New York: E. 1970).. contingency. particularly as they related to the relationship between music and the visual arts. he continued to address a number of the same conceptual concerns. he recognized that. Like Warhol. though they have been the central problem in music for the last two decades. As Paik shifted his primary artistic activities from audio and performance media to different varieties of electronic visual art in the mid 1960s.”176 In his earlier interactive sound experiments and installations (produced before coming to the United States) Paik had experimented with indeterminacy on a number of occasions.

Peter Moore photographed Paik – at The New Cinema Festival. moving image media. on May 8. Getty Research Institute). Moore also photographed Paik lying on the floor in front of the screen as he used his finger to Upon visual examination of the film object as made available in as a “Fluxkit” in the collection of the Getty Research Institute. but was probably made from clear leader (Special Collections. featuring no images. which had previously focused on performance and sound art. 177 151 . 1964 he premiered his only single-authored work on celluloid. throwing the shadow of the artist’s body onto the screen. And his landmark performance/film work.177 Its presentations often included performance aspects as well. it consists of nothing more than a clear piece of film leader. it was in fact Jonas Mekas who secured Paik’s visa to come to the United States. perhaps represents his most successful effort to coordinate the philosophical mandates of a Cagean aesthetics with the materials of cinema. at The Filmmaker’s Cinematheque in November of 1965 – standing very close to the screen as the projector’s beam covered his back. Though his later filmmaking experiments were largely collaborative. About a half-hour in length. titled Zen for Film. and particularly. into the realm of the visual arts.) It was Paik’s intention to translate some of Cage’s philosophical concepts and artistic strategies into other media contexts. Zen for Film. Zen for Film: In concert with the feverish intermedial interaction that was occurring in the cultural landscape around him. In one of the few images of this work being performed.(More literally speaking. it is evident that the film did not feature white leader. Paik extended his practice.

Various anecdotal descriptions of the work tell of Paik improvising a series of other simple bodily actions in front of the screen. presumably producing a mute musical performance that was the sonic equivalent to the film projection. it was also a provocative aesthetic intervention into the specific aesthetic attributes of film itself: the celluloid strip that is the material basis of Zen for Film was made without a camera. and featured no visual images. At this event. In this regard. it presented an extended interaction with an empty (and silent) film strip. This combined work in sound and image left the framing structures of both cinema and musical performance intact. one “realized by Fluxus” and one “dedicated to Fluxus.cast shadow images. as it was during the New Cinema Festival in November of 1965. in a Platonic sense (suggested by the title mentioned above).” with his Etude Platonique. while evacuating them of content in an effort to elicit a meditation. a musical piece in which the two performers play Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata” on a violin without strings and a piano without hammers. the film (and its musical accompaniment of Paik’s Etude Platonique) related closely to John Cage’s 152 . which created shadows upon it as he moved in and out of the projector’s beam of light. on their very essences. In this regard. The film was sometimes accompanied by other varieties of performance. without photosensitive film. and thus encouraged a reflective consideration of the specific sensory experience of cinema through the evacuation of conventional visual content. Though Zen for Film was occasionally realized as a combined work of cinema and performance. Paik paired two screenings of the film.

and awkward. in this regard. lint. The other significant component of the film’s performance experience was the physical encounter that it staged between the projector’s beam of light and Paik’s moving body (as shown in Peter Moore’s photograph and described in other anecdotal renditions of the screening event).179 In this sense.)178 Zen for Film contained no content other than the unplanned visual elements that were produced by the chance interactions of dirt. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Limelight Editions. Zen for Film was realized as a performance framed by the rectangle of light produced by the 16mm film projector. Though it was framed as a piano performance. it was also a film artifact. that Zen for Film utilized the material basis of cinema as 178 See Cage’s comments on the film in “More on Paik (1982)” in John Cage. sometimes noisy. Yet. (Cage himself explicitly addressed the structural and philosophical relationship that Paik’s film had to his work. coughs. ed. and scratches on the strip of motion picture leader (and thus mirrored the open form of Cage’s piece in which the unintentional sounds of the theater were its principal details). leaving only the impressions of the pencil. the traces of the gestures. movements. including the audience’s creaking chairs. It is important. Similarly. This was a structural similarity between their works that was also acknowledged by Cage (Ibid. Writer: Previously Uncollected Pieces.). 1993). 179 Paik’s Zen for Film was very much inspired by Cage’s 4’33” (1952). Cage greatly admired Robert Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning (1953) in which the artist bought a drawing from Willem de Kooning and then erased it. This famous piece too shares structural similarities with both Cage’s 4’33’’ and Paik’s Zen for Film as this group of works leaves the framing vessel for the gestures intact while evacuating it of all referential content.famous 4’33” (1952) in which a pianist performed a piece of music that featured no actual performed sound. the work intentionally forced the concertgoers to focus their attentions upon the other indeterminate elements of the concert hall’s soundscape. 153 . in significant ways. 153–157. with an arbitrary length of four minutes and thirty-three seconds.

the flicker of its shutter. through its incorporation of a 16mm strip of film leader. who in his film experiments. there arose a tendency. which was also featured at the New Cinema Festival of 1965). but such a realization of the work would have removed a number of its significant structuring components. John Cage. and most importantly. scratches. which contained its visual content (dust particles. temporally limited technologies.) By imposing a limit on the performance’s time through the use of a film strip. as well as the sound of the projector motor. without the 16mm film strip.). including the work’s material base. Paik’s Zen for Film encouraged an extended reflection on the perceptual structures of cinema and the framing apparatus of its small gauge. (These arbitrary limiting structures were central to much of the work of Cage. to apply arbitrary durational limits to music and performance in order to replace the conventional limiting structures that had previously emphasized classical. the arbitrary time limit that the film strip’s length imposed on the structure of the performance. In 154 . (Other artists had staged pseudo-filmic performances. using only the projector’s light beam. including Claes Oldenburg in his Moviehouse performance piece. following the revolutions of abstraction in the arts. As Paik’s mentor. let the lengths of the works be determined by the available length of reels of 16mm film stock. Paik produced a work in the visual arts that recognized the significance of temporal structure. as well as Warhol. Aristotelian notions of dramatic coherence and narrative design. demonstrated.its structuring apparatus. One could imagine an alternative version of Zen for Film utilizing only the projector itself. etc.

In a discussion of composer Erik Satie (a major influence on him).181 It functioned as a clear instantiation – literally and figuratively – of the fact that cinema is both a plastic and a temporal art. 155 . cello soloist. expressions of sentiment. and all the rest of our inherited aesthetic claptrap. literary. assisting composer. Robert Helmboldt Dunham & Linda Sampson. emphasizing continuous duration and serial forms. encouraging its viewers to recognize the significance of time as a major determining factor in the reception of art. In his 1965 presentation of Zen for Film. For this film screening/ performance event. Lee’s Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s (Cambridge: MIT Press.short. which featured works by a number of other filmmakers and composers. Paik screened it on a program of the New Cinema Festival. Paik was aided by four other live contributors who were listed as “Charlotte Moorman. Silence. 182 Program from the collection of Anthology Film Archives. Zen for Film stressed this non-developmental duration as a function of both performance and reception. Cage’s work realized a major break from the traditional musical. In their place. For a consideration of temporality in art of the era. used isotropic structures that were non-developmental and non-morphological. Takehisa Kosugi. and dramatic values that required cause and effect structures. 82. 2004). Cage dismisses the classical values of structure and expressivity when he writes that artists need to “give up ideas of order. assistants. included Paik). see Pamela M.”182 In addition to a video installation of his own titled Video 180 181 Cage. and harmonic transition over time. Cage and the many artists influenced by him (who of course.”180 As Cage acknowledged. dramatic development.

His transformation of Breer’s Fist Fight (described in the first chapter of this dissertation) was titled Variations on a Theme by Robert Breer. Ibid. 85. in that the film screenings were accompanied by live visual and sonic modifications to the film texts. Paik was interested in breaking the textual limits of the film frame through a variety of interruptive and transformative gestures.”185 As this screening series demonstrates. His incorporation of these films by other artists. & Sampson and Kosugi’s ‘Anima No 2’ performed simultaneously by Kosugi. Paik himself intervened significantly in the projection of the work.Tape Essay No 1 (perhaps his legendary first videotape). Paik’s presentation of Variations on a Theme by Stan Vanderbeek also featured major modifications to the original film imagery in which he made changes to the film through a range of visual and sonic interventions. Hanhardt. 2000). Paik included one work by filmmaker Robert Breer and two by Stan Vanderbeek. was flexible and performative. Paik. The program explains their interventions as follows: “Stan Vanderbeek’s film where everything is changed by Moorman. making shadow puppets in front of the projector’s beam. and featured a cello performance by Charlotte Moorman. The Worlds of Nam June Paik (New York: Guggenheim Museum. and his presentation of Zen for Film. 184 183 156 . and thus blocking and transforming Breer’s original film visually as well as sonically. 185 Program from the collection of Anthology Film Archives. like that of his own piece described above. Similarly.183 In some presentations of this piece.184 Some images of the work alternatively show the shadow of Moorman’s performing body as projected against a film screen.

realized in a variety of exhibition contexts that might appropriately be understood as expanded cinema. his program includes a brief asterisked preemptive apology at the bottom as he explains that. blame comes to me … N J Paik. In this spirit. In this regard. spontaneous.”186 Though Zen for Film was integrally determined by the specific characteristics of the film medium. Anthony McCall. and inquisitive. this performative cinema practice was playful. if bad.On his program for this event. 157 . It was also distributed as part of a “Fluxkit” collection of various objects produced by other Fluxus artists. he writes: Leitmotiv How to make film without filming? How to convert the film to live performing art from “canned” art to “cooked” food? As his program caption indicates. and Robert Whitman – it was an intermedial project in which filmic material was utilized as one aesthetic component of the social performance spaces 186 187 Ibid. credits go to Breer & Vanderbeek. Paik was interested in conducting a public experiment into the exhibition conditions of cinema. As Paik’s language indicates. after listing the various components.187 Like moving image works produced by a number of artists of the era – including Stan Vanderbeek. it also has another unusual history as a reproduced multiple that was available as a saleable art object. and. it was also a hybrid intermedial work of both cinema and performance. “If IV [Variations on a Theme by Robert Breer] & VI [Variations on a Theme by Stan Vanderbeek] go well. particularly as they related to performance in what he playfully describes as a cooking of previously canned ingredients.

respectively – Paik’s experiment should be understood as a cinematic innovation of a largely different sort. in a manner well-suited to Fluxus sensibilities. Yet Zen for Film was also. Paik’s Zen for Film was the first Fluxus film or “Fluxfilm” and thus serves an interesting function in the creation myth of the group’s work in cinema. it featured a blend of childlike simplicity and intense conceptual reflection that was typical of the Fluxus group. and specifically. In this regard. Zen for Film was both more austere and more playful than the works of Kubelka and Conrad. which were entirely dependent on a rigorous and carefully choreographed visual manipulation of sensory experience through the uniquely and specifically filmic resource of mechanized. into the most basic essence of cinema itself. perhaps less assuming investigation into the basic theatrical experience of projected light itself as it traveled through an unmodified strip of plastic that was subject to the indeterminate material influences of dirt and dust. it is a meditation on the determinant materials of cinema. In this sense. which blended a variety of art forms and media. In its 158 .of performance art and happenings. as its title might suggest. a minimalist investigation. Though Peter Kubelka and Tony Conrad both made films utilizing only black and white frames and featuring no representational visual content – in Arnulf Rainer (1960) and The Flicker (1965). rhythmic montage (on the level of twenty-four shifts per second). Their projects in minimalist cinema each featured the careful and meticulous rhythmic sequencing of black and white frames. of film projection. Paik’s work was a simpler.

Warhol “effects a complete transformation of all the temporal modes ordinarily associated with looking at a movie. The knot of attention is untied. in films such as Eat and Empire – that results from its limited filmic information and the absence of dynamic visual stimuli.”188 Indeed. 189 Koch. by Sitney’s Visionary Film. Elizabeth Armstrong (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center. they propose a model of film viewing that is markedly different. Three False Starts” in In The Spirit of Fluxus. 137. ed. Stephen Koch describes this aesthetic as one of “hypostatized quietude.”189 He argues that in his early. handcrafted work of the American avant-garde as celebrated and defined. stripped-down film forms encourages an inescapable consciousness of the viewer’s own passing of time. and its strands are laid out before us anew. from both mainstream and avant-garde traditions. This cinematic push towards viewer self-awareness and perceptual self-consciousness in the Bruce Jenkins. This variety of encounter with the most minimal. as Bruce Jenkins suggests above. minimalist film works. 1993). In his exemplary analysis of Warhol’s films. 39. “Flux Films in. Film curator Bruce Jenkins reads the work as such. 39.absolute simplicity Paik’s cinematic intervention presents an alternative model of filmmaking to the labor intensive. for example. 190 Koch. Stargazer. Stargazer. as he explains that the piece represented an “oppositional stance towards mainstream and avant-garde cinemas alike. 188 159 .”190 Because of the extreme durations and minimal content that these works demonstrate. the film exemplifies a radically evacuated work that encouraged an embodied spectatorial encounter with boredom – in a way not dissimilar from Warhol’s earliest experiments with the medium.

were meant to provoke a different response. and particularly. Usually. Warhol described the strategy of his early minimalist films along similar terms. These strategies were exemplified by other Fluxus artists. LaMonte Young. 191 160 . 92. like that of Paik described above. most notably. [and] you get more involved with the people next to you. when you go to the movies. 137. there exists a remarkable high-modernist blending of the energies of a hypostasized quietude (produced by extended durations and minimal content) with the hysteria of confrontational and anarchic performance. explaining that they were intended “to help the audiences get more acquainted with themselves.” implying that what many of these works shared was a desire to undermine conventional viewing experiences through spectatorial encounters with stripped-down. “you see something that disturbs you. perhaps. and thus demonstrate a perhaps differing chain of influence Gretchen Berg.reception of the work was also perfectly congruent with the Cagean aesthetics that had exerted such a profound influence on all of Paik’s work. Jenkins suggests in his evaluation of Paik’s work. 192 As George Maciunas has argued.”191 In the work of both Warhol and Cage. In 1966. these experiments were influenced by other trends in the arts. “Andy Warhol: My True Story” in I’ll Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews. that Zen for Film could “both invite intensive scrutiny and elicit absolute boredom. in minimalist music. In a way related to Koch’s sentiments on Warhol (as well as the artist’s own comments). minimalist investigations into their very conditions of both filmmaking and exhibition.” but his early films. in which. you sit in a fantasy world. 192 Jenkins. including.

is an originary cinematic object for both the artist’s own filmography and that of his Fluxus compatriots. In the 1964 and 1965 presentations of Zen for Film.194) In very simple and straightforward terms. the performer’s body. 194 Paul Arthur discusses this most ambitious strain of 1970s experimental cinema in an essay for a forthcoming volume of writings on Harry Smith. Rani Singh (Getty Publications. Adams Sitney.from the expressive. Andrew Perchuck. because of its embrace of Cagean indeterminacy. 161 . while provoking productive considerations of the relationships between media within a range of art-making movements and traditions. The film events foregrounded light. “Some Comments on Structural Film by P. Arthur. its open-ended tone. In fact. unplanned sonic elements. “The Onus of Representation: Harry Smith.193 Paik’s Zen for Film. eds. and Avant-Garde Film in the 1970s” in Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular. and 193 George Maciunas. forthcoming). personal painting and poetry that motivated other trends in the American avant-garde cinema. it also reminds us that in the history of media art in the 1960s and 70s..” Film Culture Reader. Paik’s unique experiment incorporated formal strategies borrowed from both experimental music and underground cinema. 349. (It also relates to the hyper-stripped-down or extremely ambitious filmmaking that Paul Arthur described as the “first film/last film syndrome” that includes work like Ernie Gehr’s History (1970) and Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer. these projects were sometimes simple and playful while still being austere and rigorous. Mahagonny. and its sheer simplicity. as Paik’s Zen for Film demonstrates. intermedial experiments did not always overload the senses with overwhelming stimuli. Paik staged encounters between performance and specifically filmic technologies.

He writes. he famously rid his apartment of all his books and further immersed himself in the technologies of video production. 195 Quoted in David Antin. the work served as a meaningful historical bridge between his experiments in live performance and later work in moving image media. television. in short. “Video: The Distinctive Features of the Medium” in Video Culture: A Critical Investigation. and video synthesis. Though it had performative components. his one non-collaborative gesture in celluloid was rather remarkable on a number of counts. During this transition to a greater artistic emphasis on this new medium. it represented a severe distillation of cinema into its barest essence. Though he had been experimenting with television since 1960. Paik performs the looking that Gillette describes. moving image broadcast. The work was a rather striking allegory of the medium specific qualities that are unique to the medium. and electronic signal modification. The piece is a performed literalization of the medium’s specific formal and theatrical properties.the chance interaction of the film apparatus and the physical space of its projection. robotics. John Hanhardt (Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop. ed. with film you look with the source of light. shortly after the first public presentation of Zen for Film. Video artist Frank Gillette’s description of film and video media may help us to understand the structural premise of Paik’s piece. visually. Paik decided to entirely shift his artistic emphasis to its associated technologies of video recording. Though Paik would spend most of his career working with video images. “Part of it [video and TV] is that you look into the source of light.”195 In Zen for Film. 148. 1986). 162 .

in his blending of art and technology. Videa/Videology. perhaps combative experiments with the television medium. 47. his concern was not how “to make another scientific toy.”196 [emphasis original] In keeping with the anarchic and destructive trends of the Fluxus sensibility. In the gallery 196 Nam June Paik. Paik often described himself as fighting against the medium. These modifications to televisions sometimes happened in real time.” It was his aim to challenge the social function of television by reconfiguring technology in human terms. 1974). May 17–June 14. In his earliest work with television he utilized two principal strategies: the manual modification of the circuitry of TV sets. as the rebellious “prisoner of the cathode ray tube.Television. but how to humanize the technology and the electronic medium. accompanying brochure for “TV as a Creative Medium” exhibition at the Howard Wise Gallery. as the artist performed visual and sonic transformations of their live signals using an array of devices – from the crudest. and the live transformation of broadcast television imagery with a variety of handcrafted tools. in the form of handheld magnets. 1969. [emphasis original] 163 . Reprinted in Nam June Paik. both by himself and in collaboration with engineers and scientists. to the most sophisticated signal modulators – that featured a wide range of custom built signal modifying processors that he designed. Paik assaulted television sets – with everything from magnets to dirt – in a series of limit-testing gestures that attempted to reconfigure how we understand the medium as an aesthetic object and an ideologically determining cultural force. Recording Visual Art Actions: To explain his transformative. the Immaterial. Paik wrote that. 1959-1973 (Syracuse: Everson Museum of Art.

these works promoted an interaction within gallery spaces that was markedly dissimilar from the one-way transmission that was typical of the information flow from corporate television conglomerates to private homes. Like his sound experiments. He frequently described the technological novelty of video as a means of self-defense against the televisual institution: “Television has been attacking us all our lives. This technological development allowed him to actually produce his own original audio-visual material. and as such.”197 Like many early practitioners of video art. Expanded Cinema. Paik felt that broadcast television was a medium of control that allowed little space for creative 197 Paik quoted in Youngblood. Paik felt that the public’s capacity to generate its own content represented a kind of revolution in the means of production. In 1965. By plugging a microphone into an electronically modified television set. Now we can attack it back. the gallery attendee could have his or her words and sounds converted into an abstract televisual equivalent.installation of these works. in which Paik rebuilt and reconfigured a television set so that it could translate audio information into an abstract visual representation on the television screen. One example of this interactive work in modified television sculpture is Participation TV (1963). Paik often devised presentations that encouraged user interface and interactivity. 164 . 302. In a way that foreshadowed some of the more naïve utopian sentiments expressed in present day literature on new media and interactivity. was something of a revelation for the artist. Paik famously bought his first Sony Portapak video recording device and began making original tapes.

image processors. the modified television set. each one violated by its own electronic attachment to deform the image beyond anything you can imagine. the artist had his first two American solo art openings. and film. The video equipment allowed him to actually record content – from either television or the phenomenal world – that he could then reconfigure in his performances and installations. Paik is in constant attendance at his show. and could not yet allow an artist such as Paik to capture his image processing on videotape. and Music” and took place at the New School for Social Research. no matter how bad your reception is. had a washed out appearance.” The year after Paik debuted Zen for Film. Paik encountered a visual artist with whom he could collaborate on a truly unique blend of hybrid works that incorporated the visual possibilities of television. Mr. in its early days. was difficult to edit. in a way that allowed him to produce his own original material. both of which were held in New York. Galeria Bonino hosted the artist’s second one-man show. With video. 165 . They described their hybrid intermedial experiments as “videofilms. the New York Times’ staff art critic John Canaday described its contents as follows: Mr. Art.use. In his review of the exhibition. the technology of consumer video was famously inflexible. in that it lacked color. using cameras and later.” that marked his complete shift to a new singular medium of choice. The first was titled “Cybernetics. In filmmaker Jud Yalkut. video. However. to demonstrate the operation of these attachments. Paik could now work in the language of television but. Paik is exhibiting a dozen or so TV sets. […] The screen becomes a field of operation for totally abstract images. titled simply “Electronic Art.

Paik’s modifications to the television signal involved the use of a number of interactive. December 4. both of which. the two visual artists discussed the possibility of Yalkut filming Paik’s modified TV sets with his 16mm camera. all of his work with television had been ephemeral. performative modifications to the live television transmission itself. When they met. Jud Yalkut. recorded programs) or automated. 166 . in that he produced either live. Now. ephemeral. with Yalkut filming Paik’s television modifications. 199 Ibid. Before Paik’s encounter with Yalkut. Paik found a way to document his real-time plastic performances upon the television image in which he played the set “as one would play a musical instrument.” New York Times. Yalkut filmed a number of the artist’s television manipulations. Upon his return visits to the show.198 As Canaday’s description suggests. These first filmed documents of Paik’s performances and installations became the raw material for a number of their later collaborations. realtime manipulations of broadcast television (or more recently. it became possible to record its ephemeral imagery and produce an 198 John Canaday. depended exclusively on the found imagery of live broadcast. “Paik’s TV Sets on View at Galeria Bonino. Through his encounter with the underground filmmaker. prepared television sculptures with modified internal wiring. performative devices to control and modulate its content.”199 Jud Yalkut attended Paik’s 1965 exhibition at the Galeria Bonino. In much of his work in this period Paik performed live. 1965: 27. with the acquisition of his Sony Portapak.[…] The TV sets can be “played” as one would play a musical instrument if music were light.

USCO represented a utopian spirit in media that intended to use new technologies for the benefit of both social and psychic transformation. Their works emphasized the integration of various media forms into happenings. The group emphasized collective authorship. as its name – USCO. which showcase the lightshows of Gerd Stern. he had previous experience in 8mm. M. commercial documentary of the event). and the artistic contributions of other members of the collective. Yalkut’s experimental visual sensibility blended distinctively with a desire to document the most urgent 167 . However. Yalkut was fairly new to 16mm filmmaking. group performance. T. and early in 1965 started working regularly with USCO – an intermedial artists’ collective in upstate New York – as their in-house filmmaker. including Diffraction Film (1965) and D. as in “a company of us” – suggests. including Us Down By The Riverside (1966) (which shows a group exhibit at the Riverside Museum in New York) and Aquarian Rushes (1969-70) (which witnesses USCO’s involvement with the Woodstock Festival of Music and Art. Some of Yalkut’s other early films provided material to be integrated visually into the group’s intermedial events. as represented in more aggressively psychedelic terms than the well known theatrically released.encounter between the two media that opened up a range of creative possibilities not previously available to either medium independently. (1966). and social actions. having gotten his first camera only a year earlier. A number of Yalkut’s early films documented the collective socio-cultural experiments of this group. When he met Paik. A countercultural arts commune. the poetry of Timothy Leary.

168 . Working within the visual culture of American psychedelia. which was offered by the medium’s unique capacity for montage. multi-layered superimposition. Effectively. real-time modifications of the broadcast images of mass media. a much larger scale in projection. one of which was plastic and one ideological. he devised a set of fluid and expressive visual techniques for 16mm film that reflected an interest in kinesthetic experience. Paik presented electronic manipulations of broadcast imagery that were a televisual equivalent to the psychedelic visual culture of underground film and light shows. Formally speaking. What Yalkut provided for Paik was knowledge of a medium that could capture the television artist’s and artistic experiments of his era. and swirling abstraction. intervention into the mediascape of 1960s America. as well as a fresh and provocative symbolic. a more luminous color palette. Yalkut was as an amateur filmmaker whose cultural associations and social network provided him the opportunity to become a kind of psychedelic documentarian. In their collaborations the two artists documented Paik’s original modifications to the televisual signal and reconfigured them by using the versatile audio-visual post-production technologies of film. and a more significant structural flexibility. and modify them through the significantly more agile visual resources of film. at that point in the historical interaction of the two audio-visual media. In Paik’s work Yalkut encountered two significant resources to augment his alternative media practice. film was more flexible than video: it had the capacity for a greater visual plasticity. perhaps political.

Yalkut explained their collaboration: In these early color TV pieces with Paik. either rewiring the circuits. rather than on the electronic. After these acts of image modulation were transcribed onto film. as well as new strategies of “dematerialized art.” Millennium Film Journal 42 (Fall 2004). I was discovering ways to capture these images on film. they could then be resequenced and reorganized with the tools of film and sound editing. “Between Film and Video – the Intermedia Art of Jud Yalkut: An Interview with Jud Yalkut. he was transforming the video signal through various means. and then reworking these images through film editing into final pieces. disembodied. Paik and Yalkut staged a unique and historically significant encounter between old and new media that responded directly to a number of other contemporaneous transformations in cultural practice. sometimes from pre-recorded videotapes – Yalkut and Paik were able to document a wide variety of real time image processing transformations. or throwing in electromagnetic interference. Paik and Yalkut were able to utilize visual resources that were largely untapped by experimental filmmakers. by repurposing the content of television. Most importantly.” while developing a filmmaking practice that Sabrina Gschwandtner. 75. since they could not be recorded on video. people working in the medium of celluloid had been largely reliant on either live action motion picture photography or animation. 200 169 . They addressed the popularization of the psychedelic sensibility within the countercultural movement. and immaterial signal of broadcast television. and destroying the video sync signal in the process.200 By transforming television imagery into filmic materials – sometimes from live broadcast. and engaging directly with the language of mainstream visual culture. Traditionally.

In their fluid interaction of elements derived from television. artist Martha Rosler writes. and film. 44. “Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment” in Illuminating Video. strangely enough. music. the works had entirely elastic exhibition histories. video. 1990). a situation that is extremely rare – if not entirely unique – for moving image art. Doug Hall. multi-media happenings by USCO. because of the intermedial status of the Paik-Yalkut collaborations. Sally Jo Fifer (New York: Aperture. In her critique of the myth-making trajectory of the dominant histories of the video medium. various musical and semi-theatrical events. 201 Martha Rosler. In addition. the works that they created together are largely absent from the dominant histories of both video art and experimental film.extended its network of practitioners. 170 . as well as more conventional theatrical film screenings. there is little-tono published critical writing about these video-film collaborations. The flexibility of the exhibition parameters of these works is also demonstrated by the fact that most of them are currently available for theatrical and institutional exhibition on both 16mm film and video. being included in performances by Paik and cellist Charlotte Moorman. materials. In addition. the videofilms of Paik and Yalkut embody an effort to overcome conventional limits between media forms through an organic and integrated audio-visual language. “At the head of virtually every video history is the name Nam June Paik. eds. and aesthetic strategies beyond the clique of the New York film underground. despite the fame that Nam June Paik has gained as the father of video art.”201 Yet. these works are rather unusual because.

Paik and Yalkut also produced collaborative works that.Overall. expressive cinema of the lineage of so-called “lyrical” avant-garde film. and thus represents an unlikely conversion of the most common and banal imagery of mid-century mass culture into an artistic register that is significantly more precious and expressive. in ways that were less fluid and expressive. from a rigorous and delicate impressionistic abstraction – a kind of televisual evocation of a visual language like that of Stan Brakhage or Bruce Baillie – to a more straightforward recontextualization of TV content that is closer to Pop Art. the videofilms of Paik and Yalkut range significantly in tone and sensibility. lyrical filmmaking than it is to the content of its originary broadcast technology. However. The sensuous repurposing of the televisual signal that is performed by Paik and Yalkut is significantly closer to the aesthetic sensibility of abstract. as well as figurative content that shifts in and out of visual legibility. These works encourage a reflective and meditative sensuality that relates to the embodied reflection of Zen for Film. expressive register of their collaborations by presenting atmospheric psychedelic works that feature sweeping blends and abstract ribbons of television imagery. Electronic Moon #2 (1969) and Electronic Yoga (1972) represent the lyrical. The two films described above share a basic abstract iconography and an aesthetic sensibility with both the psychedelic underground cinema and the lyrical. 171 . more directly interrogated the social and cultural basis of the televisual image.

or the visible. Spinoza thought the vision. or the conceptual. –Nam June Paik202 In its shift in cultural reference and rhetorical tone from the more impressionistic works described above. Augustine thought the sound. In fact this selection draws the viewer’s attention directly to the philosophical goals of the project and highlights its relationship to the intellectual trends of its day. 202 Paik. Waiting for Commercials is an intermedial experiment that serves as both a new media manifesto and an evidentiary demonstration of television’s global proliferation. or the audible.Waiting for Commercials: Plato thought the word. following the quotation above. it might be best described. expresses the deepest thing. St. In its transformation of a range of audio-visual materials. Paik’s choice to foreground recorded material featuring media spokesperson Marshall McLuhan was far from casual. TV commercials have all three. the intermedial production process of Waiting for Commercials was rather elaborate. transformative treatment to the footage of McLuhan. 172 . Waiting for Commercials (1972) showcases an entirely different type of rhetorical interaction with both the popular and intellectual culture of the era. expresses the deepest thing. This argument is settled for good. Videa ‘n’ Videology. In a sense. Before Paik could perform any visual. expresses the deepest thing. unaltered Japanese television commercials. as ironic. The seven minute film moves back and forth between Paik’s trademark electromagnetic modifications of a televised lecture by Marshall McLuhan and entire. 49.

However. These real-time transformations were captured by Yalkut on 16mm film and analogue audiotape. Then the artists projected the work and Paik videotaped the projection of this edited filmic version of McLuhan’s television presentation. In the complex intermedial conversions of this film’s production process. Through their repositioning and repurposing of broadcast footage of McLuhan’s famous media proclamations.Yalkut carefully edited and resequenced a 16mm film transcription of a BBC program in order to foreground the public intellectual’s most appropriate and well-known sound bytes. and using his trademark electromagnetic distortions. the work considers the specific ideological function of this medium as a mediating device for the dissemination of international capitalism. At the very beginning of Waiting for Commercials McLuhan enigmatically proclaims that “TV is an X-ray. and then edited together with the unaltered Japanese advertisements that comprise the film’s other component.” The artists were fascinated by McLuhan’s hugely popular and influential ideas – as was the USCO group in general – particularly his claims that 173 . directly modified and distorted its imagery in playback. Paik then played this videotape on a monitor. the artists performed an intricate shuttling between media that directly demonstrates the differing artistic and technical capabilities of film and video. Paik and Yalkut place the new media spokesperson in the position of an unknowing narrator for their work. in its deliberate incorporation of materials that both directly address and represent the social and economic functions of television technologies.

held at the Galeria Bonino in 1965. McLuhan’s had an influence on the popular sensibilities and artistic strategies of his age that was unmatched by any other intellectual authority of the era. and psychic transformation. 203 174 .203 In its repurposing of footage of McLuhan. Waiting for Commercials more directly draws the viewer’s attention to the specific ways in which his thinking penetrated Paik’s work. Though his popularity may have waned somewhat since the 1960s. particularly in terms of the artist’s own blends of different media forms. In his writing in Understanding Media (1964).new technologies (including television) were transforming consciousness in rather extreme ways. Strangely enough. Paik had directly referenced McLuhan earlier in his career in a prepared television piece that included his name as part of its enigmatic title. Waiting for Commercials was the most direct in its demonstration of this reference. In a sense. a number of the Paik/Yalkut intermedial collaborations were artistic experiments designed to test McLuhan’s specific theories concerning the interactions of media forms in the television age. the piece featured a mathematical equation as its title (and also included the names of Cage and Norbert Wiener in the place of conventional algebraic symbols). there has been little recognition of his influence on experimental film and intermedial practices of the 1960s. independent properties as well as their This work appeared in the aforementioned “Electronic Art” exhibition. McLuhan addresses the ways in which encounters between media became moments of powerful artistic. He argued that the meeting of two media can call our attention to their specific. social.

and any other filmic experience. “The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born. superimposition. Paik and Yalkut engage McLuhan’s thesis concerning the ways in which new media forms remediate the concerns of older ones. and philosophical possibilities of intermedial encounters. He writes.capacities to work together to create new forms. 204 McLuhan. video.205 In some ways. and often from the package. social. Interestingly. “Jud Yalkut: A Video Beachcomber. Waiting for Commercials is perhaps their most rhetorically direct effort to philosophically interrogate the cultural and historical functions of these media through an experiment in artistic practice. Understanding Media. I use the limit of the medium to define it.”204 To McLuhan. 2 (September/October 2004). hybrid media projects functioned as limit-testing experiments capable of challenging the established social and experiential patterns of perception and thought. 205 175 . In an openly self-referential gesture. So you get inside a television set and you film what’s going on and you transmute it through editing. no. 55. Quoted in Seth Thompson. […] You make use of the imperfections of the medium and you become more aware of what the limits of the medium are. 8.” Afterimage 32. Yalkut explained his collaboration with Paik in precisely such terms: I was very much into the McLuhanistic idea that you can isolate the effect of the media from the content of media. all the Paik/Yalkut experiments in television. In their promiscuous exchanges between the forms of film and video. and film are direct and conscious attempts to demonstrate McLuhan’s theories concerning the aesthetic. Waiting for Commercials includes a segment in which McLuhan explains his theory that the content of any new medium is that which it displaces.

Yalkut’s film documentation of Paik’s experiments shares a common historical function to Warhol’s film Outer and Inner Space (1965) in which he used the apparatus of 16mm film to record his experiments with the new video technologies of Norelco. the film juxtaposes these blasts of visual plasticity (which feature the radically modified talking head of Marshall McLuhan) with complete. but video. In this regard. (Before they had been incorporated into the work. the novel. open-reel.206 Like the other works described in this chapter. This example also poses an interesting challenge to McLuhan’s teleological.However. there is a sense in which their film-video image exchanges in fact contradict McLuhan’s media teleology: More often than not. Yalkut’s celluloid documentations of Paik’s gestural modifications of the television signal form a moving image repository of the artist’s real-time performances with television. the commercials (on celluloid) had been 206 In this regard. less tested technologies. however. media determinism. because of film’s greater plasticity and durability. Warhol’s original video materials are no longer watchable. Both cases demonstrate that older media often provide much more reliable archival possibilities than newer. the content of their film collaborations is in fact not the media that film replaced and remediated (which were theater. Interestingly. In fact. ½ inch video. Waiting for Commercials features the elaborate conversion of pre-recorded television footage into abstract shapes and ribbons of televisual noise. 176 . and radio). They can only be experienced through their happenstance preservation through the much older medium of photosensitive film. unedited Japanese commercials for products like Pepsi-Cola and Nestle Goldblend instant coffee. the one that would later replace film. because of the obsolescence and obscurity of these early video technologies. and in this regard. complicate the technophilia of McLuhan and other varieties of naïve new media euphoria. before video provided a reliable and visually adequate storage format.

along with their rights for use. geometric shapes and a cartoon depiction of a Samurai (a ridiculous symbolic distillation of Japanese identity). 177 . “Coordinate!” The refrain repeats a number of times and the commercial’s dynamic color and fanciful use of space blend with animated. December 8. functioning as found media bracketed by plastically modified presentations of Marshall McLuhan’s spoken presentations. colored. as all the performers exuberantly sing. The song that accompanies the visual fantasy of the advertisement has the up-tempo lilt and melodic signification of musical underscore from an action film of the era. 2008). one word is emphasized.purchased by Paik. and in English.)207 In Waiting for Commercials these advertising vignettes are left intact and unmodified. a second advertisement for this Japanese clothing line 207 “As far as Waiting for Commercials. Paik had purchased the right to use several of these ads from Japanese television and he had used them in other video pieces and manifestations later” (Author’s email communication with Yalkut. The first ad for this brand features a number of women who masquerade and dance in outfits that resemble the typical garb of the female love interest in a 60s-era James Bond film. In the Japanese song’s chorus. After another Paikean transformation of Marshall McLuhan. The last two advertisements in the film present the same line of Japanese women’s clothing. simultaneously. Their go-go dance routines are tightly choreographed and spotlight a central trope in which the dancers’ outfits all simultaneously change color – in a flash of profilmic special effects derived from the originary stop-replacement techniques of early silent cinema – into new ensembles of matching hue.

they do so with a different philosophical emphasis. In one of his most utopian and heavily quoted statements from the period. and again their clothes spontaneously transform both style and color spontaneously. However. In 1964. 5. Understanding Media. than with the power of information to travel instantaneously through new media channels. as the visuals fluidly blend live action photography with animation. most significantly.”208 And throughout 208 McLuhan. McLuhan famously claimed that new media forms (including. and hippie era butterfly patterns. he wrote. they then grow animated butterfly wings. perhaps.follows. one less concerned with the international movement of capital. Most significantly. they express the global penetration of Western codes of audio-visual marketing as described by McLuhan. the globe is not more than a village. After some dancing. The entire mise-en-scene of the commercial then shifts to a wildly colorful cartoon as fuzz soaked guitars overwhelm the soundtrack in a psychedelic bubblegum phantasmagoria of dancing go-go girls. gangster film iconography. The commercials function multivalently by illustrating the theoretical content which abuts them – by incorporating an outrageous televisual dynamism – and simultaneously demarcating a strikingly divergent language of representation from that employed by Paik and Yalkut. “As electrically contracted. television) were effectively transcending geographic distances and national borders because of the rapid and efficient proliferation of their broadcast technologies. because of the fact that they are Japanese commercials. In it the women are now carrying tommy guns. 178 .

” In fact.”209 Though the notion that a “global village” was created by new media was one of McLuhan’s most popular ideas (because of its compatibility with the countercultural ethos of the age). the global reach of media has always functioned primarily to extend the powers of commercialism through the most flashy. gestural distortions of Marshall McLuhan’s television image visually evoke an aesthetic sensibility that relates to the non-figurative and spontaneous 209 Author’s email correspondence with Yalkut. it was also a dangerously naïve supposition. “the global village” became a massively popular McLuhan-derived catchphrase. forceful. abstract. Paik’s real-time. 2008. Yalkut has explained how the work addressed the language of television as both consumerist and universal. In a sense. abstract visual palette with the visual language of television advertising forms a strange. 179 .the era. which expressed both the proliferation of communications technologies and a universalist sensibility that differed markedly from the isolationist attitudes of the 1950s. hand crafted. perhaps playful. forming “a comment on both commercialism and how it spanned the world and McLuhan's ideas about the global village. and visually distracting modes of communication. McLuhan wrongly assumed that the global proliferation of media would bring people together into some kind of tribal intimacy in a “family of man. but tonally ambiguous bricolage of mixed forms. This juxtaposition of a fluid. December 8. as Paik and Yalkut suggest by example (in their juxtaposition of McLuhan’s most ambitious pronouncements with the most banal and ridiculous television imagery).

while the film’s incorporation of the readymade objects of television advertising represents an artistic strategy that is more closely aligned with the commercial sheen of Pop Art. In this sense. Interestingly. they were made on film. the unmodified commercials feature no video generation and thus represent a moment in which the content of television was quite literally.” and “ice-blue secret deodorant. film. like Soap Opera.” “beauty set shampoo. Soap Opera.” Waiting for Commercials utilizes these commercials as readymade found objects. performed by the factory “superstars. in which the artist juxtaposes silent vignettes of exaggerated emotional drama. Though the commercials were in fact produced for television broadcast. though they are included alongside of Paik’s electromagnetic transformations of television transcriptions. resituates these commercial texts within the space of audio-visual media art. in unaltered form. and remain so. using a strategy that differs significantly from the collagic methods of integration and formal blending that would prove more popular in avant-garde 180 . these sources also comment on the specificities of the various media that are at play. This internal dissonance and audio-visual heterogeneity encourage an awareness of the differing cultural registers that the work references. selecting the advertising elements that are included in the work.painterly actions of Abstract Expressionism. Like Andy Warhol’s film. Paik acts as a kind of film curator.” with the most banal mass-produced television commercials (produced on film by Lester Persky) for a “roto-boiler. Waiting for Commercials. (1964). In fact.

draws our attention to its constituent components. overlapping media space – as a number of collagists and visual artists had in the post World War II period. was becoming increasingly more obvious. by using the resources of entertainment. including Robert Rauschenberg and Tom Wesselman – these films draw the viewer’s attention to the specific idiosyncrasies of two markedly different visual languages. Paik and Yalkut’s film. For its base materials the work used filmed footage of live television broadcasts (photographed off of the TV screen) and prerecorded video footage – as 181 . Instead of assimilating these chunks of commercial imagery into the fluid space of experimental media they leave them whole and intact. allowing them to glare at us with their overwrought visual and rhetorical excesses. The film’s framing structure. In this regard. one rooted in gestural abstraction and the other based on an easily legible commercial iconicity. isolates and exemplifies the strange audio-visual excesses of global television advertising. it reminds us of precisely what it is that television does. like Warhol’ of the coming decade. Beatles Electroniques (1966-69) is in some ways a more formally and philosophically dramatic intervention into the ecologies of televisual materials. at a moment when its capacity to exert social influence. Rather than camouflaging television advertising within a diffused. which utilizes a side-by-side juxtaposition of contradictory artistic strategies. Beatles Electroniques: Made roughly three years before Waiting for Commercials.

and filmic manipulations. though clearly derived from popular sources. the film is a dramatic study into television’s mode of address and the role that the medium plays in constructing the social function of celebrity. (The raw television materials of Beatles Electroniques were likely taken from some of the earliest examples of Paik’s work that Yalkut shot. Similarly.”210 The television footage was originally black and white.) As Gene Youngblood explains. since they have been forcibly distorted and transformed by the work’s televisual. the film was made using “live broadcasts of the Beatles while Paik electromagnetically improvised distortions on the receiver. Yalkut added layers of filmic superimpositions such that multiple. the soundtrack to the film is a largely abstract mélange of music that. and also from videotaped material produced during a series of experiments with filming off the monitor of a Sony videotape recorder.transformed drastically by Paik and Yalkut – of the Beatles in performance (on The Ed Sullivan Show) and acting on film (in A Hard Day’s Night (1964)). Paik transformed this grainy broadcast footage into abstract colored ribbons and waves of spectral electric light. videographic. but through his use of magnets and other signal processing devices. The repetitive and rhythmic soundtrack was composed by 210 Youngblood. overlapping planes of both black & white and color interact with each other throughout the work. 330. The faces of the band members are only discernible for extremely brief moments. Only three minutes long. 182 . is indiscernible as such. In the film’s post-production modifications.

he treated the original sonic source material as musique concret or found sound to be experienced abstractly and texturally. when one listens to the soundtrack it is not obvious that the piece is in fact composed exclusively of four repeated. In this regard. in a way that disavowed or undermined its melodic energy. the film’s sonic and visual components both utilize a variety of creative strategies and technological tools to distort and disguise well-known cultural content derived from the mass media in order to transmute it into unrecognizable noise. Beatles Electroniques exemplifies a disruptive model of audio-visual image production that directly interrogates the technologies and ideological functions of mass media. including Steve Reich. in a book that reflects on a variety of transgressive and 211 In this sense. “It’s Gonna Rain” (1965) and “Come Out” (1966) similarly reconfigure human speech into abstract rhythmic and textural patterns. and sonic legibility. Therefore. cultural familiarity.Ken Werner using methods related to those that were employed by the filmmakers in their radical reconfiguration of its visual content. Primarily utilizing the tools of sound editing to produce this breakdown of meaning. By aggressively reconfiguring the most familiar signifiers of popular culture. whose pieces. Recently.211 As a result. The composer transformed selected. Paik and Yalkut perform a modification of mainstream audio-visual culture using the tools and creative strategies of the avant-garde. the soundtrack resembles the tape experiments of a number of minimalist composers. looped musical fragments from the Beatles’ discography. brief fragments of the Beatles’ pre-recorded music by altering their speed and distorting their sound. 183 . Werner changed the significatory function of this music in a way similar to other contemporaneous experiments in sound art and experimental music.

He writes that Paik’s “fundamental contribution was the invention of formal models for disrupting image ecologies. 48. Feedback: Television Against Democracy (Cambridge: MIT Press. and disruptive strategies were central to the most urgent and significant experimental media art of the era. 330.transformative uses of television within art and culture. like the most provocative media art of the period.’”213 These antagonistic. was fundamentally disruptive. comfort. It is the smooth and direct iconicity of television advertising that cues viewers to associate specific material symbols (the Coca-Cola logo. etc. 214 Youngblood. again in Joselit’s words.). Paik’s intervention into television’s flow of information and image. Paik’s work symbolically enacts one of the most powerful versions of this practice. shiny countertop) with abstract emotional sensations (happiness. Ibid. within ecologies and economies that depend on their capacity to accrue cultural value and capital.”214 In this sense Beatles Electroniques is an experimental investigation into the processes of televisual mediation and the means by which contemporary communication technologies attempt to transmit the unique auras of star 212 David Joselit.”212 Images in mass media are trafficked for specific social and material functions. or a clean. aggressive. art historian David Joselit has argued that this disruptive sensibility is Nam June Paik’s major accomplishment within media of the television age. 213 184 . were “malignant procedures by which a video signal was distorted or degraded into mere ‘noise. Gene Youngblood described the film as “an eerie portrait of the Beatles not as pop stars but rather as entities that exist solely in the world of electronic media. What the artist pioneered. 2007).

“The 215 216 Paik. Like Andy Warhol’s silkscreen portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.215 Though much of the media art of the 1960s. 5–6. 8. including those works described above. specifically technological natures. In his modification of the technology and content of the television signal Paik devised specialized techniques and tools that would allow him to intervene into the electronic. of early film. Marshall McLuhan famously claimed that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium. there were occasional points of disjunction in this exchange of artistic and intellectual energies. was entirely congruent with the ideas and language of McLuhan’s influential thought. etc. For example.”216 It was McLuhan’s argument that this transformation of one medium into the content of another produced a teleological media history in which radio replaced the written word.personalities and icons across the reproductive circuits of mass media. by transforming its broadcast signal. Paik and Yalkut’s film breaks down these pop culture symbols. into their underlying material basis – as mediated representations – of electronic dots and scanning lines. television replaced film. these signifiers of absolute uniqueness. Understanding Media. audio-visual system of television. Videa ‘n’ Videology. McLuhan. he writes. 185 . He argued that because of their continuously evolving. something that he considered to be “the most variable optical and semantical event” of the era. film replaced radio. all media are in a continual process of reconstituting past forms through progressively newer and faster communication technologies.

more efficient blends of commerce. The experiments in television.content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera. The Electromedia of Aldo Tambellini: Though Nam June Paik was an innovator in the use of television as a resource for art and experimental film. These inversions of McLuhan’s media teleology were also aggressive attempts to rewire and scramble the patterns of television and its forward march of ever faster. and distraction into knots of cultural feedback and disturbance. One of the first artworks to incorporate a television image was a collage produced in the 217 Ibid. and performance of Aldo Tambellini. In this sense. a work that preserved the artist’s earliest experiments in videotape through the use of film (the more physically stable of the two formats). these works by Paik and Yalkut represent active attempts to undo this linear and deterministic pattern of media transformation by inscribing forceful critiques of television with the materials of cinema. he was not alone in this endeavor. 18. technology. 186 . perfectly encapsulate another example of this willfully distressed and anxious interaction of these technologies and their associated cultural connotations. these film artists remediated the technologies of what was then “new media” using the artistic resources of old media forms. these works used the plastic materials of an older medium to unhinge the significatory potential of a much younger mode of representation.. film.”217 However. Like Andy Warhol’s Outer and Inner Space (1965).

responded to the media in their painterly work as well as their performance and media projects. these artists devised novel ways of rebuilding and restructuring television sets and their signals. sometimes psychedelic visual patterns. Aldo Tambellini. some artists. Richard Hamilton. so appealing? (1956). used modified television sets as their principal medium. The first large scale public recognition of television’s significance as a concrete medium for fine art was the pioneering exhibit “TV as a Creative Medium. many artists converted the flow of the television signal from a representational figurative form of information and entertainment into abstract. In much of their work. In this early stage of television art.previous decade by the British artist. while others developed new forms that directly utilized the concrete structure of the television set itself. The shared 187 . which directly referenced the contemporary languages of visual and text advertising in Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different. In the 1960s a number of other artists responded to the rapidly expanding presence of television in all aspects of life. Eric Siegel. another New York based media artist. Ira Schneider. including Frank Gillette. Such works were early indicators of the expanding influence of television within the aesthetic register of fine art. closed circuit video cameras. or the new technologies of videotape. including Rauschenberg and Warhol.” held in May 1969 at the Howard Wise gallery in New York City. similarly spanned television. utilizing modified cathode ray tubes. film. The show featured work by twelve artists. and Nam June Paik. many of whom. and performance. whose work was also exhibited in the show.

Yalkut. But. Most experimental filmmakers of this era were simply not interested in providing a direct commentary upon. Consider. for example. Though a number of filmmakers included assorted images from television in their work. few were as rigorous or forceful in their efforts to transform the medium’s electronic signal into a potential resource for artistic filmic experimentation as Paik and Yalkut. on the 218 Though a number of contemporaneous experimental filmmakers did incorporate television material within their films – generally photographing this material directly off of television screens – they generally did so sparingly. or intervention into. in their hybrid uses of both filmic and televisual materials these artists juxtaposed and intermingled the tools and artistic strategies of these media in ways that challenged the dominant cultural values of the experimental filmmakers’ community in the period. these artists questioned the limits between forms of media – as well as strategies of authorship – while also challenging the era’s prevailing attitudes concerning the interaction of avantgarde and kitsch products within the mediascape of the 1960s. the televisual mediascape of the era. as it evidenced new strategies for creating hybrid forms of electronic and film materials that interrogated the limits between fine art and mass cultural forms. commercial materials. Most importantly. 188 .presence of Paik and Tambellini in this exhibit marks them as vanguard innovators in the early history of television based art. and Tambellini. by openly engaging with television. In the process of repurposing television and other industrial. uses of television imagery in Bruce Baillie’s Mass for the Dakota Sioux (1963–64) and Stan Brakhage’s 23rd Psalm Branch (1966/1978).218 Paik. A substantially more thorough incorporation of television materials can be found in Peter Mays’ Death of the Gorilla (1964). there are a number of other significant traits that their work shared.

in the same building. Upstairs from The Gate Theatre. these artists often incorporated their media works into happenings and group performance environments. considered the relationship between media to be a fluid one in which elements of electronic media. but fresh social structures as well.other hand. a collective that encouraged interaction between a range of artists working in a number of different media forms and traditions (like USCO. Throughout the 1960s Tambellini was the director of a number of experimental art collectives and theatrical venues for the exhibition of new forms of media art. Otto Piene. Tambellini also operated a film screening venue. The Gate Theatre. and with which Tambellini toured in the traveling exhibition Intermedia ‘68). as well as lecture/screenings (such as the “Psychedelia Tune-In” in 1966. not only new formal relations between the arts. and performance could be productively integrated into the shared social spaces of avant-garde art-making and countercultural actions with the intention of producing an event that was greater in scope and impression than the sum of its parts. In 1959. the arts collective with which Yalkut was associated. music. established the Black Gate in 189 . as an experimental exhibition space on 2nd Avenue. Tambellini and collaborator. and “Erotica Neuratica”) and experimental theater (from members of the Theater of the Ridiculous and the Living Theatre). film. in New York City that was extraordinary for its continuous around-the-clock screenings of avant-garde film. In addition to his experiments in multi-media forms. In their efforts to pioneer. he founded The Group Center.

as well as experimental theater/group performance by Yayoi Kusama. the radical process-based works of Fluxus. and performance. film. the collaborative multidisciplinary strategies of Paik and Yalkut.g. live music. video. Clayton Patterson (New York: 7 Stories Press. USCO (with Gerd Stern and Jud Yalkut).219 Tambellini’s efforts to transform the social contexts for art-making in the period were related to the collective authorial strategies of USCO. “A Syracuse Rebel in New York” in Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side. 2005).1967. Tambellini also directed his own multi-media events at the Black Gate and organized group protests and social events related to the activities and spaces of his theatrical venues. expressive works. 41–56. and more specifically. Abstract Expressionist painting – as celebrated by the most established modernist critics. all of which emphasized the drastic repurposing of contemporary communication technologies for artistic purposes and socio-political commentary. produced in clearly defined singular media – e. ed. 190 . 219 Some of these career details are outlined in Aldo Tambellini. Others were gathered from conversation with the author on December 29. 2008. a striking and unusual experimental art venue that was painted entirely black with no built-in lighting or seating in order to facilitate the presentation of “electromedia art” and live media forms. These efforts demonstrated a shared interest in challenging a model of artistic production that privileged the singleauthored. Some of the events at this venue featured performances utilizing video elements by artists such as Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman. Tambellini’s efforts spanned a range of technologies and cultural practices including television. light shows.

His collaboration with the remarkable cellist. including Robert Whitman. projected light and film) were more directly oppositional and aggressively antagonistic towards the conventionalized pleasures and commercial standards of entertainment. He described these events as “not theater. a group led by Billy Klüver) and Stan Vanderbeek. and in experimental television.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology. 311.”221 Tambellini’s multi-media projects initially subsumed the integrity of singular film texts within the theatrical 220 Tambellini worked with Bill Dixon. Archie Shepp. including Black Zero (a semi-theatrical project that featured live music. Tambellini. I think of film as a material to work with. He explained this relationship between film and other media in his work as follows: “Since my interest is in multimedia and mixed-media live events. blended filmic elements into theatrical. 221 Youngblood. part of the communications media rather than an end in itself.220 In his earliest film work.A. video. multi-media experiences that privileged the totality of the event over the textual cohesion or spectatorial interest of any single film.” Tambellini was perhaps the only artist of this milieu to incorporate live avant-garde jazz rather than rock and roll as the principal musical component of his multi-media presentations. but a clash between a variety of specific art forms. Robert Rauschenberg. not happenings.Though many artists of this multi-media community drew openly from the materials of popular music and mass culture – in a sense closely related to Warhol’s Pop Art aesthetics – Tambellini’s multi-media projects. Alan Silva. like a number of other artists in the era. 191 . dance. and other major figures of New York’s avant-garde jazz community. Calo Scott. was one of his most extensive creative partnerships. E.

and fully realized artistic encounter with the material conditions of American culture of the late 1960s as specifically mediated through the communication apparatus of television. Black TV achieved a sophisticated 192 . Like the works of Paik and of art events that utilized a number of media sources. or components of performances. self-contained single film texts. dense. as such. and an autonomous film text. In this sense his films. A number of these dual-status films exist in multiple forms as single screen works. Robert Breer.) His most accomplished films. Tambellini produced an extremely elaborate. strobe lights. With Black TV. Jud Yalkut. his specifically filmic language became more complex and. including those by Andy Warhol. and makeshift generators of abstract imagery. like a number of other filmic works described in this project. Carolee Schneemann. as his experiments with film became more intricate and detailed. The twofold identity of these works differentiates them from films that only functioned as either the source material for expanded cinema performance or traditionally exhibited. functioned both as an integrated audio-visual detail within larger multi-media projects. and others. However. theatrically screened films. had the dual status of raw material for multi-media and expanded cinema presentations. double screen projections. which was discussed in the first chapter of this study. including film and slide projectors. including Black TV. and fully realized. his efforts in this medium attained a double status as event and artifact (as did the example of Robert Breer’s Fist Fight.

it circulated for some time as a single screen film. Like Beatles Electroniques. aesthetic possibilities. 222 193 . Black TV: The culmination of Tambellini’s film practice is the work Black TV. In creating this collision between media and their social significations. His work staged literal and symbolic encounters between the specific technologies. From the outset of the work. Tambellini directly drew attention to the different registers of historical reference and social signification of these discrete media. and they continue relentlessly as such. that The film has been projected as both a two-screen piece. it is difficult for the viewer to determine exactly what it is that is being seen or heard. because of its rapid and aggressive sonic and visual textures. and social referents of television and film. and strident assaults on the senses.222 Both the image and sound tracks for the film begin as busy. It is also the version that won an award at the Oberhausen short film festival and that was purchased for the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This is the version that was in distribution through Grove Press for some time.blend of differing audio-visual languages derived from the traditions and technologies of both commercial television and experimental film. with different image tracks side-byside. loud visual and sonic barrage. the images move so quickly and feature such visual distortion. frenetic. featuring televisual white noise (or “snow”). Though Tambellini now prefers to show the work as a two screen video. and as a single-screen film. Tambellini’s 1969 film powerfully encapsulated certain timely sensibilities concerning the function of television in everyday life. The single screen version of the 16mm film Black TV begins with an abrasive.

as described above (in the discussion of Ken Werner’s transformation of the Beatles’ music). visually evoking the traumas of the conflict in Vietnam. semi-abstract sound collage related to the sonic component of Beatles Electroniques. however. conversation with the author.they continually slip in and out of comprehensibility. because of the television text that flashes by. it becomes clear that both registers of the work – its images and its soundtrack – utilize broadcast television news footage as their primary content. Eventually. in the form of abstract sonic elements. additional. 2008). creating a rhythmic. albeit in a radically modified form. frantically asking. non-television material. Is that possible? Is that possible?” (The famous recording featured the voice of radio reporter Andrew West. December 29. it does however include significant. and riots. which was well underway when this film was being made.) This dramatic phrase of the stunned newscaster is then repeated numerous times and looped on the soundtrack. that the person being carried away is Robert Kennedy. “Senator Kennedy has been shot. including experimental electronic ambient sound produced by sound generators and wave oscillators (Aldo Tambellini. we see images of an Asian baby screaming. 223 The soundtrack of the film functions somewhat differently: Though the film’s soundtrack emphasizes language and sound from television news broadcasts. becoming discernible within the film’s noisy collage of sound.223 The film’s first discernible images feature African Americans in scenes of public chaos. We then hear a news reporter’s voice. Following some visually transformed television footage of Robert Kennedy’s assassination. in sections of various lengths. It becomes clear. 194 . This repetitive composition of found sound elements evokes a number of contemporaneous audiotape pieces by minimalist composer Steve Reich. violence. followed by a scene of someone being carried into an ambulance.

rodeos. including scenes of policemen hitting protestors and the explosions of mushroom clouds produced by atomic bomb tests. 195 . The film then displays the familiar brand icons of the major television stations – ABC. After this visual deluge of American historical crises. skiing. Black TV is a more aggressive and insistent work that those of Paik and Yalkut described above. Tambellini’s film integrates an aggressive assault of visual and sonic noise that blends aesthetic strategies of disruption and dissonance with emotionally symbolic footage. The clamor of screams and reporters’ commentary is temporarily replaced by a more ambient and rhythmic soundtrack of electronic sounds. including jostled television scan lines and the squirm of television grain. and back-and-forth zooms that punctuate its rhythmic presentation. and CBS – followed by footage of boxing matches. abstractions.Over this chaotic blend of network news tragedy. The rhetorical social force of this television news material is modified and heightened by its incorporation into an audio-visual battlefield of rapid montage. and car races. It proceeds at a breakneck pace of montage in both sound and image and displays a different tonal strategy from the more meditative style of Paik and Yalkut. busy superimposition. all of which are less fluid and substantially rougher than Paik’s flowing. plastic. there are filmic superimpositions of televisual materials. After this brief interlude of sport and speed the film quickly returns to its previous register of reference as it cuts to more serious acts of public violence. NBC. the film’s tone shifts somewhat. featuring machinic timbres. In its aesthetics.

In his overall strategy for Black TV Tambellini recombines the televised tragedies of the era into a violent and relentless cinematic attack on the senses that use a radical formal blend of filmic techniques and televisual source materials to induce an anxiogenic experience for the viewer that was entirely congruent with the hostile social events that it depicted. the contemporary American. an image of a crying black child is repeated with some insistence. 311. superimposition.”224 The film references the assassination of Robert 224 Youngblood. the witnessing of events.” and “rat. Tambellini explained that. and visual flicker to unsettle and attack the television image. tellingly. This artistic strategy of repurposing the social and historical content of live television through the medium of film had powerful aesthetic and philosophical implications.Occasionally a word or two become selectively discernible on the film’s soundtrack. and the expansion of the senses.” Towards the end of the film’s complex sonic and visual mesh. the media. 196 . At times. including. it is clear that Tambellini has modified his source news footage by photographing it from the television screen and changing its visual qualities through the use of a variety of plastic film techniques. his use of sound approximates the chaos and disjunction of the film’s visual track. rhythmic zooms. In his exceptionally agile manipulation of the plastic film image. Similarly. “Black TV is about the future. Tambellini incorporates a wealth of effects that are particular to the medium including rapid montage. “syphilis. the injustice. 313.” “LSD.

and subject to a range of violent manipulations. As the viewer struggles to comprehend the quickly shifting parade of non-fiction images. Perhaps most importantly. fractured. intangible. and public upheaval. by way of example. As it overloads the senses and overdetermines the force of its social and historical iconography. comprehension. like the history that it illustrates. Black TV demonstrates that television. is noisy.Kennedy. blurred. the Vietnam War. he or she inevitably becomes aware simultaneously of the violence of American life in the 1960s and the centrality of television to the public’s awareness. the race riots of the late 1960s. the film argues that television determines America’s understanding of its own experiences of social crisis. it also draws our attention to the ways in which the visual and sonic representations of these historical problems were communicated to the country’s population through the mediating language of television. figurative representation of social traumas. electronic abstraction and the historically specific. that this interaction between contemporary events and the mediascape of the country’s most ubiquitous technology is one that necessarily provokes a severe anxiety about 197 . the film presents a wildly distorted kaleidoscopic view of contemporary social events in which the era’s most traumatic social events are made fuzzy. and urban decay. As it stages a violent encounter between a distinctively televisual. poverty. In a sense. and even more violent as a result of these transformations. physical trauma. With a parade of images that shift in and out of visual legibility. and understanding of that very brutality. Black TV argues.

as Paik and Yalkut had in their collaborations). The result is a work that.both human history and our capacity to understand it through the reproductive technologies of mass media. and Tambellini renovated and repurposed materials of the most ubiquitous mass media sources – popular music (in combination with its visual representation) and television news 198 . Paik. historically. Expanded Cinema: In Beatles Electroniques and Black TV. The crises that the film represents are also realized metaphorically through the violent breakdown of its own imagery and its mechanisms for communicating meaning. Black TV uses the exceptionally plastic resources of experimental film (and its capacity to create entirely independent and equally flexible soundtracks. To effectively critique and break down the visual and sonic material of television. Black TV is a semi-abstract essay film that suggests that the social violence of the era was also somehow implicit in its primary mass medium. and aesthetically urgent work closely attuned to the zeitgeist of the era and its somewhat forgotten aesthetics of sensory assault and psychic tumult. was a culturally. The film argues that television – a technology then dependent on an ephemeral electronic signal passing through the air – is an imperfect and volatile medium that encapsulates the philosophical and social crises of its age through the irrational and inexplicable breakdown of its capacity to mediate history to its viewers. Yalkut. though little seen now. “Cybernated Shock and Catharsis”: Viral Aesthetics.

These artists broke down and destabilized the communications systems of mass media by forcing the established and normative audio-visual languages of television to shake and quiver anxiously through the forceful plastic transformations and distortions that were made available by the specific technologies of the film apparatus.” Recently. Feedback. and rhetorical terms. 199 . art historian David Joselit has described these disruptive strategies as “viral aesthetics. In an analysis of Paik’s strategies. and noise. This aesthetic of disruption was a major component of the cultural and aesthetic zeitgeist of the period. distribution. 63.”225 As both Beatles Electroniques and Black TV show us. “The purpose of viral aesthetics is to interrupt the smooth reproduction of pattern in order to induce shake. Borrowing from the language of author William S. despite their inherent electronic potency for the reproduction. using strategies that defiled its coherence and its capacity to make conventional sense in social. he has written about the social and aesthetic force of these transformative experiments in media history. and proliferation of audio-visual information streams. Burroughs. the patterns of mass media are not impenetrable. its antagonistic gestures were realized through a 225 Joselit.– into abstract collages of densely interwoven layers of information that forcefully reconstituted their original functions as entertainment and information into sonic noise and visual clatter. he writes. By making popular music abrasive and news footage incomprehensible. aesthetic. these artists attacked the very medium of television itself. quiver.

video. and film art. These major trends in confrontational. and filmmaker. disruptive. MA: Zone Books. the experimental practices described above directly performed this hostile breakdown of meaning and cultural convention by disrupting and dismantling the television signal itself. 226 200 . anxiogenic art were integrally connected to filmmaking experiments during the Vietnam era and they have been neglected by most critical considerations of the period’s aesthetics. interactive uses of film and television materials. in which television. particularly as they relate to experimental cinema. Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage (Cambridge. and film served central functions. a 1967 live multiArt historian. 2008). and Tambellini – into a particular set of transformations and exchanges between television. musician. and witnesses who came into contact with the confrontational modes of sensory experience described herein. aggressive. gallery attendees. video. Tony Conrad that is an exception to this neglect. See Branden Joseph. multi-media project of the mid-to-late 1960s. As they undermined the medium’s capacity to create patterned meanings. Branden Joseph has produced a major critical study of artist. critic Grace Glueck described Black Zero. In live presentations of this multi-media work. Yalkut.226 This chapter considers some of these strategies and the ways in which they figure – through the work of Paik. another register of audio-visual violence was visited directly upon the viewers. these artists also contributed to more performative.variety of media in efforts to transform the conventionalized experiences of art and entertainment. *** The “electromedia” work of Aldo Tambellini provides a productive example of such a disruptive. In a review in the New York Times. However.

films. 8. September 16. (The performances featured the voice of Marian Zarzeela and Young bowing a brass mortar or bowl. the composer withdrew his approval to use his music. collaborative. video installations. because of Young’s demand that they be played at extreme volume.”227 These events (organized by Tambellini and featuring a number of collaborators) included live music.” New York Times. It happens now – it has a live quality. no. Haircut. 1967: 35. It’s a 227 Grace Glueck. and theatrical effects (like the exploding balloon described above). September 12. Kiss. 84–86. explaining that the members of the audience “are blitzed by such devices as eye-searing strobe lights. and as a result. utilized extremely loud and dissonant sonic elements that heightened the work’s efforts to challenge conventional understandings of audio-visual pleasure. wailing sirens. “Festival Bringing Pop Artist’s Films to Lincoln Center. As a result the films were shown silent for the remainder of their exhibition at the festival. Eat. these experiments in multimedia sensory assault were often met with dismay. slide projectors. Tambellini explained the experimental frontiers of his work with a terminology that emphasized the expansion of consciousness: “We are the primitives of a new era.” New York Times. and Sleep. 228 A related. With multimedia you create an effect that is not based on previous experience. using Fairchild 400 screening devices (that resembled TV monitors) at Lincoln Center in New York. however. and like Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable. the jumpy play of images on a screen. Eugene Archer.228 As the tone of the New York Times article suggests. which had been transferred onto 8mm cartridges for continuous rear projection. 201 . “Multimedia: Massaging Senses for the Message. 1964: 15. See Branden Joseph. 37. “’My Mind Split Open’: Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable.) The three-minute looped sections of the films were played in the lobby of the Philharmonic Hall during the New York Film event by Tambellini. You saturate the audience with images.” Grey Room 1. Young provided a newly recorded version of his piece. performance elements. the management demanded that they be made quieter. intermedial experiment in this history is the 1964 collaboration of Warhol and LaMonte Young. and a huge balloon that bursts with the clap of a thunderbolt. in which the filmmaker commissioned the composer to provide music to accompany excerpts of his films. “Composition 1960 #9” (1960) that may have been used for all four excerpts.

as cited above. It is not a ‘happening’ nor a film. 202 . “Multimedia: Massaging Senses for the Message. live. Tambellini’s Group Center promoted exhibition experiences that would “bombard” the people who came into contact with their projects. in terms of experience in itself. this reconfiguration of social and aesthetic patterns (which Tambellini discussed. It is a Space-Light-Motion Event built on a series of experiences designed to bombard. their capacity to saturate the senses. multi-media events) was also central to the aesthetic strategies that he employed on a different scale within the textual limits of the single-screen version of the film Black TV. 1965. A 1965 press release for Tambellini’s Group Center collective described the social and aesthetic intentions of these multi-media environments. Though applied differently. propel and blast the audience into what Group Center believes is “The New Reality” … The psychological re-orientation of man in the Space Era … The exploration of the Microcosm and the Macrocosm … The violent revaluations in our social structure … [ellipses in original]230 This press release provides a glimpse into the confrontational aesthetic mindset that motivated much of the experimental media work of the era.”229 His comments emphasized the liveness of these events. previously impossible experiences. Collection of Anthology Film Archives.” 35. The press release’s language of “bombardment” and “propulsion” represents an effort to describe a register of performative artistic practice that openly pursued 229 230 Glueck. These events were intended to function as multi-media machines for the reconfiguration of conventional sensory experience and the normative modes of thought that were associated with it. Dated November 9. and their directed use towards the production of new.

By virtue of its large scale of projection. In the late 1960s and early 1970s. and its inborn capacity for radical juxtapositions by virtue of montage. these aesthetics of disruption and assault were also inscribed quite forcefully within the textual limits of the films themselves. Because of the film medium’s naturally immersive. this language of technological shock and revolution was widespread and deeply inscribed within the aesthetic sensibility of many experimental filmmakers (though this fact has been largely ignored by most historians who have traced the narrative of American experimental film in terms of a privileged visionary and romantic avant-garde). multi-media apparatus. though it may have been used as part of larger mediascapes and performance presentations – as mentioned above. Paik described his project in terms similar to those used by Tambellini and The 203 . its amplified soundtrack. film was commonly involved in many of these immersive multi-media experiments. Tambellini’s film was also realized as a two-screen installation – Black TV showcased a relentless aesthetic attack that was directly related to the widespread countercultural effort to enact social and psychic transformations with the tools of new media.spectatorial discomfort for the benefit of an aggressively psychedelic. it was a privileged tool for this type of experimentation within the cultural landscape of the 1960s. Yet. though much of Tambellini’s language above relates to the extratextual histories of these works and their conditions of exhibition. In this sense. transformative experience.

) The aesthetic sensibility of Paik’s earlier performances – which included the smashing of pianos and violins. as described below. My everyday work with video tape and the cathode-ray tube convinces me of this. which continuously direct their massive technological and social resources towards the penetration of the public’s psychic space. Paik quoted in “Manifestos” in Great Bear Pamphlet. 231 204 . experimental set of tools that were specific to the cultural landscape of the era. “through certain built-in poison” can we disrupt the “poison” of television and mass media. originally published by Something Else Press (1966) (and republished by Ubu. caused by cybernated life. Paik uses the metaphor of television as poison to suggest that we ingest media.Group Center. require accordingly cybernated shock and catharsis. then some specific frustrations. 2004). noted above. In his encounters with television and film. dragging his head across the floor while covered in tomato juice and ink – reminds us that his overall artistic program consistently enacted a series of shocks that were intended to challenge. ubclassics imprint. presenting it as a corrective to the onslaught of controlling social forces: But if Pasteur and Robespierre are right that we can resist poison only through certain built-in poison. and only by repurposing these technologies through strategies of shock and catharsis can we expunge their poisonous functions.231 The artist here proposes that only by turning a medium against itself. (This language is likely influenced by the “counter irritant” strategies suggested by McLuhan. undo. and perhaps. Paik aimed to unmask and attack the electronic basis of the media’s social functions with a newly devised. the public’s socially constructed understanding of aesthetic and ethical categories. drinking shampoo.

Shirley Clarke. In fact. the video-film hybrid experiments of these filmmakers were based on non-hierarchical notions of the relationship between different media. In a previous chapter. and Yoko Ono. and symbolic violence that underpinned many of these film experiments could also be located in the performance. it was argued that acts of profilmic provocation in experimental non-fiction works by Andy Warhol. sensory overload. In his compilation of essays. not as isolated experiments by visionary artists.The Critical and Intellectual Framing of an Aesthetics of Disturbance: This notion of a purely filmic aesthetics was not a major consideration for the intermedial experiments described above. but as significant practices that share attitudes and energies with other developments across the artistic and intellectual networks of the day. Similarly. the freneticism. the film/television works described above should be understood as acts of experimental artistic violence upon both televisions and audiences that similarly represent combative and anxious energies of the era. The disruptive aesthetic sensibilities of a number of experimental film works of the 1960s and 70s need to be understood. Like a number of other artists who were associated with the countercultural movement. minimalist music. 205 . and conceptual art of the 1960s. The New Bohemia. experimental theater. journalist John Gruen traced changes in the timbre of artistic production and social life in the early-tomid 1960s. represented one filmic connection to trends in performance and experimental theater of the era. particularly as they affected the Lower East Side of New York City.

For McLuhan. 206 . The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born. For the parallel between two 232 Gruen.” Within this multi-media landscape of the period. that embraced the aesthetics of assault as cathartic and transformative social experimentation.”232 (Here Gruen could easily be describing the multimedia events of Tambellini. 112. In his new media cosmology. he argued that cinema in particular had a unique force as a tool for “derangement” that made it a central and powerful component of the cultural atmosphere of the era: “Its all-encompassing artistic drives and its all-out assault on the senses stand as symbols of a movement bent on aggressively reevaluating and redefining every artistic precept it can lay its hands on. these artists and filmmakers described above were heavily influenced by Marshall McLuhan’s argument that new media forms fundamentally transform the basic conditions of thought and experience. the privileged sites of this aggressive assault on established forms are the frontiers between discrete media. He writes that. the artist acts as a seer of sorts and defuses the potentially destructive power of these technologies through acts of experimental violence. As has been suggested elsewhere in this chapter.He argued that a range of social anxieties were visited upon the space of cultural experimentation.) The experiments in viral aesthetics by artists in this chapter need to be repositioned in historical analysis as part of this widespread cultural action. rooted in the medium of film. through the activities of a group of young people he described as “the combine generation.

as an aesthetic “counter-irritant. a combative function. and should have. In this sense. in concert with a number of other thinkers – going back to Dadaism and futurism perhaps – that art could.234 The philosophical underpinnings and rhetorical framings of these anxiogenic and combative strategies differed or artist to the next. This counterattack. “One Culture and the New Sensibility. In fact. in her seminal essay.233 According to McLuhan’s influential position.” considered the shifting 233 234 McLuhan. this variety of directed intermedial assault had a therapeutic function for society that could be uniquely applied by artists. Understanding Media. this encounter between distinct media forms (and their associated perceptual expectations) creates an aperture for artists to end the narcissistic and numbing influence of television and other media forms. he writes that all media can be used as weapons. at the end of Understanding Media. again using the contemporaneous language of McLuhan. was directed towards the destabilization of the television medium’s smooth flow of information. 207 . which repurposes media technologies in order to undermine their conventions and established holds us on the frontiers between forms that snap us out of the Narcissus-narcosis. See McLuhan. This idea was extremely influential for many filmmakers and intermedial artists discussed in this project. Understanding Media.” For McLuhan. Susan Sontag. as tools for undermining established forms of control. 55. 41–47. and might be therefore described. McLuhan argued. The moment of the meeting of media is a moment of freedom and release from the ordinary trance and numbness imposed by them on our senses.

In her efforts to clarify precisely what was new about experimental art in the period. and unhinging normative thought through provocative challenges to sensory expectations. new ‘sensory mixes. This art-based obliteration of traditional aesthetic strategies was not only enacted upon the media forms forms of the 1960s. in principle. “the most interesting works of contemporary art […] are adventures in sensation. experimental – not out of an elitist disdain for what is accessible to the majority. Sontag explained it as follows: “What we are getting is not the demise of art. but a transformation of the function of art. 208 . in this context. were produced by artists like Stockhausen. in which art was used as a new kind of tool for reconfiguring established notions of pleasure and aesthetic meaning. […] Art today is a new kind of instrument. “One Culture and the New Sensibility. Cage.” 300. but was also directed towards the space of their reception as they bombarded music audiences. gallery attendees. and argued that the developing trends of the era radically undermined the social function of art as it had come to be understood in previous historical moments.”235 Art. In these new works (that according to her. which was literally experimental. was understood to serve the social and psychic function of undoing established patterns of behavior and thinking. but precisely in the sense that science is experimental.’ Such art is. by intervening into social space. and film spectators with different varieties of sensory overload. an instrument for 235 Sontag. the critic observed a sensibility. and Warhol). She argues that.

”236 What Sontag observed in the art of the period was a desire to use media to induce psychic transformation. this sense of an experimental art that functions to test limits and conceptual problems suggests something of the spirit of science. She argued that a “reaction against what is 236 Ibid. as discussed above. Andy Warhol. Paul Sharits. including Jonas Mekas.) In comparison to the historiography of art and popular culture. Nam June Paik. Many cultural critics of the era noted this shift in the boundaries between the aesthetic sphere and the public one in terms of scientific energies. there is little recognition in the scholarship on experimental film of the powerful influence that this idea – which was explicitly articulated by many artists and critics. with science.. John Gruen. Susan Sontag explained the shifting aesthetic sensibility as an act of research into a set of problems. to devise new ways of interacting with media. 209 . Calvin Tomkins.” (This was an idea that was entirely congruent with those of Artaud. and Marshall McLuhan – had on various aspects of film practice at the time. and produce what she described as “new modes of sensibility. with society. experimental art has been described by both Allan Kaprow and John Cage as a way of intervening in the sphere of aesthetics and public life with acts whose outcome cannot be predicted. 296.modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility. with which Sontag was both a devotee and an expert. As suggested earlier in this project. Carolee Schneemann. In its effort to uncover patterns of thought through systematic disturbance.

like their colleagues in E. 279. “Today’s art. video. 210 . there was evidence of a marked ambivalence. spokespersons for the new aesthetics. Paik and Tambellini. As Cage and Kaprow.’ is closer to the spirit of science than of art in the old-fashioned sense. its spirit of exactness. or perhaps. particularly as they 237 Ibid. in the correspondence between Stan Brakhage and Annette Michelson.” She continued. for experimentation. As suggested at the opening of this project. presented distinctive possibilities from those of film.understood as the romantic spirit dominates most of the interesting art of today. its refusal of what it considers to be sentimentality.T. In this regard. there was a sense that art could function as an investigative instrument..”237 In fact. Some filmmakers perceived these differing artistic and ontological attributes as potential threats to their hard fought philosophical battles concerning film as a medium for the production of significant advanced art. humanistic research. as an instrument for social. with its insistence on coolness. as an epistemological tool. a number of media artists were also demonstrating the breakdown of a mutual exclusivity between art and science in the spirit of research. With “the new sensibility. for the artistic practices associated with video. quite literally.A. even a disdain.” discussed by Sontag and others. (and many others) did in fact collaborate with scientists and engineers (from Bell Labs and other scientific research institutions) to produce new television and broadcast technologies. were arguing that the boundaries between art and life were eroding. its sense of ‘research’ and ‘problems.

video had been firmly ensconced in the art world for some time. In his letter to Michelson. still under recognized medium for the production of art. a die-hard film devotee. a major show for gauging significant trends in the American art scene. Brakhage mentioned that he had long “resisted the crows of video makers”238 and she responded by writing that “one begins. 211 . thrashing about in a hostile landscape. June 16. 1985. 1985. be available to experimental film. when their quoted exchange took place. to feel like a dinosaur.”239 By 1985. Film would not be included in Biennial exhibitions until 1979. This situation was indicative of wider trends in art criticism and curatorial practice that demonstrate the differing treatment of film versus video in the institutional contexts of the art world. collection of the University of Colorado. having achieved a place in the gallery and museum establishment that would never. in 1975. This. historic. 238 Letter from Stan Brakhage to Annette Michelson. caught in the wave of retrenchment of filmic resources and the onrush of video. perhaps. even though it was a much older medium with a rich and long history of experimental work by established artists. Stan Brakhage Papers.were felt to be eclipsing the aesthetic. June 7. even today. Stan Brakhage Papers. 239 Letter from Annette Michelson to Stan Brakhage. In fact. is the “hostile landscape” to which Michelson was referring in her letter to Brakhage. and social potency of this older. video art was officially incorporated into the Whitney Museum’s biennial exhibition. collection of the University of Colorado.

Sontag noted that a “reaction against what is understood as the romantic spirit dominates most of the interesting art of today.241 As Rauschenberg both literally and 240 Sontag. but was based on a public lecture at the 241 212 . art critic Leo Steinberg famously drew attention to the work of Robert Rauschenberg. “Other Criteria” in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. Yalkut.” in which Steinberg felt that the conditions of artistic production changed markedly from those of a previous era. which preceded it. 82. their media art should be understood as part of a much larger shift in artistic sensibility. “One Culture and the New Sensibility. across a range of media in the post World War II era. including pop art and assemblage. Because of their repurposing of mass-produced television imagery. and what he described as “the characteristic picture plane of the 1960s. and Tambellini depended primarily on corporate media sources to provide their foundational content. As has been suggested elsewhere in this project. icons. that emphasized the recycling of mass cultural materials over the demiurgic and expressive creativity of the age of abstract expressionism and bebop.”240 The majority of the experimental video-film experiments in media art described above should be understood as coextensive with other developments in postwar art.Conclusion: “From Nature to Culture”: The video-film interactions of Paik. which depended on the infinitely replicated iconography of mass media to provide their principal themes. Leo Steinberg. 1972). and historical referents.” 279. Steinberg’s “Other Criteria” essay was published in the volume of the same name in 1972. In describing this shift in artistic values of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

he directed his energies away from nature and towards the representation of already mediated images. however he suggests earlier in his essay that the stakes of such claims extend well beyond the limits of Museum of Modern Art. The part of the essay concerned with Rauschenberg and “the shift from nature to culture” was first published in Artforum in 1972. 244 Ibid. “precipitation probability ten percent tonight. the shift from nature to culture.”242 He described this transitional strategy of representation as “the foundation of an artistic language that would deal with a different order of experience. 242 Steinberg. Steinberg poetically articulated the way in which Rauschenberg’s aesthetic shift from illusionism to media documentary aligned with larger cultural changes: What he [Rauschenberg] invented above all was. New York. collages.. 243 Ibid. a pictorial surface that let the world in again.” electronically transmitted from some windowless booth. Rauschenberg’s reflections on media and mediation marked a transition that was wholly congruent with the changing experiences of America in the age of television. in 1968. Steinberg argued that Rauschenberg’s meditations on mediation embodied “the most radical shift in the subject matter of art. and pieces of comic books into his paintings.. and combine works. 213 . magazine ads. Not the world of the Renaissance man who looked for his weather clues out of the window. Steinberg located in Rauschenberg’s floor bound combines a major shift in the values of painting. 90. by incorporating images from newspapers.figuratively turned his back on the live model as a source of subject matter. I think.”243 In this regard. 84. 85.244 As these quotations above demonstrate. but the world of men who turn knobs to hear a taped message.

and like Rauschenberg. However. Paik. the essay. Beatles Electroniques and Black TV expose the technological basis for the construction of social meaning and ethics within the electronic spaces of television. Yalkut. into the social and historical spaces of post World War II America. it is precisely this turn “from nature to culture” that the video-film works of Paik. evidence of shifting artistic and philosophical priorities can be located in this change in emphasis that manifests a conscious choice to foreground materials derived from broadcast television. This move from nature to culture marks a significant shift in the aesthetics of experimental cinema.any medium. experimental film has always been inscribed with some trace of mass culture. is a meditation on the relationship between form and cultural context. as these works above demonstrate. In fact. This cultural transformation drives the intermedial experiments in film and video while also identifying an associative register that extends well beyond the philosophical confines of personal expression. 214 . and Tambellini took the most common visual materials of their age to be their principal subjects. direct their energies toward a new notion of both aesthetics and visual pleasure in which all meaning is mediated. In this regard. in a more general sense. Because of the fact that it shares a recording medium with Hollywood. Though a number of artists in the era had incorporated mass cultural detritus into their work in film. In this regard. Steinberg’s essay suggests implicitly that this transition was not particular to Rauschenberg’s medium or artistic milieu. and Tambellini dramatize. Yalkut.

Beatles Electroniques and Black TV utilize the source materials of mass culture rather those of nature because in the age of mass media, television has replaced nature as the public’s immediate referent. Though artists would continue to make personal, expressive works throughout the history of the medium, such efforts must necessarily be understood and evaluated in relation to the effects and functions of popular media forms that provide the historical context for the production and reception of such projects. The efforts of Paik, Yalkut, and Tambellini demarcate a concerted effort by experimental filmmakers, not precisely to distance themselves from commercial modes of mass cultural communication, but to engage directly with them, using their native materials and technologies. By reconfiguring these objects and technologies using strategies of disruption and distortion (in ways that were particular to the medium of film), these artists dramatized the breakdown of television’s normativity as a determinant of the structure and content of the popular history of the United States.


Chapter 4: Appropriation, Assemblage, and Collective Authorship on the West Coast

“The American mind is an assemblage.” – Allan Kaprow (1966)245

In the years after World War II, the dominant philosophical and representational imperatives of avant-garde art in the United States shifted away from an expressive practice associated with the energies of abstract expressionism towards alternative representational tactics that often engaged directly with the audio-visual materials of mass culture. In concert with the experiments in television and film discussed in the last chapter, other more well known, established artistic movements and trends incorporated the materials of industrially produced, commercial culture. For example, the painters associated with pop art – including Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and James Rosenquist – openly imitated the iconography and tonal palette of commercial advertising, cartoons, and corporate logos in their work. Similarly, in a more direct mode of citation, a number of collage artists, like Ray Johnson, Jess (Collins), and Wallace Berman, utilized elements of mass produced commercial catalogues and pulp magazines in their two-dimensional constructions. The semi-sculptural medium of assemblage expanded the logic of collage into three dimensional spaces. As practiced by artists like Robert Rauschenberg, George Herms, and Bruce Conner,

Kaprow, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, 73.


assemblage provided a way of incorporating everything from newspaper images, photographs from pornographic magazines, costume jewelry, to broken furniture into a type of mixed media work that signaled an increased material involvement with American industry and the economics of waste. Though collage was first introduced into fine art practice in the era of Cubism and Kurt Schwitters during the 1920s, its logic and methods of repurposing the discarded, disposed materials of mass culture gained their most widespread artistic currency in the United States later, during the late 1950s and 1960s. Though it had always had a presence in 20th-century modernist art, assemblage became a more prevalent artistic form in the post World War II period, and as art historian Lucy Lippard accurately describes it, “emerged as a major instead of a minor trend during the 1950’s.”246 The influence and historical reach of these strategies of assemblage and reappropriation extended across a range of media, and thus functioned in tandem with other aspects of cultural practice that favored citation and quotation as representational methods.247 In film history, the mode of production that most powerfully adopts the logic of recycling and recontextualization is generally described or categorized as found footage filmmaking. Though the footage used by Conner and other filmmakers may not literally have been “found” as much as sought out, this


Lucy Lippard, Pop Art (London: Thames & Hudson, 1970), 72. It should be noted that French theorists were also radically revising the understanding of authorship and textual construction in roughly the same era as the artists described above. See Michel Foucault, “What is an Author?” (1969) in Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, trans. Donald F. Bouchard, Sherry Simon (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1977), 124–127; Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” (1968) in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 142–148.


approach to film production assembles, edits, and resequences filmic materials derived from a range of popular and commercial sources into new artistic forms. This practice of filmmaking developed in a period roughly contemporaneous with the postwar acceleration of collage and assemblage in fine art practice. Assemblage artists and found footage filmmakers used a diverse, open-ended range of materials, from discarded toys to candy wrappers to Hollywood B films, as the raw material of new hybrid forms of art. Philosophically speaking, this pronounced trend towards the recontextualization of throwaway mass culture suggested a transformed conceptualization of artistic authorship, in which an artist need not depend exclusively upon the force of his or her imagination as a singular artistic resource. Rather than creating art that was inspired by an isolated artistic ego – creating something from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) – assemblage artists and found footage filmmakers engaged in a kind of widespread material collaboration with the media environment that surrounded them in mid-20th Century America. In the context of experimental film practice, it was Bruce Conner, an established assemblage and collage artist (though until recently, underrecognized), who extended the recombinatory logic of these forms into his filmmaking practice. Conner almost single-handedly established the practice of found footage film art, in which he created new film texts from the unlikely materials of industrial documentaries, low-budget film serials, and semipornographic stag films. Conner’s remarkably prescient output across a range of media demonstrates a particular brand of anti-elitist iconoclasm that challenged


the supposed division between the precious domain of fine art and the commercialized media space that surrounded it. His varied and heterogeneous work forged new relationships between the artist and his environment. He demonstrated that any medium – be it painting, performance, conceptual art, rock & roll light shows, collaborations with Hollywood filmmakers, photography, jug band music, assemblage, collage, video, or film – was an appropriate platform for his particular breed of cultural intervention. Conner’s shift from nature to culture was so direct, in a sense, that he often made films without a camera, instead making the juxtaposition of commercially produced imagery his sole artistic strategy for the production of new film works. Conner often said, “I only own the splices,” suggesting that many of his films were, in a sense, the product of a range of industrial labor that greatly exceeded the author’s editorial contributions. Conner consciously undermined categories of artistic signification through a strategic dismantling of their structures of value. This aspect of his work was so continuous and forceful that, regardless of medium, it begs to be understood as such, as part of an artistic practice whose philosophical purpose, critically speaking, overcomes the differing material conditions of his chosen media.

Like the work of other artists discussed in this project, Conner’s films catalyze an anxious interpretative experience in which the cultural crosstalk and iconographic oversaturation of the work’s multiple messages overwhelms the possibility of a single coherent understanding of its rhetorical or symbolic


functions. As his films and assemblages provocatively challenge conventional notions of good taste and craftsmanship, they initiate dialogues between a range of culturally opposed dichotomies: the exploitative energies of pornography versus the libratory sexual attitudes of the counterculture, the control of social institutions versus the popular language of psychic expansion, the formulaic nature of popular music versus its utopian sentiments and energies. In short, the films and assemblages of Bruce Conner engage with the most significant social and philosophical concerns of Cold War America by presenting a visually and sonically concise analysis of them. However, as Conner’s films attack these socioeconomic structures of control and repression, they nevertheless remain always anxiously indecisive and ambivalent texts. This chapter will consider strategies of found footage filmmaking and other uncommon varieties of modified or redefined authorial collaboration in cinema. In some of these examples, creative intervention is shifted away from the space behind the camera to the editing bench upon which the filmic materials are assembled. Other case studies present provocative varieties of filmic collaboration with a cultural environment or other non-traditional strategies of modified, aleatory, or collective authorship. This discussion will consider the ways in which Conner’s assemblage based filmmaking – as well the collaborative film practices of Robert Nelson, perhaps Conner’s most significant devotee – defy the dominant understanding of experimental film as an imaginative, gestural, expressive, and rhetorically uniform practice by substituting significant elements of humor,


sarcasm, irony, and structural heterogeneity that often culminate in works dominated by ambivalence and ambiguity. The films of these two artists demonstrate related efforts to transpose the practice of experimental cinema into a fresh tonal register by utilizing innovative authorial strategies that share philosophical imperatives with other trends in art and media, including most notably, assemblage. In addition, as the work of these two filmmakers represents a philosophically dissimilar approach from that of the romantic avant-garde, it also demonstrates a sensibility that is perhaps more typical of the San Francisco Bay area than of New York City, where both of these artists created much of their defining work. In this regard, the current chapter will attempt to shift some of this dissertation’s arguments away from the East Coast by presenting case studies derived from an alternative geographical locale.

Assemblage, Critical History, and the Problem of Social Reference: It is important to consider the critical history of assemblage in order to understand the relationship, in general terms, between art and its environment within the criticism of the period. Such literature is also significant because it may partially compensate for an absence of attention within the film literature of the time to the methods of appropriation and assemblage. Though Conner’s first found footage film was made in 1957, there was at the time virtually no major philosophical consideration of the relationship between such films – of the independent, artisanal, or experimental variety – and


the mediascape that surrounded them. Nevertheless, as Conner’s artistic production and written commentary indicate, he was intimately aware of the distinctive emotional, sexual, and significatory force of the cinematic apparatus as a device to provoke both pleasure and anxiety – sometimes simultaneously – and his work trafficked directly in the social, referential, and affective potential of these systems of representation. In 1961, William C. Seitz, an associate curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, organized an influential show of mixed media works titled, “The Art of Assemblage.” This traveling exhibition collected a heterogeneous and eclectic international group of semi-sculptural artworks that emphasized artistic appropriation. A catholic survey of the practice, Seitz’s exhibition collected an extremely diverse range of object, from pre-war European modernist artist, associated with Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, Suprematism, and Futurism, like Pablo Picasso, Hannah Höch, Kurt Schwitters, Andre Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Kasimir Malevich, and Max Ernst, to a range of international contemporary, socalled “neo-dada” artists including Americans like Conner, Herms, Ed Kienholz, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Lucas Samaras, George Brecht, and Robert Watts. In its historical, geographical, and conceptual diversity, the exhibition functioned as a kind of summary study or historical codification of the diverse forms of collage and assemblage that recycled the trash and refuse of 20th Century cultural production. By gathering such varied materials in his show, Seitz helped to define


placing himself partially in the role of discoverer or spectator as well as that of originator. to the materials and what transpires between them. and 248 249 Seitz. in the Platonic sense. Found materials are works already in progress: prepared for the artist by the outside world..”249 In this regard. plastic. but by its method of production as well as. that purely plastic.”248 Seitz identifies a new trend in art in which the artist’s practice becomes refigured as a semi-curatorial. non-descript blend of corporate and industrial forces. He writes that.. 223 . Through his historical analysis of art and poetry from the late 19th century to the early 1960s. its mode of cultural reference. “professional art materials such as paint. most importantly. bronze. it can be argued that in fact assemblage artists. 39. Seitz writes. founded on the interaction of a singular. 85. colored. are formless and. undifferentiated commercial media environment produced by an anonymous. and hence of his ego. previously formed. hardness. like the media artists discussed in the last chapter. are intervening and interacting with processes of image production and circulation that are already in progress. Seitz created a sturdy rhetorical support for the extremely diverse range of work that he displayed. unique fine artist with a diffuse. textured. Central to his argument. is the idea that assemblage art represents a new type of artistic collaboration. stone. are pure essences of redness. ductility. and perhaps one of its most novel aspects. Ibid. etc. organizational undertaking rather than as demiurgic practice of pure creative origination.a multi-media practice not by its media and its materials. “The artist must cede a measure of his control.

collage and assemblage artists were not collaborating with a diverse range of cultural forces so much as they were transposing them (and their associated material detritus) into the elitist spaces of museum culture. at least with Conner.250 By incorporating the familiar iconography and textures of mass media imagery. In addition.thus consciously involve themselves in a new variety of technologically mediated. it was not easy to contain or collect. such an evaluation would prove inappropriate for both economical and critical reasons. assemblage. However. and found footage filmmaking – transformed the common debased materials that were recognizable to all spectators as components of their shared 250 It might be suggested that. assemblage embodies a shift in emphasis. 224 . elitist museum culture. these artists – who worked variously in collage. In this sense. thus instantly valorizing them as precious. Such a transformed understanding of authorship undermines the classical valorization of the artist’s unique volition and vision in the process of making an artwork. contrary to my position above. external frames of reference including the social and economic flows of information and capital. his work neither gained the material support nor the cultural esteem of genuine. and challenge the divisions between life – as something common and shared – and art – as something precious and rarefied. he did not sign his works and often said that he intended for them to simply fall apart and decompose (something that often happened to the instability and organic nature of many of his materials). before the technologies of mass media made them possible. In fact. rarefied art objects that could be marketed and sold. in a literal sense. These changing artistic interests marked transitions that were congruent with the tendency of American avant-garde art in the wake of World War II (and into the 1960s) to subvert the dominant critical hierarchies of elitist museum culture and its value systems. social collaboration that was simply unavailable. away from both subjectivity and abstraction – celebrated values for the dominant strains of modernist criticism – and towards a network of concerns that are in fact involved with objective.

“They violated the separateness of the work of art. in fact. in order to understand assemblage. formal perfection. the English critic and curator Lawrence Alloway wrote enthusiastically and influentially about the new hybrid art forms that presented a dynamic and fresh interaction with the mid-20th-century mediascape. critically unpopular. celebrated the philosophical innovations of this new work that was. rhetorical coherence. As these artists oriented themselves towards the external mediascape. Its force of reference and its traffic in popular iconography and discarded materials were 251 Ibid.” which. 23.cultural landscape. In the same year as “The Art of Assemblage” show. Both Alloway and Leo Steinberg suggested that much work of the 1950s and 60s requires a significantly revised set of critical tools and an interpretative language that must inevitably refer to the same cultural and social contexts that the work foregrounds. by proxy. Alloway wrote the essay. and argues.”251 Interestingly. happenings. like Seitz’s catalogue.. In this sense. and avant-garde performance also underpinned assemblage art and its unique blend of iconographic and social experimentation. Like Seitz. Alloway’s essay functions as a critical endorsement of a mode of art-making that had disavowed traditional values of painterly control. Seitz quotes Allan Kaprow on this subject. that the same interests in undermining cultural hierarchies that led to conceptual art. and threatened to obliterate the aesthetic distance between it and the spectator. in Seitz’s words. and conventional notions of beauty. 225 . one had to consider the environment to which it referred. well executed craft. “Junk Culture.

cupboards. […] Assemblages of such material come at the spectator as bits of life. flow. attics. 1984). In addition. to intimate and repeated use. trespass. “Junk Culture. bits of the environment. Objects have a history: first they are new brand goods. 122. including found footage filmmaking. and thus defies the modernist tendency to occlude the social and economic functions of the works in question. then they are possessions. The urban environment is present. whether transfigured or left alone. extension. the throwaway material of cities. The truth of this critical observation. 3 (March 1961). the English critic foregrounds the often ignored material economies that precede the production of artworks. 253 252 226 . no. as the source of objects. Its source is obsolescence. through its glaring omission. dustbins. see.” Architectural Design 31. waste lots. as a result of the historical conditions in bourgeois society that have defined the avant-garde as an autonomous realm of cultural practice. and city dumps. trans.253 Lawrence Alloway. then. Peter Bürger. often. gutters. Alloway writes: Junk culture is city art. Theory of the Avant-Garde. they are scarred by use but available again. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. however obvious it may seem. (I thank David James for this critical observation. yet it is essential to any responsible consideration of art in the 1960s. as it collects in drawers. textual attributes. though polemical. was in fact rather controversial to modernist critics. as waste. subjected.252 In this quotation. It could also be argued that social reference is negatively present in Greenberg and Fried. accessible to few. the work foregrounded these elements.) For a more thorough. theoretical discussion of the way in which the history of bourgeois culture has conditioned the avant-garde. In fact. then. Concerning the relationship that assemblage methods have with their environment. the objects are frequently presented in terms that dramatize spread.inextricable from its significatory.

” This implies that there is no specialized labor or rarified set of talents that were exclusive to the domain of the professional. Quoted by Arthur in “Films the Color of Blood” in The Film-makers’ Cooperative Catalogue no.”254 This trend towards a more democratic definition of the artist aligned interestingly with the widespread impulse of the period in which all kinds of creative people (as described in the introduction to this dissertation). as Amy Taubin did. that these amateur auteurs contributed to their work.For many of critics of the time. in which he often 254 255 Ibid. professional image of the artist as the possessor and exponent of unique skills.255 So. ed. MA: MIT Press. 2001). to echo Alloway’s statement above. 7. See Michelson. trained artist. In his words. He continues. one of the most salient and provocative aspects of appropriation was the way in which it suggested a new understanding of the artist’s identity. vi. or edit. write. the filmmakers’ community was upset by the lack of labor. For Alloway the definition of the artist had been transformed to such a significant extent that it became functionally deprofessionalized. anyone could and should make films. 227 . the reach of the artist has been increased and the area that could be claimed as art has expanded. specialized or otherwise. the ideas behind assemblage “combine to subvert the compact. 91–110. felt that. “As a result. 256 Annette Michelson addresses this problem in passing in her essay on Warhol’s interdisciplinary practice. The definition of art has dilated. “’Where Is Your Rupture?’ Mass Culture and the Gestamtkunstwerk” in Andy Warhol. when relatively untrained artists like Andy Warhol produced films that they did not shoot. like cinema screens in the Big Screen revolution of the 1950s.256 Conner’s found footage cinema.. Michelson (Cambridge.

major review in a national daily newspaper on the occasion of a ten year gallery survey of his work in assemblage and drawing. 1964: 21. “Conner and His Films: The Artist as Director. April 26. could also pose provocative interpretative and philosophical issues for the definition of a filmspecific authorship that did not actually include original motion picture photography. in any context. 1993). be it in the critical literature. it infuriated Conner nonetheless. 257 228 . Despite the reviewer’s emphasis on Conner’s cinematic works. April 26. no films were screened as part of the exhibition. Wees.made films without lifting a camera or exposing any celluloid. Performer. 79. just things that are thrown away. Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films (New York: Anthology Film Archives. were exactly what I paid attention to. 1964258 The second quotation was taken from Conner’s first lengthy. New York Times. Bruce Conner. and more recently as movie-maker – including Andy Warhol and today’s example.” – Brian O’Doherty. Though the critic’s appraisal of the exhibit was overwhelmingly laudatory. the gallery circuit. not art.” – Bruce Conner257 “In recent years we have had the artist as a sort of pre-theatrical impresario (Happenings). or the community of avant-garde film: was he an artist or a filmmaker? The quotation above implies the basic supposition William C. and – Occasionally – as Artist.” New York Times. anything which was taken for granted as not serious. Media Refuse and Film Art: The Case of Bruce Conner: “However. because it catalyzed an anxious crisis of identity concerning the artist and his work that would never be resolved. as performer (notably Robert Morris and Robert Rauschenberg). 258 Brian O’Doherty.

People came to the gallery and said. leaving a legacy of interpretation that has cleaved. and seemingly unrelated disciplines. Conner described this high profile review and its effects on the reception of his work. It meant some attention was going to be paid. assemblage as a technique is permiating [sic] all the arts with 259 Cummings Interview. this assumption has heavily influenced the historicization of his oeuvre. The gallery sold two things out of the show. its emphasis on him as a filmmaker. Nine years after the exhibition. Smithsonian Archives of American Art. on Sunday. and in particular. 25–26. It was like one-third of a page. I wanted people to see what I had done. Three-quarters of it was about the movies. To him the appellation “artist” was more catholic. perhaps inappropriately. Didn’t make enough money to pay for the announcements. and appropriate to his range of work. April 16. 1973. in an interview with Paul Cummings for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art: The review came out and it was spectacular. ‘Where are the movies? What is this junk on the walls?’ I was very proud of the show. along mediumspecific boundaries inherited from modernist art criticism. This kind of notice was something that I had always wanted. 229 . 766 Madison Avenue. Throughout Conner’s career.that these are mutually exclusive identities.259 Conner did not want to be defined as a filmmaker. But it was totally diverted and twisted around. I decided to make a movie to ruin my reputation as a filmmaker. Despite Conner’s frustrations with the review. At the moment. in fact this New York Times piece attempts to connect the artist’s filmic and non filmic works. and his two films […] as expressions of the same attitude and fundamentally the same technique applied to different media. open-ended. within a shared interpretative matrix: “one can look at Bruce Conner’s new exhibition at the Alan Gallery.

when he so feels. 21. but this essay seems to suggest that it would be unlikely for any mainstream art critic or gallery visitor to think of art 260 261 O’Doherty. 21.extraordinary vigor.”261 It is unclear precisely how O’Doherty or his reading public. both of which foreground a “montage of found materials. and Warhol. O’Doherty’s review was singular in its advanced if somewhat anachronistic understanding of the overlapping sensibilities of materially distinct artistic practices. in his words. O’Doherty’s review presents an interesting historical snapshot of the contemporary critical response to Conner’s work in the mid-1960s.” In this regard. The reviewer tellingly groups Conner with a number of other artists who experimented with a range of performative. Rauschenberg. might have conceived of the limits between art and other disciplines. O’Doherty.” a statement that clearly echoes the language of Kaprow’s influential writing on Pollock (discussed earlier in this project). film]. Conner. circa 1964. like Morris. in other areas [e. Conner was an “allrounder who can perform within the category of what we think of as ‘art’ and outside it. and dematerialized practices that were. as it calls attention to commonplace suppositions about art and media in the era while also attempting to suggest new modes of understanding the diversity of operative artistic strategies. regardless of the fact that it called more attention to Conner’s films than the artist might have liked. To the reviewer. multi-media.g. no longer “physically limited by the four sides of the canvas. 230 .”260 The reviewer explains that Conner’s films utilize strategies closely related to those of his assemblages.

and social history that display related values and processes of signification. suggesting that its multi-media mix of objects. Yet. material objects. photographs. the 1964 New York Times review of Conner’s work initiated a mode of intermedial interpretation of the artist’s work that remains largely unrealized in the subsequent literature. but excellent introductory book titled Secret Exhibition: Six 231 . In this regard. in an effort to group the artist’s different materials within one cohesive project: “Conner clarifies the artistic usage of ‘reality’ – objects and photographs and film clips – in a new way of coping with the environment. philosophically speaking. though he may not have defined himself as a filmmaker (and certainly not exclusively or predominately as such). it seems that the reviewer is trying to challenge this popular supposition of mutual exclusivity by suggesting that this conceptual opposition between discrete media is not necessarily productive in the analysis of an artist’s entire practice.263 After a bit more 262 263 O’Doherty. His films are revolutionary. and thus could be overcome. is an appropriate and perhaps revolutionary response to a diverse cultural network of media. as a way of coming to terms with a material environment.and film as being potentially integrated or even related artistic undertakings. through the careful scrutiny of multi-faceted components of an artist’s output. at the same time. Certainly.”262 This final rhetorical gesture helps to solidify O’Doherty’s overall picture of Conner’s practice in summary. and films. The reviewer concludes the essay dramatically. Conner thought of his films as art. One recent effort to situate various strands of the artist’s work in relation to each other can be found in a relatively short. There are a few exceptions to this segregation of media within the interpretation of Conner’s work. 21.

Conner described the short-sighted critical response. 232 . segregate his output according to medium. one essay on conceptual and performative projects. 1957-67” (PhD Dissertation: Princeton University. and Joan Rothfuss (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center. this division continues to affect the critical interpretation of the artist’s multi-media oeuvre. disciplinary lines was particularly pronounced in contemporaneous reviews published in the earlier years of the artist’s career. particularly concerning commercialism. violence. repressed sexuality. organized by the Walker Art Center. 2000). completed a dissertation that addresses a range of Conner’s projects. militarism. In 1990. a medium-specific cleavage along traditional. most of the essays. and photography. critics. 1990). in a number of media from 1957 to 1967 (Kevin Hatch. 2008). drawing. this chapter will present a case study of related works produced by the artist in disparate media. attempted to address a range of the artist’s media projects. However. misogyny. and one essay on film. in which Rebecca Solnit situates a range of Conner’s projects within the geographic and social milieu of beat and post-beat art production in California. Most recently. To some degree. Since the publication of the New York Times review almost fifty years ago. with one essay on assemblage. See 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II. and scholars have addressed the ways in which Conner’s artistic practices have foregrounded repeated thematic interests. Peter Boswell. However. “Looking for Bruce Conner. resulting from the limited understanding of the artist’s materials that dominated most writing on his work: “I couldn’t conceive of restricting myself to California Artists of the Cold War Era (San Francisco: City Lights Books.consideration of the historical directives of the early critical writing on the intermedial relationship between Conner’s films and art. Bruce Jenkins. all of which are strong summaries of Conner’s interests and methods. Kevin Hatch a doctoral candidate in the department of Art History at Princeton. More recently. and in fact. and their representations in American popular media. eds. though they make reference to the artist’s other practices. the catalog for the last major oneman show of Conner’s work. little critical writing has made this claim simultaneously about Conner’s work in more than one medium. various journalists.

Arts 34. and they couldn’t see any connection between the various bodies of work I’ve done.”264 Not all reviewers overlooked these connections. 264 233 . “Bruce Conner in the Cultural Breach: Decades of Antagonizing the Status Quo Has Brought Critical Acclaim for the Brilliant yet Eccentric Multimedia Pioneer. and social networks. For example. in a different journal. Artforum editor Philip Leider eloquently described the uneasy and unsettling blend of sexuality and violence that interacted complexly in the artist’s assemblage work. and disarming iconography of the work in order to counter the reviews that simply dismissed the work as ugly and nihilistic. 265 Sidney Tillim. medium. and their disturbing social and historical referents. 1990. June 10. 6 (March 1960). For me.” Los Angeles Times. 59. Leider takes a somewhat defensive tact because so many reviewers took offense to the artist’s debased materials (taken from trash heaps and exploitation magazines). 4. there’s a clear relationship between all these forms. In one of the most significant early essays about Conner in an art publication. as well as the legacy of Greenbergian modernism. professional. in 1960. one reviewer described Conner’s work as a “sampler in the cult of ugly”265 and in the same month. Leider attempted to justify the formal idiosyncrasies. […] This confused a lot of people. In this essay. their collective defiance of classical notions of beauty. thematic negativity. no. but many were influenced by the limits of their own disciplinary. another critic wrote that the artist’s work “represents the high speed conversion of Quoted in Kristine McKenna.

no. the full appreciation of a field of practice extending beyond the traditionally understood limits of its privileged media. The imagery comes to him ready-made out of the history of this century. including Leider.” In his review. This critical silence serves as evidence of an interpretative myopia in the art world that prevented. Even as late as 1974. Few art historians and critics had the appropriate range of cultural awareness to properly understand the total breadth of an artist as multi-faceted as Conner. O’Doherty’s review was truly anomalous. after Conner had been 266 267 Lawrence Campbell. 234 . “Bruce Conner: A New Sensibility. and generally continues to prevent. he.”266 As Seitz had done in his landmark exhibition and accompanying catalog of the previous year.avant-garde art into academic expression. one conceives of a mentality which must obsessively re-cast all it observes into the imagery of the most unutterable horrors of our times. (In this regard. a strange recasting of experience in terms of a sensibility we have not before encountered. in his basic assertion that Conner’s work demonstrated a fresh sensibility and a provocative response to social phenomena. Art News 59.” 267 Yet. It makes Rauschenberg look like a model of classic purity.” Artforum 1. 62. Leider attempted to explain the historical context of Conner’s output: “Looking at his work. like most art critics of the age (with the notable exception of O’Doherty). 6 (November 1962). no.) Unfortunately this medial hierarchy affected some of the most astute critics of the day. did not mention the artist’s film work at all. 30. 1 (March 1960).” “a new way of seeing things. Leider describes Conner’s work as demonstrative of nothing short of a “New Sensibility. Philip Leider.

Paul Karlstrom. David Mosen discussed the artist’s films in relation to other media forms: “the films offer a convenient parallel to Conner’s other art work of the past ten years: his physical assemblages of clearly recognizable everyday junk such as old couches. August 12. an historian conducting an oral history for the Smithsonian Museum. Smithsonian Archives of American Art. in a short discussion of Conner’s Report (1963-67) in Film Culture (the principal literary mouthpiece of the cinematic avant-garde). San Francisco. 54. restricted their discussion of Conner to his assemblages. One can find traces in writing in journals like Film Culture and Film Quarterly of efforts to interpolate Conner’s rather idiosyncratic films into the scope of a wider. in 1967. 268 Interview with Bruce Conner. suitcases. The films are also an extension of Conner’s welding of death and comedy. “Short Films: Report. 3 (Spring 1966). had not seen most (or perhaps any) of Conner’s films before conducting an extensive career retrospective interview for the institution’s Archives of American Art program. no. In 1966. 235 . Carl I.” Film Quarterly 19. some contemporary film critics had a surprisingly more informed and holistic comprehension of his work.268 While art critics. and women’s underwear. 1974.”269 Then. Belz astutely drew the reader’s attention to themes in Conner’s films that related to the context of contemporary art more generally. Conducted by Paul Karlstrom. in one of the most ambitious contemporaneous reviews of the artist’s films. intermediary discourse (though this trend was perhaps abandoned by the mid1970s). 269 David Mosen.exhibiting art publicly for almost twenty years. with the exception of O’Doherty. artistic.

He continues.” Film Culture 44 (Spring 1967). The relationship between contemporary painting and sculpture and cinema is such a problem. at the point of its perhaps greatest public recognition. than those of his contemporaries within the avant-garde film world. Belz was also savvy enough to recognize that his cinematic works were somehow more modern.At the beginning of his essay. he felt. He writes. during the past five years.” Specifically. 236 . Belz. “The relationship [between film and the other arts] is actually suggested by the artists themselves. more congruous with other developments in fine art. has made contributions of dramatic significance in both media [visual art and film]. that a newfound popularity would pose fresh interpretative problems. “this growing recognition of an avant-garde cinema will undoubtedly be accompanied by growing problems of an historical and critical nature as well. In his review of Conner’s early films. “Three Films by Bruce Conner. 57. at a moment when there were few cultural critics capable of truly comprehending the complex interaction of diverse media forms. before it eventually receded back into the cultural peripheries of an underground social and aesthetic practice. He writes. the problem to which Selz addresses his statement is the challenge that experimental film posed to conventional art criticism. “Unlike other ‘experimental’ film artists – for instance Kenneth Anger or Stan Brakhage – 270 Carl I. Belz explains that the underground cinema in America was achieving a remarkable level of public attention. rightly. especially individuals like Bruce Conner who.”270 This quotation is fascinating for its unusually prophetic understanding of the changing cultural status of the cinematic avant-garde.

the Pin-Up Girl. 58).”271 Such a review. through mass produced images of the female form. Conner interrogated Hollywood’s visual methods for commodifying sexuality. The complex. In assemblage. and often exploitative interpenetration of sex. despite the fact that roughly half of the artist’s films actually debuted in art galleries. Intermediary Dialogue. Adams Sitney would later group within his moniker of “visionary” filmmakers (Ibid. Conner had a markedly different social and artistic agenda from many of the artists that P. and capital in American mass culture produced a wellspring of representational codes that provoked Conner’s most enduring artistic interventions into the cultural landscape of the 1960s and 70s.Conner’s art builds on the discoveries of contemporary expression in general. few film critics. violence. like that of O’Doherty. Throughout a range of media. unstable. as well as the heavy handed symbolism and fetishistic devices which seem to plague so much current work. he created essayistic tableaus in which he selected images from cinema – using either film stills or promotional photographs – and placed them within the visual spaces of semi271 As Selz suggests. 237 . was extremely uncommon and in fact. academics.. his subject of artistic reflection was the distinctively American method of mediating sexuality. and the Nude: In much of Conner’s work. or curators would demonstrate an interest in actually considering Conner’s films (or those of any other experimental filmmaker) within the same cultural landscape of fine art. He avoids completely the now trite vocabulary of Surrealism and abstraction.

sculptural. the commercial iconography of female sexuality – whether embodied in the promotional glamour shot. including HOMAGE TO JEAN HARLOW (1963). which had been achieved through their circulation within an entirely different medium and socio-economic network. stationary media. In this sense.272 In his work in both assemblage and cinema. In this process. 238 . HOMAGE TO MAE WEST. His assemblage works of this variety. mechanically reproduced version of the female nude. Conner performed a kind of intermedial transference in which he repositioned the mass culture iconography of Hollywood stardom in order to call attention to its extraordinary potency for cultural signification. one of the principal functions of industrial film production has always been. the pin-up. And the central icon of this perverse commercial mechanism is the mass produced image of the starlet or pin-up girl. or the stag film – was the most provocative and overdetermined visual currency that American popular 272 Conner preferred that the orthography for the titles of his works be written in all capital letters. thus activating the associative symbology of these images within an entirely different visual economy. draw much of their affective and associative force from their capacity to reactivate the embedded cultural associations of their subjects. Conner argued by visual example that Hollywood filmmaking is perhaps the most powerful force in the almost militaristic combination of exploitation and repression that is typical of the American entertainment industry. HOMAGE TO MINNIE MOUSE. To Conner. a 20th-century. and likely will continue to be. the commodification of female sexuality.

Conner’s work engages with femininity and sexuality. However. Because of his compulsion to comment upon and intervene into his media environment. LOOKING GLASS (1964) and his film. from Jean Harlow to Marilyn Monroe. His assemblage. including moving image pornography. it has a number of structural and thematic similarities to his other work as well. puerile energies within its exchanges of information and imagery in which avant-garde art and mass culture drew from the same sources of popular erotic imagery. and a variety of popular photographic images and magazines. it featured a slightly more conventional vertical picture plane than that of some of his more structurally sculptural work. The overlap and exchange between these works provides a productive case study of the ways in which postwar intermedial art practice engaged a variety of provocative. In its rectangular shape and vertical orientation. both feature semi-pornographic content and express persuasive.culture had to offer. LOOKING GLASS (1964) is an assemblage work that explicitly foregrounds both sexual imagery and the popular act of looking at it. for example. in ways that are often refracted through and mediated by the most exploitative of mass culture sources. debased. critical statements of these modes of representation. MARILYN TIMES FIVE (1968-73). LOOKING GLASS is 239 . and at times. though sometimes ambivalent. like HOMAGE TO JEAN HARLOW. television advertising. Conner was drawn to some of the most potent visual signifiers of commercialism and sexuality in Hollywood.

In its use of mannequin parts. in which a variety of clothes and scarves have been draped across the mirror. and next to which. the top portion of the work resembles a disheveled version of a nightclub dancer or actress’s dressing room. The top half features a densely crowded. nude Marilyn Monroe on an iridescent red background. and beneath it. Arline Hunter – the star of Apple Knockers and the Coke (and the subject of Conner’s MARILYN TIMES FIVE) – imitated the very same photo spread of Monroe for a later issue of Playboy. Within this crowded array of female finery. silk. it is difficult to tell which one is in fact included in Conner’s assemblage. she has pasted a photograph of the icon whom she aspires to emulate. as if sitting atop a woman’s dressing table. which would be replayed almost a decade later. They were likely taken from semi-pornographic magazines of the 1950s In a suggestive conflation of identities. this assemblage includes anthropomorphic sculptural details that directly present a life-size display of false femininity. a stuffed blowfish (wrapped in pantyhose). 273 240 . there are a few commercially produced pin-up photo reproductions (or “glamour shots”) likely taken from popular men’s magazines. overpacked amalgam of materials including a woman’s shoe. pieces of cloth.clearly divided into two sections. dozens of torn and fragmentary images of female nudes. Beneath this dense display of feminine finery and inexplicable exotica (a stuffed blowfish?) there is a white shelf upon which the mannequin arms rest. costume feathers. including the legendary Playboy spread of an ivory skinned. From the visible evidence.273 In a sense. there is a tasseled wooden shelf. dangling tassels. women’s silk undergarments. a beaded purse. Beneath the assortment of female clothing and jewelry. and two centrally placed female mannequin arms and hands adorned with bright red nail polish.

On the other hand. we find something altogether different from Cornell: a plain. On one level. In this sense. as a looking glass or mirror. grungy compendium of girlie photos pasted together sloppily and serially below a shelf holding three-dimensional 274 Though Cornell’s art also often featured Hollywood starlets as its central sources of visual interest. vamping. or partially occluded by fabric dangling from above. The images are torn. we could also understand the work as a kind of window-on-the-world. then it might be suggested that the piece presents some kind of reflected image of either its viewer or its maker. The images have been defaced in a sense. something not dissimilar from Joseph Cornell’s surrealistic and libidinally infused boxes. and splaying themselves out before a still camera in clichéd poses typical of so-called girlie magazines. and incomplete faces and bodies. debased glamour of the work’s upper section. If it is meant to be seen literally. libidinal alter ego of the hyperfeminized.and 60s. as it showcases semi-pornographic imagery and clichéd signifiers of commercialized femininity pertaining to shared unconscious associations. scratched. and communicate a compositional encounter between violent decollage and an adolescent’s slapdash locker room shrine to his sex idols. often incomplete. In this sense. the piece’s title suggests how it works rhetorically. and feature an array of women posing. these ripped and torn photographic fragments display disembodied legs. 241 . segments of torsos.274 In LOOKING GLASS. the bottom half of the work communicates the repressed. they were involved in an imagined fantasy world motivated by enraptured personal and affective associations in an entirely different emotional register from that of Conner. Conner implies that the work is an ideological mirror of the average American psyche. covered with staples.

as one would find in the work of a range of well-known collagists including. compositionally deliberate work of other collage artists in terms of painting: “There are an awful lot of predominately painterly attitudes towards collages. the collage component of the work differs markedly from the dominant representational strategies of this mode. costume jewelry. thus relating the work to a variety of composition that is more typical of decollage. In this sense. Conner’s photographic fragments of nude women. LOOKING GLASS is persistent in its formal repetition as it features photographic elements that are not configured in order to create a structured picture logic of illusionistic space. Pablo Picasso in a cubist mode. Instead. – that were typical of his assemblage work in the late 1950s and early 1960s. or Richard Hamilton working with the visual language of pop art. Its fetishistic and sexual associations are loudly inscribed throughout the entirety of its visual space. presenting an obsessive sexual energy has boiled over from his earlier work in which such energies were more restrained. women’s undergarments. as a summary of his work thus far. Conner has addressed this formal distinction between his work and the precious.icons of the most conventional and trivialized notion of the feminine. It was consciously intended as his final statement on this phase of his career. Max Ernst in a surrealist vein. The 242 . without any effort to incorporate them into an atmospheric configuration like that of narrative or diegetic space. etc. This was the last of Conner’s works to use these materials – pantyhose. which are the work’s principal visual content. are organized serially. for example.

MARILYN TIMES FIVE. “Bruce Conner: Theater of Light and Shadow” in 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story. unlike that of a number of other found-footage filmmakers.”275 As Conner pastes these images together without modification. foregrounds the inescapable seriality of the medium.attitudes that I had were much less painterly. he draws the viewer’s attention to their nature as popular photographs and their materiality as magazine cutouts. 277 Peter Boswell. Part II. In the work. the seriality of Conner’s assemblage reflects the apparatus of cinema and the mechanized nature of image production in the related technologies of popular print media and television. 243 . 19. MARILYN TIMES FIVE: In some sense.276 Conner once said. “Movies are collage in my mind … a series of individual photographs that are stuck together. “I’m Through With Love. As a result. stereotyped femininity. and thus be implicated explicitly in the basic conditions of viewing a kind of pornographic assembly line of commodified. most viewers of the work would be consciously aware of the sources of the images. The duration of the film is thus the cumulative 275 276 Karlstrom. Conner assembles five sequences of film from a semi-pornographic short stag film titled Apple Knockers and the Coke (1948). It might be argued that Conner’s work relates conceptually to that of Warhol. is a hyperbolic instantiation of an obsessively repetitive method of film organization. in which the artist conveyed an interest in seriality and repetition in general terms that were not solely applicable to his film art. His film of 1968-73. each time accompanied by the song.” sung by Marilyn Monroe. 32.”277 The artist’s approach.

including Conner himself. The actress in Apple Knockers was a Marilyn Monroe look-alike named Arline Hunter. to be the iconic actress herself. these breaks from the film’s flow of lascivious visual content are so significant in duration that. each time giving the viewer slightly more footage of the scantily clad actress. Here the film formally enacts a performance parallel to that of the profilmic striptease itself. in which there also exists an alternation between occluding visual access to the naked female body and exposing that same information. In Conner’s film. In Conner’s film. or eating an apple. there are lengthy sections of empty screen space.length of five repetitions of the song: thirteen-and-a-half minutes. rolls an apple over her bare breasts. the original material has been selectively excised. Each of the five segments of Conner’s film presents one extremely brief section of Apple Knockers (less than ten seconds each) over and over. 244 . In fact. of the film’s thirteen 278 Monroe is purported by some to have made a few unseen striptease movies herself before beginning her “legitimate” film career. suggestively drinking from a soda bottle. in a peek-a-boo play between hiding and revealing taboo imagery. heavily edited. This widely circulated myth likely fueled speculation concerning the identity of the performer in Apple Knockers. and suggestively drinks a coca-cola from a bottle. playfully spilling it over her semi-nude torso. MARILYN TIMES FIVE reconfigures a small amount of the original footage into five easily distinguishable sections. produced by the extensive use of black leader. who for years was thought by many. between very short clips of the actress undressing. and judiciously reprinted.278 The original film is roughly eight minutes long and features a few different striptease sections in which the actress removes her top.

in MARILYN TIMES FIVE. Conner forcefully estranges the apparatus of cinema from its conventional methods for 245 . The thematic crossovers. shared philosophical promises. and overlapping artistic strategies of these works demonstrate that Conner’s artistic practice exceeds the material differences of his chosen media. that we are looking at a woman who is taking off her clothes in order to be looked at. exaggerated female body. filmmakers including Cornell. MARILYN TIMES FIVE is a meta-peep show. And in experimental cinema. and the Kuchar Bros. like the actress of Apple Knockers and Coke. Like LOOKING GLASS. However. more than half feature a black screen. in an openly self-reflexive way. reminding us. filmmakers including Josef Von Sternberg. Jack Smith. Warhol. teases the viewer as he shows and hides and shows and hides the increasingly naked female body. Conner was certainly not the first film artist to foreground this fact.and a half minutes. have played on Hollywood’s techniques of the sexualization of a glamorized. Alfred Hitchcock. and Brian De Palma have repeatedly utilized and referenced these voyeuristic tropes of Hollywood film language. in the context of commercial filmmaking. and Conner’s work in assemblage and film draws the viewer’s attention to this ideological function of the medium. The rhetorical consciousness of Conner’s work relates directly to the characteristic content of cinema (and popular culture in general) as well as its apparatus and mode of production: Hollywood cinema is a machine for looking and exploiting. a condition that openly frustrates any puerile expectations that the film’s viewers may have Conner. As many critics have indicated.

Both of these works are self-conscious studies – pitched in the register of art. which was later enacted more explicitly and didactically in feminist film theory of the 1970s. for example – this film does not entirely efface the conventional visual pleasures that might be associated with a striptease stag film. not to the performed eroticism of the profilmic space. But unlike much of the theory-inspired feminist film of the 1970s – including Laura Mulvey’s Riddles of the Sphinx (1977) or Yvonne Rainer’s Lives of Performers (1972).objectifying the female form and producing visual pleasure by converting a striptease film into a series of hyper-truncated fragments of obsessively repeated gestures. In a mode of critique. Many people find the film particularly unnerving because of its ceaseless visual and sonic repetition without closure – again. functions to make its viewers aware of their own acts of visual consumption. “I’m Through With Love” is played five times – but many viewers likely take some pleasure in its teasing images of an uncanny Marilyn Monroe look-alike who rolls around semi-nude for the 246 . but to the materiality of the medium itself and its innate seriality. like that of LOOKING GLASS. in which cultural materials have been reframed and reconditioned – into the processes of representational objectification and sexualized viewing in American culture. The reflexivity of MARILYN TIMES FIVE. these mediated movements become mechanical and thus forcefully draw the viewer’s attention. MARILYN TIMES FIVE encourages its viewers to think about their own processes of looking and their associated experiences of visual pleasure. Through their pathological repetitions.

was grainy.” I started with 400 ft. saved was the footage that had some kind of grace or humor or meaningful motion. The 50 ft. In this sense Conner’s visual approach complicates the transparency of Hollywood’s visual and rhetorical strategies as it makes its viewers aware of the meaning of these images as signifiers of repression and exploitation. 247 . I haven’t added anything else except black leader between shots. In this film. The footage. I limited all the images to exactly what was on the film of the girlie movie (including just specks on the print). The soundtrack is “I’m Through With Love” sung by Marilyn in the movie “Some Like It Hot. Smithsonian Collection of Bruce Conner Like the film work of Andy Warhol. MARILYN TIMES FIVE utilizes a variety of hyperextended duration in which standard temporal expectations are frustrated. In a letter to art collector Ed Janss.279 As Conner’s description of the work suggests. Conner explained the conditions under which he assembled this film. of it. to reconfigure the debased materials of the 279 Letter from Bruce Conner to Ed Janss. highlighting the significance of the work’s materiality and grain. This tension between a simple pleasure of sexual curiosity and a rigid. he was using footage from a girlie movie that Marilyn Monroe made in the forties. like many of his other works in assemblage and film. almost mathematical structure of continued and systematic repetition frustrates simple Hollywood-style identification with the objects that cinema normally shows us. of film from the girlie movie and threw out 350 ft. November 24. 1972. while it also forcibly reminds them of their own processes of looking. I emphasized the grain with high contrast printing and I repeated images. it was intended. which was maybe 20th generation by the time I got it.

Like his film REPORT. Conner’s refusal to acknowledge that the performer was not the famous sex symbol was indicative of his ignorance. which reflected upon the televisual commodification and symbolic transformation of President Kennedy’s image. copy in the collection of Pacific Film Archives. 248 . once-breathing Monroe. across history. CA. thus challenging its capacity to transfer an index of the once-living. Haspiel. wrote to Film Quarterly magazine in order to complain about a review (published the previous month) in which Conner was quoted as identifying the performer in his film as Marilyn Monroe. they were not published. However. 1974.”280 Conner’s response to the letter demonstrated that this question – was it really Marilyn Monroe? – was not terribly relevant to understanding the film’s 280 Letter dated December 3. as he enhanced the grain and visual noise of the work.most exploitative commercial mass culture by transposing them into a work of homage.) James R. [and were addressed to the editor. Berkeley. In 1974. Conner and a Monroe expert/enthusiast exchanged some correspondence concerning the identity of the performer in his film. MARILYN TIMES FIVE is as much about mediation – in its emphasis upon the specific materials of cinema and its systematic analysis of its conventions – as it is about the mythology of Marilyn Monroe. In Haspiel’s view. Ernest Callenbach]. “in what comes off as a pathetic attempt to elevate the importance of his tawdry film effort. the author of Marilyn and the Other Monroe Girls. Conner intentionally undermined the mimetic force of the imagery. (Though their letters were intended to be included in Film Quarterly magazine.

Some cultures consider an image to be a theft of the soul or spirit of a person. 249 . or Anima. Like many fans who lamented the death of the starlet. Instead. […] The illustrious dead quickly gain guardians who also define the image that they have enshrined. The intricate nexus of cultural signification includes an exchange of visual information and symbolic meaning with the society in which these icons circulate. 1975. The viewer completes the equation. Conner’s comprehension of the interaction of celebrity. It is not intended to be completed by the film alone. the star. Conner felt that when the Hollywood industry 281 Letter dated January 18. Images can sometimes have more power than the person they are supposed to represent. of Marilyn was not owned by Norma Jean any more than it was owned by Arline Hunter. The film attempts to reveal some of the powers hidden within itself and far removed from the original source. and the victim of sexual objectification and exploitation. MARILYN TIMES FIVE dramatized social processes of meaning construction and image comprehension. Whether or not the film was a photographic index of Norma Jeane Baker (Monroe’s real name). They will dwindle and die. copy in the collection of Pacific Film Archives. identity. M X 5 uses pictures and sound alleged to be the image and voice of Marilyn Monroe. the icon. and selfhood in American culture was more complex than a simple one-to-one correspondence between a body and a name. the question of the performer’s identity was not what was most important about the work.relationship to the iconographic potency of the star’s image. Conner’s work powerfully demonstrates that visual meaning is created through social process. The image. CA.281 For Conner. it nevertheless was a symbolic representation of Marilyn Monroe. He responds to the criticism by writing the following: MARILYN TIMES FIVE is an equation. Berkeley.

mass culture iconography. In its extreme structural systematicity. and many of his assemblages. like most of Conner’s work. it must also be recognized that this film about celebrity. pop art. it initiated an exploitative process that culminated. yet in its content it continues to provoke the same tensions as his earlier work. with the same networks of signification as advertising. almost inevitably. and thus serve as important early experiments (beginning in the late 1950s). and the traffic of meaning within the entertainment industry engages. Conner’s films and assemblages were known for their shared capacity to provoke audiences in both aesthetic and ideological terms. directly address themselves towards the processes by which moving images are endowed with cultural force. and television. as a systematic mechanism for the mistreatment of women through the visual control of their sexual identities. In a more general sense. into the ways in which non-industrial film can interrogate dominant media forms. All of Conner’s films.converted Baker into Monroe. The majority of them foreground mediation in ideological or philosophical terms. in her tragic death. Film curator and educator Steve Anker recalled a contemporaneous reaction to the film upon its earliest screenings: 250 . To Conner. Monroe (like Harlow) was a symbolic representation of the collateral damage that American commerce enacts on its victims. This mode of pointed critical inquiry was certainly not the dominant strategy for experimental filmmaking in the period. MARILYN TIMES FIVE is formally rather distinct from Conner’s other films.

while still trafficking in some of the corrosive energy of their targets of critique. “Correspondence and Controversy: Social Studies or I Left My Avant-Garde in San Francisco. is it exploitation or is it art? Before considering such an ethical question. no. in which Mekas attacked MARILYN TIMES FIVE as being exploitative. Conner reconfigured icons of commercialized femininity and degraded sexuality. 57. how could a striptease film of Marilyn Monroe ever be truly evacuated of its exploitative force? Its history of exploitation is embedded in the work like an index. I remember a radio interview between Jonas Mekas and Ken Jacobs in the early 1970s. even within the avantgarde.Conner has often been at the center of controversy. works like these often provoke people to ask.”282 An ideological anxiety often results from situations like that of Conner in which seemingly enlightened. Jacobs defended the film. 282 251 . at least partly in order Steve Anker. one must ask an ontological one: Even if it were Conner’s desire to create a critical. It might even be suggested that the grain of the film itself is complicit in the exploitative action that it represents. By their very natures. divisions such as these would often prove trivial – like that between life and art – and thus demand complex and philosophically provocative artistic investigations into the spaces of moral and artistic anxiety and ambivalence. In LOOKING GLASS and MARILYN TIMES FIVE. 3 (Spring 1987). broadcast over WNYC in New York. as did others soon after MARILYN TIMES FIVE was released. well-intentioned artists attempt to criticize retrograde and destructive social forces. Like so many artists who developed their mature voices in the commodity saturated landscape of the mid20th century.” Film Quarterly 40. politically progressive work.

could convince me that his work is prompted more by a desire of exposing a degenerated. rather than representational style. 285 Silvan Simone. Forty Years of California Assemblage (Los Angeles: UCLA Art Council Annual Exhibition. this provocative artistic strategy was not only clear to academics and critics who make professions of such observations. In 1962. shouldn’t be programmed at the To my mind. I consider Mr. 130. 283 252 . “for the art to have its full meaning it should have a certain amount of wonder to it. or what it is. My admiration for his work is as great as my revulsion for it and I only wish that someone. not excluding Mr. This is a fact recognized and embraced by Conner himself. Yet something about the significatory and rhetorical functions of these pieces remains rhetorically unstable. He openly describes his own work in such terms. suicidal generation. She writes. than an actual sadistic sexual involvement with the work itself.”284 In fact. 1989). Conner an evil genius with fantastic power for expression. The letter was written by gallerist Silvan Simone. The reactions to it.283 She writes. it was also a common response from a range of viewers. 6 (November 1962). “An interpretative unease (which has always plagued the reception of Conner’s work) arises from the questionable line between Conner’s exposé of hypocrisy and his delight in eroticism and the seamy side of contemporary popular culture. “Letters” in issue after Artforum 1. Conner himself. by suggesting interrogate them in both visual and philosophical terms.285 This tension between critique and a seemingly complicit visual pleasure is not easily resolved in Conner’s art. In 1989. regardless of the medium in use. a reader of Artforum wrote a letter to the editor expressing a similar sentiment of distaste and revulsion. art critic Anne Ayres described the complexity of reading tone in Conner’s work. 284 Anne Ayres. this is a problem for all found image formats. because authorial traces are largely limited to editorial choices. no.

Paul McCarthy. Documentary. the conceptual engine that drives the artist’s work. That stands in the way of any kind of direct relationship. 183. 1974.time. 253 . 286 Conner interview with Paul Karlstrom. a condition that connects his rhetorical strategies in cinema to his works in assemblage in which gallery and museum visitors are forced on occasion to confront rather simple repurposed objects without a clear ideological frame. Abigail Child. and Collective Authorship: Conner’s legacy as the preeminent found footage filmmaker in the history of American avant-garde cinema is widely recognized. and Phil Solomon have readily acknowledged his massive influence on their strategies of appropriation and citation. August 12. Conner’s Influence: Robert Nelson. (Smithsonian Archives of American Art). in some sense.”287 This significatory ambivalence or tonal ambiguity is in fact. are capable of provoking a diverse range of associative and affective responses: “Things that have the most power are those that have the widest variety of responses. However. In an aesthetic sense. It is Conner’s belief that the totemic icons of 20th century commerce. He has explained that this diversity of possible responses is an indication of the work’s openness. Filmmakers and artists including Craig Baldwin. 27. Irony. like religious icons of the past. “Escape Artist” in 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II. 287 Joan Rothfuss.”286 He was consciously aware of the mixed messages and responses that his work produced. San Francisco. such that this ideological anxiety is built intentionally into the work. Conner’s legacy should not be traced exclusively through filmmakers who deal primarily with found footage.

many of the most celebrated works of American avantgarde cinema displayed a staid tone. and Will Hindle – presented a visually heterogeneous. the American avant-garde cinema of the 1950s foregrounded dramas of psychological introspection. With a few exceptions. Kenneth Anger. neglected part of Conner’s historical legacy as a film artist. Though Conner would produce an occasional work of formal austerity (for example MARILYN TIMES FIVE). including the works of Jack Smith. Before Conner. countercultural filmmakers – including Ben Van Meter. Scott Bartlett. lyrical approaches that were similarly somber in tone. presented not only fresh formal possibilities for non-commercial (as well as industrial) filmmakers. it is particularly evident in pop infused films like 254 . like that of a handful of other West Coast. Ron Rice. in both its consistent interrogation of popular culture and its novel reconsideration of the tonal and rhetorical possibilities that were posed by experimental film. or personal. but it also showed new avenues for rhetorical and tonal experimentation. largely inherited from various brands of European cinematic abstraction and high modernist drama and poetry. This is an important. Conner’s work. Vernon Zimmerman (as well as much of Warhol) which were conceived in the register of camp. dire formalism.Conner’s historical innovation extended beyond the formal choice to utilize commonplace or found materials. pop culture infused psychedelia that was both more accessible to a large group of people and more ludic in its tonal register. his overall artistic project also managed to maintain significant traces of anarchy and ambivalence in spite of its sometimes biting criticality. Conner’s filmmaking.

Similarly. But. BREAKAWAY. The filmmaker who most powerfully exhibits Conner’s influence in this regard is Robert Nelson. another moving image artist whose foundational work was produced in the same social and geographic milieu of the San Francisco Bay area as Conner. of classical disciplinary education. in part. Nelson was drawn to varied intermedial interactions that defied the clean divisions between artistic forms that were of a function. In an interview of the late 1970s. among others. and minimalist composer Steve Reich. From their very beginnings. he formulated an understanding of creative authorship that was substantially more collaborative and anti-authoritarian than earlier artistic conventions dictated. theatrical director of the San Francisco Mime Troupe Ron Davis. began as a painter. immersive art in the period. it was largely Conner’s influence that led him there.COSMIC RAY. poet-playwright Michael McClure. as someone who came to the arts during the bohemian transition between the beat era and the counterculture of the 1960s. including painters William T. Due to Nelson’s interest in the expanded field of art production during the 1960s. and VIVIAN. he naturally found his way to cinema. Nelson. a medium that served as a model of totalizing. multi-media artist Bruce Nauman. rock and roll group the Grateful Dead. Wiley and William Allan. Through his exposure to the movement known as San Francisco Funk at the San Francisco Art Institute (then known as The California School of Fine Arts). like many experimental filmmakers. his efforts in cinema emphasized collaborative undertakings with a range of Bay Area artists. Nelson explains: 255 .

amateur production model that impressed him with the conditions of artistic possibility that it seemed to suggest. Canyon Cinema.I wanted to be won over if there was anything there. Wees. relatively speaking. that did it. Until I ran into COSMIC RAY. underground film. and that was what really made me realize that somehow it was possible.288 What Nelson found in Conner’s work was an accessible. but I didn’t see anything. Nelson pioneered his own irreverent representational strategies that experimented with more idiosyncratic and playful forms. I have been placed in an environment that would have its name change now and again: avant-garde film. “I’ve always known that I was outside the main. Jargon I don’t like. By engaging with conditions of chance and collaboration. tone. experimental film. avant-garde or cultish social form. Obviously it didn’t cost any money. carefully avoiding the sin of pride that is so typical of self important film artists who often proclaimed their aesthetic pretensions rather loudly. I have tried to create film work so that it is capable of communicating to people outside of a limited dialogue within an esoteric. which were drawn partially from the open-ended creative and social strategies of the 288 289 MacDonald.”289 Following Conner. compared to what movies are supposed to cost and it was the first one that really made me realize that some amazing power could generate from images that you put together at home. inexpensive. And that was the first one. Conner once explained his overall attitude towards experimental film in such terms: He writes. etc. and representational strategy – much more so than Conner’s in fact – but it exhibited the same aversion to artistic and intellectual pretension. mercantile stream. 303. independent film. 77. 256 . Nelson’s subsequent work in the medium was varied in format.

has proudly 257 . the inclusion of Nelson’s film within Sitney’s narrative does not sufficiently address the artistic complexity. “the participatory film.counterculture. it is no surprise that his films have remained outside of film canons founded upon the modernist values of artistic vision. Adams Sitney did indeed create a new title. Because of their radical difference from so much of the formalized. or Hollis Frampton’s masterpiece of systematic organization Zorns Lemma. or creative genius. Nelson on the contrary. structurally rigorous work of the American avant-garde. These are complex projects of careful planning and organization.” for a mode of filmmaking initiated by Nelson’s Bleu Shut (1971). and representative of a fresh vision of filmmaking as play. Within his taxonomic study of the avant-garde. Still. inscribed within deliberately controlled textual fields. iconoclasm. But. symbolically layered artworks. or philosophical innovation that his works represent in toto. Nelson produced a wealth of works that were massively varied in their artistic methods. Nelson’s artistic intentions have always been significantly more humble than most of the celebrated so-called masterpieces of the avant-garde – works like Stan Brakhage’s epic personal drama Dog Star Man. All of his films demonstrate a casual approach to authorship that quite directly challenges classical and normative notions of artistic creativity and controlled expression. P. wildly anarchic in their defiance of the avant-garde’s valorization of carefully constructed. Nelson’s films have garnered little critical recognition. heroic innovation.

Nelson began his artistic partnership with William T. a like minded painter drawn to conceptual gags. wordplay. Each of these films features a kind of inexplicable riddle as its generative subject. Nelson and Wiley continued their collaborative enterprise with a spirit of revelry and wild play that inevitably spills off the screen into the spaces of film spectatorship. 2008. Their back-and-forth banter is simultaneously natural and absurd. 258 . personal expressivity. Blondino continued the semi-dramatic.” etc. the artists then quickly recorded a simple voiceover in which they commented on their performances. such works posed major challenges to filmmakers and critics who were still proudly holding onto classical notions of film craft. Wiley.” “that was quite a jape. In the first. Los Angeles. though the subject of the film’s enigmatic riddle is a 290 Robert Nelson at Redcat. and irrational.g.explained that some of his films were “barely authored at all. and controlled authorship. including the elusive “off-handed jape. like an in-joke between two friends. “that was a good one. With The Great Blondino (1967). e. Bleu Shut follows a similar strategy.”290 As suggested throughout this study. With The Off-Handed Jape (1967) and Bleu Shut (1970). the performers attempt to enact a variety of gestural non sequiturs. improvisatory mode of Nelson’s earlier works and reflected the same formally eclectic sense of bricolage and heterogeneous composition. performative experiments in the illogical and absurd.” After filming spontaneous. January 21. unscripted attempts by each of the artists to display an array of ridiculous facial expressions and bodily exercises.

naming game involving reproduced magazine drawings of boats in which ridiculous, incongruous are titles superimposed upon them. In both films, the artists produced the soundtracks without actually looking at the images that the audience sees. The results of these playful, spontaneous experiments in performance and sound-image correspondence are textual knots whose source of enigmatic comic energy is both immediately recognizable and conceptually indecipherable. In their total disdain for artistic self importance and exalted authorship, Nelson’s films evoke the high-spirited and frolicsome energy of the experimental art scene of San Francisco. In particular, his works of the late 1960s and 1970s exude a wooly energy that is largely absent from experimental films made in New York in the same period, where the tendency to produce works of extreme structural rigor and mathematical organization was becoming progressively more pronounced. Discussing his earliest films, in 1970 Nelson wrote, “None of us knew anything about making movies at that time, but we all knew about art (namely, that it had something to do with having a good time).”291 In this statement (and in his film practice), Nelson provocatively redefines the central function of filmic aesthetics as a social enterprise rooted in camaraderie, friendship, and conceptual play. This aesthetic enterprise, however rare in cinema, was relatively common in the artistic atmosphere of San Francisco in which Tom Marioni, a Bay Area conceptual artist mischievously titled an exhibition of his
Robert Nelson, “Robert Nelson on Robert Nelson,” Film Culture 48-49 (Winter/Spring 1970), 23.


work, “The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art” (1970). Nelson’s films openly parade their irreverence for the avant-garde filmmaking tradition that emphasizes craft, labor, and training. In fact, Nelson’s irreverent and iconoclastic artistic sensibility had a significant influence upon the filmmaker’s cohort and the Bay Area arts community.

In 1966, three artists collaboratively produced a playful pseudodocumentary titled Fishing for Asian Carp. Multi-media artist Bruce Nauman met painter William Allan at UC-Davis, and they conceived of a number of extremely simple films together. Their projects were all shot silent and documented basic actions. For this unpretentious fishing film, they enlisted the help of Robert Nelson to aid with the soundtrack. He narrated the film with Allan in a casual voiceover conversation, like that of the Off-Handed Jape, which was recorded spontaneously, in an off-the-cuff manner after the film was shot. Though the idea for the film is generally credited to Nauman (who conceived of it and shot it), Fishing for Asian Carp serves as a curious historical bridge between the art and experimental film communities of the Bay Area in the mid 1960s. This little seen film clearly displays Nelson’s auteurist imprint while it also serves as an unusual, minor footnote in the filmographies of all the artists involved. Fishing for Asian Carp has the feel of a student film in its unabashed disregard for conventional craft and its ludic embrace of the most basic collaborative aspects of non-industrial filmmaking. The film suggests an 260

uproarious afternoon of a few men fishing and thus demonstrates a pronounced irreverence for elitist notions of both fine art and experimental film. The film begins with simple black and white titles. It is shot in color and is less than three minutes long, likely the length of the unedited fifty-foot reel of 16mm reversal film. The filmmaker follows a fisherman (Allan) as he prepares a hook, casts a line, and then catches a few Asian carp in a river. The visual imagery is rather straightforward and presents a simple action in a series of a few casually framed shots, as a home movie might. The film’s visual composition is not particularly elegant and it even includes some flash frames, indicating that some of the editing was likely done in-camera at the time of filming. Most descriptions of the film suggest that it begins when the fishing starts and ends when Allan catches a carp, but in actuality, he catches more than one fish. In this regard the film is not as formally austere nor as straightforward as some descriptions might suggest. The soundtrack of Fishing for Asian Carp is the primary source of the work’s rhetorical framing, as well as its comedic content. On it we hear Allan and Nelson lightheartedly discuss the carp that are being caught. They debate the fish’s tenaciousness and its potential edibility. There is also some comedic, anthropomorphic speculation of the fish’s ferocity. Overall however, their conversation is rather matter-of-fact, as Allan explains what it is that he is doing on the image track: baiting a hook, casting a line, catching a fish, etc. In this sense, the soundtrack functions as an offscreen descriptive commentary, like that of the live narrator who accompanied silent films and explained them in-person,


in real time to film-going audiences. Behind their conversation, Nelson (or perhaps Nauman, or whoever was serving as the sound recordist) layered some melodramatic music and the sound of running water. Towards the end of the film, Allan is seen pulling the fish from the river as he explains that he did not have a net or a gaff, so he held the fish up by “finger gaffing,” triggering an uproarious laugh from Nelson that continues until the film’s conclusion. Like a number of Nelson’s collaborations, this work by Nauman functions as an in-joke produced almost exclusively for the benefit and pleasure of its producers. The film, like Nelson’s work in general, displays an unusual capacity to index its extratextual history by openly displaying its process of coming into being while simultaneously transmitting the pleasures experienced by its producers to its viewers. For works like these, the stakes are simply different from those of other experimental films. Yet in many cases Nelson’s films (and those of his cohort) do represent authentic experiments, e.g. what would happen if we simply shot William Allan trying to catch a fish? In this sense, the outcome of the experiment – the fact that he did indeed pull a carp from the river – was largely determined by chance. And the soundtrack’s spontaneous and playful verbal exchange is greater evidence of the work’s fresh embrace of a casual happenstance that is the basic result of collaboration between friends. Though rarely discussed, this casually produced film provokes a consideration of some of the most significant artistic concerns of its era. As the later work of Bruce Nauman would demonstrate, he was profoundly interested in


the chance interactions between humans, unplanned events, and recording technologies; consider for example, his surveillance work, Corridor Installation (1970) or later, Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage) (2001). Similarly, this collaboration provides a vision of artistic community that defies the dichotomy between “artists’ films” and “avant-garde films,” that continues plagues both the historiography and exhibition practice of experimental cinema. In Fishing for Asian Carp, we have a soon-to-be established media artist, his painting teacher, and an experimental filmmaker (associated with “the coop avant-garde”) all collaborating together in the context of a lighthearted collective project. Behind this event, one can also trace the influence and sensibility of John Cage who pioneered the incorporation of chance processes and atmospheric contingency into the space of artistic production, while also embracing a notion of art-making as play. Like much of Cage’s work, this project uses a pre-determined, relatively arbitrary structure as its framing device (something that Nelson would do again with his Awful Backlash (1967)). Though Fishing for Asian Carp is a minor film in the filmographies of all artists involved, it nevertheless exhibits attitudes and artistic strategies that would continue to exert influence over the work of both Nauman and Nelson for many years to come.292


Though I have used an example from the San Francisco Bay area to make a point about the false divisions between so-called artists’ films and experimental cinema (and the overlapping social communities of these groups), I could have just as easily have discussed an entirely different group of filmmakers and artists who were working in concert or in some kind of conceptual proximity. For example, in Los Angeles in the 1960s and 70s, one finds a vibrant community of filmmakers and artists experimenting with the moving image and applying the strategies of conceptual art to cinema, including John Baldessari, Ed Ruscha, Morgan Fisher, Thom Andersen, and Jack Goldstein, to name a few.


More, Nelson’s Collaborative Documentary: Perhaps the most ambitious and large scale collaborative work of Nelson’s filmography is a project that he completed in conjunction with a number of his students and other amateur filmmakers in Upstate New York in 1971. While teaching at Ithaca College, Nelson produced No More, a collaborative full length feature film. Like many of his films, No More was a singular experiment with an entirely different set of artistic strategies from those that he used in his other projects. It was a collective experiment in filmmaking, such that when the film was started, he had no real idea how it would look in the end. In No More Nelson and his collaborators edited together an expansive collection of often unrelated film exercises and shorter vignettes into one rollicking, almost unwieldy multiauthor film assemblage. Using a variety of creative methodologies, all of Nelson’s films, including No More, demonstrate a sustained and rigorous investigation into the very questions of film authorship through their use chance, the arbitrary juxtaposition of contradictory sign systems and visual styles, repurposed footage, and collaborative experimentation. In aggregate, Nelson’s unruly group of film works utilizes the medium, not as an expressive resource, but as a philosophical toy applied to the investigation of film’s inborn and unusual capacity to witness profilmic realities and reconstitute them within collective social practice. The final product of No More’s ambitious collaboration was a work of extreme bricolage that simply falls apart at the seams. To Nelson it proved artistically inadequate and, after a few early screenings, he took it out of public 264

circulation. However, there were aspects of the project that he later felt were worthy of reconsideration. For this reason, the filmmaker has recently returned his attentions to this film, reconfigured parts of the footage, in order to whittle it into smaller, more artistically and tonally manageable new works. (Like Conner, Nelson has often re-edited his films, destroyed old versions, or entirely reorganized fragments of unfinished projects.) In his continuing experiment with authorial strategies, he basically excised one of the more unusual sections of the film and considered it a new, autonomous work, which he titled, More. After its excision from the longer, sprawling No More, and two or three minor edits, in 1998 More was simply declared a new work. In its original construction as a collaborative, democratically conceived project and in its new state as a kind of filmic readymade, the work functions as an ongoing experiment in novel approaches to film authorship. In its current form, the film is about fifteen minutes in length, and features three sections or episodes. The first portion of the film is an observational documentary – shot with multiple cameras and featuring live sound (unusual technical opportunities for experimental cinema) – that follows an amateur softball game and the social rituals that surround it. The sync-sound, handheld-camera presentation of the sports event features no voiceover and no clear rhetorical frame to guide the viewer. With the look of a cinema a Direct Cinema project it is an observational documentation of a typical American ritual. Yet, in the context of experimental cinema and fine art of the


1970s, the work is far from typical; it is an anxiously irreverent, indescribable work. More opens with two sports announcers who are seated at an outdoor table in front of two microphones, animatedly narrating the goings-on of the not yet seen sports event. We see the game when it is already well underway. The camera follows the action of the game, but it also presents a significant amount of footage of the crowd sitting close by. Though there are two teams, the camera persons direct their attentions almost exclusively to the playful antics of the team wearing jerseys that read, “TRUCKING STEVES / RECORDS / EDDY ST.” The record store team, sporting long hair, headbands, and jeans, seem to be enjoying themselves as they drink beer, horse around, and make mischievous gestures and lighthearted comments to the filmmakers. At one point, a player speaks directly to the camera as he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a bottle of cough syrup (a popular recreational drug of choice in the early 1970s) and holds it up to the camera saying, “The secret to a winning team.” The players often sit with their friends by the sidelines, so that the only way to distinguish those playing the game from the fans is through the team jerseys. There are dogs running around, small children (white and African-American), and a cable news van in the background. (Presumably the sportscasters that we saw earlier were providing commentary for the televised local cable transmission of the sports event.) We see a bit of the game’s action, though the social activity surrounding it seems to be more central to the interests of the filmmakers.


the players and fans review their score sheets. and then celebrate their success by sharing a joint. and the film’s cutting and camera movement accelerate in order to match the profilmic energy of the social event. It is a hyperbolically brief modification of the film’s visual texture. the film’s sound drops out. in relatively small print towards the bottom of the screen. reading. some superimposed text briefly fades in again. In capital letters. and its extended displays of the fans’ excited faces. but because of its strangeness it suggests that the film may not be the simple observational object that it initially seems. Firecrackers explode while the athletes and their friends guzzle together from a large jug of wine.” Then in much smaller print. Briefly. “AUDIO LOST NO SCORE.The camerawork is entirely handheld. small white lettering. All the players run together and pile into a group. its occasional insert shots of player close-ups. the word “SPORTS” is superimposed over the image of the jubilant team in extremely understated. In the midst of all the excitement. The overall organization of the footage displays a visual economy related to that of television sports coverage. through its excited editing. People cheer excitedly as it becomes clear that the team from Trucking Steve’s Records has won. the original 267 . but the movements and pans are all extremely fluid and even. The energy builds as the game’s action becomes more frenzied. enthusiastically celebrating their victory by jumping up and down in an exuberant huddle. It is an eccentric and unexpected authorial intervention over the diegetic world of the sports event. After the game.

reading. which are typical of television advertising emphasizing the luxurious details of high end cars. A series of highly stylized shots follow: a rapid. An attractive young woman opens the car door and superimposed text rolls over the screen.” Filmed in a more tightly edited fashion than the previous section. and dramatic three-hundred-and-sixty degree tracking shot demonstrates an 268 . and a number of tight close-up insert shots. It reads as follows: “This 1951 Chevy in good working order will be given away free to the first person to call the following phone number after Sept. It also features a blend of rather extreme camera angles. these close-ups teasingly draw the viewer’s attention to the somewhat ramshackle nature of the car’s interior. seen from the side. in front of a large Tudor mansion. “NO-MORE. In this context. calling attention to the lighter and the radio console with her gestures. an atypical. She then opens the hood of the car and we see a close-up of the engine accompanied by the sound of its warm purr. this short mock advertisement is shot largely with a wide angle lens to exaggerate perspective. which are punctuated with close-up insert shots of these details. The same young woman showcases the car’s features. 1.” as the first portion of the film comes to an end. There is an abrupt cut to the second section of the work. 1971: 607 273 5818 / (people associated with the making of this film not eligible). including a long shot from directly above the automobile (taken from the roof of the large house behind it). homespun advertisement for an old car. clean. It begins with a medium shot of the’s title immediately follows.

including seemingly unmotivated non-sequiturs like. The team and their many enthused friends have become even more excited and energetic. The next section of the film begins with a brief flash of clouds in the sky accompanied by the chiming sound of one note played by a xylophone. forming a rather deft student reconstitution of the language of television advertising. and an extreme close-up of the automobile’s hubcap ends the advertising sequence. distorts the car’s size and stylizes its visage. it reads. an extreme overhead high angle shot from the mansion’s rooftop places it in its luxurious surroundings. a large dog is lead inexplicably out of the car’s back seat by the film’s female model. celebrate their victory en masse in a public park in a college town in Upstate New York. This cues a concise transition to the documentation of the ongoing American social ritual that began the film. Fuck you!” The mood 269 . as it showcases the car’s exterior. “You can’t stop America.extraordinary filmic control. shot with a wide angle lens. They make nonsensical exclamations towards the camera operators. A title card introduces the final scene. The ethnographic spectacle of the day’s events resumes in the early evening as the athletes. 1971. “EDDY STREET / ITHACA.” In this concluding section of More. a number of them are clearly intoxicated. highly stylized tripod shots are accompanied by the most saccharine elevator music. NEW YORK / JULY 7. a close-up of the car’s hood ornament. These carefully staged. the filmmakers return us to the cast of characters who played softball and began their celebration in the opening of the film. many still wearing their jerseys.

entranced man fixes his eyes on his two hands as he twiddles his fingers in front of his eyes. (This sequence seems intentionally to mimic the crowd scenes from Woodstock (1970). It appears that the older man may be a local business owner or perhaps a neighbor who is concerned about the gathering 270 . The scene gives the impression of a spontaneous street festival for the young adults of the town. People play bongos and tambourines. There are a number of young men and women present. perhaps because the group appears peaceful and in good festive. but seem to be assuaged of their concerns. and the crowd features white. black. providing visual and sonic access to many of the different social groups while demonstrating textbook control of the film’s fluidly moving. the police show up. and irreverent. Following some public celebration. observational camera. teenagers. and Latino celebrants.) The camera and boom operators move throughout the large public gathering in an agile fashion. likely the effect of an experience with some variety of hallucinogen. The softball players are joined by many of their friends and the diverse crowd seems to grow as the film progresses. The sound is entirely synchronized. At one point in the film’s action an older man becomes engaged in a conversation with one of the main softball players (who we saw in the first section of the film). he is likely the team captain. there is chanting and much of the film foreground the ebullient dancing of the town’s young men and women. mischievous. though there are insert shots that punctuate the smooth visual representation of the social activity that is the central subject of this collective auto-ethnographic drama. A gyrating. younger children.

and the camera cuts to dancing woman.of such a large crowd of young people. … God bless Mr. Weaver. which in their brevity 271 . He’s a good man!” Then in a simple gesture of pride and excitement he exclaims. she might be described as the film’s co-star. Twice in their conversation.” Then in smaller text. The long-haired softball player proudly proclaims to the older man and the crowd that has gathered around. WEAVER. “Look how happy we are!” The conversation described above continues. (We saw her in a number of shots in the first part of the film. Again. kinetic body closely. Eventually it becomes clear that Mr. Fire Department. “You don’t have to worry. WEAVER” at the exact moment when the young softball player says his name. It is a strange moment of synchronicity that announces the coordination of this unusual textual component with the film’s soundtrack. the filmmakers introduce the title “MR. the filmmakers add brief superimposed text over the profilmic action. Weaver is willing to let the young people celebrate. (We later find out that he may work for the fire department. seemingly at random.) The camera follows her exuberant. It is clear that our softball playing protagonist is pleading with the man to allow them to continue with their festivities. text appears over the middle of the screen that reads “CHARLES W. superimposed white titles appear over the profilmic action. In an authorial gesture that perhaps mocks the traditional methods through which conventional documentaries introduce people. though he is not wearing any uniform to indicate this fact. but the sound blends with some muffled.) We overhear their conversation and witness it from a slight distance. up-tempo music.

” It quickly fades away. dance. brief.and small scale give the impression of an offscreen comment. made by the filmmaker. and unusual authorial commentary on the genre of the film and its various types of content and filmmaking modes. There is a cut. perhaps a whisper of extreme irony. and the film’s improvisational style perfectly captures 272 . it is later in the evening and the screen has become much darker. The first and third sections of More comprise a two part auto-ethnography presenting a pair of related public social events that display the extroverted tendencies of young Americans who play sports. It then ends abruptly with a cut to black and a truncation of the soundtrack. People are frolicking more wildly now. The camera pans away from the action. This title reads: “CINEMA VERITE. as a new song begins and a man in a tie-dyed t-shirt does a rowdily ecstatic full-body dance that is reminiscent of Joe Cocker’s performance at Woodstock. We see another man flailing wildly – it is the team’s captain again – as he lifts his shirt. again providing an understated. they flash on and off the screen very briefly. They read “ADULT SHORT SUBJECT. At the conclusion of this section of the film. and the final superimposed titles appear over the crowd.” As before. drops his pants and rhythmically flaps his now exposed penis in the middle of a dance circle. and loudly celebrate their youth. the filmmakers engage with this changing mood through quicker cutting and panning that recognize the collective profilmic energy of the experience. consume recreational drugs. as if embarrassed. At his point. drink beer. Their exuberance is clearly spontaneous and sincere.

or perhaps film genre more generally. in very small letters. for only a few seconds.” They are declarative. the simple word “SPORTS” appears over the action. WEAVER.” “ADULT SHORT SUBJECT. Considering these filming conditions.” “MR. but entirely unnecessary as information.” “CINEMA VERITE. like that of Bruce Conner. a fact that further causes the viewer to feel that they are carefully chosen and perhaps significant in some rhetorical sense. What could such an unusual rhetorical intrusion aim to convey? Nelson’s sense of humor. in a particularly understated fashion. They provide a jocular commentary on the interaction between film form and the spontaneous flow of life that the apparatus records. But at the point of the softball game’s climax. They also mock the conventions of non-fiction filmmaking. it is all the more telling that the filmmakers chose to add these occasional and incredibly brief asides to the audience in the form of small superimposed text that briefly flashes over the film’s action. they are so absurd that they are entirely inexplicable and challenge the significatory potential of the entire film text. These interventions are extraordinarily sparse.this energy. it undermines the rhetorical force of both representational strategies. is subtle and disruptive as it destabilizes – ever so slightly – the textual cohesion of established audio-visual codes. As Yalkut and 273 . The statements that these interventions provide are incredibly simple. amid a roar of cheering and physically expressed excitement. “SPORTS. As it divides this spontaneous non-fiction portrait of small town revelry with a visually and thematically unrelated mock car advertisement. In some sense.

or geographic. Nelson’s film demonstrates that these two languages are always looming somewhere in American visual culture. social. Nelson’s use of text in More. in the background of even experimental film work. Though there has been little consideration of the significance of both observational documentary and television advertising in relation to experimental film. and Subculture: In addition to the erosion of traditional divisions between the arts that occurred in the United States in the 1950s and 60s. San Francisco. it undermines both the sobriety of documentary filmmaking and the commodity fetishism of television advertising. be they informational. commercial. Place. idiosyncratic engagement with both the visual language of documentary and that of television advertising that juxtaposes them against one another within a ribald.Paik had done with Waiting for Commercials. is certainly mischievous. like his choice to incorporate a highly stylized advertisement for a free car. Nelson and his students draw attention to the markedly different modes of address that are associated with distinct filmmaking genres. Most of the networks of influence and exchange that underpinned the histories of experimental art and cinema in post 274 . the history of the nation’s artistic culture was influenced by other kinds of borders and limits. irreverent frenzy of youth and excess. More is an unusual. be they institutional. This eccentric amalgam of styles and tone allegorizes the unusual production conditions of this unruly experiment in collective authorship. or fictional.

experimental film cannot be convincingly restricted to any one city or geographic locale in the United States. 2005). Because of its grass roots. In fact. material. to be produced in part by the Pacific Film Archive. factors that reinforced the relative isolation between these spatially localized communities. San Francisco. there were productive dialogues. 2005). low budget models of production and distribution.) However. Undoubtedly. 275 . the most ambitious effort to challenge the absolute centrality of New York in the history of experimental cinema is David James’s The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press. Therefore.293 Between these areas of creative activity. and social differences between these areas of experimental film practice. however these exchanges were limited by both physical distance and the scant material means that were available to most of these filmmakers. Scott MacDonald edited Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor (Berkeley: University of California Press. significant aesthetic and thematic distinctions interpenetrate their histories. among other cities. 2008). Los Angeles. the experimental art and film practices that are the subject of this dissertation were not exclusively localized around New York City. such that they can provide historical perspective on 293 There have been a number of significant recent considerations of local experimental film cultures in a range of cities. There is a large forthcoming volume on San Francisco Cinema. and Boston. Buffalo. alternative regional histories of non-industrial cinema deserve more consideration. Robert Haller has edited Crossroads: Avant-Garde Film in Pittsburgh in the 1970s (New York: Anthology Film Archives. Due to the geographic. lively experimental film communities existed in Pittsburgh. (This is particularly true of the gallery culture of fine art that depended on a market-based economic structure with ties to the affluence and industry of the urban upper class and its social milieu.World War II America revolved around the gravitational center of New York City. in the period discussed herein.

and modes of production that were typical of the East Coast art capital were by no means the only possibilities that the medium offered. 173. 276 . formulaic productions of Hollywood film. and the elitist presumptions of the New York art world. in material terms. He once dismissed the entire notion of the gallery circuit as a banker’s exercise. sensibilities. saying. and the mass-produced. West Coast social milieu helps to explain a number of the most significant contextual factors of his career. including his outsider status in relation to New York art of the 1960s (the primary locus of the art market) and his semi-insider status within the Hollywood film community. The relation between the New York art world and the sphere of Hollywood film culture is an extreme instantiation of the polarity between the aesthetic discrimination. populist. cliquishness. capitalist. a consideration of his Bay Area. while demonstrating that the trends. Though there were 294 Rothfuss. “The only reason the art world exists is because the check has been cashed. market-based economics. Conner’s work intervenes within these two different cultural registers by being simultaneously implicated in both of them. both forces represented the most crass kind of consumerist. while willfully distancing itself from them through its ambivalent ideological and philosophical stance.”294 Nevertheless. The bohemian communities of the West Coast provided alternative cultural contexts for the exhibition and marketing of fine art.the dominant practices of New York. In understanding Conner’s work. on the other. To Conner. on one hand.

though his exclusion from the New York art world was only partial and. in which artists could show a range of multi-media work. Manuel Neri.”295 Many of these artists. and only he had a New York dealer. Rauschenberg. and Conner (or at least Conner. But he didn’t […] In choosing San 295 296 Crow. determined by the artist’s own voluntary choices.galleries in San Francisco. it is important to recognize that there was little economic infrastructure to support the art community of that area. and Ed Kienholz – lacked substantive gallery representation. because of their economic exile from the New York art market. patrons. Ibid. “to make sense of their own marginality. As Tom Crow argues in The Rise of the Sixties. it is conceivable that undergraduate art history texts would now speak of Johns. and audiences that might have given them realistic hopes for worldly success.. If he had stayed in New York. George Herms.”296 Conner is one of the pivotal figures of this history. recycling the discards of postwar affluence into defiantly deviant reconfigurations. often worked in the junk-based modes of collage and assemblage. Wallace Berman. 23. Jess (Collins). Oldenburg. Wally Hedrick. the California artists of that decade “lacked any stable structure of galleries. in Crow’s words. The California artists of Conner’s circle and cohort – Jay DeFeo. The Rise of the Sixties. some might suggest. Writer and essayist Rebecca Solnit provocatively argues that Conner’s decision to leave New York for the West Coast – just as he was becoming established in the gallery scene – profoundly influenced the way in which his work has been critically understood and historically situated. and Kaprow). 25. 277 .

278 . a profound sense of social alienation in its 297 Rebecca Solnit. and social interests that were central to the countercultural ethos of the region. fly-by-night venues. Like New York. Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era (San Francisco: City Lights Books. he turned down the possibility of large-scale success and chose instead art as a lifestyle in a close-knit community. and because of their marginality. Harry Smith. a use of music as an inspirational model. Much of the film work of San Francisco film artists of this period featured an emphasis on spontaneity. 60. In terms of experimental filmmaking. 1990). Conner chose to focus his attention on small galleries run by friends – like the Batman gallery.Francisco over New York. Sidney Peterson. a small grassroots local art space – rather than on the Madison Avenue location of his New York representation. Chick Strand. including Bruce Baillie. aesthetic. James Broughton. Robert Nelson. These alternative. and Bruce Conner. Christopher MacLaine. the legacy of the Beat generation exerted a perhaps more powerful influence on the Bay area’s artists than it did in New York. lacked the air of legitimacy that was required by the commercial enterprise of the art market. though more comfortable for Conner.297 By moving to California. the representation of outsider cultures. San Francisco had a thriving bohemian counterculture in the 1960s that had grown directly out of the social and artistic experiments of the Beat movement of the postwar period. Many experimental filmmakers whose work reached its maturity in the Bay area. exemplified the shared philosophical. could not promote the wide-scale commercial success of his art.

subjects. in particular. to distribute their own films. or ecstatic. 279 . […] The artists are also firmly attached to the more vital movements in their society.298 As Alexander suggests. or ironic. In an article titled “San Francisco’s Hipster Cinema” of 1967. 70. Although they have shrugged their shoulders toward the rat race. The production of films usually was in the simplest economic ways. and the riots as well as the dances and light-shows of San Francisco nightlife. and the embrace of personal pleasure. and to redefine the values of the film. or even given society a more passionate gesture. from 1981.” Film Culture 44 (Spring 1967). to speak of their own films directly. They can be found at the sit-ins. the marches. Conner reiterates Alexander’s sentiment in hindsight. a celebration of literary poetics. What was happening was a social 298 Thomas Kent Alexander. the communal aspect of film practice in the specific time and place in which he was most artistically prolific and socially active: Let me make a contrast between the situation in the Sixties and now. they still submerge themselves in the people and movements that surround them. to control them. “San Francisco’s Hipster Cinema. energy. and sense of self. the influence that this shared set of concerns exerted over the area’s film artists was partly a function of the community atmosphere of filmmaking around San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s. as he stresses. an interest in individual spiritual revelation. Whether it is lyrical. as with Ben Van Meter or Kenneth Anger. the San Francisco cinema has a verve. Nobody was taught how to make films. Thomas Kent Alexander describes the overall atmosphere of the film culture in the area: The main thematic preoccupation of the San Francisco film-makers is that of the nonconformist reacting against the mechanical and impersonal society. as with Robert Nelson or Bruce Conner. There were filmmakers banding together to create a new environment for their films to be viewed in. as achieved through the transfiguration of the senses. as with Baillie or William Hindle.

The works of Bruce Conner and 299 Mitch Tuchman. 280 . the social atmosphere of Canyon Cinema and the San Francisco film community was substantially more similar to a commune in its day-to-day social operations than was the more serious. by all accounts. and exchanged ideas. and should necessarily frame any historical consideration of the relationship between artistic practice and its social determinants in the region. themes.299 The humble production conditions and independent sensibility of the work continually surface in anecdotal descriptions of experimental filmmaking in the Bay Area. founded by Baillie in 1960 as an itinerant. 5 (September/October 1981). communal projects run by artists that also functioned as social organizations through which filmmakers met. no. had grown by 1967 into an independent. dedicated to the distribution of work by experimental and independent filmmakers. These social values permeate the area’s experimental film culture in terms of its extratextual production histories as well as its subjects. However.phenomenon whose direction was toward a new view of film and its place. artist founded collective. socialized.” Film Comment 17. and overall content. Canyon Cinema.) Both of these cooperatives initially began as shared. “Bruce Conner Interviewed by Mitch Tuchman. (Robert Nelson and Bruce Conner were both involved in the early organization and development of Canyon Cinema. manifesto-minded work of the New York-based experimental film group. like the Filmmaker’s Cooperative of New York. community experiment in public film exhibition. 75.

Included in this group were wellknown assemblage and collage artists Wallace Berman and George Herms. director. The interests that Conner. and actor. painter Joann Brown.Robert Nelson exemplify these factors through their social contexts and their dependence on collaborative modes of artistic practice. Conner made few films and publicly 281 . he often collaborated with other artists. For example. the Semina artists. celebrity culture. all assisted or contributed to Conner’s films. extratextual details are important determining influences upon the historical conditions in which Conner’s work was produced. Though Conner made many of his found footage films and recycled material assemblages largely by himself. The filmmaker also interacted with the Semina group of the Los Angeles area who were involved in an art movement that has sometimes been described as early Funk art.) These social. as well as a number of the Hollywood actors and celebrities mentioned above. photographer Hopper. minimalist composer Terry Riley. collage. In terms of his basic social and material activities of the mid-to-late 1960s. Dancer and singer Toni Basil. hallucinogenic drugs. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band LP. and cinema produced an unusual and fascinating blend of experimental media and popular art activities of the 1960s. popular music. painter Jay De Feo. (Berman’s image was even included on the cover of the Beatles’ Sgt. filmmaker Dean Stockwell. and the Hollywood circle shared in assemblage art. actor. a number of his films either depended on the assistance of his social circle or showcased their talents.

including Grace Slick (of The Jefferson Airplane). though Conner was critical of the mainstream media. So. As mentioned above. 300 Some of his most supportive art buyers and friends were the most famous Hollywood movie stars and rock and roll musicians of the time. the artist reflects on some details of popular culture and his place in that sphere. Smithsonian Archives of American Art). Conner’s film and assemblage work needs to be understood not simply as a set of collaborations with various artists. he still found a place for himself on the fringes of the popular counterculture.disavowed “museum art. Conner was directly involved in much of their work of the late 60s. University of Wisconsin. including counter-culture icons Hopper and Peter Fonda. 1970. He excitedly outlines his pop culture pedigree: “I was in THE TRIP by Roger Corman […] The producer of THE MONKEES has proposed that I travel with the next Monkee tour and make a movie of them […] Richard Lester [director of the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night (1964)] is making a movie here which I will try to get in” (Shirley Clarke Papers. Wisconsin Historical Society. Conner performed the actor’s wedding ceremony to Michelle Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas in New Mexico in 1970 (letter from Conner to Universal Life Church. November 6.301 Most importantly. the Semina circle overlapped with that of Hollywood and Conner became a close friend to many celebrities.” instead selling beads in Haight-Ashberry. In fact. presenting a short resume of his associations. Madison). but as an artist’s practice that was developed in an extremely productive and powerful dialogue with a number of close-knit artist communities of both northern and southern California. and working in rock and roll light shows at the Avalon ballroom. 300 282 . 301 In a letter to Shirley Clarke. including the pre-production of Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) – Hopper himself has often cited Conner as a massive influence on that film – and Fonda’s Hired Hand (1971). and thus his material support was often a function of these friendships. and Dean Stockwell. Hopper. Bruce Conner Papers.

Berman. 303 In a similar sense. 1985). happenstance. and the balance of forces there was fundamentally different. and other funk artists on the West Coast developed their work organically from a core of personal and social experience which remained central to it. many of whom served as collaborators at some point in time.Thomas Albright. handassembled literary and artistic journal Semina.302 The social history of groups like these represents the interpenetration of influence. They leaned more toward absurd and savage comedy than the first-generation Abstract Expressionists. artistic authority.303 Like Conner. This socio-historical context should help us better to understand and interpret the cultural contingencies that underpin works of art such as those described in this study. One of Nelson’s collaborations with these artists has been described above. and morally concerned. of translations of Antonin Artaud. Consider the appearance in Berman’s mimeographed. but in their own way they were just as impassioned. for example. Robert Nelson was part of a social enclave in which he interacted with a variety of artists from a range of disciplines. social trends. friendship. the Semina group. 109. uncompromising. Art in the San Francisco Bay Area. 302 283 . The dramatist’s theories likely reached the group through McClure and demonstrate an unusual moment of intellectual synchronicity between the artists and filmmakers of the West and East Coasts. Conner. with the intention of suggesting that the social landscape of the arts in the Bay Area in the mid-1960s was one that Thomas Albrigh. 1945-1980 (Berkeley: University of California Press. and the flow of capital within a specific historical moment. the art critic for The San Francisco Examiner describes both the social and thematic fixations of this group (and its relation to developments on the East Coast): But the day broke more quickly on the East Coast. it is often also reasonable and productive to be aware of the ways in which different intellectual and artistic histories have influenced specific developments within.

echoing 284 . as one might expect. Thus it is unclear if the front of the canvas actually bared the traces of any paint. not only in cinema. it is shown as a rolled canvas with its title stenciled mechanically on its exterior. In its exhibition. in a profound sense. to major transformations. which reflects a particular blend of conceptualism and performative irreverence that was specific to Nelson and his social circle. or gestural design. they deserve such a contextualization. It should also be stressed that these collaborations – particularly between Nelson and Wiley – relate. Wiley carved out an aesthetic project that was defiantly open-ended and lighthearted. Nelson’s notion of film history). Though Nelson’s film projects have never been considered in relation to the shifting aesthetic timbre of mid-60s Bay Area art. Specifically. Instead. Wiley’s art historical sensibility was proudly outrageous (so was.espoused a kind of bohemian willingness to connect disparate aesthetic sensibilities and media forms. Wiley’s project lampoons the gravity and earnestness associated with the painterly index of Abstract Expressionism and its associated critical values of opticality and abstraction. brushes. including More. In works like this. he produced a work whose title describes its enigmatic relationship to the major movement that preceded it: One Abstract Expressionist Painting Rolled and Taped (1966). but in fine art and painting in the Bay Area as well. films like The Off-Handed Jape relate directly to Wiley’s early foundational experiments in conceptual art (which would prove profoundly influential upon Bruce Nauman) as well as Nelson’s later work. In one example of Wiley’s many historical/conceptual art riddles.

quoted above. that these artists “all knew about art (namely. 306 Thomas Albright explains that Wiley’s “attitude and personal style provided a model for the laid-back.”304 Much of this fun was of course. “I was struck by what an incredible concept art was [. he had a significance as both an example and an influence needs that needs to be taken into consideration in subsequent histories of the area’s overlapping experiments in art and cinema. but it became a heavy moral trip.” In opposition to the serious metaphysical and philosophical imperatives of Abstract Expressionism (and its entrenchment within modernist critical history). no good or bad.”305 Wiley was a massively important figure in Bay area art. 119. If you drew a line it had to be grounded to God’s tongue or the core of the earth to justify putting it there. conceptual. Nelson. “Robert Nelson on Robert Nelson. and like Nelson with whom he shared an artistic practice and a philosophical sensibility.).” 23. Nauman.Nelson’s statement. 285 . conceptual experiments of Nelson and Wiley.] nothing moral. This change in artistic tone also resonated across the overlapping cultural field of experimental cinema. . life-is-art rusticity that became prominent in much Bay Area art after the mid 1960s” (Ibid. and others that – in 304 305 Nelson. The darker thematics of Conner’s art (and that of his social circle) were replaced in the mid1960s to early 1970s by the work of Wiley. .306 The mood in Bay Area art had obviously shifted between the murky tableaus of Conner’s earlier assemblages and the later jocular. Wiley explains his relation to the seriousness of this earlier art movement: “Abstract Expressionism was revolutionary in its way. Wiley explains. Albright. that it had something to do with having a good time).

experimental cinema. Nelson immediately realized that the East Coast experimental film community had embraced a severity of form that was entirely distinct from his own work and that of his West Coast cohort: I think New York. And to come with a film [. That it looked very hairy. the ingratiating outrageousness of its adolescent iconoclasm and sophomoric humor. and conceptual art.both art and film – embodied a ludic notion of art’s social function. the artistic formalism. flippant parody of [Wiley’s] Funk art.”307 With their iconoclastic tone of play Nelson’s films communicate much of the same energy as the Funk art in which he was schooled. In the early-to-mid 1970s.] once I got there. like a bunch of hairy handmade objects that were all sort of laying there. the formalism everywhere. street theater. 128. it looked to me like something a gypsy brought in a blanket and rolled out on the sand. Canyon Cinema. Albright writes that. . in every expression. was very exciting. which included communities dedicated to fine art. appealed to an audience that was increasingly won over by the growing ‘youth culture’ of the 1960s. in New York. when Nelson brought his films to New York. That was the reaction I had to the film. Macdonald. 286 . 307. the film [of mine] looked to me in the context of that formalism in New York. as well as the philosophical imperatives of the Bay Area counterculture. it reminded me of what I imagined Egypt to be like at the height of some majestic dynasty. . even on TV. Because.308 It is precisely this “hairiness” that defines Nelson’s cinema – as well as that of Conner and other Bay Area filmmakers whose film experiments developed in 307 308 Albright. “The hip. he was exposed to the markedly dissimilar conceptual direction that local avantgarde cinema had taken.

while the Bay Area goes its own way. in the San Francisco area. and gridlike constructions. The next chapter will consider other philosophical and aesthetic developments that challenged the dominance of the mathematical precision and extreme formalism of New York experimental cinema of the early 1970s.” As Plagens defines it. But Nelson was not the only filmmaker who was caught offguard by these developments in filmic systematicity and formulaic structures. 287 .”309 As both Nelson and Plagens explain. which valorized rational structures. Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast 1945–1970 (New York: Praeger. 1974). while also resonating with lingering artistic problems concerning presence and its mediation through media art. The formalism that Nelson observed in New York cinema of the early-to-mid 1970s. mechanized actions. 309 Peter Plagens. assemblage art was an artistic development with markedly San Franciscan roots: “Ultimately. 94. there existed a localized aesthetic sensibility.tandem with the Funk art of mid-1950s to the early 1970s – and which distinguishes it from New York film culture. marked by a “hairiness” and a “bric-a-brac” sensibility that differed significantly from the severe forms and aesthetic systematicity of New York’s art trends. including Information Art and Structural Film. assemblage is the product of a Bay Area bric-abrac sensibility. showed signs of a shift in the principal aesthetic modes of experimental film. California-based critic Peter Plagens reiterates this basic aesthetic distinction: “But Los Angeles art […] at least acknowledges New York art issues.

as ontologically and historically integrated functions of artistic.Chapter 5: Somatic Cinema: Presence. In happenings. its capacity to register suffering. performance art. Chris Burden. In the 1960s and 70s. the personal imperatives of abstract expressionism. anti-war. somatic activity. radical theater. found new material and social territories for their inscription. and minority liberation movements. and Carolee Schneemann foregrounded conceptual and ideological anxieties in the realm of bodily performance. Crisis. these movements emphasized the human body. this somatic energy was partially revitalized by artists whose sensibilities reflected a range of political projects including feminist. continued to wield some degree of authority. Yoko Ono. the legacy of Abstract Expressionism continued to exert a surprising influence over artistic production. As Kaprow and others suggested at the end of the 1950s. and experimental film. Projects like those of Vito Acconci. avant-garde dance. and its role in representing cultural difference. which were powerfully contingent upon the forces of human presence and bodily action. In their inheritance of certain humanist attitudes. Hanna Wilke. 288 . gestural. the bodily contingencies that underpinned Abstract Expressionism. and the Problem of “Structure” In the age of commodity conscious art movements like Pop Art and assemblage. Performance.

An exception to this is Carolee Schneemann. filmic. matched the observational rhetoric of direct cinema documentarians like Richard Leacock. Fred Wiseman. for many of these artists. a number of which were documented with various audiovisual media and recording technologies. philosophically speaking. few performance-based artists attempted to intervene in any meaningful way in the production of related film works. Stan Brakhage’s name remains perhaps the most central – and for good reason. performance art remains difficult to discuss apart from its visual.The cultural and social anxieties of the era manifested themselves in performance practices. and others. his work perfectly embodies the conceptual ambition and dogged perseverance of an artist working in an outsider practice like postwar 289 . an artist whose achievements as a feminist performance artist are well established. Pennebaker. the principal medium of much performance based work was the artist’s body itself. but whose remarkable experiments in the profilmic. including photography. a number of performance artists – including those mentioned above – utilized it to transcribe their actions. D. the apparatus of cinema was intended to function in a way that. In many ways. However. Because of film’s function as a recording apparatus. and exhibition contexts of film art have been insufficiently assimilated into most histories of experimental cinema. and video.A. in a fundamental way. As an ephemeral art form. because of their desire for observational simplicity. physically mediated indexes in other media. Within the dominant narratives of non-industrial film art in America. film. Thus. So.

and sharing friends and ideas. who chose to distance himself from the New York art scene. meeting whenever they could. Schneemann’s films deserve greater attention within the context of experimental film history. Conversely. and performative opportunities presented by the art world of the 1960s.experimental film. Brakhage’s has never penetrated either of those intellectual spheres. However. This chapter will present a discussion of artistic challenges that Schneemann and Brakhage commonly faced in their personal efforts to define new territory for filmmaking in the early 1970s. who reveled in the social. heatedly exchanging arguments and artworks. and a hermetic experimental filmmaker. particularly in relation to the specific challenges of non-fiction film and its explorations of subjectivity in mid20th-century America The most remarkable artists and theorists of cinema have always consciously engaged with the unique and enigmatic relationship that exists 290 . sexual. A case study of their interaction should provide some perspective on the historical opposition between an art world insider. These two artists maintained an impassioned correspondence through the years. Brakhage’s work developed in dialogue with a range of other artists and filmmakers. and demands to be understood as such. One of the most powerful influences on Brakhage was Schneemann and he was one of the most significant influences on her. Though Schneemann’s name is well known in the art history contexts of the academy as well as museums.

abstract. observational aesthetics of experimental film (practiced by both Brakhage and Schneemann) that. This chapter will consider this nexus of concerns as it reflects on the aesthetic. the aesthetics of both Brakhage and Schneemann’s cinematic enterprises can be tied historically to the legacy of Abstract Expressionism. To these two 291 . Both artists came of age in the 1950s and developed their understanding of themselves as artists in the wake of this movement. represents a profound innovation in the ontology of cinema while also challenging the conventional expectations of expressive film art. historical. demiurgic. The works discussed herein challenge the conventional understanding of a plastic. essentially Brakhagean – and encourage a recognition of an alternative. oneiric. Kitch’s Last Meal (1973–76) by Carolee Schneemann and Brakhage’s Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971) are both efforts by experimental film artists to balance the seemingly contradictory observational impulses of the documentarian and the imperatives of a personal art practice conceived in the wake of Abstract Expressionism and the rise of performance. rooted in the particulars of everyday experience. and philosophical challenges of an experimental non-fiction as practiced by Schneemann and Brakhage. according to the dominant narratives of film history. heroic. Carolee Schneemann’s “Neuro-Muscular” Art: In a fundamental way. visionary film practice – which is.between the material of film and the historical real that mediates.

but as “an ambivalent figure – both quintessentially modernist.”310 It is precisely in this interstitial space between plasticity and presence that Pollock’s ambivalence and cultural urgency can be located.311 David Joselit has suggests a similar historical trajectory: “The legacy of Abstract Expressionism led in at least two ostensibly contradictory directions – toward an increasingly severe formalism. De Kooning. Stephen Koch once argued that the representation of human presence was Warhol’s greatest concern. and the other New York painters of this generation exemplified a greater freedom for plastic and visual abstraction as well as an absolute emphasis on diaristic gesture and bodily contingency. 1998). In her analysis. none of which perhaps. art historian Amelia Jones has considered the way in which “the Pollockian Performative” affected the generation that developed in the artist’s wake. Pollock functions as a point of transition. Warhol also had at least one painting by Pollock in his collection. it is also here where we can situate his influence on experimental film. formalist genius. Perhaps it was for this reason that Warhol was so enthused about the possibility of making a biopic about Pollock. 312 Joselit. not causing this shift towards either a greater abstraction or an expanded notion of performance. 34. and toward a performative erasure of distinctions between aesthetic and social space. to track new models of subjectivity. University of Minnesota Press. suggesting that these same 310 Amelia Jones. This unresolved tension is closely related to that of Warhol. 292 . through so many media forms. the representational transformations of Pollock. 311 As suggested earlier in this dissertation. Body Art / Performing the Subject (Minneapolis. Recently. Supposedly.artists. was more powerful than that devised in his cinematic work. American Art Since 1945. who attempted. finds this opposition to be illusory. 61. and origin of the performativity of postmodernism. like Jones.”312 Joselit.

Schneemann’s work in this vein – including Meat Joy (1964). she shifted its visual energies (as did Rauschenberg. Up to and Including Her Own Limits (1973-76). 1977) – represents some of the most urgent and influential work of feminist performance. but instead were often realized in the spaces of the same works. Jim Dine. and others) towards the spaces of semi-theatrical experimentation. and Warhol – she 293 . In addition to their significance as new artistic forms and political strategies. As Kaprow predicted in his 1958 essay.” some of the most innovative art of the following two decades made more extensive use of the human body and the three-dimensional spaces that it occupied. and the blending of various media forms. social interaction between performers.forces were not mutually exclusive. social energies of the era. Interior Scroll (1975. Schneemann’s performance works. powerfully embody the counter-cultural. “The Legacy of Jackson Pollock. Snows (1967). anti-war energies. with their emphasis on taboo-breaking sexuality. Thus. Schneemann’s artistic legacy perfectly encapsulates this shift in emphasis. McLuhan. Sontag. like many other figures discussed herein – including Cage. Trained as a painter whose visual style is indebted to the animated and emphatic painterly line of Pollock and his cohort. all of which extended well beyond the limits of the painterly canvas that had provided the dominant frame for the modernist model of art history. Paik.

Schneemann’s significance has been well-established in narratives of performance and visual art. As part of an artistic community that included performance artists. painters. Schneemann’s legacy as a performance artist is largely tied to a group of events that she staged in the United States and Europe in the 1960s and 70s. Warhol. provocative and unassimilated film works. and philosophically. her practices in other media overlap historically. Yet. including the Living Theatre. dancers. filmmakers. Paik. The Filmmaker’s Cinematheque. Tambellini. as both an independent creative artist and a historical registration of her cultural milieu. or exhibition spaces. 294 . from the energies of Pollock. formally. Specifically feminist in its orientation. Ono. and others. at least partially. dramatists. Conner. yet her film works remain unassimilated into the central narratives of art history. this chapter aims to provide an interpretative context for the historicization of her innovative. like Breer. Schneemann’s work began within the locus of the Judson Memorial Church. musicians.needs to be considered in two different interpretative registers. Schneemann organized and directed a number of works in the early 1960s whose point of origin was the social space of the New York based avant-garde community. filmic. In historical terms. By considering Schneemann’s involvement in a variety of performance derived. in integral ways with her experiments in cinema. and thus demand to be understood as components of the same artistic field. which incorporate “the Pollockian Performative” in either their profilmic. but extended to a range of other venues associated with various other media forms. and poets.

while short rock-and-roll and pop songs era played over speakers within the venue.” These projects put bodies in motion. New Poets Theater. The Kitchen and Anthology Film Archives. and the representational limits of various media (including painting. painted each other’s bodies. London. was one of her first. a number of semi-clothed male and female performers interacted with dance-like motions. Like the Happenings of Kaprow. Schneemann led a number of events that famously showcased her own body (often nude) in the context of work that she described as “kinetic theater. New York. it was a partially scripted work. and lastly. Perhaps the most famous work produced by Schneemann. the physical spaces that they occupied. cut together with a French language primer and street noises from Paris. in 1964. Meat Joy was a landmark work of body art (which took place in the same year as another major feminist achievement in performance. their audiences. in contact with one another. discussed in Chapter 2 of this project). and emphasized a range of somatic interactions between performers. In many ways. Ono’s Cut Piece. Performed in Paris. and cinema). Lights were carefully choreographed and the overall dramatic structure of the work was 295 . Throughout these spaces. and then in the 1970s. as they rolled on the floor with raw meat. The work began with an edited tape recording of the artist herself reading her notes for the work in a sonic montage. in any medium. and staged a kind of Dionysian contact performance. music. and Robert Morris (a number of which featured Schneemann as performer).Brooklyn Academy of Music. Oldenburg. a project titled Meat Joy.

Sequence. and physical pleasure. specifically those related to bodily actions. and The Supremes. Interviews. Though Schneemann’s work would grow more rhetorically and ideologically severe in the following years. 2003).” Yet. as they smiled and laughed to the sounds of Elvis Presley. 62. “Attitude. gesture. could and should vary. relationship between performers (between performers and objects) became loosely structured in rehearsal and were expected to evolve. somatic optimism about gestural art and its capacity to advance a vision of sexual equality. In this regard. the work presented a ludic study of bodily experience. it presented a kind of excited. 313 296 . materials – these were planned and coordinated in rehearsal.well established before the performances took place. but also welcomed unplanned. at this point. she clarifies that other details. light. duration. Schneemann rehearsed Meat Joy. Its performers shuffled around and rolled on the floor in piles of meat and paper.”313 Overall. The Beatles. phrasing. performative divergences. gender. Schneemann describes it as follows: Carolee Schneemann. semi-clothed and splattered with paint. As its title suggests. in the context of semi-theatrical public performances. the tone of Meat Joy was lively and celebratory. Meat Joy emphasized the performative presence of its contributors. Projects (Cambridge: MIT Press. foregrounding their gestures as its central aesthetic determinations. Imagining her Erotics: Essays. She explains that “certain parameters of the piece function consistently. sound. sexuality. She continues.

and gestures. Its propulsion is toward the ecstatic – shifting and turning between tenderness. Perhaps by considering the history of the American avant-garde of the 1960s. wet paint. it also represented a condition of social possibility. affective. Meat Joy embodied the optimism of an artist who clearly felt the conditions of possibility that performance offered. reinterpreting the materials of classical art forms (paint and sculpture) as well as newer modes of popular culture (including rock and pop musics). blood. Meat Joy was a performancebased event that negotiated new territory for gesture. paper scrap. indulgent. ed. sharing space with one another. But. she was intoxicated by them. sausages. a talented pianist who collaborated with John Cage and Merce Cunningham. rope. in a sense. Socially Carolee Schneemann perfectly straddled the period’s overlapping networks of art and media experimentation. chickens. Bruce McPherson (New Palz. and associative excesses. and sound within the cultural landscape of a period in which feminist imperatives were gaining in urgency. Meat Joy perfectly embodied a timely vision of art as social activity. Her romantic partner was James Tenney. paint. brushes. of a democratic interaction of bodies. comic. a celebration of flesh as material: raw fish. as precisely that – a form of social activity – we can better understand the historical contingencies that underpinned works like Meat Joy.314 In its visual. touches. She performed Schneemann. precision. 1979).Meat Joy has the character of an erotic rite: excessive. NY: Documentext. abandon: qualities which could at any moment be sensual. 63. In 1964. wildness. exchanging meat. 314 297 . joyous. More Than Meat Joy: Complete Performance Works and Selected Writings. repellent. transparent plastic.

She collaborated with a group of dancers from the Judson Dance Theater. Schneemann was well-connected. However. Abbie Hoffmann. when she came to New York from Illinois (in her early 298 . and beautiful. Vanderbeek. extremely intelligent. and when she decided to shoot her first film project. and directed a work by Kaprow. citing friendships with Marcel Duchamp. and Brakhage lent her their cameras. She socialized with the most famous painters of the day including Warhol and Rauschenberg (on whose bare shoulders she famously appeared nude and laughing at the New York party for The Monkees’ film. She appeared in films by Stan Brakhage and Stan Vanderbeek. however there were aspects of their milieu that she distrusted. the optimism of Meat Joy had been sublimated into a powerful critique of masculinity and American male chauvinism. such that by the late 1960s and early 1970s. Schneemann’s painting always demonstrated a debt of influence to the Abstract Expressionists. So. as her experiments in kinetic theater. talented. Jacobs. Initially. her work became more politicized and militant. Head). including its most well-known artists and the happenings and performances of Oldenburg and Morris. met with disrespect from the largely male power structure of the art world. and Janis Joplin. she became progressively more disenchanted with the contemporary art and its misogynistic tendencies. She moved fluidly between a number of social circles. it is no surprise that she was a central figure in the cultural landscape of the New York avant-garde of the 1960s. and later film. Breer. As a result.

These studies would provide the theoretical 315 Schneemann. “Interview With ND” in Imagining Her Erotics. represented a kind of artistic and intellectual pissing contest that was largely. masculine. 299 . dancing gestures of Pollock’s painting away from its sexist associations and determinations.) However. The critical language that surrounded much of the work was also controlled by domineering male voices (like that of Greenberg). the Cedar Bar’s legacy of a largely male clique of self-appointed art world royalty loomed over the generation that followed and caused significant rifts between her and her peers. the Abstract Expressionist group exuded a heterosexist misogyny that influenced their art’s extratextual social history. the artist claimed to have “followed them around like a shadow. In her painting. Few artists of the early to mid 1960s were schooled in the history of feminist philosophy and female art history. Schneemann attempted to wrestle the heroic. and make it personal to her own experience as a woman. and her early work – including a 1958 portrait of Jane Brakhage – clearly demonstrates this influence. 117.) To many artists of the period. While in college and in her early twenties. including Schneemann and Warhol.”315 (She was particularly interested in the blend of portraiture and abstraction that was practiced by De Kooning.twenties). in this regard Schneemann was a notable exception. the male bravado of this group. (As Schneemann saw it. and films. if not exclusively. with its drunken fistfights and raucous arguments. muscular. Schneemann studied the writings of Simone de Beauvoir as well as the histories of neglected female artists and painters. performance.

groundwork for her artistic innovations of the 1960s. Schneemann found intellectual and artistic inspiration in her studies of psychology and aesthetics. the actress Liz Hiller gave Schneemann a copy of The Theater and its Double. The notion of an intellectualized. It was a work that encouraged a return to primitive structures. because of his absolute emphasis on the body as both an artistic resource and a target of aesthetic aggression. the writing of Antonin Artaud was one of the most powerful influences upon avant-garde performance in the 1960s. Reich’s work was partially responsible for a shift away from the sexual repression of the previous era. and the pleasures and pains of bodily experience. In terms of the explicit expression of her sexuality. In the 1960s. abstracted theater – like that practiced by modernist playwrights 300 . which represented major feminist achievements well before the mainstream women’s movement gained public recognition. two thinkers in whom she located a particular license to break from the repressed and misogynistic attitudes of previous generations of male artists. social ritual. patriarchal value systems. Schneemann found a catalyzing influence in the philosophy of Artaud. In 1960. Reich was a German psychiatrist who had created international controversy in his endorsement of a liberated attitude towards human sexuality divorced from the structures of guilt and ownership and removed from conventional. particularly in the works of Wilhelm Reich and Antonin Artaud. In her efforts to undermine the material and philosophical limits of conventional theatrical performance and dance. As has been suggested earlier in this study.

like Ionesco. Artaud’s writing – as it was interpreted and popularized amongst the New York avant-garde of the late 1950s and 60s – bolstered a range of artistic developments that encouraged social provocation. Like a number of other artists of her generation. 201. Brecht. perfectly drew an intellectual connection between the physical action of artistic gesture and the sexual identity of the artist herself. “Artaud’s Anatomy” in The Senses of Performance. In her notes from the 1960s. ed. Artaud located the spirit and the mind in the body. Artaud’s emphasis on bodily presence and somatic theater was precipitously synchronous with the lingering influence of Abstract Expressionism and its emphasis upon contingent.”317 As has been suggested earlier in this dissertation. Her work aimed to confront conventional value systems and aesthetic Allen S. 55. Sally Banes. as it would be to Schneemann’s. Schneemann would take up a 1960s version of the aesthetic and social challenge that Artaud’s theories implied. Weiss. Andre Lepecki (New York and London: Routledge. the triggering of discomfort. she made it clear that she had digested Artaud. physical expression as a mode of mapping psychic activity. the pure presence of the body was both the absolute site of contingency and the source of psychic energy. More Than Meat Joy.”316 In this sense. and for Schneemann. The precise significance of the body in Artaud’s writing has been recently described by Allen S. “I decided my genital was my soul. 317 Schneemann. and the overload of the spectators’ sensoria. when she wrote. 316 301 . aggressive action against established values. 2007). and Beckett – was anathema to Artaud’s project. Weiss in a way that suggests an interesting compatibility between these historically remote artistic developments: “For Artaud.

our best developments grow from works which initially strike us as ‘too much’. It was her intention to stretch the senses and the intellects of her spectators through a kind of psycho-sexual assault. while also challenging the strictures of bourgeois taste.318 Like many other artists and theorists discussed herein. We persevere with that strange joy and agitation by which we sense unpredictable rewards from our relationship to them. 302 . before Schneemann completed Meat Joy. that lead us to experiences which we feel we cannot encompass. and expansion towards materials of complexity and substance. the basic responsive range of empathetic-kinesthetic vitality. that the eye benefits by exercise. but which simultaneously provoke and encourage our efforts. she wrote the following statement (which is a perfect invocation of an Artaudian aesthetics of distress blended with the utopian interests in social transformation that were typical of the era): I assume the senses crave sources of maximum information. her intermedial theater projects. those which are intriguing. which circumscribed the limits of social and artistic appropriateness. […] I have the sense that in learning. Schneemann sought to elicit a condition of spectatorial anxiety in which she would disarm normative sensory expectations and conventional value structures through artistic action. they maintain attraction and stimulation for our continuing attention. or her major film experiments.structures by creating work that openly undermined the traditional expectations of sensory experience in art. stretch. that conditions which alert the total sensibility – cast almost in stress – extend insight and response. demanding. 1958–63” in More Than Meat Joy. 9. “The Notebooks. Such works have the effect of containing more than we can assimilate. In a notebook fragment from the early 1960s. For her the principal device for undermining these artistic and ideological conventions 318 Schneemann.

Alexandra Juhasz (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2001). “Brakhage introduced film and film process to us. Fuses and the Challenge of Sexual Representation: Schneemann first came to understand the possibilities of film as an art form through her friendship with Stan Brakhage. Cat’s Cradle (1959).”320 During their extended sojourns together. which she would use to overwhelm the predilections of her viewers and the social and textual limits of her chosen media. in Vermont or later in Schneemann’s country home in upstate New York. She was introduced to Brakhage. Schneemann felt that there was something about Brakhage’s approach that undermined her subjectivity and challenged her authority as an independent individual. 320 Schneemann quoted in Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video. 303 . She decided to counteract Brakhage’s representation of her sexuality: “Brakhage made Loving because of his fascination with the erotic sensitivity and vitality that was between 319 Schneemann met Tenney in May 1955 and encountered Brakhage for the first time only a few months later. Schneemann still defined herself exclusively as a painter. Daybreak (1957). the three artists engaged in heated conversions about aesthetics and the potential relationships that could be negotiated between diverse media. 2009). “in a 42nd Street spaghetti restaurant where we shared one bowl. Stan was going to 42nd Street films afternoon and evenings” (Schneemann email correspondence with the author. in her words. James Tenney.) In her words. Beginning in their college years. ed. and Loving (1956). July 13. One or both of them appeared in four of his films. Whiteye (1957). 70.319 (At that point. The filmmaker was a childhood friend of her romantic partner. In viewing these films.was the register of erotic representation. Brakhage sometimes filmed the young couple together.

and Stephen Dwoskin. explaining that she felt a need to be the constructor of the images and not simply their subject. the film was a diaristic account of lovemaking between Schneemann and Tenney in the space of their home that. 304 . Vol. including Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959).”322 After her experiences with Brakhage and other filmmakers. 142. Schneemann decided that she would attempt to define her visual representation according to her own terms. 1. Bill Brand. Partially modeled on the form and content of Brakhage’s films. Flesh of Morning (1956/1986). Begun in 1964 and not completed for three more years. Schneemann has often cited Window Water Baby Moving (1959). she explains. despite my hope that some coherent self will come through. 75). 323 Hollis Frampton describes Brakhage’s particular directorial stance in relation to his subjects: “he’d like to be on both ends [of the camera]: he’d like to be seen and at the same time he would like to be in control of the way in which he is seen” (Frampton in MacDonald. […] But I felt that Loving failed to capture our central eroticism. Brakhage’s film of his wife’s experience in childbirth. She also appeared in films by Stan Vanderbeek. and Window Water Baby Moving (1962). 322 Schneemann in MacDonald. A Critical Cinema. Brakhage 321 In addition.”321 She continues. When she appears in other people’s films. Vol. “I always feel a tremendous distortion has been enacted on me. as a work that powerfully catalyzed her own desire to learn the craft of filmmaking and produce her own self-authored works in the medium. it would eventually reflect his influence while challenging his mode of vision and overall representational strategies. in its final state.Jim and me. A Critical Cinema: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers. a project that would achieve some cultural notoriety and eventually become her most famous work in the medium.323 The first film experiment that Schneemann began was Fuses. and I wanted to set that right. shares the seemingly paradoxical functions of filmic documentation and painterly expression. 1. In a number of his films.

physically painting on the film’s surface. and the birth of his children. modifying its speed. and burning it and scratching it as Brakhage had famously done in a number of his films. including sexual intercourse. Schneemann’s major achievement was her inscription within her own experience of sex. However. and careful post-production process. Schneemann attempted to inscribe her own subjectivity into both the performative profilmic and painterly filmic spaces of Fuses. Fuses reflects Brakhage’s influence. In Schneemann’s film. In its blending of visual texture. In her elaborate.undertook a thorough autobiographical filmic investigation into the most private aspects of his life. the domestic activities of the home. male and female genitalia meld into one another and the material specificities of sexual difference are obscured through superimposition and the material transformation of the film’s visual texture. masturbation. complex. 305 . but experienced by a woman. For the project Schneemann radically modified the filmic image by optically printing superimpositions. as an action between equals. and the act of sexual intercourse. the film creates an indistinguishable somatic flux that visually metaphorizes the act of sexual fusion that is achieved in intercourse. Schneemann’s film demonstrates a more equitable division of both artistic and sexual control within the space of the artwork. into the filmic texture of the work. In its post-production methods and visual style. But in its democratic exchange of visual perspective and artistic direction.

shots of Tenney and shots from his point of view.) The result was a film that challenged the narrative positioning of Brakhage’s own camera eye by recalibrating the visual field of the work and undermining conventions of visual identification and genital objectification. which will be discussed later in this chapter. Schneemann intended to undertake an experiment in film language. Though its historical innovation was significant by any definition. and shots of the two of them from no attributable point of view that narrator positioning is entirely dissolved. Fuses has been left out of many narratives of American experimental film (including Sitney’s). but as a mode of vision that “disperses authorship and 324 James. (This was a challenge that Brakhage would face on numerous occasions as well.In her preparatory thinking about Fuses. David James has written the most persuasive and articulate account of Schneemann’s film: “The film so thoroughly interweaves shots of Schneemann and shots from her point of view. She attempted to determine – through the act of an artistic experiment – if it would be possible to make a sexually explicit film work that offered both a philosophical and representational alternative to the exploitative tendencies of pornography or clinical tone of science films.”324 His analysis rigorously identifies the ways in which the optical perspective of the experimental film camera has been reconfigured. including in his film The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. 319. not as a heroic first person. 306 . Allegories of Cinema.

Fuses is Schneemann’s most highly acclaimed work. Schneemann is not mentioned in Patricia Mellencamp’s Indiscretions: Avant-Garde Film. semi-pornographic film that was Conner’s 325 326 Ibid. 711–722. 307 . Because of the film’s particular material conditions as a recording technology. It was going to change the whole argument and discussion of filmic representation of sexuality and … then she couldn’t touch it. Schneemann created her most sexually explicit project. Leo Braudy. sensuous transformation of the profilmic and filmic registers of Fuses. included Apple Knockers and Coke.. in the early 1970s it toured theatrically as part of a package of erotic films (presented by Grove Press). Fuses is an innovation in both non-fiction and experimental cinema. 320. the short grainy. the film did have some public visibility. For example. Video. & Feminism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press. nor is she considered in any of Laura Mulvey’s writing. Though it was rather hard to see for a time due to censorship laws and social taboos concerning the explicit representation of sexual intercourse. there is no doubt that in the medium of cinema. it catalyzed in Schneemann’s hands a powerful investigation into the effects of technologically mediating an erotic exchange. Mulvey has never mentioned my films” (Schneemann in “Interview with Kate Haug” in Imagining her Erotics. 1990). One of the most thorough and elaborate feminist experiments in film practice.subjectivity as generalized functions of an indeterminate erotic field. (Mulvey is the most influential feminist film theorist.) As Schneemann once said. as well as in the ontology of sexual representation that has been omitted from almost all theoretical interventions in feminist film historiography. curiously enough. 2009). Marshall Cohen (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. her most well known essay is “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in Film Theory and Criticism 7th edition.”325 In her eroticization and somatic. ed.326 Still. which also. Mulvey “talked to me about the rupture Fuses made in pornography – how important Fuses was as an erotic vision. 27).

and Barbara Rubin. In public presentations.. two different reels of the film was shown simultaneously on two projectors in which two independent streams of imagery were superimposed on top of each other. because of its explicit display of homosexual behavior. the film caused a near riot in which people tore up seats and created a rather massive public disturbance. in which homosexual and heterosexual acts were blended together visually. 2007).) Still.327 Yet. Andy Warhol. on the same screen. The 1963 project. Rubin’s film presented a spectatorial experience of expanded cinema in which the film’s sexual openness was reflected in its screening context. 327 308 .source material for MARILYN TIMES FIVE. there were precedents for sexually explicit work in experimental film. In 1968. commonly held beliefs concerning the representation of sex on screen. In David Thompson. Rubin’s film was a playful bodily romp set to the sounds of mass media. during a public presentation at Cannes. 169. but it was a work that. (Schneemann has suggested that the crowd’s reaction at this screening was the result of the fact that they expected Fuses to be more sexually explicit and puerile than it actually was. it must still be recognized that the film was quite provocative and confrontational in its attack on well entrenched. In its exhibition. Christmas on Earth. while a radio played the popular music of the day. Like Schneemann’s Meat Joy. was an experiment by a teenage Rubin in the representation and exhibition of polymorphous sexuality. was more challenging to normative sexual sensibilities. Black and White and Blue: Adult Cinema From the Victorian Age to the VCR (Toronto: ECW Press. including the films of Stan Brakhage. through a novel experiment in film projection.

like Wilke and Schneemann. they are immediately accused of narcissism.”329 Lippard mocks the simplicity of the rhetorically reductive formulations of art criticism that. 309 . “European and American Women’s Body Art. but when women use their own faces and bodies. particularly when the women involved. To her. were a “glamour girl” or a “body beautiful. She argued that the sexual acting out and exhibitionist tendencies of artists like Vito Acconci and Lucas Samaras were considered acceptable by the critical male establishment while the efforts of Hanna Wilke. but there were other considerations as well. this was largely due to the sexism of the art world. “European and American Women’s Body Art” in From the Center.” respectively. Rubin’s work was less susceptible to cooptation by the sensibilities of heterosexist pornographic exploitation. […] Because women are considered sex objects. Carolee Schneemann. 125. Still. Some critics have argued that through her use of her own body. and Acconci..328 She writes. conflate ugliness with artistry and beauty with self-exploitation.” first published in 1976. with his less romantic image and pimply back. it is taken for granted that any woman who presents her nude body in public is doing so because she thinks she is beautiful. she agrees that at 328 329 Lippard. In her essay. She is a narcissist. “Men can use beautiful. 126 Ibid. and Lynda Benglis were met with much less approving responses. Lucy Lippard compared the perceptions of male and female body art. in their analysis of body art of the 1960s and 70s. Schneemann created works that played into heterosexual male fantasy.this sense. sexy women as neutral objects or surfaces. is an artist.

has resulted at times in politically ambiguous manifestations that have exposed her to criticism on a personal as well as on an artistic level. as flirt and feminist. She explained that her use of her own naked body was predicated on strategies of provocation: 330 331 Ibid. In chapter two. and all too rarely.’”330 Lippard’s criticism suggests that even when one is aware of the political intention of such work.times the use of the nude body provokes a necessary consideration of the ideological stakes of self-representation. an artist who courts the conditions of self-exploitation and who described her own work as “seduction. Mekas. like the work of Conner discussed in the last chapter. it functions as a significant historical provocation. “breaking down the phony privacy walls.”331 Like Clarke’s confessional work. Schneemann’s literal baring of herself provoked sexual excitement. political distrust. I quoted Jonas Mekas’ description of the social milieu of underground film. despite what pleasures certain spectators do or do not take from their experiences with her work. critical respect. Portrait of Jason or Ono’s Cut Piece. Movie Journal. However. engage a potentially anxiogenic ethical ambivalence concerning the interplay of authorship and exploitation.” Lippard also draws a connection to Schneemann. in his words. a movement dedicated to.. textually speaking. 126. 281. Another case in point is Carolee Schneemann. She explains that Wilke’s “own confusion of her roles as beautiful woman and artist. 310 . it can create results that. are “politically ambiguous” and thus. In discussing Wilke.

threatening to dominant notions of sexual representation within art. she was entirely aware of the difficulty that he had in trying to establish his chosen medium – an 332 333 Schneemann. […] To let my body be a further dimension of the tactile. her goals were entirely congruent with those of other exhibitionist artists of the period (including Otto Muehl or Vito Acconci) though as a woman she was more subject to the criticisms of a sexist public that conceived of her as a sex object first and an artist second. plastic character of the construction. More Than Meat Joy. Schneemann’s first experiments with cinema as a medium for her own creative practice were tied to Fuses. She writes. she screened portions of it for friends and peers as a work-in-progress. […] [t]o break into the taboos against the vitality of the naked body in movement.To confront paradox that we deal with created images. […] To bridge the conventionally public/private areas of experience. 311 . “I did not stand naked in front of 300 people because I wanted to be fucked. in its evolution over the intervening period. Ibid. to eroticise my guilt-ridden culture and further confound this culture’s sexual rigidities – that the life of the body is more variously expressive than a sex-negative society can admit.” 333 Such a provocative understanding of bodily performance was then. Schneemann first began to learn the craft and technology of cinema. but because my sex and work were harmoniously experienced. 92–94. 194. Because of her close friendship and correspondence with Brakhage. and remains. but not exhibited publicly until 1967.. Film as Environment and Text: Historically.332 Politically and aesthetically. The project was begun in 1964. With Fuses.

She explains. 137. She explains: My first performance to incorporate film – film as a material element – began when Gerd Stern asked me to collaborate with USCO on a film/performance event for the new Cinematheque. That was very serious for me. Thus. The year before I had started to edit the first footage of Fuses in my loft.335 334 335 Schneemann in MacDonald. largely silent film – as a legitimate mode of art. her experiments in this medium were conducted with a full awareness of the artistic stakes that would be involved in her virtual defection to a medium that was not accepted as a legitimate format in the art world. Schneemann. artisanally produced branch of non-narrative. More Than Meat Joy. 312 . the filmic materials that she used in her kinetic theater events were not her own. But studying the film as it was split into multiple moving images and planes shifted my reticence about including film in performance. Vol. Initially. discrete. due to a belief in the textual sanctity and purity of the film experience. where Jonas Mekas had arranged a series of special evenings. and this move proved both aesthetically and historically productive. A Critical Cinema.independently. “I had internalized all these very serious. Though Brakhage would never produce work of this variety. Schneemann was able to interpolate the materials of film into the other realms of her work. 1. […] Until that time I’d considered filmmaking only as an independent. I had witnessed the messianic battle Brakhage had had to endure to establish the nature of visual film. 97. self-contained language.”334 One of her ways of sidestepping Brakhage’s battles to legitimize non-industrial film as art was to move the materials of film into the intermedial domains of performance and expanded cinema. almost religious attitudes about film.

in which she worked together with dancer Phoebe Neville and various artists and technicians associated with the USCO group (including filmmaker Jud Yalkut who shot the footage that was used in the project).Though Schneemann initiated Fuses in the context of the American avant-garde cinema – which she then understood in fundamentally Brakhagean terms. Vol. she juxtaposed the bodily movements of herself and her collaborator. Ibid.337 This sensibility differed significantly from Brakhage’s purist approach in which the space of film exhibition was conceived as an almost hallowed hall of silent worship. Her first performance work to incorporate projected film was Ghost Rev. A Critical Cinema.”336 As Schneemann’s description suggests. 137). She explained. Schneemann’s intermedial experiments in film and performance demonstrate an integrated understanding of the medium’s possible uses within diverse art practices. in her words. kinetic work. 1. discrete. “Anyway. In the performance of this semi-theatrical. In general. film as part of performance remained something that was in the studio along with all the other rough materials being tried out” (Schneemann in MacDonald. in an effort. partially as a result of her interaction with other artists who were working in intermedial contexts. she realized an open-ended concept of cinema’s possibilities for producing new aesthetic experiences in the shared social spaces of semi-theatrical events. through her first-hand experiences with both film and performance. self-contained language” – she would eventually expand her understanding of the medium’s performative capabilities. such as the USCO group. 337 336 313 . “as an independent. to “work against the physical integrity of the film.

using materials filmed and created by herself. aesthetic. ’70). in which all the cataclysmic social. and one of open-ended semi-theatrical conditions. Kitch’s Last Meal: In the late 1960s. and philosophical energies of the 1960s triggered a personal breakdown. but not exclusively. and as integrated components of kinetic theater projects. In 1977. she explained the situation with the benefit of hindsight: I was flipped out for several years – and if this is a representation of the implosion of my generation at a certain time (’69. which was more closely connected to traditions of performance and visual art. Schneemann continued to integrate film into her performances. and Kitch’s Last Meal would be screened both as independent. often. I still alone had to struggle to fight back into relevance. her other major film works of the period. coherence. The dual condition of these works echoes that of her contemporaries who were active both within the world of the experimental film community (or the “coop avant-garde” as Peter Wollen described it) and in the performance art network (that overlapped with the social circles of dance and happenings). Viet Flakes (1965). Schneemann experienced a personal crisis of sorts. the unities of functional behavior.Throughout the rest of the 1960s and early 1970s. And the total loss of a functional self has not only to do with the 314 . Plumb Line (1968–71). self-contained works. generally associated with the avant-garde film community. Apart from Fuses. Schneemann’s film works functioned simultaneously as part of the conventional register of single-screen film exhibition.

ineptitudes and a sinister transformation of all ordinary things.excesses of social and esthetic determinations – the materials and energies of the sixties – but of the individual who faces. an hourly state of dis-location. In the early 1970s.339 In performances like Robert Morris’s Site (1964) and Oldenburg’s Nude Bride (1969). in a regular weekly retreat to the quiet life of teaching. Schneemann relocated to Europe. painting. More Than Meat Joy. Schneemann felt instrumentalized. Upon her return to the States. 315 . 191. Schneemann felt that she was never adequately accepted by the boys’ club of the happenings and performance scene. the English filmmaker and artist Anthony McCall. endures. though the artists often involved her in their work (though generally only through the incorporation of her body as “an image” not “a maker of images”).. living in England and Paris. dis-orientation. she spent much of her time with her partner. For one. because of her treatment as a muse for the works rather than an active agent of their construction. One of its most significant aspects of Schneemann’s artistic output in the early-to-mid 1970s was Kitch’s Last Meal. Ibid.338 The dislocation that she describes was partially a function of the sexist treatment that she received in the 1960s. objects and actions. an epic film project in which the artist 338 339 Schneemann. 194. fears. during an era in which the language of liberation and equality was spoken but rarely practiced in terms of sexual politics. and living together. This relationship and its historical conditions would eventually produce a non-fiction film work partially removed from the social context and cultural maelstrom of the New York avant-garde of the 1960s.

open-ended diaristic mode of filmmaking. three minute cartridges – immediacy and simplicity. Produced on Super-8mm with a separate soundtrack on tape. jobs. travels. compact. grounds work.documented the quotidian experiences of her life in rural New York with filmmaker Anthony McCall and their cat Kitch. home-movie format for hobbyists. “Kitch’s Last Meal took its form due to the nature of Super 8: close to the body. The materials of Kitch – Super-8 film – are extremely difficult to edit due to the tiny size of its frames and the thin. 225. and the recurrent passage of a train which runs close behind the house. Schneemann’s Super 8 epic was somewhat atypical in form. the appearance of friends. 342 Schneemann. because unlike many Ibid. reading.” The film engages with the ways in which art and life intertwine: “The visual imagery touches on the practical efforts which actually surround art practice – in this case: gardening. while shifting its emphasis towards a more unrestricted. 341 340 316 .”340 It is a film project that continues the autobiographical trajectory of her work.341 She explains that. fixed durations. cheap film. Kitch is a work of remarkable scale and formal complexity for this extremely inflexible small gauge film that had been initially intended as an amateur. 225. spidery quality of its film stock.. To have produced a five hour super-8 epic is an unusual. typing. cooking. cleaning. She explains that the film was “based on the continuous textures of a shared daily life of a couple – both artists – living in the country. the movements of the cat through the center of the home and grounds. More Than Meat Joy. if not unprecedented feat.”342 However. chopping wood.

two-screen film. The result is a less rigid registration of sound and image synchronicity in exhibition. Schneemann chooses to circulate the soundtrack as a separate. After the film’s completion in 1976. 317 . hers was a tightly edited and carefully orchestrated work. For the exhibition of the film. both of which are fifty-four minutes long. At the time of the project’s beginning Schneemann could not have known that her cat would live to be twenty years old. It is now available only in composite twoscreen versions on both 16mm and video. She has also shown Kitch’s Last Meal with live voiceover accompaniment or as part of a performance work titled Up to and Including Her Own Limits (1973-76). in varying length from twenty minutes to almost five hours. Schneemann’s preferred mode for exhibiting the work has been in a vertically oriented. The first reel of the restored version 343 These versions are slightly different because of their differing sound formats. different portions of the work have been screened. The artist assumed that Kitch would not live much longer and thus planned to organize the film around a series of the cat’s meals. well beyond the life expectancy of the species. independent source. Each section of the film features a handwritten title that introduces us to the historical period included in each reel. the film is ostensibly based on the last days of an elderly female cat who was seventeen years old when Schneemann began the project of documenting the animal’s twilight years. with the top image slightly larger than the one below. filming one every week as a record of the animal’s life.343 In structure.other works originally produced in this format. In its exhibitions over time.

and the frequent footage of her suggests that. as she is seen sweeping the front porch of her home in the saturated color of this small gauge film. tousled interior of the house. like Fuses. beginning with the rhythmic rumbling of the train.(which is the top image of the work’s two-screen vertical orientation) begins with the following text: Kitch’s Last Meal 18 years old Reels 9 and 10. the filmmaker and her partner shared the responsibilities of operating the camera. The soundtrack is atmospheric. as the filmmaker prepares a makeshift profilmic superimposition of text over action. this sonic icon of modernity and movement functions throughout the film as an auditory leitmotif that bridges and joins disparate materials through its rhythmic evocation of a rural landscape. a cat who relaxes outside while Schneemann continues her domestic labors in the top section of the projection. (This disarray was the result of a theft by a previous tenant to whom she had sublet her home. 1974 By Carolee Schneemann The text is painted on a panel of glass. behind it. We are then introduced to the disheveled. The bottom projector then begins and the second image now enters and introduces the film’s protagonist. Behind Schneemann is the verdant expanse of her front yard. Schneemann’s figure then enters the film. The top and bottom panels often show related. we see a train moving in the distant landscape.) Schneemann continues to labor outdoors. Like its visual representation. tightly 318 . which is covered with scattered papers and boxes strewn across the floor.

” He said. In the pages that follow. He said. this extended voiceover is perhaps the most rhetorically significant component of the film. doing laundry. An abrupt cut follows.) In the next section we see simultaneous footage on both panels showing Schneemann engaging in various acts of domestic labor. the film predates both Chantal Akkerman’s landmark feminist critique of domestic labor.345 As Schneemann hangs wet clothes on a clothesline. its historiography. You are 344 345 Schneemann in MacDonald. It’s something else that I do. Vol. a structuralist filmmaker. 151.”344 Sometimes the footage in the two panels is almost identical. “We are fond of you. the two panels give an impression of simultaneity that is similar to that of Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls. the soundtrack abruptly shifts from the atmospheric clamor of the train to the more noisy interaction of a typewriter’s percussive clanging and a barely intelligible radio.choreographed imagery. demonstrating Schneemann’s claim that the film “is cut like a straightjacket. and picking blueberries.) I met a happy man. In its emphasis on the household work of a woman. “But don’t call me that. at other times images seem to circulate between levels as dictated by the different points of emphasis and associative connections that the discrete film strips provide. 319 . and Schneemann’s role within it. including scrubbing the floor. Jeanne Dielmann (1975) and Martha Rosler’s video work Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975). (In general. A Critical Cinema. a work that similarly communicates a blend of profilmic looseness and deliberate organizational structure. The muddled soundtrack presents a sonic equivalent of the home’s interior disarray. 1. and the first of Schneemann’s voiceover narrations begins. (For the context of the discussion here concerning experimental film. it will be quoted in detail.

establish their visual set. “My film is concerned with diet and digestion.” During the above voiceover. a structuralist filmmaker. The visual components of this section also clearly evoke the gendered implications of a conventional sexist division of labor that relates to the space of the kitchen versus that of the art studio. follow its strictest implication.” “painterly mess. the dense gestalt.” I said.” He said.” 320 . including the “personal clutter. though he is not the one that is the target of her commentary. In this section of the film. picking beans. We cannot. I said to him. in literal terms. “You have slithered out of excesses and vitalities of the sixties. Pay attention to critical and practical film language. the personal clutter. and preparing food in the kitchen.” and “diaristic indulgence” of her art. We also see dirty dishes in the sink. We see mason jars and the smiling face of McCall. of the aesthetic attributes described in her voiceover. quotidian experience and that of her artistic enterprise are fluidly melded by both her sardonic voiceover and its ironic interaction with the film’s image track. Take one clear process. the register of Schneemann’s personal.) Schneemann’s voiceover continues: I don’t take the advice of men. It exists for and in only one gender. the persistence of feelings. we see images of Schneemann petting Kitch. the hand-touched sensibility. “You can do as I do too. the primitive technique. intellectually establish a system of permutations. the diaristic indulgence. a clear instantiation. There are certain films we cannot look at. but don’t ask us to look at your films.charming. (This will be discussed in greater detail later. giving her medicine with an eyedropper. They only talk to themselves. the painterly mess.

My works would be lost. domesticity. to make a provocative rhetorical statement concerning the indivisible connections between craft. The visual and sonic elements of the film cohere. Having picked the blueberries. this portion of the film demonstrates how carefully the artist synchronized her film and audio elements.” I saw my failings were worthy of dismissal. quoted above. During this episode. You simply do not follow the problematic. Like a number of other sections in Kitch. preparing a large expressionistic. and places the jam in its receptacles (likely in preparation for the coming winter). in the lower screen Schneemann is seen painting in her studio. in an associative fashion. “then why the train?” “The train is death and there is ‘die’ in ‘diet’ and ‘di’ in digestion.” He said. and female identity in Schneemann’s artistic and political project. “You are unable to appreciate and understand the system of the grid. she cooks them. I’d be buried alive.” In her visual accompaniment to the voiceover narration. as her culinary labors provide a perfectly timed visual representation of the soundtrack’s allusion to diet and digestion. including an extended sequence in which she stands in front of her kitchen stove carefully preparing jam. the numerical and rational procedure. a structuralist filmmaker”: He protested. boils the mason jars. The voiceover continues with this almost Socratic dialogue on film aesthetics between Schneemann and “a happy man. Schneemann presents more images of domestic activity.“Very well. the Pythagorean cues. “Well then you are back to metaphors and meanings. semi-figurative canvas.” he said. 321 .

He said, “We can be friends equally, if we cannot be artists equally.” He told me he had lived with a sculptress. I asked, “Does that make me a filmmaker-ess?” “No,” he said, “we think of you as a dancer.” This polemical voiceover provides a rhetorical element to Kitch’s Last Meal that was absent in her other films. Though her earlier works were polemical and ideologically charged (including, most notably, Fuses and Viet Flakes), they were not didactic. With her use of the soundtrack to provide her own aphoristic narration in Kitch, Schneemann shifted the timbre of her work. However, the diaristic audio fragments of the film give productive clues to the overall philosophical underpinnings of this particular film and to the rest of her work more generally. In a most basic sense, this imagined exchange with “a happy man, a structuralist filmmaker,” perfectly identifies significant conceptual, interpretative, and social binaries that were operating in the field of experimental film practice in the early 1970s. The opposition that Schneemann describes between “the rational procedure” of the structuralist filmmaker and the “painterly mess” of her own work was in fact an operative aesthetic tension that polarized the avant-garde film community of the period. And in the imagined filmmaker’s emphasis on the system of the grid, he connects his rhetoric to the critical legacy of modernist, Greenbergian art criticism. Following this introductory meta-polemic about film practice, Schneemann brings the film back to an impressionistic register that is its dominant mode, featuring poetic, collagic voiceover and atmospheric sound to 322

accompany a mélange of imagery featuring her cat, her home, and her quotidian interactions with her partner. At times, there are additional fragmentary pronouncements on the soundtrack, though none as long or as detailed as the one described above. In one case, Schneemann draws critical attention to a quotation from Sitney, suggesting an implicit sexism in his writing, which she demonstrates by reading his printed text aloud. She quotes an excerpt of something that had written about a film still from Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, in which she is shown looking reflectively out of a window. Schneemann quotes the section in which Sitney describes the film still, writing, “it is a calm image, it is practically an icon of a person looking into himself.” These brief observations concerning sexism and language punctuate the observational texture of the rest of the work as it shifts registers between conversation, personal reflection, and feminist commentary. In all, the soundtrack to the film is a blend of feminist critique (which, like Schneemann’s quotation of Sitney, is aphoristic), personal and diaristic reflection upon the artist’s own life, some meditation on the conditions of filmmaking, and observational, atmospheric sound of the artist and her partner in conversation, blended with the sounds of passing trains and their purring cat. (The film’s sonic montage of first person diaristic commentary with casual, fragmentary sound, muddled conversation, and synchronized sound/image commentary relates to the films of Jonas Mekas in both tone and overall artistic strategy, including for example, Walden or Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania.)


Throughout the film, the cat is generally present; she is seen frolicking, interacting with the couple, tending to herself, and perhaps most often eating. At one point, she rides in the front seat of the car with Schneemann and McCall as the artist films the landscape through the window of the moving vehicle. On the soundtrack Schneemann tells a story about Fuses and complains about a recent robbery in which some of her films and much of her correspondence were stolen. (Though she does not explicitly indicate it in the film, Schneemann lost all of her lengthy and intense written correspondence with Brakhage to this theft). She includes a range of tonal registers in her commentary, blending personal comments, like, “In December, Jim [Tenney]’s father killed himself” with discussions of her artistic working methods, demonstrating that within her artistic practice, even her relationship to the specific technologies of film are personal, tactile, and somatic. In her voiceover, she describes two recent conversations with moving image artists: A video expert asked me, “How did you get into sound recording?” The question was bewildering. If I need a medium, I go and teach myself to use it. The forms are in my mind. I go to find what the materials can do. I said, “I teach myself, so long as I can get my hands on it.” “Of course,” he said, “access.” I meant touch. A super-8 filmmaker from Europe called to talk shop. He asked, “What is the most important piece of super-8 equipment you have?” I said, “I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me that. It’s a clothespin.” As this portion of voiceover suggests, Schneemann conceived of her relationship to her materials in organic terms, as extensions of her musculature and her bodily 324

experience. To her, as to Brakhage, film is a tactile medium, to be engaged with by hand, to be held, touched, and created within the domestic space of daily life in which cats play, jam is put into jars, and strips of film are hung with the same clothespins that hold undershirts onto clotheslines. Following this discussion of film technology and artistic materials, Schneemann talks a bit more about her history with the medium and the ways in which it has affected her domestic life. Curiously, she describes how her cat came to learn about cinema. Kitch’s experiences match those of Schneemann. “Kitch was struck by the ritual of it [film viewing]. Of course, the first films she saw were Brakhage films. Perhaps the Brakhage films prepared her to enjoy commercial cinema.”346 The reels end and a new section starts with handwritten titles: Kitch’s Last Meal 19 years old Reels 11 and 12, 1975 On the soundtrack we hear Schneemann read the titles aloud as we simultaneously see them onscreen. In this section the seasons have changed, the fall has become winter, and Schneemann shows us a range of snowy exteriors. With the change of seasons the tempo and style of the film shift somewhat, to a rapid montage, organized into a filmic texture of greater visual plasticity and frenetic camera movement, more akin to the visual style of Brakhage than the previous sections. Like Brakhage’s work, these reels also demonstrate a careful framing and

Such a claim has likely never been made in reference to a human, unless it maybe referred to one of Brakhage’s children.


attention to composition. The rapid edits and image shifts between the top and bottom panels create an unusual, unsettling optical flicker that shuttles in a rhythmical fashion along the vertical axis of the work’s two-screen projection. In this winter footage, Schneemann demonstrates the dramatic range of color and luminosity that super-8 film can produce. In one overwhelming shot, she shows a dazzling bright pink sunset behind a trail of slowly moving clouds. Through her careful editing of the film, Schneemann blends this footage of nature with images of her own body in motion, as she had in Fuses where she visually melded the act of sexual intercourse with the landscape outside of the couple’s window. This section of the film also shows the pleasure and jubilance of Schneemann’s family life, as she dances while the cat plays on the floor and McCall calmly drinks coffee. The soundtrack includes an atmospheric combination of largely indecipherable, seemingly commonplace, everyday conversation, to accompany footage of the two artists feeding their cat a variety of unlikely foods (including an avocado and a fried egg). The top and bottom panels of the film often achieve a remarkable geometric patterning; in one sequence the top screen shows a train as it passes by the window of their home while the bottom image features an artfully framed, synchronous shadow of the living cat. This juxtaposition achieves a kind of spontaneous visual symmetry that is partially created through happenstance. As camera movements within the two sections push the visual momentum of the diptych in opposite directions, the film creates interaction between the upper and lower panels that, though carefully


coordinated, also creates a whole range of unintended effects that would be impossible in regular, single-screen projection.347 In addition to home movie footage of the family at play, Schneemann also shows us elements of both her and McCall’s artistic labors and creative processes. In a comparison that evokes the binary of “structuralist filmmaker” vs. “handtouched sensibility,” she presents footage of Tenney with a ruler and pencil as he prepares a graphic score for one of his works. He is seen carefully mapping a rigid organization of white and black squares on paper, while she touches and manipulates strands of super-8 film in a cluttered room filled with her expressive, brightly colored canvases. This moment of self-reflexivity suggests that, in addition to being a diary work, Kitch is also an essay film. Though the film is visually demonstrative of a particular set of rhetorical associations, its soundtrack provides its most explicitly essayistic content and commentary. Like Schneemann’s other work, Kitch incorporates the overt presentation of sex as a significant component. We see the artists together nude, laying in bed, and lightly caressing each other. The tone of the film begins to change at this point, and Schneemann’s voiceover becomes somewhat sullen: “I’m really depressed because I ended up getting my period, and I’m getting the flu, and I have a performance in a few days and I don’t think anyone will come to it, and the people who do come are going to hate it.” Visually, the language of the film becomes more abstract, presenting bright, indeterminate flashes of light and

The same could be said of the both planned and happenstance parallelism of Warhol’s kinetic imagery in The Chelsea Girls.


intangible shapes, as the camera moves more rapidly and the film’s plastic texture becomes more vibrant. This outburst of dynamic visual energy precedes long sections of black leader in both panels of the film. This intentional breakdown in the film’s optical field introduces a major change. As we will learn in the film’s next reel, the cat whose life gave the film its basic structure has passed away. This abstract shift in the film’s rhythms and visual texture, followed by long expanses of an empty black screen, mark the cat’s transition from life into death. Of the many topics upon which Kitch’s Last Meal meditates, death is one of the most central: it is prefigured even in the film’s title.348 The abstract flashes of light and color that precede the dark portion of the film correspond to the cat’s last flickers of life. On the soundtrack, Schneemann tells a story of bringing the cat into the city to be embalmed, as she prepares us for images of her dead pet. Following this non-figurative visual symbolization of death, Schneemann gives the viewers concrete representations of the cat’s fatality in the last two reels of the film. Like the others they are labeled with text in Schneemann’s hand, here painted in blue on a white background: Final Reels The cat Kitch is 19 yrs old 1976 It is now spring, life is rejuvenated, and the next reels begin with images of the lovers in bed together. There is footage of the cat playing, as if it had been reborn, shifting the temporal expectations of the film’s seemingly linear diary structure.

This is a point made by Scott MacDonald in “Carolee Schneemann’s ‘Autobiographical Trilogy,’” Film Quarterly 34, no. 1 (Fall 1980), 27–32.


Schneemann presents footage from an airplane window and travelogue imagery of the streets of France. Sexual imagery returns through Schneemann’s extended shots of a nude McCall. In an effort to reverse the stereotypical composition of pornography made for heterosexual men, Schneemann includes numerous closeups of McCall’s genitalia, fragmented, and removed from his body through selective filmic composition, objectifying his sex and its physical basis in his physiology. Schneemann’s montage of McCall’s sexual organs and nude body amounts to a carefully constructed visual mini-essay on the objectification of the male form. The couple then frolics, partially nude (in a section of the film shot by a third party), which concludes with a dramatic and carefully framed close-up of the couple locked in a kiss. (The composition and camera movement in this section are rather remarkable and invoke the precision and dynamism of Brakhage’s filmmaking – could he have shot this portion?) The couple move about playfully in the yard and snippets of pop and classical music fill the soundtrack. McCall cleans a fish outdoors and feeds its entrails to a hungry Kitch – a cat that we know has passed away – showing the intertwined nature of life in which different species live, die, and feed off of each other. Then, as the film approaches its end, we see Kitch nearing death. She seems sick and lethargic, and for the only time in the film, appears uninterested in food. The artist then holds her dead cat that has entered rigor mortis. Schneemann looks up at the camera, or perhaps at her lover, who is holding it. At this moment, for one of the few times in the film, she gazes directly out at the viewer, her eyes


But it also results from the flexibility of the amateur filmmaking mode of Super-8 that allows a tiny camera to be introduced into almost any setting. the lower panel explodes with flashes of color. The film’s intimacy is partially a function of Schneemann’s openness towards the discussion of her own experiences in which records her life without restraint. in its comprehensive representation of the grain of everyday life. the seasons have changed again. light. her art works. and bits of illegible text. the cycles of nature. the calm passing of time. which as before. expressed in both visual and sonic terms. Like surveillance technologies. There is snow outside. 330 . with images of a train passing in front of a window and rhythmic sounds of its movement on the soundtrack. In its visual texture. Schneemann produced a work that blends the imperatives of a first-person diaristic cinema (influenced by both Brakhage and Mekas) with a more essayistic style (like that practiced by political and feminist filmmakers). Kitch has a personal intimacy. her interactions with her lover. With Kitch’s Last Meal. visually evokes the film’s subject matter and the fragility of its own cellular material. scratches. Kitch is an impressionistic survey of an artist’s quotidian experience. and in its unassuming simplicity. and natural in its filled with tears. The film then returns to where it started. in its mode of rhetorical address. in a last gasp of expressive energy. that seems unguarded. During this dramatic and transitional section of the film. It documents her chores. uncensored.

domestic. Again. in a way that. all three of these films partially chronicle the demise of romantic relationships. and thus frame the experiences of romantic love. and domestic partnership as inextricably connected with 349 350 Schneemann in MacDonald. This openness to plain.”349 Like Kitch the cat.’” 331 . “Carolee Schneemann’s ‘Autobiographical Trilogy. 150. is both more obvious and ordinary. Schneemann’s camera lived with the artist and her partner. eroticism. and the lack of extreme filmic intervention – like the painting. making her life her principal subject. which also includes Fuses and Plumb Line. observing the most banal or remarkable moments that they shared. Kitch’s Last Meal has been described by Scott MacDonald as the third film in Schneemann’s autobiographical trilogy. everyday experience frames Schneemann’s project in autobiographical terms. Autobiography is infused throughout Schneemann’s work. Schneemann explained the filming process as being fundamentally transformed by her encounter with a new technology and her related.350 As autobiography. A Critical Cinema.1. scratching. new working sensibility: “This camera was a very straightforward. and multiple superimpositions of Fuses – allows the profilmic space of the work to communicate content more directly to the viewer. as Schneemann suggests. Vol. and I wanted to be more and more accepting of the obviousness and ordinariness of things. In her various projects she often describes her own personal experiences. without discretion. see MacDonald.handheld film equipment allows the artist to create a sensation of closeness and intimacy that is achieved by limiting the imposition of the apparatus. simple partner to work with.

332 . artistic presence.loss and suffering. perhaps utopian vision of an artistic practice integrated with nature. creating an audio-visual instantiation of the artist’s desire to blend the conceptual developments of avant-garde and feminist art with a somatic. In its visual and historical 351 Schneemann. by example. More Than Meat Joy. artistic. Schneemann’s film is a personal document of her own efforts to integrate her life and art into the landscape of nature. that it is impossible to properly understand an artist’s practice without considering the extratextual determinations that frame it philosophically and historically. the film presents the ways in which art is always integrated into the texture and labor of daily experience. represents a heterogeneously textured interweaving of the social. and phenomenal realms of her experience. The film argues. such that the film’s “visual imagery touches on the practical efforts which actually surround art practice. Throughout Kitch. greenery. Schneemann’s film is an unusual documentary manifestation of the cultural sensibility of the time that stressed the irreducible integration of life’s experiences with those of artistic creation. As she described it in a quotation above. 225. Kitch’s Last Meal presents an idealistic. personal. the filmmaker continually returns to images of landscapes. presenting a small space of domesticity within the remarkable visual expanse of nature.”351 In this sense. Kitch’s Last Meal is an artist’s film about her own home life as well as a domestic meditation on art itself. and as such. and scenes of her country home in its verdant natural surroundings.

associations. 353 352 353 Ibid. The historical evolution of the performance closely paralleled that of the film. Then Anthony came and took some footage of my free float. the 333 . Throughout the work. with crayons in hand. spinning with her limbs extended outward in imitation (perhaps unconscious) of the spidery trees that surround her. It featured Schneemann. 226. Schneemann explained some of the history that led to the production of this work: “The works of Pollock. In the two photographs taken by McCall. suspended in the air with a series of ropes and harnesses. In its expressionistic streaking of the gallery’s walls and floor with painterly marks. Schneemann explains its genesis: One spring day in ’73 a new neighbor came to prune an apple tree. around the space of the gallery. sometimes slowly. He said fine. one sequence of Kitch’s Last Meal perfectly encapsulates this network of artistic impulses. The work also featured sculptural and video elements. a remarkable set of images of this event can still be seen as reproductions in Schneemann’s book More Than Meat Joy (1997). and was perhaps as surprised as I was when the impulse to float naked in the harness took effect. Schneemann’s form hangs suspended above the ground.. Up to and Including her Limits was the direct result of Pollock’s physicalized painting process” (Schneemann. He had a harness and ropes by which he raised and lowered himself and his tools through the branches. could only be viewed with optical muscularity – the entire body was active. nude. she swung sometimes forcefully. “Statement for Texte Zure Kunst (1999)” in Imagining Her Erotics. This image presents a remarkable metaphorical distillation of the work’s overall vision that shows an artist integrated into her landscape through a series of ecstatic. de Kooning. unrestrained bodily gestures. […] I asked if I could try them. marking the walls with long abstract streaks while the film elements of Kitch’s Last Meal were projected in an area that overlapped with her performance space. The film materials produced in Kitch’s Last Meal were integrated into a performance piece of hers titled Up to and Including her Own Limits (1973-76).352 Though footage of this event is not included in the currently circulating fifty-four minute version of Kitch. 164– 65). Once suspended in the harness – free of normal gravity – something started which was slowly to evolve into a new performance work over the next four years – paralleling and including the footage of Kitch’s Last Meal (which in turn included these first images of “flying” in the tree).

In this performance the artist appeared wrapped in a sheet. Her reading began as Kitch’s Last Meal had: “I met a happy man. In her performances of the work in February 1976.” This performance of Interior Scroll was an unplanned response to the conditions that surrounded the presentation of Schneemann’s film Fuses. reading it aloud as she imitated the conventional poses of a life model for a drawing class. it adds extra layers of feminist self-consciousness and intermedial reference that forcefully cast the work further into the register of artistic autobiography. there is one aspect of the project that has attained a forceful historic notoriety and should be familiar to most people with even a passing knowledge of Schneemann’s career. then removed it.” Together with her long-time friend. However. in its integration of Schneemann’s own naked body and her personal filmic portrait of her domestic life.“Step Out of Your Frame”: Structural Film and Performance: Though few art or film historians have seen Kitch’s Last Meal. either as a composite double-screen projection or as part of Up to and Including Her Own Limits. In addition. as a part of its mise-enscene. She had been invited there by Stan Brakhage to present her work as part of a program titled “The Erotic Woman. the presentation conditions of the program bothered her – particularly a performance clearly references Pollock’s gestural abstraction. at the Telluride Film Festival of 1977. Schneemann famously read some of the text from her voiceover narration in Kitch’s Last Meal. 334 . In both her 1977 version of Interior Scroll. however in the context of an art event. such a performative gesture shows the lengths to which Schneemann was willing to go in order to present a vision of life and art as inextricably indivisible. these actions become exaggerated and more dramatically self-reflexive. . . Schneemann included the body of her dead cat Kitch. a structural filmmaker . and slowly extracted a scroll of text from her vagina. painted her body with a few streaks. Like Kitch’s Last Meal. she curated a program of sexually themed films by women.

Ibid. More Than Meat Joy.’ She was saying: ‘live body action steps into area of discrepancy.] I was saying ‘leave me alone I just want to have a nice time.’ I was looking forward to seeing films. In her impressionistic catalogue of her feelings at the time of the event. […] Then the troublesome voice started nagging at me the day before the film program [. 335 .brochure for the Festival that featured a flasher in a raincoat with the words “Fourth Telluride Film Festival” written on his chest. she presents an aphoristic string of proclamations intended to describe the motivational voice of conscience that compelled her to respond to the conditions of her film screening with an act of feminist performance. She explains her compulsion: The last thing I wanted to do at the Telluride Film Festival was an ‘action.354 In her reflection on the event. She felt compelled to respond to the circumstances of the screening with a second performance of Interior Scroll. old friends.. 236. she poetically describes her anxiety concerning the conflict between film and performance and the need that she felt at that moment to distinguish the passive experience of film viewing from something more unpredictable and uncontrolled: step into the fissure between live action and filmic images / the tension is there between distancing of audience perception and fixity of projection / an actual reality triggering filmic reality as coherent present / the lens standing between us and the material embodiment / a live action beside illusionistic actions / images an antagonistic field where the spectators must find their move / and to see it has to make sense and move thoroughly not just in twenty minute film segments for an evenings viewing / as filmmaker you must stand out step out of your frame355 354 355 Schneemann.. to being in Colorado again.

Schneemann’s description of her encounters with “a happy man. Schneemann presents a diatribe that was actually directed towards the female art and film critic Annette Michelson. it also draws a connection to the work of Stan Brakhage that is far from coincidental. the dense gestalt. the hand-touched sensibility. the painterly mess. (The descriptive phrases above were adopted by Schneemann from comments that were passed on to her by 336 . the persistence of feelings. the diaristic indulgence. in an almost roundabout way.This compendium of ideas and impressions coheres around a knot of anxieties that concern the philosophical limits between film projection (described as fixed and illusionistic) and performance (as a live. form “an antagonistic field” in which the stakes of her work were laid out in dramatic fashion.” In this imaginary encounter between herself and a male structuralist filmmaker. In the text that she read in both Kitch’s Last Meal and her performance of Interior Scroll. spectatorial context. Schneemann establishes an opposition between the systematicity of so-called “structural” film and her own practice. However. artistic materials. To Schneemann this confrontation with her audience. and sexual identity. The performance was provocative and triggered the intended response. somatic action). a structuralist filmmaker” lay out the philosophical underpinnings of her artistic practice as well as its conflicts with other tendencies in the American avant-garde cinema. which her imagined opponent describes critically as marked by “the personal clutter. the primitive technique.

After years of saying she really wanted to see my films and was very interested. she expressed surprise at the fact that this well-known feminist performance work. aligned with Brakhage and Schneemann. on a basic level. who was also a student of hers. that I was just astonished that she really couldn’t bear to see them. I mentioned to a friend of mine. look. a feminist critic (Author’s Conversation with Michelson. emphasized affect. and Paul Sharits (and celebrated in print by Michelson. this opposition helps to contextualize and historicize one of the most urgent conflicts within the development of the American experimental cinema in significant years of cultural transition. Ernie Gehr. was actually directed at her. Schneemann’s text above directly opposes (and perhaps exaggerates) the distinctions between these different modes of artistic practice – as did Brakhage’s numerous public dismissals of “structural film” – yet. 337 . The projected quotes are from her students. October 2007). the student said. 143–144. […] Anyway. made by filmmakers like Hollis Frampton. and expressive. there was this festival where she slept through my program. Adams Sitney in an essay in 1969.) In the fall of 2008.Michelson’s students. the word nevertheless gained cultural potency following its introduction by P. Michael Snow. there are certain films she simply cannot look at: the diaristic indulgence. with which she was familiar. Vol. Though no American filmmakers actually accepted the term “structural” to describe their work. 1. and others). when I discussed the subject with Michelson. the hand-touch sensibility. while the other mode. Krauss. A Critical Cinema. One. was based on extreme systematicities and pre-determined formal patterns. personal involvement.)356 This imagined encounter marks a divide between seemingly opposed philosophical notions of experimental film practice at the beginning of the 1970s.” and so on (Schneemann in MacDonald. “Well. when he famously wrote. 356 On Michelson: to MacDonald: “… that quotation you mentioned is a secret letter to a critic [Annette Michelson] who couldn’t look at my films. painterly detail. It’s a double invention and transmutation: it’s not to a man but to a woman. New York City.

326.”358 He writes. it was a function of both Sitney’s rhetoric and his social position as a 357 P. The films that he discusses exhibit some mixture of four characteristics: “fixed camera position. The version included in the Film Culture Reader was slightly revised in the winter of 1969 from its previous version published in the summer of that same year. and Paul Sharits.” in Film Culture Reader. Hollis Frampton.”359 It was this basic assertion. “Structural Film.” “the flicker effect.”357 In its precision. which remains truly convincing despite its controversy. 1–24. were the two factors that proved most troublesome to a number of artists and readers of the essay. In hindsight there can be no doubt that Sitney. “Theirs is a cinema of structure wherein the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified. 359 Ibid.” Film Culture 53/54/55 (Spring 1972). a cinema of structure has emerged. was right to recognize a shift in the later 1960s towards a greater formal severity and systematicity in the avant-garde works of filmmakers like Michael Snow. rather than a description of an historical trend. 338 . an extremely articulate and precise observer of cinema. However. The description of structural film that Sitney included in his Visionary Film was further modified. Adams Sitney. Sitney’s efforts at creating a perhaps overly precise definition of the movement. See also Sitney. and it is that shape that is the primal impression of the film. George Landow.“Suddenly. along with his inclusion of films that were simply incongruous. “The Idea of Morphology. that was most troubling to both Brakhage and Schneemann. 358 Sitney.” “loop printing.” 327. Ernie Gehr. Sitney’s explication of this trend – drawn from his studies in the morphology of literary style – amounts to an attempt at a prescriptive definition. Tony Conrad. “Structural Film.” and “rephotography off of a screen.

” “Cliquishness and ignorance of film-makers outside the Coop. First.spokesperson for the avant-garde that proved most problematic. Perhaps the most dramatic public retort – which was both philosophically concise and rhetorically inflammatory – was George Maciunas’ visual chart.” and “Ignorance of precursory monomorphic examples in other art forms.”361 For the purposes of our considerations here. Sitney’s model of the avant-garde. “Some Comments on ‘Structural Film’ by P. Adams Sitney” in Film Culture Reader. not the visual art. In fact. filmmakers went to great lengths to differentiate themselves from his taxonomic classification of the avant-garde. published in Film Culture. such as music. performance art. experimental music. in which he described Sitney’s essay as being founded upon “3 ERRORS: (wrong terminology. 361 Maciunas. or Cinematheque circle.” “ignorance of art-philosophy such as definitions of Concept-art and Structure-art. events and even film. was derived from a study of literature. Sitney’s attempt to assimilate artists like Conrad and Warhol into his definition of structural film showed signs of an George Maciunas. 349. it is worth recognizing Maciunas’ insights on at least two counts. events. and happenings that Maciunas felt were most influential upon experimental film in the period. 349. Almost immediately upon the publication of Sitney’s polemical essay. 360 339 .”360 Maciunas claimed that Sitney’s explanatory and historical missteps in the explanation of “structural film” were the results of at least four distinct problems: “Misplaced dictionary. wrong exampleschronology and wrong sources of origins). as suggested earlier in this dissertation. both then and today.

had important connections to Fluxus. which was directed by Mekas. Oldenburg.anxious apprehension concerning the interconnectivity of experimental film and the other (non-literary) arts. popular culture. and the artist’s community of New York through his activities as an organizer of both art and cinema. Kaprow. and Film Culture. Maciunas was absolutely correct in recognizing that there was a cliquishness to the circle of avant-garde filmmakers that revolved around the Filmmaker’s Coop. it was because of Mekas’ close friendship with Maciunas (a fellow Lithuanian) that one of the first semi-permanent locations of his cinematheque was located in the same Fluxhall in which Maciunas lived and many of the most significant Fluxus performances took place. despite his affiliation with Sitney and the foundational institutions of New York avant-garde cinema. Though there were significant tensions between the filmmaker’s community and that of visual artists and performance artists working in film. Even Stan Brakhage’s 340 . Jonas Mekas. Paik. Despite the fact that this cliquishness was actually exhibited by both the artists’ community and that of the avant-garde filmmakers. the Cinematheque. there was also great material. Similarly. For example. there were overlaps – as has been argued throughout this study – in both conceptual and social terms. Secondly. which encouraged a myopic understanding of cinematic experiments by artists who were not part of their group. was also the site of major experiments in performance and happenings including those of Schneemann. and conceptual exchange between them. social. and Rauschenberg. the Filmmaker’s Cinematheque. For instance.

almost prescriptive definition of structural film was an act of boosterism that was too prescriptive in language to describe. “It is unfortunate that the films I am discussing have been confused [by Maciunas] with ‘simple’ forms or ‘concept art. was in fact designed by Maciunas himself. he writes. This move towards more severe. but it could not be neatly circumscribed with Sitney’s “intellectual toolkit” (as Frampton called it). expressive. Brakhage and Schneemann shared a distrust of the systematic work celebrated by Sitney.’ It is precisely when the material becomes multifaceted and complex. and even mathematical filmmaking was a real historical development. his landmark manifesto of romantic. For example.Metaphors on Vision. in any comprehensive way. and other critics. LaMonte Young’s drone music. or even their precedents in the earlier ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp. in his response to Maciunas’ criticism of his essay. without distracting from the clarity of the over-all shape. 341 .” 329. “Structural Film. individualist film poetics. conceptual. Schneemann’s almost flippant portrayal of structural film 362 Sitney.”362 Such a prescriptive and restrictive critical position was incapable of appreciating the experiments in form and authorship that were achieved by Paik’s anarchic performance. that these films become interesting. Michelson. Sitney’s detailed. Sitney’s absolute adherence to a romantic program of personally invested authorship made his appreciation of systematic form truly impossible. the movement towards systematicity that he observed in the film culture of the era.

for example. intellectually establish a system of permutations. on the unflinchingly systematic execution of some basic organizational principle. all basically fulfilled Schneemann’s description of structural film as carefully plotted work with origins in formulaic systems and controlled structures. however rigorous and conceptually interesting. establish their visual set.within Kitch’s Last Meal (and later Interior Scroll) might serve as a more appropriate definition of the tendency that Sitney observed: “Take one clear process. Many of these films were based on mathematical or geometric charts that achieved the trademark aesthetic severity of the so-called “structural film. at least partially. such work.” which was based. Here. Paul Sharits’ Ray Gun Virus (1966). To Brakhage and Schneemann.” Films like Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer (1960). geometric organization of black and white frames in either Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer or Tony Conrad’s The Flicker. defied some of the basic principles that their mature work shared. one could consider. and which Abstract Expressionism had layered across mid-century art by redefining the horizons of personal possibility and somatic gesture within cultural practice. Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity (1970). Hollis Frampton’s Zorns Lemma (1970). 342 . follow its strictest implication. each of which could have been executed by any film technician from the simple optical scores upon which each film was based. the graphic. Michael Snow’s Back and Forth (1969).

Sitney “made one of those wonderful valiant efforts to tie it all into the tradition so that the grandpappy of us all became [sarcastically] that kindly and fatherly figure. clothes-lined and sandbagged – got My Mountain made into a structural film. personality. to slip the work of Brakhage into the unlikely category of Structural Filmmaker. 364 Brakhage. 269. impressionistic. and lacking in any overt form of a priori structure. personal choices “wherein the maker is called upon to work with what he or she doesn’t know at every frame’s existence.” 67. he managed. ed. through a bit of rhetorical slight of hand. 343 . November 4. organic. because Sitney’s teleology of the avant-garde was also a kind of personalized reflection of his tastes. Brakhage argued that “the most valuable of the parts of the process of creativity” were the spontaneous. “Some Arguments: Stan Brakhage at Millennium.” in Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor.”364 In 1978. and poor Stan – hog-tied lassoed and branded.]. MacDonald. As described in the second chapter of this dissertation.” For example. and the ebb and flow of social history played significant roles in the historical conceptualization of Sitney’s “structural film.”363 To Brakhage Sitney’s reduction of his artistic process to a structural principle seemed a profound disservice to his philosophical purpose. Hollis Frampton describes Sitney’s problematic incorporation of Brakhage into his teleology of “structural film” when he says. Whether it shall be or whether it shall not be […] as an act of absolute urgency. Andy Warhol [. 1977.Taste. On the contrary. Paul Arthur precisely described the philosophical and aesthetic presuppositions of structural film that directly contradicted the sensibilities of Brakhage and 363 “Hollis Frampton in San Francisco.. associative. personal.. Brakhage’s work was painterly.

“the primary locus of decision-making” was within the moment-to-moment choices in which the filmmaker. 73. as both camera person and editor.” Millennium Film Journal 4–5 (Summer/Fall 1979). Part 2. “Some Arguments: Stan Brakhage at the Millennium. robotic crane. a three-hour film. Brakhage described Michael Snow’s La Region Centrale. etc. and in so doing mystifies. New Versions and the Artifact. Varying modes of organization confront this problem by collapsing successive stages of production or designating one stage as the primary locus of decision-making. the inscription of continuity of process in the final work.). 125. “Structural Film: Revisions. 344 . printing.365 To Brakhage and Schneemann both. 366 Stan Brakhage. […] One “solution” offered by structural films is to shift the locus of decision-making to a point in advance of camera or editing processes. chooses to compose a frame in a particular way or to make an edit at precisely a certain moment. For them. shot by a spinning. the idea that a film could basically be structured before it was shot seemed a dismissal of that which they most valued in the process of filmmaking. At each of these stages (developing. namely associative editing. unmanned.”366 Such a notion of artistic practice is clearly based on an 365 Arthur. organic chain influenced only by his or her intellect and feelings about the material at hand. as “lazy” and “boring. 1977. external intervention: even when that intervention is not crucial it breaks. or to connect certain shots through an associative.Schneemann: “What is most universally suppressed in structural films is the linear. November 4. shot-to-shot accumulation of meaning. conception is subject to direct.” 67.” He goes on to explain this definition in rather precise terms that relate directly to the spatio-temporal conditions of authorship that are exclusive to the film medium: The nature of film production is significantly different from that of other art forms in the number of successive interruptions – in which the material is separated from contact with the artist – between impulse and “finished” artifact.

367 As Michelson suggests. She said to Brakhage: There are other ways of thinking and feeling which aren’t predicated on the constant intervention of the artist from moment to moment. sculptors whose names were Robert Morris. etc. and so on. would have seemed reactionary and ignorant of other trends in the arts. the conceptual art of Sol Lewitt or the simple. of filmic purpose. […] We understand that this is not your kind of filmmaking. say. twenty years. his most sympathetic critic – to define his aesthetics in conditions and terms rooted outside of history. 345 . he claims that the artistic changes that she observed simply had not penetrated the provinces in which he 367 Michelson quoted in Brakhage.” 68–69. Brakhage often had a tendency – as did Sitney. – with an attempt to contextualize them in relation to advanced painting and sculpture despite differences in both the formal and social histories of the distinct media that she was discussing. or that sense of risk. that if you look at the history of filmmaking in this country over the last. And you could say. and so on. […] The young filmmakers […] aren’t really thinking in terms of that old opposition. virtuosic control. But I don’t think that you’re fighting a current battle. at the time of this public debate at Millennium in New York. personal expression. Franz Kline and the members of his generation of painters saying the kinds of things you’re saying about people called the structuralists but about painters whose names were Stella. “Some Arguments. that you have a very different conception of filmic structure. as I think by now some of us have said in the past. streamlined forms of minimalist sculpture. In his flippant response to Michelson.outdated idea that defined artistic craft as specialized labor. One heard some ten or fifteen years ago. Annette Michelson responded to Brakhage’s comments – which celebrated craft. a position that in 1977. it does have certain parallels in the history of painting. including for example.

In the section that follows.lived and worked. Brakhage’s hard won achievements as a film artist were not realized in a vacuum. Though he was often defensive and bombastic in his rhetoric. 368 Brakhage. Hopefully. it will also help to situate Brakhage’s work more closely to other developments in the arts and further from the caricature of the lone heroic artist that has overly influenced both the historiography of Brakhage’s cinema and that of the American avantgarde more generally. he was never monolithic or simplistic in his cinema. he continually challenged the limits of his own philosophical suppositions. Like any relevant experimental artist.” 69. the intense interrelationship between Brakhage and Schneemann will be presented as a model for understanding their shared antimony to the “structuralism” described above. Before art practice in the 1970s imposed intolerable pressures upon his work – which pushed it to the limits of interpersonal and philosophical crisis described above – Brakhage established a mode of artistic production that deserves to be understood as integral to the overall direction of American art in the period at hand. the 1970s were difficult years for Stan Brakhage’s art. “Some Arguments.”368 As this exchange implies. saying “maybe the happy news has not yet arrived to Colorado. 346 .

However. Many of his formative early films featured elements of narrative and emphasized psychodrama. including the influence of filmmaker Marie Menken. Following these models. exhibited. 347 . an encounter with Joseph Cornell. and conventional acting in ways derived from surrealism and imagistic poetry. Brakhage’s early psychodramas. characterized the work of a developing young artist who had not yet established his own innovative strategies for the use of the medium. if one studies the chronology of their interactions. In a rather clear sense. including Reflections on Black (1955). and perhaps most importantly. Of all these influences. such as Luis Buñuel’s and Salvador Dali’s Un chien andalou (1929) and perhaps most importantly. Schneemann’s has been largely omitted from discussions of Brakhage’s development as an artist. the historical and philosophical determinations of their works manifest themselves as much more complex and volatile than most histories would have us believe. which included Desistfilm (1954) and Reflections on Black (1955). Brakhage’s filmography. Dog Star Man (1961-64). a dialogue with Carolee Schneemann that directed his work towards a more elemental and modern notion of film art. Mothlight (1963). symbolic associations. Jean Cocteau’s Blood of a Poet (1930). A number of factors intervened in Brakhage’s own history.Organic Cinema and the Anxiety of Influence: Brakhage’s early experiments in film did not represent precisely the same values that his more well known works exhibited. and related correspondence. this chapter of his work was inspired by the oneiric films of the European avant-garde.

despite common perceptions. In the transitional years of the mid to late 1950s. For Brakhage’s retelling of this story. Pollock supposedly responded by flinging paint off the tip of his brush. the filmmaker himself often invoked Pollock as an example of a artist who. by moving away from the obsessive performed interiority of the semi-narrative. reprinted in Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker.Specifically. The obsessions of the early period would continue. see the bonus interview materials on By Brakhage: An Anthology (Criterion Collection. someone once suggested to the painter that his work incorporated chance. 348 . 36–56” In addition. Brakhage was involved in a continual questioning of his artistic enterprise. as well as that of some of the most interesting experimental film of the 1960s. which underpins Brakhage’s most important work. from the mid 1950s to the early 1970s. Brakhage was particularly fond of an anecdote (perhaps apocryphal) that demonstrates the painter’s absolute mastery of the medium.369 This tension. was a master of painterly control. 30–37. to influence Brakhage’s filmography and catalyze a powerful vacillation between a faith in the demiurgic power of an expressive cinema (influenced by a range of precedents. 5 (January 1973). According to Brakhage. a condition that relates cinema to a prescient and timely an anxiety concerning the inscription of authorial subjectivity in art. 2003). The first ventures that Brakhage made as an observational artist were the 1955 films. is situated in the conceptual and philosophical space between the film camera’s function as a recording apparatus and its use as an artistic tool. no. non-experimental. even though his use of gestural abstraction gave the impression of a seemingly casual approach to composition. imagistic dream film Brakhage initiated his first major step towards an authentically new and untried visual language for cinema. not the least of which is Abstract Expressionism) and an observational restraint related to the practice of the documentary. such that it traveled all the way across the room and hit a distant doorknob squarely – as if directed towards a bull’s eye – without dribbling a drop in the process.” Artforum 11. The Wonder Ring 369 Michelson relates Brakhage to Abstract Expressionism in “Camera Lucida / Camera Obscura.

or pre-determined literary structures. performers. was achieved “almost by accident. spontaneous filmic observation. 159. according to Sitney. sometimes contradictory aesthetic sensibilities. collaborating on art and discussing their sometimes shared. Around roughly the same time that Brakhage was producing his first experiments in a purely non-fictive. he developed a friendship with Carolee Schneemann. and thus encouraged a shift in filmmaking strategy towards a non-fiction approach that. 371 Sitney. living in close proximity (in Vermont). Daybreak and Whiteye (1957) [originally conceived as two separate films] – and the growth of a more abstract color form – Nightcats (1956) and Loving (1957).370 These projects had no stories. Beginning in 1955 they spent extended lengths of time together (often in the countryside). traveling to visit each other (from New York to Denver).”371 From the chronology. and most importantly. 372 Ibid. it does seem that Brakhage’s first film experiments in documentary may have been the result of an almost happenstance request for commissioned non-fiction material. Visionary Film. 349 . the musician James Tenney.and Tower House (films that he shot as commissions for Cornell).372 370 After these films were shot. we see side-by-side the purging of the black-and-white trance film – Flesh of Morning (1956). Sitney describes Brakhage’s transition from psychodrama to his mature style as being gradual: The encounter with Joseph Cornell opened a new direction for Brakhage’s work. She was the romantic partner of his childhood friend. Cornell edited materials that Brakhage had given him and made new films from either the outtakes (used in Gnir Rednow (1955– )) or the original footage (as in Centuries of June (1955–)). […] In his works of the following two years.

In her recollection.It cannot be a matter of coincidence that Schneemann and Tenney appear in three of these five films that Brakhage produced in this transitional period. his friendship with Cornell was much discussed between us” (Schneemann email correspondence with the author. It is clear from her descriptions. 2009). that she remembers in great detail the powerful exchanges that these twentysomething artists shared. both published and not. In a published interview of 1991. organic forms (as represented in Schneemann’s painting). as seen in his mature work. these conversations often centered around an opposition between the artistic functions of symbolic psychodrama (as realized in Brakhage’s early films) versus those of an observation of natural. 350 . July 13. The interviewer asks. It is clear to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Brakhage’s early filmography that he shifted his work precisely between these two registers in the period when their friendship first began to cohere. they had resounding effects on the careers of everyone concerned. “I was 373 Schneemann situates this exchange historically: “This discussion would have taken place after I saw Stan’s B&W early films and he would have come to stay with us in South Shaftsbury. Schneemann suggests that the history of their artistic relationship should be reconsidered.” She also recalled that “WONDER RING was underway when I met Stan. It was during this phase that Schneemann and Brakhage initiated their debates concerning the differences between an art informed by narrative and language and an art dedicated to the close study of nature and painterly detail. Vermont where I was painting from landscape.373 Schneemann has discussed her early aesthetic debates with Brakhage on a number of occasions.

” it seems clear that the shift to his mature style was. productive. a movement that would have a profound impact on both of their creative legacies. Pollock. her sense of aesthetics. but of painting. When I met him. 124. he was doing psychodrama films and working with invented situations. Schneemann. In 2003. not of film. “Interview with ND” in Imagining Her Erotics. visual history and nature!”375 She explains this interaction in more detail. 351 . and often trying artistic and personal relationship with him: “There I open DeKooning. determined by Schneemann’s influence.374 The chronology and social history of the interaction between Brakhage and Schneemann perfectly fits her description. in an unpublished letter from 1975 to critic and filmmaker Wanda Bershon: 374 375 Schneemann. One of our early arguments sprang from my feeling that a visual artist had to be able to build a vocabulary with nature in order to break with inherited theories. He went into that. to a significant degree. and Cezanne books. I guided him towards an organic visual universe. You must look at painting. Despite Sitney’s claim that Brakhage’s move towards a simultaneously more observational and more expressive cinema was simply the function of “accident. and her knowledge of the history. I would tell you. 81. Schneemann published an open letter to the recently deceased filmmaker in which she reflects on a long. It was she who first engaged Brakhage in extended conversations concerning Abstract Expressionism. your ‘psycho dramas’ will be a dead-end.” She responds with a declarative statement: Check the dates.wondering if Stan Brakhage had a lot of influence there in the ideas you were following. “It Is Painting” in Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker.

Special Collections. in its balancing of the directives of observation and expression. Brakhage began to outline a new trajectory for his artistic enterprise that would break from the traps of language and symbolism. But in his first engagement with the elemental considerations of nature and aesthetic form. humbly concentrating on the source of the language of gesture.” In his pioneering works like Anticipation of the Night (1958) and his remarkable artistic manifesto. was I who insisted visual language be based in observation of nature. Brakhage’s philosophical project can and should be traced directly. if not exclusively. led him to nature as a resource rather than dream and fantasy as the base of visual language. living with him [Tenney] and me. surreal. Schneemann perfectly encapsulates the difference between the young. 377 This history of influence is omitted from Sitney’s comprehensive and sympathetic reading of Brakhage’s work for at least three reasons: Brakhage did not publicly offer this history because he was not always supportive of Schneemann’s film projects and likely wanted to distance himself 352 . we fought spiritedly over that.that the prolonged times Stan spent studying my paintings. surreal. […] Someday someone will perhaps see the direct link -. when we met his nourishments were poetic. It was a project that. before she became the performance artist and filmmaker who would continue this shared directive of somatic and sensuous experimentation. color. Metaphors on Vision (1963) (which he was drafting and conceiving during this period of intensive artistic and philosophical inquiry). symbolic. symbolic” and the mature artist who came to embrace and essentially transform the filmic meaning of “gesture.377 376 Letter from Schneemann to Wanda Bershon. would continue for the rest of his life.” and “the movement of form. light. the movement of form. formative Brakhage “whose nourishments were poetic. to his interactions with the painter Carolee Schneemann. color. Getty Research Institute. Collection of Carolee Schneemann Papers. […] I was building. […] our battles were terrific376 In this description. 24 July 1975.

formal mapping. all of these from them. were also “poetic. which is centered on the body of the artist.” 378 Kristine Stiles. Sitney was not particularly impressed with Schneemann’s films. symbolic. surreal. the formulaic and rhetorically predetermined structures of fiction film and documentary posed the same ethical and philosophical problems as structural film. “The Painter as an Instrument of Real Time” in Imagining her Erotics.Brakhage. As art historian Kristine Stiles wrote in 2002. From within an organic aesthetic worldview. organic notion of vision would also be adopted by Brakhage. as a student of English language poetry his “nourishments. and finally. To him. 353 . 11. Schneemann’s major contribution “has been literally to draw the eye back to the body that sees: both to the body’s inextricable connection to what is seen and to its role in determining the nature of the seen. Brakhage also extended his opposition to the aesthetics of structure to his encounters with other filmic modalities. Documentary. it follows that both Schneemann and Brakhage resisted the intensive pre-planning.”378 This emphasis on a somatic. Schneemann’s emphasis on bodily expression and the somatic index of gestural performance philosophically align with her efforts as both a painter and an aesthetician who resisted the predetermined structures of genre or the representational grid of geometric abstraction. She encouraged Brakhage to consider artistic practice first and foremost as a transformation of the materials of nature – specifically through a bodily experience of perception – and thus directed him towards an artistic sensibility that was organic in structure and association. and mechanicity of structural film.” like those of Brakhage. So. Expressionism: Following Pollock’s example.

even more importantly. They. 4 (September 21. ed. 1982). 380 Ibid.representational strategies seem to perform a disservice to the flux of life by imposing some form of a priori structure upon the organic materials of nature and sensuous experience. 354 . Brakhage explains the history of painting in terms that reflect this conceptual opposition. “Eight Questions” in Brakhage Scrapbook. the cellular structures of their own bodies and musculatures. Jackson Pollock. Brakhage made the following statement that clearly confirms this reading of his work: “I think art is the expression of the internal physiology of the artist. 381 Brakhage. “GEOMETRIC versus MEAT-INEFFABLE (1994). To him.) In The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. After a film screening in 1967. 2001). 49. Brakhage engaged in 379 Brakhage. 116. 47. but perhaps. the works of Pollock and other non-geometric painters were actually concerned not exclusively with representing the twists and turns of their psychological and affective experiences.”380 As Brakhage describes it. Robert Haller (New York: Documentext.” The Chicago Review 47. no. and others hypnagogically inspired (from early Kandinsky to Olitsky) can be seen to be attempting to depict cellshape’s most immediate radiance.”379 In his consideration of the wide ranging aesthetic implications of this binary.”381 (This statement is also uncannily congruent with many of the writings and public statements made by Schneemann. Brakhage described this tension as one between “two pictorial extremes of human thought process – The Geometric and […] Meat-ineffable. the most interesting modernist painters resisted the pre-determined limits of the framed canvas and the grid of geometric abstraction: “they thus resist geometrical authority.

Adams Sitney and Parker Tyler argue for Brakhage as the visionary demiurge as well – if it were not largely accurate. many critics have argued that Brakhage’s major contribution to art was his singular focus on the demiurgic power of the artist’s imagination. ahistorical. He astutely states that Brakhage’s “conceptualization of the eye’s 382 383 James. 35. to approximate the structures of human consciousness and “to chart the depths of his own psyche.”383 (Notice the symbolic use of the capital “I.”) Of experimental encounter with death and the limits of the documentary as a rhetorical form that literalized this tension between abstract consciousness and somatic being. Historically.” 355 .” a fundamentally subjective. Annette Michelson famously described this aspect of Brakhage’s art as celebrating the “imperial sovereignty of the Imagination. ontological. and ethical tensions of Brakhage’s artistic career. Brakhage focused on an imagined approximation. Allegories of Cinema.”382 In one of the first major appraisals of his work outside of small film journals. Paul Arthur explains that in most of his film work. this interpretation of Brakhage’s aesthetics would not be so common – P. as a variety of authorial inscription that re-imagines past perceptual experience. “Camera Lucida. Brakhage’s traffic with the real was generally conceived of in the past tense. through his attempt. of the experiences of firstperson perception. Camera Obscura. using cinema. through celluloid. It is an anxious work of extreme personal and philosophical crisis that perfectly encapsulates some of the most severe and significant representational. egocentric undertaking. In much of his work. Michelson. what he called “moving visual thinking.

thought structures. then. For Brakhage. the imposition of intellectual and philosophical systems upon the visual flux of nature – including the naming of colors or the systematization of representational space (as achieved in Renaissance perspective) – was an act of disservice to humanity’s experience of perception. “How many colors are there in a field of grass to the 384 Arthur. socially imposed.’”384 However. so that the imposition of any one single word on that limitless eyescape of varying pigment would be an act of violence. 356 . In Metaphors on Vision. The emphasis. with the film that is the subject of this section. Most importantly.states precedes their transposition into approximating images. Brakhage formulated a poetic film aesthetics that sought to reclaim sensory experience from what he considered to be the tyranny of language. is less on an immediate ‘seeing’ – a quality Sitney points to in the ‘lyrical’ film – than on re-constructing the ‘seen. the natural landscape of the planet is filled with an infinitude of different gradations of color. “Structural Film: Revisions. and Cartesian subject-object divisions. In the opening to Metaphors. he asks. New Versions. mankind became alienated from its environment as soon as it became too dependent on these abstract and geometric systems of understanding. Brakhage attempted to reconfigure his ontological relationship to the real in terms of a hyperbolically contingent experience in which the conditions of historical encounter would be undeniably indexed in the texture of the filmic medium. The filmmaker famously wrote that there is no one color “green” in nature.” 10. and the Artifact. Instead. controlling.

2001). Bruce McPherson (New York: Documentext. In this regard Brakhage attempted through his art. in order to avoid becoming trapped in the spaces of narcissism and solipsism by conceiving an ambitious film practice in which self. including The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. those controlling structures from without. through the analogue of cinema. 12.crawling baby unaware of ‘Green’?”385 This question was a simple and effective instantiation of his overall interest in demonstrating how we have become alienated from the terrain that we inhabit by imposing inappropriate linguistic and conceptual structures upon nature. and nature would be inseparable parts of the same shared experience of perception and immanence. Brakhage’s work involves an attempt. phenomenal universe. In a number of his films. Brakhage. to integrate himself – following the lessons of Schneemann – into the world around him. we can find evidence of another working method in which Brakhage directed himself toward nature and the external. 385 357 . and thus devised an artistic experiment intended to bridge the experiential space between the phenomenal world and the perceiving self of the artist. Contrary to the most basic shorthand understanding of Brakhage’s artistic enterprise. other. ed. some of his most remarkable work represents an effort to overcome the Cartesian anxieties concerning the perceiving self and its relation to the external world. to return to that prelapserian moment when vision and thought can be reconstituted as innocent and untainted by the “geometric” controls of language. So. Metaphors on Vision (excerpt) in Essential Brakhage: Selected Writings on Filmmaking.

However. he found a series of rhetorical gestures and teaching tools. he said.” we can find a provocative attempt to provide a corrective to the imperative rhetoricity of documentary cinema.Brakhage frequently described himself as a documentary filmmaker because he felt that his work enacted a kind of continual autobiography of perception. he became more interested specifically in the ideology and rhetoric of a more straightforward non-fiction filmmaking.” As is obvious to anyone who has seen a Brakhage film. 386 Brakhage in MacDonald. he re-imagined his own personal experience of vision. to Brakhage this perceptual and philosophical connection to the real world was largely absent from documentary history. and most notably in his document films of “The Pittsburgh Trilogy. but the act of seeing it. At some point in the mid-1970s. ontologically speaking. 93. “I am foremost a documentarian. In its place. because I photograph not only what’s out there. in which through his films. I’m documenting the very process whereby something is perceived. 2005).”386 It is clear that he understood this project of documenting perception to be a primarily non-fiction undertaking. Regarding this topic. 358 . he had a great artistic and philosophical investment in the real. He called it “Ol’ Doc. in his exchanges with Hollis Frampton. In his thinking of the period. he was a man enamored with the phenomenal beauty of the outside world. A Critical Cinema 4: Interviews With Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press. among all other things you might call me. and thus.

[…] I was simply not up to it. and remove his brain. as we were in a sense ‘run’ out of the theater by a terrifically powerful new film he had just finished called The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. at one point. It was shot over three consecutive days in late September 1971. CA). disemboweling. it is one of a number of avant-garde films that truly test the limits of spectatorial pleasure. then saw his head open. The film that resulted from that intense and challenging encounter was The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes (1971). It is an extremely difficult film to watch. It was then that I wished I had known what I was getting into before I had stepped into that theater. The third film in the series – it would be the last – featured autopsy footage filmed in the Allegheny County Morgue. Filmmaker Willie Varela describes his experience with the film: we and Brakhage had traumatic parting. and cleaning of over a dozen bodies. eyes (1971) was made as the filmmaker followed city police officers and documented their daily routines and encounters. Willie Varela. the process was so painful that. dismemberment. dissection. Stan Brakhage made three films dealing with various institutions in the city of Pittsburgh. For the filmmaker too. and films the activities of the county coroner as he performs the detailed measurement. “Program Notes for Lumiere/Brakhage Films: February 14. he thought he would not complete the film. In this sense. 387 359 . 1979. analysis.387 It is excruciating to watch the coroner peel the skin off of the face of a dead man.” Southwestern Alternate Media Project (Collection of Pacific Film Archive.The Act of Seeing: In the early 1970s. Berkeley. Deus Ex (1971) focused on a county hospital and featured surgeries and other medical procedures.

The scalp is cut. “2nd Tues in Pittsburgh Sept. almost unbearable visual 388 Stan Brakhage letter to Jane Brakhage. The body gapes. in the production of this film Brakhage tested the limits of his artistic process. The Doctor ‘sums up’ this body in a tape recorder. I just don’t know how to write about it. I woke up almost screaming – teeth clenched. than ANY film previously. and by choosing the most difficult. The dead. pulled down over the face.” etc. he wrote a letter to his wife in which he summarized the daily crisis he faced: Oh Jane. . an index unrelenting crisis. cut open in autopsy. […] I’ve had fearful dreams every night. with an outcome that was entirely unknown to the artist at the time of its commencement. Boulder). YOU try it!”388 Like much art of the era that concerned itself with the representation of subjectivity. like a mask. it is . kept saying “Come on now. […] One of my other nightmares sticks in the mind: The Doctor (Dr. It is a chasm attached to model limbs. th 360 . in September 1971 or on the second Tuesday of September 1971 (Stan Brakhage Papers. aesthetically. and affective sensibility. “passes judgment. as he immersed himself in an experiment. It is clear that Brakhage was working far outside of his comfort zone. From Brakhage’s writing. He was testing the limits of his own aesthetic system. ethical tolerance. As his description above indicates. and I dreamed one night I was compelled to bite one of these toes. both in content and style. 1971” (perhaps September 14 ). […] But I know less about this filming. . have much less sense of what I’ve photographed. retains its features even when loosened from the bones. in a sense. it is unclear if he is writing on his second Tuesday in Pittsburgh. in such a way that the finished work is.” “weighs.As he was finishing his shooting in Pittsburgh. The organs are removed and weighed in a scale. Davis) and his assistants kept insisting that I lie down on the autopsy tables. The Act of Seeing embodies a crisis – akin to that of Schneemann’s art – in which the artist placed himself in a situation that was ethically. look like two incongruities: dress dummies and meat. The tags are put on the big toe of the corpse’s foot. University of Colorado. The face. and personally incredibly anxiogenic and volatile.

This gathering of images (rather than editing) had to be straight. In the final film. November 22. We see a new corpse brought in. He describes the editing process of The Act of Seeing: “One good look at the footage … and I knew it was impossible (for me anyway) to interrupt THIS parade of the dead with ANYthing whatsoever. 144. any ‘escape’ a blasphemy.”389 In order to pay appropriate respect to the dead. though all procedures are abbreviated. letter to Robert Creeley. cutting away that which felt somehow extraneous. Brakhage felt that it was important not to delve consciously or forcefully into the hyper-stylized representation of his own subjectivity (which of course runs contrary to much of his most well-known work before this film). He knew that he had to try to eliminate the “artful” traces of 389 Stan Brakhage. 1971. drained. “The Document Correspondence of Stan Brakhage” in The Chicago Review 47. about one-third the length of the total footage. 361 . 4 (September 21. dissected. analyzed. University of Colorado Boulder. no. historical chronology of the autopsies – their basic sequential integrity – in his finished film. and cleaned. The film that he made from that material was thirty-one minutes long. Also quoted in Nesthus. Brakhage shot roughly an hour-and-a-half worth of footage over the course of those three days in the Allegheny County Morgue. 2001). Stan Brakhage Papers. measured. Brakhage maintains the profilmic. Importantly. Brakhage left chronology roughly intact. This process happens with each body. even the ‘escape’ of Art as I had come to know it. he was also testing the limits of the medium’s capacity to register subjectivity and affect without the imposition of a guiding rhetorical directive.spectacle of death as his subject.

because as so many people have pointed out. Brakhage had always been troubled by (in Sitney’s words) “anxieties about the natural world” and “the horrors of solipsism. Brakhage took a markedly different tack from much of his other work. Because of the fact that the film is basically a collection of close-ups. letter to Ed Dorn. generally it has been the very process through which the ego perceives that most interested him. University of Colorado. because of a very peculiar kind of content and a return to the arguments that he shared with Schneemann in their formative years. The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes is an end-to-end assemblage of images taken by the filmmaker while moving about within the space of the county morgue. 148. Brakhage defined his project such that the images would mean nothing other than what they show. Brakhage consciously avoided the symbolic and poetic tendencies of his earlier work that had been the subject of Schneemann’s critique. he made “attempts to ground his perception in a firmly established exterior reality […] as a break to his excessive and frightening tendency to interiorize all that he sees.”390 In his combining of footage from the autopsy experience. Visionary Film. 390 Brakhage. Brakhage’s efforts to limit the influence of his artistic ego are extremely interesting here. “I whittled my editing responsibilities down to Tone and Rhythm. For Sitney.) 391 Sitney.”391 This outward move has massive implications in relation to the artist’s philosophical and ontological concerns.Brakhagian filmmaking. also quoted in Nesthus. 388. stating. it does not provide an objective visual perspective. 1971 (Stan Brakhage Papers. Here. Boulder. November 24. there are few establishing shots.” so in his Pittsburgh Trilogy. as well as to his chosen style. 362 .

without significant modification in post-production through either editing or optically printed effects. So. and thus retain traces of their contingency (as evidenced through the film’s frequent flash frames). As a result. In this sense. say. These details combine to produce a work that presents a series of different views sharing common content. Brakhage shifted his overwhelmingly plastic approach to film construction significantly. His working methods shifted substantially for this film (and the two other titles in the Pittsburgh trilogy). Many of the edits that we see in the final work were actually done in-camera. a proximity of encounter. it is substantially less so than the rest of Brakhage’s work. Frederick Wiseman’s treatment of the same material might have been. Though it is more montagist than. there is no pronounced dramatic arc. highly montagist strategies of a film like Scenes From Under Childhood (1970) – which featured four distinct 363 . Stylistically. a soft pan across the arm of an elderly woman as the coroner takes measurements of her limbs.What Brakhage is after is a closeness. it was the filmmaker’s intention to remove certain traces of his own style. moving away from the densely layered. the corner of a young woman’s eye as it leaks a few drops of blood. the entire project coheres around visual details: a slow-moving close-up of a bonesaw cutting a man’s skull open. Brakhage shot long strips of footage and kept them largely intact in the finished film. particularly if they would obscure the force and meaning of the represented material. For this film. there is little drama outside of that which the material itself produces (by virtue of its striking subject).

black. this film represents a shift in style that is also a shift in ontology (related in a roughly chronological sense. The result is a film that does not move with the same frenetic pace or montagist force of most of his work. Brakhage often begins and ends his shots in this film with quick fades to. To dull the force of the editing and to limit the collision of the montage in this film. observational cinema of Kitch’s Last Meal). Brakhage emphasized his own historical presence over the plastic modification of the film image that had previously dominated his work. Thus. optically printed footage – and towards a more historically coherent recording of a photographic event with a significantly less modified historical chronology. and from. it is worth noting that Brakhage 364 .layers of interwoven.) By shifting the locus of his artistic concentration away from controlled space of postproduction (which include the expressive tools of an editing block and optical printer). and aesthetic reasons for Brakhage’s movement to a modified visual language. Brakhage redefined the space of his artistic action and inscribed his film texts with an element of contingency that was not previously active to anywhere near the same degree in his earlier work. he reconstructs his practice as one that foregrounds the artist’s photographic encounter with his profilmic subject. (This shift is particularly noteworthy when one considers that these strikingly different films were completed roughly a year apart. to the beginnings of Schneemann’s experiments in the non-fiction. To further support this point. philosophical. Through this shift. There are historical. Most importantly.

it is significant that almost every single shot in this film is made in very crisp focus. Brakhage presents images that are at the threshold of visual intelligibility due to his extremely plastic sense of framing.” through abstract cinematic techniques. camera-positive original film that Brakhage shot in 1971. Text of Light is over an hour long and features only one source of visual content. it is light and texture that are most important.carefully controlled the exposures and fades in this film through the careful use of his camera’s aperture rather than through the post-production modifications that are much more flexible. this film is substantially different from the style that we generally associate with Brakhage. I thank Mark Toscano at the Academy Film Archive for allowing me to joint him for his inspection of Brakhage’s original elements for The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. In this sense. 365 .392 Visually. light refracted through a glass ashtray. “moving visual thinking.) This need to make cinematography abstract and visually indecipherable is directly connected to his efforts to simulate consciousness. Like Warhol’s use of entire unedited camera reels. focus. For example. (His 1974 film. Generally in his work. Brakhage’s work is an index of his own visual and temporally contingent encounter with the bodies in the Pittsburgh morgue as experienced by his bodies own interaction with the physical apparatus of his motion picture camera. In The Act of 392 There observations were made through the slow frame-by-frame analysis of the reversal. Brakhage’s emphasis on in-camera edits and real-time image modification is evidence of a method dedicated to conserving the historical conditions of encounter between an artist and the phenomenal world. In most of his films. in their allowance for the controlled re-calibration of light and color. and exposure.

to uncover evidence.Seeing. The filmmaker made a significant effort. It is a scientific undertaking that basically suggests that no one can die without our knowing why. One has to be able to see it with one’s own eyes. however. not to present us with an associative experience of hypnagogic vision. Brakhage’s approach has shifted towards a more simply observational authorial stance that aspires to a closeness with nature itself. but to show us things that we can recognize. The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes is a literal translation of the Greek word “autopsis” from which “autopsy” is derived. that image also comes thru to me like … what? – a report. and the 366 . Brakhage has said that he was after something entirely different from his usual work: “Beyond simply being the document every work-of-art is. The film’s title. To perform an autopsy. The affective force of this film is very much dependent on the viewer’s need to understand exactly what it is that he or she is seeing. a situation that heightens the austerity and emotional weight of its images. Like most of Brakhage’s work. this film has no soundtrack. He wants the viewer to be able to recognize that it is a real human onscreen who is having his heart removed from his chest. periscopes. somatic form is one that is determined entirely by visual content. that’s it! […] like those images from gun-cameras. it is an act of gathering information in order to find an explanation. This encounter with death in its most tangible. at least in its material determinations. embodied. is to see how and why someone died. every death must be understood. In discussing the Pittsburgh films.

letter to Robert Creeley. University of Colorado. but it does so in a distinctive aesthetic register. color temperature. it should also be noted that this film is not a purely clinical undertaking that aspires to some naïve version of observational objectivity.) In this sense. he is describing his camera as a scientific tool to gather information. each of which features a particular speed. 394 However. though the filmmaker has limited the usually extreme range of his plastic modifications to the photographic image. In 393 Brakhage. and give us the opportunity to see with our own eyes. A camera can bear witness to events. Objectivity. For example.”393 Here. Brakhage acknowledges the camera’s role in mediation. and granular appearance. hyperbolically observational chapter of Brakhage’s film practice does not serve the rhetorical or propagandistic function that is common to most so-called documentary films. Direct Cinema.394 And that is exactly what he is doing: he is showing us something that most of us have never seen before. 140–141). Brakhage is bringing us into indirect contact with real objects in the world. including Kitch’s Last Meal and Walden. he intentionally chose to use four different film stocks for this project. 1971 (Stan Brakhage Papers. and Innocence The stylistically restrained. In their correspondence on this topic Brakhage and Frampton attempted to establish a new artistic and rhetorical frame to distinguish their non-fiction work from the documentary. In this sense. It is partially this difference in tone that distinguishes this film from both Brakhage’s other diary films and the work of other experimental diaries. I thank Mark Toscano for identifying the different film stocks used by Brakhage in this film. November 22. in a context of a pronounced personal and ontological crisis.) 367 . also quoted in Nesthus. Boulder. By sharing visual information with us. this film continues the diaristic impulses of some of his earlier work. (Such choices were rarely casual for he nevertheless openly creates a film that foregrounds its own process of mediation through its willful use of markedly different representational materials. (Again.

exposure.Frampton’s description. the problem with the documentary is that. Brakhage was a close associate of Richard Leacock.396 He made a sober and difficult effort to limit the artful impositions that normally comprise the central stylistic project of his other films. In many ways. out of some core conviction that that diction is the mediator. documentARY is always careful to tell us HOW TO FEEL about what we see. Like Kline. but he does it. Like Pollock […] Brakhage not only does that. 20). “Talking About Magellan: An Interview With Hollis Frampton”.” 154. “The Document Correspondence of Stan Brakhage. focus. film stock. Millennium Film Journal 7–9 (Fall/Winter 1980). Brakhage’s film aspired to the same purity of observation that the members of that group intended. In an interview with Bill Simon. The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes is a kind of apotheosis of the movement described as Direct Cinema. Frampton situated Brakhage’s style in precisely the context of Abstract Expressionism: “Like de Kooning. one would suppose. that it is the center of the circle” (Bill Simon. yet these decisions do not seem to significantly transform the meaning of what we see – by imposing any predetermined set of values or geometrical abstract intentions – 395 396 Quoted in Nesthus. camera movement. Now of course.”395 There is a variety of observational “document” filmmaking – exhibited by a range of experimental filmmakers including Brakhage and Schneemann – that resists this prescriptive mode of instruction that so forcefully dominates the history of the documentary. he does it all the time. 368 . and knew a number of other contributors to that documentary movement. He does it for plenty of reasons. “In a word. that it is the discipline of the camera. Brakhage made a film that was “plain and clean” (in his words) and that was founded upon a sincere effort to remove many markers of the extreme expressionism that was typical of his work (what Frampton described as his unmistakable “camera diction”). it is a film full of choices: framing.

it was a profoundly experimental work for Brakhage. he acknowledges that the role that he plays as recorder is always inscribed with a viewing subjectivity and with the material conditions of the work’s construction. etc. However. Brakhage’s discussion of the work omits the language of objectivity.though they do shade it. As he himself frequently argues.397 Brakhage makes no claim of a one-to-one equivalence between image and thing. within a visual language that was substantially dissimilar from the one that he had pioneered and fought so hard to perfect and legitimize. this film is always.. In this sense. respond cynically to the idea that film has the capacity to show us anything true or real from the phenomenal world. It is important to recognize that. related primarily to “tone and rhythm” as he edited according to real historical sequence. but this work does represent an attempt to create a substantially closer connection between those two registers. in which he would “not try to thicken the plot. The nature of the relationship between the profilmic objects of the world and the represented images in his work. his intentional use of four distinctive film stocks in this work demonstrates his awareness of the film’s unique characteristics as a form of mechanical representation. under the sway of postmodernism’s license for total relativism. as stated above. any non-fiction film is always an approximation of that historical real. again. (As mentioned in an earlier footnote. because for him. as has been argued Of course. although many of Brakhage’s comments about the film suggest that he tried to make a particular kind of work that lacks ideology. At no point does he ever equate his film with the historical real that it represents. identificatory manipulation. most people who discuss such topics in the contemporary moment. The filmmaker’s editing choices. unlike the rhetoric that surrounds Direct Cinema. in which he attempted to come to terms with the tragedy of death through a real world encounter with it.) 397 369 . not from the artist’s manipulation of those events.” The drama of this film is meant to be derived largely from the real conditions of the filming circumstance. an approximation of the real. superimposed drama.

it is worth noting that the “fantasies and metaphors” that Brakhage dismisses in this exchange were precisely the artistic devices that are the targets of Schneemann’s critique. And he [Sitney] said nonsense.) Brakhage’s feud with Sitney on the topic of “document” filmmaking was continuous. as an inventor of fantasies and metaphors. as David James 398 Brakhage. “Interview With Richard Gossinger” in Ibid. have argued that these open document texts of the early 1970s are inferior to Brakhage’s other work because they differ markedly from what most critics feel to be the distinctive Brakhage style.” Brakhage: Yes. Many people. 188.)399 So. (Annette Michelson is the only major critic of the avant-garde to have openly endorsed these works. he did not want to repeat himself by making. 399 Stan Brakhage. 370 . Dog Star Man. because he had no fix on the extent to which I was documenting. He and many others are still trying to view me as an imaginative film maker. Frampton: You are saying. I have added nothing. Adams Sitney.. “Son of Dog Star Man.” (According to Brakhage these were the works that critics Jonas Mekas and P. In addition. “Stan and Jane Brakhage (and Hollis Frampton) Talking” in Brakhage Scrapbook. He describes it in an interview with Hollis Frampton: Brakhage: I said I am the most thorough documentarian in the world because I document the act of seeing as well as everything that the light brings me. in his words. Dog Star Man Returns. constantly changed throughout Brakhage’s filmography.above. of course. Despite the aesthetic success of Brakhage’s “mythopoeic” (to use Sitney’s word) epic. 200.398 In this exchange we can get an interesting glimpse of Brakhage’s desire to minimize his own traces of additive artistry. along with Confucius: “I have added nothing. including P. Dog Star Man Meets the Wolf Man. Adams Sitney wanted him to produce.

with the baggage of your own expectations. 403 Canyon Cinema Catalog online.402 And it should be understood as a historical function of Brakhage’s relationship and dialogue with Carolee Schneemann.” and a desire “to go beyond imagination to unmediated perception.canyoncinema.’ as much as possible. although Brakhage was initially interested in seeking “to chart the depths of his own psyche. was concerned with “the reintegration of man as continuous with reality rather than discrete from it. Allegories of Cinema. the engagement of consciousness by nature. even. “Stan and Jane Brakhage (and Hollis Frampton) Talking.argues. who also documented autopsies (for his unfinished Magellan film project). www. as to what a work of art must look like. Stan? And then. wrote: What was to be done in that room. and to see.”400 he would occasionally move towards a model which.403 As Frampton suggests. drawing on various influences from poetry. Ibid. including Charles Olson’s objectivism. 35. 40.” 182. Hollis Frampton. Brakhage wanted to make a film of a universe in which he “could only decree the James. later.”401 Brakhage’s move into the world “out there” (in the words of Jane Wodening Brakhage). Reflecting on this film. with your own eyes. with the footage? I think it must have been mostly to stand aside: to ‘clear out. By limiting his own 401 400 371 . in this work Brakhage brings us close to the facts and visual details of the newly deceased. what coherence might arise within a universe for which you could decree only the boundaries.” “the dynamic experience of what is phenomenally present. 402 Brakhage.. is the primary subject of this consideration of the filmmaker.

through the act of selection. So. If we simply accept. a “decreeing [of] boundaries”: a showing of visual examples which the audience can see with its own eyes. as Brakhage did. parallels the shift that Schneemann made from her semi-Brakhagean work in Fuses to the more plainly stated observation of Kitch’s Last Meal.boundaries”: the profilmic intervention is limited only to the filmmaker’s control of the camera. The artist’s role in this process is understood primarily as an intensification of this perceptual contact. every film makes different kinds of truth claims. rapid camera movement. it is Brakhage’s intention – perhaps following his conversations and youthful debates with Schneemann – to bring himself and his audience closer to the details of natural phenomena. there is a basic factual truth – these people died and they are being dissected – that precedes the act of Brakhage’s filming. What we have is a collection of visual details that. 372 . Nor is there any of the typically Brakhagean modification of the filmic texture of the work. We also have to admit that there are varying degrees of evidentiary force in any text. frenetic editing. their physical constitution preceded the moment when he turned his camera on. In The Act of Seeing. Brakhage’s mind (or camera) did not create the dead bodies that he filmed. of which The Act of Seeing may be the most extreme and accomplished experiment. to some degree. that experiences in cinema are always informed by both subjectivity and a historical real. which generally included painting on film. associative combinations of images. and symbolic. than we can find a place for a meaningful and truthful observational film practice.

our self-awareness. Boulder. The Act of Seeing tests certain taboos of filmic representation 404 Brakhage. Brakhage aspired to make a work that reflected William Carlos Williams’ mantra: “no ideas but in things.Brakhage connected his work with the original Latin meaning of the word that gave us “documentary”: he writes that.) The Act of Seeing is a collection of visual indexes.” Like all non-fiction The Act of Seeing displays contingency through its inherent dependence on a spatio-temporally inscribed. 1971. (In this regard. the limit of bodily presence. Nothing inside of the frame stands for anything else. Clearly.”404 What is significant about Brakhage’s choice of words is that it indicates his desire to create an open text. our selfhood are all contingent upon the body in which they are housed. and the work of Brakhage. the material boundaries of life itself. The Act of Seeing lacks the explicit overarching rhetoric of Schneemann’s work. traced delicately in celluloid. more literary-minded works. November 22. Our consciousness. collection of Stan Brakhage papers. Following his poetic inspiration. there is no symbolism or consciously imposed ideology. forces us to see the greatest contingency of all. rather than the complex weave of meanings and reference that was typical of his earlier. an assemblage of images of the dead. I am “hoping to get the Latin’s documentum sense of ‘example’ in the first place. Our capacity to think is contingent upon the bodily presence that is the main concern of this film. 373 . letter to Frampton. 145. though it shares a sense of witness with Kitch’s Last Meal. historical real. also quoted in Nesthus. University of Colorado. This film. like that of Schneemann reminds us of this somatic truth.

13.”405 (These were also central concerns of Schneemann. it is the job of the artist to show and investigate the limit cases of both the human condition and his or her chosen medium. and the search for God. sex. and dismemberment.through its display of blood. including intercourse with his wife. is “essentially preoccupied by and deal[s] imagistically with – birth.) In Wedlock House: An Intercourse (1959). death. Brakhage films the births of two of his children. They are singular events that cannot quite be repeated in exactly the same way. More precisely. It is the unrepeatability of 405 Brakhage. For the filmmaker. In Sirius Remembered (1959). However much it aspires to be factual. he films him and his wife having sex and arguing. If this film brings the audience into closer contact with the basic visual facts of death. all of these films show us unique spectacles of somatic contingency. Like The Act of Seeing. In Window Water Baby Moving (1959) and Thin Line Lyre Triangular (1961). Since early on in his life as a filmmaker. the birth of his children. As he wrote famously in Metaphors on Vision. and masturbation. then it does so as part of a conceptual program in which Brakhage had been involved for many years. the family dog dies and we watch its body decompose over the winter months. this film then is far from neutral in terms of affective meaning. his work. like that of any serious artist. Metaphors on Vision (excerpt) in Essential Brakhage. from his point of view. 374 . nothing was taboo. death. he had documented the most intimate details of his personal life. There are no topics more riddled with emotional and personal association than death.

something that was first engaged by Brakhage as a result. The film aspires to be like the death that it records.. by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean. In this sense much of Brakhage’s most compelling work performs an unscripted.] just what it is. anxious. underdetermined film. something inexplicable and horrific whose meaning is derived from the simple fact of its existence. 21.. Is this possible now? It does happen in films I believe. The meaning of this type of art is necessarily different from that of other more systematic. 1966). (something that according to that critic is particularly unique to the medium of film): Ideally.birth. 406 375 .406 The Act of Seeing comes as close to this ideal as any film. sex. rhetorical varieties Sontag. It does not announce its purpose in rhetorical terms. Finally. perhaps. of the influence of Carolee Schneemann (though this artistic strategy was hyperbolized and pushed to its limits in The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes). a medium that has the capacity to do something that almost no other art can really do: it can repeat the singular event ad infinitum. The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes is an open. “Against Interpretation” in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Dell. and experimental encounter with the world itself. whose momentum is so rapid. it is possible to elude the interpreters in another way. It is an almost perfect instantiation of Susan Sontag’s thinking on the text that resists interpretation. whose address is so direct that the work can be [. and death that make them particularly interesting as topics for cinema. Something that happened once and lasted an instant can be shown again and again and again. It tells us little or nothing about how to read it.

visual meaning is co-constituted. In this sense. at achieving a kind of union with nature (in its most horrific manifestation). Seeing with One’s Own Eyes: Artistic Agency in the Films of Schneemann and Brakhage: In Kitch’s Last Meal and The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. it is a product of this encounter between subjectivity (or subjectivities) and phenomenal detail. and that meeting is the place in which act and text. Brakhage’s film does not encourage. a move to decode. the film seems to argue that it is properly understood by simply sharing space with it. two rhetorically and ideologically dissimilar films that share and foreground ontological conditions of somatically defined subjectivity through its inscription upon a cinematic index. distill. Schneemann and Brakhage presented the world visually in fundamentally different terms from their previous work. These works aim at an overcoming alienation by way of a 376 . through any textual clues. Schneemann’s and Brakhage’s work shows its viewers that between self and world.whether they be structural film or documentary. a breaking away from the solipsism of alienated modern and postmodern subjectivity. or explain its cultural references in intellectual terms. the observational use of cinema represents an attempt at overcoming. This is the function of both Fuses and The Act of Seeing. By virtue of its openness and its experiential texture. by bearing witness to the flux that it shows. At the juncture between world and artist is an encounter. event and transcription. exist.

these artists shifted away from their own stylistic obsessions and directed their cameras towards the outside world and the bodies of others.visual object that shares space with both an authoring subjectivity and an historical real. In their considerations of mortality. in order to transform the obsessive egocentrism of their earlier work. Hal Foster. The writings of Rosalind Krauss. In the art history of the period. Brakhage and Schneemann – two artists who had obsessively concerned themselves with the inscription of their own authorial subjectivities – embraced an observational mode of filmic encounter and directed their cameras towards the outside world. Yet. death. In both The Act of Seeing and Kitch’s Last Meal. the stakes of artistic agency were never abandoned by either artist. and as such. and the somatic contingencies of consciousness. and Anne Wagner (amongst others) have attempted to explain and evaluate the relationships between representation and indexical inscription in the mediated 377 . The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes represents a transitional phase in Brakhage’s filmography to a mode of filmmaking (along with the other films of The Pittsburgh Trilogy) that is more observational than expressive. The challenge of meaningful ontological and cultural representation loomed over the entirety of art in the 1960s and early 70s. there has been substantial consideration of the relationship between subjectivity and technology. corresponds to perhaps related transformations in Schneemann’s non-fiction film practice of the early-to-mid 1970s.

and Dan Graham. embodied experiences of artists and the powerfully unsettling limits of their subjectivities. and Anne Wagner.407 Because of the institutional limits and intellectual trends of the past thirty years. Hal Foster. much of this art confronts the basic ontological conflict between the self and its representation by dramatizing the ways in which these media keep the “gears of selfhood from being able to engage. 409 David Joselit could have been discussing Schneemann and Brakhage when he recently wrote. Nauman.) 378 . Bruce Nauman. 196–209. generally avoids discussing film.” October 91 (2000). “One of the deepest and most unsettling legacies of the 1960s is the sometimes violent. he was not discussing these filmmakers here. relevant work in that medium). 408 Wagner.”409 (Of course. MA: MIT Press. Graham) produced important. Partially because of the ascendancy of identity politics 407 See Krauss.” 80. and the Rhetoric of Presence. it is no surprise that these critics do not mention film in any of their considerations (though the artists listed above (Jonas. sometimes ecstatic revelation that the ostensibly private arena of the self has become a public battleground. “Performance.409 Their films powerfully dramatize this historical anxiety concerning the relationship between individual. “Notes on the Index: Part 1” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge. Joselit. like the critics described above. Video. One of the major questions of the critical writings on subjectivity and media art in the early 1970s concerns the relationship of selfhood and bodily presence to their material transcription. presumably like most art historians. and the Rhetoric of Presence. 1996). “Performance. he has an institutionally inscribed and historically determined aversion to it.performance works of artists like Joan Jonas. As Wagner wrote in 2000. The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge. MA: MIT Press. 59–80. through the use of the specific technologies of cinema.”408 The works of Brakhage and Schneemann discussed in this chapter foreground precisely the same themes and challenges that dominate critical writings on video and performance art from the 1970s to the present. 1985). Video.

Similarly. Brakhage has been entirely omitted from dominant narratives of American art. Nevertheless both artists produced film-based experiments that determined. Schneemann’s experimental film work has not received much attention in art historical narratives. and the technologies that circumscribe them in art. even though his work directly addresses the same conflict between subjectivity and its technological mediations as the more celebrated artists listed above. their registrations of affect and identity. though her visionary feminist approach has made her more popular as an object of study that that of her close friend. 379 . and provoked extreme encounters of somatic tension and ontological crisis in order to reveal the fault lines between contingent human bodies.and video in the 1970s. transcribed.

a number of their films were being shown in classrooms. Most importantly. Despite the fact that many of these filmmakers found some scant economic viability within 380 . and the Dilemma of the Film Artist By the early-to-mid 1970s. and thus their public appeal atrophied significantly. due to the breakdown of true censorship in Hollywood cinema. The taboo-breaking gestures of the underground of the 1960s had lost their potency to scandalize public taste and morality. all was not well.Chapter 6: Paul Sharits. Perceptual Tumult. and grant-giving institutions (though in its obstinacy and insularity the film community itself cannot be completely absolved of responsibility). and the movement received its first ambitious scholarly study in Sitney’s Visionary Film (which was first published in 1974). the struggle to gain any substantial recognition for experimental cinema within the contexts of art history and art criticism reached an institutional stalemate. The desire that most filmmakers expressed to achieve public acknowledgement as artists was continually frustrated by museums. However. Bodily Trauma. the American avant-garde cinema had reached a point of institutionalized semi-legitimacy. The social and economic viability of nonindustrial cinema had waned dramatically since the high point of its popularity with the unprecedented box office success of The Chelsea Girls in 1966. Many filmmakers had found a degree of economic stability as teachers within the university system. galleries.

Sharits’ films engage with celluloid as a plastic medium for the composition of color and visual rhythm. but it also represented a death knell for the humanist and utopian promise that the art form pursued in the previous decade. rather than the material of real time. it is also loudly inscribed within the textual limits of the film objects themselves. Epileptic Seizure Comparison (1976). as Epileptic Seizure Comparison demonstrates. By the time Sharits completed his film experiment. motion picture photography. the innocent exuberance of the cinema of the late 50s and early 60s had petered out and had been transposed into darker registers of cultural association. in the work of artists like Paul Sharits. this alienation was felt even more profoundly by the mid-1970s. and Referential Content in Sharits’ Early Cinema: In general. The anxieties that had plagued experimental cinema persisted into the mid 1970s and. In fact. Sensory Aggression.academia. Sharits’ films are composed in a 381 . Violence. the anxious cultural position of experimental film was inscribed not only in its social history – as evidenced in anecdotes. reached a fever pitch of philosophical distress. the systematicity of the so-called “structural” film was evidence of a new filmic epistemology. correspondence. like Breer’s Fist Fight (the first film that was discussed in detail in this dissertation). and communications from these filmmakers – but. few felt any degree of true cultural esteem. On the one hand. In this sense. Though experimental film was always cloistered from both art and popular culture by the transgressive threat that it posed to normative cinema.

they are not.410 However. Almost all written commentary on Sharits describes his work as profoundly anti-illusionistic. because of their general aversion to the illusion of movement. it was rather common for critics to connect these film efforts to the processes of modernist self- See. I like to slide between those barriers” (Sharits in Gary Garrels. he often argued that his work was about cinema itself. As one might expect. Krauss. it was the apparatus itself that was his subject. the films of Sharits feature either pure fields of color (photographed on an animation stand) or selective. Because of their attention to their own materiality and their open thematicization of cinema as a mechanical apparatus. the convention that guides the totality of industrial cinema. not paginated. though they are assembled using the same technological principles as animated films. In this sense. In general. 2008) 47–55.frame-by-frame fashion. ed. In many of his films. 410 382 . October 1982” in Mediums of Language (Cambridge: MIT Press. “Paul Sharits” in Paul Sharits. However. Sharits’ work can be understood as a kind of meta-cinema. Sharits rapidly alternates these frames of pure color and photographic imagery in order to achieve a synthesis of visual tone and rhythm that approximates the experience of music. strictly speaking. “Interview. “Screen / Surface: The Politics of Illusionism.” Artforum 9. and highly representational imagery. Sharits was entirely opposed to the notion that his films were abstract. for example. Jan Beauvais (Dijon: Les Presses du reel. still images. part of the same artistic genus. such descriptions are overly simplistic. 58–62. often sparse representational. no. Sharits respectfully disputes Krauss’s evaluation of his work as purely abstract and non-representational: “Actually it’s an interplay between purely abstract imagery. and Michelson. 1952). However. if such a thing exists. 1 (September 1972). because of its eschewal of both a manufactured temporal continuity and figurative or representational imagery. non-moving.

411 Nevertheless. the synchronicity of sound and image. – and thus undermine much of their philosophical complexity. by instead proposing the consideration of what he described as the medium’s innate “dualisms.”)412 Sharits’ films were often conflicted works that isolated and magnified philosophical tensions or paradoxes inherent in the medium. but what they do. thematic. 411 See. 7. 1968. Sharits’ films propose a new purpose for the cinema apparatus. no. She connects Sharits to Fried’s notion of “deductive structure. the spectrum of color. Collection of Anthology Film Archives. Similarly. Stuart Liebman. 1981). 383 . they tend to reduce Sharits’ efforts.” 412 Sharits letter to Brakhage. 1 (September 1971). the luminosity of projection.definition celebrated by Greenberg and Fried. Paul Sharits (St. and ontological tensions. April 18. “Paul Sharits: Illusion and Object. the filmmaker produced work that was meaningfully referential. including for example. and even political. etc. the opposition between illusionism and abstraction. conceptual. MN: Film in the Cities. 57.” Artforum 10. Also see Regina Cornwell. In his most successful realizations of these philosophical. to investigations of basic film conditions – including the representational frame. he managed to achieve the rare feat of sublimating the themes of his films into the realm of form. in his careful and selective use of affectively loaded photographic imagery. Much of Sharits’ most interesting work in fact challenged any simplistic notion of pure cinema. philosophically speaking. such that – perhaps more so than any other experimental filmmaker – they are not what they show.” (He also described himself as having a “nearly schizoid obsession with extreme polarities. for example. Paul. however appropriate these rhetorical connections may seem.

) The projection of these films creates a rapid-fire assault of image and sound that attacks the audience with its forceful utilization of the mechanized seriality of the film apparatus (an aspect of the medium that in fact shares some of its foundational technologies and history with the invention of the semi-automatic machine gun). They have often been categorized as “flicker films” because of their dependence on the extremely brief flashes of light that result from the serial 413 Paul Sharits. (This of course. 384 . common to all forms of cinema. in which a flicker is created by the movement of the celluloid strip through the film projector’s gate at twenty-four frames per second. Non-filmic images and stories are not allowed to interfere with the viewers’ awareness of the immediate reality of experiencing the film. Light-color-energy patterns generate internal timeshape and allow the viewer to become aware of the electrical-chemical functioning of his own nervous system. These works depend on a radical. the retina is a target. Goal: the temporary assassination of the viewers’ normative consciousness. but rather makes them the most fundamental creative resource of his work. is a fundamental connection between his work and much of that which has been discussed in this study. As his quotation above suggests. from the early work of Ray Gun Virus (1966) to 3rd Degree (1982). “Notes on Films.” Film Culture 47 (Summer 1969). so also does the viewers’: the projector is an audiovisual pistol. 14.413 As his quotation suggests. The majority of Sharits’ films. all utilize the flicker of filmic projection as a central aesthetic resource. Sharits’ cinema performs an act of sensory aggression on its audience. mechanized visual rhythm. Just as the “film’s consciousness” becomes infected.Sharits describes the function that he imagines for his work: The film does what it is. 1966–1968. the screen looks at the audience. Sharits does not mask these rapid transitions as Hollywood does.

G (1968).O. they achieve the visual effect of an extreme experience of montage.U. Sharits’ cinema imposes an audio-visual barrage upon its viewers that loudly defies the conventional illusion-based pleasures of industrial motion pictures. for much of his film work. “Paul Sharits” in Paul Sharits. Sharits’ early flicker films include Ray Gun Virus (1966). Rosalind Krauss.nature of mechanized frame-to-frame shuttered projection. Rosalind Krauss addresses the unique viewing conditions of Sharits’ work. This hyperrhythmic.H.”414 Though Sharits’ films may not actually feature editing. 53.C. In differing ways. 385 . T. and Piece Mandala/End War (1966). by virtue of their juxtaposition of entirely different frames (as Krauss accurately points out). pulsatile aesthetic is unique to this genre of films (which also includes Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer and Conrad’s The Flicker). It is a formal manifesto of sorts. in one of her rare essays to focus on a filmmaker (an institutional condition that will be considered later). a tour-de-force repurposing of the 414 Krauss. In particular.I. creates its affective reality under the composite conditions of montage. Because of the shock and distraction that this effect can cause.N. she highlights an important structural function of this variety of cinema: “The flicker film […] produced by a single frame technique not unlike that of animation. the titles of these works allude to the formal conditions and spectatorial experiences that they create. 2008). Ray Gun Virus was the filmmaker’s first project to pioneer use of cinema as an apparatus for presenting various rhythms of pure color. In this sense. Jan Beauvais (Dijon: Les presses du reel. ed. color and montage serve as Sharits’ primary artistic tools.

tempo. Sharits combined Ray Gun Virus’s sensorial assault and chromatic experiments in visual rhythm with identifiable photographic imagery and sound and thus triggered fresh registers of cultural and affective resonance for the viewer. However. Like Sharits’ flicker films.U. it represents a historical challenge to conventional notions of painterly craft.apparatus to exclusively project light of various shifting tonalities of color and visual rhythm. not war” motto of the mid-1960s. The work’s sense of abstract movement is achieved through variations in exposure. literalization of the “make love. It is a difficult film to describe because it is evacuated of any referential content other than that which is implied by its self-reflexive foregrounding of the apparatus that is its subject. unlike the color field painters. as colors blend sensuously or abut each other dramatically due to their extreme tonal differences.G.O. Like the painting of Barnett Newman or Ellsworth Kelly. It flickers and flashes rapidly by. With Piece Mandala/End War and T. However. his use of tremendously rapid and dramatic shifts in color orchestrated an experience that was much more caustic and sensorially. and therefore.H. Sharits was also involved in a temporal art. the film is primarily a chromatically and rhythmically dense patterned juxtaposition of pure color frames.N. and chromatics.C. this film differs 386 . Like Ray Gun Virus. the work features rhythms of montage that accelerate and decelerate through an artistic orchestration modeled on music. As its title suggests. Piece Mandala/End War is an abstracted. while it also reinvents its medium as a field for sensuous experience.I.

Though this work does communicate an anti-war ideology. In its use of representational imagery. personal obsessions. which foregrounded cultural connections between militarism and sexuality). it links its formal structure with the rhythms of sexual intercourse. a sensuous. like Cosmic Ray. the pleasurable. and as the image of a suicidal Sharits shows. the same couple engaged in a kiss (with their bodies shifted across the visual axis from the other sexual image). Visually. In its explicit representation of male and female nudity and the act of cunnilingus. this early Sharits work powerfully foregrounds some of the artist’s most significant thematic interests. at least partially. it is a peace mandala intended to illustrate. On one level. There are three different still images used in the film that are repeated frequently. it is also incredibly aggressive in its rapid pace and relentless sensorial assault. all of these images have been heavily modified using filters in order to bring out a vivid and saturated color palette that closely matches the bright hues of the film’s frames of pure color. somatic alternatives to war. symmetrical visual vehicle for meditation. Piece Mandala is a work about violence. 387 . These images feature Sharits performing cunnilingus on his wife. As its intentionally misspelled title suggests. it aims to imitate the meditative form of a mandala. it is also concerned with darker associations and connections between sex and death (as were Conner’s films. and a shot of Sharits facing the camera in a medium close-up with a gun to his head (as in a mock suicide).markedly in its use of photographic content. and affective associations.

social and political document. Texas. Sharits did so for both ideological and aesthetic reasons. a prescriptive voiceover. Against the War. Collection of Anthology Film Archives. February 27.[…] Being an aesthetic. as a practicing artistfilmmaker and a college educator I would never sanction the destruction of my art and so I am ready to take the issue to court if that is necessary. a massively neglected component of both Sharits’ filmography and that of so-called structural film. (The film was initially produced to be part of a traveling film series presented by the New York Filmmaker’s Cooperative titled. Piece Mandala was withheld by the film lab that was processing it. it is a political statement and has strong socially redeeming values. when he did choose to incorporate such elements. for example. I believe it is protected by our Federal Constitution. didactic essay film. Sharits wrote to the lab in 1967: First I want to say that PIECE MANDALA is a work of art and not pornography. moral. pornographic content.In an episode typical of the era. Sharits requested letters of support from Jonas Mekas and other influential and well known artists to encourage the lab to release his print. Dallas. Though Piece Mandala is not a polemical. it is nevertheless the product of an ethically committed artist who transposed the real 415 Letter from Sharits to Color Processing Station.) Most importantly perhaps. “For Life. featuring. due to some concern that it contained illegal. as his letter indicates. (In fact. 388 . this anecdote draws attention to the social function of the work. describing the atrocities of the Vietnam War. 1967.”) Though he made a number of films that had no referential content and no use of language.”415 This amazing conflict between Sharits and a Texas film lab demonstrates the cultural context in which his work was being materially produced.

his mother. The associative chain of this work. it was a fate that would eventually befall the filmmaker. it might also be added that in his cinema this transposition is not entirely structural (nor is it situated exclusively in the space of the apparatus). perhaps implicitly. Sharits was bipolar and often unstable. possibly repressed relationship to the spaces of political and social reference in the age of Vietnam. and effectively. sexuality. 389 . which occasionally explodes into images of bodily trauma and sex. rigid approach to the moving image transposed social trauma into the realm of form. within the register of autobiography. that this systematic. and suicide. his brother as well.violence of world history – perhaps as a personal therapeutic action – into the register of montage and discontinuous. For our purposes here. however far it is abstracted from the literalism of social advocacy and political documentary. Razor Blades – and he spoke of it often. disconcerting references to sex and suicide. James suggests. nevertheless addresses and draws attention to real historical problems through its abstract reflection upon corporeal limits and violent form. at least partially. constructed a complex. Allegories of Cinema. a film which he described as “a very 416 David James argues that the structural film.416 As the images of Sharits himself suggest this work should also be considered. delineate a nexus of associations that are apt for a work of art produced in the shadow of the Vietnam War. However. but is in fact an explicit part of the work’s visual iconography. Such a translation – of social violence into sensorial violence – is entirely operative in the work of Sharits. Unfortunately. 275–276). However. it was also a creative act. form (James. Thus. and his works address the extreme paroxysms and anxieties of his own life through a radical reconfiguration of cinema. because of its formal severity and its seeming lack of cultural awareness. In such work. “the social and the cinematic were internalized as questions of film” and by implication. it should be recognized that the connections that Piece Mandala makes between war. Many of his works featured images related to suicide – including most prominently perhaps.

N. Tambellini.H.C.” He then suggests that the film’s aggressive tempo and conflictual elements “make more cosmic sense as conflict models than do the destructive orgasms the United States is presently having in Vietnam. February 27. 14. 1966–1968.”419 The sensorial aggression of Sharits’ work – like that of Paik. and disturbing work. light-energy and image frequencies induce rhythms related to the psychophysical experience of the creative act of cunnilingus. in Sharits’ words.. However.” 13.I. Made two years later. 419 Ibid. in it Sharits made an overwhelmingly more intense. The first thing one notices upon an initial viewing this film is that it has a soundtrack. Piece Mandala is a work dedicated to the symbolic demonstration. and represented in his mind an alternative to destructive acts of violence like those inherent in war and suicide. 418 390 . Throughout the twelve minute 417 Sharits letter to Color Processing Station.”418 He describes these connections in his published notes on the film: “Color structure is linear-directional but implies a larger infinite cycle.”417 His interest in the mandala as a meditative form underpinned many of his films in this period.beautiful. is a project related to both of those described above. of “the viability of sexual dynamics as an alternative to destructive violence. 1967. which like its visual component.G. is extremely repetitive and unrelenting in its delivery. and others mentioned earlier in this study – manifested the energies of a counterculture directed against dominant mechanisms of social violence through its use confrontational artistic actions and spectatorial feedback. lyrical work with a strong sense of social sense. “Notes on Films.U. T.O. violent. Sharits.

In one image he stares aggressively into the camera. In its sonic content. Through this process of semantic transformation.” “history.O.” “his straw.” including non-denotative fragments. 59.U.I.420 Through this unprecedented use of film soundtrack. “it’s off. Throughout the film the poet David Franks (who is also the man who utters “destroy” on the soundtrack) is shown facing the camera. in a variety of poses that appear in quickly flashing single still frames.C. in which the repeated word is exochorion.” “it’s cut. A related sonic experiment is an important component of S:TREAM: SECTION: SECTION:ED. viewers of the film naturally hear variants of the word “destroy. indiscernible offscreen authority. in another he holds a pair of scissors up to his tongue as if preparing to cut it off.N. this process results in an experience of a word losing meaning through overexposure and an almost autistic repetition. in medium-close-up.H. and edited slightly differently. such that it is sonically transformed and made to sound robotic because of the mechanicity and abruptness of edits that sometimes cut off parts of letters or make others blend together. Sharits supposedly discovered through a game of chance incorporating a dictionary. as if from god on high. a term that. Sharits performs an unsettling experiment in auditory processing and the perception of linguistic cues.” The same utterance of the word is mechanically reproduced. an imperative issued from an assertive. the film powerfully distills its thematic associations into a single verbal command. For the spectator of the film. and in another the woman’s hand scratches his 420 Cornwell.” and others. T. echoing the genesis of Dada. Of all Sharits’ early flicker films.G has the most referential visual content. replayed. 391 . in another his mouth is covered by a woman’s hand. one word is repeated over and over: “ Regina Cornwell reports hearing phrases like.

Visually. they are associatively potent images that the filmmaker intersperses sparingly. In a sense.I. In T.H. Because each of these images appears only for 1/24th of a second.U. They uncannily punctuate the experience of film viewing by arousing the subconscious and indescribable associations that. This effect exaggerates the saturated color palette of the woman’s bright green fingernail polish and the blood that her nails draw out. One features a closeup of male and female genitalia in the act of intercourse. Like the photographs in Piece Mandala. the film utilizes a vivid range of colors that flash and flow in rapid fire. The film also includes two additional images likely taken from sources of entirely different origin.O.N.face with her fingernails and draws blood. each of these single frame images is heavily modified using color filters and chromatic processing. artificial look. they flash by quickly and are basically indiscernible to the viewer.C. Sharits also makes extensive use of optical reprocessing by presenting the images described above in both positive and negative exposure. and the other shows a close-up of a surgical operation upon a human eye. machine gun rhythms of montage. Likely taken from a scientific and a pornographic film. Sharits has taken the color palette and 392 . giving them an abstracted.G. like the film’s use of sound. encourage connections between materials and ideas that would not normally seem natural or logical. The result is a previously untried variety of flicker that makes the images themselves more strikingly weighty in their potential references and more astringent in their visual assault.

“Film Aesthetics: ‘Structure’ as Information Matrices” – Sharits writes the following about Sitney’s “structural film” formulation: “The term is as good as any art ‘movement’ label. flashing the letter “T” for one frame. Though Sharits respected Sitney’s observations and his erudition. syllabus for “Film Aesthetics: ‘Structure’ as Information Matrices. or anecdotal responses to the category.”421 Like Hollis Frampton.” etc. casual.” Collection of Anthology Film Archives. 393 . if it is regarded as merely functional and vaguely descriptive. then two minutes later. to the idea of a new kind of organizational principle for filmic structure. Sharits also objected that his taxonomy of the avant-garde was “quite 421 Sharits. These recurrent textual elements provide the film with an overarching structure that guides viewer anticipation (such that every two minutes a new letter will appear to indicate how much time has passed and how much is left). dynamic shifts of color and rhythm. and like Frampton.visual effects of both avant-garde and commercial psychedelia and transmogrified them into a fever dream of destruction and violence. Sharits was a filmmaker whom Sitney included in his taxonomy. This is precisely the kind of compositional tool that drew Sitney’s attention. in 1969. what is untenable is that the term is being used theoretically. In a letter to Sitney. he took issue with certain aspects of his formulation of “structural film. written. his criticism of structural film is one of the more astute and levelheaded of all the published. Within the ebb and flow of the film’s musical. the filmmaker regularly intersperses the letters of the film’s title. “O.” In an introductory statement on film structure – printed on a syllabus to his film class.

After a period of personal and artistic crisis in the late 1960s. Both in its conceptual motivations the concrete conditions of its exhibition. in a sense. the conditions of its exhibition. Locational Film Installation and the Transformation of Film Exhibition: In 1971. Sharits’ film work demonstrates this. including super-8 loops. Sound Strip/Film Strip. Sears Catalogue (1964) and Razor Blades (1965-68). but in art more generally. Sharits completed his first locational film installation. gallery based film installation represented a transformation in the temporal structure of his cinema.literary oriented. Sharits reevaluated the totality of his practice and began to produce new varieties of work that could be shown in a range of projection and exhibition formats. his first isotropic. multiple projector exhibitions on gallery walls. and “frozen film frames” in which he exhibited the strips of celluloid themselves within clear pieces of cellulite (positioning them as framed static objects to be viewed on a wall). and the institutional associations of its socio-aesthetic context. 16mm loops.” implying that an audio-visual medium required modified critical categories from those of American poetics. He describes this shift to locational exhibition: “‘Film’ can occupy spaces other than that of the theatre. Sharits’ work begs to be understood as an intervention not simply into the history of the film medium. Though he had experimented with modified projection before in his two-screen works. it can become ‘Locational’ (rather than suggesting-representing other 394 .

free. the expansion of his practice beyond these limits did not produce a clean break with the traditions and exhibition strategies of his earlier work. Conner produced a three-screen 395 . with specific exhibition times. public location […] (2) if the form of the presentation does not prescribe a definite duration of respondent’s observation […] (3) if the structure of the composition is nondevelopmental […] (4) if the content does not disguise itself but rather makes a specimen of itself. With EVE RAY FOREVER (1965). and temporally shifting. which was generally shown in darkened movie theaters. of the projected motion picture.”422 It was during this period that Sharits began to become disgruntled with the conventional limitations. many of his locational film installations were also made available through the standard avenues of independent film rental (through the Film-makers’ Cooperative) and could also be shown in conventionally projected.” Film Culture 65–66 (1978). 79.. He wanted to expand his practice in a sense. 79–80. 423 Ibid.locations) by existing in spaces whose shapes and scales of possible sound and image ‘sizes’ are part of the wholistic [sic] piece. However. Instead. linear. single-screen exhibition. the first three of these requirements marked a break from the dominant tendencies of the experimental cinema. “Statement Regarding Multiple Screen/Sound ‘Locational’ Film Environments – Installations (1976). 424 Bruce Conner too presented isotropic installations of his films using looped prints and specially engineered screening set-ups. evolutionary structures. both formal and ontological.424 A number of these films then exist in at least 422 Sharits. to open it up to different social and artistic possibilities. Sharits described this new tendency as a move towards the democratization of his work: I believe that cinema can manifest democratic ideals in several ways: (1) if it exists in an open.423 For Sharits.

Vertical Contiguity (1974). black-and-white. in 1975. However. However.H. he also continued distributing the single-screen. Damaged Film Loop (197374).I. in addition. foregrounded both formal and thematic concerns.N. Synchronousoundtracks (1973-74). be it locational installation or conventional exhibition.U. and often exclude illusionistic.G. sound version of the film for exhibition in conventional theaters.. the majority of these experiments engage in the systematic analysis of various aspects of the cinema apparatus. Sharits’ locational projects of the early to mid 1970s included Sound Strip/Film Strip.O. Sharits began a project using repurposed footage from medical films and created a work that. In this sense. he also presented his work in rock-and-roll light shows and performance-based contexts.two possible exhibition formats. within both single-screen theatrical projection and continuous gallery-based installation exhibition.C. much of his work in cinema. Shutter Interface (1975). and Epileptic Seizure Comparison (1976). and dramatized some of the most urgent ontological anxieties of both Sharits’ cinema and that of experimental film more generally. As their titles suggest. would continue the trajectory first initiated by Ray Gun Virus. 396 . like T. demonstrating that he too envisioned an expanded range of exhibition possibilities that extended well beyond those traditionally associated with film viewing. conventional cinematic content within the film frame. Dream Displacement (1975-76). Epileptic Seizure Comparison: Epileptic Seizure Comparison is a work that blends black and white footage of two patients who experience epileptic episodes with flickering fields of installation using 8-mm viewing monitors (for significantly modified silent reduction prints of COSMIC RAY).

As Conner. Jacobs. noninvasive visual styles. In this sense. Sharits carefully specifies how it should be installed and exhibited. Each projector features a separate soundtrack that includes two registers of information. of the changing frequency of an epileptic’s brain waves as recorded by an electroencephalograph (or EEG). Sharits turned to pre-existing institutionally produced film footage as a resource for creative experiment. It is surrounded by two walls that extend diagonally from 397 . In its locational incarnation. the work continues Sharits’ experiments with cinematic flicker while also activating considerations of psychology and neurology through the use of representational non-fiction medical footage. in a vertically projected fashion with one image above the other (as in Tambellini’s Black TV and Schneemann’s Kitch’s Last Meal). Epileptic Seizure Comparison utilizes two different segments of repurposed film material. and blending them visually through superimposition with a range of flickering colored patterns. In their simple. Gehr. the physical manifestations of two seizures in adult patients. In its locational installation. adding freeze frames. the two film elements are screened simultaneously. one of which is the actual physical sound emitted by the patient during his seizure and the other is an auditory approximation. Sharits’ project carefully and systematically transforms these historical documents by modifying their speeds. the industrial films were likely produced for medical study. and others had done.pure abstract color. made with a synthesizer. without any camera movement or visual trickery. The vertically oriented screen upon which the images are projected is an elongated rectangle. each of which records.

the following description will relate to the single-screen version of the film rather than attempting to describe two image streams simultaneously. BLACK & WHITE ROLL OF PATIENT AND SYNTHESIZER SIMULATION OF BRAIN WAVE PATTERN DURING ONSET OF SEIZURE C. while the two-screen edition presents the first and second reels of the film simultaneously [rather than in series] and is thus of course half the length. (The single screen film is thirty-four minutes long. FINAL COMPOSITE SOUND/IMAGE OF A&B II. COLOR ROLL AND PATIENT’S UTTERANCES B. COLOR ROLL AND PATIENT’S UTTERANCES B.) The film begins with onscreen text that dryly and precisely presents its content and organizing principles: I. In order to be precise about the film’s content. Part IA begins with an array of flashing pure color frames of red. The walls of the exhibition space are covered by reflective silver material that enhances the luminous flicker emitted by the film’s two streams of visual projection. BOTTOM SCREEN: PHOTICALLY INDUCED SEIZURE A. The result is a chamber of extreme polyphotic and polyphonic sensory overload that is saturated with a range of audio-visual synchronicities and collisions. yellow. TOP SCREEN: ELECTRICALLY INDUCED SEIZURE A. BLACK & WHITE ROLL OF PATIENT AND SYNTHESIZER SIMULATION OF BRAIN WAVE PATTERN DURING ONSET OF SEIZURE C.the space of the screen and thus creates a trapezoidal shape in which the images are projected and the viewer is physically situated. FINAL COMPOSITE SOUND/IMAGE OF A & B The film follows the exact structure introduced by the text. and green. This introductory 398 .

He is framed in medium close-up and sits on a bed. because of the introductory title. The tonal palette changes as Sharits introduces blue. we see black and white footage of a man entering an epileptic frenzy. Sharits reprints the original medical footage and shifts it in and out of slow motion. his controlling 399 . he also punctuates his reconfigured visual track with dramatic freeze frames. Simultaneous with this abstract. There seems to be an underlying pattern to the color rhythms. In its incorporation into Epileptic Seizure Comparison. Through postproduction modifications on an optical printer. the medical footage of the patient has been modified carefully and subtly by Sharits.section of the film is akin to the visual strategy of Ray Gun Virus. this section combines the film’s most abstract visual content with indexical sonic materials. and thus. He is of average build with tightly shorn hair and is wearing a white shirt. this work is treated by Sharits in a frame-by-frame fashion. and bodily noises. though it is not discernible. In section IIB. black. In its juxtaposition of pure color frames with historical audio recordings of the seizure episode. often at moments when the patient’s face exhibits extreme physical distress. sometimes climbing hum in which a synthesizer approximates the basic tonality of a wave generator. Like all of his films. semimusical sonic content. He has electrodes on his head and we know. and grey frames. the soundtrack changes to an abstract register that features a slowly shifting. that these devices are being used to trigger his epileptic episode through electrical stimulation. heavy breathing. These visuals are accompanied by a looped documentary recording of the patient’s grunts.

Throughout this section the indexical material of the film is repeated a number of times with different temporal and rhythmic modifications that formally and ontologically match the looping of the soundtrack in the film’s first section. In addition to modifying the temporality of the profilmic event through judicious. this simultaneity of stimuli is even more pronounced. Sharits also adjusts the composition of the image through subtle reframings using the optical printer’s zoom mechanism.intervention into the film’s composition is noticeable with every frame. The result is a careful resquencing and rephotographing of the experimental medical footage in which Sharits subtly orchestrates new dramatic effects through his plastic treatment of found materials. tightly controlled transformations of the frame rate of the footage. for dramatic effect. at the height of his or her subject’s medical crisis. (In the two-screen version. In section IC.) One of the effects of this synthesis of visual materials is that at times the black and white 400 . and thus both of the layers described are synthesized and made to unfold simultaneously in time. The soundtrack’s modulations function independently of these short. Over the course of at least one of these repetitions. Images of the patient’s body in motion are also combined with black frames and short sections of continuous black leader. and thus twice as dense in both image and sound. the two previous sequences have been combined through the post-production process of A/B rolling. looped episodes of paroxysmic visual medical testimony. because of the use of two projectors. as a documentarian might. Sharits slowly moves from a medium close-up of the patient in distress to a much tighter shot.

The second patient’s convulsions are markedly more extreme and 401 .footage becomes dramatically tinted with a flashing color frame. even though there are no images yet with which to associate their effects. burps. is wearing a pajama shirt of black polka dots on white. sighs. Overall. The second subject’s growls are more guttural. unsettling blend of groans. and chromatic means – to this real-life documentation of a physical convulsion. and the effect demonstrates Sharits’ rarely exhibited control of photographic drama. and the sound of the patient’s body rubbing against the hospital furniture on which it sits. a new patient appears. creating a fresh effect in which pure color intervenes in the space of sober. though in neither cases are words discernible. and in a strange kind of levity produced by happenstance. near the end of the roll. and the overall effect is substantially more visceral. He is stockier. with a range of flickering color frames dominated by reds and yellows. The soundtrack is markedly different for this man’s photically induced seizure than it was for the patient in the previous reel. The result is a strange. In section IIB. The drama of the patient’s extreme physical distress is magnified by Sharits’ plastic modifications – through temporal. this soundtrack more closely resembles human vocalizations than the previous section. compositional. documentary medical footage. The next reel (II) begins in much the same fashion as the first. He is framed in a much tighter composition than the previous subject. At one point. the artist chooses to move in to a close-up and a freeze frame at a moment of extreme distress.

the effect is akin to the phenomenological push and pull of Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls. (When these two sections are shown simultaneously. and then presents a 402 .) Since this seizure is photically induced. Through post-production manipulation.physically traumatic. until it comes to a stop. the film produces a kind of mise-en-abyme that is appropriately self-reflexive for an artist as self-consciously concerned with the cinematic apparatus as Sharits. itself a dramatically flickering work of light and dark. Sharits’ plastic manipulations of his film materials are appropriately more acute as well. Sharits carefully slows the image stream of the patient’s frenzied shaking. as the action becomes more dramatic in this second seizure. Through its various levels of authorial intervention and spectatorial provocation. adding an extra degree of visual interest and stimulus. In this sense the film presents a profilmic mirroring of the spectatorial experience of watching Epileptic Seizure Comparison. Sharits zooms out rather than in. During the last section of this reel all of the previous visual and sonic elements meld together and achieve a series of interlocking patterns. Thus. Perhaps the most dramatic and affective moment of the film occurs near its conclusion. within the frame there are extreme flashes of bright light and dark that resemble perhaps what an observer might see if he or she were to watch the face of a film viewer during the exhibition of a flicker film by Paul Sharits in a darkened theater. within the profilmic space of the medical film we witness the flashing lights that trigger the patient’s convulsion. In contradistinction to the filmmaker’s treatment of the optically modified composition in the first reel.

Throughout Epileptic Seizure Comparison. but it is uncertain if his intention is to create an impression of perfect lockstep synchronicity between these four streams of information (or eight in the two-screen version) or if he wants to achieve a sensation of wildly interweaving 403 . This authorial bracketing heightens the power of this medical footage to unsettle and disturb the viewer’s sense of ethics. as Sharits’ continual artistic intervention adds the sense that there is another witness to the convulsive events that we are seeing.freeze frame of the film’s subject with his teeth clenched and eyes rolled back into his head. This is an unsettling image and the filmmaker purposefully draws the viewer’s attention to it. Through his plastic manipulations of these visual indexes of patient trauma. and carefully interweaving these documentary materials with more abstract musical and visual elements that punctuate and accentuate the affective force of the historical events being represented. Sharits amplifies the exaggerates the drama of their bodily anguish by manipulating the temporal structure of these filmic transcriptions. Our awareness of their subjectivities is not minimized or instrumentalized by their incorporation into this art work. magnifying the scale of photographic composition. There is clearly a careful orchestrator behind the artistic spectacle of this film. the thematic and affective range of the work is carefully controlled by the director behind the proverbial curtain. that we are voyeurs witnessing the suffering of disabled humans. it is heightened by this framing within a plasticized media presentation. This interaction of artistry and observation reminds the viewer. through its formal methods. On the contrary.

the work is one of extreme distress and its registers of anxiety and anguish are inscribed throughout its textual and spectatorial spaces. Sharits created a work of sensory excess that literally and figuratively frustrates notions of conventional audio-visual pleasure by assimilating the viewer into an aesthetic analogue to the sensorial overload experiences by the patients that are the work’s true subjects.” Film Culture 65-66 (1978). Through his transposition of a patient’s neurological distress into the realms of visual. 124. an ongoing location wherein nonepileptic persons may begin to experience. he is. Still. ethical. the film’s careful treatment of the somatic traumas of these patients evidences this state of affairs. and aesthetic overload. 404 . Though its patterns were carefully mapped out in advance (as Sharits’ extensive notes indicate) it is unclear if its structure is meant to communicate happenstance interactions or careful dramatic deliberation.’ what Dr. under ‘controlled conditions. 425 Sharits. “Filmography. In Sharits’ words. There is a sense in which the audiovisual patterning of the work mimics the oscillating and unpredictable electrical rhythms of a patient in the throes of an epileptic episode.’425 Sharits’ description suggests that his intentions are humanist in origin. […] ‘Seizure Comparison’ is an attempt to orchestrate sound and light rhythms in an intimate and proportional space. these overlapping fields of disparate sound and image components combine to blistering effect. The film represents an unprecedented attempt to simultaneously simulate and represent an extreme neurological event. Regardless of intent. interested in creating a sound-image-space situation wherein sympathetic observers may begin to identify with the convulsive epileptic. Walter calls ‘the majestic potentials of convulsive seizure.fields of distress.

and neurological distress.Epileptic Seizure Comparison aggravates the philosophical tensions between the inescapable presence of its tortured profilmic subjects and the extreme plasticity of Sharits’ frame-by-frame filmmaking. but more importantly it is an index of a singular. The filmmaker slows the film’s speed and sometimes freezes its images. plastic modifications (in the hands of Sharits). and sometimes life-threatening. as a liminal inscription of the capacities of cinema to both represent and provoke episodes of extreme psychic distress. and thus clearly illustrates the capacity of the cinematic apparatus to modify historical time and re-write the temporal continuity of experience. in their indexical account of embodied episodes of extreme somatic. liminal event. intended to display visual evidence of a neurological malady. one of the central points of conflict in this work is localized in its original images. The extraordinary profilmic event of this work was originally transcribed in what might be understood as simple observational terms. Epileptic Seizure Comparison might be understood as a limit text. Later. However. the work’s documentary material is not simply a representation of something. seize the viewer in ways that disobey the controlling transformations of the apparatus. In this regard. these events were re-inscribed by Sharits within the textual space of Epileptic Seizure Comparison and transformed into the raw material of an installation in which these educational films have been 405 . regardless of their later. In this regard. The work’s originary materials. psychic. because of the undeniably complex affective force of the events that they display.

Sharits: Filmmaker or Artist?: Like most of Sharits’ film installations. because though the physical platform for both works may be celluloid. in which the viewer is enmeshed with the visible trauma of the patient as well as his unseen psychic distress. 124. both sensuous and epistemological.”426 In profound and sometimes troubling ways. In this sense. (As discussed throughout this project. He describes the work as directed towards an experience of empathy and understanding of the patients’ suffering. The affective power that is contained within the spectacle of a human seizure is communicated to the viewer with a powerful directness that exceeds the textual space of the installation or film work. Epileptic Seizure Comparison exists in both a location-specific two-screen form and a single-screen. linear version available for viewing under conventional theatrical exhibition conditions. 406 . such that he or she is “seized as it were.” and can thus “become one with the two images of paroxysm. Sharits’ works share in the exhibition modes of much experimental film in the 1960s and early 70s.repurposed for another kind of psychic trauma – imposed upon the viewer – in order to achieve a complex effect that is both aesthetic and scientific.. a number 426 Ibid. the film engages with the same ontological registers and corporeal limits as the bodies and deaths within Kitch’s Last Meal and The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. in a convulsive space. the actual medium of the liminal event is the human body.

but this position caused him many problems. this break was not definitive. Yalkut. and Schneemann – welcomed the incorporation of their films into the contexts of happenings. like 407 . Sharits’ willingness to show his films in both traditional screening venues and open-ended gallery exhibitions demonstrates his distinctive desire to keep one foot in the coop avant-garde and another in the art world (and its gallery network). To Sharits. Sharits’ locational film installations recontextualized expanded cinema. Still. for Sharits’ career. Still. the economic viability of experimental cinema. Conner. his move to exhibit his works in galleries marked a transition out of the social openness of the previous decade. this move marks the transposition of an ineffable and contingent event into an art commodity. removing it from the open social spaces of the bohemian underground and transposing its strategies into the dissimilar social and economic register of the precious spaces of gallery culture. The institutional divisions between these spheres – which are partially inscribed in these works themselves through their two different modes of exhibition – were fraught with extreme anxieties about the social function of art. Warhol. multi-screen projections.) However. and performance events. in some sense. there was no contradiction in presuming that he could be a filmmaker and an artist. and the cultural esteem of film as an art form. Paik.of filmmakers – including Breer. Tambellini. These tensions loom over Epileptic Seizure Comparison and Sharits’ work of this period as major determinants and sources of distress for an artist who was naturally inclined to extreme anxiety. light shows.

Wallraf-Richartz Museum. in terms of categorization and financial supportiveness. it deserves to be quoted at length: I find something objectionable above and beyond the normative criticisms: the condescending humiliating discrimination between “films by artists” and “films by filmmakers” which most of these exhibitions are so fond of making. This seems to me to be an (art world) political posture and not a valid semantic or esthetic determination. This gallery representation aspect of the problem is changing rapidly and so should the terms of agreement given by large mixed exhibitions in museums change.” et al. Flatly. In a letter to a museum director in Germany.many of the figures discussed in this text. Sharits expresses a position held by many filmmakers: though they distrusted the superficiality and trendiness of the art world they also felt that they deserved the same cultural esteem and monetary compensation as gallery artists. he was fully committed to the idea that film and art were unified enterprises. 1974. Collection of Anthology Film Archives). all work shown in art museums should be regarded as art and the makers of these works regarded as artists and not “filmmakers. July 7. Koln. 408 .427 In this letter. very fine artists indeed. he expressed his distaste concerning the institutional segregation of artists’ films from those of experimental filmmakers. Because of its rather precise articulation of the historical conditions that isolated the filmmaker’s community from the art world.) As Sharits’ letter indicates. “To begin with. (It should be mentioned that Sharits also produced work in other media and was an active contributor to intermedial and conceptual experiments of the Fluxus group. I would like to know why Michael Snow is listed (and treated as) a ‘filmmaker’ while Jack Smith is listed as an ‘artist. one of the major determinations of this historical bifurcation between 427 It continues. and as David James argues in Allegories of Cinema. it is based on the crumbling fact that works of art in film are not saleable as paintings and sculpture in galleries and that so-called “filmmakers” are not supported-represented by important galleries.’ […] In my opinion both men are artists. and this distinction appears meaningless” (Letter to Marlis Gruterich.

In fact. video art. ineffable notion of celebrity. July 7. historical. Collection of Anthology Film Archives. identical. This strange dualism was identified concretely by Sharits in his continuation of the letter quoted above: “I have learned that ‘artists’ showing their films are receiving gallery sale prices for prints while ‘filmmakers’ are receiving a mere 3DM per minute for rental of their works. for the most part. Despite the ignorance that museums exhibited towards the treatment of film as an art form – something that was manifested partially by their refusal to James. Allegories of Cinema. the material conditions that separate filmmakers and artists’ films in the museum circuit continue to this day. it must be admitted that the alienation of film art from art history is not simply a function of economics or the flow of capital. Sharits letter to Marlis Gruterich. Koln. for which the material conditions of the objects being presented are.”429 In this sense. it still does not explain the continued absence of this medium from historical accounts of art that include conceptual and art was the basic absence of a saleable commodity in experimental cinema.428 Though this is an important and perhaps overwhelming aspect of the material. Nor does it explain the differing treatments of filmmakers versus artists who make films. for all intents and purposes. Still. and performance. and institutional interaction between film and art. 429 428 409 . the economic segregation of artists from filmmakers always works to the detriment of the latter. 1974. 269–275. but is also a result of a simple ignorance to the most advanced experiments in cinema (which in fact foregrounded precisely the same concerns as so many canonized art movements) and a structure of valorization that revolves around some strange. Wallraf-Richartz Museum.

“’Where Is Your Rupture?’: Mass Culture and the Gestamtkunstwerk. which was associated with the avant-garde filmmakers’ community. In Annette Michelson’s words. his intelligence.) Through his diligence. [emphasis in original] On the contrary.” 106). and Castelli-Sonnabend. Brakhage “uttered a howl of rage at the emergence of Warhol’s film work – largely. (In addition. Frampton. a result of his distrust of the hermetic cliquishness of the avant-garde filmmakers’ community. A number of them openly distrusted his success and his lack of traditional craft. Brakhage. some filmmakers embraced Warhol’s work. which emphasized careful composition and rigorous framing. a major gallery and media art distributor for established. he managed to court the interest of art institutions that provided him with large sums of money to create his elaborate multi-projector installations. Smith would later openly dismiss Warhol as an opportunist and a fraud.430 To Sharits. Such an opinion was not uncommon amongst Warhol’s filmmaking contemporaries. at least partially. profitable artists. many of filmmakers were distrustful of Warhol because he had a public appeal though he did not display the same virtuosic control of craft as someone like Brakhage. However. one surmises because it seemed not to be work” (Michelson. a zealous belief in technique as a determination of artistic significance – to which 430 The filmmakers’ community was divided on Warhol. 410 . particularly when it first appeared: both Jonas Mekas and Jack Smith were close associates of Warhol’s during the early years of his experimentation with the film medium. Amongst others. at one point in the 1970s. who understood the philosophical stakes of contemporary art in the 1960s and 70s. and the quality of his work. but it may also have been. and Markopolous spoke out against Warhol and his films. For example.award the same scale of compensation to “films by filmmakers” as those that were paid for “films by artists” – Sharits was able to get the attention of a few supportive galleries and museums. his works were distributed by both The Filmmakers' Cooperative. Sharits’ hard won crossover into the gallery world was partially the function of his pragmatism.

and others. Mekas. ironically signing one of his letters to Sharits as “Filmmaker Stan”): I have been hassled and hassled and hassled about my work in the art world.many of the coop filmmakers held with pronounced stubbornness – seemed both overstated and reactionary. You mean a lot to me (“you only hurt the ones you love” – the rest you can forget about) & it freaked me that I was picking up more of those anti-art world vibes from you. at least partially. a function of their own obstinacy and proud provincialism. Gehr. (He wrote Brakhage. he mailed a survey to a variety of filmmakers in order to determine who would be interested in creating reduction prints of their films for such an endeavor. I am raw nerve endings over it. Joyce Weiland. almost no filmmakers responded. It must be admitted that the inability of filmmakers to gain the kind of support and exposure that was eventually received by Sharits was. […] I don’t think I’m blind to the 411 . In the mid-1970s. Frampton. Jonas is hassling me. Jacobs. For example.” […] when my long time friends all seem to be inferring that I am a traitor & that “my little loops up on the wall” are stupid. Hollis is hassling me … like I’m some traitor to the “cinema art cause. Sharits initiated an effort to bring filmmakers some kind of economic support by creating saleable super-8 prints. then I get very deeply upset. To his surprise. in order to produce an artistic commodity that might function as a filmic analogue to the lithograph in fine art. And I’m on edge. In a lengthy letter to Stan Brakhage in 1974.) To him this was both a personal frustration and evidence of a stubbornness that partially doomed these filmmakers to a degree of material isolation from the larger currents of art. Paul Sharits described his frustrations with this aspect of the filmmakers’ community (of which Brakhage was a proud member.

he proved mistaken in his belief that new forms for film exhibition – including film installation and saleable super-8 prints – could bring experimental film the cultural esteem of fine art. commercial film controls and defines the aesthetic standards of any and all spectators. not experimental film. On one level. by the 1980s. and I expect that my financial – & thereby creative – future has a lot to do with that world. so far. cited at the beginning of this study. Though there have been singular efforts by a few scholars and museum curators. their disciplinary myopia is a function of the simple fact that industrial. critics. experimental film still remains largely uninteresting to art historians. If one recalls the correspondence between Brakhage and Michelson.431 Though Sharits thought that he had managed to carefully negotiate the anxious waters that separated filmmakers from the art world. It was video art that found its way into art history textbooks and museums. to the point of basically making it impossible for almost anyone – including the most educated 431 Sharits letter to Brakhage. despite the fact that my medium is film. 1974. has there been any significant scholarship or research from academics within art history departments on avant-garde film. to find some very helpful and kind person in that scene […] It has been a long time coming but more and more the art world is recognizing that I am an artist. and curators. Not until very recently. The medium-based factionalism discussed by Sharits has continued to loom over all disciplinary and institutional boundaries between art and experimental cinema. but I’ve been lucky enough. 412 .negative factors operating on the executive levels of the art world. Collection of Anthology Film Archives. January 14. the idea had basically been vanquished that experimental cinema held any kind of profoundly transformative possibilities for art in general.

111. One could consider. and understand any kind of truly nonnormative. Bruce Jenkins describes the institutional conundrum that Sharits faced in 1975: At the time of the installation’s creation [Shutter Interface (1975)]. (A filmmaker who was screening in the Whitney Biennial recently told the author of this project that that institution continues to pursue a practice that might be described as “separate.”) historians – to expect. appreciate. and while it was still occasionally acquired by museums and collectors. non-identificatory film experience. but equal. increasingly it would be displayed only in neutralized forms – in cans inside vitrines or projected in isolated screening spaces.” Artforum 47. But the segregation between films by artists and films by filmmakers continues to be operative. a comparison between Ken Jacobs and Matthew Barney. Henceforth those arenas would grant admittance to moving image work primarily rendered on video. “Out of the Dark. 413 . Critical interest in the form of cinema that Sharits had pioneered returned to the more fringe circuits of experimental film. 10 (Summer 2009). is exhibited in museums. the sums that are paid to gallery-based artists are astronomical when compared with the pittances that are given to the rentals of experimental filmmakers. Film was about to take a long hiatus. The limited space that had been opened up in the late 1960s and early ‘70s for film installation within the institutions of gallery and museum were beginning to disappear. most importantly. Sharits had made the classic error of believing he was witnessing the beginning of an era. though in actuality it was coming to a close. and showings abounded mainly on the screens of college classrooms. Though Jacobs displays an impressive art world pedigree – he was trained by Hans Hoffman. for example.432 Film of course. no. was a close collaborator of 432 Bruce Jenkins.

W. At the very conclusion of his collection of essays he writes. – he continues to work in relative obscurity compared to the Hollywood treatment received by Barney. despite minor shifts achieved by European art cinema and other varieties of narrative pseudodifferentiation. Similarly. let us briefly reflect upon a statement by Harold Rosenberg (the critic whose “anxious object” formulation gives this dissertation its title). at least to some extent. […] To his chain of creation art owes its survival.Jack Smith’s. This simple opposition is a function of the basic fact that the artistic significance of the American experimental film was simply not then – nor is it now – recognized by the power structure of the art world. This is. which in acts of creation has a value distinct from that of the object in which it terminates. it might be suggested that the dominant mode of creating and conditioning spectator experience has changed very little since the days of D. Experimental Film: An Anxious Art Form: In order to consider further the historical stakes of the tensions described throughout this project. a function of Hollywood’s dominance over the field of American culture: it conditions viewer expectations and encourages a model of patronage (the star system) that permeates the other arts as well. Griffith. 414 . etc. had an image from one of his films on the cover of Artforum in 1973. I refer to the activity of the artist. was one of the first artists to incorporate film as an element of performance. By it the intrinsic tension between artist.

and social urgency. he even argues that this anxiety is perhaps the engine within modern art that creates meaning. fine art. it has been argued that the tensions between different realms of cultural production. 272. under the pressures of this urgency. excitement. practices. In its of art and art public is renewed – within the social organization of art or in opposition to it. but this descriptor is basically inoperative. The contemporary conditions for the production of non-industrial and non-story cinemas have changed. there is significant and remarkable non-story. “the intrinsic tension” between these different cultural registers creates an anxiety that is palpable and real. non-industrial film art being made in this country. and experiences of an art form realized in the past. 415 . Active” in The Anxious Object. and this fact should be emphasized. Whether or not experimental film collapsed. That is not 433 Rosenberg. it is simply too vague to prove generative to the topics at hand. the argument of this project has forthrightly been concerned with the cultural conditions. including experimental cinema. some of the arguments included here may be perceived as nostalgic. Theatrical. remains an open question. As Rosenberg suggests. “Mobile. Still. The concept of postmodernism has been judiciously avoided throughout this dissertation.433 In this study. and mass culture. it must be admitted that there is something fundamentally different about the context in which non-commercial film forms now exist and function. created different kinds of historical frictions as they shifted against one another and thus generated new varieties of aesthetic experience. There is still so-called avant-garde film. in a sense. Nevertheless. As such.

it is a function of the basic historical fact that the stakes have changed. and with it the spirit of argument has been replaced with a dull cheeriness. Still. institutional. “There used to be arguments about film and there was an anxiety about it. 2009. CA. 434 416 . Los Angeles. It is a renunciation of that intellectual and emotional ingredient in twentieth-century art that arises from facing the reality of its situation.the author’s intention. filmic. merit. May 29. “Toward an Unanxious Profession” in The Anxious Object. Or. Restoring the Los Angeles Avant-Garde panel discussion. in the current moment of artistic production these tensions have been tempered. and pleasure of experimental film were inscribed in the profilmic. 19. UCLA Film & Television Archive. and aesthetic spaces of the works that have been discussed throughout this text. In 1966 Harold Rosenberg prefigured the no-stakes openness and historical irreverence of postmodern art when he wrote that. as O’Neil suggests. hosted by Mark Toscano. it must be admitted that the aesthetic and ontological stakes of experimental cinema in the years between 1965 and 1975 were very different than they are now.435 Pat O’Neil. filmmaker and educator Pat O’Neil recently critiqued the openness of postmodern field of artistic production when he said. 435 Rosenberg. some defining anxiety and sense of urgency have dissipated. social. If now. The anxiety of modern art is the measure of its historical consciousness and its appreciation of the stature of the past. In a response to questions about changes in technology. But now everything is possible and there are no arguments. the quieting of art’s anxiety is bound to suggest the cheerfulness of a sick room.”434 There is no doubt that these anxieties concerning the meaning.

” vii. 417 . it must be admitted that this project. such that forgotten filmmakers are being continuously rediscovered. a selective endeavor. on the history of the American experimental film. like any scholarly undertaking. “Movies the Color of Blood. in terms of both research and critical analysis. if not thousands of film artists working independently in this period. however. Much work remains to be done. Though this project has analyzed a handful of works by a small number of filmmakers. there were in fact hundreds. Such is the nature of culture. is by nature. There were many other artist filmmakers who could have provided generative examples for 436 Arthur. like Robert Nelson for example. So. (Or as Paul Arthur put it in 1989: “the realities of contemporary film and video production” make the urgent spirit of the 1960s and 70s “seem like a faded Eastmancolor dream. as O’Neil suggests. I do not claim to evaluate the contemporary landscape of film art. and with them. are returning to exhibition venues due to new restorations of their work and critical reappraisals of their historical and aesthetic significance. let it be recognized that the fundamental conditions of the production of art – of any type – have simply changed since the period that is the subject of this study.”)436 In this project. Even relatively well known figures. to consider any art form at an extreme conceptual remove from the context of its cultural production would be the act of an irresponsible historian.If this anxiety has indeed quieted. the philosophical and cultural contexts of the practice described herein. it is indisputable that the historical conditions have shifted.

cinematic gestures. artists’ film. Charles Eames. Yvonne Rainer. or Jack Smith would have all provided productive case studies for related discussions of the relationship between experimental film and fine art from roughly 1965-75. As historical artifacts. social. Richard Serra. and non-fiction film continue to commit discursive violence upon the unruly. hopefully the history and aesthetic sphere surrounding this variety of interstitial. Luckily. Robert Watts. Dan Graham. intermedial practice will continue to attract increasing degrees of scholarly interest. The films. the films described within this text performed some kind of action in relation to the historical challenge of artistically inscribing subjectivity within the mediascape of post World War II America. Charles Ray.this critical study. and proto-cinematic objects described herein intervened into the intermedial landscape of the arts through their uses of cinema’s novel technologies. indefinable artistic experiments produced in this period. Red Grooms. Tony Conrad. Stan Vanderbeek. By considering both the possibilities and limits of the apparatuses that mediate human experience and fundamentally transform its aesthetic. Robert Smithson. 418 . Morgan Fisher. So. many of these names are now receiving scholarly attention by young academics and graduate students. Yet the disciplinary groupings of avant-garde film. as the locational installations of Paul Sharits are slowly being restored by enterprising and ambitious young archivists. Hollis Frampton. Michael Snow. Dick Higgins. For example the works of Robert Frank.

social. Similarly. These were often caustic works. between a medium-specific investigation of form and a breakdown of textual limits. 419 . all of these projects aspired to perform a kind of cultural intervention that Artaud described as “dissociative and vibratory action upon the sensibility.”437 The Vietnam War hangs over this period like a specter. including experimental film. and ontological effects of the war resonated across the 1970s with a melancholy that could only be challenged by the most banal efforts – like those of the Hollywood disaster film or disco music – to distract a populous inescapably implicated in horrible acts of violence. perhaps – the shifting historical conditions of media art as an enterprise invested in aesthetic. As suggested in the last chapter. The Theater and its Double. The response to the anxiogenic challenge to make meaningful and ambitious film-based work in the face of a largely uninterested culture. and ontological meanings as communication. ontological challenges. Its termination in 1975 marks the end of a chapter in American history that influenced the entire field of cultural production.historical. much media art of the late 1960s and 1970s foregrounded the challenge 437 Artaud. many of these films were historically balanced between the dereliction of the underground cinema and the glamour of the art market. like Epileptic Seizure Comparison. 89. and degradation. devastation. and ultimately. ethical. these films have all been presented and discussed for the purposes of outlining – often polemically. The psychic. was often one of spectatorial assault. poised. representation. and gesture.

for ‘blowing the mind. […] ’peace’ was revealing itself as rage. It is no coincidence that this artistic tendency became so pronounced during the period of the Vietnam War. but an act of compulsive revenge and resentment wholly entangled on the deepest level with the knots of frustration. as a force for 438 Koch. Stephen Koch situated Warhol’s traveling multi-media performance ensemble.O.of meaningfully representing human subjectivity. many artists of this milieu struggled to make sense of their work by undermining its capacity to create conventional pleasures for its viewers. destroy. when the American government was involved in a systematic attempt to obliterate not the representations. which like Sharits’ T. In many of these works. 72. 420 .G. Such works also represent sensorially confrontational attempts to situate themes of violence and personal distress within the registers of formal structure and social space.I. it came home to me how the ‘obliteration’ of the ego was not the act of liberation it was advertised to be.’ assaulting the senses. “destroy. the medium of cinema acts as a psychic astringent. but the literal subjectivities.H. of millions of people. destroy” – challenge the viewer’s capacity to comprehend and even tolerate the psychic force if its relentless sensory imposition. the Exploding Plastic Inevitable.C. as a related kind of cultural action: [F]or the first time how deeply the then all-admired theories of attacking the ‘ego’ as the root of all evil and unhappiness had become for the avantgarde the grounds for a deeply engaged metaphor of sexual sadism. – with its compulsive mantra. Stargazer.438 Like Nam June Paik’s efforts to undo the influence of television by making it absurd. The artistic responses to these conditions of social and ethical violence transposed this destructive energy into new formal possibilities.U.N.

and thus allow space for a simultaneous recognition of form and historical context through a pragmatic consideration of their interaction. or the somatic traumas of Chris Burden’s body art – rather than a playful and controlled manipulation of symbols to be read within the contained limits of a controlled textual space. then its interpretation should break the discursive limits that it has inherited from both literary criticism and modernist art criticism. In Sharits’ words. Like the most significant developments of avant-garde art in the 1960s and 70s.” 14. yet this assaultive displeasure. in a way closely linked to other experiments in a range of art forms – including the interpersonal provocations of The Living Theater. his films were directed towards “the temporary assassination of the viewers’ normative consciousness. which is a fundamental artistic and philosophical resource for this work. social. “Notes on Films. as a set of actions that inscribe historical events and enact spectatorial encounters. and scientific experiment. the politically confrontational textual experimental of Hans Haacke’s conceptual art.”439 Sharits’ cinema should be understood as a psychological. 421 . This register of distress and psycho-aesthetic provocation is something that is clearly inscribed in the work of the artists discussed throughout this project. the film-based works described in this project embody acute aesthetic encounters 439 Sharits. a testing ground for staging different types of confrontation.testing the patience of its audience. 1966–1968. If experimental cinema is understood in these terms. has been largely omitted from critical considerations of avant-garde media practice.

affective. Experimental film. “The Charge of the Real: Embodied Knowledge and Cinematic Consciousness” in Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press. On the muddled voiceover track three people talk almost incoherently about basically nothing. the willful use of the sloppiest and muddied aesthetic registers. the force of real life – what film theorist Vivian Sobchack has described as “the charge of the real” – breaks through the stylized sheen that it often wears as a mask.between conflicting registers of ontological. by virtue of its eschewal of Hollywood plot or the formulaic pedanticism of documentary. and its corrosive energy. In Andy Warhol’s first sound film. It also speaks to the viewer with the contingency and force of “the charge of the real. the unavoidable ontological fact of death penetrates the viewer’s visual space with a power that is almost inexplicable. and philosophical signification that demand greater critical attention and scholarly analysis if they are to be properly understood.” Or as Brian O’Doherty put it in 440 Vivian Sobchack. 422 . 258–285.” This mysterious and uncanny phrase communicates the anxiety of experimental cinema. The result is a strange historical document. he experimented with the simultaneous juxtaposition of voices and performers who could neither see nor hear each other. Harlot. 2004). determined by happenstance. and the inescapable awkwardness of performers whose sheer co-presence with the camera triggers some degree of instability. social. its somatic force. comprises a field of representation that is coextensive with the life that it records.440 In The Act of Seeing With One’s Own Eyes. In so many of the films described herein. but one poetic phrase juts out from the noisy dialogue: “a roasting place of movie flesh.

filmic materials. treating them as hypotheses to be considered and experimented upon. the textual limits of the art object. “The movie is split open again and again by real life hurtling through it. profilmic subjects. all of these works stress contingency and the complex interplay between plasticity and presence that defines the unique ontological conditions of motion pictures. is it the act of spectatorial interaction with a particular apparatus in a particular space? This film-based. is it a projection event. in all of these works. In this sense.”441 Many of the films discussed in this study devise experimental conditions in which they create new forms of ontological interaction with the histories that they represent. all of these films are non-fiction works. In a significant sense. the force of the past charges through the celluloid. To what does the word “film” refer? Is it a physical object of exposed celluloid. In addition. many of these 441 O’Doherty. like the paroxysms of Ondine in The Chelsea Girls or the bodily spasms of the patients in Epileptic Seizure Comparison. experimental media art tests these questions. the majority of these works (if not all) engage directly with the problem of filmic reference. from the other side of history.his discussion of Conner’s found footage works. These films delineate artistic frameworks in which experimental encounters are staged between artists. 423 . these idiosyncratic works represent efforts to reconstitute the cinematic apparatus with each of their experimental encounters between the contingencies of the historical real. In this sense. 21. and spectatorial conditions. and the author’s volition. As such.

as in expanded cinema). in which it was defined by a marked socio-aesthetic anxiety. Through its considerations of trends of aesthetic and intellectual 424 . controlled. this dissertation has considered experimental cinema as a mesh or network of historically overlapping fields of artistic. or the performer in front of the apparatus whose presence is the guarantor of reality (as in performance art)? This study represents an effort to reconsider a number of filmic works from roughly 1965 to 1975 in terms that are markedly different from the readings of discrete. as in found footage filmmaking). It has been one of the central goals of this project to interrogate the ways in which American experimental cinema engaged with its cultural landscape – in its interactions with both fine art and mass culture – in the age of its greatest philosophical impact. and social action. the filmmaker behind the camera (as in a conventionally understood modernist expressivity).works suggest some philosophical consideration of indexical inscription. the editor who assembles the work (and engages in a cultural dialogue. personal. what is the determining influence of filmic meaning and what is the relationship between this non-fiction cinema and the historical reality that is coextensive with it? Is it the function primarily of a profilmic event (as in documentary). closed textual systems that dominated the historical tendency of film studies in the past. in differing terms and with distinctive results. In place of these contained efforts at textual analysis. These works inquire. by asking what is inscribed on the filmic document itself. the act of projection (in which the conditions of spectatorial encounter are defined.

Cultural Studies has ghettoized the work of film artists because of its seemingly elitist artistic intentions without recognizing its tendencies to intervene in some of the most central philosophical and political questions of mass media and popular history. Art History has generally ignored it due to its technological connections to the commercial medium of industrial cinema. 425 . pragmatically and provisionally perhaps. indexicality. particularly in relation to the technologies of mass media. social. open form. observation. and thus has dismissed any possibility for understanding its fundamental exchanges with the most profound and urgent aesthetic innovations of the era. aesthetic. collective art practices. to the central philosophical concerns of the medium. to the core questions of ontology. and entertainment. and performance. and generally speaking. Any reasonable reconsideration of this work needs to address itself. philosophical. The explicit and implicit disciplinary imperatives of various scholarly and critical traditions have all done some degree of disservice to this cultural practice by imposing certain institutional and ideological limits on their understanding of experimental cinema: Film Studies has sometimes celebrated the filmic avantgarde as a kind of artistic practice not subject to the historical influence of capital at the expense of understanding the ways in which it actually embodied some of the most common cultural sensibilities of the era.influence. while also reflecting on the historiographical and disciplinary limits that have been imposed upon it. this project has made provisional efforts at addressing the complex ontological. functions of the American experimental cinema in the period at hand.

and anxiety that surrounded this work then – and continue to surround it today – were the marks of its urgency. media. the experimental cinema confronted a range of cultural practices and thus represented a powerful mode. hostility. rather than a contained set of texts and dictates. This project has attempted to argue for a more ontologically and ideologically complex – often ambivalent perhaps – understanding of the American experimental cinema in which it might be understood as a polysemic. In this period. 426 . and social functions. while also being balanced precariously between a range of disciplines. experimental cinema was poised between the promise of crossover attention and hermetic exclusion. in the twilight of film’s dominance as the principal form of mass media in the United States. persuasively. comprehensive history of any artistic practice. even anarchic historical practice. expressed in artistic form. The ambivalence. into the cultural landscape of the 1960s and 70s.Though there can be no totalizing. and provocatively. of coming to terms with the conditions of culture and history in the 1960s and 1970s. at a moment in which this practice was still trying to find a place for itself in the world. Between 1965 and 1975. all of these disciplines have missed something fundamental about the way in which American experimental cinema intervened forcibly.

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