Category Archives: self

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

The Rarified Art of the Individual

Here’s the kick: those people who stole your money? Under cover of the culture of illusion, and through the products they sold you that delayed your own self-creation, they stole your lives.

-First in a series-

With the deflation of the consumer culture that is happening all over the world today, Americans have a chance at adapting for the resulting environment.

Americans (and certainly other cultures, but certainly Americans) have for years accepted the practice of delaying the construction of a self, by spending their money—and lives—purchasing distractions. Art has been capitalized and made into objects for purchase, created by a small and distinguished tribe of specialists.

With the loss of purchasing power—so people have less ability to purchase distractions—preceded by a surge in the availability of low-cost media production tools (video and audio production, post-production and that folk-art distribution system the web) we have a corresponding surge in art making (with a lower-case “a”).

Younger generations who have grown up with computers create media easily, without a clumsy “always learn before you do” approach that was so helpful to the mechanical universe. Those at ease with computers jump right in and probe, trying one thing, learning its effect, and then trying another, burrowing into the web to find what it has to offer, or the software to find what they can produce. Alan Kay has rightly despaired of the loss of pre-planning, of an architectural approach to problem solving, in this dive-right-in approach. But the computer environment is one that rewards digital spelunking.

Instead of simply watching television for hours at a time like their parents and grandparents, a larger group is able to make their own and share it in online society. The online sites for displaying one’s own videos, or the thousands of sites for distributing one’s own musical tracks—these are the real killers of the music companies and movie theaters. That which had been the creative domain of Artists now have the floodgates open and the artists pouring their creations into them.

It is important to note that once someone has a minimal set of equipment and software, one can create for only the cost of one’s time. While every audio and video professional will argue that the quality that consumer and prosumer products can’t match that of the truly professional (and hugely expensive) equipment and software, it is absolutely the case that with today’s prosumer equipment one can produce media of higher resolution and lower noise levels than could be professionally delivered in the 1960s. Compare a HD video on Vimeo.com with a playback of Bonanza on any CRT.

What is more important than the resolution of the new technology is the ability to produce in media iteratively. As a film student in the mid 1970s with a disabled father and a mother who was an art teacher in a public school, I didn’t have money for multiple answer prints. Filmmaking was a process of trying something, then trying something ELSE. Even editing in video, which could be done for free where I was studying, was a long and painful process involving grease pencils, two reel-to-reel decks and multiple reels of video tape that had to be wound and rewound to start points for each edit. I worked in film and video with every moment of my free time (and still do), but today the ability to revise as one goes is incredibly supportive of quick learning and quality improvement, especially when combined with a distribution and social review system that allows the creator to obtain informal and instant feedback on work in progress. And all work is work in progress.

What happened, though, was the domination of the culture of the specialist, the pouring of money into huge Hollywood projects where, by concentrating the work of hundreds of people into the production of stories of individuals, we have a slight-of-hand that further supports the unobtainable hero. Hundreds of minds and specialists are not one mind, and we addict society to watching the magical existence of screen stars to appear to make their own decisions, and overcome their own problems.

It’s not that I don’t like Benjamin Button or even Hollywood films in general. But the illusion that it has always used as its attraction has created the illusory economy and culture that is now, for a moment, shown its real structure. Here’s the kick: those people who stole your money? Under cover of the culture of illusion, and through the products they sold you that delayed your own self-creation, they stole your lives.

The aging generations who now have time but no money will logically experience mostly their loss. But a child who doesn’t have paints will scribble in the dirt. And before aboriginals were taught to paint on canvas, they painted on sand.

The desperate need this culture has, as we head into this darkest of times, is for art (small “a”) education.