Absolute Film

4 Structurality, Materiality, and Transcendentality

Because Grant’s film was forgotten for many years, Arnulf Rainer by Peter Kubelka (AT, 1960) was long considered the first flicker film. Arnulf Rainer is comprised of black (black film) and transparent (blank film) frames as well as sound (white noise) and non-sound. Like many abstract filmmakers, Kubelka also makes direct reference to musical methods: the central element for Arnulf Rainer is the rhythm that has been elaborated according to metric principles and recorded in a score and at the same time converted into darkness and light, silence and sound.

Tony Conrad’s film The Flicker (US, 1966), which likewise consists of only black-and-white phases, also makes reference to arithmetic relationships, but concentrates more on the physiological perceptual possibilities of the flicker effect, which is created by means of alternating light and dark.

Because stroboscopic light is one of the few frequency-dependent perceptual modalities besides sounds, the point of departure for Conrad was the question as to whether it was possible to generate harmonic structures in the visual by means of stroboscopic stimuli of different frequency relationships.

Similarly radical is Zen for Film by Nam June Paik (US, 1964, also known as Fluxfilm 1). Paik runs a twenty-minute-long blank strip of film through the projector without sound. What one sees in the white rectangle of light next to the slight flickering of the projection (depending on the projector in use) are the typical projection flaws: the dirty edges of the projector’s film gate, dust and scratches on the film, and the characteristic rhythm of twenty-four images per second with which the film runs through the projector.

Based on Zen for Film, two conceptual historical lines can be drawn.

The structural material films of the 1970s are characterized by an emphasis on the film material, such as those by Birgit and Wilhelm Hein, George Landow (aka Owen Land), Guy Sherwin, and Paul Sharits, who examine the technical features of the medium (such as, for example, single image frame and optical sound) as well as the associated implications of the formal film language and perception in order to render what are normally hidden filmic processes visible and audible. In his series Optical Sound Films (UK, after 1971), Guy Sherwin explored various possibilities for generating synthetic sound by affixing material onto the entire filmstrip or by copying filmed shots even over the soundtrack area. In his Synchronousoundtracks (US, 1973-1974), Paul Sharits placed the visual and auditory focus on the perforation holes for transporting the film through the projector by enlarging the projection aperture and running the perforation over the sound pickup instead of the soundtrack.

As regards references to Eastern religions and practices, mention should be made of works by James Whitney and, above all, Jordan Belson that go back to the 1950s. In films such as Allures (US, 1961) and Samadhi (US, 1967), Belson reproduced the visual and auditory phenomena of transcendental experiences in meditation.

In addition, in the 1960s and 1970s, numerous filmmakers began exploring the possibilities of video and electronic image generation.[5] For Cycles (US, 1974), for example, Belson collaborated with Stephen Beck, who had constructed a video synthesizer he used from 1972 onward to create and perform his Illuminated Music compositions, which he referred to as visual jazz. John Whitney, Larry Cuba, and others experimented with analog computers in order to generate abstract forms. The reference to the composer and music theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau in John Whitney’s first computer film, Homage to Rameau, already points to this filmmaker’s interest in principles of harmonic progression, which he continued to pursue in later works such as Permutations (US, 1968), the Matrix trilogy (US, 1971-1972), and Arabesque (US, 1975; programming: Larry Cuba), and the theory of which he also discussed in his book Digital Harmony (1980).

Precursors here were Mary Ellen Bute, Hy Hirsh, and Norman McLaren, who generated electronic images with the aid of oscilloscopes as early as in the 1950s.