Category Archives: creation

Invisibility

Kathryn Schultz’ New Yorker review of “Invisible: The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen” (Chicago), by Philip Ball, is a brief and clearly-written read, with a sharply focused ending:

“…I cannot see the people I love as I write this, but I can sense their pull, and I act as I do because of their existence. Taken literally, that is how the cosmos works. An invisible mass alters the orbit of a comet; dark energy affects the acceleration of a supernova; the earth’s magnetic field tugs on birds, butterflies, sea turtles, and the compasses of mariners. The whole realm of the visible is compelled by the invisible. Our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, our universe: all of it, all of us, are pushed, pulled, spun, shifted, set in motion, and held together by what we cannot see”.

The Artist Stripped Bare by Her Models, Experimentum (Art and Scientism)

The Artist Stripped Bare by Her Models, Experimentum

 

(Art and Scientism)

 

Robert Edgar

 

There’s some old business that I feel needs attending. It’s the term “experimental”, as in “experimental film” or “experimental filmmaker”.

“It’s for this experimental film

 

Which nobody knows about and which

 

I’m still figuring out what’s going to go

 

In my experimental film

 

“Yeah!

 

You’re all gonna be in this experimental film

 

And even though I can’t explain it

 

I already know how great it is” 1

 

TMBG usually seems on target to me, and their song “Experimental Film” is not an exception.  If I have students who say they’re going to make “an experimental film” I feel that the words have been passed on without enough consideration.
And if some kids dying of youth try to play in the higher-than-thou wading pool of art film, and pick up the swagger along with the DSLR, well, they’re just beginning anthropologists, who aren’t yet able to distinguish the magic from the process. And they’re all swimming looking for funding along with those with polished 15-second storyline-movie elevator pitches. So they’d better go ahead, wag their asses and swim.
However, I feel that there are questions that are absolutely fair to ask of those who say they make experimental films. First of all, are there really experiments that experimental filmmakers perform? Is this a field of science? Is there a kind of knowledge that artists pass on to each other that they are examining and developing through some sort of shared process? What kind of gold are we making here?
Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a manuscript he left titled “Remarks on Color”, commented on Goethe’s book “Theory of Color”:
“Goethe’s theory of the constitution of the colors of the spectrum has not proved to be an unsatisfactory theory, rather it really isn’t a theory at all. Nothing can be predicted with it. It is, rather, a vague schematic outline of the sort we find in James’s psychology. Nor is there any experimentum crucis (italics are Wittgenstein’s) which could decide for or against the theory.” 2
Wittgenstein, while not going on to devalue Goethe’s writings on color, makes that point that these  writings to do not describe an experiment that could be used to test a theory.  So, Do experimental films test theories? Is that what Hollis Frampton, or Stan Van Der Beek, or Mike Snow were doing? Is that what Frampton was writing about when he wrote that Eisenstein:

“”…was at once a gifted linguist and an artist haunted by the claims of language–and also, by training, an engineer. It seems possible to suggest that he glimpsed, however quickly, a project beyond the intellectual montage: the construction of a machine, very much like film, more efficient than language, that might, entering into direct competition with language, transcend its speed, abstraction, compactness, democracy, ambiguity, power–a project, moreover, whose ultimate promise was the constitution of an external critique of language itself.” 3

I love this paragraph by Frampton.  In it he is showing himself glimpsing that project, and sharing that glimpse with us as he does so. He seems to be laying out a foundation for something experimental: a structure (montage) that uses something outside of language to “critique” language.
What I see here is a practice, not a theory. Neither Eisenstein nor Frampton—both of whom both made films and wrote about the process—set up experiments that could be used to verify a theory. Without diminishing their importance at all, I’d say they were more involved in play than work.
When I think of art as a process, I prefer to think about what three- and four- year olds do when they are working through their scribbling phases. Do children make experimental art? There is a sense of conjuring in children’s art making. But that which is conjured is experiential to the child, not external and verifiable.  And if it could be verified, the process of that verification would not look like the child’s art making.
The artist becomes involved in the making, lost in the stuff and the moment, and often, at the end, has some object that has been produced. But an object in itself is not a proof, disproof, or verification. That still awaits an experimental—in the scientific sense—construct and procedure.
There’s a term for practices that imitate science but aren’t science: “scientism”. If art is bad science, then what has been called experimental film is probably exactly that. In the late 20thcentury, there were many practices that were thought to promise the eventual attainment of scientific method, including many anthropological, psychological and semiotic studies.  It was in the air.
The phrase “experimental film” is certainly part of that scientism. But that doesn’t mean that those filmmakers who were accused of being experimental were bad scientists. They should, instead, be approached simply as artists, who conjure experiences and in so doing, often leave art objects as the outcome.
There’s no shame in trying to do something you haven’t mastered. If only everyone believed that! If only our society supported that! Naked, without a need for the protection of scientism, without the need to be “right” when one makes art. It’s not that science—and the development of technology, or verification, or being right—isn’t important. It’s that art is also important, without the embarrassing armor of scientism. It’s not one of those, it’s one of these.

“The artist, when he encounters the present…is always seeking new patterns, new pattern recognition, which is his task.  The absolute indispensability of the artist is that he alone in the present can give the pattern recognition. He alone has the sensory awareness necessary to tell us what our world is made of.  He is more important than the scientist. 4”

Footnotes:
1. “Experimental Film”, They Might be Giants
2. “Remarks on Color”, Ludwig Wittgenstein, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1977

3. “Film in the House of the Word”, in October 17, p. 63-64, Hollis Frampton, Summer 1981, MIT Press.

4. Marshall McLuhan, in conversation with Normal Mailer, 1968
September, 2011
Sunnyvale, CA

Myth, Self, Art, Synaesthesia, Metaphor

– second in a series –

“In general it can be said that myth, as experienced by archaic societies…is always related to a “creation,” it tells how something came into existence, or how a pattern of behavior, an institution, a manner of working was established; this is why myths constitute the paradigms for all significant human acts; …that by knowing the myth one knows the “origin” of things and hence can control and manipulate them at will; this is not an “external”, “abstract” knowledge but a knowledge that one “experiences” ritually, either by ceremonially recounting the myth or by performing the ritual for which it is the justification; …that in one way or another one “lives” the myth, in the sense that one is seized by the sacred, exalting power of the events recollected or re-enacted.”
Mircea Eliade, Myth and Reality, pp. 18-19.

“I know a lot about objects, how they get to be what and where they are.”
Michael Snow, Letter from Michael Snow to P. Adams Sitney, Film Culture No. 46, Autumn 1967.

The mythic way of knowing articulated by Eliade is not “knowing” the way we know a recipe for a cake, or the number of miles to the moon. It is a knowing that exists in time, and exists while it is part of the knower’s experience. It requires someone to know it.

Synaesthesia, or the triggering of one sense by another, has many similarities to Eliade’s mythic experience. Through it the person experiences one stimulus as another; a flash of color as a sound, or an odor as a tactile sensation. And similarly, this connection between two disparate elements requires a person to experience it, or it does not exist. Recent research into synaesthesia posit anatomical structures that may provide for it:

“In a fascinating theory Maurer & Maurer (1988) suggested that normal infants are typically synaesthetic, with subsequent neural and synaptic pruning leading to more segregated senses in most of us (see also Maurer & Mondlach, 2005). Those few who are synaesthetic as adults are, then, those whose cross-modal connections do not wither in the same way. This theory provides a developmental mechanism and behavioral correlate for the hyperconnectivity proposed in a number of the theories discussed by Hochel & Milán (2008).”
Alex O. Holcombe, Eric L. Altschuler, & Harriet J. Over, A Developmental Theory of Synaesthesia, With Long Historical Roots. Cognitive Neuropsychology, accepted 8 Aug 2008.

Like the mythic experience of knowing, the vanishing point of synaesthesia is within the person who experiences it. It does not present itself as an objective fact, independent of the person. It empowers the person with a sensory knowledge that is personal and meaningful, and that is self-evident. Having a synaesthetic experience provides a personal history that enriches a person’s relationship with the world, a relationship that supports one’s trusting one’s senses to provide meaning about the world through its own act of creation.

This world of inner meaning is one that children know well, and it is a world that is rarely nurtured by our educational and parental institutions and practices. Even our art and music education often avoid developing these experiences, focusing instead on the more measurable skills that lead to professions.

The relations provided by the synaesthetic experience are isomorphic with metaphor. Synaesthesia provides a mode of knowing that and how two disparate phenomena share an essence. Metaphor places one language object in the syntactical space of another, leaving the individual to make sense of the unexpected displacement. Often this making sense invokes internal sounds and images, memories and imaginings, meanings and humor.

With art making, the artist engages a medium and becomes more sensitive to it, more aware of its subtleties, What is it that the artist moves toward in art making? The artist navigates, through a medium, toward the mythic state of creation, in order to experience that creation, to cause it to be, and to sense it becoming. It is not an objective truth that the artist finds. The art work is not the final object. The artist is no more a factory than Warhol was.

It is the focus on consumable product that has anaesthetized the American culture from valuing or even knowing these related experiences: the creative moment in art work, the ritual re-enactment of myth, the sensory meaning of synaesthesia. It is as though these states don’t exist, as if they are meaningless.

The desperate need this culture has, as we head into this darkest of times, is for art practice.

Collect Edit Project

When I regularly made films and videos, I saw a three-part sequence to most compositional strategies:

1. Collecting the elements to use

2. Editing/modulating the elements

3. Projecting/presenting the piece.

The problem I saw was to make each stage creative, so that none was assumed or just mechanical. So collection for me was to always have a camera with me, shooting what appeared between me and the world, and the real finds were exposures that had an existence and received meaning only as it was captured through a set f-stop, shutter speed and lens length.

The edit was a juxtapositioning of elements, so the collection of stuff could be staged for the presentation, but not necessarily fixed for that presentation.

The projection could involve many aspects: what you projected onto, the relationship between projection speed and previous collection speed, image against image and sounds, words against image, and all those Eisensteinian montage strategies.

The music I was making offered itself in the same way: capture or generate sounds, modulate and mix them through electronic modules, and when presenting again do a live mix through electronic modules. Today the heightened interest in electronic/acoustic performances underlines the power of creative integration of these three steps during performance.

Today, working with Premiere, with Sonar, and with The Mister Edgars, questions of strategy come up again for me. How each step of the creative process can be kept from being mechanized, and instead can speak to us as we engage it. And again: to have the engagement reveal the possibilities of beauty that we have always previously missed, so that we’re more aware of it as we kick through the world.

After the parabola of a lifetime, I now reinterpret Duchamp and Cage for the central importance that beauty has in their work and writing. They needed to get away from using the word, Duchamp hated the concept of taste because, I believe, it represented how enculturation stopped perception. But now I understand beauty to be positioned as a pair of lights at the edge of what one understands, registering action at the present position of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development. It is that cliche’d culture only if one doesn’t attend to it, try to make it speak, smear yourself in its sensuality so that you can through experience come to perception, and through perception bump those lights and the zone outside as you claim your site. Like a baby that laughs when it learns, we’re charged with beauty when we perceive. Nothing to be ashamed of here, nothing to hide from. And the question’s not “Why bother?”.