Monthly Archives: November 2012


Lev Manovich claims that the new media software of the last two decades codifies the avant-garde formal techniques of the 1920s. This would seem to characterize software as, arrière-garde, to borrow Perloff’s phrase. If, in military terms, the avant-garde is at the forefront, the arrière-garde brings up the rear. In this sense, Manovich’s argument positions software as bringing up the rear in terms of formal technique. However, Manovich argues that, while software does embody some techniques of the 1920s, it also represents a new avant-garde, in the sense that it inaugurates a meta-media society, repurposing the contents of old media rather than reflecting the outside world. According to Manovich, the data manager is the new avant-garde artist.

This last point seems to be on tenuous ground. One distinction I’d like to make is that the definition of the avant-garde often implies something of a counter-cultural tendency, rather than simply being groundbreaking. For example, I wouldn’t call Mark Zuckerberg “avant-garde” simply because he founded Facebook first. An important distinction arises here. While the 1920s avant-garde was a movement of individuals, Manovich’s software movement is an avant-garde of corporations, of Microsoft and Apple, not the likes of Moholy-Nagy or Rodchenko. I don’t deny that there is much to be said for the avant-garde possibilities of software. But calling software itself avant-garde seems to be like calling a movie camera avant-garde. To be avant-garde requires, in Vertov’s example, both man and movie camera, as we see from the films from this week.

The anticipation of software abounds in Vanderbeek’s “Science Friction.” The cut and paste aesthetic resurfaces in the contemporary incarnation of Photoshop. But while Vanderbeek’s film is readily classifiable as avant-garde, Photoshop itself is not. As the rest of the films demonstrate, the avant-garde across the decades tends to make creative misuse of its materials. Whitney’s “Permutations,” though hardly advanced by today’s technology standards, still represents an important step in aestheticizing mathematics. Vasulka and O’Reilly’s “Scan Processor Studies” also embodies this machine aesthetic, and takes on an air of the political in our age of TSA airport body-scanners.

In “Watch,” Rokeby “hacks” (in the least pejorative sense) a street surveillance camera. Again, this film is colored with politics: while corporations develop surveillance technologies as tools of the state, avant-garde artists like Rokeby creatively misuse such technologies in the making of avant-garde art. Rokeby’s “Cheap Imitation” hacks Duchamp’s “Nude Descending a Staircase,” reanimating the “nude” through an interactive gallery installation.

Gordon’s “Making Eyes” seemed like a bit of an outlier here. Visually, the collage of eyes is quite striking, and it does perhaps put the viewer in mind of surveillance, once again. But my first association with “Making Eyes” is the Beckett play Not I, which consists solely of an illuminated mouth speaking a string of disassociated, traumatized phrases.

Addendum: Both Bruce Conner’s “A Movie” and the Quay Brothers’ “Street of Crocodiles” use music as structuring devices. Connor’s film consists of thematic collages of related images, coupled with a particular musical For example, one section of the film centers on automobile crashes. When the musical phrase ends, the collage begins to focus on bicycles, or boating, etc. “Street of Crocodiles” seems more structured around narrative than Connor’s film. The stop-motion life of a puppet proceeds through a series of musical structures. Whereas the music in Connor’s film is purely structural, the Quay brothers’ music seems to add tone to the film.


Film in Flux

Macunias’s “Artype” seems like to have more in common with early abstract cinema than with Fluxus, the movement with which Macunias is associated. “Artype” feature a series of geometric shapes and patterns, culminating in a series of horizontal lines and an accelerating high pitched noise. Visual, this film was similar to some of the synchromy works that we watched early in the semester.

Brecht, a filmmaker also associated with Fluxus, has created a more obviously “fluxfilm” in “Entrance to Exit.” The content of the film consists entirely of two fades and the visible words “Entrance” (at the beginning) and “Exit” (at the end). In film form, this piece is probably less successful than its original incarnation as an audience participation event. For the film viewer, it almost seems like the world’s most simplistic narrative film, moving from a beginning, or entrance, to an end, or exit.

Frampton’s films share some commonalities with these Fluxus works. “Snowblind,” like “Artype,” is an exploration of patterns, with the occasional appearance of a man partially obscured behind mesh or chain. “Maxwell’s Demon,” a reference to theoretical physics, evokes Muybridge and Marey’s studies of motion in the images of a man doing pushups, which is intercut with color flashes more akin to structuralist film.

Sharits and Landow play with narrative expectations, authorial intent, and film materials in the films “Tails” and “Remedial Reading Comprehension,” respectively. Sharits’s work foregrounds the vertical motion and the finitude of the film strip, while Landow’s work plays with the concept of dreams and the gaze, as the film opens with a woman sleeping, while and audience emerges above her.

Michael Snow’s WVLNT was the most aesthetically pleasing of the works we watched this week. WVLNT is beautiful in its simplicity: it consists of superimposed images of interior space. Snow seems to be interrogating the interplay between time and space, the ultimate subject of film.


Yoko Ono’s film “One” consists of the lighting of a match. She achieves the creation of an archetypal light source through the use of a high speed camera, which extends the life of the match for the duration of five minutes. In a sense, “One” seems to be a form of pure cinema, in that its subject is light and duration.

Jeff perkins’s “Shout” exists as a sort of study in facial expressions. For 2.5 minutes, two men, one bespectacled, argue in various stages of apparent shouting, though the film does not include sound. The film enacts a defamiliarization, by foregoing the sound of an argument in favor of the visual experience of argument.

Writing Film Filming Writing

In Writing Degree Zero (1953), Roland Barthes attempts to take language back to basics. His discussions of representation, narrative, and history seem to be foundational for many of the filmmakers we watched for today. Barthes valorizes “a colourless writing, freed from all bondage to a pre-ordained state of language.” Barthes here seems to be proposing a kind of “neutral” writing that disavows the bourgeois character of narrative: “when the Narrative is rejected in favor of other literary genres… Literature becomes the receptacle of existence in all its density and no longer of its meaning alone.” To some extent, this neutrality is achieved in the structuralist films of the 60s and 70s through an emphasis on the material conditions of filmmaking.

In Ken Jacobs’s “Window,” we find a freed from the bondages of a preordained state of vision. The camera is never still, yet we never get the feeling that the camera and director are one. It is as if we are seeing the camera’s view from a window how the camera itself would look. I think it’s safe to assume that if it were conscious, a camera would “see” in a way foreign to us. George Landow’s “Film In Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc” foregrounds the aspects of the film strip that tend to be suppressed in narrative filmmaking. The imperfections serve to foreground the medium in a way that seems almost confessional. In this way, the film becomes, as Barthes suggests, the receptacle of existence in all its density (and imperfections). Kurt Kren’s “tv,” like Jacobs’s film, features a window. Kren, however, uses editing to subvert the narrative structure of the “contents” of the window. At times we see what appear to be three women, one women, a crane, and a father and a son passing in front of the window, but the repetitive and disassociating quality of the edits makes it nearly impossible to understand “what’s going on.” Perhaps, Kren might sight, film is “going on.” Peter Greenway’s “Intervals” presents a serious of heavily edited and intercut views from a stationary camera. The “intervals” of the title seem to be the duration of each shot. Like Kren’s film, editing plays a significant role in foregrounding the material qualities of film, but Kren’s film is more rhythmic, a quality emphasized by the soundtrack as well as the edits themselves. In “Berlin Horse,” Malcolm Le Grice interrogates the purity of vision, using negative images, superimposition, and coloring to explore visual perception. The variations in color give the effect that occurs when you close your eyes and press on the lids. It is as if the viewer is watching this film with his or her eyes closed. Sue Freidrich’s “Scar Tissue” presents a series of disembodied, often decontextualized appendages. A woman’s heel, a hand holding a cigar, a reflected profile. These images attempt to downplay the desire for meaning, perhaps seeking instead for viewers to begin to think about their own bodies in a different way.