The Artist Stripped Bare by Her Models, Experimentum
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
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”
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