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the musicality of the moving image

danni zuvela is attentive to visual music at goma


Mary Ellen Bute (USA), pioneer of visual music and electronic art Mary Ellen Bute (USA), pioneer of visual music and electronic art
courtesy of GoMA
WITH CENTURIES OF NEAR-CONTINUOUS PRACTICE, THE ART OF VISUAL MUSIC HAS FASCINATED AND OBSESSED COUNTLESS ARTISTS AND SPECTATORS. THE 24 SESSIONS OF THE AUSTRALIAN CINEMATHEQUE AT THE GALLERY OF MODERN ART’S VISUAL MUSIC PROGRAM ARE BOTH AN IDEAL ENTREE FOR THE UNINITIATED AND A KIND OF ABSTRACTIONIST CRACK FOR THE LEGION OF FANS OF THIS HYBRID GENRE. EXCITEMENT GREETED THE COMMENCEMENT OF THIS PROGRAM, WHICH IS SHAPED BY THE MAJOR 2005 SURVEY SHOW AT THE LOS ANGELES MUSEUM OF CONTEMPORARY ART AND THE HIRSHHORN MUSEUM AND SCULPTURE GARDEN IN WASHINGTON DC IN THE SAME YEAR. AS THE INTRODUCTION TO THAT SHOW’S CATALOGUE STATES, THE HISTORY OF VISUAL MUSIC IS THE HISTORY “OF A REVOLUTIONARY IDEA: THAT FINE ART SHOULD ATTAIN THE NON-REPRESENTATIONAL ASPECTS OF MUSIC.”

The GoMA Visual Music program explored ways in which film and fine art have historically conversed, through the lens of what is variously referred to as colour music, motion painting, lumia, and non-objective film. What transpired was more a survey of the international cinematic practice of visual music, with all the criticisms to do with the limitations of scope, alongside accolades of significant achievement, that such a survey was inevitably going to attract.

One of the show’s most noteworthy events was the extensive Silly Symphonies program featuring the lively animated audio-visual choreographies of folk tales and nursery rhymes produced by Walt Disney between 1929 and 1939. The 35 Silly Symphonies films, not part of the Hirshhorn show, were framed with an introduction by Russell Merritt, co-author of a recent book on these early musical animations. Beautiful 35mm prints gave audiences an opportunity to re-live (or experience for the first time) the dynamism of classics such as The Ugly Duckling (1939) and the still creepy Babes in the Woods (1932). Silly Symphonies highlighted what the young Cinematheque, so far, does best: marshall its formidable resources to produce an eye-popping assemblage of historically important works. Securing the prints alone for this, the most comprehensive collection of its kind ever to be presented internationally, is doubtless a serious achievement. While I couldn’t help remembering, as The Big Bad Wolf (1934) screened, the stories of strike actions by un-screen-credited, unhappy and exploited Disney animators (allegedly ‘compensated’ for chronic underpayment with ‘Disney family cameraderie’), and was nagged by the other persistent dark rumours about Uncle Walt’s red-baitin’ habits, this program was nonetheless an unqualified, blue-ribbon triumph.
poster Silly Symphonies poster Silly Symphonies
courtesy of GoMA

Other invaluable linkages between the art of visual music and the mainstream motion picture industry are made in the Saul Bass program. Regarded as the father of the modern film title sequence, Bass’s acid-bright Lissajous spirals in the opening credits and subjective vertigo sequences of Hitchcock’s 1958 gem are a reminder of the cooler, more mathematical modality of psychedelic art. Of course, the program essentially belongs to the hotter, pansensual, consciousness-expanding variety of psychedelia and its various cinematic and machinic iterations by generations of artists, filmmakers and scientists. The incredible Rare Classics program, curated by GoMA guest Cindy Keefer of the Center for Visual Music in LA, was a prime example of the kaleidoscopic approach to moving abstraction by numerous artists in the early-to-mid 20th century.

The Rare Classics program abounded with priceless opportunities to witness the genre’s often-referred-to-but-rarely-seen works, such as John Stehura’s pioneering (1960-1965) computer animation, Cibernetik 5.3, Jud Yalkut’s decidedly brown-acid Turn, Turn, Turn (1966) and some mind-blowing footage from early expanded cinema performances. Along with the unforgettable experience of witnessing the ‘recreation’ film of Oskar Fischinger’s R-1 ein Formspiel (c1926-1933), from his 1920s (!) multiple-projector performances (restaged by William Moritz/Fischinger Archive), there was extraordinary conservation footage of Charles Dockum’s 1952 MobilColor Performance at the Guggenheim Museum (still the Museum of Non-Objective Painting at that time). Watching the latter was, for me, an inescapably dual experience: on the one hand, the sensuously deliquescing rainbow fields emanating from this seminal colour organ were among the purest of visual highs, on the other, the knowledge that Dockum spent so much of his life on work which had (at most) a couple of outings generated wracking sympathy pains. In a move that resonates unpleasantly with the position of fine art film in art institutions in general, the Guggenheim, angered that the machine (which had been part of the inventor’s visual music exploration for nearly 20 years) didn’t play endlessly on a loop and required operators, trashed the MobilColor projector for parts.

No less heart-breaking was the extensive screenings of films from the distinguished career of Stan Brakhage, featuring the characteristic jewel-hued swirls of translucent aniline dyes which, applied with fingers to film stock, gave the avant-garde godfather the cancer which killed him in 2003. Brakhage’s very embodied visual music, often analogised to Abstract Expressionism, epitomises what Amelia Jones has called the “Pollockian impulse” to register the ‘presence’ of the artist in the traces of gestural marks; here not on canvas laid on the floor, but filmstrips stretched over a lightbox—in Jones’ words, “’proof’ of the vigorous act of making.” Brakhage’s reference to his work as “visual music” and “moving visual thinking” definitely justifies the inclusion of this work in the program. However, a cavernous distance between his and other work in the direct animation mode also on show, such as the always awesome Harry Smith (1949’s Early Abstractions) or Len Lye’s work, highlighted some of the missed opportunities for reflecting on the field’s nuances. The dead-set, high church, silent purism (‘visual’ music) of avant-garde film’s high priest couldn’t be further from Lye’s joyous contortions to sexy swing songs or Barbell Neubauer’s synaesthetic, in-your-face techno assault (some of the only contemporary work to make it into the show).

Other ideas of what comprises visual music—that made by colour organs and played as analogous to music, the history of correspondences between musical notes and colours of the spectrum, silent abstract films which ‘aspire to the condition of music’, synaesthetic seeing-sound experiences—were glossed over, probably necessarily, given the inevitable limitations of scope. This forced conflation may be important in consolidating the history and the acceptance of a distinctive artform.

A more worrying omission is the Australian history of this work. The show’s impressive coverage of other international works unfortunately provides the concomitant, and wrong, impression that no such similar work has been attempted here. On the contrary, there is a fascinating, if more difficult to tap, history of visual music in Australia for which a high profile show such as this could have provided much needed exposure. Considering what a fantastic opportunity this was to explore the commensurability and possibilities of exchange between the worlds of fine art, avant-garde film and popular practices, the work of Australia’s experimental filmmakers and video artists could have been slipped into even a single program session at tremendous benefit to that history, its artists, our audiences and the institution. All the canonical Australian avant-garde filmmakers have made films which are either abstract (a ‘visual’ music a la Brakhage) or impressions/interpretations of sound—Arthur & Corinne Cantrill (and their son, Ivor), the Ubu group (specifically Albie Thoms and David Perry; all their handmade work qualifies under the terms GoMA sets), Dirk de Bruyn, Paul Winkler, Michael Lee, George Gittoes and Jonas Balsaitis. Among contemporary film and video artists are Lee Smith, Eric Roberts, Lloyd Barrett, Andrew Lyons, Jonathon Duckworth, Ernest Edwards and others.

Even considering the immense pressures the staff must be under, and the tight time frames for the production of the show, surely the difficulty of curating this work should not relieve the institution of the task of attempting to incorporate an Australian dimension. If it’s not the province of a premium screen organisation such as the Australian Cinematheque to seek out and present this work then it’s hard to see whose it could be. Unsurprisingly, Australian avant-garde filmmakers who attended sessions suggested to me that the kinship they felt with Dockum extended beyond an interest in resplendent abstract aesthetics.

When we weren’t being unceremoniously evicted from post-screening afterglow foyer discussions, wandering the beautifully polished concrete halls left an impression of a workplace still reeling a bit from the mammoth summer Warhol blockbuster. It’s very understandable that Australian work, invisible and championed mainly by artists and collectives from the shabbier reaches of film culture, should continue to fly (somewhat wonkily) under the radar. But to me it’s ineffably sad. None of these criticisms can detract, however, from the fact that the Visual Music program represents a remarkable achievement, which would have provided even the most casual of its hundreds of visitors with an intoxicating whiff of one of our planet’s most appealing and enduring artforms.


Visual Music screening program, Australian Cinematheque, Gallery of Modern Art, South Bank, Brisbane, March 28-June 1

RealTime issue #85 June-July 2008 pg. 23

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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