Absolute Film

5 Abstract Film in the Digital Age

In the 1980s, John Whitney continued his research on the development of a computerized instrument for simultaneous audiovisual composition and used it for the first time in Spirals (US, 1987). During this period, an important change began in artistic film with the transition to digital technology. While processing film as a carrier material is becoming increasingly rare and thus more and more expensive, digital video technology is not only becoming less costly, but is also improving. Yet even abstract films are still made on celluloid. Thus, Stan Brakhage’s later work remained primarily abstract (and silent) until his death in 2003: Brakhage painted directly onto or scratched the film. In his film performances, the U.S. American Bruce McClure manipulates several projectors and in this way pushes the flicker effect so far that it becomes a form of visual violence against the viewer. As in Tönende Ornamente, the sound is generated with images on the soundtrack and is then manipulated with the aid of numerous audio effect devices. Both works draw directly on the filmic material or the mechanics of the projector and could thus not have been produced using video or digital technology.

The same applies for works by the artist group Schmelzdahin (1979-1989: Jochen Lempert, Jochen Müller, and Jürgen Reble), who further developed the material film in a very unique way: the material was manipulated mechanically, chemically, and biologically — for example, rolls of film were buried unprotected in the garden for long periods. In the case of the audiovisual performance Alchemie by Jürgen Reble and Thomas Köner, the celluloid strips are also subjected to processes of decomposition, that is, during their projection they are drawn through chemical baths. In these works, audiovisuality is on the one hand staged within the scope of a live performance by using microphones to amplify and edit the hissing and steaming of the chemicals and the operating noises being emitted by the projectors; on the other hand, the editing and montage of different noises caused by dust on the optical soundtrack led to Köner’s soundtrack for Reble’s film Chicago from 1996.

Against this background, it can be assumed that in the future, above all those abstract works will be created on celluloid that for conceptual reasons implicitly require the material; otherwise, however, video and digital technology will be used. The presentation of projection situations in the exhibition space (projector and projection surface in the same room so that the projector becomes an explicit, often even dominant part of the work) is a very new phenomenon and it remains to be seen whether it will endure in an exhibition context. Thus, the abstract film may return to its origins — visual art.