Category Archives: synaesthesia

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

Simultaneous Opposites and 21st Century Cinematicians


This text is an introduction to the ideas behind the Simultaneous Opposites engine: what they are, and where they came from.

Formal cinema, as evidenced by structural filmmakers in the fourth quarter of the 20th century, was an expression of the mechanical tools that were available to them: the film camera, the optical printer, the splicer, the A/B rolls. Today’s formal practice recalibrates the practitioner as a cinematician: neither fixed as cinematographer or editor, special-effects artist or projectionist. The cinematician of today spans the entire cinema gestational process in a single gesture: digitizing, processing, analyzing, playing, editing, presenting, deconstructing, discovering and experimenting without the imposition of hardware and processing compartmentalization. In this developing environment, the experimental cinematician programs a cinema engine that defines a new relationship to post-mechanical cinema, and spirals into a truly experimental and developmental relationship where the medium and the self can no longer be differentiated. The cinematician develops both the sensible experience and the generative media with every new piece.

The cinematician is an adaptation of independent cinema to the speed and power of 21st century digital media.

I create and employ software engines to examine mediated artifacts forged at my zone of proximal development. My Simultaneous Opposites engine (2008-present) is a performance/navigation system for real-time traversal of existing video files, sorting through the audio and video a single frame at a time, in a arrhythmic spiraling motion. The center frame between the two ends of the spiral becomes a temporal focal plane, with the length of the jump a temporal depth of field. The navigational path is the result of a preprogrammed algorithm interrupted during traversal by triggering and modulation by computer keyboard, mouse, and MIDI guitar.

On my website (www.robertedgar.com) are over 50 examples of the output of the developing Simultaneous Opposites engine. Each sequential video file exemplifies a stage in the ongoing experiment I’ve undertaken. During early work at Synapse Video in the 1970s, I integrated strategies of experimental filmmakers with those of the newly developing medium of post-television video. In the early 1980s, I sold my 16mm Beaulieu camera and bought an Apple //e. Teaching myself programming, I produced Memory Theatre One, an early seminal work of interactive computer art. Supported by the positive reaction from the small but developing group of artists who programmed, I set about to develop systems for extending Eisenstein’s montage categories to include the attribute of real-time cinema generation.

The first of these was Living Cinema, which blended video footage collected diary-style on video discs, texts from musings, audio recordings, cells to create short animation loops, graphics etc, and programmed software supporting the selection and combination of all the elements in real time in performance. I was also able to save the performance decisions and cursor moves, and re-inject them into the system later during the same performance, for a spiraled revisitation. Living Cinema had performances throughout the United States.

After a stint as multimedia specialist with Commodore Business Systems working with the video-oriented Amiga, I programmed and integrated a new system, SAND. From my website:

“The central theme of SAND: OR HOW COMPUTERS DREAM OF TRUTH IN CINEMA comes from a well-known quote that Cinema is truth 24 times a second. I grabbed stills (and sometimes generated images using 3D animation programs) of a sequence 6 frames long. I changed things in front of the camera between the shots. I then took the separate images and allowed the computer to imagine what happened between the frames–I did this using a morph program. Usually morph programs are used to change one object into another, but in SAND I used it to create an explanation (a visual one) for the changes that happened between the information that the computer had (it had only the separate stills). Of course, it didn’t always guess right: things may move from left to right, when they actually were pulled apart, etc.

“The mistakes–the artifacts from the morph–create their own poems, from their difference between what actually happened and what it “guessed” happened. My goal in the piece was to invent a new poetic space, which I believe I succeeded in doing here. And of course, there are parallels among all the media channels in the piece, as rememberances, arguments, occurrences, repeating riffs appear and advance in time”.

Unfortunately, soon after a working system was completed, I had to sell the Amiga-based system in order to purchase a business-oriented computer for my new Silicon Valley-based company Iconceptual. Only a few examples of the SAND exist.

At that same time, my video camera was stolen. I used the next few years to focus on music and musical systems. My next compositional system—consisting of software, MIDI-guitar, looping pedal and computer—generated a single piece. My “Duchamp Examination” is a demonstration of how a composer can dissect, examine and re-produce a precomposed (but not prerecorded) piece through a combination of analog and digital mastication and redigestion, in real-time solo performance before an audience. The Duchamp Prelude is a kind of electronic alapana, in which I explore the chordal sequence of the source piece “If Duchamp Drew Beautifully” through an overdriven TM-2 bandpass filter. I performed The Duchamp Examinations live online for an international audience through Electro-Music.com, as well as performances in California and New York.

Simultaneous Opposites, then, is itself the current evolution of a series of performance systems that I’ve programmed and integrated. A specific precursor is found in my 1972 16mm film of the same title. The 1972 Simultaneous Opposites was single-framed from a single tripod position. A second exploration incorporating this same approach, Intersticies, blended similar footage into video manipulation, and was produced at Synapse in 1975. Digital videos of these earlier works can be seen at www.robertedgar.com.

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.

Composition by Triangulation

When I sit down to compose a song, I most often start with a memory or feeling. It works best when that memory is multisensory, synaesthetic and engages emotions. Usually there are a variety of related “sense anchors” that I can dive into many times during the writing of the song, that don’t wear out, in a repeated process like re-inking a pen.

I haven’t been able to go back to decades-old, unfinished songs and make anything out of them. I think it’s because my memories have drifted away from the sense anchor that I used to write it. When I try to fix part of the older lyric, I always patch it with the wrong material, they become eclectic and weak. That is true for both the words and the music. And the original sense anchor is no longer available, not having been correctly summoned when the song was first attempted.

Giving the sense anchor form is the reason for composing a song. It is to bring into existence a form that, as a stimulus, allows me to lock into this temporal world a way of experiencing the sense anchor as an explicit thing. Not that the thing is the explicit subject. The subject of the words, and the compositional strategy for the music combine to cause in me the art experience. What I am able to do when I compose is arrange things in this earth so that they provoke something not of this earth. Medium, sense anchor, and experience: composition by triangulation.

The sense anchor doesn’t have to be a memory of something I did. It can be from a feeling, a cadence, a shape, a rhythm of words. In formalism, the sense anchor can come from a compositional strategy. But throw in too many formal elements and the sense anchor can’t be felt because the music becomes dilluted.

To the degree that a sense anchor is shared, the music is tribal. To the degree that a sense anchor is unique, the music is avant-garde (anyone park their work next to that word now days?). I like music that falls into both categories, but since high school have always liked Michael Snow’s remark to the effect that if you’re going to make something, you might as well make something that didn’t exist before. And the act of giving something a physical representation in this world that is otherwise ineffable , this reminds me of Gabriel Vahanian’s remark that the “word” is iconoclastic only as it makes man become what he is not, that is, man instead of God.

The Thing at the Edge

I remember that when I was back in college, Steve Reich made the statement that it wasn’t how you made the music, what was important was whether it was good music or not. And the statement puzzled me, because more than anyone Reich had introduced process into composition, process that led to unintended sonic textures. Well, maybe more than anyone except Cage. But what values did Reich use to determine what was good music?

I’d listened to as wide a range of music as I possibly could, from every inch of the globe, from every electronic and music concrete blurt, and from the very oldest to the current. And what I loved most to hear was something that I absolutely hadn’t ever thought existed.

If something is really foreign, your reaction is not usually intense. If something well known is played badly, you have an intense reaction. But if it’s truly unlike the art you make, you will not recognize the art in it on first blush. It will take repeated exposures, and learning about how it is made, and what rules are followed, and what came before it, and what the instrument that generates it is like to play etc. After a while, you’ll start to feel the inner parts, and you’ll perceive the play it has.

But at the edge of Vygotsky’s zone of proximal development, you do have a reaction. This is again intense, because your mind and senses are rushing into the experience to get a solid taste of it, to map it and perceive it. To perceive its beauty.

And for me, this is what I’ve come to believe is the “good music” that Reich refers to. I know it isn’t a definition that is pan-cultural, but I could imagine someone following that thread and making sense of it. Someone might argue that beautiful music is music that conforms to certain architectural ratios. I can agree, but the beauty needs a person who is ready to resonate with it.

And so I’ve come to value the beautiful over the new. Not because I think it is more important. But because I know it’s a healthy place for a person to have a nest. And because I know that as one perceives, the locus of that nest must change, as percept becomes concept. The thing, then, is always a balance among self, object, and sensory perspective.