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Aural colour, visual music

Danni Zuvela

Paul Glabicki, Full Moon Segment 2 Paul Glabicki, Full Moon Segment 2
There is a form of film that is trying to evolve that area of thinking which I call ‘moving visual thinking.’ And it is intrinsically a visual music.... Stan Brakhage

The 2 screening programs comprising Kinetica 4 at the 5th Brisbane International Animation Festival (BIAF) represented the latest instalment in what has been an unprecedented series of rare historic and contemporary art film screenings in Queensland this year. The Kinetica programs screened alongside the more conventional representational works in the international section of BIAF, serving to expand conceptions of animation and avant-garde film and providing a timely corrective to the still prevalent view of animation as a cute populist form.

The Kinetica programs were curated by the late great abstract film champion Dr William Moritz and made available by the iota Center, a nonprofit US organisation devoted to the preservation, promotion and exhibition of “the art of abstraction in the moving image.” Their appearance at BIAF was facilitated by local curator and filmmaker Erik Roberts, building upon the success of the recent Illuminated Frames season of rare art films. Both Kinetica programs were curated around the theme of synaesthesia, the phenomenon whereby stimuli acting on one sense, such as hearing, are involuntarily perceived by another sense, allowing us to ‘hear’ colours, or ‘see’ music.

Synaesthesia has a long history in human artistic endeavour. Classical Greek philosophers debated whether colour, like pitch, could be considered a quality of music. There have also been various mystical explorations with musical scales and the colours of the rainbow, such as the colour-organ experiments of the Jesuit priest Castel in the early 18th century. Then there were the modernist projects of Survage, Kandinsky and others in the early 20th century. The first Kinetica 4 program, The Sixties: Spirituality and Psychedelia, focused on the moment when a convergence of interests in Eastern religions, arcana, mind-expanding drugs and radical film form saw the blossoming of abstract filmmaking. The second program, Contemporary Abstraction, explored the many ways in which film and video artists have followed on from the 1960s, including the present-day explosion of work employing digital image-making technologies.

The sizeable audience for the first program—drawn from archives and the personal collections of artists—attested to Brisbane’s hunger for key works of art film history. Some of the better known canonical works to screen included: James Whitney’s famous handmade and step-printed kinetic dot work, Haut Voltage (1957); the mandalic Lapis, created on a Whitney Brothers-designed analogue computer-controlled machine system; and John Whitney Snr’s whirling, geometric Permutations (1968). However, some of the other historical works had not been seen in Australia for decades, and possibly never in Queensland. The surprisingly contemporary looking computer graphics of John Stehura’s Cibernetik (1965), and the intricate play with negative space, mirroring and colour relationships in Pat O’Neill’s 7362 reminded viewers of the painstaking hand-crafting which characterised the pre-digital abstract film era.

The landmark OFFON (1968) represented an important collaborative work in an area of film practice usually characterised by solo artisans. Acknowledged as one of the earliest expressions of electronic cinema, the work saw Scott Bartlett’s film loops synthesised with Glen McKay’s light show liquid imagery through a primitive video effects bank. The results were then filmed by Mike MacNamee. Single Wing Turquoise Bird (1971), by the light-show group of the same name, was a similarly valuable and rare document of an expanded cinema ‘happening.’

The continuation of these explorations in synaesthesia in moving images by today’s VJs and digital media artists provided a conceptual link between the earlier films and the works of the second program. Part 2 brought together examples of “visual music” animation from the last 3 decades, extending 1960s concerns such as the exploration of spirituality and perception. The 60s fetishisation of Eastern religions was echoed in David Lebrun’s not entirely successful animation of Tibetan scroll paintings synchronised to psychedelic rock in Tanka (1976), and the Noughties’ ambivalent, postmodern cherry-picking approach to spirituality was played out in some of the more recent works. Bill Alves’ aleph (2002) references the geometric patterns of Islamic art and the Arabic language, while Paul Glabicki’s cosmic Full Moon Segment 2 (2001) synthesises abstract and figurative forms in a beautiful choreography. Both works employ cutting-edge computer imaging technology in their intimations of a search for meaning beyond traditional structures of thought. With its complex system of symbols composited to rotate in unique spatial rhythms, Full Moon Segment 2 is one of the truly original works of recent computer animation.

In contrast, Stephanie Maxwell’s Please Don’t Stop (1988), influenced by the experience of driving at night, is a masterpiece of hand-worked film. With every 35mm frame painted, stencilled, airbrushed or etched, its seductive kinesis and glorious tumbling colours revel in the textural play of the form. Also indulging gleefully in a loving nostalgia for celluloid, Jeremy Rendina’s Seaweed (1999) is of the objects-stuck-to-film-strips genre inaugurated by Brakhage with Mothlight in 1963 and continued by numerous artists, including Australia’s Geoffrey Godhard with Liquid Ambar in 2001. Also using direct techniques was Barbell Neubauer’s extraordinary Feuerhaus (1998), which synchronised flashlit exposures of plants and stones directly placed on film (the famous rayogram technique pioneered by Man Ray) to a techno track also created by the artist. For me the stand out work of the program, Feuerhaus’s meticulous composition (involving both positive and negative prints), extraordinary editing and dramatic structure demonstrated both the aesthetic and narrative potential of handmade moving images.

The most interesting aspect of this collocation of digital and handmade films in the second Kinetica program was the breaking down of distinctions between very different modes of practice under the banner of ‘cameraless film.’ Just as abstraction in art addresses perception and consciousness, these works encourage different ways of seeing not just formal elements, but relationships between film radicals of the past and formations in today’s youth culture, as well as the intimate connection between film, video and other contemporary visual arts.

Kinetica 4 Part 1: Classic Abstract Animation; Part 2: Contemporary Abstract Animation, Queensland College of Art Theatrette and Southbank Cinemas, 5th Brisbane International Animation Festival, Oct 14-17

Danni Zuvela co-presented Illuminated Frames with Erik Roberts earlier this year, and worked on the programming of the 5th Brisbane International Animation Festival.

RealTime issue #64 Dec-Jan 2004 pg. 22

© Danni Zuvela; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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