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A CINEMA OF ANXIETY: AMERICAN EXPERIMENTAL FILM IN THE REALM OF ART (196575)

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

DEDICATION

For My Parents

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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

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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

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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. Lizs intelligence has helped

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

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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

76

142

216

288

380 427

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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 films significance as the nations 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

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multifarious cultural, social, and historical networks that produced them and even, for a brief moment, made them popular. Despite its fleeting presence in the popular mindset of the late 1960s, 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. Because of its interstitial identity, provocative mode of address, and distinctive ontological challenges to representation, it was an anxious object then, and in critical hindsight remains so. This dissertation argues that the anxieties surrounding avant-garde art related to its function as a mechanism for undermining conventional notions of pleasure, ethics, and craft are not only central to experimental cinema, but may in significant ways, define it.

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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, Stan Brakhage serves in many versions of the history of American experimental cinema as a kind of figurehead, a symbolic spokesperson and representative of the movements greatest ambitions and achievements, as well as its occasional tendencies towards didacticism and rhetorical excess. Brakhage began making films in the early 1950s, and being an independent filmmaker, 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. Despite the fact that he did not receive the kind of widespread recognition that is typically visited on a major artist in fine art, he maintained a dogged faith in film as a medium for meaningful artistic intervention. However, by 1985, 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. In a 1985 letter to art/film critic and scholar Annette Michelson, he expressed a despondent attitude concerning the condition of the branch of film that, as he saw it, he and his friends had created:

I, whove resisted everyone elses paranoia on this subject [the end of celluloid], resisted the crows of video makers, am now then (as of yesterday) forced to admit the end of independent film as Ive known it and worked for it all my life [. . .] the knife came down so fast the finis so abrupt that it was evening before I could begin to realize thered be no continuence [sic] of this branch of film I and my friends had made: we hang in the air, as in a Magritte painting.1 Brakhages letter to Michelson was written partially in response to what he perceived to be (incorrectly, at the time) the end of a particular variety of film stock known as reversal film, which was designed primarily for amateur use. However, his note also signaled some feeling of loss, of nostalgia for a practice that, as he saw it, he and a small group of people had pioneered. His sense of termination extended beyond the material limits of any particular variety of film stock, and into the space of cultural history. In her written response to the filmmaker, 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. She writes, Yes, I, too, in my own way mourn what seems to be the end of an entire artistic practice; one begins, caught in the wave of retrenchment of filmic resources and the onrush of video, to feel like a dinosaur, thrashing about in a hostile landscape. Are we such, 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, experimental film,

Letter from Stan Brakhage to Annette Michelson, June 7, 1985, collection of the University of Colorado, Stan Brakhage Papers. 2 Letter from Annette Michelson to Stan Brakhage, June 16, 1985, collection of the University of Colorado, Stan Brakhage Papers.

independent film, etc. in which they were both deeply involved (albeit in different capacities). In 1985, Brakhage and Michelson, two of the most avid supporters of this artistic practice, felt that the narrative of the art form had reached something of a finis point. Though this exchange evinces a kind of crisis of faith, it is one that is not concerned with the aesthetic status of the art form itself, but rather, its position within the social, economic, and cultural sphere of the arts in the late 20th century. From their exchange it seems that the retrenchment of filmic resources, as Michelson understands it, corresponds to a sea change in the artistic context of moving image media art. In their correspondence, 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. In hindsight, this dialogue between Brakhage and Michelson conveys a profound critical anxiety about the status of the art circa 1985. It also suggests a larger historical question that may relate to the status of artistic development in general. In 1966, art critic Harold Rosenberg argued that avant-garde art was an anxious object, defined by its special ability to be fundamentally indefinite, to resist the classical social functions of art, and to replace conventional pleasures with a distressed searching, 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. [] Anxiety is thus the form in which modern art raises itself to the level of human history. It is an objective reflection on the indefiniteness of the function of art in present3

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

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

Rosenberg, Toward an Unanxious Profession, 17.

roughly the mid-1960s and the mid-70s, it held an anxious promise for a measure of cultural potency. In 1966, journalist John Gruen wrote confidently about avant-garde cinema in New York Magazine, an entirely mainstream, 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, the underground film movement, for all its deliberate derangement, is the most active and the most daring. While the Combine Generations fever for joint creativity runs rampant in all the arts, it is filmmaking that acts as the perfect magnetic center for every restless impulse and expression.6 To anyone who is even passingly familiar with the history of avant-garde film, it is clear that it was never again perceived to be the magnetic center of the American cultural landscape. 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, 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. In this study I argue that the anxieties surrounding avant-garde art which Rosenberg located in collective social doubts about its meaning, its value, its capacity to produce pleasure are not only central to experimental film, but may, in significant ways, define it. Experimental film, as understood in this project, represents a liminal art-making praxis that is poised between the plastic and the

John Gruen, The New Bohemia (Pennington, NJ: A Cappella Books, 1966), 93.

temporal arts, between fine art and the entertainment industry, between handcrafted expression and automated surveillance, and ultimately, between the histories of art and cinema. As Rosenberg argues, the condition of avant-garde art is an objective reflection on the indefiniteness of the function of art in presentday society, suggesting that the relationships between all of these terms shift over time in accordance with social and historical developments.7 This project will evaluate a set of case studies of experimental film from the period in which, arguably, its production was most explosive and urgent, while also intertwined with other significant developments in aesthetics across a range of media. These trends should all be understood in pragmatic terms as fundamentally social and contingent upon a variety of unpredictable cultural forces, rather than determined by any inborn metaphysical purpose. Though it has always been a minority, outsider practice, for a brief moment in time, avant-garde film was central to the cultural zeitgeist of the period and occupied a significant position amongst a range of other media, genres, and aesthetic strategies. 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, isolated texts.

Methodology: Anxiety and music, anxiety and dancing, anxiety and sex, anxiety and art these are the raw materials for a new Bohemia. In New York, as in other
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Rosenberg, Toward an Unanxious Profession, 17.

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

Gruen, The New Bohemia, 6.

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

also escalated the capacity of the film medium in ways that were formally, socially, and thematically experimental to induce extreme perceptual, philosophical, and psychological crises for the array of people who encountered the work. This anxiogenic use of cinema, like other artistic projects and cultural energies of the time, directed itself towards a tumultuous, therapeutic reconditioning of aesthetic experience. The films that are the subject of this project directly addressed and showcased a range of aesthetic, cultural, conceptual, and, sometimes, personal anxieties. In some cases these works challenged particular social forces with confrontational strategies, in an effort to combat and oppose, for example, the influence of television on the publics understanding of history, the War in Vietnam, racial violence, or the exploitation of women by the media industry. In other cases, these works perfectly represented or embodied these tensions as documentary actions; and in still other cases, 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. In all these situations, the films discussed in this study including those of Robert Breer, Andy Warhol, Shirley Clarke, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Jud Yalkut, Aldo Tambellini, Bruce Conner, Robert Nelson, Carolee Schneemann, Stan Brakhage, 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 of

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

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

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

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

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canonical. Each chapter considers between one and three films in detail, 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. Moreover, 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. As Rosenberg suggested, in his influential formulation of 1960, an artwork can be understood both as a textual object and an extra-textual event. Like the Abstract Expressionist works that were his subject, the films described herein all demonstrate provocative ontological relationships between their materially contained textual spaces, the contexts of their mediation, and the extratextual conditions of their aesthetic and social functions, and in so doing, challenge the conventional understanding of the American avant-garde cinema as an expressive, romantic endeavor of controlled and contained authorship. All of the films presented here, from Robert Breers Fist Fight (which was presented as a part of Karlheinz Stockhausens theatrical experiment, Originale), 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, as frozen artifacts and contingent performances.11 In a sense, this study is a historical, conceptual, and perhaps theoretical investigation into the way in which American experimental film engaged with the ontological challenges of both presence and plasticity, 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. See Arthur, Structural Film: Revisions, New Versions, and the Artifact, Millennium Film Journal 1, no.2 (Spring 1978), 513.
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cinema. In addition, in terms of the selective inclusion of certain films in this project, choices were made in order to emphasize works that have not been exhaustively studied in other critical volumes. In this regard, 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. As an historical undertaking, this project recognizes that theory, like science, art, technology, and religion, has always been subject to the machinations of societies, economies, and intellectual fads. 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, not because of their popularity today. In this regard, there will be no leaping across time and space in some kind of transhistorical theoretical fantasy in which, for example, Michel Foucault and Giles Deleuze might be forced into contact with John Cage and Marshall McLuhan. This project argues that ideas, like the artworks that are its subject, must be understood as necessarily embedded in historical circumstances and cultural trends. When this project considers the work of art critics, art historians, cultural critics, or film theorists who were not in some way linked to the artmaking processes that it addresses, 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

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influence (as in the work of theorists whose sensibilities were adopted by filmmakers and artists of the 1960s and 70s). In its omission of any overarching metaphysics or overt political agenda, this project intends to foreground a particular set of artistic practices by utilizing a historical methodology that might be described, quite simply, as pragmatic.

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. Though it was always a peripheral, marginal part of the art and film worlds, it did gain significantly in its public awareness in this period. Throughout the decade, in the pages of the widely read alternative New York weekly, The Village Voice, critic and filmmaker Jonas Mekas proselytized for the cause of the filmic avant-garde, bringing it to the attention of the papers bohemian readership. By the mid-1960s, American underground film (as it was popularly known) had achieved a minor economic triumph at the box office, in the surprise popularity of Andy Warhols The Chelsea Girls (1966). This ambitious, and to popular sensibilities, perverse, three-and-a-half hour experiment in voyeurism was the first avant-garde film to reap substantial profits ($300,000 in its first six months), having become popular enough to crossover from the underground into traditional theatrical venues.12 It was even reviewed in Newsweek, where it received surprisingly favorable attention. Noteworthy
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According to Victor Bockris, only half of these profits went to Warhol due to poor business decisions on his part. Bockris, Warhol: The Biography (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo, 2003), 259.

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

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place in experimental film practice that deserved much greater critical attention than it had been given. For her, something was happening that was so fresh and aesthetically urgent that it begged to be understood, in actuality, as a massive transformation, not only in cinema, but in contemporary art in general. In her thinking, 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.14 Yet, within mid-century America, as well as today, these developments in experimental film were largely ignored by the art world establishment. To Michelson, in 1971, this amounted to a crisis of sorts in that neither professional art nor film critics were quite up to the task at hand. Specifically describing this circumstance, she wrote, if most ART critics have not been trying very hard, most FILM critics now at work are simply not, nor ever will be, equipped for the critical task on the level which the present flowering of cinema in this country demands.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, Ken Jacobs, Joyce Wieland, and Paul Sharits). As a provocation, this issue of Artforum seemed to ask a question: why was a film such as Michael Snows Wavelength (1967)

14 15

Annette Michelson, Foreword in Three Letters Artforum 10, no. 1 (September 1971), 9. Ibid.

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discussed at length in Michelsons issue of Artforum not of interest to other art critics of the era?16 Experimental cinema, 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. There are many historical, cultural, economic, and institutional reasons for this marked neglect by the art critical and curatorial establishments. The next few pages will offer some brief explanation for this strange disjunction between art practice and criticism, though no answer can ever prove to be truly definitive. 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.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. Today, in 2009, the vast majority of survey texts on postwar American art entirely omit the American avant-garde cinema.18 For the authors of these studies,

16

Manny Farber took an interest in Snows film and was in fact the only mainstream film critic that wrote anything interesting in the period about the avant-garde cinema. 17 Michelson, Foreword in Three Letters, 9. 18 See for example, Robert Hugues, Shock of the New, revised ed. (New York: Knopf, 1991); Thomas Crow, Rise of the Sixties (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996). Perhaps the most egregious example of this historical neglect is the recent textbook by Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yves Alain-Bois, and Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Art Since 1900: Vol. 2 1945 to the Present (New York: Thames & Hudson, 2004). 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. The notable exception is the provocative American Art Since 1945 (London: Thames & Hudson, 2003) by David Joselit, though his presentation is far from authoritative: he only

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despite the recognition of Warhols centrality to vanguard art making, cinema is simply not part of what artists do. Film historian David James has argued that there exists a popular assumption of an unbridgeable gulf between the movies and high art. James argues that this popular misunderstanding is shared by people both inside and outside of academia. It is commonly assumed that film is largely the domain of popular, fictive entertainments, rather than artistic experimentation and social intervention; he writes, If film is the medium practiced in Studio City, then the medium practiced by artists and Beats, Third World women and peace workers, in New York cannot really be film. He argues that this popular, troubled, and prejudiced interpretation of films social, aesthetic, 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. This condition applies not only to the general public, but to critics, academics, curators, and journalists as well. For James, 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, social, or cognitive functions claimed for painting or poetry.19 It is generally understood by most movie goers, film critics, art patrons, art critics, and art historians that films are audio-visual texts that feature characters and tell stories. When they fail to satisfy those expectations, they trigger a profound anxiety of

discusses one filmmaker (Stan Brakhage), despite the ample attention that he gives to other forms of media and video art. 19 David E. James, Introduction in To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the New York Underground, ed. David E. James (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 34.

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understanding and generally fail to draw the interest of the public, critics, academics, and art historians.

Institutional Issues and Historical Boundaries: There are numerous historical, practical, and economic reasons that American experimental cinema has not been assimilated into histories of art in the 20th century. 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, Carolee Schneemann, and Bruce Conner the moving image work that they produced was simply not something that most art world professionals concerned themselves with. The art worlds institutional and disciplinary aversions to film have not changed significantly. Chrissie Iles, curator of moving image art at the Whitney Museum in New York recently said, quite plainly, It is difficult to look at and understand avant-garde film, and art world people dont know how to approach it. They dont know where to find it either.20 This historical ignorance produces significant interpretative problems to responsible scholarship. An example of this quandary can be located in the recent scholarship on Andy Warhol by art historian Caroline Jones. In her chapter on Warhol, in a highly acclaimed critical volume published in 1996, Jones, (like most art historians of her generation), barely mentions his films, though she does claim, paradoxically perhaps, an interest in the totality of the artists identity as a
20

Chrissie Iles quoted in Malcolm Turvey, Ken Jacobs, Annette Michelson, Paul Arthur, Brian Frye, Iles, Obsolescence and American Avant-Garde Film October 100 (Spring 2002), 119.

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cultural force (even discussing the clothes that he wore). When she does analyze one of Warhols films, it is clear, because of a number of massive errors in description, that she has not seen the work in question.21 Jones thus fails to take Warhols cinema seriously. It might be presumed that her descriptive and interpretative errors result from the fact that Warhols cinema does not satisfy the particular rhetorical role in which she has cast the artist: as efficient businessman and industrialist. Jones evaluation of Warhols work instrumentalizes it in a way that occludes the complexities and ambivalences of his multipart multi-media artistic practice. The rhetorical and disciplinary blinders that guarantee such an interpretative error are a major hindrance to the comprehensive understanding of Warhols work. However, what such circumstances also demonstrate is that Warhols cinema remains enigmatic and undigested in general, particularly in relation to his artistic output in other media. Though Warhols fine art has produced one of the largest bibliographies in recent art historical scholarship, his film work remains largely unseen. This is a function of the fact that most art historians have not been particularly cognizant of developments in moving image
Caroline A. Jones, Andy Warhols Factory, Commonism, and the Business Art Business in Machine in the Studio: Constructing the Postwar American Artist (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 256. 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, before the camera closes in on the subjects face. As anyone who has seen the film knows, this description is entirely inaccurate: the camera never shows a second onscreen figure; there is no camera movement; the different shots of the film are all taken from precisely the same camera position and placement (on a tripod). Despite her imprecise and uniformed description of Warhols film, she still feels capable of making summary judgments about large swaths of the artists filmography: I believe the pre-1969 films are, above all, exemplars of Warhols management style (Ibid., 236). Such bold claims should depend on some degree of close analysis and actual exposure to the work being described. Errors such as Jones description of Blowjob go unnoticed because of the collective disciplinary aversion that art historians demonstrate towards experimental cinema.
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art, and as Iles suggests above, they simply dont know how to approach it. 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, then it is no surprise that they have largely ignored the work of lesser known filmmakers as well. In the 1960s, before the critical histories were written, the divide between fine art and filmmaking was also inscribed in the cultural climate of the era. Filmmaker and photographer Hollis Frampton distilled the critical and economic details of the situation (in a succinct comment made in retrospect in 1977), as a function of differing institutional assumptions about what defines art: We move now, we take you now to the year 1969, and to lower Manhattan, and the confluence of a set of circumstances. One, of course, was that at that time and in that place film was still (and still is, but one felt it very acutely there) film was absolutely embattled. To make films, to attempt to make films, at that time was to be certainly an outcast, and in those circumstances a pariah. Art was painting and sculpture that was it. Yes, there was dance, yes indeed, because it was undeniable there was music, and very strong and adventurous work was going on. Nevertheless there were a few pariahs, a few benighted and degenerate scumbags, who persisted in making films. And Warhol of course had become fashionable long before he ever made films anyway, but the rest of us mostly were, as it were, huddled together for protection against the icy blast from Castelli, the sort of boyars of the New York art world.22 In the quotation above, Frampton makes a number of important claims that help to explain why experimental cinema has been omitted largely from art history surveys and textbooks. His first point relates to the critical perception that art was defined exclusively as painting and sculpture. Thus other kinds of art-making, including cinema and performance and video as well were not of primary
Hollis Frampton, Hollis Frampton in San Francisco, from a lecture at the San Francisco Art Institute, April 21, 1977. Reprinted in Scott MacDonald, Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008), 267.
22

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

Though many of filmmakers of Framptons generation found their ways into academia in the 1970s, 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.

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was the avant-garde ultimately able to command regular coverage in the mainstream press.24 Arthurs 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 Framptons statement. Though there may have been aesthetic and structural similarities between the work of established, gallery-supported artists (for example, Serra, Smithson, and Morris) and so-called avant-garde filmmakers (for example, Jacobs, Frampton, and Sharits), the art establishment did not consider these activities to be part of the same network of media practice. In fact, they were perceived by art journals, the mainstream press, and the gallery community to be the work of two different social networks, with mutually exclusive artistic strategies and philosophical interests. Despite the fact that these two groups had different economic supports and institutional affiliations, this distinction simply did not hold on aesthetic, historical, or social levels. Experimentation in film was not limited to any particular social unit, and in fact, the divisions between work produced by established artists, filmmakers associated with the cooperatives, and documentarians are somewhat artificial and do not accurately identify what is most salient and interesting about the works. In this study, 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, A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film Since 1965 (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), 78.

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media, despite a lack of critical recognition of the underlying dynamic social processes. 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. In fact, many of the artists who will be discussed in this dissertation moved fluidly between an avant-garde film enclave, a position of art world recognition, and an intermedial bohemian community that was not exclusively composed of either filmmakers or artists. The most significant example of this hybrid identity and movement between film and art worlds is of course Andy Warhol. Despite the fact that he was an international art celebrity, Warhol publicly showcased his film work primarily in unglamorous underground film showcases that were often led by Jonas Mekas, and took place well beyond the cultural awareness of the art world (alongside the films of Stan Brakhage, Jack Smith, and Gregory Markopolous).25 However, 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. In fact, most of the other filmmakers who are discussed in any detail in this project, including Robert Breer, Yoko Ono, Shirley Clarke, Nam June Paik, Jud Yalkut, Aldo

25

Though a number of the artists mentioned above showed their films in established galleries, as distinct from the fly-by-night film venues of the Filmmakers Cinematheque, both Smithson and Serra were known to be frequent attendees of the screenings of the so-called American underground (authors conversation with Annette Michelson, fall 2007, New York City). It should also be noted that a number of the filmmakers described in this project including Breer, Warhol, Conner, Schneemann, and Sharits screened their films at galleries during this period as well.

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Tambellini, Bruce Conner, Robert Nelson, Carolee Schneemann, and Paul Sharits, all had some significant aesthetic connections to other trends in the arts. In fact, the Filmmakers Cinematheque, a venue devoted to the exhibition of experimental and independent film and organized by filmmaker Jonas Mekas, was perhaps one of the most significant venues and social spaces for the presentation of performance art, happenings, experimental dance, and video art in the period. 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, but related cultural trends in art-making. In the 1960s, most experimental filmmakers were amateurs, 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). This understanding of avantgarde film, as an amateurs practice, has been well established and convincingly discussed by a number of artists and critics, including Brakhage and one of his major influences, Maya Deren. She argued, in 1965, that the etymology of amateur was in fact related to the Latin term for lover, and that, independent filmmaking, because of its commercial freedom from conventional, industrial cinema, could be free of the structural constraints of plot, dialogue, and star actors. She writes, Artistic freedom means that the amateur film-maker is never forced to sacrifice visual drama and beauty to a stream of words, words, words,

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words, to the relentless activity and explanations of plot, or to the display of a star or sponsors product. 26 For her, this amateur status differentiated independent and avant-garde film practices from those of the commercial film industry. More recently, in 2002, Ken Jacobs, a filmmaker who has been making experimental work since the early 1960s, claimed that the non-commercial status of the independent filmmaking mode was in fact a major triumph, not only over Hollywood cinema, but over the art market as well: I love the idea of making work that cant work into the art market. [] I think its a real accomplishment.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, yet as Frampton explains above, it was an autonomy that was won at the expense of a more widespread cultural recognition. This institutional and economic framing of experimental cinema as an amateurs 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). Though experimental filmmakers shared similar aesthetic aspirations with their contemporaries in other arts, they also shared an apparatus with an industrial entertainment medium, and thus found themselves, in Framptons words, absolutely embattled. The historical relationships between film and the other arts evidenced real cultural anxieties of critical, social, and economic
26 27

Maya Deren, Amateur Versus Professional Film Culture 39 (Winter 1965), 4546. Jacobs in Malcolm Turvey, et al., Round Table: Obsolescence and American Avant-Garde Film, 124.

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

29

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

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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. Greenbergs 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 canvass non-illusory flatness. It was Greenbergs 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 Kants metaphysics).

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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 Greenbergs 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).

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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 Greenbergs 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, Pollocks work was fundamentally significant because of its unique visual content. But for Kaprow, Pollocks 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 Rosenbergs 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 Kaprows premonitions would prove accurate while Greenbergs 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.
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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 Kaprows 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,

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A 2008 exhibition, Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, 19401976 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 Snows Wavelength (1967) as a major work in this context. 36 Kaprow, The Legacy of Jackson Pollock, 9.

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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 Greenbergs 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.

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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
38

Dick Higgins, Statement on Intermedia reprinted in In the Spirit of Fluxus, ed. Elizabeth Armstrong (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1993), 17273.

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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 Greenbergs 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
39

Gruen, The New Bohemia, 93.

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

Fried, 141. Ibid., 142.

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above). Though there may have been an increase in the popularity of hybrid experiments in hybrid forms of art like the happenings of Kaprow, the performances of Jim Dine, the multi-media events of Warhols Exploding Plastic Inevitable this trend was not indicative, as Fried saw it, of any improvement in the overall quality of contemporary art. To him, such work posed a problem. In contradistinction to the suppositions of modernist art criticism, composer John Cage embraced an openness toward theatrical forms that was also profoundly influential. In the 1957 essay, Experimental Music, 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, to the chance-based processes of nature and the conditions of contingency. Towards the end of the essay he writes, Where do we go from here? Towards theatre. That art more than music resembles nature.42 To Fried, 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. In a sense, 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, and in which the interests of diverse technologies, representational traditions, and cultural phenomena melded in order to create projects that at times aspired to the ambitious scope of the multi-sensorial, operatic, Wagnerian gestamtkunstwerk. To
42

John Cage, Experimental Music in Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 12.

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Fried, 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, transcendent, entirely present opticality as realized in what he considered to be the most ambitious and significant painting and sculpture. To other artists and critics of intermedial work, it was precisely this condition of new art its theatricality that made it interesting and provocative. In a footnote to Art and Objecthood, 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.43 Specifically, he directs his antagonism against One Culture and the New Sensibility, a seminal essay that was published in Against Interpretation and Other Essays in 1966. In that piece, 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, new sensory mixes.44 She argues that the blending of new art practices with the interests, strategies, and technologies of other media forms, as well as new materials and methods drawn from the world of non-art (in a way related to Kaprows suggestions discussed above), produce a totally fresh cultural situation in which the function of art itself has changed. It is

43 44

Fried, 141. Susan Sontag, One Culture and the New Sensibility in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Picador, 1966), 300. It is also implicit in her argument that the most relevant artistic experimentation of the era will be immersive, rather than textually remote and isolated.

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clear, from the following passage, which was quoted by Fried, exactly why Sontags 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, or the one between art and non-art; but also many established distinctions within the world of culture itself that between form and content, the frivolous and the serious, and (a favorite of literary intellectuals) high and low culture.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. Though she mentions few artists by name, she argues that Cage, Warhol, and Stockhausen all embodied new forms of authorship and cultural engagement that dramatically differed from the closed forms that were favored by literary intellectuals. From her writing in One Culture and the New Sensibility, it is clear that Sontag has a contemporary observers appreciation for the strategies and intentions of experimental art in the 1960s. Her critical sensibility astutely responded to the changing conditions of culture across a range of disciplines and evaluated it based on its own terms, within the overall landscape of the avant-garde. It is thus clear why the logic of Fried, and in a sense, Greenberg too, was simply incapable of adapting to the artistic developments of the 1960s and the work of happenings, multi-media art, expanded cinema, Fluxus, Robert Rauschenberg, and John Cage. It is no surprise that Fried does not even mention experimental cinema in his writing.
45

Ibid., 297.

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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. To her, 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.46 In its promiscuous blend of tones and media forms, it marked a transition away from values that she associates with literary intellectuals. In her description of the new sensibility, 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. To Sontag, the notion that new blends of intermedial interaction could encourage active transformations of perceptual and sensorial experience, seemed artistically and socially libratory. This belief in a transformative, catalytic art experience was also expressed in the comments and writings of some of the most significant media artists of the era. But Sontag also felt that cinema had a particular, 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, multimedia aspirations. Like Cage, she too argued that in fact this contemporary trend towards the expansion of art into the contingent and theatrical spaces between

46

Ibid., 304.

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conventional disciplines created the most urgent and compelling aesthetic experiments of the era.

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

James, Introduction in Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker, ed. James (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005), 12.

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an evolutionary cycle that features a succession of genres (identified by him), including the trance film, the lyrical film, the mythopoetic film, and the structural film. Overall, Sitney utilizes a variety of interpretative structures that are derived from the study of literature, and more specifically, English romantic poetry of the 19th century. He suggests that the central tradition of the American avant-garde begins with the films of Maya Deren, which emphasized dream states, mythic structures, symbolism, metaphor, and an exalted faith in the power of the imagination. In short, his embrace of a Romantic view of the American avantgarde cinema is a celebration of the demiurgic power of visionary, imaginative, expressive, and mythical structures and strategies. He writes, The filmmakers who followed her [Deren] pursued the metaphors of dream and ritual by which she had defined the avant-garde cinema, but they allowed a Romantic faith in the triumph of the imagination to determine their forms from within.48 He traces this sensibility through the work of a number of filmmakers including Deren, Kenneth Anger, Gregory Markopolous, and others, but ultimately appoints Brakhage as the principal heir to this project. Though Sitneys argument is convincing in many ways, one must wonder, 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. What does the interpretation of the work gain by being connected to this European tradition?

Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000, 3rd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 370.

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Despite the fact that his film descriptions and analyses are largely unmatched in their detail and intelligence within the published scholarship on the topic, there are aspects of his overall strategy that still seem somewhat incongruous with the subject at hand. In one sense, Sitneys continual return to literary devices including metaphor, metonymy, symbolism, mythopoesis, etc. might be understood as an effort to legitimize new experiments in moving image art, by using language from another discipline, in order to demonstrate some isomorphic relationship to previous traditions that may have shared some basic similar spirit. He writes, Whenever possible, both in my interpretation of films and discussion of theory, I have attempted to trace the heritage of Romanticism. 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.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. Nevertheless, his argument depends upon the imposition of another privileged and historically removed critical nomenclature and philosophical system that is, in some sense, an arbitrary imposition upon the work. As a result, Sitney converts the films into series of symbols that comprise a textual field through which he can distill them into literary, anecdotal formulations perfectly contained artistic rituals of symbolic

49

Sitney, Visionary Film, xiii.

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and expressive imagination. His strategy depends on the highly refined, precise, and persuasive reduction of film texts into semi-narrative networks of characters and symbols. This method is entirely based upon his study of literature. As Hollis Frampton argues, Visionary Film was derived largely from an undergraduate seminar in romantic poetry with Harold Bloom at Yale. That makes something of a procrustean bed. [] But that was the extent of the intellectual tool kit that he had to tinker and unlock this strange device. It worked a little.50 From what has been described of Sitneys project in Visionary Film, it should be clear that he presents a somewhat conservative argument and associated interpretative methodology that, however internally coherent it may be, 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. She argued that contemporary developments in the avant-garde arts begged to be understood in relation to each other, not to the history of literature. In her essay of 1965, 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, and blinded by their personal investment in the perpetuation of the older notion of culture, they [literary intellectuals] continue to cling to literature as the model

50

Frampton quoted in MacDonald, Canyon Cinema, 268.

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for creative statement.51 Sitney was far from ignorant about new developments in the other arts, but he was nonetheless unconvinced that there was anything particularly novel about new trends in artistic practice in the period. To him, 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, like performance or avant-garde music. In her critique of interpretation derived from literary criticism, Sontag writes, But the model arts of our time are actually those with much less content, and a much cooler mode of moral judgment like music, films, dance, architecture, painting, sculpture. The practice of these arts all of which draw profusely, naturally, and without embarrassment, upon science and technology are the locus of the new sensibility.52 Here Sontag suggests that in fact, the most urgent forms of fresh artistic production expand beyond the textual limits of any one medium, into the expanded spaces of immersive artistic experience. Interestingly, in Sitneys project, there is little-to-no discussion of new technology, experimental music, expanded cinema, happenings, or other developments in the temporal or theatrical arts of the period. Similarly, Annette Michelson differed with Sitney concerning the use of a literary precedent as a critical model for the interpretation of cinema, 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. [] One thinks
51 52

Sontag, One Culture, 298. Ibid, 298299.

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of its already established, though still embryonic, contacts with a new music, dance, theater, painting, and sculpture.53 As various media forms expanded into the aesthetic, formal, and social space of others, a number of critics argued that this cultural cross-pollination should stimulate new modes of critical practice. However, such a historically situated model of interpretation has not been the dominant one in the study of experimental cinema. Though Sitney does draw frequent parallels between avant-garde film, Romantic poetics, and the sensibility of abstract expressionism (a movement that was basically extinct by the time of his book), he neglects the overall influential force of the cultural field of the 1960s upon avant-garde film practice. Art historian Liz Kotz has recently critiqued this interpretative tendency that connects experimental cinema to painting, but neglects its interrelations with other trends in the arts including performance, theater, happenings, etc. 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.54 Despite its erudition, Visionary Film helped to decisively isolate the American avant-garde from the rest of art-making in post World War II America. There remains a need, as Kotz implicitly suggests, to responsibly

Michelson, Film and the Radical Aspiration in Film Culture Reader, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York: Cooper Square Press, 1970), 420. 54 Liz Kotz, Disciplining Expanded Cinema in X-Screen: Film Installations and Actions in the 1960s and 1970s, ed. Matthias Michalka (Koln: Walther Konig, 2004), 47.

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reconstitute a history of the ways in which experimental film both influenced and responded to, in her words, wider contexts of avant-garde experimentation. Since its original publication, there have been significant challenges to Visionary Film. However, most of them have been primarily concerned with criticisms of Sitneys politics and his influence as a canon-building critic. (A number of these critiques, including those of Janet Bergstrom, Constance Penley, Lauren Rabinovitz, and Patricia Mellencamp, for example, were motivated by a desire to reconsider the American avant-garde in feminist terms.)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 Sitneys volume. The most significant survey of the American avant-garde to follow his project is undoubtedly David James Allegories of Cinema, published in 1989, in which the author situates this artistic tradition, including its Romantic aspects, within its material, industrial, and political contexts. Towards the end of that volume, at the conclusion of a political investigation of the American avantgarde of the 1960s, the author writes, The termination of films social urgency bequeaths to the historian the task of preparing an account of films position among other mediums.56 The project of this dissertation is to initiate an at least

See Lauren Rabinovitz, Points of Resistance: Women, Power & Politics in the New York Avantgarde Cinema, 1943-71 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003); Patricia Mellencamp, Indiscretions: Avant-Garde Film, Video & Feminism (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990); Constance Penley and Janet Bergstrom, The Avant-Garde History and Theories in Movies and Methods, Volume 1, ed. Bill Nichols (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985): 287-300 and Penley, The Avant-Garde and its Imaginary, Ibid., 576-602. 56 James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989), 348.

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

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

Authors conversation with Workman, spring 2009. Gruen, The New Bohemia, 93.

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influential and widely read book on the American avant-garde, and as such, demands the critical intervention of counterarguments and supplementary histories. 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.59 Instead of conveying an introspective, reflective, meditative meeting with sensuous forms of symbolism and myth, the films that are the subject of this project embody aggressive, agitated, anxious, and contingent encounters with formally, philosophically, and socially hostile forces.

Experimental Cinema: Between Plasticity and Performance: Originale (1961, 1964) and Fist Fight (1964): Debuted in the fall of 1964, in the context of an all-star intermedial avantgarde theater performance, Robert Breers Fist Fight begins the historical trajectory of interdisciplinary interaction that this dissertation addresses. Breers 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, symbolic, and Romantic tradition of avant-garde cinema. In the place of this sensibility, 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. Both within the

59

Sitney, Visionary Film, 290.

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

Richard Kostelanetz, The Theatre of Mixed Means: An Introduction to Happenings, Kinetic Environments, and Other Mixed-Means Performances (New York: Dial, 1968).

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produced paracinematic events and one-time performance encounters.61 In such hybrid and contingent works, 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, mixed with light shows, live performance, live music, and other modifications of the projection apparatus. When cinema was made newly and overwhelmingly performative, as it was in the context of 1960s intermedial experimentation, 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. In 1965, in a program organized by Jonas Mekas and Fluxus artist George Maciunas at the Film-makers Cinematheque in New York City, three significant mixed media pieces were debuted, each utilizing film or film projectors. These formally hybrid events included Robert Whitmans Prune. Flat., Claes Oldenburgs Moviehouse, and Robert Rauschenbergs Map Room II. Whitmans and Rauschenbergs pieces included projected images that interacted with live performers, and Oldenburgs piece utilized a projector without film as well as costume fragments shaped like film cameras. In addition to the artists who came to mixed-media performance from painting, art historian Liz Kotz argues, there was also a significant group of artists working in mixed forms (featuring expanded cinema or paracinema) who were trained in experimental music. For example, in 1969, John Cage collaborated with Lejaren Hiller and Ronald Nemeth
61

The term paracinema has been attributed to either Ed Emshwiller or Jonas Mekas. There was an extended argument on the genesis of this topic at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference in 2007 in Chicago, during the panel titled Cinema by Other Means.

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on a multimedia performance, titled HPSCHD, named for its seven amplified harpsichords. This piece featured 100 films, many of which were projected simultaneously.62 Kotz also mentions Nam June Paik, Tony Conrad, and LaMonte Young as important exemplars of this tradition of continuity between advanced classical music and cinema as performance.63 Yoko Ono too was a part of this crossover tradition, working in music, performance art, and film. So, in this era of impure, mixed media performance, one can locate a rather remarkable artistic field that challenges the teleological notions of medium-specificity championed by Clement Greenberg. One of the most remarkable mixed-media events of this variety was the New York performance of experimental classical music composer Karlheinz Stockhausens Originale, an intermedial art event that featured an all-star cast of the New York avant-garde community. Restaged in the summer of 1964 for the Second Annual New York Avant-Garde Festival (under the leadership of Charlotte Moorman), the revival combined the talents of a wide range of artists involved in a range of practices, including experimental music, concrete poetry, anarchic performance, dance, and experimental film. The semi-theatrical work had debuted three years earlier in Cologne in the fall of 1961. In its New York revival, artist, performer, and theorist of happenings, Allan Kaprow served as its director. Avant-garde composer James Tenney and jazz critic and musician Don
62

Cage is generally considered to be the progenitor of happenings, due to an untitled work that he organized in 1952 at Black Mountain College together with Merce Cunningham, as well as his influence on the happenings generation as a teacher at The New School for Social Research. 63 Liz Kotz, Disciplining Expanded Cinema in X-Screen: Film Installations and Actions in the 1960s and 1970s.

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

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animation. Some of his earliest work features an unusual, 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, including hand-drawn, two-dimensional figures, as well as found objects, sequenced and organized through the use of single-frame photography. This is his compositional strategy for Fist Fight. With this method, Breer devised a novel form of visual construction that is in some ways closer to assemblage than it is to drawing. This variety of filmmaking is both meticulous and spontaneous in its combinations of single-frame composition (which is painstaking and laborintensive), and collagic compositional logic (which is aleatory, frenetic, and spontaneous). 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, such that each composition can occupy a single frame, producing a film organized into a string of assemblage tableaus. Breers film Fist Fight, which was initially featured as part of the 1964 New York revival of Karlheinz Stockhausens Originale, is one of his most exemplary works of this assemblageanimation approach. In addition to demonstrating some of Breers most significant artistic strategies, which blend the rapid, confrontational style of his montagist filmmaking with a truly modern assemblage sensibility, the work is also intertwined in a social, historical, extratextual context of its intermedial

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experimentation because of its presence within Stockhausens semi-theatrical, multi-media event, in which it debuted. 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.

Fist Fight: The film begins with a short prologue featuring images of the artists who contributed to the performance of Originale, including its composer, Stockhausen, its director, Kaprow, as well as Paik, Moorman, and Tenney. Like all of the images in the film, they pass quickly, and would not likely be recognizable upon a single viewing; these images are still photographs that Breer has shot on his animation stand. At times, the photos are upside down as with the films opening shot which is an extremely brief, flipped image of Stockhausen and occasionally, there is also camera movement across them, which creates the illusion of movement despite the fact that the basic materials of this section are still photographs. In addition to the photographs of these recognizable and wellknown artists, this prologue section also includes a number of their baby pictures, which were provided to Breer for inclusion in the film. These playfully juxtaposed images, of both the adult and infant artists, are punctuated by sections of black leader. The soundtrack features a choppy blend of fragments of the performance of Originale (separated by abrupt fades), that includes musical

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

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quotation, abstract geometric collagic juxtaposition, and autobiography. And because of its prologue, its soundtrack, and its exhibition history, the film is directly linked to extratextual conditions that inscribe themselves in the work itself. Because of its extremely rapid, single-frame montage, 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. The bristling, staccato rhythm of the film patterns these images in such a way as to suggest a total collagic object that, rather than having a developmental structure, explodes in a frenzied perceptual experience that overloads the viewers capacity for visual comprehension. In conventional live action cinema, the projection apparatus collaborates with the idiosyncratic biology of the human eye in order to create the illusion of continuous movement; when experiencing live action filmmaking, the viewer sees one second of natural mechanical action when in actually, what actually exists on the film strip are twenty-four discreet still images. When projected, the images in Fist Fight move with an extreme speed that often defies visual comprehension. On occasion, when the images are intelligible, they are often only partly so. It is difficult for the viewer to register and comprehend these images, 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, and the next a drawing of a geometric shape. When projected, these three discrete images occupy only one eighth of a second in total, and thus

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become almost incomprehensible to most viewers. When creating a conventional cartoon or hand-drawn animated sequence, an animator attempts to approximate in his or her series of drawings the slight shifts in movement that would be natural in real life, thus simulating (by hand) the incremental mechanized shutter action of the motion picture camera that divides continuous physical movement into pulsatile, rhythmic slices of discrete photographic imaging. Breers frame-byframe composition, as experienced in a work like Fist Fight, actually defies the continuity to which most animation aspires. It utilizes a radically disjunctive editing style that, instead of creating the illusion of continuity, gives rise to an incredibly frenetic barrage of mostly still and singular visual compositions. In discussing his films, Breer rhetorically challenges conventional understandings of both illusionist and theatrical space. Hooray for a formless film, a non-literary, non-musical, picture film that doesnt tell a story, become an abstract dance, or deliver a message. A film with no escape from the pictures. A film where words are pictures or sounds and skip around the way thoughts do. An experience itself like eating, looking, running, like an object, a tree, buildings, drips, and crashes. A film that instead of making sense is sense.64 Breer has been interested for some time in demystifying the slight-of-hand upon which filmic illusionism depends. In a 1962 interview, he said the following on this topic: I got disoriented by the theatrical situation of film, by the fact that you have to turn out the lights and there is a fixed audience, and when you turn out the lights you turn on the projection light and you project the piece of magic on the wall. I felt that this very dramatic, theatrical situation in

64

Robert Breer, untitled, Film Culture 26 (Fall 1962), 57.

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some ways, just by the environment of the movie house, robbed some of the mystery of film from itself.65 In his efforts to challenge both illusionism (of the film text) and the theatrical spectacle (of its exhibition), Breer experimented with variations on the filmic apparatus, creating loops for gallery screening, showing his films in atypical venues (as in the happenings context of Originale), and by experimenting with moving image devices that eschew projection entirely, including mutoscopes and early proto-cinematic devices, which in their relative simplicity, more clearly display the apparatus of their visual trickery. These strategies in composition and assemblage can be located in Fist Fight as well. It is a work that, because of its severe single-frame, visually heterogeneous composition, calls attention to the constructedness of the filmic illusion as it jerks aggressively and rapidly between radically different representational spaces. However, in this film Breer also deftly utilizes hand-drawn, single-frame animation to break down the continuity of illusionist cinema by utilizing the very same apparatical conceit cinemas rapid sequential advance of discrete still photographs that creates the imaginary impression of movement. To most filmmakers (and a number of viewers), this variety of film, because of its feverish, staccato visual pace, would be considered unwatchable. Against the conventional pleasures of narrative and visual continuity, Breer devised a cinema of extreme restlessness, montagic disruption, and unrelenting assault. Breers work in cinema, like that of many postwar
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Breer in An Interview with Robert Breer, Conducted by Charles Levine at Breers Home, Palisades, N.Y., Approximate Date, July 1970, Film Culture 56 57 (Spring 1973), 5859 .

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experimental filmmakers, willfully tests the mediums representational limits; yet it also balances the opposing energies of materiality and illusionism. 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. The conflictual strategy of Breers representational approach and its anxious, confrontational, machine-gun montage disrupt the standard notions of visual pleasure that are generally associated with more subdued patterns of film editing. In addition, the anxiogenic visual methods of the work, when combined with its astounding diversity of visual objects, obliterate the possibility of the structural coherence that is usually involved in the symbolic formulations of Romanticism. Through the dialectical juxtaposition of seemingly different representational strategies within Fist Fight, Breer presented a kind of balancing act between the seemingly opposed artistic methods of illusionism and selfreflexivity. In his juxtaposition of the most extreme kind of filmic materiality (single-frame composition) with the most openly illusionistic film technique (animation), 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 this sense, Breers work stages a breakdown in film material, by openly reminding the viewer, with the jolt of every single discrete frame, that he or she is

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watching a series of visual objects that have simply been linked through the plastic resources of film montage. In an essay on filmic illusionism, published in 1972, 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, as in the work of Robert Breer, by a tradition extending from the Bauhaus and Dadaism and, as in the work of Stan Brakhage, by Abstract Expressionism. The guarantee of success seemed, from film to film, to lie in both artists attempt to rethink the nature of cinematic illusionism, and in doing so to propose new structural modes.66 Michelson goes on to argue, in a way that was congruent with the English structuralist filmmakers and theorists of the early-to-mid 1970s, that there was something fundamentally political about this desire to expose the material conditions that underpin the production of filmic illusionism. As derived in a general sense from Marxist thought, this sensibility was extremely popular in the 1960s, and in fact corresponded with Clement Greenbergs claims about medium specificity and the significance of artistic materials as determining influences upon artistic practice. However, Breer challenges the reductiveness of this interpretative model, through his use of animation and its open and playful complicity with the most artificial of illusions that film can create. In this regard, 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
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Michelson, Screen/Surface: The Politics of Illusionism, Artforum 9, no.1 (September 1972), 62.

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itself (as well as in its social history). In concert with many of the other most significant experimental films of the period, Fist Fight functions simultaneously in a number of seemingly contradictory registers.

Breers Expanded Cinema and its Place in History: Because of its special exhibition history, 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.67 Fist Fight was devised to be shown as part of a multi-media happening that had been composed by Karlheinz Stockhausen. 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 Stockhausens project. He found his way into that theatrical presentation through the social networks of the citys avant-garde. As a painter, Breer was represented by the Galeria Bonino, and that gallery also represented Mary Baumeister, an artist who was also the romantic partner of Karlheinz Stockhausen.68 (The same gallery also represented Paik.) It was through this social network of the art world that Breer got to know the composer, and as a result, was asked to contribute a filmic portion to the work in its New York presentation. The score for the piece indicated that a six-minute film be projected in the 79th minute of the event. However, it stipulated that the film to be included in the work would be made during rehearsals and includes all of cast. (Not in theater. Not in costume.
67

Again, for this rhetorical formulation see Arthur, Structural Film: Revisions, New Versions, and the Artifact. 68 Authors conversation with Breer, spring 2008, Los Angeles

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Portraits for the most part.)69 As described above, Breers film does not actually include any documentary footage of the rehearsals, as the score would suggest. (However, Breer did make an effort to respond to this aspect of the score by adding the prologue as described above.) In this regard, Breer, like the other contributors to the project was given significant artistic leeway. The structure of Stockhausens piece was based on a set of dramatic actions conceived in musical terms.70 Biographer Robin Maconie explains, 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, namely theater, and in part to accustom his musicians to the new style of collaboration. The project blends simple role-playing with spontaneous invention on stage.71 The works seemingly chaotic blend of actions was in some ways carefully controlled by specific, arbitrary temporal limits that corral the kinetic diversity of visual and sonic actions into contained, 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. Each characters actions, in other words, must take a specified number of seconds or minutes. These scenes are grouped into seven structures which may be performed successively as normal, or simultaneously (up to three at once), or both.72

Getty Research Institute, Special Collections, Allan Kaprow Papers. Robin Maconie, Other Planets: The Music of Karlheinz Stockhausen (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2005), 218. 71 Maconie, 218219. 72 Jonathan Harvey, The Music of Stockhausen: An Introduction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975).
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Each of these dramatic units featured an artist who would perform as him or herself, in the typical style and approach for which he or she had become known, performing a series of gestures or acts which were associated with his or her particular artistic discipline and stylistic approach: a poet recites poetry, a musician plays his instrument, a woman of fashion tries on different outfits, a camera man films the performance, etc. In this regard, the piece was meant to feature originals, people recognized for their own unique art-making approaches, rather than actors. So, the stage was populated by well-known artists of the early and mid-sixties avant-garde: Allen Ginsberg and Jackson MacLow read poetry. James Tenney and Charlotte Moorman played piano and cello respectively. 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. Nam June Paik had performed in the German debut of Originale in 1961. By special request of the composer, Paik returned for the 1964 restaging of the work, playing action music with his body, a piano, and various props, which often included somewhat absurdist gestures (including drinking water from a shoe).73 Paiks performances were significantly less predictable than those of the other artists in Originale. As a result of his particularly chaotic actions, on one evening some audience members actually handcuffed him to the scaffolding on

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This phrase action music is written on the English score to describe Paiks contributions, as translated by Mary Baumeister (Getty Museum Special Collections, Allan Kaprow Papers). It was through this performance that Moorman met Paik, forming a bond that would produce some of the most interesting and controversial avant-garde performance collaborations of the decade.

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stage, a fact that attests to the wild, interactive atmosphere in which this variety of performance was encountered in the 1960s. In addition to Paiks eccentric gestural contributions, Originale also featured a number of other unusual performance components. Kaprows son played with blocks onstage; scantily clad women tried on clothes; a number of animals milled about (including two German Shepherds, a chimpanzee, a cage of chickens); Ginsberg read some sexually explicit poetry; eggs were dropped and apples were thrown; there were extended monologues from ancient Greek literature and Shakespeare. The sonic and structural background to the work was a pre-recorded electronic piece of music titled Kontakte. At the end of the event, all of the performers photographed the audience with still cameras and flash bulbs.74 Near the end of the performance of Originale Robert Breer projected Fist Fight within the dramatic space of the stage, in the center of large scaffolding. The structure of Originale dictated that each performers contribution occupy only a finite, pre-determined length of time; for this reason the set featured a number of clocks distributed throughout it. These conditions applied to Breers film as well. 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. There was a movie screen on the stage. And the stage was overridden by all the activities taking place. The film just started up at a certain time. We had an enormous clock, like the clock in Grand Central Station, in the middle of the acting space that everyone
74

Information taken from Kaprows original score (Getty Museum Special Collections, Allan Kaprow Papers) and Harold C. Schonburg, Music: Stockhausens Originale Given at Judson New York Times, September 9, 1964: 46.

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

75

Lois Mendelson, Robert Breer: A Study of his Work in the Context of the Modernist Tradition (New York University: PhD Dissertation, 1978), 194.

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projection represented an intervention into film exhibition that should, in fundamental ways, affect how we interpret the work as a historical construction. The 1964 inclusion of Breers Fist Fight within the context of an interactive, multi-artist work of avant-garde theater, 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). Most specifically, what this encounter between Breers film and Stockhausens 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. A number of artists, working in the 1960s and 70s, made efforts to modify the formats and spaces of film projection by often including elements of other media, live performance, multiple projectors, film loops, and modified exhibition spaces. These developments aimed to expand cinema beyond the controlled parameters of industrially determined and mechanically organized time and space. As suggested above, since these interventions, like that of Breer, were ephemeral and contingent in terms of their spatio-temporal realizations, they are difficult to recuperate, analyze, or comprehensively understand. How, for example, should we modify our understanding of Fist Fight as a cultural object that is inscribed in history, if we reflect upon its inclusion as part of Stockhausens seminal intermedial experiment? In a very real sense, works like this, when understood in the cultural

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context of avant-garde art, 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). 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, this multidisciplinary profusion was central to many 1960s avant-gardes. This is particularly the case in the United States.76 The complex historical identity of Breers work perfectly demonstrates this condition in which the extratextual conditions of its production and exhibition mandate a reconsideration of the works function both within Breers practice and the cultural landscape of avant-garde art more generally. Art events like Originale were one-time occurrences that, like most performance art, cannot ever be replicated precisely. Yet, if these mixed-media works of expanded cinema were a significant part of the postwar environment of the arts in America, then it must be admitted that they form a chapter that, like performance art, can only be recuperated via anecdotal description and scant visual documentation a situation that is significantly dissimilar from that of film texts, which are generally understood as uniform and repeatable. As a result of this absence of stable performance texts, this variety of performative mixed-media work remains a difficult object for historical recuperation.

76

Kotz, 45.

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Originale represents a microcosm of the vibrant mid-sixties avant-garde scene in which a wide range of artists interacted with each other, collaborating within a shared practice that challenged the disciplinary dividing lines between media.77 Within the context of Originale, experimental film played a significant role, not as a minority filmmaking tradition that was a peripheral alternative to Hollywood filmmaking, but as an integral part of the fabric of postwar avantgarde art practice. In retrospect, Originale functions almost as a manifesto of intermedial art and a summary of avant-garde trends across a range of media that foregrounded indeterminacy, arbitrary framing structures, and performance. This encounter between a range of forms and media constitutes a compelling historical counterargument against the conceptual straightjacket of Greenbergian modernism, which preceded it historically. In this regard, it fulfills the predictions of critics Lippard and Chandler above, as well as those suggested by the works director, Allan Kaprow. 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, as they presented radically new notions of interactive, intermedial, authorially flexible art practice that induced extreme paroxysms of anxiety and distress for audiences and reviewers alike.

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This performance catalyzed another art event, in the form of a protest from another faction of the New York avant-garde in the period. Involved in this protest were George Maciunas, Tony Conrad, and Henry Flynt. See Branden W. Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage (New York: Zone, 2008), 153212.

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

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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. Even its title conveys these confrontational energies. In many ways, 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. Though it was an exemplary work in this regard, it was not alone in its capacity to enervate viewers and disrupt the traditional conditions of motion picture spectatorship.

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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, be it a rhetorical, conceptual, or expressive tool. Much of the better (and infamous) work of this type distressed viewers through either uncommon form, as in the case of films with extremely extended durations (Andy Warhols eight-hour Empire (1964)), or taboo content (Jack Smiths polymorphously perverse Flaming Creatures (1963)). However, there is an additional register of distress and anxiety that is central to the underground cinema of the 1960s, which has been rarely discussed or even recognized. 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, be they verbal, physical, sexual, or psychological, 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. 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, yet relatively unrecognized subgenre of underground cinema of the 1960s. Andy Warhols The Chelsea Girls (1966), Shirley Clarkes Portrait of Jason (1967), and Yoko Ono (and John Lennons)

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Rape (1969) all embody a particular semi-documentary filmmaking mode that is confrontational, provocative, literally combative, and arguably sadistic. Interestingly, these three films that, to the authors knowledge, 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. Rather, 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, being, and performance that was shared with other work produced within the counterculture of the 1960s. The Chelsea Girls and Portrait of Jason were two of the most commercially successful and popularly viewed non-industrial films 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. The simple economic and social fact of these films popular success attests to their influence and, perhaps, to their connection to the cultural zeitgeist of the period. Interestingly neither of these films is discussed in the foundational and canon-making study of the American avant-garde by P. Adams Sitney, demonstrating that his interest was not in considering the independent cinema as part of a cultural fabric, but rather as an isolated and privileged mode of art-making that was somehow unaffected by cultural trends and historical

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conditions. However, 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.

The Warholian Set-Up and The Chelsea Girls: Within American avant-garde cinema, 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, if not singular, locus of meaning in their work. This mode, as embodied by the films discussed in this essay, 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). 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 such, it minimizes the romantic or expressive possibilities of films 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, and instead privileges the presence of its performers. This mode of production also differs markedly from the rigid, conceptually scrupulous, almost mathematical work of the so-called structural cinema, as exemplified by Hollis Frampton or Michael Snow. The filmmaking mode that is addressed in this chapter might be best

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described as semi-documentary psychodrama, a generic subset of the semitheatrical mode that featured Andy Warhol as its most significant filmic practitioner.78 Warhol, as a filmmaker, is probably best known for his earliest group of somewhat notorious film experiments. These projects tested audience stamina in their use of extended duration as well as silence; included in this group of works are Sleep (1963) (almost five-and-one-half hours) and Empire (eight hours), both silent. However his semi-dramatic sound films of the mid 1960s, 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, the historical idiosyncrasies of the subculture in which he worked, and the significant and under recognized aesthetic continuities that Warhols cinema shared with other modes of artistic production of the era. In short, Warhols sound films of the mid-60s may be determined by history to be as significant as, if not more so than, his earlier critically established efforts within the medium. In 1964, Warhol made the shift from silent, minimalist cinema to semidramatic sound films. Historically speaking, 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. When Warhol was preparing to

Andy Warhols earlier silent films, including Sleep and Empire were both described as precursors to the structural film movement by Sitney in his Visionary Film, 349. This category is a highly disputed one, and will be discussed in detail in chapter four of this study. However, for the purposes of the discussion above, this term serves as a functional shorthand for many different modes of filmmaking that were rigorously pre-determined, carefully executed, and structurally deliberate all details that are markedly different from the semi-dramatic mode described herein.

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shoot with sound, he decided that he would need dramatic content in order to generate audience interest. 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. The screenplays that Tavel produced were not terribly elaborate in terms of dramatic action, but they did serve fairly specific aesthetic purposes for the filmmaker. In fact, Warhol, a man known for his extremely limited explanations of his artistic intentions, was particularly forthcoming and precise when he asked Tavel to construct not plot, but incident.79 It was Tavels 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. In his telling preparatory suggestions to his collaborator, Warhol asked Tavel to set up situations of extreme psychic pressure, something that would resemble, in the artists words, an inquisition.80 Interpersonal conflicts were central to a number of Warhol-Tavel collaborations, including, most significantly, the series of Screen Test features, including Screen Test #1 (1965), Screen Test 2

On this piece of guidance, Tavel claimed that, It must have been the most specific statement he ever made to me (Stephen Koch, Stargazer: Andy Warhols World and His Films (New York and Washington: Praeger Publishers, 1973), 63). Art historian Douglas Crimp has concisely identified the tensions that catalyze the unusual interaction between Warhols filmmaking strategies and Tavels scriptwriting in the production contexts in which these films were made. Douglas Crimp, The Rise of Coming Together: Ronald Tavels Screenplays for Andy Warhols Film in The Aesthetics of Risk, Volume 3 of the SoCCAS, ed. John C. Welchman (Zurich: JRP-Ringier, 2008), 113134. 80 In first describing his ideas for the early sound films, Warhol, according to Tavel, told him to, go home and devise an inquisition. (Patrick S. Smith, Andy Warhols Art and Films (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1981), 481.

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

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Warhols collaborator described the particulars of this situation: [I]f you want to capture spontaneity, improvisation, the accident, and so forth, you must set up an environment in which the spontaneous, the accidental, the improvisational, the unexpected, will take place.82 This quotation suggests that Warhol and Tavel were interested in capturing spontaneity and improvisation, artistic attributes associated with Abstract Expressionism rather than the Pop Art and postmodernism that are usually linked to the artist.83 Tavels description thus provides an interesting and telling link between the supposedly cold distance of Warhols art and a present, but submerged layer of emotive subjectivity that is realized through spontaneous encounters between people and technologies.84 In their application to Warhols cinema, Tavels 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. Tavel has described this dramatic space as an environment of action, in which the dialogue has a secondary function that did not, unlike its role in Hollywood cinema, provide any psychologically believable character motivation.85 Tavels semi-dramatic set-ups provided the conceptual arena in which the performers
James, The Warhol Screenplays: An Interview With Ronald Tavel, Persistence of Vision: The Journal of the Film Faculty of the City University of New York 11 (1995), 49. 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.). 84 Tavel does not consider these philosophical registers to be mutually exclusive, and thus contradicts the many short-sighted critics who have ignored Warhols film output in order to create simple oppositions between his pop art and the Abstract Expressionist milieu which preceded it (Ibid.). 85 I prepared a script, understanding that it had to allow for accident and the unknown. I fully understood what the script had to allow to happen, allow to become. And it was an environment (Ibid., 52).
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would interact, and thus partially defined the space in which the profilmic event would take place. In a sense, these scenarios, as well as their realizations in front of Warhols camera, demarcate performance spaces that function differently from those of most other types of cinema. In fact, these films embody a performance sensibility that, in its neglect of conventional character direction and motivation, is more akin to the embodied non-fiction performance that one might encounter in the happenings, performance art, and radical theater of the era. Like the orchestrators of happenings and other varieties of experimental theater, Tavel and Warhol created an open-ended, but tense, pressurized environment in which something could, and probably would, happen. They set up these encounters by interviewing the performers beforehand in order to learn their insecurities. 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.86 This taunting of on-screen performers continued through Warhols collaborations with Chuck Wein, Tavels replacement following his voluntary departure from the Factory, though Wein did not write scripts or provide dialogue for the films performers. The Warhol-Wein collaboration culminated in a legendary onscreen skirmish between Wein and Edie Sedgwick Warhols most well known and perhaps most tragic superstar in Beauty #2 (1965). In an effort to provoke an emotional response from the films subject, Wein, a former lover of Sedgwicks, slings a variety of

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Tavel in the BBC documentary Warhols Cinema: A Mirror for the Sixties (1989).

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

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hour film known as The Chelsea Girls.87 These sequences generally featured the Warhol superstars acting-out in moments of liminal experience, including violent arguments, confessional episodes, psycho-sexual play, and drug-induced confessionals. In short, The Chelsea Girls was a film that showcased the taboo behaviors and experiences of the subcultures that produced it. It was primarily a performance vehicle for the queer amphetamine users who dominated the social and aesthetic spaces of Warhols Factory in this period, both in public and onscreen. In this regard, to mainstream sensibilities of 1966, The Chelsea Girls was a rather threatening cultural object. Formally, it too was a rather uncommon spectacle. The film was composed entirely of uninterrupted thirty-three-minute reels shown side-by-side in double-screen projection. Mostly filmed in black & white, with three reels in color, all of the encounters were shot indoors, in enclosed spaces, a formal detail that naturally heightens the interpersonal and aesthetic tensions at work within the dramatic space of the film. In its early stages of public exhibition, 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

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By the time Warhol began shooting the material that would later become The Chelsea Girls, Paul Morrissey had replaced Ronald Tavel and Chuck Wein as Warhols most significant film collaborator and assistant-provocateurs. 88 In actuality, the film was shot in various locales around New York City, including Warhols Factory (at its first location on 231-41 East 47th Street), the Chelsea Hotel, and a variety of private apartments (one of which was the living quarters for the Velvet Underground).

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Through their direction of the filmmaking environment of The Chelsea Girls, Warhol and Morrissey intentionally unsettled their performers; throughout the production of the project they fomented tension and discomfort in their cast. In order to achieve this end, 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.89 This method, which had been typical at the Factory for some time, was described by author-critic Stephen Koch as one of taunt and betrayal, something that would induce the inevitable responses of shock and anger or shame and confusion.90 The films dark production atmosphere and its anxiogenic sensibility were described by Ondine, one of the most prominent performers in The Chelsea Girls, as a living torture test91 and he called the final product itself the most horrible movie ever made.92 In tone, the films extreme tension and hostility perfectly exemplify the variety of art-making that cultural critic Susan Sontag identified as exemplary of the period. In 1965, she wrote that the interesting art of our time has such a feeling of anguish and crisis about it, however playful and abstract and ostensibly neutral morally it may appear.93 As Warhols films shift unexpectedly from playful to dark, and from nonsensical to tragic, they fulfill Sontags diagnosis of

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This practice is a significant extra-textual and conceptual component of the work, something that should be central to how we understand performance in Warhols films. 90 Stephen Koch, Stargazer: Andy Warhols World and His Films (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1973), 68. 91 Smith, 430. Ondine was the stage name taken by Robert Olivo, a major figure in Warhols circle of the mid-to-late 1960s and early 1970s. 92 Quoted in Bockris, 258. 93 Sontag, One Culture, 302.

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sixties art with its strange and idiosyncratic interplay of a disinterested nonchalance and tangible emotional tension. In preparation for the filming of The Chelsea Girls, 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. The filmmakers created an environment (to borrow Ronald Tavels word), a significant extra-textual component of the art itself, that would make this performance-based work cohere around a set of interpersonal tensions and psychodramatic hostilities. By magnifying the antagonism and distrust of their performers (and their filmmaking situation), Warhol and Morrissey caused the event of the works production to cohere into a dark, aggressively negative film happening. In keeping with this mood of heightened psychic chaos and danger, there are two scenes in which characters inject amphetamines intravenously on camera, and one in which a male superstar, the young bisexual Eric Emerson, deranged by LSD, 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, literally annihilated, by another person. One of the most significant aspects of Warhols 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. The most famous episode of The Chelsea Girls takes place in what is generally shown as the works second-to-last last reel, titled Pope Ondine.

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

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taunts him more actively, repeatedly calling him a phony. The profilmic tensions escalate and Ondine lashes out verbally at this seemingly innocent participant in Warhols film project. He responds to young womans charges of phoniness with an extremely violent outburst: Well, let me tell you something, my dear little Miss Phony. You are a phony. Youre a disgusting phony. May God forgive you you Goddamned phony. Get the hell off this set! Get out! As the force of his verbal tirade escalates, he then reaches forward and slaps her in the face, repeatedly, all the while continuing his deluge of insults, as he yells, Whore! Whore! He is now screaming in an uncontrollable rabid fit of anger. The woman runs out of the cameras 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, appearing befuddled by his own actions. Onscreen, he claims to have been overwhelmed spontaneously, as if seized by some kind of paroxysm. He then makes a number of exclamations in dire seriousness, as he shouts, 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, for him, 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. In Stargazer, Stephen Kochs exceptional book length study of Warhols cinema, he agrees that the challenge of sincere performance interpenetrates the film at every level. He

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writes, The Chelsea Girls is haunted, dominated, by the problem of authenticity.94 The victim of Ondines 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. A number of people have suggested that Morrissey encouraged and provoked Page to confront Ondine.95 So, it seems that there was something of a set-up here. But, the encounter that followed, in Ondines spontaneous paroxysm of violence, was not scripted or planned in any traditional sense. This scene is the result of an encounter between a violent and unpredictable amphetamine addict from the Factorys inner circle and a seemingly unsuspecting young woman who was not committed to the performative sensibility of the groups drug-scorched and sexually polymorphous nucleus. In a compelling turn-of-phrase, Mary Woronov, another of Warhols performers in The Chelsea Girls, described Ondines 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.96 Ondine said in 1978, over twelve years after the film was made, 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.97 This sequence illustrates the emotional extremes to which Warhol was willing to go with his film
94 95

Koch, 94. Ondine supports this theory as well. See Smith, 445. 96 Mary Woronov, Swimming Underground: My Years in the Warhol Factory (London: Serpents Tail, 1995), 39. 97 Smith, 445.

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

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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).101 The connections between Warhols cinema and the theatrical and performance art developments of the 1960s have been largely neglected in the critical and historical evaluations of his work. However, an awareness of those overlapping tendencies in performance-based arts may help us to better understand the unsettling and idiosyncratic nature of Warhols work in cinema. In terms of the ethical concerns of this films somewhat sadistic approach, Warhol argued that its emotional severity was actually a tribute to its humanism, when he wrote, The Chelsea Girls is an experimental film which deals in human emotion and human life, [] anything to do with the human person, I feel is all right.102 In their emphasis on the uncritical observation of peoples actions, Warhols films incorporate a degree of unpredictability that is conditioned by human behavior. This is to say, his cinema of this period is largely determined by the contingencies and whims of volatile individuals as they act and react spontaneously, in real time in front of his camera. Paul Arthur has argued that Warhols cinema calls attention to certain attributes of his art that, in their emphasis on human presence, are significantly different from the supposedly

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Warhol was an acquaintance of Edward Albee, and in an interview in from 1966 with Gerard Malanga, he cites the Mike Nichols film, released during the same summer in which he shot The Chelsea Girls, as a major influence on his film (Gerard Malanga, My Favorite Superstar: Notes on My Epic, Chelsea Girls in Ill Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, 19621987, ed. Kenneth Goldsmith (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2004), 129). 102 Ibid.

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post-modern replicating machine who was responsible for the Campbells soup cans and the Brillo Boxes of his pop art production. Playing his own devils advocate, Arthur asks, Why on earth, one might ask, do we need a humanist Warhol, 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, 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 Wollen, Barbara Kruger, and others). 103 As Arthur suggests, Warhol, the filmmaker, might be best understood as an artist obsessed with presence and authenticity, in short, concepts that relate directly towards humans and their social, performative identities. Film scholar Patricia Mellencamp shares Arthurs opinion of Warhols films. 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 As he unflinchingly directed his camera towards the interpersonal space in front of it, 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 Warhols film art. He writes, that Warhols cinema is thus a meta-cinema, an

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Arthur, Flesh of Absence: Resighting the Warhol Catechism in Andy Warhol Film Factory, ed. Michael OPray (London: British Film Institute, 1992), 152. 104 Patricia Mellencamp, Indiscretions: Avant-Garde Film, Video, and Feminism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990), 197.

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

106

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films share more with the concerns of performance art, happenings, and documentary filmmaking than they do with an abstract or plastic film practice. It is for this reason that film historian and critic P. Adams Sitney wrote, in 1974, that Warhols cinema makes the rest of American avant-garde films all look incredibly similar.108

Performance and Public Self-Effacement: Portrait of Jason: In 1966, the experimental filmmaker and documentarian Shirley Clarke shot a film titled Portrait of Jason that was her direct and conscious response to Warhols The Chelsea Girls, a movie that she found mesmerizing.109 It was Clarkes idea to elaborate upon Warhols aesthetic breakthroughs in psychodrama and confessional cinema. She too would make a semi-documentary film in which her subject would be given free reign to express himself. However, she would allow her subject not one or two reels to unwind psychologically, but an entire feature film. For roughly twelve hours, Clarke filmed a performative interrogation between the filmmakers (she and her partner, Carl Lee) and their subject, a gay
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In this astute observation, Sitney also implicitly admits the limits of his own historical interpretation of the American avant-garde cinema in his Visionary Film, a text that describes the work of Stan Brakhage as its most significant achievement, while largely omitting the films of Warhol because of their fundamental incompatibility with the romantic paradigm that he celebrates (Sitney, Visionary Film, 350). 109 She said, In The Chelsea Girls I found three of the most extraordinary sequences of the cinema Ive ever seen. Since seeing it, Ive been continuously haunted by the movies beauty and power. Anyone seriously interested in films must see Warhols new movie because it goes into a whole new dimension (Bockris, 258). For Portrait of Jason, Clarke used her apartment in the Chelsea Hotel as her set, thus situating her film in the same space of production in which portions of The Chelsea Girls was made. And, to further extend the extratextual determinants that Portrait of Jason shares with The Chelsea Girls, 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. It is a heavy camera that is intended to be used only on a tripod.

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African-American prostitute who once worked as her housekeeper.110 He went by the pseudonym, Jason Holiday. Clarke edited the evenings filmed encounter into a feature-length film, shot basically from one camera position and featuring only Holiday as its onscreen subject. Her film, like the largely unscripted The Chelsea Girls, would be quite literally, an experiment: when she initiated her project of interpersonal provocation, she did not know how it would end. She explained the improvisational spirit of the project: For the first time, I was able to give up my intense control and allow Jason and the camera to react to each other.111 The film that resulted from that evenings endeavors was an assemblage of (mostly) long takes edited together in their original performance sequence. 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. Over the course of the film, Holiday tells many candid and tragic tales from his own life, as he chronicles childhood traumas, sordid sexual exploits, and his involvement in a variety of criminal activities. He delves deeply into his own autobiography, as he describes his experiences with psychological problems, anxiety, and psychoanalysis. Always central to his autobiographical presentation is his discussion of race and sexuality. And it is clear from his stories and their emotional delivery that he has suffered significantly because of his outsider status. Yet Holiday never presents himself as a victim. He willingly embraces the liminal
110 111

Throughout the film he refers to himself as a houseboy for a variety of employers. Mekas, Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, 19591971 (New York: Macmillan, 1972), 289.

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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.112 Throughout the filmmaking process, Holiday willfully engages in the destabilizing psychodramatic inquisition that Clarke has set up for him. He openly drinks alcohol and smokes cigarettes and pot continuously, and in the process he does not dodge any of the faux-psychiatric questions that are presented from offscreen by Clarke and Lee, as they command him: Tell me about your mother. Or when they ask, Have you ever made it with a chick?113 Yet, there is something in Holidays demeanor, like that of Pope Ondine, which is a put-on, 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. Ondine (his most common title) vs. Robert Olivo (his birth name)? Similarly, when discussing Portrait of Jason, when are we referring to Jason Holiday (the stage name of the performer-hustler) vs. Aaron Payne (his birth name)?114 A tangle of names underpins these works, demonstrating that for both films fluid,

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Ondine, like Holiday, openly discusses his homosexuality on camera in a number of Warhols films. 113 There is some evidence to suggest that he may also have taken LSD, 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, Madison). 114 Because of his frequent references to his jazz musician friends, including Miles Davis, Philly Joe Jones, Dina Washington, and Carmen McRae, a logical guess would suggest that he likely assumed the surname of Holiday, because of an affinity and appreciation for Billie Holiday (who was also bisexual). As an extremely talented black artist, a performer of great emotional weight, and a tragic victim of racism and sexual and drug abuse, for Aaron Payne, she would have embodied a whole set of associations that his performance within the film suggests.

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transgressive, and queer notions of performance and identity frame the social experiments that they present. It is clear throughout that part of what we are seeing is a rehearsed nightclub routine, something that is evidenced by his repeated catchphrases (Ill never tell), his a capella performances of Broadway songs, and his clearly practiced impersonations of Mae West and Scarlet OHara, that all blend, in a manner like Lenny Bruce or Richard Pryor, into a register of performance between play and critique that undoubtedly contains some detail of true autobiography. This becomes clearer as Jasons level of intoxication increases and his performative faade begins to collapse. Though Clarke did indeed compress the nights 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.115 As the film develops, the lines between Jason Holiday (the character, hustler, performer) and Aaron Payne (the person) become progressively more compromised as he begins to teeter closer and closer to the dark, drunken, confessional abyss of his unmediated emotions. Nevertheless, Clarke and her partner Carl Lee insist, as heard from offscreen, that all the while, Holiday is not coming down front, is not being real. In their attacks on Holiday, Clarke and Lee loudly claim that all of his imitations and stories are really only fictive roleplaying. (Like a variety of Warhols film projects, this too is an inquisition.) In
115

This has been claimed by Clarke on a number of occasions, 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).

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

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

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the film, particularly as it reaches its climax. At the end, Holiday expresses a need for emotional affirmation from Lee, but he only responds with: I think youre full of shit. Clarke suggests that this act of aggression was partially planned before the film even began, as she explains her orchestration of the films conclusion: I had every intention of having a climax of something taking place. I knew that I would have to get Jason to face the truth at some point. But I wasnt positive how. In other words, 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, tell the truth.116 Despite the seemingly shared improvisatory sentiment and collective authorship of Holiday, Clarke, and Lee, there is also a deliberate organization, a pre-planned confrontational plot that catalyzes the filmmaking process and the emotional breakdown of its subject. The film resembles Angells description of Warhols cinema in relation to performance art of the period, as something that depends on interpersonal tensions and destabilizing elements, culminating in a filmic act of provocation and a presentation of self-effacement. Clarke, like any viewer, was aware of the fact that some people might interpret the film as exploitative. In one sense, Holiday is the victim of Clarke and Lees aggression. He is not the one orchestrating the event, so within the sphere of production, Holiday is contained within the apparatus as it films him and is later edited according to Clarkes specifications. However she claimed that she was ethically justified in her project because, in her mind, Holidays performance was
116

Lauren Rabinovitz, Choreography of Cinema: An Interview With Shirley Clarke, Afterimage 11, no. 5 (December 1993), 11.

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a kind of success in the face of hostile threats, and thus demonstrated his survival and perseverance in the face of social oppression: She explained, I will not allow people to exploit themselves if they dont win in the end.117 According to Clarke, Holiday overcomes the exploitative frame in which he appears. However, within the film there is indeed a sense in which Clarke and Lee are looming over their subject, like Ronald Tavel in Warhols films, as aggressive interrogators wielding a sadistic power from behind (or beside) the camera.118 Obviously there are many ethical issues at stake in this films exchange of power as it confronts issues of race, class, and sexuality: Holiday, a gay African-American male, is manipulated (or perhaps directed), at least partially, by Clarke, a heterosexual white woman, and Lee, a heterosexual black male. In an interview with Jonas Mekas, published in The Village Voice in September of 1967, Jason Holiday addressed these topics, as he explained, I wondered if people would think I was homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual. I wondered if I was great enough to convince them that I am all three. The three-sided figure makes a triangular trisexual. I said: try anything as long as there is money in it, dig it? Im being told by some people that Miss Clarke has used me. I think the chick and me are even, dig it? Thanks to Miss Clarke and Carl Lee, World youre gonna hear from me.119 It is clear from Holidays commentary that perhaps what may have been most controversial about the film, in pre-Stonewall era New York, was the subjects open admission of his own queer sexuality. (The same candidly queer sensibility

117 118

Ibid. They are never seen onscreen, though their voices are heard, thus allowing them to partially penetrate the profilmic space, though in soundtrack only. 119 Mekas, Movie Journal, The Village Voice, September 28, 1967: 31.

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

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involvement in the film.120 (In 1971, Tavel too sued Warhol, also claiming that the artist did not sufficiently compensate him for his work.) Portrait of Jason is uncomfortable for many reasons, including the profilmic hostility that Clarke and Lee produce, the cameras relentless long take documentation, the emotional severity of Holidays performance, and the criminal and sexual frankness of its content. Portrait of Jason does not resolve any of the ethical difficulties that it presents. If anything, it inflames them, 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 kind of experiment in psychodrama, in which the filmmakers and their camera relentlessly probe their subject, as they taunt him, ask leading questions, and push him, as a psychotherapist might, into a public reflection upon his lifes experiences. As Holiday confesses for the camera, he continually affirms its presence, making it clear that his emotional undressing is being done, at least in part, for its benefit. Like many documentarians of the cinma vrit and Direct Cinema movements, Clarke used the camera as a catalyst to trigger a confrontation, and ultimately a confession. This is a distinctly Warholian strategy. In an interview for a recent BBC documentary on Warhol, film critic J. Hoberman eloquently distilled the psychodramatic exchange that was central to Warhols cinema:

120

According to correspondence between Clarke and Holidays lawyer in 1968, the agreement made between the filmmaker and her subject required that she pay him 10% of the films gross profits after recouping the production costs (which were $21,500). Despite the fact that Holiday contracted a lawyer, there is no evidence that she did not fulfill her part of the agreement (Shirley Clarke Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society, University of Wisconsin, Madison).

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Part of Warhols 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, but in a more outrageous, more compelling manner.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. This appeal to the outrageous and the taboo shared something important with other contemporaneous efforts of both documentary and fictive realism. In its efforts to reveal something hidden about its subjects, it aimed to undermine the social conventions or art-making in postwar America, to break down the phony privacy walls that filmmaker and critic Jonas Mekas located as the targets for the new cinema.122 In this regard, both films described above are evidence of this movements effort to undermine social convention, using performances as its artistic resources performances that were more psychologically and sexually open than those of any previous era. In the era of the films production, art and film critic Parker Tyler wrote, in his book Underground Film, that these works document previously unexposed cultural actions, including the social activity of making life itself into a work of art.123 It is through the process of Jasons production that is, filmmaking as practice that its primary social meaning is determined as an interpersonal act
Hoberman in the BBC documentary Warhols Cinema: A Mirror for the Sixties (1989). Mekas, Movie Journal, 281. Many projects of the Direct Cinema too made distinct efforts to expose hidden personalities and private aspects of character; one of the most famous early examples of this approach is Primary (1960) by Robert Drew Associates, in which the filmmakers made an effort to disarm the public faade and expose the multi-layered personalities of John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, then presidential candidates. 123 Parker Tyler, Underground Film: A Critical History (New York: Da Capo, 1995), 69.
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and a subcultural performance. The profilmic space of Jason provided a forum for a public investigation of selfhood within certain hyperbolized conditions of performance and mediation. Clarke has explained that the works greatest value as a forum for humanistic knowledge and understanding can be traced primarily to the event of the films production and to the profilmic interaction of its participants.124 For this reason, it is no surprise that Jason would be her last completed film before moving into the more immediate, process-based media formats of interactive and closed circuit video, a medium that loudly proclaims its preference for presence over plasticity, just as Portrait of Jason does.

Art/Rape: Clarkes Portrait of Jason was a film that gave a curious, perhaps voyeuristic public privileged access to the most private thoughts and anxieties of an outsider and fugitive from bourgeois culture. In one sense, 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. Yet there is also a sense in which these films interrogate the forces of surveillance and voyeurism, 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. In fact,

In 1967, she said, For me, the uniquely extraordinary part of making Portrait of Jason was the shooting experience itself (quoted in Mekas, Movie Journal, 289).

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

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London. In it, she walked on stage carrying a pair of scissors. She then sat down, placed the scissors on the floor, and asked the audience to cut off her clothing, which they did to varying degrees depending on the performance. 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. 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. These registers of controversy, tension, and scopic violence are closely related to Onos efforts in cinema as well. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ono and Lennon collaborated on a number of films including Film #5 (Smile) (1968), Rape (1969), Fly (1970), Freedom (1970), Apotheosis (1970), and Erection (1971). A number of these films grew directly out of conceptual projects that Ono had produced as a member of the Fluxus art group. One of the principal artistic strategies of these artists was the use of the event-score, a simple script-like framing device that featured sparse lists of commands and actions to be enacted by an artist or performer. Consider, for example, Onos strange and provocative City Piece (1961), which has as its content only the following instruction: Walk all over the city with an empty baby

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

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significantly more unsettling in its sadistic treatment of its subject, an Austrian illegal resident named Eva Majilata. In Ono and Lennons film, a camera crew finds a young woman on the streets of London and follows her relentlessly around the city. The works subject is at first playful and inquisitive, as the camera crew follows her across a graveyard. (Like the performers in Clarkes and Warhols filmic psychodramas, she initially engages with the work in a lighthearted manner before the interaction begins to turn dire.) 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. When she runs away from the filmmakers, or tries to escape from them in a cab, they follow her. The process becomes continuously more aggressive until, at the films conclusion, the crew has chased the young woman into an apartment, 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. J. Hoberman explains both the brutality of this film and its relationship to Warholian film aesthetics when he writes, In one sense, Rape is a particularly brutal dramatization of the Warholian discovery that the cameras implacable stare disrupts ordinary behavior to enforce its own regime.129 The Warholian

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J. Hoberman, Raped and Abandoned: Yoko Onos Forgotten Masterpiece in Vulgar Modernism: Writing on Movies and Other Media (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 186. David James eloquently distills the force that Warhols camera places on its performers: The camera is a presence in whose regard and against whose silence the sitter must construct himself.

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

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

Open Forms and Experimental Art in Context: Contrary to the creative process described above, 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 works filming,

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composition, and assembly. In a somewhat heated public presentation and debate during the 1970s, Brakhage openly revolted against new trends in impersonal authorship, particularly as they utilized pre-determined structures or mechanistic modes of production (like that of Michael Snows La Rgion Centrale (1971), a film shot by a robotic, spinning crane in a remote region of Canada). 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 films coming into being, an absolute control of the film craft wherein the maker is called upon to work with what he or she doesnt know at every frames existence. Whether it shall be or whether it shall not be [] as an act of absolute urgency.131 This statement summarizes the personal notion of artistic control that dominated the American avant-garde cinema, however in the age of Cage and Warhol such a sensibility would face significant challenges. A craft-based understanding of authorship, like that applied by Brakhage, would likely have seemed somewhat antiquated to other visual artists of the 1960s, during the age of conceptual art, process art, and Fluxus performance. In this era, the conceptual artist Sol Lewitt famously established a personal distance from his art objects, as he argued that once the concept for the work was realized it did not matter who actually executed the assignment: In his words, The idea

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Brakhage, Some Arguments: Stan Brakhage at Millennium, November 4, 1977, Millennium Film Journal 47/48/49 (Fall/Winter 2007/2008), 67.

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becomes a machine that makes the art.132 In a related fashion, the filmmakers discussed in this chapter broke from conventional notions of controlled and virtuosic textual space by privileging profilmic events, and thus foregrounding the performances that they present as the primary source of their meaning. The generative idea and the conceptual frames that bind the films executions function as the artists principal authorial products, as exemplified by Yoko Onos simple script for her film, or Warhols arbitrary use of thirty-three minute, one-reel units. In his major essay on the avant-garde aesthetics of the era, The Art of Time: Aesthetics of the Avant-Garde, artist, theorist, and drama critic Michael Kirby eloquently distilled the shifting aesthetic sensibilities of vanguard artists, as he described the principal distinctions between classical values and those of late modernist practice. In 1969, he wrote, Craft, technique, and talent are sometimes mistaken for significance. [] But there is no reason that an artist actually has to make the physical work himself as long as he determines its characteristics. 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.133 Though Kirbys evaluation of art practice was commonly accepted in most advanced circles of art making in the 1960s, the model of authorship that privileged a single controlling subject still had significant force within the American avant-garde cinema, for both aesthetic and practical reasons. Often, the avant-garde filmmakers poverty of means was taken to be a virtue of the amateurs dedication. However, as the examples above suggest, it was not the
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Sol Lewitt, Paragraphs on Conceptual Art, Artforum 5, no. 10 (June 1967), 7983 . Michael Kirby, The Art of Time: Aesthetics of the Avant-Garde in The Art of Time: Essays on the Avant-Garde (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1969), 49.

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only sensibility in practice. In fact, in their opening up into the extratextual social and historical spaces beyond the limits of the controlled film frame, many filmmakers of the 1960s utilized an observational, semi-documentary mode that privileged contingent encounters with uncontrolled forces. 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, process, and collective authorship. In their attention to unflinching observation, extreme performance, and extended duration, these films (by Warhol, Clarke, and Ono) emphasized the embodied presence of the films subjects and the contingency and the spontaneity of their thoughts and gestures. The films described in this chapter (along with much of Warhols 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 a sense, these films of the mid-to-late 1960s predicted what was to come, sharing overlapping strategies with developments in artists video that emphasized performance, extended duration, and interactive display. Though the innovations of artists video have been tied almost exclusively to the new technology and its documentation of performance, it in fact has an extremely important philosophical and aesthetic precedent in this semi-documentary undercurrent within the history of experimental cinema.

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Though not typical of the dominant approaches to avant-garde filmmaking of the period, the aggressive trend in film practice described above was acknowledged by contemporary critics. In the late 1960s, theorist Nol 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 cinma (in columns that were later translated into English and compiled as Theory of Film Practice). 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 cameras relationship to this imperfectly controllable, spontaneous chance reality was not necessarily that of a spectator: The camera could also participate in a reciprocal exchange. This discovery was the source of cinma vrit in all its manifestations and, in general, of a whole new world of narrative forms involving shifts in the role of the camera (from actual participant to passive spectator, from a mere provocateur of events to active dictator of them, and so on) as a formal and structural device, as the very basis of film discourse.134 Interestingly, 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. As he saw it, this trend towards a more extreme profilmic cruelty was linked to a greater openness to chance structures for avantgarde composers, artists, and filmmakers but it was also an attribute of television, a medium that often utilizes live transmission of unscripted events. This confluence of historical factors reflected a cultural situation in which the

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Nol Burch, Theory of Film Practice (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973), 116.

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

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textual openness that required any real sacrifice of authorial control. In fact, Stan Brakhage, one of the most meticulous and romantic of all artisanal avant-garde filmmakers described the philosophical innovations of John Cages as a conceptual trap, as the greatest aesthetic net of this century. Brakhage acknowledged the philosophical appeal of Cages thinking but nevertheless interpreted the authorial or textual openness that the composer encouraged as a trap of sorts, something that one has to go beyond in order to assert ones own authorial voice.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, rather than the forms that followed its formal, performative, and social imperatives into the 1960s. The cinematic use of chance that was Burchs subject and a resource for the filmmakers discussed herein, however, was not something that was determined by aleatory organizational procedures (like those produced through the use of the I Ching). It was rather a function of unplanned and uncontrollable interactions between humans, the natural world, and the cinematic apparatus in Burchs words, a confrontation between camera and contingent reality. In this regard, 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, Respond Dance in Film Culture Reader, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York: Cooper Square Press, 1970), 242243.

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described as the joyful and lucid abandonment by the composer [or artist] of a portion of his conscious control over the work.137 Though none of the films described herein actually engage with indeterminacy as extreme as the music of John Cage, they do represent a loosening of authorial control, in Burchs words, an abandonment of a portion of conscious control over the work. In their performative openness, these works of Warhol, Clarke, 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.138 For example, 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, and I could relax and, more important, respond to the emotions spinning around the room. I finally became part of the situation myself [] one with Jason and the camera. At last I found the ability to swing along with what was happening spontaneously, with no preconceived judgments. I started to trust Jason and the camera and not insist on being the controller.139 In all of these works, an idea was at least partially conceived before the shooting a verbal confrontation between two people, a semi-psychoanalytic interview, the stalking of a stranger but until the end, what would result from these encounters was unknown to everyone involved (including the filmmakers). In this regard, these films effectively exemplify the conditions for what might be described as

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Burch, 106. Portions of The Chelsea Girls were indeed scripted, albeit in a rather unconventional way, by Ronald Tavel. Those portions of the film are not central to the argument here. 139 Mekas, Movie Journal, 289.

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

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environment. Such a move would entail a sacrifice of the classical identification that an author has with his or her work. In this regard, this change is psychological and seems at first to be a giving up of everything that belongs to humanity.140 Ultimately, 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 structural openness presents a situation in which, the word experimental is apt, providing it is understood not as descriptive of an act to be later judged in terms of success and failure, but simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown.141 Like a number of artists who came to prominence in mid-20th-century America, Cage argued for an artistic practice that would escape the isolated subjective space of the artist and incorporate the historical conditions of lifes flux in a way that was dissimilar from earlier approaches of the avant-garde. Following Cage, a major theorist of this shift away from a romantic identification with the art object, the artists and the filmmakers described above might best be understood as working within a subset of the avant-garde that, without controversy, can be described as experimental.

Revisions in Authorial Strategies: In addition to sharing strategies of assault and shock, these experiments in postwar performance-based cinema also revised conventional notions of
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Cage, Silence, 8. Ibid., 13.

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authorship. In their collective shift away from the more individualist, expressive mode of the avant-garde, Warhol, Clarke, and Ono utilized production processes that were significantly more collaborative than the work of most avant-garde filmmakers of the period. 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, sensory meditation, or philosophical statement. The films of Warhol, Clarke, and Ono described above interestingly revise these strategies of the avantgarde. 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 fact, all of the films described above were produced by small crews shooting 16mm synchronous sound. This format was rather rare for experimental filmmakers in the 1960s, though it was the preferred method for documentarians (including those associated with direct cinema, the vanguard of documentary film practice in the United States). Though Warhol was certainly behind the camera at some point during the shooting of The Chelsea Girls, he may or may not have been during the shooting of the Pope Ondine section, which is described above.142 It is well known that

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Warhol claimed to have been operating the camera during Ondines spastic episode, though at one point the performer addresses Paul while looking at the camera. And in fact, after this moment of extreme drama, we can see Warhol away from the camera in the wings of the factory (Andy Warhol, Popism, 188).

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Warhol did not always operate the camera in his films, and in fact it has been reported that on some occasions, he was not even on set.143 To some critics of his cinema this posed a problem. For example, though he was an avid supporter of Warhols work in film, the critic, filmmaker, and spokesperson for the New American Cinema, Jonas Mekas, articulated this artisanal sensibility when he stated at a public roundtable at the New York Film Festival in 1967, that no filmmaker could be considered a contributor to the new cinema, to the mediums most advanced trends, until he or she picked up his or her own camera.144 This pride in a personalized, individualistic production process was the standard for most independent and avant-garde filmmakers of the period. For Portrait of Jason Clarke utilized a crew that included a camera person and an editor, such that she worked as a news director might, overseeing the interview in person and giving direction to the technicians, but not directly controlling the filmic action.145 The case of Ono and Lennons film is even more extreme in that they were not even present for its shooting. Their camera person, Nic Knowland shot footage for the film on the streets of London according to the

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In Horse, Warhol can be heard engaging in an offscreen telephone conversation while the film is being shot. 144 Here Mekas was actually explaining the difference between so-called European art cinema and the more personal filmmaking of The New American Cinema. His exact words were, 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), audio recording in the collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York). 145 She did oversee and direct the edit of the footage. It must also be admitted however, 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. So, her role in the film was by no means entirely distanced from the creative process. Still, though Clarke oversaw and directed these changes they were actually done by a lab technician (Shirley Clarke Papers, Wisconsin Historical Archive, University of Wisconsin, Madison).

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artists specifications. He then offered successive versions for their consideration, until he came upon an execution of the concept that Ono and Lennon approved. After the shooting was complete they oversaw the edit, though again, they relied upon the labor of other technicians.146 This mode of filmmaking, utilizing a hired crew and a sync sound film process, was far from the standard model of avantgarde filmmaking in the 1960s, and it marks an interesting shift in both production strategy and aesthetic sensibility that foreground extended performance and historical contingency; it is also closer to a model of conceptual art than it is to an expressive, personal approach.

Production Strategies and Experimentation: This literal experimentalism is realized in rather concrete ways through the specific production methods that the films employ. In their open production strategies and relative disinterest in extensive post-production manipulation, 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. Their structural idiosyncrasies are the evidence of their unusually contingent historical attributes. The Chelsea Girls, like a number of Warhols other films of the mid 1960s, is composed of entirely unedited five-

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So, neither the filmmaking nor the editing was directly executed by Ono and Lennon. Ono claims to have closely overseen the editing of each of her films, but as she explained to Scott MacDonald in 1989 she did not do the cutting, because as she said, I was generally in charge of the editing I mean I would have a film editor working with me I dont know the technology (Ono in Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 2: Interviews With Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 151).

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hundred-foot magazines of 16mm film, which last for thirty-three minutes each. Because of the absence of editing, the historical integrity of each of the films half-hour units is always maintained. The films soundtrack is also an unbroken and evidentiary document because of the unusual conditions of its recording directly onto the film stock itself, making for an atypical format known as singlesystem sound film. Because of its formal idiosyncrasies that required the microphone to be directly attached to the camera, this technology was used primarily for television news in which no post-production mixing would be necessary. 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). Since the sound recording did not need to be added to the visual footage after the fact, the historical integrity of the sound-image relationship is maintained in Warhols films in a way that is strikingly different from Hollywood cinema, independent film production, and avant-garde film.147 After these scenes were shot, their projection sequence within the somewhat epic project evolved over time, through various orders and combinations, into a two-hundred-and-five minute film in which reels were projected simultaneously side-by-side, for a total of twelve reels. In its earliest days of exhibition at the Filmmakers Cinematheque in New York City, the projection conditions of The Chelsea Girls were unusually elastic, such that the

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In addition, the camera that Warhol used in this period was an Auricon, a heavy, tripod-based camera that was designed for sit-down television interviews. This camera was designed to be used with single system sound-on-film recording, such that there would be no need for the postproduction synchronization of sound and image.

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projectionist was encouraged to act as a performer, spontaneously modifying the sound mix between the left and right projectors, using gels to modify color, and even bouncing the projectors beams off of the theater walls.148 The Chelsea Girls was a surprising financial success, and as a result, 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.149 Still, there was no mechanism designed to mechanically synchronize two projectors, so the relationship between the two projected images was achieved by the films projectionist, and determined somewhat by his or her timing choices. So, by virtue of the unsynchronized simultaneity of left and right screen projections (and the accompanying sound mix) every projection of the film has been, and always will be, somewhat different. During one projection, a particular event on the left and right screen may appear to be intentionally synchronized, when in another projection, their timing may vary significantly because the relationship of the left and right screens is entirely dependent on the projectionists actions. Though the two sides always play in tandem, there is some leeway regarding their timing and perceived synchronicity, such that some degree of chance will always play a role in the

For more details about the films early projection history, see a short essay by Bob Cowan, a filmmaker who was also the projectionist for The Chelsea Girls first public screenings (Bob Cowan, My Life and Times With the Chelsea Girls, Take One 3, no. 7 (September/October 1971), 13). 149 For the standardized projection instructions to the film, see Peter Gidals chart in his text, Materialist Film (London and New York: Routledge, 1989), 87.

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

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impression that it was only barely mediated. This open exposure of the films production process creates an illusion of historical integrity and performative authenticity. A similar false guarantee of faithfulness is included in Onos 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. However, like Jason, Rape is carefully edited. 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, they nevertheless function within a bracketed self-aware, self-reflexive mode that features its own degree of rhetorical and stylistic manipulation.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, 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

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Portrait of Jason was actually subject to a significant degree of post-production manipulation, though much of it is disguised. For example, a number of the camera movements, zooms, and shifts in focus were added by an optical printer after the film was processed, though such details would not be obvious to the untrained viewer. Similarly, 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, Wisconsin Historical Archive, University of Wisconsin, Madison).

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working in musical and theatrical modes. There is an important sense in which the performative sensibility of Antonin Artaud, a radical theorist of an almost impossibly hostile dramatic practice, took hold of the avant-garde arts of New York in the era that is the subject of this study. As a component of the artistic landscape of the 1960s and 70s, filmmaking was necessarily involved in the avant-gardes circulation of creative sensibilities. This branch of filmmaking can be better understood in relation to its cultural climate, 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 Artauds Theatre of Cruelty. *** In his consideration of these new and provocative shifts in film aesthetics, towards greater degrees of cruelty and hostility, critic Nol Burch drew some important connections between these works and a range of artistic practices in a variety of media. One of Burchs 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.151 For him, The Chelsea Girls was the definitive example of this new mode of filmmaking based on provocation; in his words, this film used the camera as an instrument of torture.152 In Rape and Portrait of Jason, the camera is applied towards the same ends as it enacts an unflinching
Burchs discussion of these aesthetic devices can be found in the chapters Chance and Its Functions and Structures of Aggression in Theory of Film Practice, 105135. 152 This is Burchs phrase to describe the use of the camera in The Chelsea Girls (Burch, 118).
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inquisition, in a way that is similar to, and partially derived from, the strategies of Warhols cinema. For the artists described above, as well as many other artists and thinkers of the 1960s, violence and aggression, both profilmic and filmic, were useful aesthetic tools. As Burch described it, their unpredictability posed a significant challenge to the controlled, regulated, and mechanized structures of narrative and ontological containment that were typical of most cinemas, what Burch described as the mathematics of form.153 Like the filmmakers described above, 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. Some of the most aggressive, confrontational, and graphic performance art of the period, including that of Vito Acconci or Carolee Schneemann, both of whom incorporated significant doses of explicit sexuality and violent symbolism into their body art performances in works such as Pryings (1971), Seedbed (1971), Meat Joy (1964), and Interior Scroll (1975, 1977) shared a philosophical sensibility with Warhol and other filmmakers who worked in the mode of profilmic provocation described above. In their aggression and emphasis on real-time social interaction and conflict, Warhol and his milieu addressed related cultural and aesthetic registers to those of the interactive radical drama of the Living Theatre, 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., 134).

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

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Interview with Ronald Tavel, October 8, 1978 in Smith, 480.

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

155

Antonin Artaud, The Theater and its Double (New York: Grove Press, 1958), 122.

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

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these works contest the mathematics of form upon which industrial cinema is built. The transformative theatrical actions envisioned by Artaud too challenged the systematicity of controlled texts based on streamlined cause-and-effect narratives. He was particularly distrustful of the predictable, almost algorhythmic nature of conventional filmmaking with its dependence on written language and generic structure. He wrote that stupid order and habitual clarity are its [cinemas] enemies.157 *** In 1958, roughly twenty years after its publication in French, Mary Caroline Richards translated Artauds Le thtre et son double into English, ushering in a major influence on American performance of the 1960s. John Cage recommended the text to her while they were both at Black Mountain College, the legendary experimental intermedial arts school in the mountains of North Carolina. (Cage had learned of Artaud during his travels in Europe, through fellow avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez.) The short book proved to be massively influential, particularly upon a variety of performance-based artists within the avant-garde community of New York City. Media theorist, literary critic, and cultural icon Marshall McLuhan, whose own popular influence trumped that of almost any other public intellectual of the period, argued that a shift in theatrical sensibility correlated directly with other cultural transitions, particularly as determined by the changing relations of various media. He
Artaud, Sorcery and Cinema in The Shadow and its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema, ed. and trans. Paul Hammond (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2000), 105.
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explained that the modernist Theater of the Absurd (associated with Beckett and Ionesco) had lost its cultural relevance, as theatrical trends shifted tone from the allegorical to more confrontational forms, described by him as the theater of blood and cruelty which Artaud called for. He explains that Artauds 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.158 The extent to which the artists of the 1960s actually understood the irrational and contradictory writings of Artaud has been debated by many, however it is indisputable that certain general details and rhetorical emphases of Artauds thinking were uncannily congruent with other artistic trends of the 1960s, having left considerable traces of influence throughout the expansive and intermedial network of performance based art of the period.159 In many ways, Artauds radical anarchic vision of social transformation was entirely congruent with the aesthetic and social attitudes of post World War II America. 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. 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, From Clich to Archetype (New York: Viking Press, 1970), 9. Inexplicably, the text repeatedly misspells Artaud as Arnaud. Since it is done three times in one paragraph, it is possible that this error was not the typesetters, but perhaps that of McLuhan or his co-author, Watson. 159 See Douglas Kahns essay Artaud in America in which he disputes this claim (Kahn, 100 Years of Cruelty: Essays on Artaud, ed. Edward Scheer (Sydney: Power Publications and Artspace, 2000), 237262).
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tone of other aspects of civilization. Artaud argued that, if the times were anxious and volatile, so too would theater be. He wrote, The Theater of Cruelty will choose subjects and themes corresponding to the agitation and unrest characteristic of our epoch.160 In his writings, he encouraged a destabilizing approach that would combat conventional understandings of art and life by attacking the desensitized sensibilities of the public with hostile, aggressive, even cruel form and content. He advocated an anarchic theater of agitation and aggression, something that would challenge all structures of control and systematicity. In his Theater of Cruelty Artaud envisioned revolutionary theater as gestamtkuntswerk, a blending of all other art forms, in order to serve the anarchic purpose of resisting the economic, utilitarian, and technical streamlining of the world.161 As he saw it, the theater would be so extreme in its means that it would upset all conventional understandings of rational behavior and social structure. In the words of cultural critic Susan Sontag, Artauds approach was not interested in satisfying either the political or the ludic impulse.162 In this regard, it poses an unusual model of revolutionary, but apolitical transgression that was not simply playful or absurdist (as were some trends in postwar art), but was more compatible with the total transformation of understanding that was suggested by John Cage. For this reason, though his popularity amongst the happenings artists (Allan Kaprow), experimental dramatists (Julian and Malina Beck), performance

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Artaud, The Theater and its Double, 122. Ibid. 162 Susan Sontag, Introduction in Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, ed. Sontag (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1976), xli.
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artists (Carolee Schneemann), and San Francisco poets (Michael McClure) may have been well known, 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.163 Though Artauds vision was one of a transformed experience of the drama, it had far reaching implications in a variety of other media. In fact, his notion of theater extended well beyond the limits of any medium. As Sontag argued in the early 1970s, in a reflection partially on Artauds influence, she wrote that for him, theater became his supreme metaphor for the self-correcting, spontaneous, carnal, intelligent life of the mind.164 As Sontag explains in a thorough and sympathetic summation of Artauds drama, essays, and influence on American cultural history, he at times also considered cinema as a possible nomination for his preferred ur-medium, 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, including The Seashell and the Clergyman (1928)). But eventually, as Cage had done, Artaud assimilates all art to dramatic performance.165 In fact, in America, beginning in the late 1950s (or perhaps earlier), an emphasis on theatricality and
163 On this topic, see Sontags introductory essay to Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, xvii-lix. On the inassimilable nature of Artaud, she writes: To detach his thought as a portable intellectual commodity is just what that thought explicitly prohibits. [] One can be scorched, changed by Artaud. But there is no way of applying Artaud (lvii). All art that expresses a radical discontent and aims at shattering complacencies of feeling risks being disarmed, neutralized, drained of its power to disturb by being admired, by being (or seeming to be) too well understood, by becoming relevant (lviii). 164 Sontag, Introduction in Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, xxxvi. 165 Ibid., xxix.

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

Sally Banes, Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1993), 28.

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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, like those that developed around the hostile and aggressive energies of a variety of performance that is the heir to Artauds Theater of Cruelty. 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.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, a group well known for their unusual and active interaction between performers and spectators. Similarly, Artauds writing was celebrated by John Cage as well as happenings innovator Allan Kaprow, for its willingness to break down the artificial boundaries that social convention interposed between art and life. In his Second Manifesto, he writes, between life and the theater there will be no distinct division, but instead a continuity. He goes on to relate this understanding of a fluid relation between an artistic event and its surroundings, by explaining it in relation to the profilmic space of cinema and its environment, when he writes that, Anyone who has watched a scene of a movie being film will understand exactly

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Artaud, The Theater and its Double, 89.

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

168

Ibid., 126.

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

Sontag, Introduction in Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings, l. Ibid., xxix. 171 Artaud, The Theater and its Double, 89.
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Chapter 3: The Medium Is the Medium: Television, Experimental Film, and Expanded Cinema
No medium has its meaning or existence alone, but only in constant interplay with other media. Marshall McLuhan, 1966172

In the 1960s an aggressive performance sensibility began to assert a significant influence throughout various practices within the international art community. Directed towards sensorial, conceptual, 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. 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, Al Hansen, Otto Muhl, Wolf Vostell, Raphael Montaez Ortiz), the extreme volume and duration of LaMonte Youngs minimalist music, the performances and happenings of the Fluxus group (which included, for example Yoko Ono, who was responsible for the legendary performance work, Cut Piece), the Artaud inspired experiments in drama presented by The Living Theatre, the dramatic embodied encounters between animal carcasses and human flesh in Carolee Schneemanns Meat Joy (1964), and the machine-gun barrage of flicker films by artists like Paul Sharits and Tony

172

McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994), 26.

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Conrad. As suggested in the previous chapter, many of the most compelling intermedial exchanges of the period blended gestural, visceral energies as realized through performance, happenings, dance, music, and cinema with ideological, political, and conceptual strategies that were theoretical and abstract in nature. In this chapter of media history, a number of artists intervened ideologically into the flow of television imagery, often, surprisingly, by applying performative strategies. This seemingly contradictory blend of embodied performance elements and the technologies of mass media framed a number of experiments in film, video, and television that interrogated the basic limits between media. 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. 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. In their efforts to shake a media saturated American public out of its normative consciousness, many artists, like those described in the previous chapter, utilized an anxiogenic, even convulsive artistic register in order to attack and disarm the

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dominant attitudes of a populous whose consumerist ethics of distraction kept them from realizing that the boundaries between life and art are fundamentally arbitrary. In this sense, 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. One influential strategy for staging an encounter between fine art and mass culture was realized through the filmic repurposing of the iconography, content, and technology of television. As a cultural force, televisions influence on post World War II America could hardly be overestimated. By 1965, almost fifty-three million American households had television sets (93% of the nations population). It was the primary source of both information and entertainment for most people, 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. 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, including painting, video art, happenings, and experimental film. However, strategies of mass cultural appropriation by the avant-garde were not entirely new; artists have always repurposed resources taken from industrial culture. In an earlier phase of modernist art, collage artists, beginning with George Braque and Pablo Picasso, famously incorporated scraps of newspaper the popular news and advertising medium of the day into the spaces of their

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

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formal opposition. Artist and filmmaker Michael Snow likely expressed the majority opinion of experimental filmmakers when he once said casually, at a meeting of The Filmmakers Cooperative Dope is better than TV.174 As suggested above, many artists working in an array of media and artistic traditions utilized both the content and technology of television, but did so by creating work that was directed, in a figurative sense, against the very medium itself and its associated cultural networks of exchange. By repurposing televisions imagery, its apparatus, and its means of transmission, media artists made significant efforts to undermine televisions corporate rhetoric, its one-way information transmission, its structural apparatus, and its normative ideological system. Yet, a number of these artists also envisioned for television more utopian possibilities. In the practices of some, these critical and hopeful sensibilities worked in tandem. 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. This discussion will consider the ways in which this relatively new medium provided fresh technological and formal possibilities, and most importantly, mass produced, mass distributed visual information, while it simultaneously presented a communication apparatus that was anathema to many media artists and filmmakers of the period. The works discussed in this chapter were made on film, but utilized the technology and content of television, demonstrating another
174

Here, of course, Snow is suggesting that drugs and television aspire to the same effect, but that drugs are more effective (Notes on New American Cinema Group, Filmmakers Distribution Center, and Filmmakers Coop, papers of Anthology Film Archives, undated).

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significant cultural exchange between a variety of media, cultural traditions, and art practices in which cinema as inextricably involved. Outside of countercultural film critic Gene Youngbloods seminal work, Expanded Cinema, the artistic hybrids of television and film (and to a lesser extent, video) produced by Nam June Paik, Jud Yalkut, and Aldo Tambellini, have been largely omitted from most histories of experimental film. 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, mass culture, and experimental film. In addition to considering the specifically televisual component of the eras interactive, intermedial atmosphere, 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. In general terms, 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, the artistic experiments described herein also provoked philosophical consideration of the limits between broader, even nonartistic realms of human activity, including science and industry.

Nam June Paik and the Mediascape of the 1960s: In 1964, Fluxus artist Nam June Paik moved to the United States from West Germany. His arrival marked the entrance of an eccentric performer who

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

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uniqueness, individuality, autonomy, and freedom, and on the other, a popular affection for the mechanized, predictable, algorhythmic, infinitely replicable images of mass media. The central tension of Paiks work operates in this liminal space of early American media art of the 1960s and 70s, between the free gesture of the human hand the abstract expressionist index and the mechanized object of mass media representation that is television. Paiks 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, commercial, and visual space of popular or mass culture. Often these histories have simplistically featured Andy Warhol as an uncritical mascot of mass culture, as a poster child for postmodernism.175 As suggested in previous chapters, Warhols work, particularly in cinema (and its representations of performance), occupies a much more ambivalent position in relation to mass culture than most people have generally assigned to the artists oeuvre. The reason many art historians and critics have disregarded this aspect of the artists work is that they simply have not seen or studied the films. Paiks work too, however enigmatic and rhetorically mute it may have seemed, featured an alternative response to the enveloping force of the American mediascape of the 1960s and 70s, particularly in its consideration
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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. See Peter Wollen, Andy Warhol: Renaissance Man in Who Is Andy Warhol?, eds. Colin MacCabe, Peter Francis, and Peter Wollen (Pittsburgh: British Film Institute & Andy Warhol Museum, 1997), 1115, and Frederic Jameson, Postmodernism and Consumer Society in The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (Port Townshend, WA: Bay Press, 1983), 111125.

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of the unique challenges posed by television as a technology for the dissemination of ideas and images, and the transformation of social structures. Like Warhol, 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. In the work of both artists, however, traces of noise, contingency, and handcraftedness interpenetrate their experiments leaving philosophical markers of embodied, gestural art practices that were entirely dependent on the unique force of human presence. As Paik shifted his primary artistic activities from audio and performance media to different varieties of electronic visual art in the mid 1960s, he continued to address a number of the same conceptual concerns. In his consideration of the relationship between changing aesthetic strategies of the mid 1960s, particularly as they related to the relationship between music and the visual arts, he recognized that, Indeterminism and variability are underdeveloped parameters in the optical arts, though they have been the central problem in music for the last two decades.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, though he had yet to apply such strategies to moving image media. John Cage the composer and artist to work most extensively with chance processes and indeterminacy was incredibly influential for Paik; the artist often claimed that Cage brought him to America.

176

Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1970), 303.

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(More literally speaking, it was in fact Jonas Mekas who secured Paiks visa to come to the United States.) It was Paiks intention to translate some of Cages philosophical concepts and artistic strategies into other media contexts. And his landmark performance/film work, Zen for Film, perhaps represents his most successful effort to coordinate the philosophical mandates of a Cagean aesthetics with the materials of cinema.

Zen for Film: In concert with the feverish intermedial interaction that was occurring in the cultural landscape around him, Paik extended his practice, which had previously focused on performance and sound art, into the realm of the visual arts, and particularly, moving image media. Though his later filmmaking experiments were largely collaborative, on May 8, 1964 he premiered his only single-authored work on celluloid, titled Zen for Film. About a half-hour in length, it consists of nothing more than a clear piece of film leader, featuring no images.177 Its presentations often included performance aspects as well. In one of the few images of this work being performed, Peter Moore photographed Paik at The New Cinema Festival, at The Filmmakers Cinematheque in November of 1965 standing very close to the screen as the projectors beam covered his back, throwing the shadow of the artists body onto the screen. 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, it is evident that the film did not feature white leader, but was probably made from clear leader (Special Collections, Getty Research Institute).
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cast shadow images. Various anecdotal descriptions of the work tell of Paik improvising a series of other simple bodily actions in front of the screen, which created shadows upon it as he moved in and out of the projectors beam of light. The film was sometimes accompanied by other varieties of performance, as it was during the New Cinema Festival in November of 1965. At this event, Paik paired two screenings of the film, one realized by Fluxus and one dedicated to Fluxus, with his Etude Platonique, a musical piece in which the two performers play Beethovens Kreutzer Sonata on a violin without strings and a piano without hammers, presumably producing a mute musical performance that was the sonic equivalent to the film projection. This combined work in sound and image left the framing structures of both cinema and musical performance intact, while evacuating them of content in an effort to elicit a meditation, in a Platonic sense (suggested by the title mentioned above), on their very essences. Though Zen for Film was occasionally realized as a combined work of cinema and performance, 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, without photosensitive film, and featured no visual images. In this regard, it presented an extended interaction with an empty (and silent) film strip, and thus encouraged a reflective consideration of the specific sensory experience of cinema through the evacuation of conventional visual content. In this regard, the film (and its musical accompaniment of Paiks Etude Platonique) related closely to John Cages

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famous 433 (1952) in which a pianist performed a piece of music that featured no actual performed sound. Though it was framed as a piano performance, with an arbitrary length of four minutes and thirty-three seconds, the work intentionally forced the concertgoers to focus their attentions upon the other indeterminate elements of the concert halls soundscape, including the audiences creaking chairs, coughs, and awkward, sometimes noisy, movements. (Cage himself explicitly addressed the structural and philosophical relationship that Paiks film had to his work.)178 Zen for Film contained no content other than the unplanned visual elements that were produced by the chance interactions of dirt, lint, and scratches on the strip of motion picture leader (and thus mirrored the open form of Cages piece in which the unintentional sounds of the theater were its principal details). The other significant component of the films performance experience was the physical encounter that it staged between the projectors beam of light and Paiks moving body (as shown in Peter Moores photograph and described in other anecdotal renditions of the screening event).179 In this sense, Zen for Film was realized as a performance framed by the rectangle of light produced by the 16mm film projector. Yet, in significant ways, it was also a film artifact. It is important, in this regard, that Zen for Film utilized the material basis of cinema as
178 See Cages comments on the film in More on Paik (1982) in John Cage, Writer: Previously Uncollected Pieces, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Limelight Editions, 1993), 153157. 179 Paiks Zen for Film was very much inspired by Cages 433 (1952). Similarly, Cage greatly admired Robert Rauschenbergs Erased De Kooning (1953) in which the artist bought a drawing from Willem de Kooning and then erased it, leaving only the impressions of the pencil, the traces of the gestures. This famous piece too shares structural similarities with both Cages 433 and Paiks Zen for Film as this group of works leaves the framing vessel for the gestures intact while evacuating it of all referential content. This was a structural similarity between their works that was also acknowledged by Cage (Ibid.).

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

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

180 181

Cage, Silence, 82. For a consideration of temporality in art of the era, see Pamela M. Lees Chronophobia: On Time in the Art of the 1960s (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004). 182 Program from the collection of Anthology Film Archives.

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Tape Essay No 1 (perhaps his legendary first videotape), and his presentation of Zen for Film, Paik included one work by filmmaker Robert Breer and two by Stan Vanderbeek. His incorporation of these films by other artists, like that of his own piece described above, was flexible and performative, in that the film screenings were accompanied by live visual and sonic modifications to the film texts. His transformation of Breers Fist Fight (described in the first chapter of this dissertation) was titled Variations on a Theme by Robert Breer, and featured a cello performance by Charlotte Moorman.183 In some presentations of this piece, Paik himself intervened significantly in the projection of the work, making shadow puppets in front of the projectors beam, and thus blocking and transforming Breers original film visually as well as sonically.184 Some images of the work alternatively show the shadow of Moormans performing body as projected against a film screen. Similarly, Paiks 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. The program explains their interventions as follows: Stan Vanderbeeks film where everything is changed by Moorman, Paik, & Sampson and Kosugis Anima No 2 performed simultaneously by Kosugi.185 As this screening series demonstrates, Paik was interested in breaking the textual limits of the film frame through a variety of interruptive and transformative gestures.

Ibid. Hanhardt, The Worlds of Nam June Paik (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2000), 85. 185 Program from the collection of Anthology Film Archives.
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On his program for this event, after listing the various components, 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, Paik was interested in conducting a public experiment into the exhibition conditions of cinema, particularly as they related to performance in what he playfully describes as a cooking of previously canned ingredients. As Paiks language indicates, this performative cinema practice was playful, spontaneous, and inquisitive. In this spirit, his program includes a brief asterisked preemptive apology at the bottom as he explains that, If IV [Variations on a Theme by Robert Breer] & VI [Variations on a Theme by Stan Vanderbeek] go well, credits go to Breer & Vanderbeek, and, if bad, blame comes to me N J Paik.186 Though Zen for Film was integrally determined by the specific characteristics of the film medium, it was also a hybrid intermedial work of both cinema and performance, realized in a variety of exhibition contexts that might appropriately be understood as expanded cinema.187 Like moving image works produced by a number of artists of the era including Stan Vanderbeek, Anthony McCall, 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. It was also distributed as part of a Fluxkit collection of various objects produced by other Fluxus artists. In this regard, it also has another unusual history as a reproduced multiple that was available as a saleable art object.

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of performance art and happenings, which blended a variety of art forms and media. Yet Zen for Film was also, as its title might suggest, a minimalist investigation, in a manner well-suited to Fluxus sensibilities, into the most basic essence of cinema itself. In this sense, it is a meditation on the determinant materials of cinema, and specifically, of film projection. 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), respectively Paiks experiment should be understood as a cinematic innovation of a largely different sort. Zen for Film was both more austere and more playful than the works of Kubelka and Conrad. Their projects in minimalist cinema each featured the careful and meticulous rhythmic sequencing of black and white frames, which were entirely dependent on a rigorous and carefully choreographed visual manipulation of sensory experience through the uniquely and specifically filmic resource of mechanized, rhythmic montage (on the level of twenty-four shifts per second). Paiks work was a simpler, 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. In this regard, it featured a blend of childlike simplicity and intense conceptual reflection that was typical of the Fluxus group. Paiks Zen for Film was the first Fluxus film or Fluxfilm and thus serves an interesting function in the creation myth of the groups work in cinema. In its

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

Bruce Jenkins, Flux Films in. Three False Starts in In The Spirit of Fluxus, ed. Elizabeth Armstrong (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1993), 137. 189 Koch, Stargazer, 39. 190 Koch, Stargazer, 39.

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reception of the work was also perfectly congruent with the Cagean aesthetics that had exerted such a profound influence on all of Paiks work. In 1966, Warhol described the strategy of his early minimalist films along similar terms, explaining that they were intended to help the audiences get more acquainted with themselves. Usually, when you go to the movies, you sit in a fantasy world, but his early films, like that of Paik described above, were meant to provoke a different response, in which, perhaps, you see something that disturbs you, [and] you get more involved with the people next to you.191 In the work of both Warhol and Cage, 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. In a way related to Kochs sentiments on Warhol (as well as the artists own comments), Jenkins suggests in his evaluation of Paiks work, that Zen for Film could both invite intensive scrutiny and elicit absolute boredom, implying that what many of these works shared was a desire to undermine conventional viewing experiences through spectatorial encounters with stripped-down, minimalist investigations into their very conditions of both filmmaking and exhibition. 192 As George Maciunas has argued, these experiments were influenced by other trends in the arts, and particularly, in minimalist music. These strategies were exemplified by other Fluxus artists, including, most notably, LaMonte Young, and thus demonstrate a perhaps differing chain of influence
Gretchen Berg, Andy Warhol: My True Story in Ill Be Your Mirror: The Selected Andy Warhol Interviews, 92. 192 Jenkins, 137.
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from the expressive, personal painting and poetry that motivated other trends in the American avant-garde cinema.193 Paiks Zen for Film, because of its embrace of Cagean indeterminacy, its open-ended tone, and its sheer simplicity, is an originary cinematic object for both the artists own filmography and that of his Fluxus compatriots. (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 Gehrs History (1970) and Peter Kubelkas Arnulf Rainer.194) In very simple and straightforward terms, it also reminds us that in the history of media art in the 1960s and 70s, intermedial experiments did not always overload the senses with overwhelming stimuli. In fact, as Paiks Zen for Film demonstrates, these projects were sometimes simple and playful while still being austere and rigorous. Paiks unique experiment incorporated formal strategies borrowed from both experimental music and underground cinema, while provoking productive considerations of the relationships between media within a range of art-making movements and traditions. In the 1964 and 1965 presentations of Zen for Film, Paik staged encounters between performance and specifically filmic technologies. The film events foregrounded light, unplanned sonic elements, the performers body, and

193

George Maciunas, Some Comments on Structural Film by P. Adams Sitney, Film Culture Reader, 349. 194 Paul Arthur discusses this most ambitious strain of 1970s experimental cinema in an essay for a forthcoming volume of writings on Harry Smith. Arthur, The Onus of Representation: Harry Smith, Mahagonny, and Avant-Garde Film in the 1970s in Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular, eds., Andrew Perchuck, Rani Singh (Getty Publications, forthcoming).

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

Quoted in David Antin, Video: The Distinctive Features of the Medium in Video Culture: A Critical Investigation, ed. John Hanhardt (Rochester: Visual Studies Workshop, 1986), 148.

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Television, the Immaterial, Recording Visual Art Actions: To explain his transformative, perhaps combative experiments with the television medium, Paik often described himself as fighting against the medium, as the rebellious prisoner of the cathode ray tube. It was his aim to challenge the social function of television by reconfiguring technology in human terms. Paik wrote that, in his blending of art and technology, his concern was not how to make another scientific toy, but how to humanize the technology and the electronic medium.196 [emphasis original] In keeping with the anarchic and destructive trends of the Fluxus sensibility, 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. In his earliest work with television he utilized two principal strategies: the manual modification of the circuitry of TV sets, and the live transformation of broadcast television imagery with a variety of handcrafted tools. These modifications to televisions sometimes happened in real time, as the artist performed visual and sonic transformations of their live signals using an array of devices from the crudest, in the form of handheld magnets, to the most sophisticated signal modulators that featured a wide range of custom built signal modifying processors that he designed, both by himself and in collaboration with engineers and scientists. In the gallery
196

Nam June Paik, accompanying brochure for TV as a Creative Medium exhibition at the Howard Wise Gallery, May 17June 14, 1969. Reprinted in Nam June Paik, Videa/Videology, 1959-1973 (Syracuse: Everson Museum of Art, 1974), 47. [emphasis original]

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installation of these works, Paik often devised presentations that encouraged user interface and interactivity. One example of this interactive work in modified television sculpture is Participation TV (1963), 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. By plugging a microphone into an electronically modified television set, the gallery attendee could have his or her words and sounds converted into an abstract televisual equivalent. Like his sound experiments, 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. In 1965, Paik famously bought his first Sony Portapak video recording device and began making original tapes. This technological development allowed him to actually produce his own original audio-visual material, and as such, was something of a revelation for the artist. In a way that foreshadowed some of the more nave utopian sentiments expressed in present day literature on new media and interactivity, Paik felt that the publics capacity to generate its own content represented a kind of revolution in the means of production. 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. Now we can attack it back.197 Like many early practitioners of video art, Paik felt that broadcast television was a medium of control that allowed little space for creative

197

Paik quoted in Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, 302.

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

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

John Canaday, Paiks TV Sets on View at Galeria Bonino, New York Times, December 4, 1965: 27. 199 Ibid.

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encounter between the two media that opened up a range of creative possibilities not previously available to either medium independently. When he met Paik, Yalkut was fairly new to 16mm filmmaking, having gotten his first camera only a year earlier. However, he had previous experience in 8mm, and early in 1965 started working regularly with USCO an intermedial artists collective in upstate New York as their in-house filmmaker. The group emphasized collective authorship, as its name USCO, as in a company of us suggests. A countercultural arts commune, 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, group performance, and social actions. A number of Yalkuts early films documented the collective socio-cultural experiments of this group, 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 USCOs involvement with the Woodstock Festival of Music and Art, as represented in more aggressively psychedelic terms than the well known theatrically released, commercial documentary of the event). Some of Yalkuts other early films provided material to be integrated visually into the groups intermedial events, including Diffraction Film (1965) and D. M. T. (1966), which showcase the lightshows of Gerd Stern, the poetry of Timothy Leary, and the artistic contributions of other members of the collective. Yalkuts experimental visual sensibility blended distinctively with a desire to document the most urgent

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

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Yalkut explained their collaboration: In these early color TV pieces with Paik, he was transforming the video signal through various means, either rewiring the circuits, or throwing in electromagnetic interference, and destroying the video sync signal in the process. I was discovering ways to capture these images on film, since they could not be recorded on video, and then reworking these images through film editing into final pieces.200 By transforming television imagery into filmic materials sometimes from live broadcast, sometimes from pre-recorded videotapes Yalkut and Paik were able to document a wide variety of real time image processing transformations. After these acts of image modulation were transcribed onto film, they could then be resequenced and reorganized with the tools of film and sound editing. Most importantly, by repurposing the content of television, and engaging directly with the language of mainstream visual culture, Paik and Yalkut were able to utilize visual resources that were largely untapped by experimental filmmakers. Traditionally, people working in the medium of celluloid had been largely reliant on either live action motion picture photography or animation, rather than on the electronic, disembodied, and immaterial signal of broadcast television. 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. They addressed the popularization of the psychedelic sensibility within the countercultural movement, as well as new strategies of dematerialized art, while developing a filmmaking practice that

Sabrina Gschwandtner, Between Film and Video the Intermedia Art of Jud Yalkut: An Interview with Jud Yalkut, Millennium Film Journal 42 (Fall 2004), 75.

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extended its network of practitioners, materials, and aesthetic strategies beyond the clique of the New York film underground. In their fluid interaction of elements derived from television, music, video, and film, the videofilms of Paik and Yalkut embody an effort to overcome conventional limits between media forms through an organic and integrated audio-visual language. In addition, the works had entirely elastic exhibition histories, being included in performances by Paik and cellist Charlotte Moorman, multi-media happenings by USCO, various musical and semi-theatrical events, as well as more conventional theatrical film screenings. 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, a situation that is extremely rare if not entirely unique for moving image art. In addition, these works are rather unusual because, despite the fame that Nam June Paik has gained as the father of video art, there is little-tono published critical writing about these video-film collaborations. In her critique of the myth-making trajectory of the dominant histories of the video medium, artist Martha Rosler writes, At the head of virtually every video history is the name Nam June Paik.201 Yet, strangely enough, because of the intermedial status of the Paik-Yalkut collaborations, the works that they created together are largely absent from the dominant histories of both video art and experimental film.

201

Martha Rosler, Video: Shedding the Utopian Moment in Illuminating Video, eds. Doug Hall, Sally Jo Fifer (New York: Aperture, 1990), 44.

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Overall, the videofilms of Paik and Yalkut range significantly in tone and sensibility, 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. Electronic Moon #2 (1969) and Electronic Yoga (1972) represent the lyrical, expressive register of their collaborations by presenting atmospheric psychedelic works that feature sweeping blends and abstract ribbons of television imagery, 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. The sensuous repurposing of the televisual signal that is performed by Paik and Yalkut is significantly closer to the aesthetic sensibility of abstract, lyrical filmmaking than it is to the content of its originary broadcast technology, 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. The two films described above share a basic abstract iconography and an aesthetic sensibility with both the psychedelic underground cinema and the lyrical, expressive cinema of the lineage of so-called lyrical avant-garde film. However, Paik and Yalkut also produced collaborative works that, in ways that were less fluid and expressive, more directly interrogated the social and cultural basis of the televisual image.

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

202

Paik, Videa n Videology, 49.

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

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

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capacities to work together to create new forms. He writes, The hybrid or the meeting of two media is a moment of truth and revelation from which new form is born.204 To McLuhan, hybrid media projects functioned as limit-testing experiments capable of challenging the established social and experiential patterns of perception and thought. Interestingly, 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, and often from the package. So you get inside a television set and you film whats going on and you transmute it through editing, superimposition, and any other filmic experience. [] You make use of the imperfections of the medium and you become more aware of what the limits of the medium are. I use the limit of the medium to define it.205 In some ways, all the Paik/Yalkut experiments in television, video, and film are direct and conscious attempts to demonstrate McLuhans theories concerning the aesthetic, social, and philosophical possibilities of intermedial encounters. 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. In an openly self-referential gesture, Waiting for Commercials includes a segment in which McLuhan explains his theory that the content of any new medium is that which it displaces. In their promiscuous exchanges between the forms of film and video, Paik and Yalkut engage McLuhans thesis concerning the ways in which new media forms remediate the concerns of older ones.
204

McLuhan, Understanding Media, 55. Quoted in Seth Thompson, Jud Yalkut: A Video Beachcomber, Afterimage 32, no. 2 (September/October 2004), 8.
205

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However, there is a sense in which their film-video image exchanges in fact contradict McLuhans media teleology: More often than not, the content of their film collaborations is in fact not the media that film replaced and remediated (which were theater, the novel, and radio), but video, the one that would later replace film. In this regard, because of films greater plasticity and durability, Yalkuts celluloid documentations of Paiks gestural modifications of the television signal form a moving image repository of the artists real-time performances with television, before video provided a reliable and visually adequate storage format.206 Like the other works described in this chapter, Waiting for Commercials features the elaborate conversion of pre-recorded television footage into abstract shapes and ribbons of televisual noise. Interestingly, however, the film juxtaposes these blasts of visual plasticity (which feature the radically modified talking head of Marshall McLuhan) with complete, unedited Japanese commercials for products like Pepsi-Cola and Nestle Goldblend instant coffee. (Before they had been incorporated into the work, the commercials (on celluloid) had been

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In this regard, Yalkuts film documentation of Paiks experiments shares a common historical function to Warhols 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, open-reel, inch video. In fact, because of the obsolescence and obscurity of these early video technologies, Warhols original video materials are no longer watchable. They can only be experienced through their happenstance preservation through the much older medium of photosensitive film. This example also poses an interesting challenge to McLuhans teleological, media determinism. Both cases demonstrate that older media often provide much more reliable archival possibilities than newer, less tested technologies, and in this regard, complicate the technophilia of McLuhan and other varieties of nave new media euphoria.

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purchased by Paik, along with their rights for use.)207 In Waiting for Commercials these advertising vignettes are left intact and unmodified, functioning as found media bracketed by plastically modified presentations of Marshall McLuhans spoken presentations. The last two advertisements in the film present the same line of Japanese womens clothing. 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. 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. 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. In the Japanese songs chorus, one word is emphasized, as all the performers exuberantly sing, simultaneously, and in English, Coordinate! The refrain repeats a number of times and the commercials dynamic color and fanciful use of space blend with animated, colored, geometric shapes and a cartoon depiction of a Samurai (a ridiculous symbolic distillation of Japanese identity). After another Paikean transformation of Marshall McLuhan, 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 (Authors email communication with Yalkut, December 8, 2008).

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follows. In it the women are now carrying tommy guns, and again their clothes spontaneously transform both style and color spontaneously. After some dancing, they then grow animated butterfly wings, as the visuals fluidly blend live action photography with animation. 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, and hippie era butterfly patterns. 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. Most significantly, perhaps, because of the fact that they are Japanese commercials, they express the global penetration of Western codes of audio-visual marketing as described by McLuhan. However, they do so with a different philosophical emphasis, one less concerned with the international movement of capital, than with the power of information to travel instantaneously through new media channels. In one of his most utopian and heavily quoted statements from the period, McLuhan famously claimed that new media forms (including, most significantly, television) were effectively transcending geographic distances and national borders because of the rapid and efficient proliferation of their broadcast technologies. In 1964, he wrote, As electrically contracted, the globe is not more than a village.208 And throughout

208

McLuhan, Understanding Media, 5.

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

209

Authors email correspondence with Yalkut, December 8, 2008.

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

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film of the coming decade. 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. In this regard, Paik and Yalkuts film, like Warhols, draws our attention to its constituent components; it reminds us of precisely what it is that television does. Rather than camouflaging television advertising within a diffused, overlapping media space as a number of collagists and visual artists had in the post World War II period, including Robert Rauschenberg and Tom Wesselman these films draw the viewers attention to the specific idiosyncrasies of two markedly different visual languages, one rooted in gestural abstraction and the other based on an easily legible commercial iconicity. The films framing structure, which utilizes a side-by-side juxtaposition of contradictory artistic strategies, isolates and exemplifies the strange audio-visual excesses of global television advertising, at a moment when its capacity to exert social influence, by using the resources of entertainment, was becoming increasingly more obvious.

Beatles Electroniques: Made roughly three years before Waiting for Commercials, Beatles Electroniques (1966-69) is in some ways a more formally and philosophically dramatic intervention into the ecologies of televisual materials. For its base materials the work used filmed footage of live television broadcasts (photographed off of the TV screen) and prerecorded video footage as

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

210

Youngblood, 330.

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Ken Werner using methods related to those that were employed by the filmmakers in their radical reconfiguration of its visual content. The composer transformed selected, brief fragments of the Beatles pre-recorded music by altering their speed and distorting their sound. In this regard, he treated the original sonic source material as musique concret or found sound to be experienced abstractly and texturally, in a way that disavowed or undermined its melodic energy, cultural familiarity, and sonic legibility. Primarily utilizing the tools of sound editing to produce this breakdown of meaning, Werner changed the significatory function of this music in a way similar to other contemporaneous experiments in sound art and experimental music.211 As a result, when one listens to the soundtrack it is not obvious that the piece is in fact composed exclusively of four repeated, looped musical fragments from the Beatles discography. Therefore, the films 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. By aggressively reconfiguring the most familiar signifiers of popular culture, Paik and Yalkut perform a modification of mainstream audio-visual culture using the tools and creative strategies of the avant-garde. Recently, in a book that reflects on a variety of transgressive and
211

In this sense, the soundtrack resembles the tape experiments of a number of minimalist composers, including Steve Reich, whose pieces, Its Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966) similarly reconfigure human speech into abstract rhythmic and textural patterns.

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transformative uses of television within art and culture, art historian David Joselit has argued that this disruptive sensibility is Nam June Paiks major accomplishment within media of the television age. He writes that Paiks fundamental contribution was the invention of formal models for disrupting image ecologies.212 Images in mass media are trafficked for specific social and material functions, within ecologies and economies that depend on their capacity to accrue cultural value and capital. It is the smooth and direct iconicity of television advertising that cues viewers to associate specific material symbols (the Coca-Cola logo, or a clean, shiny countertop) with abstract emotional sensations (happiness, comfort, etc.). Paiks intervention into televisions flow of information and image, like the most provocative media art of the period, was fundamentally disruptive. What the artist pioneered, again in Joselits words, were malignant procedures by which a video signal was distorted or degraded into mere noise.213 These antagonistic, aggressive, and disruptive strategies were central to the most urgent and significant experimental media art of the era; Paiks work symbolically enacts one of the most powerful versions of this practice. 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.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, Feedback: Television Against Democracy (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 48. Ibid. 214 Youngblood, 330.
213

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personalities and icons across the reproductive circuits of mass media. Like Andy Warhols silkscreen portraits of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, Paik and Yalkuts film breaks down these pop culture symbols, these signifiers of absolute uniqueness, into their underlying material basis as mediated representations of electronic dots and scanning lines. 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, audio-visual system of television, by transforming its broadcast signal, something that he considered to be the most variable optical and semantical event of the era.215

Though much of the media art of the 1960s, including those works described above, was entirely congruent with the ideas and language of McLuhans influential thought, there were occasional points of disjunction in this exchange of artistic and intellectual energies. Marshall McLuhan famously claimed that the content of any medium is always another medium.216 It was McLuhans argument that this transformation of one medium into the content of another produced a teleological media history in which radio replaced the written word, film replaced radio, television replaced film, etc. He argued that because of their continuously evolving, specifically technological natures, all media are in a continual process of reconstituting past forms through progressively newer and faster communication technologies. For example, of early film, he writes, The
215 216

Paik, Videa n Videology, 56. McLuhan, Understanding Media, 8.

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content of a movie is a novel or a play or an opera.217 However, 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. Like Andy Warhols Outer and Inner Space (1965), a work that preserved the artists earliest experiments in videotape through the use of film (the more physically stable of the two formats), these works used the plastic materials of an older medium to unhinge the significatory potential of a much younger mode of representation. In this sense, these film artists remediated the technologies of what was then new media using the artistic resources of old media forms. These inversions of McLuhans media teleology were also aggressive attempts to rewire and scramble the patterns of television and its forward march of ever faster, more efficient blends of commerce, technology, and distraction into knots of cultural feedback and disturbance. The experiments in television, film, and performance of Aldo Tambellini, perfectly encapsulate another example of this willfully distressed and anxious interaction of these technologies and their associated cultural connotations.

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, he was not alone in this endeavor. One of the first artworks to incorporate a television image was a collage produced in the

217

Ibid., 18.

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

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presence of Paik and Tambellini in this exhibit marks them as vanguard innovators in the early history of television based art. But, there are a number of other significant traits that their work shared, 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. In the process of repurposing television and other industrial, commercial materials, these artists questioned the limits between forms of media as well as strategies of authorship while also challenging the eras prevailing attitudes concerning the interaction of avantgarde and kitsch products within the mediascape of the 1960s. Most importantly, by openly engaging with television, 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. 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 mediums electronic signal into a potential resource for artistic filmic experimentation as Paik and Yalkut. Most experimental filmmakers of this era were simply not interested in providing a direct commentary upon, or intervention into, the televisual mediascape of the era.218 Paik, Yalkut, and Tambellini, 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. Consider, for example, uses of television imagery in Bruce Baillies Mass for the Dakota Sioux (196364) and Stan Brakhages 23rd Psalm Branch (1966/1978). A substantially more thorough incorporation of television materials can be found in Peter Mays Death of the Gorilla (1964).

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

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1967, 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. Some of the events at this venue featured performances utilizing video elements by artists such as Nam June Paik and Charlotte Moorman, USCO (with Gerd Stern and Jud Yalkut), as well as experimental theater/group performance by Yayoi Kusama. 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.219 Tambellinis efforts to transform the social contexts for art-making in the period were related to the collective authorial strategies of USCO, the radical process-based works of Fluxus, and more specifically, the collaborative multidisciplinary strategies of Paik and Yalkut, all of which emphasized the drastic repurposing of contemporary communication technologies for artistic purposes and socio-political commentary. These efforts demonstrated a shared interest in challenging a model of artistic production that privileged the singleauthored, expressive works, produced in clearly defined singular media e.g. Abstract Expressionist painting as celebrated by the most established modernist critics. Tambellinis efforts spanned a range of technologies and cultural practices including television, video, film, live music, light shows, and performance.

219

Some of these career details are outlined in Aldo Tambellini, A Syracuse Rebel in New York in Captured: A Film/Video History of the Lower East Side, ed. Clayton Patterson (New York: 7 Stories Press, 2005), 4156. Others were gathered from conversation with the author on December 29, 2008.

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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 Warhols Pop Art aesthetics Tambellinis multi-media projects, including Black Zero (a semi-theatrical project that featured live music, dance, video, 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, not happenings, but a clash between a variety of specific art forms. 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.220 In his earliest film work, Tambellini, like a number of other artists in the era, including Robert Whitman, Robert Rauschenberg, E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology, a group led by Billy Klver) and Stan Vanderbeek, blended filmic elements into theatrical, multi-media experiences that privileged the totality of the event over the textual cohesion or spectatorial interest of any single film. 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, and in experimental television, I think of film as a material to work with, part of the communications media rather than an end in itself.221 Tambellinis multi-media projects initially subsumed the integrity of singular film texts within the theatrical

220

Tambellini worked with Bill Dixon, Archie Shepp, Alan Silva, and other major figures of New Yorks avant-garde jazz community. His collaboration with the remarkable cellist, Calo Scott, was one of his most extensive creative partnerships. 221 Youngblood, 311.

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

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blend of differing audio-visual languages derived from the traditions and technologies of both commercial television and experimental film.

Black TV: The culmination of Tambellinis film practice is the work Black TV. Like Beatles Electroniques, Tambellinis 1969 film powerfully encapsulated certain timely sensibilities concerning the function of television in everyday life. His work staged literal and symbolic encounters between the specific technologies, aesthetic possibilities, and social referents of television and film. In creating this collision between media and their social significations, Tambellini directly drew attention to the different registers of historical reference and social signification of these discrete media. The single screen version of the 16mm film Black TV begins with an abrasive, loud visual and sonic barrage, featuring televisual white noise (or snow).222 Both the image and sound tracks for the film begin as busy, frenetic, and strident assaults on the senses, and they continue relentlessly as such. From the outset of the work, because of its rapid and aggressive sonic and visual textures, it is difficult for the viewer to determine exactly what it is that is being seen or heard; the images move so quickly and feature such visual distortion, that

The film has been projected as both a two-screen piece, with different image tracks side-byside, and as a single-screen film. Though Tambellini now prefers to show the work as a two screen video, it circulated for some time as a single screen film. This is the version that was in distribution through Grove Press for some time. 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.

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

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Over this chaotic blend of network news tragedy, there are filmic superimpositions of televisual materials, including jostled television scan lines and the squirm of television grain, all of which are less fluid and substantially rougher than Paiks flowing, plastic, abstractions. In its aesthetics, Black TV is a more aggressive and insistent work that those of Paik and Yalkut described above. 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. Tambellinis film integrates an aggressive assault of visual and sonic noise that blends aesthetic strategies of disruption and dissonance with emotionally symbolic footage. The rhetorical social force of this television news material is modified and heightened by its incorporation into an audio-visual battlefield of rapid montage, busy superimposition, and back-and-forth zooms that punctuate its rhythmic presentation. After this visual deluge of American historical crises, the films tone shifts somewhat. The clamor of screams and reporters commentary is temporarily replaced by a more ambient and rhythmic soundtrack of electronic sounds, featuring machinic timbres. The film then displays the familiar brand icons of the major television stations ABC, NBC, and CBS followed by footage of boxing matches, skiing, rodeos, and car races. 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, including scenes of policemen hitting protestors and the explosions of mushroom clouds produced by atomic bomb tests.

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Occasionally a word or two become selectively discernible on the films soundtrack, including, tellingly, syphilis, LSD, and rat. Towards the end of the films complex sonic and visual mesh, an image of a crying black child is repeated with some insistence. At times, 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. In his exceptionally agile manipulation of the plastic film image, Tambellini incorporates a wealth of effects that are particular to the medium including rapid montage, superimposition, rhythmic zooms, and visual flicker to unsettle and attack the television image. Similarly, his use of sound approximates the chaos and disjunction of the films visual track. 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. This artistic strategy of repurposing the social and historical content of live television through the medium of film had powerful aesthetic and philosophical implications. Tambellini explained that, Black TV is about the future, the contemporary American, the media, the injustice, the witnessing of events, and the expansion of the senses.224 The film references the assassination of Robert

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Youngblood, 311, 313.

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

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both human history and our capacity to understand it through the reproductive technologies of mass media. The crises that the film represents are also realized metaphorically through the violent breakdown of its own imagery and its mechanisms for communicating meaning. 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. 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. To effectively critique and break down the visual and sonic material of television, Black TV uses the exceptionally plastic resources of experimental film (and its capacity to create entirely independent and equally flexible soundtracks, as Paik and Yalkut had in their collaborations). The result is a work that, though little seen now, was a culturally, historically, and aesthetically urgent work closely attuned to the zeitgeist of the era and its somewhat forgotten aesthetics of sensory assault and psychic tumult.

Cybernated Shock and Catharsis: Viral Aesthetics, Expanded Cinema: In Beatles Electroniques and Black TV, Paik, Yalkut, and Tambellini renovated and repurposed materials of the most ubiquitous mass media sources popular music (in combination with its visual representation) and television news

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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. By making popular music abrasive and news footage incomprehensible, these artists attacked the very medium of television itself, using strategies that defiled its coherence and its capacity to make conventional sense in social, aesthetic, and rhetorical terms. Borrowing from the language of author William S. Burroughs, art historian David Joselit has described these disruptive strategies as viral aesthetics. Recently, he has written about the social and aesthetic force of these transformative experiments in media history. In an analysis of Paiks strategies, he writes, The purpose of viral aesthetics is to interrupt the smooth reproduction of pattern in order to induce shake, quiver, and noise.225 As both Beatles Electroniques and Black TV show us, the patterns of mass media are not impenetrable, despite their inherent electronic potency for the reproduction, distribution, and proliferation of audio-visual information streams. 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. This aesthetic of disruption was a major component of the cultural and aesthetic zeitgeist of the period; its antagonistic gestures were realized through a

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Joselit, Feedback, 63.

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variety of media in efforts to transform the conventionalized experiences of art and entertainment. As they undermined the mediums capacity to create patterned meanings, the experimental practices described above directly performed this hostile breakdown of meaning and cultural convention by disrupting and dismantling the television signal itself. However, these artists also contributed to more performative, interactive uses of film and television materials. In live presentations of this multi-media work, another register of audio-visual violence was visited directly upon the viewers, gallery attendees, and witnesses who came into contact with the confrontational modes of sensory experience described herein. These major trends in confrontational, disruptive, anxiogenic art were integrally connected to filmmaking experiments during the Vietnam era and they have been neglected by most critical considerations of the periods aesthetics, particularly as they relate to experimental cinema.226 This chapter considers some of these strategies and the ways in which they figure through the work of Paik, Yalkut, and Tambellini into a particular set of transformations and exchanges between television, video, and film art. *** The electromedia work of Aldo Tambellini provides a productive example of such a disruptive, aggressive, multi-media project of the mid-to-late 1960s, in which television, video, and film served central functions. In a review in the New York Times, critic Grace Glueck described Black Zero, a 1967 live multiArt historian, Branden Joseph has produced a major critical study of artist, musician, and filmmaker, Tony Conrad that is an exception to this neglect. See Branden Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts After Cage (Cambridge, MA: Zone Books, 2008).
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media event by Tambellini, explaining that the members of the audience are blitzed by such devices as eye-searing strobe lights, wailing sirens, the jumpy play of images on a screen, and a huge balloon that bursts with the clap of a thunderbolt.227 These events (organized by Tambellini and featuring a number of collaborators) included live music, slide projectors, films, video installations, performance elements, and theatrical effects (like the exploding balloon described above), and like Warhols Exploding Plastic Inevitable, utilized extremely loud and dissonant sonic elements that heightened the works efforts to challenge conventional understandings of audio-visual pleasure.228 As the tone of the New York Times article suggests, these experiments in multimedia sensory assault were often met with dismay. 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. With multimedia you create an effect that is not based on previous experience. You saturate the audience with images. It happens now it has a live quality. Its a
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Grace Glueck, Multimedia: Massaging Senses for the Message, New York Times, September 16, 1967: 35, 37. 228 A related, collaborative, intermedial experiment in this history is the 1964 collaboration of Warhol and LaMonte Young, in which the filmmaker commissioned the composer to provide music to accompany excerpts of his films, Kiss, Eat, Haircut, and Sleep, which had been transferred onto 8mm cartridges for continuous rear projection, using Fairchild 400 screening devices (that resembled TV monitors) at Lincoln Center in New York. Young provided a newly recorded version of his piece, Composition 1960 #9 (1960) that may have been used for all four excerpts. (The performances featured the voice of Marian Zarzeela and Young bowing a brass mortar or bowl.) The three-minute looped sections of the films were played in the lobby of the Philharmonic Hall during the New York Film Festival, however, because of Youngs demand that they be played at extreme volume, the management demanded that they be made quieter, and as a result, the composer withdrew his approval to use his music. As a result the films were shown silent for the remainder of their exhibition at the festival. See Branden Joseph, My Mind Split Open: Andy Warhols Exploding Plastic Inevitable, Grey Room 1, no. 8, 8486; Eugene Archer, Festival Bringing Pop Artists Films to Lincoln Center, New York Times, September 12, 1964: 15.

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total experience in itself.229 His comments emphasized the liveness of these events, their capacity to saturate the senses, and their directed use towards the production of new, previously impossible experiences. Though applied differently, this reconfiguration of social and aesthetic patterns (which Tambellini discussed, as cited above, in terms of semi-theatrical, live, 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. A 1965 press release for Tambellinis Group Center collective described the social and aesthetic intentions of these multi-media environments. It is not a happening nor a film. It is a Space-Light-Motion Event built on a series of experiences designed to bombard, 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. Tambellinis Group Center promoted exhibition experiences that would bombard the people who came into contact with their projects. 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. The press releases language of bombardment and propulsion represents an effort to describe a register of performative artistic practice that openly pursued

229 230

Glueck, Multimedia: Massaging Senses for the Message, 35. Dated November 9, 1965, Collection of Anthology Film Archives.

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spectatorial discomfort for the benefit of an aggressively psychedelic, transformative experience. Because of the film mediums naturally immersive, multi-media apparatus, it was a privileged tool for this type of experimentation within the cultural landscape of the 1960s. By virtue of its large scale of projection, its amplified soundtrack, and its inborn capacity for radical juxtapositions by virtue of montage, film was commonly involved in many of these immersive multi-media experiments. Yet, though much of Tambellinis language above relates to the extratextual histories of these works and their conditions of exhibition, these aesthetics of disruption and assault were also inscribed quite forcefully within the textual limits of the films themselves. In this sense, though it may have been used as part of larger mediascapes and performance presentations as mentioned above, Tambellinis 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. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, 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). Paik described his project in terms similar to those used by Tambellini and The

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Group Center, noted above, 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, then some specific frustrations, caused by cybernated life, require accordingly cybernated shock and catharsis. My everyday work with video tape and the cathode-ray tube convinces me of this.231 The artist here proposes that only by turning a medium against itself, through certain built-in poison can we disrupt the poison of television and mass media, which continuously direct their massive technological and social resources towards the penetration of the publics psychic space. Paik uses the metaphor of television as poison to suggest that we ingest media, and only by repurposing these technologies through strategies of shock and catharsis can we expunge their poisonous functions. (This language is likely influenced by the counter irritant strategies suggested by McLuhan, as described below.) The aesthetic sensibility of Paiks earlier performances which included the smashing of pianos and violins, drinking shampoo, 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, and perhaps, undo, the publics socially constructed understanding of aesthetic and ethical categories. In his encounters with television and film, Paik aimed to unmask and attack the electronic basis of the medias social functions with a newly devised, experimental set of tools that were specific to the cultural landscape of the era.
Paik quoted in Manifestos in Great Bear Pamphlet, originally published by Something Else Press (1966) (and republished by Ubu.com, ubclassics imprint, 2004), 25.
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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. Like a number of other artists who were associated with the countercultural movement, the video-film hybrid experiments of these filmmakers were based on non-hierarchical notions of the relationship between different media. The disruptive aesthetic sensibilities of a number of experimental film works of the 1960s and 70s need to be understood, not as isolated experiments by visionary artists, but as significant practices that share attitudes and energies with other developments across the artistic and intellectual networks of the day. In a previous chapter, it was argued that acts of profilmic provocation in experimental non-fiction works by Andy Warhol, Shirley Clarke, and Yoko Ono, represented one filmic connection to trends in performance and experimental theater of the era. Similarly, 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. In fact, the freneticism, sensory overload, and symbolic violence that underpinned many of these film experiments could also be located in the performance, experimental theater, minimalist music, and conceptual art of the 1960s. In his compilation of essays, The New Bohemia, journalist John Gruen traced changes in the timbre of artistic production and social life in the early-tomid 1960s, particularly as they affected the Lower East Side of New York City.

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He argued that a range of social anxieties were visited upon the space of cultural experimentation, through the activities of a group of young people he described as the combine generation. Within this multi-media landscape of the period, 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.232 (Here Gruen could easily be describing the multimedia events of Tambellini.) 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, that embraced the aesthetics of assault as cathartic and transformative social experimentation. As has been suggested elsewhere in this chapter, these artists and filmmakers described above were heavily influenced by Marshall McLuhans argument that new media forms fundamentally transform the basic conditions of thought and experience. In his new media cosmology, the artist acts as a seer of sorts and defuses the potentially destructive power of these technologies through acts of experimental violence. For McLuhan, the privileged sites of this aggressive assault on established forms are the frontiers between discrete media. He writes that, 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
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Gruen, 112.

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media holds us on the frontiers between forms that snap us out of the Narcissus-narcosis. 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.233 According to McLuhans influential position, 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. In fact, at the end of Understanding Media, he writes that all media can be used as weapons, as tools for undermining established forms of control. In this sense, McLuhan argued, in concert with a number of other thinkers going back to Dadaism and futurism perhaps that art could, and should have, a combative function. This counterattack, which repurposes media technologies in order to undermine their conventions and established ecologies, was directed towards the destabilization of the television mediums smooth flow of information, and might be therefore described, again using the contemporaneous language of McLuhan, as an aesthetic counter-irritant. For McLuhan, this variety of directed intermedial assault had a therapeutic function for society that could be uniquely applied by artists. This idea was extremely influential for many filmmakers and intermedial artists discussed in this project.234 The philosophical underpinnings and rhetorical framings of these anxiogenic and combative strategies differed or artist to the next. Susan Sontag, in her seminal essay, One Culture and the New Sensibility, considered the shifting

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McLuhan, Understanding Media, 55. See McLuhan, Understanding Media, 4147.

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

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Sontag, One Culture and the New Sensibility, 300.

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modifying consciousness and organizing new modes of sensibility.236 What Sontag observed in the art of the period was a desire to use media to induce psychic transformation, to devise new ways of interacting with media, with society, with science, and produce what she described as new modes of sensibility. (This was an idea that was entirely congruent with those of Artaud, as discussed above, with which Sontag was both a devotee and an expert.) In comparison to the historiography of art and popular culture, 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, including Jonas Mekas, Paul Sharits, Nam June Paik, Andy Warhol, Carolee Schneemann, John Gruen, Calvin Tomkins, and Marshall McLuhan had on various aspects of film practice at the time. As suggested earlier in this project, 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. In its effort to uncover patterns of thought through systematic disturbance, this sense of an experimental art that functions to test limits and conceptual problems suggests something of the spirit of science. 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. Susan Sontag explained the shifting aesthetic sensibility as an act of research into a set of problems. She argued that a reaction against what is

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Ibid., 296.

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understood as the romantic spirit dominates most of the interesting art of today. She continued, Todays art, with its insistence on coolness, its refusal of what it considers to be sentimentality, its spirit of exactness, its sense of research and problems, is closer to the spirit of science than of art in the old-fashioned sense.237 In fact, Paik and Tambellini, like their colleagues in E.A.T. (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. As Cage and Kaprow, spokespersons for the new aesthetics, were arguing that the boundaries between art and life were eroding, 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, discussed by Sontag and others, there was a sense that art could function as an investigative instrument, quite literally, for experimentation, as an instrument for social, humanistic research. In this regard, video, as an epistemological tool, presented distinctive possibilities from those of film. 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. As suggested at the opening of this project, in the correspondence between Stan Brakhage and Annette Michelson, there was evidence of a marked ambivalence, or perhaps, even a disdain, for the artistic practices associated with video, particularly as they

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Ibid., 279.

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were felt to be eclipsing the aesthetic, historic, and social potency of this older, still under recognized medium for the production of art. In his letter to Michelson, Brakhage mentioned that he had long resisted the crows of video makers238 and she responded by writing that one begins, caught in the wave of retrenchment of filmic resources and the onrush of video, to feel like a dinosaur, thrashing about in a hostile landscape.239 By 1985, when their quoted exchange took place, video had been firmly ensconced in the art world for some time, having achieved a place in the gallery and museum establishment that would never, even today, be available to experimental film. In fact, in 1975, video art was officially incorporated into the Whitney Museums biennial exhibition, a major show for gauging significant trends in the American art scene. Film would not be included in Biennial exhibitions until 1979, even though it was a much older medium with a rich and long history of experimental work by established artists. 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. This, perhaps, is the hostile landscape to which Michelson was referring in her letter to Brakhage, a die-hard film devotee.

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Letter from Stan Brakhage to Annette Michelson, June 7, 1985, collection of the University of Colorado, Stan Brakhage Papers. 239 Letter from Annette Michelson to Stan Brakhage, June 16, 1985, collection of the University of Colorado, Stan Brakhage Papers.

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Conclusion: From Nature to Culture: The video-film interactions of Paik, Yalkut, and Tambellini depended primarily on corporate media sources to provide their foundational content. Because of their repurposing of mass-produced television imagery, their media art should be understood as part of a much larger shift in artistic sensibility, across a range of media in the post World War II era, that emphasized the recycling of mass cultural materials over the demiurgic and expressive creativity of the age of abstract expressionism and bebop, which preceded it. As has been suggested elsewhere in this project, Sontag noted that a reaction against what is understood as the romantic spirit dominates most of the interesting art of today.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, including pop art and assemblage, which depended on the infinitely replicated iconography of mass media to provide their principal themes, icons, and historical referents. In describing this shift in artistic values of the late 1960s and early 1970s, art critic Leo Steinberg famously drew attention to the work of Robert Rauschenberg, and what he described as the characteristic picture plane of the 1960s, in which Steinberg felt that the conditions of artistic production changed markedly from those of a previous era.241 As Rauschenberg both literally and

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Sontag, One Culture and the New Sensibility, 279. Leo Steinberg, Other Criteria in Other Criteria: Confrontations with Twentieth-Century Art (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 82. Steinbergs Other Criteria essay was published in the volume of the same name in 1972, but was based on a public lecture at the
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figuratively turned his back on the live model as a source of subject matter, he directed his energies away from nature and towards the representation of already mediated images, by incorporating images from newspapers, magazine ads, and pieces of comic books into his paintings, collages, and combine works. Steinberg argued that Rauschenbergs meditations on mediation embodied the most radical shift in the subject matter of art, 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.243 In this regard, Rauschenbergs reflections on media and mediation marked a transition that was wholly congruent with the changing experiences of America in the age of television. Steinberg poetically articulated the way in which Rauschenbergs aesthetic shift from illusionism to media documentary aligned with larger cultural changes: What he [Rauschenberg] invented above all was, I think, a pictorial surface that let the world in again. Not the world of the Renaissance man who looked for his weather clues out of the window; but the world of men who turn knobs to hear a taped message, precipitation probability ten percent tonight, electronically transmitted from some windowless booth.244 As these quotations above demonstrate, Steinberg located in Rauschenbergs floor bound combines a major shift in the values of painting, however he suggests earlier in his essay that the stakes of such claims extend well beyond the limits of

Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1968. The part of the essay concerned with Rauschenberg and the shift from nature to culture was first published in Artforum in 1972. 242 Steinberg, 84. 243 Ibid., 85. 244 Ibid., 90.

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any medium; the essay, in a more general sense, is a meditation on the relationship between form and cultural context. In this regard, Steinbergs essay suggests implicitly that this transition was not particular to Rauschenbergs medium or artistic milieu. In fact, it is precisely this turn from nature to culture that the video-film works of Paik, Yalkut, and Tambellini dramatize. 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, into the social and historical spaces of post World War II America. In this regard, Beatles Electroniques and Black TV expose the technological basis for the construction of social meaning and ethics within the electronic spaces of television, and like Rauschenberg, direct their energies toward a new notion of both aesthetics and visual pleasure in which all meaning is mediated. This move from nature to culture marks a significant shift in the aesthetics of experimental cinema. Though a number of artists in the era had incorporated mass cultural detritus into their work in film, Paik, Yalkut, and Tambellini took the most common visual materials of their age to be their principal subjects. Because of the fact that it shares a recording medium with Hollywood, experimental film has always been inscribed with some trace of mass culture. However, as these works above demonstrate, 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.

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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 publics 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 televisions normativity as a determinant of the structure and content of the popular history of the United States.

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

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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 1950s.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
246

247

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), 124127; Roland Barthes, The Death of the Author (1968) in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 142148.

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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. Conners remarkably prescient output across a range of media demonstrates a particular brand of anti-elitist iconoclasm that challenged

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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. Conners 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 authors 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, Conners films catalyze an anxious interpretative experience in which the cultural crosstalk and iconographic oversaturation of the works multiple messages overwhelms the possibility of a single coherent understanding of its rhetorical or symbolic

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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 Conners 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 Conners assemblage based filmmaking as well the collaborative film practices of Robert Nelson, perhaps Conners 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,

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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 dissertations 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 Conners 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

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the mediascape that surrounded them. Nevertheless, as Conners 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, Seitzs 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 Hch, 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

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

Seitz, 39. Ibid., 85.

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thus consciously involve themselves in a new variety of technologically mediated, social collaboration that was simply unavailable, in a literal sense, before the technologies of mass media made them possible. Such a transformed understanding of authorship undermines the classical valorization of the artists unique volition and vision in the process of making an artwork. In this sense, assemblage embodies a shift in emphasis, 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, external frames of reference including the social and economic flows of information and capital. 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, and challenge the divisions between life as something common and shared and art as something precious and rarefied.250 By incorporating the familiar iconography and textures of mass media imagery, these artists who worked variously in collage, assemblage, 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, contrary to my position above, 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, thus instantly valorizing them as precious, rarefied art objects that could be marketed and sold. However, at least with Conner, such an evaluation would prove inappropriate for both economical and critical reasons; his work neither gained the material support nor the cultural esteem of genuine, elitist museum culture. In addition, it was not easy to contain or collect. In fact, 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).

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cultural landscape. As these artists oriented themselves towards the external mediascape, in Seitzs words, They violated the separateness of the work of art, and threatened to obliterate the aesthetic distance between it and the spectator.251 Interestingly, Seitz quotes Allan Kaprow on this subject, and argues, by proxy, that the same interests in undermining cultural hierarchies that led to conceptual art, happenings, and avant-garde performance also underpinned assemblage art and its unique blend of iconographic and social experimentation. Like Seitz, 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. In the same year as The Art of Assemblage show, Alloway wrote the essay, Junk Culture, which, like Seitzs catalogue, celebrated the philosophical innovations of this new work that was, in fact, critically unpopular. Alloways essay functions as a critical endorsement of a mode of art-making that had disavowed traditional values of painterly control, formal perfection, rhetorical coherence, well executed craft, and conventional notions of beauty. 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. In this sense, in order to understand assemblage, one had to consider the environment to which it referred. Its force of reference and its traffic in popular iconography and discarded materials were

251

Ibid., 23.

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inextricable from its significatory, textual attributes. In fact, the work foregrounded these elements. The truth of this critical observation, however obvious it may seem, was in fact rather controversial to modernist critics, yet it is essential to any responsible consideration of art in the 1960s, including found footage filmmaking. Concerning the relationship that assemblage methods have with their environment, Alloway writes: Junk culture is city art. Its source is obsolescence, the throwaway material of cities, as it collects in drawers, cupboards, attics, dustbins, gutters, waste lots, and city dumps. Objects have a history: first they are new brand goods; then they are possessions, accessible to few, subjected, often, to intimate and repeated use; then, as waste, they are scarred by use but available again. [] Assemblages of such material come at the spectator as bits of life, bits of the environment. The urban environment is present, then, as the source of objects, whether transfigured or left alone. In addition, the objects are frequently presented in terms that dramatize spread, flow, extension, trespass.252 In this quotation, the English critic foregrounds the often ignored material economies that precede the production of artworks, and thus defies the modernist tendency to occlude the social and economic functions of the works in question.253

Lawrence Alloway, Junk Culture, Architectural Design 31, no. 3 (March 1961), 122. It could also be argued that social reference is negatively present in Greenberg and Fried, through its glaring omission, as a result of the historical conditions in bourgeois society that have defined the avant-garde as an autonomous realm of cultural practice. (I thank David James for this critical observation.) For a more thorough, though polemical, theoretical discussion of the way in which the history of bourgeois culture has conditioned the avant-garde, see, Peter Brger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
253

252

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For many of critics of the time, one of the most salient and provocative aspects of appropriation was the way in which it suggested a new understanding of the artists identity. For Alloway the definition of the artist had been transformed to such a significant extent that it became functionally deprofessionalized. In his words, the ideas behind assemblage combine to subvert the compact, professional image of the artist as the possessor and exponent of unique skills. This implies that there is no specialized labor or rarified set of talents that were exclusive to the domain of the professional, trained artist. He continues, As a result, the reach of the artist has been increased and the area that could be claimed as art has expanded. The definition of art has dilated, like cinema screens in the Big Screen revolution of the 1950s.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), felt that, as Amy Taubin did, anyone could and should make films.255 So, to echo Alloways statement above, when relatively untrained artists like Andy Warhol produced films that they did not shoot, write, or edit, the filmmakers community was upset by the lack of labor, specialized or otherwise, that these amateur auteurs contributed to their work.256 Conners found footage cinema, in which he often
254 255

Ibid. Quoted by Arthur in Films the Color of Blood in The Film-makers Cooperative Catalogue no. 7, vi.. 256 Annette Michelson addresses this problem in passing in her essay on Warhols interdisciplinary practice. See Michelson, Where Is Your Rupture? Mass Culture and the Gestamtkunstwerk in Andy Warhol, ed. Michelson (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001), 91110.

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made films without lifting a camera or exposing any celluloid, could also pose provocative interpretative and philosophical issues for the definition of a filmspecific authorship that did not actually include original motion picture photography.

Media Refuse and Film Art: The Case of Bruce Conner: However, anything which was taken for granted as not serious, not art, just things that are thrown away, were exactly what I paid attention to. Bruce Conner257 In recent years we have had the artist as a sort of pre-theatrical impresario (Happenings), as performer (notably Robert Morris and Robert Rauschenberg), and more recently as movie-maker including Andy Warhol and todays example, Bruce Conner. Brian ODoherty, New York Times, April 26, 1964258 The second quotation was taken from Conners first lengthy, major review in a national daily newspaper on the occasion of a ten year gallery survey of his work in assemblage and drawing. Despite the reviewers emphasis on Conners cinematic works, no films were screened as part of the exhibition. Though the critics appraisal of the exhibit was overwhelmingly laudatory, it infuriated Conner nonetheless, because it catalyzed an anxious crisis of identity concerning the artist and his work that would never be resolved, in any context, be it in the critical literature, the gallery circuit, or the community of avant-garde film: was he an artist or a filmmaker? The quotation above implies the basic supposition
William C. Wees, Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1993), 79. 258 Brian ODoherty, Conner and His Films: The Artist as Director, Performer, and Occasionally as Artist, New York Times, April 26, 1964: 21.
257

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

259

Cummings Interview, Smithsonian Archives of American Art, April 16, 1973, 2526.

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extraordinary vigor.260 The reviewer explains that Conners films utilize strategies closely related to those of his assemblages, both of which foreground a montage of found materials. In this regard, ODohertys review was singular in its advanced if somewhat anachronistic understanding of the overlapping sensibilities of materially distinct artistic practices, regardless of the fact that it called more attention to Conners films than the artist might have liked. ODohertys review presents an interesting historical snapshot of the contemporary critical response to Conners work in the mid-1960s, 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. The reviewer tellingly groups Conner with a number of other artists who experimented with a range of performative, multi-media, and dematerialized practices that were, in his words, no longer physically limited by the four sides of the canvas, a statement that clearly echoes the language of Kaprows influential writing on Pollock (discussed earlier in this project). To the reviewer, Conner, like Morris, Rauschenberg, and Warhol, Conner was an allrounder who can perform within the category of what we think of as art and outside it, in other areas [e.g. film], when he so feels.261 It is unclear precisely how ODoherty or his reading public, circa 1964, might have conceived of the limits between art and other disciplines, 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

ODoherty, 21. ODoherty, 21.

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and film as being potentially integrated or even related artistic undertakings. Yet, at the same time, 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 artists entire practice, and thus could be overcome, philosophically speaking, through the careful scrutiny of multi-faceted components of an artists output. Certainly, Conner thought of his films as art, though he may not have defined himself as a filmmaker (and certainly not exclusively or predominately as such). The reviewer concludes the essay dramatically, in an effort to group the artists 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. His films are revolutionary.262 This final rhetorical gesture helps to solidify ODohertys overall picture of Conners practice in summary, as a way of coming to terms with a material environment, suggesting that its multi-media mix of objects, photographs, and films, is an appropriate and perhaps revolutionary response to a diverse cultural network of media, material objects, and social history that display related values and processes of signification. In this regard, the 1964 New York Times review of Conners work initiated a mode of intermedial interpretation of the artists work that remains largely unrealized in the subsequent literature.263 After a bit more

262 263

ODoherty, 21. There are a few exceptions to this segregation of media within the interpretation of Conners work. One recent effort to situate various strands of the artists work in relation to each other can be found in a relatively short, but excellent introductory book titled Secret Exhibition: Six

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consideration of the historical directives of the early critical writing on the intermedial relationship between Conners films and art, this chapter will present a case study of related works produced by the artist in disparate media. Since the publication of the New York Times review almost fifty years ago, various journalists, critics, and scholars have addressed the ways in which Conners artistic practices have foregrounded repeated thematic interests, particularly concerning commercialism, repressed sexuality, militarism, misogyny, violence, and their representations in American popular media. However, little critical writing has made this claim simultaneously about Conners work in more than one medium, and in fact, a medium-specific cleavage along traditional, disciplinary lines was particularly pronounced in contemporaneous reviews published in the earlier years of the artists career. To some degree, this division continues to affect the critical interpretation of the artists multi-media oeuvre. In 1990, Conner described the short-sighted critical response, resulting from the limited understanding of the artists materials that dominated most writing on his work: I couldnt conceive of restricting myself to

California Artists of the Cold War Era (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1990), in which Rebecca Solnit situates a range of Conners projects within the geographic and social milieu of beat and post-beat art production in California. More recently, the catalog for the last major oneman show of Conners work, organized by the Walker Art Center, attempted to address a range of the artists media projects. However, most of the essays, though they make reference to the artists other practices, segregate his output according to medium, with one essay on assemblage, drawing, and photography; one essay on conceptual and performative projects; and one essay on film, all of which are strong summaries of Conners interests and methods. See 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II, eds. Peter Boswell, Bruce Jenkins, and Joan Rothfuss (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2000). Most recently, Kevin Hatch a doctoral candidate in the department of Art History at Princeton, completed a dissertation that addresses a range of Conners projects, in a number of media from 1957 to 1967 (Kevin Hatch. Looking for Bruce Conner, 1957-67 (PhD Dissertation: Princeton University, 2008).

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one medium. [] This confused a lot of people, and they couldnt see any connection between the various bodies of work Ive done. For me, however, theres a clear relationship between all these forms.264 Not all reviewers overlooked these connections, but many were influenced by the limits of their own disciplinary, professional, and social networks, as well as the legacy of Greenbergian modernism. In one of the most significant early essays about Conner in an art publication, Artforum editor Philip Leider eloquently described the uneasy and unsettling blend of sexuality and violence that interacted complexly in the artists assemblage work. In this essay, Leider takes a somewhat defensive tact because so many reviewers took offense to the artists debased materials (taken from trash heaps and exploitation magazines), their collective defiance of classical notions of beauty, and their disturbing social and historical referents. Leider attempted to justify the formal idiosyncrasies, thematic negativity, and disarming iconography of the work in order to counter the reviews that simply dismissed the work as ugly and nihilistic. For example, in 1960, one reviewer described Conners work as a sampler in the cult of ugly265 and in the same month, in a different journal, another critic wrote that the artists work represents the high speed conversion of

Quoted in Kristine McKenna, Bruce Conner in the Cultural Breach: Decades of Antagonizing the Status Quo Has Brought Critical Acclaim for the Brilliant yet Eccentric Multimedia Pioneer, Los Angeles Times, June 10, 1990, 4. 265 Sidney Tillim, Arts 34, no. 6 (March 1960), 59.

264

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avant-garde art into academic expression. It makes Rauschenberg look like a model of classic purity.266 As Seitz had done in his landmark exhibition and accompanying catalog of the previous year, Leider attempted to explain the historical context of Conners output: Looking at his work, one conceives of a mentality which must obsessively re-cast all it observes into the imagery of the most unutterable horrors of our times. The imagery comes to him ready-made out of the history of this century. In his review, Leider describes Conners work as demonstrative of nothing short of a New Sensibility, a new way of seeing things, a strange recasting of experience in terms of a sensibility we have not before encountered.
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Yet, in his basic assertion that Conners work demonstrated a fresh sensibility

and a provocative response to social phenomena, he, like most art critics of the age (with the notable exception of ODoherty), did not mention the artists film work at all. This critical silence serves as evidence of an interpretative myopia in the art world that prevented, and generally continues to prevent, the full appreciation of a field of practice extending beyond the traditionally understood limits of its privileged media. (In this regard, ODohertys review was truly anomalous.) Unfortunately this medial hierarchy affected some of the most astute critics of the day, including Leider. 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. Even as late as 1974, after Conner had been
266 267

Lawrence Campbell, Art News 59, no. 1 (March 1960), 62. Philip Leider, Bruce Conner: A New Sensibility, Artforum 1, no. 6 (November 1962), 30.

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exhibiting art publicly for almost twenty years, Paul Karlstrom, an historian conducting an oral history for the Smithsonian Museum, had not seen most (or perhaps any) of Conners films before conducting an extensive career retrospective interview for the institutions Archives of American Art program.268 While art critics, with the exception of ODoherty, restricted their discussion of Conner to his assemblages, some contemporary film critics had a surprisingly more informed and holistic comprehension of his work. One can find traces in writing in journals like Film Culture and Film Quarterly of efforts to interpolate Conners rather idiosyncratic films into the scope of a wider, artistic, intermediary discourse (though this trend was perhaps abandoned by the mid1970s). In 1966, in a short discussion of Conners Report (1963-67) in Film Culture (the principal literary mouthpiece of the cinematic avant-garde), David Mosen discussed the artists films in relation to other media forms: the films offer a convenient parallel to Conners other art work of the past ten years: his physical assemblages of clearly recognizable everyday junk such as old couches, suitcases, and womens underwear. The films are also an extension of Conners welding of death and comedy.269 Then, in 1967, in one of the most ambitious contemporaneous reviews of the artists films, Carl I. Belz astutely drew the readers attention to themes in Conners films that related to the context of contemporary art more generally.

268

Interview with Bruce Conner, Conducted by Paul Karlstrom, San Francisco, August 12, 1974, Smithsonian Archives of American Art. 269 David Mosen, Short Films: Report, Film Quarterly 19, no. 3 (Spring 1966), 54.

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

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Carl I. Belz, Three Films by Bruce Conner, Film Culture 44 (Spring 1967), 57.

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Conners art builds on the discoveries of contemporary expression in general. He avoids completely the now trite vocabulary of Surrealism and abstraction, as well as the heavy handed symbolism and fetishistic devices which seem to plague so much current work.271 Such a review, like that of ODoherty, was extremely uncommon and in fact, few film critics, academics, or curators would demonstrate an interest in actually considering Conners films (or those of any other experimental filmmaker) within the same cultural landscape of fine art, despite the fact that roughly half of the artists films actually debuted in art galleries.

Intermediary Dialogue, the Pin-Up Girl, and the Nude: In much of Conners work, his subject of artistic reflection was the distinctively American method of mediating sexuality, through mass produced images of the female form. The complex, unstable, and often exploitative interpenetration of sex, violence, and capital in American mass culture produced a wellspring of representational codes that provoked Conners most enduring artistic interventions into the cultural landscape of the 1960s and 70s. Throughout a range of media, Conner interrogated Hollywoods visual methods for commodifying sexuality. In assemblage, 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, Conner had a markedly different social and artistic agenda from many of the artists that P. Adams Sitney would later group within his moniker of visionary filmmakers (Ibid., 58).

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sculptural, stationary media, thus activating the associative symbology of these images within an entirely different visual economy. In this process, 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. His assemblage works of this variety, including HOMAGE TO JEAN HARLOW (1963), HOMAGE TO MAE WEST, HOMAGE TO MINNIE MOUSE, draw much of their affective and associative force from their capacity to reactivate the embedded cultural associations of their subjects, which had been achieved through their circulation within an entirely different medium and socio-economic network.272 In his work in both assemblage and cinema, 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. And the central icon of this perverse commercial mechanism is the mass produced image of the starlet or pin-up girl, a 20th-century, mechanically reproduced version of the female nude. In this sense, one of the principal functions of industrial film production has always been, and likely will continue to be, the commodification of female sexuality. To Conner, the commercial iconography of female sexuality whether embodied in the promotional glamour shot, the pin-up, or the stag film was the most provocative and overdetermined visual currency that American popular

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Conner preferred that the orthography for the titles of his works be written in all capital letters.

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

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clearly divided into two sections. The top half features a densely crowded, overpacked amalgam of materials including a womans shoe, a beaded purse, pieces of cloth, silk, a stuffed blowfish (wrapped in pantyhose), womens silk undergarments, costume feathers, dangling tassels, and two centrally placed female mannequin arms and hands adorned with bright red nail polish. In its use of mannequin parts, this assemblage includes anthropomorphic sculptural details that directly present a life-size display of false femininity. Beneath this dense display of feminine finery and inexplicable exotica (a stuffed blowfish?) there is a white shelf upon which the mannequin arms rest, as if sitting atop a womans dressing table. Within this crowded array of female finery, there are a few commercially produced pin-up photo reproductions (or glamour shots) likely taken from popular mens magazines, including the legendary Playboy spread of an ivory skinned, nude Marilyn Monroe on an iridescent red background.273 In a sense, the top portion of the work resembles a disheveled version of a nightclub dancer or actresss dressing room, in which a variety of clothes and scarves have been draped across the mirror, and next to which, she has pasted a photograph of the icon whom she aspires to emulate. Beneath the assortment of female clothing and jewelry, there is a tasseled wooden shelf, and beneath it, dozens of torn and fragmentary images of female nudes. They were likely taken from semi-pornographic magazines of the 1950s

In a suggestive conflation of identities, which would be replayed almost a decade later, Arline Hunter the star of Apple Knockers and the Coke (and the subject of Conners MARILYN TIMES FIVE) imitated the very same photo spread of Monroe for a later issue of Playboy. From the visible evidence, it is difficult to tell which one is in fact included in Conners assemblage.

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

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icons of the most conventional and trivialized notion of the feminine. This was the last of Conners works to use these materials pantyhose, womens undergarments, costume jewelry, etc. that were typical of his assemblage work in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was consciously intended as his final statement on this phase of his career, as a summary of his work thus far. 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. 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. In this sense, the collage component of the work differs markedly from the dominant representational strategies of this mode, as one would find in the work of a range of well-known collagists including, for example, Pablo Picasso in a cubist mode, Max Ernst in a surrealist vein, or Richard Hamilton working with the visual language of pop art. Instead, Conners photographic fragments of nude women, which are the works principal visual content, are organized serially, without any effort to incorporate them into an atmospheric configuration like that of narrative or diegetic space, thus relating the work to a variety of composition that is more typical of decollage. Conner has addressed this formal distinction between his work and the precious, compositionally deliberate work of other collage artists in terms of painting: There are an awful lot of predominately painterly attitudes towards collages. The

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attitudes that I had were much less painterly.275 As Conner pastes these images together without modification, he draws the viewers attention to their nature as popular photographs and their materiality as magazine cutouts. As a result, most viewers of the work would be consciously aware of the sources of the images, and thus be implicated explicitly in the basic conditions of viewing a kind of pornographic assembly line of commodified, stereotyped femininity.

MARILYN TIMES FIVE: In some sense, the seriality of Conners assemblage reflects the apparatus of cinema and the mechanized nature of image production in the related technologies of popular print media and television.276 Conner once said, Movies are collage in my mind a series of individual photographs that are stuck together.277 The artists approach, unlike that of a number of other found-footage filmmakers, foregrounds the inescapable seriality of the medium. His film of 1968-73, MARILYN TIMES FIVE, is a hyperbolic instantiation of an obsessively repetitive method of film organization. In the work, Conner assembles five sequences of film from a semi-pornographic short stag film titled Apple Knockers and the Coke (1948), each time accompanied by the song, Im Through With Love, sung by Marilyn Monroe. The duration of the film is thus the cumulative

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Karlstrom, 19. It might be argued that Conners work relates conceptually to that of Warhol, in which the artist conveyed an interest in seriality and repetition in general terms that were not solely applicable to his film art. 277 Peter Boswell, Bruce Conner: Theater of Light and Shadow in 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story, Part II, 32.

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

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and a half minutes, more than half feature a black screen, a condition that openly frustrates any puerile expectations that the films viewers may have Conner, like the actress of Apple Knockers and Coke, teases the viewer as he shows and hides and shows and hides the increasingly naked female body, reminding us, in an openly self-reflexive way, that we are looking at a woman who is taking off her clothes in order to be looked at. Like LOOKING GLASS, MARILYN TIMES FIVE is a meta-peep show. The thematic crossovers, shared philosophical promises, and overlapping artistic strategies of these works demonstrate that Conners artistic practice exceeds the material differences of his chosen media. The rhetorical consciousness of Conners 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, and Conners work in assemblage and film draws the viewers attention to this ideological function of the medium. Conner was certainly not the first film artist to foreground this fact. As many critics have indicated, filmmakers including Josef Von Sternberg, 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 in experimental cinema, filmmakers including Cornell, Warhol, Jack Smith, and the Kuchar Bros. have played on Hollywoods techniques of the sexualization of a glamorized, exaggerated female body. However, in MARILYN TIMES FIVE, Conner forcefully estranges the apparatus of cinema from its conventional methods for

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

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camera. This tension between a simple pleasure of sexual curiosity and a rigid, almost mathematical structure of continued and systematic repetition frustrates simple Hollywood-style identification with the objects that cinema normally shows us. Like the film work of Andy Warhol, MARILYN TIMES FIVE utilizes a variety of hyperextended duration in which standard temporal expectations are frustrated. In this sense Conners visual approach complicates the transparency of Hollywoods visual and rhetorical strategies as it makes its viewers aware of the meaning of these images as signifiers of repression and exploitation, while it also forcibly reminds them of their own processes of looking.

In a letter to art collector Ed Janss, Conner explained the conditions under which he assembled this film, highlighting the significance of the works materiality and grain. In this film, he was using footage from a girlie movie that Marilyn Monroe made in the forties. The soundtrack is Im Through With Love sung by Marilyn in the movie Some Like It Hot. I started with 400 ft. of film from the girlie movie and threw out 350 ft. of it. The 50 ft. saved was the footage that had some kind of grace or humor or meaningful motion. I limited all the images to exactly what was on the film of the girlie movie (including just specks on the print). I havent added anything else except black leader between shots. The footage, which was maybe 20th generation by the time I got it, was grainy. I emphasized the grain with high contrast printing and I repeated images.279 As Conners description of the work suggests, it was intended, like many of his other works in assemblage and film, to reconfigure the debased materials of the

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Letter from Bruce Conner to Ed Janss, November 24, 1972, Smithsonian Collection of Bruce Conner Papers.

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most exploitative commercial mass culture by transposing them into a work of homage. However, as he enhanced the grain and visual noise of the work, Conner intentionally undermined the mimetic force of the imagery, thus challenging its capacity to transfer an index of the once-living, once-breathing Monroe, across history. Like his film REPORT, which reflected upon the televisual commodification and symbolic transformation of President Kennedys image, 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 1974, Conner and a Monroe expert/enthusiast exchanged some correspondence concerning the identity of the performer in his film. (Though their letters were intended to be included in Film Quarterly magazine, [and were addressed to the editor, Ernest Callenbach], they were not published.) James R. Haspiel, the author of Marilyn and the Other Monroe Girls, 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. In Haspiels view, Conners refusal to acknowledge that the performer was not the famous sex symbol was indicative of his ignorance, in what comes off as a pathetic attempt to elevate the importance of his tawdry film effort.280 Conners response to the letter demonstrated that this question was it really Marilyn Monroe? was not terribly relevant to understanding the films

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Letter dated December 3, 1974, copy in the collection of Pacific Film Archives, Berkeley, CA.

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

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

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Conner has often been at the center of controversy, even within the avantgarde. I remember a radio interview between Jonas Mekas and Ken Jacobs in the early 1970s, broadcast over WNYC in New York, in which Mekas attacked MARILYN TIMES FIVE as being exploitative; Jacobs defended the film, as did others soon after MARILYN TIMES FIVE was released.282 An ideological anxiety often results from situations like that of Conner in which seemingly enlightened, well-intentioned artists attempt to criticize retrograde and destructive social forces, while still trafficking in some of the corrosive energy of their targets of critique. By their very natures, works like these often provoke people to ask, is it exploitation or is it art? Before considering such an ethical question, one must ask an ontological one: Even if it were Conners desire to create a critical, politically progressive work, 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. It might even be suggested that the grain of the film itself is complicit in the exploitative action that it represents. Like so many artists who developed their mature voices in the commodity saturated landscape of the mid20th century, 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, Conner reconfigured icons of commercialized femininity and degraded sexuality, at least partly in order
Steve Anker, Correspondence and Controversy: Social Studies or I Left My Avant-Garde in San Francisco, Film Quarterly 40, no. 3 (Spring 1987), 57.
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to interrogate them in both visual and philosophical terms. Yet something about the significatory and rhetorical functions of these pieces remains rhetorically unstable, regardless of the medium in use. In 1989, art critic Anne Ayres described the complexity of reading tone in Conners work.283 She writes, An interpretative unease (which has always plagued the reception of Conners work) arises from the questionable line between Conners expos of hypocrisy and his delight in eroticism and the seamy side of contemporary popular culture.284 In fact, this provocative artistic strategy was not only clear to academics and critics who make professions of such observations; it was also a common response from a range of viewers. In 1962, a reader of Artforum wrote a letter to the editor expressing a similar sentiment of distaste and revulsion. She writes, I consider Mr. Conner an evil genius with fantastic power for expression. My admiration for his work is as great as my revulsion for it and I only wish that someone, not excluding Mr. Conner himself, could convince me that his work is prompted more by a desire of exposing a degenerated, suicidal generation, than an actual sadistic sexual involvement with the work itself.285 This tension between critique and a seemingly complicit visual pleasure is not easily resolved in Conners art. This is a fact recognized and embraced by Conner himself. He openly describes his own work in such terms, by suggesting that, for the art to have its full meaning it should have a certain amount of wonder to it. The reactions to it, or what it is, shouldnt be programmed at the
To my mind, this is a problem for all found image formats, because authorial traces are largely limited to editorial choices, rather than representational style. 284 Anne Ayres, Forty Years of California Assemblage (Los Angeles: UCLA Art Council Annual Exhibition, 1989), 130. 285 Silvan Simone, Letters in issue after Artforum 1, no. 6 (November 1962). The letter was written by gallerist Silvan Simone.
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time. That stands in the way of any kind of direct relationship.286 He was consciously aware of the mixed messages and responses that his work produced, such that this ideological anxiety is built intentionally into the work. He has explained that this diversity of possible responses is an indication of the works openness, 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. It is Conners belief that the totemic icons of 20th century commerce, like religious icons of the past, 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.287 This significatory ambivalence or tonal ambiguity is in fact, in some sense, the conceptual engine that drives the artists work.

Conners Influence: Robert Nelson, Documentary, Irony, and Collective Authorship: Conners legacy as the preeminent found footage filmmaker in the history of American avant-garde cinema is widely recognized. Filmmakers and artists including Craig Baldwin, Abigail Child, Paul McCarthy, and Phil Solomon have readily acknowledged his massive influence on their strategies of appropriation and citation. However, Conners legacy should not be traced exclusively through filmmakers who deal primarily with found footage. In an aesthetic sense,
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Conner interview with Paul Karlstrom, San Francisco, August 12, 1974, (Smithsonian Archives of American Art), 27. 287 Joan Rothfuss, Escape Artist in 2000 BC: The Bruce Conner Story Part II, 183.

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

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COSMIC RAY, BREAKAWAY, and VIVIAN. The filmmaker who most powerfully exhibits Conners 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. Nelson, like many experimental filmmakers, began as a painter. 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), he formulated an understanding of creative authorship that was substantially more collaborative and anti-authoritarian than earlier artistic conventions dictated. Similarly, as someone who came to the arts during the bohemian transition between the beat era and the counterculture of the 1960s, Nelson was drawn to varied intermedial interactions that defied the clean divisions between artistic forms that were of a function, in part, of classical disciplinary education. From their very beginnings, his efforts in cinema emphasized collaborative undertakings with a range of Bay Area artists, including painters William T. Wiley and William Allan, theatrical director of the San Francisco Mime Troupe Ron Davis, rock and roll group the Grateful Dead, poet-playwright Michael McClure, multi-media artist Bruce Nauman, and minimalist composer Steve Reich, among others. Due to Nelsons interest in the expanded field of art production during the 1960s, he naturally found his way to cinema, a medium that served as a model of totalizing, immersive art in the period. But, it was largely Conners influence that led him there. In an interview of the late 1970s, Nelson explains:

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I wanted to be won over if there was anything there, but I didnt see anything. Until I ran into COSMIC RAY. And that was the first one, that did it, and that was what really made me realize that somehow it was possible. Obviously it didnt cost any money, relatively speaking, 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.288 What Nelson found in Conners work was an accessible, inexpensive, amateur production model that impressed him with the conditions of artistic possibility that it seemed to suggest. Nelsons subsequent work in the medium was varied in format, tone, and representational strategy much more so than Conners in fact but it exhibited the same aversion to artistic and intellectual pretension. Conner once explained his overall attitude towards experimental film in such terms: He writes, Ive always known that I was outside the main, mercantile stream. I have been placed in an environment that would have its name change now and again: avant-garde film, experimental film, underground film, independent film, etc. I have tried to create film work so that it is capable of communicating to people outside of a limited dialogue within an esoteric, avant-garde or cultish social form. Jargon I dont like.289 Following Conner, Nelson pioneered his own irreverent representational strategies that experimented with more idiosyncratic and playful forms, carefully avoiding the sin of pride that is so typical of self important film artists who often proclaimed their aesthetic pretensions rather loudly. By engaging with conditions of chance and collaboration, which were drawn partially from the open-ended creative and social strategies of the
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MacDonald, Canyon Cinema, 303. Wees, 77.

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

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explained that some of his films were barely authored at all.290 As suggested throughout this study, such works posed major challenges to filmmakers and critics who were still proudly holding onto classical notions of film craft, personal expressivity, and controlled authorship. With The Great Blondino (1967), Nelson began his artistic partnership with William T. Wiley, a like minded painter drawn to conceptual gags, wordplay, and irrational, performative experiments in the illogical and absurd. Blondino continued the semi-dramatic, improvisatory mode of Nelsons earlier works and reflected the same formally eclectic sense of bricolage and heterogeneous composition. With The Off-Handed Jape (1967) and Bleu Shut (1970), 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. Each of these films features a kind of inexplicable riddle as its generative subject. In the first, the performers attempt to enact a variety of gestural non sequiturs, including the elusive off-handed jape. After filming spontaneous, unscripted attempts by each of the artists to display an array of ridiculous facial expressions and bodily exercises, the artists then quickly recorded a simple voiceover in which they commented on their performances, e.g. that was a good one, that was quite a jape, etc. Their back-and-forth banter is simultaneously natural and absurd, like an in-joke between two friends. Bleu Shut follows a similar strategy, though the subject of the films enigmatic riddle is a

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Robert Nelson at Redcat, Los Angeles, January 21, 2008.

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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, Nelsons 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.
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work, The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art (1970). Nelsons films openly parade their irreverence for the avant-garde filmmaking tradition that emphasizes craft, labor, and training. In fact, Nelsons irreverent and iconoclastic artistic sensibility had a significant influence upon the filmmakers 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 Nelsons 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 films 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 works 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 fishs tenaciousness and its potential edibility. There is also some comedic, anthropomorphic speculation of the fishs 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,

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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 films conclusion. Like a number of Nelsons collaborations, this work by Nauman functions as an in-joke produced almost exclusively for the benefit and pleasure of its producers. The film, like Nelsons 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 Nelsons 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 soundtracks spontaneous and playful verbal exchange is greater evidence of the works 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

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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 Cages 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

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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.

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More, Nelsons Collaborative Documentary: Perhaps the most ambitious and large scale collaborative work of Nelsons 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 Nelsons 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, Nelsons unruly group of film works utilizes the medium, not as an expressive resource, but as a philosophical toy applied to the investigation of films inborn and unusual capacity to witness profilmic realities and reconstitute them within collective social practice. The final product of No Mores 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

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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 games action, though the social activity surrounding it seems to be more central to the interests of the filmmakers.

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

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

extraordinary filmic control, as it showcases the cars exterior; an extreme overhead high angle shot from the mansions rooftop places it in its luxurious surroundings; a large dog is lead inexplicably out of the cars back seat by the films female model; a close-up of the cars hood ornament, shot with a wide angle lens, distorts the cars size and stylizes its visage; and an extreme close-up of the automobiles hubcap ends the advertising sequence. These carefully staged, highly stylized tripod shots are accompanied by the most saccharine elevator music, forming a rather deft student reconstitution of the language of television advertising. 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. This cues a concise transition to the documentation of the ongoing American social ritual that began the film. A title card introduces the final scene; it reads, EDDY STREET / ITHACA, NEW YORK / JULY 7, 1971. In this concluding section of More, the filmmakers return us to the cast of characters who played softball and began their celebration in the opening of the film. The ethnographic spectacle of the days events resumes in the early evening as the athletes, many still wearing their jerseys, celebrate their victory en masse in a public park in a college town in Upstate New York. The team and their many enthused friends have become even more excited and energetic; a number of them are clearly intoxicated. They make nonsensical exclamations towards the camera operators, including seemingly unmotivated non-sequiturs like, You cant stop America. Fuck you! The mood

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

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

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and small scale give the impression of an offscreen comment, perhaps a whisper of extreme irony, made by the filmmaker. This title reads: CINEMA VERITE. It quickly fades away. At his point, it is later in the evening and the screen has become much darker. People are frolicking more wildly now, 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 Cockers performance at Woodstock. At the conclusion of this section of the film, the filmmakers engage with this changing mood through quicker cutting and panning that recognize the collective profilmic energy of the experience. We see another man flailing wildly it is the teams captain again as he lifts his shirt, drops his pants and rhythmically flaps his now exposed penis in the middle of a dance circle. The camera pans away from the action, as if embarrassed. There is a cut, and the final superimposed titles appear over the crowd. They read ADULT SHORT SUBJECT. As before, they flash on and off the screen very briefly, again providing an understated, brief, and unusual authorial commentary on the genre of the film and its various types of content and filmmaking modes. It then ends abruptly with a cut to black and a truncation of the soundtrack. 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, drink beer, consume recreational drugs, dance, and loudly celebrate their youth. Their exuberance is clearly spontaneous and sincere, and the films improvisational style perfectly captures

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

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Paik had done with Waiting for Commercials, Nelson and his students draw attention to the markedly different modes of address that are associated with distinct filmmaking genres, be they informational, commercial, or fictional. Nelsons use of text in More, like his choice to incorporate a highly stylized advertisement for a free car, is certainly mischievous; it undermines both the sobriety of documentary filmmaking and the commodity fetishism of television advertising. Though there has been little consideration of the significance of both observational documentary and television advertising in relation to experimental film, Nelsons film demonstrates that these two languages are always looming somewhere in American visual culture, in the background of even experimental film work. More is an unusual, idiosyncratic engagement with both the visual language of documentary and that of television advertising that juxtaposes them against one another within a ribald, irreverent frenzy of youth and excess. This eccentric amalgam of styles and tone allegorizes the unusual production conditions of this unruly experiment in collective authorship.

Place, San Francisco, and Subculture: In addition to the erosion of traditional divisions between the arts that occurred in the United States in the 1950s and 60s, the history of the nations artistic culture was influenced by other kinds of borders and limits, be they institutional, social, or geographic. Most of the networks of influence and exchange that underpinned the histories of experimental art and cinema in post 274

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

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the dominant practices of New York, while demonstrating that the trends, sensibilities, and modes of production that were typical of the East Coast art capital were by no means the only possibilities that the medium offered. In understanding Conners work, a consideration of his Bay Area, 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, cliquishness, and the elitist presumptions of the New York art world, on one hand, and the mass-produced, populist, formulaic productions of Hollywood film, on the other. To Conner, both forces represented the most crass kind of consumerist, capitalist, market-based economics. He once dismissed the entire notion of the gallery circuit as a bankers exercise, saying, The only reason the art world exists is because the check has been cashed.294 Nevertheless, Conners work intervenes within these two different cultural registers by being simultaneously implicated in both of them, in material terms, while willfully distancing itself from them through its ambivalent ideological and philosophical stance. The bohemian communities of the West Coast provided alternative cultural contexts for the exhibition and marketing of fine art. Though there were

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Rothfuss, 173.

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galleries in San Francisco, in which artists could show a range of multi-media work, it is important to recognize that there was little economic infrastructure to support the art community of that area. The California artists of Conners circle and cohort Jay DeFeo, Wallace Berman, Wally Hedrick, George Herms, Jess (Collins), Manuel Neri, and Ed Kienholz lacked substantive gallery representation, and only he had a New York dealer. As Tom Crow argues in The Rise of the Sixties, the California artists of that decade lacked any stable structure of galleries, patrons, and audiences that might have given them realistic hopes for worldly success.295 Many of these artists, because of their economic exile from the New York art market, often worked in the junk-based modes of collage and assemblage, in Crows words, to make sense of their own marginality, recycling the discards of postwar affluence into defiantly deviant reconfigurations.296 Conner is one of the pivotal figures of this history, though his exclusion from the New York art world was only partial and, some might suggest, determined by the artists own voluntary choices. Writer and essayist Rebecca Solnit provocatively argues that Conners 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. If he had stayed in New York, it is conceivable that undergraduate art history texts would now speak of Johns, Rauschenberg, and Conner (or at least Conner, Oldenburg, and Kaprow). But he didnt [] In choosing San
295 296

Crow, The Rise of the Sixties, 23. Ibid., 25.

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

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Rebecca Solnit, Secret Exhibition: Six California Artists of the Cold War Era (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1990), 60.

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subjects, a celebration of literary poetics, an interest in individual spiritual revelation, and the embrace of personal pleasure, as achieved through the transfiguration of the senses. In an article titled San Franciscos Hipster Cinema of 1967, 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. Whether it is lyrical, as with Baillie or William Hindle, or ironic, as with Robert Nelson or Bruce Conner, or ecstatic, as with Ben Van Meter or Kenneth Anger, the San Francisco cinema has a verve, energy, and sense of self. [] The artists are also firmly attached to the more vital movements in their society. Although they have shrugged their shoulders toward the rat race, or even given society a more passionate gesture, they still submerge themselves in the people and movements that surround them. They can be found at the sit-ins, the marches, and the riots as well as the dances and light-shows of San Francisco nightlife.298 As Alexander suggests, the influence that this shared set of concerns exerted over the areas film artists was partly a function of the community atmosphere of filmmaking around San Francisco in the 1960s and 70s. Conner reiterates Alexanders sentiment in hindsight, from 1981, as he stresses, in particular, 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. There were filmmakers banding together to create a new environment for their films to be viewed in, to distribute their own films, to control them, to speak of their own films directly, and to redefine the values of the film. Nobody was taught how to make films. The production of films usually was in the simplest economic ways. What was happening was a social

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Thomas Kent Alexander, San Franciscos Hipster Cinema, Film Culture 44 (Spring 1967), 70.

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phenomenon whose direction was toward a new view of film and its place.299 The humble production conditions and independent sensibility of the work continually surface in anecdotal descriptions of experimental filmmaking in the Bay Area, and should necessarily frame any historical consideration of the relationship between artistic practice and its social determinants in the region. Canyon Cinema, founded by Baillie in 1960 as an itinerant, community experiment in public film exhibition, had grown by 1967 into an independent, artist founded collective, like the Filmmakers Cooperative of New York, dedicated to the distribution of work by experimental and independent filmmakers. (Robert Nelson and Bruce Conner were both involved in the early organization and development of Canyon Cinema.) Both of these cooperatives initially began as shared, communal projects run by artists that also functioned as social organizations through which filmmakers met, socialized, and exchanged ideas. However, by all accounts, 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, manifesto-minded work of the New York-based experimental film group. These social values permeate the areas experimental film culture in terms of its extratextual production histories as well as its subjects, themes, and overall content. The works of Bruce Conner and

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Mitch Tuchman, Bruce Conner Interviewed by Mitch Tuchman, Film Comment 17, no. 5 (September/October 1981), 75.

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

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disavowed museum art, instead selling beads in Haight-Ashberry, and working in rock and roll light shows at the Avalon ballroom. As mentioned above, the Semina circle overlapped with that of Hollywood and Conner became a close friend to many celebrities, including counter-culture icons Hopper and Peter Fonda. Conner was directly involved in much of their work of the late 60s, including the pre-production of Hoppers Easy Rider (1969) Hopper himself has often cited Conner as a massive influence on that film and Fondas Hired Hand (1971). 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, including Grace Slick (of The Jefferson Airplane), Hopper, and Dean Stockwell, and thus his material support was often a function of these friendships. So, though Conner was critical of the mainstream media, he still found a place for himself on the fringes of the popular counterculture.301 Most importantly, Conners film and assemblage work needs to be understood not simply as a set of collaborations with various artists, but as an artists 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.

In fact, Conner performed the actors 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, 1970, Bruce Conner Papers, Smithsonian Archives of American Art). 301 In a letter to Shirley Clarke, the artist reflects on some details of popular culture and his place in that sphere, presenting a short resume of his associations. 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 Days Night (1964)] is making a movie here which I will try to get in (Shirley Clarke Papers, Wisconsin Historical Society, University of Wisconsin, Madison).

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Thomas Albright, 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, and the balance of forces there was fundamentally different. Conner, Berman, 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. They leaned more toward absurd and savage comedy than the first-generation Abstract Expressionists, but in their own way they were just as impassioned, uncompromising, and morally concerned.302 The social history of groups like these represents the interpenetration of influence, happenstance, friendship, artistic authority, social trends, and the flow of capital within a specific historical moment. 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.303 Like Conner, Robert Nelson was part of a social enclave in which he interacted with a variety of artists from a range of disciplines, many of whom served as collaborators at some point in time. One of Nelsons collaborations with these artists has been described above, 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, Art in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-1980 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 109. 303 In a similar sense, 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, for example, the Semina group. Consider the appearance in Bermans mimeographed, handassembled literary and artistic journal Semina, of translations of Antonin Artaud. The dramatists 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.

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

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

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Nelson, Robert Nelson on Robert Nelson, 23. Albright, 119. 306 Thomas Albright explains that Wileys attitude and personal style provided a model for the laid-back, life-is-art rusticity that became prominent in much Bay Area art after the mid 1960s (Ibid.).

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

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

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Peter Plagens, Sunshine Muse: Art on the West Coast 19451970 (New York: Praeger, 1974), 94.

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Chapter 5: Somatic Cinema: Presence, Performance, Crisis, and the Problem of Structure

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

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

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experimental film. However, Brakhages 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. These two artists maintained an impassioned correspondence through the years, meeting whenever they could, heatedly exchanging arguments and artworks, and sharing friends and ideas. Though Schneemanns name is well known in the art history contexts of the academy as well as museums, Brakhages has never penetrated either of those intellectual spheres. Conversely, Schneemanns films deserve greater attention within the context of experimental film history. A case study of their interaction should provide some perspective on the historical opposition between an art world insider, who reveled in the social, sexual, and performative opportunities presented by the art world of the 1960s, and a hermetic experimental filmmaker, who chose to distance himself from the New York art scene. 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, 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

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between the material of film and the historical real that mediates. Kitchs Last Meal (197376) by Carolee Schneemann and Brakhages Act of Seeing With Ones 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. This chapter will consider this nexus of concerns as it reflects on the aesthetic, historical, and philosophical challenges of an experimental non-fiction as practiced by Schneemann and Brakhage. The works discussed herein challenge the conventional understanding of a plastic, abstract, oneiric, demiurgic, heroic, visionary film practice which is, according to the dominant narratives of film history, essentially Brakhagean and encourage a recognition of an alternative, observational aesthetics of experimental film (practiced by both Brakhage and Schneemann) that, rooted in the particulars of everyday experience, represents a profound innovation in the ontology of cinema while also challenging the conventional expectations of expressive film art.

Carolee Schneemanns Neuro-Muscular Art: In a fundamental way, the aesthetics of both Brakhage and Schneemanns cinematic enterprises can be tied historically to the legacy of Abstract Expressionism. Both artists came of age in the 1950s and developed their understanding of themselves as artists in the wake of this movement. To these two

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artists, the representational transformations of Pollock, De Kooning, 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. Recently, art historian Amelia Jones has considered the way in which the Pollockian Performative affected the generation that developed in the artists wake. In her analysis, Pollock functions as a point of transition, not causing this shift towards either a greater abstraction or an expanded notion of performance, but as an ambivalent figure both quintessentially modernist, formalist genius, and origin of the performativity of postmodernism.310 It is precisely in this interstitial space between plasticity and presence that Pollocks ambivalence and cultural urgency can be located; it is also here where we can situate his influence on experimental film. This unresolved tension is closely related to that of Warhol, who attempted, through so many media forms, to track new models of subjectivity, none of which perhaps, was more powerful than that devised in his cinematic work.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, and toward a performative erasure of distinctions between aesthetic and social space.312 Joselit, like Jones, finds this opposition to be illusory, suggesting that these same
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Amelia Jones, Body Art / Performing the Subject (Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 1998), 61. 311 As suggested earlier in this dissertation, Stephen Koch once argued that the representation of human presence was Warhols greatest concern. Perhaps it was for this reason that Warhol was so enthused about the possibility of making a biopic about Pollock. Supposedly, Warhol also had at least one painting by Pollock in his collection. 312 Joselit, American Art Since 1945, 34.

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forces were not mutually exclusive, but instead were often realized in the spaces of the same works.

As Kaprow predicted in his 1958 essay, The Legacy of Jackson Pollock, 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, 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. Schneemanns artistic legacy perfectly encapsulates this shift in emphasis. Trained as a painter whose visual style is indebted to the animated and emphatic painterly line of Pollock and his cohort, she shifted its visual energies (as did Rauschenberg, Jim Dine, and others) towards the spaces of semi-theatrical experimentation. Schneemanns work in this vein including Meat Joy (1964), Snows (1967), Up to and Including Her Own Limits (1973-76), Interior Scroll (1975, 1977) represents some of the most urgent and influential work of feminist performance. In addition to their significance as new artistic forms and political strategies, Schneemanns performance works, with their emphasis on taboo-breaking sexuality, social interaction between performers, anti-war energies, and the blending of various media forms, powerfully embody the counter-cultural, social energies of the era. Thus, like many other figures discussed herein including Cage, Paik, McLuhan, Sontag, and Warhol she

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needs to be considered in two different interpretative registers, as both an independent creative artist and a historical registration of her cultural milieu. In historical terms, Schneemanns significance has been well-established in narratives of performance and visual art, yet her film works remain unassimilated into the central narratives of art history. Yet, like Breer, Warhol, Ono, Paik, Tambellini, Conner, and others, her practices in other media overlap historically, formally, and philosophically, in integral ways with her experiments in cinema, and thus demand to be understood as components of the same artistic field. By considering Schneemanns involvement in a variety of performance derived, at least partially, from the energies of Pollock, this chapter aims to provide an interpretative context for the historicization of her innovative, provocative and unassimilated film works, which incorporate the Pollockian Performative in either their profilmic, filmic, or exhibition spaces. Schneemanns 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. As part of an artistic community that included performance artists, painters, musicians, dancers, dramatists, filmmakers, and poets, 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. Specifically feminist in its orientation, Schneemanns work began within the locus of the Judson Memorial Church, but extended to a range of other venues associated with various other media forms, including the Living Theatre, The Filmmakers Cinematheque,

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

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

Carolee Schneemann, Imagining her Erotics: Essays, Interviews, Projects (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003), 62.

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

Schneemann, More Than Meat Joy: Complete Performance Works and Selected Writings, ed. Bruce McPherson (New Palz, NY: Documentext, 1979), 63.

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

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

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Schneemann, Interview With ND in Imagining Her Erotics, 117.

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

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like Ionesco, Brecht, and Beckett was anathema to Artauds project, as it would be to Schneemanns. Artauds emphasis on bodily presence and somatic theater was precipitously synchronous with the lingering influence of Abstract Expressionism and its emphasis upon contingent, physical expression as a mode of mapping psychic activity. The precise significance of the body in Artauds writing has been recently described by Allen S. Weiss in a way that suggests an interesting compatibility between these historically remote artistic developments: For Artaud, the pure presence of the body was both the absolute site of contingency and the source of psychic energy.316 In this sense, Artaud located the spirit and the mind in the body, and for Schneemann, perfectly drew an intellectual connection between the physical action of artistic gesture and the sexual identity of the artist herself. In her notes from the 1960s, she made it clear that she had digested Artaud, when she wrote, I decided my genital was my soul.317 As has been suggested earlier in this dissertation, Artauds 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, aggressive action against established values, the triggering of discomfort, and the overload of the spectators sensoria. Like a number of other artists of her generation, Schneemann would take up a 1960s version of the aesthetic and social challenge that Artauds theories implied. Her work aimed to confront conventional value systems and aesthetic
Allen S. Weiss, Artauds Anatomy in The Senses of Performance, ed. Sally Banes, Andre Lepecki (New York and London: Routledge, 2007), 201. 317 Schneemann, More Than Meat Joy, 55.
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structures by creating work that openly undermined the traditional expectations of sensory experience in art, while also challenging the strictures of bourgeois taste, which circumscribed the limits of social and artistic appropriateness. It was her intention to stretch the senses and the intellects of her spectators through a kind of psycho-sexual assault. In a notebook fragment from the early 1960s, before Schneemann completed Meat Joy, her intermedial theater projects, or her major film experiments, 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; that the eye benefits by exercise, stretch, and expansion towards materials of complexity and substance; that conditions which alert the total sensibility cast almost in stress extend insight and response, the basic responsive range of empathetic-kinesthetic vitality. [] I have the sense that in learning, our best developments grow from works which initially strike us as too much; those which are intriguing, demanding, that lead us to experiences which we feel we cannot encompass, but which simultaneously provoke and encourage our efforts. Such works have the effect of containing more than we can assimilate; they maintain attraction and stimulation for our continuing attention. We persevere with that strange joy and agitation by which we sense unpredictable rewards from our relationship to them.318 Like many other artists and theorists discussed herein, Schneemann sought to elicit a condition of spectatorial anxiety in which she would disarm normative sensory expectations and conventional value structures through artistic action. For her the principal device for undermining these artistic and ideological conventions

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Schneemann, The Notebooks, 195863 in More Than Meat Joy, 9.

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was the register of erotic representation, which she would use to overwhelm the predilections of her viewers and the social and textual limits of her chosen media.

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. The filmmaker was a childhood friend of her romantic partner, James Tenney. Beginning in their college years, the three artists engaged in heated conversions about aesthetics and the potential relationships that could be negotiated between diverse media.319 (At that point, Schneemann still defined herself exclusively as a painter.) In her words, Brakhage introduced film and film process to us.320 During their extended sojourns together, in Vermont or later in Schneemanns country home in upstate New York, Brakhage sometimes filmed the young couple together. One or both of them appeared in four of his films, Daybreak (1957), Whiteye (1957), Cats Cradle (1959), and Loving (1956). In viewing these films, Schneemann felt that there was something about Brakhages approach that undermined her subjectivity and challenged her authority as an independent individual. She decided to counteract Brakhages representation of her sexuality: Brakhage made Loving because of his fascination with the erotic sensitivity and vitality that was between

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Schneemann met Tenney in May 1955 and encountered Brakhage for the first time only a few months later. She was introduced to Brakhage, in her words, 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, July 13, 2009). 320 Schneemann quoted in Women of Vision: Histories in Feminist Film and Video, ed. Alexandra Juhasz (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 70.

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

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

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In her preparatory thinking about Fuses, Schneemann intended to undertake an experiment in film language. 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. (This was a challenge that Brakhage would face on numerous occasions as well, including in his film The Act of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes, which will be discussed later in this chapter.) The result was a film that challenged the narrative positioning of Brakhages own camera eye by recalibrating the visual field of the work and undermining conventions of visual identification and genital objectification. Though its historical innovation was significant by any definition, Fuses has been left out of many narratives of American experimental film (including Sitneys). David James has written the most persuasive and articulate account of Schneemanns film: The film so thoroughly interweaves shots of Schneemann and shots from her point of view, shots of Tenney and shots from his point of view, and shots of the two of them from no attributable point of view that narrator positioning is entirely dissolved.324 His analysis rigorously identifies the ways in which the optical perspective of the experimental film camera has been reconfigured, not as a heroic first person, but as a mode of vision that disperses authorship and

324

James, Allegories of Cinema, 319.

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subjectivity as generalized functions of an indeterminate erotic field.325 In her eroticization and somatic, sensuous transformation of the profilmic and filmic registers of Fuses, Schneemann created her most sexually explicit project. Because of the films particular material conditions as a recording technology, it catalyzed in Schneemanns hands a powerful investigation into the effects of technologically mediating an erotic exchange. One of the most thorough and elaborate feminist experiments in film practice, Fuses is an innovation in both non-fiction and experimental cinema, as well as in the ontology of sexual representation that has been omitted from almost all theoretical interventions in feminist film historiography.326 Still, there is no doubt that in the medium of cinema, Fuses is Schneemanns most highly acclaimed work. Though it was rather hard to see for a time due to censorship laws and social taboos concerning the explicit representation of sexual intercourse, the film did have some public visibility. For example, in the early 1970s it toured theatrically as part of a package of erotic films (presented by Grove Press), which also, curiously enough, included Apple Knockers and Coke, the short grainy, semi-pornographic film that was Conners

325 326

Ibid., 320. Schneemann is not mentioned in Patricia Mellencamps Indiscretions: Avant-Garde Film, Video, & Feminism (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990); nor is she considered in any of Laura Mulveys writing. (Mulvey is the most influential feminist film theorist; her most well known essay is Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema in Film Theory and Criticism 7th edition, ed. Leo Braudy, Marshall Cohen (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 711722.) As Schneemann once said, Mulvey talked to me about the rupture Fuses made in pornography how important Fuses was as an erotic vision. It was going to change the whole argument and discussion of filmic representation of sexuality and then she couldnt touch it. Mulvey has never mentioned my films (Schneemann in Interview with Kate Haug in Imagining her Erotics, 27).

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

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this sense, Rubins work was less susceptible to cooptation by the sensibilities of heterosexist pornographic exploitation. Some critics have argued that through her use of her own body, Schneemann created works that played into heterosexual male fantasy. In her essay, European and American Womens Body Art, first published in 1976, Lucy Lippard compared the perceptions of male and female body art. 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, Carolee Schneemann, and Lynda Benglis were met with much less approving responses. To her, this was largely due to the sexism of the art world, but there were other considerations as well, particularly when the women involved, like Wilke and Schneemann, were a glamour girl or a body beautiful, respectively.328 She writes, Men can use beautiful, sexy women as neutral objects or surfaces, but when women use their own faces and bodies, they are immediately accused of narcissism. [] Because women are considered sex objects, 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 is a narcissist, and Acconci, with his less romantic image and pimply back, is an artist.329 Lippard mocks the simplicity of the rhetorically reductive formulations of art criticism that, in their analysis of body art of the 1960s and 70s, conflate ugliness with artistry and beauty with self-exploitation. Still, she agrees that at
328 329

Lippard, European and American Womens Body Art in From the Center, 126 Ibid., 125.

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times the use of the nude body provokes a necessary consideration of the ideological stakes of self-representation. In discussing Wilke, an artist who courts the conditions of self-exploitation and who described her own work as seduction, Lippard also draws a connection to Schneemann. She explains that Wilkes own confusion of her roles as beautiful woman and artist, as flirt and feminist, has resulted at times in politically ambiguous manifestations that have exposed her to criticism on a personal as well as on an artistic level. Another case in point is Carolee Schneemann.330 Lippards criticism suggests that even when one is aware of the political intention of such work, it can create results that, textually speaking, are politically ambiguous and thus, like the work of Conner discussed in the last chapter, engage a potentially anxiogenic ethical ambivalence concerning the interplay of authorship and exploitation.

In chapter two, I quoted Jonas Mekas description of the social milieu of underground film, a movement dedicated to, in his words, breaking down the phony privacy walls.331 Like Clarkes confessional work, Portrait of Jason or Onos Cut Piece, Schneemanns literal baring of herself provoked sexual excitement, political distrust, and all too rarely, critical respect. However, despite what pleasures certain spectators do or do not take from their experiences with her work, it functions as a significant historical provocation. She explained that her use of her own naked body was predicated on strategies of provocation:
330 331

Ibid., 126. Mekas, Movie Journal, 281.

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To confront paradox that we deal with created images. [] To bridge the conventionally public/private areas of experience. [] To let my body be a further dimension of the tactile, plastic character of the construction. [] [t]o break into the taboos against the vitality of the naked body in movement, to eroticise my guilt-ridden culture and further confound this cultures sexual rigidities that the life of the body is more variously expressive than a sex-negative society can admit.332 Politically and aesthetically, 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. She writes, I did not stand naked in front of 300 people because I wanted to be fucked; but because my sex and work were harmoniously experienced. 333 Such a provocative understanding of bodily performance was then, and remains, threatening to dominant notions of sexual representation within art.

Film as Environment and Text: Historically, Schneemanns first experiments with cinema as a medium for her own creative practice were tied to Fuses. The project was begun in 1964, but not exhibited publicly until 1967; in its evolution over the intervening period, she screened portions of it for friends and peers as a work-in-progress. With Fuses, Schneemann first began to learn the craft and technology of cinema. Because of her close friendship and correspondence with Brakhage, she was entirely aware of the difficulty that he had in trying to establish his chosen medium an
332 333

Schneemann, More Than Meat Joy, 9294. Ibid., 194.

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independently, artisanally produced branch of non-narrative, largely silent film as a legitimate mode of art. Thus, 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. She explains, I had internalized all these very serious, almost religious attitudes about film. I had witnessed the messianic battle Brakhage had had to endure to establish the nature of visual film. That was very serious for me.334 One of her ways of sidestepping Brakhages battles to legitimize non-industrial film as art was to move the materials of film into the intermedial domains of performance and expanded cinema. Though Brakhage would never produce work of this variety, due to a belief in the textual sanctity and purity of the film experience, Schneemann was able to interpolate the materials of film into the other realms of her work, and this move proved both aesthetically and historically productive. Initially, the filmic materials that she used in her kinetic theater events were not her own. 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, where Jonas Mekas had arranged a series of special evenings. The year before I had started to edit the first footage of Fuses in my loft. [] Until that time Id considered filmmaking only as an independent, discrete, self-contained language. But studying the film as it was split into multiple moving images and planes shifted my reticence about including film in performance.335
334 335

Schneemann in MacDonald, A Critical Cinema, Vol. 1, 137. Schneemann, More Than Meat Joy, 97.

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Though Schneemann initiated Fuses in the context of the American avant-garde cinema which she then understood in fundamentally Brakhagean terms, as an independent, discrete, self-contained language she would eventually expand her understanding of the mediums performative capabilities, partially as a result of her interaction with other artists who were working in intermedial contexts, such as the USCO group. Her first performance work to incorporate projected film was Ghost Rev, 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). In the performance of this semi-theatrical, kinetic work, she juxtaposed the bodily movements of herself and her collaborator, in an effort, in her words, to work against the physical integrity of the film.336 As Schneemanns description suggests, through her first-hand experiences with both film and performance, she realized an open-ended concept of cinemas possibilities for producing new aesthetic experiences in the shared social spaces of semi-theatrical events. In general, Schneemanns intermedial experiments in film and performance demonstrate an integrated understanding of the mediums possible uses within diverse art practices.337 This sensibility differed significantly from Brakhages purist approach in which the space of film exhibition was conceived as an almost hallowed hall of silent worship.
Ibid. She explained, Anyway, 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, A Critical Cinema, Vol. 1, 137).
337 336

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Throughout the rest of the 1960s and early 1970s, Schneemann continued to integrate film into her performances, often, but not exclusively, using materials filmed and created by herself. Apart from Fuses, her other major film works of the period, Viet Flakes (1965), Plumb Line (196871), and Kitchs Last Meal would be screened both as independent, self-contained works, and as integrated components of kinetic theater projects. 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). Schneemanns film works functioned simultaneously as part of the conventional register of single-screen film exhibition, generally associated with the avant-garde film community, and one of open-ended semi-theatrical conditions, which was more closely connected to traditions of performance and visual art.

Kitchs Last Meal: In the late 1960s, Schneemann experienced a personal crisis of sorts, in which all the cataclysmic social, aesthetic, and philosophical energies of the 1960s triggered a personal breakdown. 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, 70), I still alone had to struggle to fight back into relevance, coherence, the unities of functional behavior. And the total loss of a functional self has not only to do with the 314

excesses of social and esthetic determinations the materials and energies of the sixties but of the individual who faces, endures, an hourly state of dis-location, dis-orientation, fears, ineptitudes and a sinister transformation of all ordinary things, objects and actions.338 The dislocation that she describes was partially a function of the sexist treatment that she received in the 1960s, during an era in which the language of liberation and equality was spoken but rarely practiced in terms of sexual politics. For one, Schneemann felt that she was never adequately accepted by the boys club of the happenings and performance scene, 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).339 In performances like Robert Morriss Site (1964) and Oldenburgs Nude Bride (1969), Schneemann felt instrumentalized, because of her treatment as a muse for the works rather than an active agent of their construction. In the early 1970s, Schneemann relocated to Europe, living in England and Paris. Upon her return to the States, she spent much of her time with her partner, the English filmmaker and artist Anthony McCall, in a regular weekly retreat to the quiet life of teaching, painting, 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. One of its most significant aspects of Schneemanns artistic output in the early-to-mid 1970s was Kitchs Last Meal, an epic film project in which the artist

338 339

Schneemann, More Than Meat Joy, 191. Ibid., 194.

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documented the quotidian experiences of her life in rural New York with filmmaker Anthony McCall and their cat Kitch. 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 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, chopping wood, cleaning, grounds work, cooking, typing, jobs, reading, travels, the appearance of friends, the movements of the cat through the center of the home and grounds, and the recurrent passage of a train which runs close behind the house.340 It is a film project that continues the autobiographical trajectory of her work, while shifting its emphasis towards a more unrestricted, open-ended diaristic mode of filmmaking. Produced on Super-8mm with a separate soundtrack on tape, 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, home-movie format for hobbyists. To have produced a five hour super-8 epic is an unusual, if not unprecedented feat.341 She explains that, Kitchs Last Meal took its form due to the nature of Super 8: close to the body, compact, cheap film, three minute cartridges immediacy and simplicity, fixed durations.342 However, Schneemanns Super 8 epic was somewhat atypical in form, because unlike many

Ibid., 225. The materials of Kitch Super-8 film are extremely difficult to edit due to the tiny size of its frames and the thin, spidery quality of its film stock. 342 Schneemann, More Than Meat Joy, 225.
341

340

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other works originally produced in this format, hers was a tightly edited and carefully orchestrated work. In its exhibitions over time, different portions of the work have been screened, in varying length from twenty minutes to almost five hours. After the films completion in 1976, Schneemanns preferred mode for exhibiting the work has been in a vertically oriented, two-screen film, with the top image slightly larger than the one below. She has also shown Kitchs Last Meal with live voiceover accompaniment or as part of a performance work titled Up to and Including Her Own Limits (1973-76). It is now available only in composite twoscreen versions on both 16mm and video, both of which are fifty-four minutes long.343 In structure, 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 animals twilight years. The artist assumed that Kitch would not live much longer and thus planned to organize the film around a series of the cats meals, filming one every week as a record of the animals life. At the time of the projects beginning Schneemann could not have known that her cat would live to be twenty years old, well beyond the life expectancy of the species. Each section of the film features a handwritten title that introduces us to the historical period included in each reel. The first reel of the restored version

343

These versions are slightly different because of their differing sound formats. For the exhibition of the film, Schneemann chooses to circulate the soundtrack as a separate, independent source. The result is a less rigid registration of sound and image synchronicity in exhibition.

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

choreographed imagery, demonstrating Schneemanns claim that the film is cut like a straightjacket.344 Sometimes the footage in the two panels is almost identical; 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. (In general, the two panels give an impression of simultaneity that is similar to that of Warhols The Chelsea Girls, a work that similarly communicates a blend of profilmic looseness and deliberate organizational structure.) In the next section we see simultaneous footage on both panels showing Schneemann engaging in various acts of domestic labor, including scrubbing the floor, doing laundry, and picking blueberries.345 As Schneemann hangs wet clothes on a clothesline, the soundtrack abruptly shifts from the atmospheric clamor of the train to the more noisy interaction of a typewriters percussive clanging and a barely intelligible radio. The muddled soundtrack presents a sonic equivalent of the homes interior disarray. An abrupt cut follows, and the first of Schneemanns voiceover narrations begins. (For the context of the discussion here concerning experimental film, its historiography, and Schneemanns role within it, this extended voiceover is perhaps the most rhetorically significant component of the film. In the pages that follow, it will be quoted in detail.) I met a happy man, a structuralist filmmaker. He said, But dont call me that. Its something else that I do. He said, We are fond of you. You are
344 345

Schneemann in MacDonald, A Critical Cinema, Vol. 1, 151. In its emphasis on the household work of a woman, the film predates both Chantal Akkermans landmark feminist critique of domestic labor, Jeanne Dielmann (1975) and Martha Roslers video work Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975).

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

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

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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 Kitchs 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 filmmakers 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 mlange 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 Derens 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 Schneemanns quotation of Sitney, is aphoristic), personal and diaristic reflection upon the artists 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 films 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.)

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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, Ive been waiting for someone to ask me that. Its 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. Kitchs 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: Kitchs 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 Brakhages work, these reels also demonstrate a careful framing and
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Such a claim has likely never been made in reference to a human, unless it maybe referred to one of Brakhages children.

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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 works 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 couples window. This section of the film also shows the pleasure and jubilance of Schneemanns 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

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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 McCalls 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 Schneemanns 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 Schneemanns voiceover becomes somewhat sullen: Im really depressed because I ended up getting my period, and Im getting the flu, and I have a performance in a few days and I dont 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
347

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

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intangible shapes, as the camera moves more rapidly and the films 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 films optical field introduces a major change. As we will learn in the films next reel, the cat whose life gave the film its basic structure has passed away. This abstract shift in the films rhythms and visual texture, followed by long expanses of an empty black screen, mark the cats transition from life into death. Of the many topics upon which Kitchs Last Meal meditates, death is one of the most central: it is prefigured even in the films title.348 The abstract flashes of light and color that precede the dark portion of the film correspond to the cats 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 cats fatality in the last two reels of the film. Like the others they are labeled with text in Schneemanns 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 films seemingly linear diary structure.
348

This is a point made by Scott MacDonald in Carolee Schneemanns Autobiographical Trilogy, Film Quarterly 34, no. 1 (Fall 1980), 2732.

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Schneemann presents footage from an airplane window and travelogue imagery of the streets of France. Sexual imagery returns through Schneemanns 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 McCalls genitalia, fragmented, and removed from his body through selective filmic composition, objectifying his sex and its physical basis in his physiology. Schneemanns montage of McCalls 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 Brakhages 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

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now filled with tears. During this dramatic and transitional section of the film, the lower panel explodes with flashes of color, scratches, and bits of illegible text, in a last gasp of expressive energy, which as before, visually evokes the films subject matter and the fragility of its own cellular material. The film then returns to where it started, with images of a train passing in front of a window and rhythmic sounds of its movement on the soundtrack. There is snow outside; the seasons have changed again.

With Kitchs Last Meal, 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). In its visual texture, in its mode of rhetorical address, in its comprehensive representation of the grain of everyday life, Kitch is an impressionistic survey of an artists quotidian experience. It documents her chores, her art works, her interactions with her lover, the cycles of nature, and in its unassuming simplicity, the calm passing of time. Kitch has a personal intimacy, expressed in both visual and sonic terms, that seems unguarded, uncensored, and natural in its frankness. The films intimacy is partially a function of Schneemanns openness towards the discussion of her own experiences in which records her life without restraint. 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. Like surveillance technologies, light,

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

Schneemann in MacDonald, A Critical Cinema, Vol.1, 150. Again, see MacDonald, Carolee Schneemanns Autobiographical Trilogy.

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

351

Schneemann, More Than Meat Joy, 225.

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associations, one sequence of Kitchs Last Meal perfectly encapsulates this network of artistic impulses. Schneemann explains its genesis: One spring day in 73 a new neighbor came to prune an apple tree. He had a harness and ropes by which he raised and lowered himself and his tools through the branches. [] I asked if I could try them. He said fine, and was perhaps as surprised as I was when the impulse to float naked in the harness took effect. Then Anthony came and took some footage of my free float. 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 Kitchs Last Meal (which in turn included these first images of flying in the tree).352 Though footage of this event is not included in the currently circulating fifty-four minute version of Kitch, a remarkable set of images of this event can still be seen as reproductions in Schneemanns book More Than Meat Joy (1997). In the two photographs taken by McCall, Schneemanns form hangs suspended above the ground, spinning with her limbs extended outward in imitation (perhaps unconscious) of the spidery trees that surround her. This image presents a remarkable metaphorical distillation of the works overall vision that shows an artist integrated into her landscape through a series of ecstatic, unrestrained bodily gestures. 353

352 353

Ibid., 226. The film materials produced in Kitchs Last Meal were integrated into a performance piece of hers titled Up to and Including her Own Limits (1973-76). The historical evolution of the performance closely paralleled that of the film. It featured Schneemann, nude, suspended in the air with a series of ropes and harnesses. Throughout the work, she swung sometimes forcefully, sometimes slowly, around the space of the gallery, with crayons in hand, marking the walls with long abstract streaks while the film elements of Kitchs Last Meal were projected in an area that overlapped with her performance space. The work also featured sculptural and video elements. Schneemann explained some of the history that led to the production of this work: The works of Pollock, de Kooning, could only be viewed with optical muscularity the entire body was active. Up to and Including her Limits was the direct result of Pollocks physicalized painting process (Schneemann, Statement for Texte Zure Kunst (1999) in Imagining Her Erotics, 164 65). In its expressionistic streaking of the gallerys walls and floor with painterly marks, the

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Step Out of Your Frame: Structural Film and Performance: Though few art or film historians have seen Kitchs Last Meal, either as a composite double-screen projection or as part of Up to and Including Her Own Limits, 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 Schneemanns career. In both her 1977 version of Interior Scroll, Schneemann famously read some of the text from her voiceover narration in Kitchs Last Meal. In this performance the artist appeared wrapped in a sheet, then removed it, painted her body with a few streaks, and slowly extracted a scroll of text from her vagina, reading it aloud as she imitated the conventional poses of a life model for a drawing class. Her reading began as Kitchs Last Meal had: I met a happy man, a structural filmmaker . . . This performance of Interior Scroll was an unplanned response to the conditions that surrounded the presentation of Schneemanns film Fuses, at the Telluride Film Festival of 1977. She had been invited there by Stan Brakhage to present her work as part of a program titled The Erotic Woman. Together with her long-time friend, she curated a program of sexually themed films by women. However, the presentation conditions of the program bothered her particularly a

performance clearly references Pollocks gestural abstraction, however in the context of an art event, these actions become exaggerated and more dramatically self-reflexive. In addition, in its integration of Schneemanns own naked body and her personal filmic portrait of her domestic life, it adds extra layers of feminist self-consciousness and intermedial reference that forcefully cast the work further into the register of artistic autobiography. In her performances of the work in February 1976, Schneemann included the body of her dead cat Kitch, as a part of its mise-enscene. Like Kitchs Last Meal, 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.

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brochure for the Festival that featured a flasher in a raincoat with the words Fourth Telluride Film Festival written on his chest. She felt compelled to respond to the circumstances of the screening with a second performance of Interior Scroll. She explains her compulsion: The last thing I wanted to do at the Telluride Film Festival was an action. I was looking forward to seeing films, old friends, to being in Colorado again. [] Then the troublesome voice started nagging at me the day before the film program [...] I was saying leave me alone I just want to have a nice time; She was saying: live body action steps into area of discrepancy.354 In her reflection on the event, 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. In her impressionistic catalogue of her feelings at the time of the event, 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, More Than Meat Joy, 236. Ibid.

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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, somatic action). To Schneemann this confrontation with her audience, artistic materials, spectatorial context, and sexual identity, form an antagonistic field in which the stakes of her work were laid out in dramatic fashion. The performance was provocative and triggered the intended response. However, in an almost roundabout way, it also draws a connection to the work of Stan Brakhage that is far from coincidental. Schneemanns description of her encounters with a happy man, 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. In the text that she read in both Kitchs Last Meal and her performance of Interior Scroll, Schneemann establishes an opposition between the systematicity of so-called structural film and her own practice, which her imagined opponent describes critically as marked by the personal clutter, the persistence of feelings, the hand-touched sensibility, the diaristic indulgence, the painterly mess, the dense gestalt, the primitive technique. In this imaginary encounter between herself and a male structuralist filmmaker, Schneemann presents a diatribe that was actually directed towards the female art and film critic Annette Michelson. (The descriptive phrases above were adopted by Schneemann from comments that were passed on to her by

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Michelsons students.)356 This imagined encounter marks a divide between seemingly opposed philosophical notions of experimental film practice at the beginning of the 1970s. One, aligned with Brakhage and Schneemann, emphasized affect, personal involvement, and expressive, painterly detail, while the other mode, made by filmmakers like Hollis Frampton, Ernie Gehr, Michael Snow, and Paul Sharits (and celebrated in print by Michelson, Krauss, and others), was based on extreme systematicities and pre-determined formal patterns. Schneemanns text above directly opposes (and perhaps exaggerates) the distinctions between these different modes of artistic practice as did Brakhages numerous public dismissals of structural film yet, on a basic level, 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. Though no American filmmakers actually accepted the term structural to describe their work, the word nevertheless gained cultural potency following its introduction by P. Adams Sitney in an essay in 1969, when he famously wrote,

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On Michelson: to MacDonald: that quotation you mentioned is a secret letter to a critic [Annette Michelson] who couldnt look at my films. Its a double invention and transmutation: its not to a man but to a woman. The projected quotes are from her students. After years of saying she really wanted to see my films and was very interested, there was this festival where she slept through my program. I mentioned to a friend of mine, who was also a student of hers, that I was just astonished that she really couldnt bear to see them. [] Anyway, the student said, Well, look, there are certain films she simply cannot look at: the diaristic indulgence, the hand-touch sensibility, and so on (Schneemann in MacDonald, A Critical Cinema, Vol. 1, 143144.) In the fall of 2008, when I discussed the subject with Michelson, she expressed surprise at the fact that this well-known feminist performance work, with which she was familiar, was actually directed at her, a feminist critic (Authors Conversation with Michelson, New York City, October 2007).

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Suddenly, a cinema of structure has emerged.357 In its precision, Sitneys explication of this trend drawn from his studies in the morphology of literary style amounts to an attempt at a prescriptive definition, rather than a description of an historical trend. The films that he discusses exhibit some mixture of four characteristics: fixed camera position, the flicker effect, loop printing, and rephotography off of a screen.358 He writes, Theirs is a cinema of structure wherein the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified, and it is that shape that is the primal impression of the film.359 It was this basic assertion, which remains truly convincing despite its controversy, that was most troubling to both Brakhage and Schneemann. Sitneys efforts at creating a perhaps overly precise definition of the movement, along with his inclusion of films that were simply incongruous, 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, an extremely articulate and precise observer of cinema, 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, George Landow, Ernie Gehr, Hollis Frampton, Tony Conrad, and Paul Sharits. However, it was a function of both Sitneys rhetoric and his social position as a

357

P. Adams Sitney, Structural Film, in Film Culture Reader, 326. 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. The description of structural film that Sitney included in his Visionary Film was further modified. 358 Sitney, Structural Film, 327. 359 Ibid. See also Sitney, The Idea of Morphology, Film Culture 53/54/55 (Spring 1972), 124.

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

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anxious apprehension concerning the interconnectivity of experimental film and the other (non-literary) arts. Secondly, Maciunas was absolutely correct in recognizing that there was a cliquishness to the circle of avant-garde filmmakers that revolved around the Filmmakers Coop, the Cinematheque, and Film Culture, which encouraged a myopic understanding of cinematic experiments by artists who were not part of their group. Despite the fact that this cliquishness was actually exhibited by both the artists community and that of the avant-garde filmmakers, there were overlaps as has been argued throughout this study in both conceptual and social terms. For instance, Jonas Mekas, despite his affiliation with Sitney and the foundational institutions of New York avant-garde cinema, had important connections to Fluxus, popular culture, and the artists community of New York through his activities as an organizer of both art and cinema. For example, 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. Similarly, the Filmmakers Cinematheque, which was directed by Mekas, was also the site of major experiments in performance and happenings including those of Schneemann, Oldenburg, Paik, Kaprow, and Rauschenberg. Though there were significant tensions between the filmmakers community and that of visual artists and performance artists working in film, there was also great material, social, and conceptual exchange between them. Even Stan Brakhages

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Metaphors on Vision, his landmark manifesto of romantic, expressive, individualist film poetics, was in fact designed by Maciunas himself.

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

362

Sitney, Structural Film, 329.

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

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Taste, personality, and the ebb and flow of social history played significant roles in the historical conceptualization of Sitneys structural film. For example, because Sitneys teleology of the avant-garde was also a kind of personalized reflection of his tastes, he managed, through a bit of rhetorical slight of hand, to slip the work of Brakhage into the unlikely category of Structural Filmmaker. On the contrary, Brakhages work was painterly, impressionistic, associative, organic, personal, and lacking in any overt form of a priori structure. Hollis Frampton describes Sitneys problematic incorporation of Brakhage into his teleology of structural film when he says, 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, Andy Warhol [...], and poor Stan hog-tied lassoed and branded, clothes-lined and sandbagged got My Mountain made into a structural film.363 To Brakhage Sitneys reduction of his artistic process to a structural principle seemed a profound disservice to his philosophical purpose. As described in the second chapter of this dissertation, Brakhage argued that the most valuable of the parts of the process of creativity were the spontaneous, personal choices wherein the maker is called upon to work with what he or she doesnt know at every frames existence. Whether it shall be or whether it shall not be [] as an act of absolute urgency.364 In 1978, 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, in Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor, ed. MacDonald, 269. 364 Brakhage, Some Arguments: Stan Brakhage at Millennium, November 4, 1977, 67.

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Schneemann: What is most universally suppressed in structural films is the linear, shot-to-shot accumulation of meaning; namely associative editing. 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. At each of these stages (developing, printing, etc.), conception is subject to direct, external intervention: even when that intervention is not crucial it breaks, and in so doing mystifies, the inscription of continuity of process in the final work. Varying modes of organization confront this problem by collapsing successive stages of production or designating one stage as the primary locus of decision-making. [] One solution offered by structural films is to shift the locus of decision-making to a point in advance of camera or editing processes.365 To Brakhage and Schneemann both, 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. For them, the primary locus of decision-making was within the moment-to-moment choices in which the filmmaker, as both camera person and editor, chooses to compose a frame in a particular way or to make an edit at precisely a certain moment, or to connect certain shots through an associative, organic chain influenced only by his or her intellect and feelings about the material at hand. Brakhage described Michael Snows La Region Centrale, a three-hour film, shot by a spinning, unmanned, robotic crane, as lazy and boring.366 Such a notion of artistic practice is clearly based on an

365

Arthur, Structural Film: Revisions, New Versions and the Artifact, Part 2, Millennium Film Journal 45 (Summer/Fall 1979), 125. 366 Stan Brakhage, Some Arguments: Stan Brakhage at the Millennium, November 4, 1977, 67, 73.

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

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Michelson quoted in Brakhage, Some Arguments, 6869.

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lived and worked, saying maybe the happy news has not yet arrived to Colorado.368 As this exchange implies, the 1970s were difficult years for Stan Brakhages art. Though he was often defensive and bombastic in his rhetoric, he was never monolithic or simplistic in his cinema. Like any relevant experimental artist, he continually challenged the limits of his own philosophical suppositions. 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. Brakhages hard won achievements as a film artist were not realized in a vacuum. In the section that follows, the intense interrelationship between Brakhage and Schneemann will be presented as a model for understanding their shared antimony to the structuralism described above. Hopefully, it will also help to situate Brakhages 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 Brakhages cinema and that of the American avantgarde more generally.

368

Brakhage, Some Arguments, 69.

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

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Specifically, by moving away from the obsessive performed interiority of the semi-narrative, non-experimental, imagistic dream film Brakhage initiated his first major step towards an authentically new and untried visual language for cinema. In the transitional years of the mid to late 1950s, Brakhage was involved in a continual questioning of his artistic enterprise. The obsessions of the early period would continue, from the mid 1950s to the early 1970s, to influence Brakhages filmography and catalyze a powerful vacillation between a faith in the demiurgic power of an expressive cinema (influenced by a range of precedents, not the least of which is Abstract Expressionism) and an observational restraint related to the practice of the documentary.369 This tension, which underpins Brakhages most important work, as well as that of some of the most interesting experimental film of the 1960s, is situated in the conceptual and philosophical space between the film cameras function as a recording apparatus and its use as an artistic tool, a condition that relates cinema to a prescient and timely an anxiety concerning the inscription of authorial subjectivity in art. The first ventures that Brakhage made as an observational artist were the 1955 films, The Wonder Ring

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Michelson relates Brakhage to Abstract Expressionism in Camera Lucida / Camera Obscura, Artforum 11, no. 5 (January 1973), 3037; reprinted in Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker, 3656 In addition, the filmmaker himself often invoked Pollock as an example of a artist who, despite common perceptions, was a master of painterly control. Brakhage was particularly fond of an anecdote (perhaps apocryphal) that demonstrates the painters absolute mastery of the medium, even though his use of gestural abstraction gave the impression of a seemingly casual approach to composition. According to Brakhage, someone once suggested to the painter that his work incorporated chance. Pollock supposedly responded by flinging paint off the tip of his brush, such that it traveled all the way across the room and hit a distant doorknob squarely as if directed towards a bulls eye without dribbling a drop in the process. For Brakhages retelling of this story, see the bonus interview materials on By Brakhage: An Anthology (Criterion Collection, 2003).

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

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After these films were shot, 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)). 371 Sitney, Visionary Film, 159. 372 Ibid.

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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. 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, as seen in his mature work.373 Schneemann has discussed her early aesthetic debates with Brakhage on a number of occasions. It is clear from her descriptions, both published and not, that she remembers in great detail the powerful exchanges that these twentysomething artists shared; they had resounding effects on the careers of everyone concerned. In her recollection, these conversations often centered around an opposition between the artistic functions of symbolic psychodrama (as realized in Brakhages early films) versus those of an observation of natural, organic forms (as represented in Schneemanns painting). It is clear to anyone with even a passing familiarity with Brakhages early filmography that he shifted his work precisely between these two registers in the period when their friendship first began to cohere. In a published interview of 1991, Schneemann suggests that the history of their artistic relationship should be reconsidered. The interviewer asks, I was

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Schneemann situates this exchange historically: This discussion would have taken place after I saw Stans B&W early films and he would have come to stay with us in South Shaftsbury, Vermont where I was painting from landscape. She also recalled that WONDER RING was underway when I met Stan; his friendship with Cornell was much discussed between us (Schneemann email correspondence with the author, July 13, 2009).

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wondering if Stan Brakhage had a lot of influence there in the ideas you were following. She responds with a declarative statement: Check the dates. I guided him towards an organic visual universe. When I met him, he was doing psychodrama films and working with invented situations. 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.374 The chronology and social history of the interaction between Brakhage and Schneemann perfectly fits her description. Despite Sitneys claim that Brakhages move towards a simultaneously more observational and more expressive cinema was simply the function of accident, it seems clear that the shift to his mature style was, to a significant degree, determined by Schneemanns influence, her sense of aesthetics, and her knowledge of the history, not of film, but of painting. It was she who first engaged Brakhage in extended conversations concerning Abstract Expressionism, a movement that would have a profound impact on both of their creative legacies. In 2003, Schneemann published an open letter to the recently deceased filmmaker in which she reflects on a long, productive, and often trying artistic and personal relationship with him: There I open DeKooning, Pollock, and Cezanne books. I would tell you, your psycho dramas will be a dead-end. You must look at painting, visual history and nature!375 She explains this interaction in more detail, in an unpublished letter from 1975 to critic and filmmaker Wanda Bershon:

374 375

Schneemann, Interview with ND in Imagining Her Erotics, 124. Schneemann, It Is Painting in Stan Brakhage: Filmmaker, 81.

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it was I who insisted visual language be based in observation of nature; we fought spiritedly over that; when we met his nourishments were poetic, surreal, symbolic. [] I was building, humbly concentrating on the source of the language of gesture, light, color, the movement of form. [] Someday someone will perhaps see the direct link -- that the prolonged times Stan spent studying my paintings, living with him [Tenney] and me, led him to nature as a resource rather than dream and fantasy as the base of visual language. [] our battles were terrific376 In this description, Schneemann perfectly encapsulates the difference between the young, formative Brakhage whose nourishments were poetic, surreal, symbolic and the mature artist who came to embrace and essentially transform the filmic meaning of gesture, light, color, and the movement of form. In his pioneering works like Anticipation of the Night (1958) and his remarkable artistic manifesto, Metaphors on Vision (1963) (which he was drafting and conceiving during this period of intensive artistic and philosophical inquiry), Brakhage began to outline a new trajectory for his artistic enterprise that would break from the traps of language and symbolism. It was a project that, in its balancing of the directives of observation and expression, would continue for the rest of his life. But in his first engagement with the elemental considerations of nature and aesthetic form, Brakhages philosophical project can and should be traced directly, if not exclusively, to his interactions with the painter Carolee Schneemann, before she became the performance artist and filmmaker who would continue this shared directive of somatic and sensuous experimentation.377

376

Letter from Schneemann to Wanda Bershon, 24 July 1975, Collection of Carolee Schneemann Papers, Getty Research Institute, Special Collections. 377 This history of influence is omitted from Sitneys comprehensive and sympathetic reading of Brakhages work for at least three reasons: Brakhage did not publicly offer this history because he was not always supportive of Schneemanns film projects and likely wanted to distance himself

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Brakhage, Documentary, Expressionism: Following Pollocks example, Schneemanns 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. As art historian Kristine Stiles wrote in 2002, Schneemanns major contribution has been literally to draw the eye back to the body that sees: both to the bodys inextricable connection to what is seen and to its role in determining the nature of the seen.378 This emphasis on a somatic, organic notion of vision would also be adopted by Brakhage. So, it follows that both Schneemann and Brakhage resisted the intensive pre-planning, formal mapping, and mechanicity of structural film. Brakhage also extended his opposition to the aesthetics of structure to his encounters with other filmic modalities. To him, the formulaic and rhetorically predetermined structures of fiction film and documentary posed the same ethical and philosophical problems as structural film. From within an organic aesthetic worldview, which is centered on the body of the artist, all of these

from them; Sitney was not particularly impressed with Schneemanns films; and finally, as a student of English language poetry his nourishments, like those of Brakhage, were also poetic, surreal, symbolic. 378 Kristine Stiles, The Painter as an Instrument of Real Time in Imagining her Erotics, 11.

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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. Brakhage described this tension as one between two pictorial extremes of human thought process The Geometric and [] Meat-ineffable.379 In his consideration of the wide ranging aesthetic implications of this binary, Brakhage explains the history of painting in terms that reflect this conceptual opposition. To him, 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. They, Jackson Pollock, and others hypnagogically inspired (from early Kandinsky to Olitsky) can be seen to be attempting to depict cellshapes most immediate radiance.380 As Brakhage describes it, 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, but perhaps, even more importantly, the cellular structures of their own bodies and musculatures. After a film screening in 1967, 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 (This statement is also uncannily congruent with many of the writings and public statements made by Schneemann.) In The Act of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes, Brakhage engaged in
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Brakhage, GEOMETRIC versus MEAT-INEFFABLE (1994), The Chicago Review 47, no. 4 (September 21, 2001), 47. 380 Ibid, 49. 381 Brakhage, Eight Questions in Brakhage Scrapbook, ed. Robert Haller (New York: Documentext, 1982), 116.

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

James, Allegories of Cinema, 35. Michelson, Camera Lucida, Camera Obscura.

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states precedes their transposition into approximating images. The emphasis, then, is less on an immediate seeing a quality Sitney points to in the lyrical film than on re-constructing the seen.384 However, with the film that is the subject of this section, 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. In Metaphors on Vision, Brakhage formulated a poetic film aesthetics that sought to reclaim sensory experience from what he considered to be the tyranny of language, socially imposed, controlling, thought structures, and Cartesian subject-object divisions. For Brakhage, mankind became alienated from its environment as soon as it became too dependent on these abstract and geometric systems of understanding. Most importantly, 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 humanitys experience of perception. The filmmaker famously wrote that there is no one color green in nature. Instead, the natural landscape of the planet is filled with an infinitude of different gradations of color, so that the imposition of any one single word on that limitless eyescape of varying pigment would be an act of violence. In the opening to Metaphors, he asks, How many colors are there in a field of grass to the

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Arthur, Structural Film: Revisions, New Versions, and the Artifact, 10.

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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. So, Brakhages work involves an attempt, through the analogue of cinema, to return to that prelapserian moment when vision and thought can be reconstituted as innocent and untainted by the geometric controls of language, those controlling structures from without. In a number of his films, including The Act of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes, we can find evidence of another working method in which Brakhage directed himself toward nature and the external, phenomenal universe, 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 Brakhages artistic enterprise, 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. In this regard Brakhage attempted through his art, to integrate himself following the lessons of Schneemann into the world around him, in order to avoid becoming trapped in the spaces of narcissism and solipsism by conceiving an ambitious film practice in which self, other, and nature would be inseparable parts of the same shared experience of perception and immanence.

Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision (excerpt) in Essential Brakhage: Selected Writings on Filmmaking, ed. Bruce McPherson (New York: Documentext, 2001), 12.

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

386

Brakhage in MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 4: Interviews With Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 93.

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

Willie Varela, Program Notes for Lumiere/Brakhage Films: February 14, 1979, Southwestern Alternate Media Project (Collection of Pacific Film Archive, Berkeley, CA).

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As he was finishing his shooting in Pittsburgh, he wrote a letter to his wife in which he summarized the daily crisis he faced: Oh Jane, it is . . . I just dont know how to write about it. The dead, cut open in autopsy, look like two incongruities: dress dummies and meat. The scalp is cut, pulled down over the face. The face, like a mask, retains its features even when loosened from the bones. The body gapes. It is a chasm attached to model limbs. The organs are removed and weighed in a scale. The Doctor sums up this body in a tape recorder, passes judgment, weighs, etc. [] But I know less about this filming, have much less sense of what Ive photographed, than ANY film previously. [] Ive had fearful dreams every night. The tags are put on the big toe of the corpses foot; and I dreamed one night I was compelled to bite one of these toes. I woke up almost screaming teeth clenched. [] One of my other nightmares sticks in the mind: The Doctor (Dr. Davis) and his assistants kept insisting that I lie down on the autopsy tables, kept saying Come on now, YOU try it!388 Like much art of the era that concerned itself with the representation of subjectivity, The Act of Seeing embodies a crisis akin to that of Schneemanns art in which the artist placed himself in a situation that was ethically, aesthetically, and personally incredibly anxiogenic and volatile. As his description above indicates, in the production of this film Brakhage tested the limits of his artistic process, ethical tolerance, and affective sensibility, in such a way that the finished work is, in a sense, an index unrelenting crisis. It is clear that Brakhage was working far outside of his comfort zone, both in content and style, as he immersed himself in an experiment, with an outcome that was entirely unknown to the artist at the time of its commencement. He was testing the limits of his own aesthetic system, and by choosing the most difficult, almost unbearable visual
388

Stan Brakhage letter to Jane Brakhage, 2nd Tues in Pittsburgh Sept. 1971 (perhaps September 14 ). From Brakhages writing, it is unclear if he is writing on his second Tuesday in Pittsburgh, in September 1971 or on the second Tuesday of September 1971 (Stan Brakhage Papers, University of Colorado, Boulder).
th

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spectacle of death as his subject, he was also testing the limits of the mediums capacity to register subjectivity and affect without the imposition of a guiding rhetorical directive.

Brakhage shot roughly an hour-and-a-half worth of footage over the course of those three days in the Allegheny County Morgue. The film that he made from that material was thirty-one minutes long, about one-third the length of the total footage. In the final film, Brakhage left chronology roughly intact, cutting away that which felt somehow extraneous. We see a new corpse brought in, measured, dissected, analyzed, drained, and cleaned. This process happens with each body, though all procedures are abbreviated. Importantly, Brakhage maintains the profilmic, historical chronology of the autopsies their basic sequential integrity in his finished film. 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, any escape a blasphemy, even the escape of Art as I had come to know it. This gathering of images (rather than editing) had to be straight.389 In order to pay appropriate respect to the dead, 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, letter to Robert Creeley, November 22, 1971. Stan Brakhage Papers, University of Colorado Boulder; Also quoted in Nesthus, The Document Correspondence of Stan Brakhage in The Chicago Review 47, no. 4 (September 21, 2001), 144.

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Brakhagian filmmaking, stating, I whittled my editing responsibilities down to Tone and Rhythm.390 In his combining of footage from the autopsy experience, Brakhage consciously avoided the symbolic and poetic tendencies of his earlier work that had been the subject of Schneemanns critique. Brakhage defined his project such that the images would mean nothing other than what they show. Brakhages efforts to limit the influence of his artistic ego are extremely interesting here, because as so many people have pointed out, generally it has been the very process through which the ego perceives that most interested him. Here, because of a very peculiar kind of content and a return to the arguments that he shared with Schneemann in their formative years, Brakhage took a markedly different tack from much of his other work. For Sitney, Brakhage had always been troubled by (in Sitneys words) anxieties about the natural world and the horrors of solipsism, so in his Pittsburgh Trilogy, 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.391 This outward move has massive implications in relation to the artists philosophical and ontological concerns, as well as to his chosen style. The Act of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes is an end-to-end assemblage of images taken by the filmmaker while moving about within the space of the county morgue. Because of the fact that the film is basically a collection of close-ups, it does not provide an objective visual perspective; there are few establishing shots.
390

Brakhage, letter to Ed Dorn, November 24, 1971 (Stan Brakhage Papers, University of Colorado, Boulder; also quoted in Nesthus, 148.) 391 Sitney, Visionary Film, 388.

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

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layers of interwoven, optically printed footage and towards a more historically coherent recording of a photographic event with a significantly less modified historical chronology. (This shift is particularly noteworthy when one considers that these strikingly different films were completed roughly a year apart.) 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), he reconstructs his practice as one that foregrounds the artists photographic encounter with his profilmic subject. Through this shift, Brakhage emphasized his own historical presence over the plastic modification of the film image that had previously dominated his work. Thus, 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. To dull the force of the editing and to limit the collision of the montage in this film, Brakhage often begins and ends his shots in this film with quick fades to, and from, black. The result is a film that does not move with the same frenetic pace or montagist force of most of his work. There are historical, philosophical, and aesthetic reasons for Brakhages movement to a modified visual language. Most importantly, this film represents a shift in style that is also a shift in ontology (related in a roughly chronological sense, to the beginnings of Schneemanns experiments in the non-fiction, observational cinema of Kitchs Last Meal). To further support this point, it is worth noting that Brakhage

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carefully controlled the exposures and fades in this film through the careful use of his cameras aperture rather than through the post-production modifications that are much more flexible, in their allowance for the controlled re-calibration of light and color. In this sense, Brakhages 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. Like Warhols use of entire unedited camera reels, Brakhages 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.392 Visually, this film is substantially different from the style that we generally associate with Brakhage. For example, it is significant that almost every single shot in this film is made in very crisp focus. In most of his films, Brakhage presents images that are at the threshold of visual intelligibility due to his extremely plastic sense of framing, focus, and exposure. Generally in his work, it is light and texture that are most important. (His 1974 film, Text of Light is over an hour long and features only one source of visual content, light refracted through a glass ashtray.) This need to make cinematography abstract and visually indecipherable is directly connected to his efforts to simulate consciousness, moving visual thinking, through abstract cinematic techniques. In The Act of

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There observations were made through the slow frame-by-frame analysis of the reversal, camera-positive original film that Brakhage shot in 1971. I thank Mark Toscano at the Academy Film Archive for allowing me to joint him for his inspection of Brakhages original elements for The Act of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes.

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

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like.393 Here, he is describing his camera as a scientific tool to gather information.394 And that is exactly what he is doing: he is showing us something that most of us have never seen before. A camera can bear witness to events, and give us the opportunity to see with our own eyes. By sharing visual information with us, Brakhage is bringing us into indirect contact with real objects in the world. In this sense, this film continues the diaristic impulses of some of his earlier work, but it does so in a distinctive aesthetic register, in a context of a pronounced personal and ontological crisis. It is partially this difference in tone that distinguishes this film from both Brakhages other diary films and the work of other experimental diaries, including Kitchs Last Meal and Walden.

Direct Cinema, Objectivity, and Innocence The stylistically restrained, hyperbolically observational chapter of Brakhages film practice does not serve the rhetorical or propagandistic function that is common to most so-called documentary films. 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

393

Brakhage, letter to Robert Creeley, November 22, 1971 (Stan Brakhage Papers, University of Colorado, Boulder; also quoted in Nesthus, 140141). 394 However, it should also be noted that this film is not a purely clinical undertaking that aspires to some nave version of observational objectivity. Brakhage acknowledges the cameras role in mediation. For example, he intentionally chose to use four different film stocks for this project, each of which features a particular speed, color temperature, and granular appearance. (Such choices were rarely casual for Brakhage.) In this sense, though the filmmaker has limited the usually extreme range of his plastic modifications to the photographic image, he nevertheless openly creates a film that foregrounds its own process of mediation through its willful use of markedly different representational materials. (Again, I thank Mark Toscano for identifying the different film stocks used by Brakhage in this film.)

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Framptons description, the problem with the documentary is that, In a word, documentARY is always careful to tell us HOW TO FEEL about what we see.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. The Act of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes is a kind of apotheosis of the movement described as Direct Cinema. Brakhage was a close associate of Richard Leacock, and knew a number of other contributors to that documentary movement. In many ways, Brakhages film aspired to the same purity of observation that the members of that group intended. 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).396 He made a sober and difficult effort to limit the artful impositions that normally comprise the central stylistic project of his other films. Now of course, it is a film full of choices: framing, camera movement, exposure, focus, film stock, 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

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Quoted in Nesthus, The Document Correspondence of Stan Brakhage, 154. In an interview with Bill Simon, Frampton situated Brakhages style in precisely the context of Abstract Expressionism: Like de Kooning, Like Kline, Like Pollock [] Brakhage not only does that, he does it all the time. He does it for plenty of reasons, but he does it, one would suppose, out of some core conviction that that diction is the mediator, that it is the discipline of the camera, that it is the center of the circle (Bill Simon, Talking About Magellan: An Interview With Hollis Frampton, Millennium Film Journal 79 (Fall/Winter 1980), 20).

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though they do shade it. The filmmakers editing choices, as stated above, related primarily to tone and rhythm as he edited according to real historical sequence, in which he would not try to thicken the plot. The drama of this film is meant to be derived largely from the real conditions of the filming circumstance, not from the artists manipulation of those events. In this sense, it was a profoundly experimental work for Brakhage, in which he attempted to come to terms with the tragedy of death through a real world encounter with it, within a visual language that was substantially dissimilar from the one that he had pioneered and fought so hard to perfect and legitimize.

It is important to recognize that, unlike the rhetoric that surrounds Direct Cinema, Brakhages discussion of the work omits the language of objectivity, because for him, this film is always, again, an approximation of the real.397 Brakhage makes no claim of a one-to-one equivalence between image and thing, but this work does represent an attempt to create a substantially closer connection between those two registers. The nature of the relationship between the profilmic objects of the world and the represented images in his work, as has been argued

Of course, most people who discuss such topics in the contemporary moment, under the sway of postmodernisms license for total relativism, respond cynically to the idea that film has the capacity to show us anything true or real from the phenomenal world. However, although many of Brakhages comments about the film suggest that he tried to make a particular kind of work that lacks ideology, superimposed drama, identificatory manipulation, etc., he acknowledges that the role that he plays as recorder is always inscribed with a viewing subjectivity and with the material conditions of the works construction. At no point does he ever equate his film with the historical real that it represents. As he himself frequently argues, any non-fiction film is always an approximation of that historical real. (As mentioned in an earlier footnote, his intentional use of four distinctive film stocks in this work demonstrates his awareness of the films unique characteristics as a form of mechanical representation.)

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above, constantly changed throughout Brakhages filmography. Many people, including P. Adams Sitney, have argued that these open document texts of the early 1970s are inferior to Brakhages other work because they differ markedly from what most critics feel to be the distinctive Brakhage style. (Annette Michelson is the only major critic of the avant-garde to have openly endorsed these works.) Brakhages feud with Sitney on the topic of document filmmaking was continuous. 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. And he [Sitney] said nonsense, of course, 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, as an inventor of fantasies and metaphors. Frampton: You are saying, along with Confucius: I have added nothing. Brakhage: Yes, I have added nothing.398 In this exchange we can get an interesting glimpse of Brakhages desire to minimize his own traces of additive artistry. In addition, 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 Schneemanns critique. Despite the aesthetic success of Brakhages mythopoeic (to use Sitneys word) epic, Dog Star Man, he did not want to repeat himself by making, in his words, Son of Dog Star Man, Dog Star Man Returns, Dog Star Man Meets the Wolf Man. (According to Brakhage these were the works that critics Jonas Mekas and P. Adams Sitney wanted him to produce.)399 So, as David James
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Brakhage, Stan and Jane Brakhage (and Hollis Frampton) Talking in Brakhage Scrapbook, 188. 399 Stan Brakhage, Interview With Richard Gossinger in Ibid., 200.

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argues, although Brakhage was initially interested in seeking to chart the depths of his own psyche,400 he would occasionally move towards a model which, drawing on various influences from poetry, including Charles Olsons objectivism, was concerned with the reintegration of man as continuous with reality rather than discrete from it, the dynamic experience of what is phenomenally present, the engagement of consciousness by nature, and a desire to go beyond imagination to unmediated perception.401 Brakhages move into the world out there (in the words of Jane Wodening Brakhage), is the primary subject of this consideration of the filmmaker.402 And it should be understood as a historical function of Brakhages relationship and dialogue with Carolee Schneemann.

Reflecting on this film, Hollis Frampton, who also documented autopsies (for his unfinished Magellan film project), wrote: What was to be done in that room, Stan? And then, later, with the footage? I think it must have been mostly to stand aside: to clear out, as much as possible, with the baggage of your own expectations, even, as to what a work of art must look like; and to see, with your own eyes, what coherence might arise within a universe for which you could decree only the boundaries.403 As Frampton suggests, in this work Brakhage brings us close to the facts and visual details of the newly deceased. By limiting his own intervention, Brakhage wanted to make a film of a universe in which he could only decree the
James, Allegories of Cinema, 35. Ibid., 40. 402 Brakhage, Stan and Jane Brakhage (and Hollis Frampton) Talking, 182. 403 Canyon Cinema Catalog online, www.canyoncinema.org.
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boundaries: the profilmic intervention is limited only to the filmmakers control of the camera. Nor is there any of the typically Brakhagean modification of the filmic texture of the work, which generally included painting on film, rapid camera movement, frenetic editing, and symbolic, associative combinations of images. What we have is a collection of visual details that, to some degree, parallels the shift that Schneemann made from her semi-Brakhagean work in Fuses to the more plainly stated observation of Kitchs Last Meal. In The Act of Seeing, it is Brakhages intention perhaps following his conversations and youthful debates with Schneemann to bring himself and his audience closer to the details of natural phenomena. The artists role in this process is understood primarily as an intensification of this perceptual contact, through the act of selection, a decreeing [of] boundaries: a showing of visual examples which the audience can see with its own eyes. If we simply accept, as Brakhage did, that experiences in cinema are always informed by both subjectivity and a historical real, than we can find a place for a meaningful and truthful observational film practice, of which The Act of Seeing may be the most extreme and accomplished experiment. We also have to admit that there are varying degrees of evidentiary force in any text; every film makes different kinds of truth claims. Brakhages mind (or camera) did not create the dead bodies that he filmed; their physical constitution preceded the moment when he turned his camera on. So, there is a basic factual truth these people died and they are being dissected that precedes the act of Brakhages filming.

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

Brakhage, letter to Frampton, November 22, 1971, collection of Stan Brakhage papers, University of Colorado, Boulder; also quoted in Nesthus, 145.

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

405

Brakhage, Metaphors on Vision (excerpt) in Essential Brakhage, 13.

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birth, sex, and death that make them particularly interesting as topics for cinema, 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. Something that happened once and lasted an instant can be shown again and again and again. Finally, The Act of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes is an open, underdetermined film. It is an almost perfect instantiation of Susan Sontags thinking on the text that resists interpretation, (something that according to that critic is particularly unique to the medium of film): Ideally, it is possible to elude the interpreters in another way, by making works of art whose surface is so unified and clean, whose momentum is so rapid, whose address is so direct that the work can be [...] just what it is. Is this possible now? It does happen in films I believe.406 The Act of Seeing comes as close to this ideal as any film. It tells us little or nothing about how to read it. It does not announce its purpose in rhetorical terms. The film aspires to be like the death that it records, something inexplicable and horrific whose meaning is derived from the simple fact of its existence. In this sense much of Brakhages most compelling work performs an unscripted, anxious, and experimental encounter with the world itself, something that was first engaged by Brakhage as a result, perhaps, of the influence of Carolee Schneemann (though this artistic strategy was hyperbolized and pushed to its limits in The Act of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes). The meaning of this type of art is necessarily different from that of other more systematic, rhetorical varieties

Sontag, Against Interpretation in Against Interpretation and Other Essays (New York: Dell, 1966), 21.

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whether they be structural film or documentary. Brakhages film does not encourage, through any textual clues, a move to decode, distill, or explain its cultural references in intellectual terms. By virtue of its openness and its experiential texture, the film seems to argue that it is properly understood by simply sharing space with it, by bearing witness to the flux that it shows.

Seeing with Ones Own Eyes: Artistic Agency in the Films of Schneemann and Brakhage: In Kitchs Last Meal and The Act of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes, Schneemann and Brakhage presented the world visually in fundamentally different terms from their previous work. At the juncture between world and artist is an encounter, and that meeting is the place in which act and text, event and transcription, exist. Schneemanns and Brakhages work shows its viewers that between self and world, visual meaning is co-constituted; it is a product of this encounter between subjectivity (or subjectivities) and phenomenal detail. In this sense, the observational use of cinema represents an attempt at overcoming, at achieving a kind of union with nature (in its most horrific manifestation), a breaking away from the solipsism of alienated modern and postmodern subjectivity. This is the function of both Fuses and The Act of Seeing, two rhetorically and ideologically dissimilar films that share and foreground ontological conditions of somatically defined subjectivity through its inscription upon a cinematic index. These works aim at an overcoming alienation by way of a

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

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performance works of artists like Joan Jonas, Bruce Nauman, and Dan Graham.407 Because of the institutional limits and intellectual trends of the past thirty years, it is no surprise that these critics do not mention film in any of their considerations (though the artists listed above (Jonas, Nauman, Graham) produced important, relevant work in that medium). 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. As Wagner wrote in 2000, 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.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.409 Their films powerfully dramatize this historical anxiety concerning the relationship between individual, embodied experiences of artists and the powerfully unsettling limits of their subjectivities, through the use of the specific technologies of cinema. Partially because of the ascendancy of identity politics

407

See Krauss, Notes on the Index: Part 1 in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985), 196209; Hal Foster, The Return of the Real: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1996); and Anne Wagner, Performance, Video, and the Rhetoric of Presence, October 91 (2000), 5980. 408 Wagner, Performance, Video, and the Rhetoric of Presence, 80. 409 David Joselit could have been discussing Schneemann and Brakhage when he recently wrote, One of the deepest and most unsettling legacies of the 1960s is the sometimes violent, sometimes ecstatic revelation that the ostensibly private arena of the self has become a public battleground.409 (Of course, he was not discussing these filmmakers here; Joselit, like the critics described above, generally avoids discussing film, presumably like most art historians, he has an institutionally inscribed and historically determined aversion to it.)

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

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Chapter 6: Paul Sharits, Perceptual Tumult, Bodily Trauma, and the Dilemma of the Film Artist

By the early-to-mid 1970s, the American avant-garde cinema had reached a point of institutionalized semi-legitimacy. Many filmmakers had found a degree of economic stability as teachers within the university system, a number of their films were being shown in classrooms, and the movement received its first ambitious scholarly study in Sitneys Visionary Film (which was first published in 1974). However, all was not well. 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. The taboo-breaking gestures of the underground of the 1960s had lost their potency to scandalize public taste and morality, due to the breakdown of true censorship in Hollywood cinema, and thus their public appeal atrophied significantly. Most importantly, 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, galleries, and grant-giving institutions (though in its obstinacy and insularity the film community itself cannot be completely absolved of responsibility). Despite the fact that many of these filmmakers found some scant economic viability within

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academia, few felt any degree of true cultural esteem. The anxieties that had plagued experimental cinema persisted into the mid 1970s and, in the work of artists like Paul Sharits, reached a fever pitch of philosophical distress. By the time Sharits completed his film experiment, Epileptic Seizure Comparison (1976), 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. On the one hand, the systematicity of the so-called structural film was evidence of a new filmic epistemology, but it also represented a death knell for the humanist and utopian promise that the art form pursued in the previous decade. Though experimental film was always cloistered from both art and popular culture by the transgressive threat that it posed to normative cinema, this alienation was felt even more profoundly by the mid-1970s. In fact, the anxious cultural position of experimental film was inscribed not only in its social history as evidenced in anecdotes, correspondence, and communications from these filmmakers but, as Epileptic Seizure Comparison demonstrates, it is also loudly inscribed within the textual limits of the film objects themselves.

Sensory Aggression, Violence, and Referential Content in Sharits Early Cinema: In general, Sharits films engage with celluloid as a plastic medium for the composition of color and visual rhythm, rather than the material of real time, motion picture photography. In this sense, like Breers Fist Fight (the first film that was discussed in detail in this dissertation), Sharits films are composed in a

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frame-by-frame fashion. However, though they are assembled using the same technological principles as animated films, they are not, strictly speaking, part of the same artistic genus, because of their general aversion to the illusion of movement, the convention that guides the totality of industrial cinema. Almost all written commentary on Sharits describes his work as profoundly anti-illusionistic, because of its eschewal of both a manufactured temporal continuity and figurative or representational imagery.410 However, such descriptions are overly simplistic. In general, the films of Sharits feature either pure fields of color (photographed on an animation stand) or selective, often sparse representational, non-moving, still images. In many of his films, 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. However, Sharits was entirely opposed to the notion that his films were abstract. Because of their attention to their own materiality and their open thematicization of cinema as a mechanical apparatus, he often argued that his work was about cinema itself; it was the apparatus itself that was his subject. In this sense, Sharits work can be understood as a kind of meta-cinema. As one might expect, it was rather common for critics to connect these film efforts to the processes of modernist self-

See, for example, Krauss, Paul Sharits in Paul Sharits, ed. Jan Beauvais (Dijon: Les Presses du reel, 2008) 4755; and Michelson, Screen / Surface: The Politics of Illusionism, Artforum 9, no. 1 (September 1972), 5862. Sharits respectfully disputes Krausss evaluation of his work as purely abstract and non-representational: Actually its an interplay between purely abstract imagery, if such a thing exists, and highly representational imagery. I like to slide between those barriers (Sharits in Gary Garrels, Interview, October 1982 in Mediums of Language (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1952), not paginated.

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definition celebrated by Greenberg and Fried.411 Nevertheless, however appropriate these rhetorical connections may seem, they tend to reduce Sharits efforts, philosophically speaking, to investigations of basic film conditions including the representational frame, the spectrum of color, the luminosity of projection, the synchronicity of sound and image, etc. and thus undermine much of their philosophical complexity. Much of Sharits most interesting work in fact challenged any simplistic notion of pure cinema, by instead proposing the consideration of what he described as the mediums innate dualisms. (He also described himself as having a nearly schizoid obsession with extreme polarities.)412 Sharits films were often conflicted works that isolated and magnified philosophical tensions or paradoxes inherent in the medium, including for example, the opposition between illusionism and abstraction. Similarly, in his careful and selective use of affectively loaded photographic imagery, the filmmaker produced work that was meaningfully referential, thematic, and even political. In his most successful realizations of these philosophical, conceptual, and ontological tensions, he managed to achieve the rare feat of sublimating the themes of his films into the realm of form. Sharits films propose a new purpose for the cinema apparatus, such that perhaps more so than any other experimental filmmaker they are not what they show, but what they do.

411

See, for example, Stuart Liebman, Paul Sharits (St. Paul, MN: Film in the Cities, 1981), 7. Also see Regina Cornwell, Paul Sharits: Illusion and Object, Artforum 10, no. 1 (September 1971), 57. She connects Sharits to Frieds notion of deductive structure. 412 Sharits letter to Brakhage, April 18, 1968, Collection of Anthology Film Archives.

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Sharits describes the function that he imagines for his work: The film does what it is. 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. Just as the films consciousness becomes infected, so also does the viewers: the projector is an audiovisual pistol; the screen looks at the audience; the retina is a target. Goal: the temporary assassination of the viewers normative consciousness.413 As his quotation suggests, Sharits cinema performs an act of sensory aggression on its audience. (This of course, is a fundamental connection between his work and much of that which has been discussed in this study.) 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). These works depend on a radical, mechanized visual rhythm, common to all forms of cinema, in which a flicker is created by the movement of the celluloid strip through the film projectors gate at twenty-four frames per second. As his quotation above suggests, Sharits does not mask these rapid transitions as Hollywood does, but rather makes them the most fundamental creative resource of his work. The majority of Sharits films, from the early work of Ray Gun Virus (1966) to 3rd Degree (1982), all utilize the flicker of filmic projection as a central aesthetic resource. 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, Notes on Films, 19661968, Film Culture 47 (Summer 1969), 14.

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

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Krauss, Paul Sharits in Paul Sharits, ed. Jan Beauvais (Dijon: Les presses du reel, 2008), 53.

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apparatus to exclusively project light of various shifting tonalities of color and visual rhythm. The works sense of abstract movement is achieved through variations in exposure, tempo, and chromatics. 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. Like the painting of Barnett Newman or Ellsworth Kelly, it represents a historical challenge to conventional notions of painterly craft, while it also reinvents its medium as a field for sensuous experience. However, unlike the color field painters, Sharits was also involved in a temporal art, and therefore, his use of tremendously rapid and dramatic shifts in color orchestrated an experience that was much more caustic and sensorially. With Piece Mandala/End War and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, Sharits combined Ray Gun Viruss 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. As its title suggests, Piece Mandala/End War is an abstracted, literalization of the make love, not war motto of the mid-1960s. Like Ray Gun Virus, the film is primarily a chromatically and rhythmically dense patterned juxtaposition of pure color frames. It flickers and flashes rapidly by, as colors blend sensuously or abut each other dramatically due to their extreme tonal differences. Like Sharits flicker films, the work features rhythms of montage that accelerate and decelerate through an artistic orchestration modeled on music. However, this film differs

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

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In an episode typical of the era, Piece Mandala was withheld by the film lab that was processing it, due to some concern that it contained illegal, pornographic content. Sharits wrote to the lab in 1967: First I want to say that PIECE MANDALA is a work of art and not pornography; it is a political statement and has strong socially redeeming values.[] Being an aesthetic, moral, social and political document, I believe it is protected by our Federal Constitution; 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.415 This amazing conflict between Sharits and a Texas film lab demonstrates the cultural context in which his work was being materially produced. (In fact, Sharits requested letters of support from Jonas Mekas and other influential and well known artists to encourage the lab to release his print.) Most importantly perhaps, this anecdote draws attention to the social function of the work, 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 Filmmakers Cooperative titled, For Life, Against the War.) Though he made a number of films that had no referential content and no use of language, when he did choose to incorporate such elements, as his letter indicates, Sharits did so for both ideological and aesthetic reasons. Though Piece Mandala is not a polemical, didactic essay film, featuring, for example, a prescriptive voiceover, describing the atrocities of the Vietnam War, it is nevertheless the product of an ethically committed artist who transposed the real
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Letter from Sharits to Color Processing Station, Dallas, Texas, February 27, 1967, Collection of Anthology Film Archives.

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violence of world history perhaps as a personal therapeutic action into the register of montage and discontinuous, disconcerting references to sex and suicide. The associative chain of this work, however far it is abstracted from the literalism of social advocacy and political documentary, nevertheless addresses and draws attention to real historical problems through its abstract reflection upon corporeal limits and violent form.416 As the images of Sharits himself suggest this work should also be considered, at least partially, within the register of autobiography. Many of his works featured images related to suicide including most prominently perhaps, Razor Blades and he spoke of it often. Unfortunately, it was a fate that would eventually befall the filmmaker, his mother, and effectively, his brother as well. Sharits was bipolar and often unstable, and his works address the extreme paroxysms and anxieties of his own life through a radical reconfiguration of cinema. For our purposes here, it should be recognized that the connections that Piece Mandala makes between war, sexuality, and suicide, delineate a nexus of associations that are apt for a work of art produced in the shadow of the Vietnam War. However, it was also a creative act, a film which he described as a very

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David James argues that the structural film, because of its formal severity and its seeming lack of cultural awareness, constructed a complex, possibly repressed relationship to the spaces of political and social reference in the age of Vietnam. In such work, the social and the cinematic were internalized as questions of film and by implication, form (James, Allegories of Cinema, 275276). Thus, James suggests, perhaps implicitly, that this systematic, rigid approach to the moving image transposed social trauma into the realm of form. Such a translation of social violence into sensorial violence is entirely operative in the work of Sharits. However, 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), but is in fact an explicit part of the works visual iconography, which occasionally explodes into images of bodily trauma and sex.

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beautiful, lyrical work with a strong sense of social sense.417 His interest in the mandala as a meditative form underpinned many of his films in this period, and represented in his mind an alternative to destructive acts of violence like those inherent in war and suicide. Piece Mandala is a work dedicated to the symbolic demonstration, in Sharits words, of the viability of sexual dynamics as an alternative to destructive violence.418 He describes these connections in his published notes on the film: Color structure is linear-directional but implies a larger infinite cycle; light-energy and image frequencies induce rhythms related to the psychophysical experience of the creative act of cunnilingus. He then suggests that the films 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.419 The sensorial aggression of Sharits work like that of Paik, Tambellini, 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. Made two years later, T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, is a project related to both of those described above. However, in it Sharits made an overwhelmingly more intense, violent, and disturbing work. The first thing one notices upon an initial viewing this film is that it has a soundtrack, which like its visual component, is extremely repetitive and unrelenting in its delivery. Throughout the twelve minute
417

Sharits letter to Color Processing Station, February 27, 1967. Sharits, Notes on Films, 19661968, 13. 419 Ibid., 14.
418

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film, one word is repeated over and over: destroy. The same utterance of the word is mechanically reproduced, replayed, 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. For the spectator of the film, this process results in an experience of a word losing meaning through overexposure and an almost autistic repetition. Through this process of semantic transformation, viewers of the film naturally hear variants of the word destroy, including non-denotative fragments. Regina Cornwell reports hearing phrases like, its off, its cut, his straw, history, and others.420 Through this unprecedented use of film soundtrack, Sharits performs an unsettling experiment in auditory processing and the perception of linguistic cues. In its sonic content, the film powerfully distills its thematic associations into a single verbal command, an imperative issued from an assertive, indiscernible offscreen authority, as if from god on high. Of all Sharits early flicker films, T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G has the most referential visual content. Throughout the film the poet David Franks (who is also the man who utters destroy on the soundtrack) is shown facing the camera, in medium-close-up, in a variety of poses that appear in quickly flashing single still frames. In one image he stares aggressively into the camera, in another his mouth is covered by a womans hand, in another he holds a pair of scissors up to his tongue as if preparing to cut it off, and in another the womans hand scratches his
420

Cornwell, 59. A related sonic experiment is an important component of S:TREAM: SECTION: SECTION:ED, in which the repeated word is exochorion, a term that, echoing the genesis of Dada, Sharits supposedly discovered through a game of chance incorporating a dictionary.

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

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visual effects of both avant-garde and commercial psychedelia and transmogrified them into a fever dream of destruction and violence. Within the ebb and flow of the films musical, dynamic shifts of color and rhythm, the filmmaker regularly intersperses the letters of the films title, flashing the letter T for one frame, then two minutes later, O, etc. 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). This is precisely the kind of compositional tool that drew Sitneys attention, in 1969, to the idea of a new kind of organizational principle for filmic structure. Though Sharits respected Sitneys observations and his erudition, he took issue with certain aspects of his formulation of structural film. In an introductory statement on film structure printed on a syllabus to his film class, Film Aesthetics: Structure as Information Matrices Sharits writes the following about Sitneys structural film formulation: The term is as good as any art movement label, if it is regarded as merely functional and vaguely descriptive; what is untenable is that the term is being used theoretically.421 Like Hollis Frampton, Sharits was a filmmaker whom Sitney included in his taxonomy, and like Frampton, his criticism of structural film is one of the more astute and levelheaded of all the published, casual, written, or anecdotal responses to the category. In a letter to Sitney, Sharits also objected that his taxonomy of the avant-garde was quite
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Sharits, syllabus for Film Aesthetics: Structure as Information Matrices, Collection of Anthology Film Archives.

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literary oriented, implying that an audio-visual medium required modified critical categories from those of American poetics. Sharits film work demonstrates this, in a sense. Both in its conceptual motivations the concrete conditions of its exhibition, Sharits work begs to be understood as an intervention not simply into the history of the film medium, but in art more generally.

Locational Film Installation and the Transformation of Film Exhibition: In 1971, Sharits completed his first locational film installation, Sound Strip/Film Strip. Though he had experimented with modified projection before in his two-screen works, Sears Catalogue (1964) and Razor Blades (1965-68), his first isotropic, gallery based film installation represented a transformation in the temporal structure of his cinema, the conditions of its exhibition, and the institutional associations of its socio-aesthetic context. After a period of personal and artistic crisis in the late 1960s, 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, including super-8 loops, 16mm loops, 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). He describes this shift to locational exhibition: Film can occupy spaces other than that of the theatre; it can become Locational (rather than suggesting-representing other

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locations) by existing in spaces whose shapes and scales of possible sound and image sizes are part of the wholistic [sic] piece.422 It was during this period that Sharits began to become disgruntled with the conventional limitations, both formal and ontological, of the projected motion picture. He wanted to expand his practice in a sense, 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, free, public location [] (2) if the form of the presentation does not prescribe a definite duration of respondents 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.423 For Sharits, the first three of these requirements marked a break from the dominant tendencies of the experimental cinema, which was generally shown in darkened movie theaters, with specific exhibition times, and temporally shifting, evolutionary structures. However, the expansion of his practice beyond these limits did not produce a clean break with the traditions and exhibition strategies of his earlier work. Instead, 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, linear, single-screen exhibition.424 A number of these films then exist in at least

422

Sharits, Statement Regarding Multiple Screen/Sound Locational Film Environments Installations (1976), Film Culture 6566 (1978), 79. 423 Ibid., 7980. 424 Bruce Conner too presented isotropic installations of his films using looped prints and specially engineered screening set-ups. With EVE RAY FOREVER (1965), Conner produced a three-screen

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two possible exhibition formats, within both single-screen theatrical projection and continuous gallery-based installation exhibition. Sharits locational projects of the early to mid 1970s included Sound Strip/Film Strip, Synchronousoundtracks (1973-74), Vertical Contiguity (1974), Damaged Film Loop (197374), Shutter Interface (1975), Dream Displacement (1975-76), and Epileptic Seizure Comparison (1976). As their titles suggest, the majority of these experiments engage in the systematic analysis of various aspects of the cinema apparatus, and often exclude illusionistic, conventional cinematic content within the film frame. In this sense, much of his work in cinema, be it locational installation or conventional exhibition, would continue the trajectory first initiated by Ray Gun Virus. However, in 1975, Sharits began a project using repurposed footage from medical films and created a work that, like T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G,, foregrounded both formal and thematic concerns, and dramatized some of the most urgent ontological anxieties of both Sharits cinema and that of experimental film more generally.

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). However, he also continued distributing the single-screen, black-and-white, sound version of the film for exhibition in conventional theaters; in addition, he also presented his work in rock-and-roll light shows and performance-based contexts, demonstrating that he too envisioned an expanded range of exhibition possibilities that extended well beyond those traditionally associated with film viewing.

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

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the space of the screen and thus creates a trapezoidal shape in which the images are projected and the viewer is physically situated. The walls of the exhibition space are covered by reflective silver material that enhances the luminous flicker emitted by the films two streams of visual projection. The result is a chamber of extreme polyphotic and polyphonic sensory overload that is saturated with a range of audio-visual synchronicities and collisions. In order to be precise about the films content, the following description will relate to the single-screen version of the film rather than attempting to describe two image streams simultaneously. (The single screen film is thirty-four minutes long, 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 film begins with onscreen text that dryly and precisely presents its content and organizing principles: I. TOP SCREEN: ELECTRICALLY INDUCED SEIZURE A. COLOR ROLL AND PATIENTS UTTERANCES B. BLACK & WHITE ROLL OF PATIENT AND SYNTHESIZER SIMULATION OF BRAIN WAVE PATTERN DURING ONSET OF SEIZURE C. FINAL COMPOSITE SOUND/IMAGE OF A&B II. BOTTOM SCREEN: PHOTICALLY INDUCED SEIZURE A. COLOR ROLL AND PATIENTS UTTERANCES B. BLACK & WHITE ROLL OF PATIENT AND SYNTHESIZER SIMULATION OF BRAIN WAVE PATTERN DURING ONSET OF SEIZURE C. FINAL COMPOSITE SOUND/IMAGE OF A & B

The film follows the exact structure introduced by the text. Part IA begins with an array of flashing pure color frames of red, yellow, and green. This introductory 398

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

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intervention into the films composition is noticeable with every frame. Images of the patients body in motion are also combined with black frames and short sections of continuous black leader. 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 films first section. In addition to modifying the temporality of the profilmic event through judicious, tightly controlled transformations of the frame rate of the footage, Sharits also adjusts the composition of the image through subtle reframings using the optical printers zoom mechanism. 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. Over the course of at least one of these repetitions, Sharits slowly moves from a medium close-up of the patient in distress to a much tighter shot, as a documentarian might, for dramatic effect, at the height of his or her subjects medical crisis. The soundtracks modulations function independently of these short, looped episodes of paroxysmic visual medical testimony. In section IC, the two previous sequences have been combined through the post-production process of A/B rolling, and thus both of the layers described are synthesized and made to unfold simultaneously in time. (In the two-screen version, this simultaneity of stimuli is even more pronounced, because of the use of two projectors, and thus twice as dense in both image and sound.) One of the effects of this synthesis of visual materials is that at times the black and white

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

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physically traumatic; Sharits plastic manipulations of his film materials are appropriately more acute as well. In contradistinction to the filmmakers treatment of the optically modified composition in the first reel, as the action becomes more dramatic in this second seizure, Sharits zooms out rather than in. (When these two sections are shown simultaneously, the effect is akin to the phenomenological push and pull of Warhols The Chelsea Girls.) Since this seizure is photically induced, within the profilmic space of the medical film we witness the flashing lights that trigger the patients convulsion, adding an extra degree of visual interest and stimulus. Thus, 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. In this sense the film presents a profilmic mirroring of the spectatorial experience of watching Epileptic Seizure Comparison, itself a dramatically flickering work of light and dark. Through its various levels of authorial intervention and spectatorial provocation, 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. During the last section of this reel all of the previous visual and sonic elements meld together and achieve a series of interlocking patterns. Perhaps the most dramatic and affective moment of the film occurs near its conclusion. Through post-production manipulation, Sharits carefully slows the image stream of the patients frenzied shaking, until it comes to a stop, and then presents a

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freeze frame of the films subject with his teeth clenched and eyes rolled back into his head. This is an unsettling image and the filmmaker purposefully draws the viewers attention to it. Throughout Epileptic Seizure Comparison, the thematic and affective range of the work is carefully controlled by the director behind the proverbial curtain. Through his plastic manipulations of these visual indexes of patient trauma, Sharits amplifies the exaggerates the drama of their bodily anguish by manipulating the temporal structure of these filmic transcriptions, magnifying the scale of photographic composition, 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. This authorial bracketing heightens the power of this medical footage to unsettle and disturb the viewers sense of ethics, as Sharits continual artistic intervention adds the sense that there is another witness to the convulsive events that we are seeing. This interaction of artistry and observation reminds the viewer, through its formal methods, that we are voyeurs witnessing the suffering of disabled humans. Our awareness of their subjectivities is not minimized or instrumentalized by their incorporation into this art work. On the contrary, it is heightened by this framing within a plasticized media presentation. There is clearly a careful orchestrator behind the artistic spectacle of this film, 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

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fields of distress. 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. Regardless of intent, these overlapping fields of disparate sound and image components combine to blistering effect. 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. The film represents an unprecedented attempt to simultaneously simulate and represent an extreme neurological event. Through his transposition of a patients neurological distress into the realms of visual, ethical, and aesthetic overload, 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 works true subjects. In Sharits words, he is, interested in creating a sound-image-space situation wherein sympathetic observers may begin to identify with the convulsive epileptic. [] Seizure Comparison is an attempt to orchestrate sound and light rhythms in an intimate and proportional space, an ongoing location wherein nonepileptic persons may begin to experience, under controlled conditions, what Dr. Walter calls the majestic potentials of convulsive seizure.425 Sharits description suggests that his intentions are humanist in origin; the films careful treatment of the somatic traumas of these patients evidences this state of affairs. Still, the work is one of extreme distress and its registers of anxiety and anguish are inscribed throughout its textual and spectatorial spaces.
425

Sharits, Filmography, Film Culture 65-66 (1978), 124.

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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. The filmmaker slows the films speed and sometimes freezes its images, and thus clearly illustrates the capacity of the cinematic apparatus to modify historical time and re-write the temporal continuity of experience. However, one of the central points of conflict in this work is localized in its original images, in their indexical account of embodied episodes of extreme somatic, psychic, and neurological distress. The works originary materials, regardless of their later, plastic modifications (in the hands of Sharits), seize the viewer in ways that disobey the controlling transformations of the apparatus, because of the undeniably complex affective force of the events that they display. In this regard, the works documentary material is not simply a representation of something, but more importantly it is an index of a singular, and sometimes life-threatening, liminal event. In this regard, Epileptic Seizure Comparison might be understood as a limit text, as a liminal inscription of the capacities of cinema to both represent and provoke episodes of extreme psychic distress. The extraordinary profilmic event of this work was originally transcribed in what might be understood as simple observational terms, intended to display visual evidence of a neurological malady. Later, 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

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repurposed for another kind of psychic trauma imposed upon the viewer in order to achieve a complex effect that is both aesthetic and scientific, both sensuous and epistemological. He describes the work as directed towards an experience of empathy and understanding of the patients suffering, in which the viewer is enmeshed with the visible trauma of the patient as well as his unseen psychic distress, such that he or she is seized as it were, in a convulsive space, and can thus become one with the two images of paroxysm.426 In profound and sometimes troubling ways, the film engages with the same ontological registers and corporeal limits as the bodies and deaths within Kitchs Last Meal and The Act of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes. 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, because though the physical platform for both works may be celluloid, the actual medium of the liminal event is the human body.

Sharits: Filmmaker or Artist?: Like most of Sharits film installations, 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. In this sense, Sharits works share in the exhibition modes of much experimental film in the 1960s and early 70s. (As discussed throughout this project, a number

426

Ibid., 124.

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of filmmakers including Breer, Warhol, Paik, Yalkut, Tambellini, Conner, and Schneemann welcomed the incorporation of their films into the contexts of happenings, light shows, multi-screen projections, and performance events.) However, his move to exhibit his works in galleries marked a transition out of the social openness of the previous decade. Sharits locational film installations recontextualized expanded cinema, 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; in some sense, this move marks the transposition of an ineffable and contingent event into an art commodity. Still, for Sharits career, this break was not definitive. 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). 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, the economic viability of experimental cinema, and the cultural esteem of film as an art form. 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. To Sharits, there was no contradiction in presuming that he could be a filmmaker and an artist, but this position caused him many problems. Still, like

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many of the figures discussed in this text, he was fully committed to the idea that film and art were unified enterprises. In a letter to a museum director in Germany, 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 filmmakers community from the art world, 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, in terms of categorization and financial supportiveness. This seems to me to be an (art world) political posture and not a valid semantic or esthetic determination; 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. 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. Flatly, all work shown in art museums should be regarded as art and the makers of these works regarded as artists and not filmmakers, et al.427 In this letter, 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. (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.) As Sharits letter indicates, and as David James argues in Allegories of Cinema, one of the major determinations of this historical bifurcation between

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It continues, To begin with, I would like to know why Michael Snow is listed (and treated as) a filmmaker while Jack Smith is listed as an artist. [] In my opinion both men are artists, very fine artists indeed, and this distinction appears meaningless (Letter to Marlis Gruterich, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Koln, July 7, 1974, Collection of Anthology Film Archives).

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film 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, historical, and institutional interaction between film and art, it still does not explain the continued absence of this medium from historical accounts of art that include conceptual art, video art, and performance. Nor does it explain the differing treatments of filmmakers versus artists who make films, for which the material conditions of the objects being presented are, for all intents and purposes, 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.429 In this sense, 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, 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, ineffable notion of celebrity. Still, the economic segregation of artists from filmmakers always works to the detriment of the latter. In fact, for the most part, the material conditions that separate filmmakers and artists films in the museum circuit continue to this day. 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, 269275. Sharits letter to Marlis Gruterich, Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Koln, July 7, 1974, Collection of Anthology Film Archives.
429 428

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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. (In addition, at one point in the 1970s, his works were distributed by both The Filmmakers' Cooperative, which was associated with the avant-garde filmmakers community, and Castelli-Sonnabend, a major gallery and media art distributor for established, profitable artists.) Through his diligence, his intelligence, and the quality of his work, he managed to court the interest of art institutions that provided him with large sums of money to create his elaborate multi-projector installations. Sharits hard won crossover into the gallery world was partially the function of his pragmatism, but it may also have been, at least partially, a result of his distrust of the hermetic cliquishness of the avant-garde filmmakers community. For example, 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.430 To Sharits, who understood the philosophical stakes of contemporary art in the 1960s and 70s, a zealous belief in technique as a determination of artistic significance to which

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The filmmakers community was divided on Warhol. A number of them openly distrusted his success and his lack of traditional craft, which emphasized careful composition and rigorous framing. Amongst others, Brakhage, Frampton, and Markopolous spoke out against Warhol and his films. In Annette Michelsons words, Brakhage uttered a howl of rage at the emergence of Warhols film work largely, one surmises because it seemed not to be work (Michelson, Where Is Your Rupture?: Mass Culture and the Gestamtkunstwerk, 106). [emphasis in original] On the contrary, some filmmakers embraced Warhols work, particularly when it first appeared: both Jonas Mekas and Jack Smith were close associates of Warhols during the early years of his experimentation with the film medium. However, Smith would later openly dismiss Warhol as an opportunist and a fraud. Such an opinion was not uncommon amongst Warhols filmmaking contemporaries.

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many of the coop filmmakers held with pronounced stubbornness seemed both overstated and reactionary. It must be admitted that the inability of filmmakers to gain the kind of support and exposure that was eventually received by Sharits was, at least partially, a function of their own obstinacy and proud provincialism. For example, Sharits initiated an effort to bring filmmakers some kind of economic support by creating saleable super-8 prints, in order to produce an artistic commodity that might function as a filmic analogue to the lithograph in fine art. In the mid-1970s, 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. To his surprise, almost no filmmakers responded. (He wrote Brakhage, Jacobs, Mekas, Gehr, Frampton, Joyce Weiland, and others.) 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. In a lengthy letter to Stan Brakhage in 1974, Paul Sharits described his frustrations with this aspect of the filmmakers community (of which Brakhage was a proud member, 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; I am raw nerve endings over it. 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. Jonas is hassling me, Hollis is hassling me like Im some traitor to the cinema art cause. [] 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, then I get very deeply upset. And Im on edge. [] I dont think Im blind to the 411

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

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art historians to expect, appreciate, and understand any kind of truly nonnormative, non-identificatory film experience.

Bruce Jenkins describes the institutional conundrum that Sharits faced in 1975: At the time of the installations creation [Shutter Interface (1975)], 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. 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. Henceforth those arenas would grant admittance to moving image work primarily rendered on video. Film was about to take a long hiatus, and while it was still occasionally acquired by museums and collectors, increasingly it would be displayed only in neutralized forms in cans inside vitrines or projected in isolated screening spaces. Critical interest in the form of cinema that Sharits had pioneered returned to the more fringe circuits of experimental film, and showings abounded mainly on the screens of college classrooms.432 Film of course, is exhibited in museums. But the segregation between films by artists and films by filmmakers continues to be operative. (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, but equal.) And, most importantly, 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. One could consider, for example, a comparison between Ken Jacobs and Matthew Barney. Though Jacobs displays an impressive art world pedigree he was trained by Hans Hoffman, was a close collaborator of

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Bruce Jenkins, Out of the Dark, Artforum 47, no. 10 (Summer 2009), 111.

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Jack Smiths, was one of the first artists to incorporate film as an element of performance, had an image from one of his films on the cover of Artforum in 1973, etc. he continues to work in relative obscurity compared to the Hollywood treatment received by Barney. 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, at least to some extent, a function of Hollywoods 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. Similarly, it might be suggested that the dominant mode of creating and conditioning spectator experience has changed very little since the days of D.W. Griffith, despite minor shifts achieved by European art cinema and other varieties of narrative pseudodifferentiation.

Experimental Film: An Anxious Art Form: In order to consider further the historical stakes of the tensions described throughout this project, let us briefly reflect upon a statement by Harold Rosenberg (the critic whose anxious object formulation gives this dissertation its title). At the very conclusion of his collection of essays he writes, I refer to the activity of the artist, which in acts of creation has a value distinct from that of the object in which it terminates. [] To his chain of creation art owes its survival. By it the intrinsic tension between artist,

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

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the authors intention. Still, 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. In a response to questions about changes in technology, filmmaker and educator Pat ONeil recently critiqued the openness of postmodern field of artistic production when he said, There used to be arguments about film and there was an anxiety about it. But now everything is possible and there are no arguments.434 There is no doubt that these anxieties concerning the meaning, merit, and pleasure of experimental film were inscribed in the profilmic, filmic, social, institutional, and aesthetic spaces of the works that have been discussed throughout this text. If now, in the current moment of artistic production these tensions have been tempered, it is a function of the basic historical fact that the stakes have changed. Or, as ONeil suggests, some defining anxiety and sense of urgency have dissipated, and with it the spirit of argument has been replaced with a dull cheeriness. In 1966 Harold Rosenberg prefigured the no-stakes openness and historical irreverence of postmodern art when he wrote that, the quieting of arts anxiety is bound to suggest the cheerfulness of a sick room. It is a renunciation of that intellectual and emotional ingredient in twentieth-century art that arises from facing the reality of its situation. The anxiety of modern art is the measure of its historical consciousness and its appreciation of the stature of the past.435

Pat ONeil, Restoring the Los Angeles Avant-Garde panel discussion, hosted by Mark Toscano, May 29, 2009, UCLA Film & Television Archive, Los Angeles, CA. 435 Rosenberg, Toward an Unanxious Profession in The Anxious Object, 19.

434

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If this anxiety has indeed quieted, as ONeil suggests, 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. (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.)436 In this project, I do not claim to evaluate the contemporary landscape of film art; however, it is indisputable that the historical conditions have shifted, and with them, the philosophical and cultural contexts of the practice described herein. Such is the nature of culture; 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. Much work remains to be done, in terms of both research and critical analysis, on the history of the American experimental film. Though this project has analyzed a handful of works by a small number of filmmakers, there were in fact hundreds, if not thousands of film artists working independently in this period, such that forgotten filmmakers are being continuously rediscovered. Even relatively well known figures, like Robert Nelson for example, are returning to exhibition venues due to new restorations of their work and critical reappraisals of their historical and aesthetic significance. So, it must be admitted that this project, like any scholarly undertaking, is by nature, a selective endeavor. There were many other artist filmmakers who could have provided generative examples for

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Arthur, Movies the Color of Blood, vii.

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this critical study. For example the works of Robert Frank, Michael Snow, Yvonne Rainer, Dan Graham, Red Grooms, Dick Higgins, Robert Watts, Stan Vanderbeek, Charles Ray, Charles Eames, Morgan Fisher, Tony Conrad, Richard Serra, Robert Smithson, Hollis Frampton, 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. Luckily, many of these names are now receiving scholarly attention by young academics and graduate students. So, as the locational installations of Paul Sharits are slowly being restored by enterprising and ambitious young archivists, hopefully the history and aesthetic sphere surrounding this variety of interstitial, intermedial practice will continue to attract increasing degrees of scholarly interest. Yet the disciplinary groupings of avant-garde film, artists film, and non-fiction film continue to commit discursive violence upon the unruly, indefinable artistic experiments produced in this period.

As historical artifacts, 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. The films, cinematic gestures, and proto-cinematic objects described herein intervened into the intermedial landscape of the arts through their uses of cinemas novel technologies. By considering both the possibilities and limits of the apparatuses that mediate human experience and fundamentally transform its aesthetic, social,

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historical, and ontological meanings as communication, representation, and gesture, these films have all been presented and discussed for the purposes of outlining often polemically, perhaps the shifting historical conditions of media art as an enterprise invested in aesthetic, social, and ultimately, ontological challenges. These were often caustic works, poised, like Epileptic Seizure Comparison, between a medium-specific investigation of form and a breakdown of textual limits. Similarly, many of these films were historically balanced between the dereliction of the underground cinema and the glamour of the art market. The response to the anxiogenic challenge to make meaningful and ambitious film-based work in the face of a largely uninterested culture, was often one of spectatorial assault; 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. Its termination in 1975 marks the end of a chapter in American history that influenced the entire field of cultural production, including experimental film. The psychic, ethical, 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, devastation, and degradation. As suggested in the last chapter, much media art of the late 1960s and 1970s foregrounded the challenge

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Artaud, The Theater and its Double, 89.

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

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

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Sharits, Notes on Films, 19661968, 14.

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between conflicting registers of ontological, affective, social, and philosophical signification that demand greater critical attention and scholarly analysis if they are to be properly understood. Experimental film, by virtue of its eschewal of Hollywood plot or the formulaic pedanticism of documentary, comprises a field of representation that is coextensive with the life that it records. In so many of the films described herein, 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.440 In The Act of Seeing With Ones Own Eyes, the unavoidable ontological fact of death penetrates the viewers visual space with a power that is almost inexplicable. In Andy Warhols first sound film, Harlot, he experimented with the simultaneous juxtaposition of voices and performers who could neither see nor hear each other. The result is a strange historical document, determined by happenstance, the willful use of the sloppiest and muddied aesthetic registers, and the inescapable awkwardness of performers whose sheer co-presence with the camera triggers some degree of instability. On the muddled voiceover track three people talk almost incoherently about basically nothing, but one poetic phrase juts out from the noisy dialogue: a roasting place of movie flesh. This mysterious and uncanny phrase communicates the anxiety of experimental cinema, its somatic force, and its corrosive energy. It also speaks to the viewer with the contingency and force of the charge of the real. Or as Brian ODoherty put it in
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Vivian Sobchack, The Charge of the Real: Embodied Knowledge and Cinematic Consciousness in Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 258285.

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

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ODoherty, 21.

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works suggest some philosophical consideration of indexical inscription, by asking what is inscribed on the filmic document itself. These works inquire, in differing terms and with distinctive results, 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), the filmmaker behind the camera (as in a conventionally understood modernist expressivity), the editor who assembles the work (and engages in a cultural dialogue, as in found footage filmmaking), the act of projection (in which the conditions of spectatorial encounter are defined, as in expanded cinema), 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, controlled, closed textual systems that dominated the historical tendency of film studies in the past. In place of these contained efforts at textual analysis, this dissertation has considered experimental cinema as a mesh or network of historically overlapping fields of artistic, personal, and social action. 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, in which it was defined by a marked socio-aesthetic anxiety. Through its considerations of trends of aesthetic and intellectual

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influence, collective art practices, open form, indexicality, and performance, this project has made provisional efforts at addressing the complex ontological, aesthetic, social, and generally speaking, philosophical, functions of the American experimental cinema in the period at hand. Any reasonable reconsideration of this work needs to address itself, pragmatically and provisionally perhaps, to the central philosophical concerns of the medium, to the core questions of ontology, observation, and entertainment, while also reflecting on the historiographical and disciplinary limits that have been imposed upon it. 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, particularly in relation to the technologies of mass media; 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, and thus has dismissed any possibility for understanding its fundamental exchanges with the most profound and urgent aesthetic innovations of the era.

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Though there can be no totalizing, comprehensive history of any artistic practice, all of these disciplines have missed something fundamental about the way in which American experimental cinema intervened forcibly, persuasively, and provocatively, into the cultural landscape of the 1960s and 70s. 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, even anarchic historical practice, rather than a contained set of texts and dictates. In this period, experimental cinema was poised between the promise of crossover attention and hermetic exclusion, while also being balanced precariously between a range of disciplines, media, and social functions. Between 1965 and 1975, in the twilight of films dominance as the principal form of mass media in the United States, the experimental cinema confronted a range of cultural practices and thus represented a powerful mode, expressed in artistic form, 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. The ambivalence, hostility, and anxiety that surrounded this work then and continue to surround it today were the marks of its urgency.

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