The Film Effect II

Notes of Psychedelic Visions: Repetition and Patterns in Post-War Film and Video Art

Repetition can alter conventional meaning and allow gesture to distance itself from any original referent. Much film and video art from after 1945 contains repetition. Perhaps in the Post-War desire to forget, and to refuse a continuation of previous modes of communication, artists turned to repetition as a way of ‘emptying out’. Narrative and the idea that history is progressive were rejected: the Holocaust clearly showed that history was not a path to improvement.

Yet, while denying conventional meaning and progression, repetition also plays another role: it insists on presence. Even if Adorno questioned the possibility of there being art after the Holocaust, the work of artists such as Bruce Nauman, Samuel Beckett and Wojciech Bruszewski insists on there being gesture, presence and expression, however different it is to art in pre-war times. 

Not that time was a clear concept before 1945 either. Time changes with each social and economic era. Seasonal time was jolted into clock-watching when trains steamed into the countryside. Cinema affected time again, coinciding with Taylorist and ergodynamic factory management. Muybridge’s photographic studies of human and animal gesture reflect the ‘scientification’ of life: gesture became the property of industry, and was analysed and manipulated to produce the most efficient system. The classifying approaches of Gilles de la Tourette and Jean-Martin Charcot connected modern time, through psychology, to gesture. The Hysterical gesture was thus said to reflect the mental reaction of a woman to her confined surroundings, and Tourette’s syndrome’s repetitive gestures were related to a response to the mechanisation of daily life.[1] In around the same era, Bergson and Proust questioned whether time was really so linear and rational, exploring memory and subjective time. Ever since, visual artists have also questioned this rational, teleological and Fordist time; and film – being a time-based medium – has proved the perfect tool for them.

Charcot’s hysterical arch

In Post-War film and video art, then, repetition appears as a significant method. ‘Repeat the same word several times, for the same object, and dissipate all meaning’, instructs Roger-Pol Droit.[2] Bruce Nauman has clowns repeat the same joke again and again, and Ryszard Wasko offers his viewer nothing but the word ‘Nie’ (‘No’), repeated in black and white text until it fills the screen and then starts to work its way back, emptying again – coinciding with the emptying of meaning.  Wasko’s film is about negation, black turning to white and silence to sound back to silence and then sound again. The rhythm is reminiscent of Morse code, yet what is being communicated is surely a loss of meaning, rather than meaning. 

Eadweard Muybridge

Wasko was one of a group of Polish avant-garde filmmakers working in the 1970s with a utopian desire to offer television audiences an alternative to Western consumerist broadcasting. Therefore perhaps the film is not empty of meaning at all, but simply a film that is free from the language of continuity effects and conventional narrative to which audiences were – and are – so accustomed. Often, the less a film engages us in a prescriptive sense, the more we engage with it ourselves; and in this way, Wasko succeeds in breaking from the norm.

Samuel Beckett

Nie also works in a different way, more subtle still: if we do not engage with it, we become bored, and boredom is exactly what capitalist consumerist industry wants to avoid. In 1924, Kracauer wrote of the liberation ‘pure boredom’ offered from the world of ‘advertisement’.[3] But on the other hand, surely such an avant-garde and seemingly nihilistic film as Nie would alienate the public and encourage a return to the mainstream for lack of a middle ground? A parallel offers itself between films that stretch duration to an extreme (such as James Benning’s RR, an 111 minute film consisting entirely of goods trains that role past the static camera) and those that brim with aesthetic and aural seduction (Philippe Parreno’s film June 8, 1968 for example). Parreno’s film positions the camera on a train that rolls through majestic countryside and poetic vignettes, much like a slick version of a ‘ghost ride’ in fairgrounds and early cinema. In these vaudeville attractions, the audience was taken – note the passive form here – on a virtual journey that scared, seduced and amused them in turn. While Parreno’s film does deal with duration, it belongs to a Hollywood history where time is filled with one diversion after the next (rather like a time-tabling of activities to keep a factory worker busy, perhaps), whereas cinema that deviates from this norm perhaps refers more to an older, seasonal time that ran oblivious to people, or forward to a utopian time disconnected from a capitalist agenda. It is also worth noting the difference in context between Parreno and Wasko’s films, the former being part of lavish installations in which the audience is directed around a gallery space of film screens following sound, light and engineered weather effects, and the latter, for television audiences at home. While on one hand, one might argue Wasko manipulated his audience more, by getting inside their domestic television sets while Parreno serves the selection of people who know to come to his screenings, it is still possible to tie Parreno to a grand Hollywood mould and Wasko to something more experimental and political.

Philippe Parreno

Boredom is also explored in Bruce Nauman’s video piece, Walking in an Exaggerated Manner in the Parameter of a Square. The video asks what happens when there is ‘nothing’ to do; what an artist does in the studio; and what is expected of an artwork or film (it is probably not this, the pacing of a perimeter in a bare studio. Expectations of production are thus undermined). Like a Greek athlete, Nauman paces the floor and walks around the static camera (situated within the marked square). The camera does not turn obligingly so that our gaze can be continued; instead we have to wait until Nauman’s figure comes back into view on our other side. A mirror leans against the opposite wall, sometimes doubling Nauman’s presence and sometimes offering no ‘help’ at all. On completing his perimetrical journey, Nauman then executes it backwards, echoing Wasko’s method of repetition, with reversal as minor alteration.

As in Beckett’s Quad piece (1981/84), the void at the centre of Nauman’s square is never touched. Void-like too is the silence of Nauman’s studio. In Beckett, on the other hand, we experience rhythmic and hypnotic drumming that complements the patterned choreography of four figures navigating a square space of floor in a dark interior. The figures never touch nor even lift their cloaked heads toward one another. It is as if they are scared of each other, as well as the centre of the square, which is never traversed. If the centre stands for some form of Lacanian ‘real’ or Truth, it can never be looked at, or the gaze will destroy it. Yet as audience, we complicate this issue, subjecting both the figures and the space to our gaze. Quad thus has a diagrammatic or theoretical feel, as opposed to one of theatrical realism. The space comes to feel like a vortex that is steadily pulling the figures, and our thoughts, inwards. As the duration of the piece extends and the rhythm continues, we can but project readings: perhaps God lies at the centre of the square, and the cloaked figures are waiting, traipsing, and prevaricating before they face him. Perhaps the abject lies at the centre of the square, the abject being death and taboos that are avoided in society. Or perhaps communication lies at the centre, and here is a comment on our failure at it while under the influence of capitalism. What Quad offers is space for all these readings and more: in its repetition, duration and ambiguity, it empties out conventional expectation and lets us fill it with our own thoughts.

Wojciech Bruszewski

YY AA, a film by Wojciech Bruszewski, is as similarly unremitting as Wasko’s Nie. It comprises a montage of light and dark, blared ‘Y’ syllable followed by blared ‘A’ syllable, which then ‘denies’ itself back into ‘Y’ again. Bruszewski sits in a living room; with each aural denial or alteration, the light also changes, setting him in lightness followed immediately by shadow. We have no time to dwell on one tone of voice or light before it denies itself to us, and another takes its place. Cinema that is aligned with a consumerist society, like the advertising industry, produces desires in its audience, and then satisfies them. YY AA does not follow this pattern of production and delivery. Aside from a definite element of slapstick humour rooted in a history of challenging regimes (Chaplin’s Modern Times, Tati’s Play Time), YY AA has an exciting rhythmic quality. In being denied plot, characterisation, and narrative that extends further than the repetition of tonal change, we become sensitive to the film’s hypnotic modulations of sound and light. As when watching Beckett, the minutiae of gesture, word or stage-effect become enlarged when repeated and set against little else. Repetition of gesture (including light or tonal modulation) does not necessarily carry meaning – as Beckett’s Quad shows, it is the audience that provides that – but repetition does continue something. In refusing an end, it points not toward continuity, but toward continuation that is open to alteration. There is recognition that movement forward in time (duration, in film or in history) is not necessarily progressive, but is inevitable and filled with potential.

In discussing the work of these artists, we encounter a paradox. Jan Verwoert names Wasko, Bruszewski and other Polish filmmakers of the 1970s Workshop of The Film Form, the Avant-Garde, yet goes on to investigate how they are both historical and transhistorical, and how the title Avant-Garde is perhaps unhelpful because it belongs to the concept of history as a sequence of progressions. [4] While the Avant-Garde is historical in founding a new concept, it is also transhistorical, disrupting the course of history. And with regards to the form of gestures the Polish Avant-Garde employed, gesture is both historical – being a sign of its era – and transhistorical, occurring ‘in a moment’ and thus being contemporary forever. What the Avant-Garde does show, named as such or not, is that history is a set of references to be used[5], provoked and cannibalised.

Their own title, The Workshop of the Film Form, establishes the important focus on form rather than content that runs throughout the films. In emptying out meaning, they shift our attention from depth to form. Like Brechtian alienation devices that reveal the forms of the theatre (lighting, actors and ‘effects’), they are explicit in what is visible or audible, and repeated. Verwoert calls this effect ‘flat’: marked by ‘interpretative openness and a deliberate indeterminacy of meanings’.[6] Beckett’s Quad employs exactly this invitation to interpret and project, through its ambiguity and literal openness of space (similar to Nauman’s open floor marked only by a line).

In its etymology of cavalry and riding into battle (avant fore garde riders or watch), the Avant-Garde also evokes violence. This brings our attention to the use of repeated gesture or signs, like ‘slaps’[7] that interrupt continuity. In a social situation, a sudden slap entirely disrupts what went before: it is the forward-rider announcing war just before the army attacks. Even when the Avant-Garde’s gesture is not physical, and is instead the repeated words or lighting modulations of the Polish filmmakers, it has the force of a blow. Both cutting from dark to light and back again, and a high-speed sequence of shots (perhaps in the form of montage) feel combative, the audience unable to intellectualise too much because the repetition is so rapid: ‘To the extent that they rob us of the possibility of contemplation, the films provoke the distanced beholder to become an involved participant’.[8]

Herman Melville’s story of Bartelby sees its eponymous scrivener repeat calm refusals to comply with authority until all those around him are overwhelmed. The gesture of denial is powerful because it comes as a surprise (disrupting the course of history and convention) and is repeated, creating the effect of a barrage-attack. Bartelby usurps the figures of power around him, such as his employer. The Polish Avant-Garde goes further, turning themselves into signal-transmitters rather than ‘authors’ of gesture. The audience is allowed to project meaning for itself, it is no longer prescribed by an auteur. Of course, this is a utopian position to take, because an author always mediates what he transmits, and a denial of meaning is a meaning itself. But nevertheless, we can appreciate that the reader’s role becomes emphasised over the author’s.[9]

In Notes on Gesture, Giorgio Agamben writes that cinema is ‘gesture rather than image’,[10] and that images are gestures caught in moment. This foregrounding of gesture emphasises film’s role in communication, with each ‘slap’ an invitation to communicate, interrupt, question and revise. Gesture, for Agamben, is not metaphorical but performative, direct. Agamben thus places gesture in the realm of politics, whereas image is consigned to aesthetics. Whether he is entirely fair to do this is questionable, seeing as surface image is so integral to Nie and YY AA. Perhaps one could propose instead that aesthetics can enter and enrich politics in a reciprocal relationship, when image is emphasised, made gestural and repetitive. While repeating ‘Nie Nie Nie’ certainly breaks away from conventional film practice, it is perhaps idealistic to hope it can communicate to a mass TV audience. It might communicate a struggle to communicate, but whether it can communicate communicatability is another matter. As is always the risk with the Avant-Garde, if the rupture from convention is too great, the result is alienation.

Over time, the Avant-Garde lags behind, its methods subsumed and exploited by the mainstream. Thus repetition, modulation and other once-striking gestures now appear in most art-videos. If repetition is passé by now, can it still have the same effect as it did in the 1970s? The cannibalisation of historical techniques in this era of multiplicity and flux might be symptomatic of late Capitalism’s encouragement of its consumers’ voracious appetites and flexibility. It is often said that we feel as if time is accelerating exponentially because we are inundated with information (from internet and communication technology), yet there are still only 12 hours in a day. Again, perhaps this feeling is part of a Late Capitalist society in which the consumer is encouraged to reflect for himself as little as possible, and instead allow for the higher ‘powers’ of advertising to prescribe feelings for him. In this, then, an Avant-Garde is still necessary in order to ‘take back’ time and interrupt what is being accepted.

[1] Agamben, G (2000) ‘Notes on Gesture’ in Means Without Ends Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press
[2] Droit, R-P (2001) 101 Experiments in the Philosophy of Everyday Life
[3] Kracauer, S (1924) ‘Boredom’ from The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays
[4] Verwoert, J (2007) ‘Gestures Towards a New Life: The Avant-Garde as a Historical Provocation’ in Ronduda, L and Zeyfang, F (eds.) 1,2,3… Avant-Gardes: Film Art Between Experiment and Archive Warsaw: Centre for Contemporary Art/ Sternberg Press
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Barthes, R (1977) ‘The Death of the Author’ in Image, Music, Text
[10] Agamben. Op. cit.

with thanks to Maxa Zoller