Salvage Vanguard Theater, Austin
June 15, 2012
by Caroline Koebel
Direct-er’s Cuts, a touring 16mm film program curated and including work by Steve Cossman, centers around a clear organizing principle: the artist averts the camera’s dominion in the filmmaking process by exploring—and exhausting—all other means by which films might come into being.
One historical work anchors the otherwise contemporary program: Free Radicals (1958/1979)1 by Len Lye, the New Zealand-born pioneer of direct film. To make Free Radicals, Lye scratched the film emulsion, resulting in a microcosm of negative and positive space and polyphonic visual rhythm that together with a soundtrack of music by the Bagirmi tribe of Africa sculpts a transfixing experience. His actions exist in a time-space continuum evoking our cave-dwelling ancestors and extra-terrestrial communications. The simplicity of his ingenuity remains a beautiful thing. Tyler Cann, Len Lye Curator at Large, says of Lye’s work, “it’s full of energy, and it energizes you as a spectator.”2 Exactly.
A Joy (2005/2011)3 by Jodie Mack rivals Free Radicals in its ebullience. Because the two films are so markedly different—Mack works in explosive color using acetate, patterned contact paper and ink and the soundtrack is the electro-pop of Four Tet—while both achieving exalted states, there is a reciprocity between them that creates a third element. The excitement threshold of each, already maximal, is thereby elevated even higher. In terms of the abstract optical poetry evident in A Joy: ever-shifting composition teeming with intense color, relations between hard and round forms, pattern amidst chaos, occasional nods to representation (i.e., circles uniting in flower form), I am reminded of another historical antecedent: the awe-inspiring animation of Oskar Fischinger.
Although each work is made using direct film techniques (i.e., cameraless), Direct-ers Cuts is surprisingly varied and not a single title feels redundant or incidental; rather, there is much resonance between films (witness the Lye-Mack verve). While Gums (2012)4 by Aaron Vinton is on one hand nothing like Mack’s A Joy, there is nonetheless an engaging interplay between the two. In this panoply of digital imagery affixed to celluloid a hypnotic movement of color, shape, pattern, texture, abstraction and representation is all enveloping and once again I lose the sense of watching from without and instead find myself existing within.
Frenetic movement carries to Eric Stewart’s Fe (2010)5, a silent film comprised of hand-processed “photo-grams of magnets in a magnetic field”6 that out of constant flux conveys quietude. Devon Damonte’s 40.mov (2012)7 is an ingenuous tribute from the heart and the hand to one Moviola editing machine and its home in Portland at the Northwest Film Center, where a multitude of filmmakers have “lovingly cut” on the weathered yet invincible tool “millions of miles of film footage.”8 The filmmaker made rubbings of the Moviola which he then photocopied and taped onto 16mm film leader. For Pillager (2011) Joshua Lewis repurposed his talents as a film lab technician (at Negativland in Brooklyn) to perform photochemical sleights of hand through elaborate hand-processing and bleaching.
Ancestors (2012) by Douglas Urbank had its inception in “old photographs of unidentified ancestors”9 found upon his mother’s death. Scanning the images, he then altered and collaged his forebears together, along with other elements including excerpts from letters, onto hand-painted 16mm film leader. The result provokes reflection on the semiotics of images: the picture as conveyor of subjective (or personal) meaning v. the picture as picture—territory explored by the Pop artists, such as Warhol.
Cossman’s own film Tusslemuscle (2007-2009)10 is a rapid flow of single frames of flowers—7,000 distinct hand-spliced images collected and excised from stereoscopic View-Master reels. At 24 frames per second, 1,440 frames per minute, that’s a mania of visual stimulus to process even with the subject’s delimitation to “flower.” The challenge posed here to a type of spectatorial and cognitive endurance test (witness “muscle” in the title) reaps its own rewards, especially considering the voluminous labor necessitated by the making in the first place of the film, striking an accord between maker and recipient. The thrill of the viewing experience settles into a sense of failure to retain what was once present—granted, only momentarily—and it is in this awareness of loss that I can grasp the filmmaker’s point about Tusslemuscle conveying “impending disaster.”11 But not entirely: I’d have to see the projected 16mm print again to know better whether I ultimately find the film more condemnatory or celebratory.
Caroline Koebel is a filmmaker and writer in Austin and is on faculty at Transart Institute.
1. The film is readily available online.
2. Govett-Brewster Art Gallery Web site: http://www.govettbrewster.com/LenLye/Centre/LenLyeCentre.aspx Tyler Cann is quoted from a promotional video about the planned Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth, New Zealand. These words appear at approximately 5:00 into the video, but the entire video is recommended.
3. The 2005 version is available on Jodie Mack’s Vimeo page: http://vimeo.com/8375376.
4. Available on the Mono No Aware Vimeo page: http://vimeo.com/40558398.
5. Available on Eric Stewart’s Vimeo page: http://vimeo.com/16110260.
6. Program notes.
7. Available on Devon Damonte’s Vimeo page: http://vimeo.com/36649017.
8. Devon Damonte, program notes.
9. Douglas Urbank, program notes.
10. An excerpt is available on Steve Cossman’s Web site: http://www.stevecossman.com/TM.
11. Steve Cossman, Q&A.