Two programs of Morgan Fisher’s films, presented during the recently concluded 68th edition of the Oberhausen short film festival, occasioned the chance to reflect upon the important position of Fisher within the history of Experimental Film. It’s a good thing that after two successive online editions enforced by the pandemic, the festival could return to its usual on-site form. Presentation of Fisher’s films in a theatrical space – and even a specific theatre for one particular film – and on photochemical film is indispensable for any meaningful reception of all but one of his works. 

Fisher’s films are informed by his background in art history and they lie at the almost inconceivable intersection of Hollywood, Structural film and Conceptual art. While Fisher’s films definitely do not belong to Hollywood, they acknowledge and critique the industrial grammar of filmmaking. They also maintain a critical distance from certain tendencies within experimental film that P. Adams Sitney identified and labelled as Structural film in 19691. Conceptual art and its criticism of medium specificity and aesthetic autonomy, as symptomatic in Minimalist art, is a more appropriate framework to approach Fisher’s films and their critical ambition. Fisher’s films seem distinguished today because they uniquely presented other possibilities for advanced film practice from within a modernist epoch before such efforts were eclipsed by the onset of postmodernism. He has often referenced artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Sol Lewitt as being important to him. 

The eight films presented during the festival span a duration of roughly five decades. One of the earliest films in the programs, Screening Room, was first made in 1968. The same film has been remade several times and Fisher refers to each of them as states2. It is a work that aspires to site-specificity: the screening room where the film is to be viewed is the subject of the film. The version of the film shown in Oberhausen in 2022 was made in 2012 and was shot based on Fisher’s instructions, the film comprises a tracking shot from a nearby street to the Gloria theatre- a screening room at the Lichtburg Filmpalast in Oberhausen and the venue wherein the film was to be projected. The particular theatrical space directs the content of the film and hence there is a unique relationship between the film and where it is shown. The particularity of the Gloria theatre is emphasised because its entrance is next to the screen and, for the tracking shot to end with the image of the screen as part of a continuous take, the cinematographer cannot simply follow a continuous straight line. This might not be the case in theatres where the entrance is on the opposite side of the screen. By subverting the non-site-specific aspect of traditional film distribution (one film, many copies, distributed worldwide), Fisher challenged the absolute autonomy of film in relation to different screening environments. 

Projection Instructions

Fisher furthers his challenge to the aesthetic autonomy of film in Projection Instructions (1976). Here the projectionist becomes the active performer, who, for the duration of the film, is advised to carry out the instructions delivered to them via the projected text and the voice of a narrator on the soundtrack (like throwing the image out of focus, increasing volume, etc.) In doing so, Fisher acknowledges the presence of the projectionist who must otherwise remain invisible and makes the reception of the film contingent upon the interpretative and receptive qualities of this human operator. This is also the film that underscores the propinquity between Fisher’s practice and Jean-Louis Baudry’s Apparatus theory3

The day after the screenings at Oberhausen, less than 80 kilometres from the Lichtburg Filmpalast, at the Museum Ludwig in Cologne, I found myself standing before Sol Lewitt’s, Red Square, White Letters (1963). It comprises a square subdivided further into nine squares, where each unit stands for any one possible combinatorial association between all possible representations (verbal/chromatic/pictorial) of Red Square and White Letters. It’s a work that uses (illustrative) literalism and performatism (on the part of the viewer) to critique the quest for visual autonomy in paintings and sculptures that were commonly identified as Minimalist. Morgan Fisher has often spoken about Sol Lewitt’s influence on his art practice and particularly on the film Picture and Sound Rushes (1973)4 where echoes of Red Square, White Letters can be strongly felt. Picture and Sound Rushes is conceptualised from the different permutations of image and sound recording that can occur during the production of a (sound) film: sync (camera and sound recorder on), MOS (camera on, sound recorder off), wild sound (camera off, sound recorder on) and a null scenario (both camera and sound recorder off). What automatically becomes apparent is that Fisher’s mode of addressal of the relationship between sound and image (analogous to the syllable and the frame in Lewitt) and his respect for sync sound is distinguished from Structuralist filmmakers such as Hollis Frampton (in Critical Mass, 1971), or Michael Snow (in ‘Rameau’s Nephew’ by Diderot (Thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen, 1974), who were working with what they considered to be the problematic of synchronised sound, or Lettrist filmmakers like Gil J Wolman, who explored dissociative strategies between image and sound earlier in L’anticoncept (The Anti-Concept, 1952). The (interrupted) commentary in Picture and Sound Rushes finds an affinity to a Warholian literalism, 

The literality is a large part of the power of Andy Warhol’s films. In their being what came from the camera, that is, in their being rushes, they are inscribed with the reality of the moment of their production. These films are in effect documentaries, not just of what is in front of the camera but by implication of the entire production situation.5

Literalism as an aesthetic experience finds its way to Fisher’s best-known film, Standard Gauge (1984). It’s an autobiographical film where we encounter pieces of 35mm film in static shots and in extreme close-up while Fisher’s voice recounts, for the audience, the history of the film gauge alongside his own personal engagement with the medium and the industry which has led to its standardisation. Here Fisher’s materialism and mode of self-reflexivity is in contrast to a film like S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED (1971) by Paul Sharits which deals with levels of representation and uses direct material expression to achieve it. 

Standard Gauge

Interesting to note here is also the point of departure from the anti-representational stance of Structuralist-Materialist filmmaker Peter Gidal (also a fervent Warholian), who for all his advocacy of radical anti-representation, would concede that, in the very least, a film will represent its material reality (à la the claim of material autonomy by Minimalists like Robert Morris). For Gidal, materialism took precedence over production (drawing upon Marx’s critique of the socialist Gotha programme)6. Fisher, drawing upon Sol Lewitt, instead, is concerned with the representation or demystification of filmic production rather than its materialism. “The danger is, I think,” Lewitt said, “in making the physicality of the material so important that it becomes the idea of the work (another kind of expressionism).”7

The commentary that Fisher provides in Standard Gauge allows him an anti-expressionist way to deal with film material while simultaneously diffusing its autonomy and self-reflexive potential. Standard Gauge is a one take 16mm film that is 33 minutes long, roughly three times the duration that 35mm film can record in a single take. This mode of one-take construction allows for the performative aspect of the film to emerge where Fisher is giving a continuous performance without the luxury of editing, borrowing from Warhol, who had faith that his actor’s personalities would stand up to the merciless objectivity of a continuous take.8 

Faith in the performer is key in a film like Documentary Footage (1968) where a woman, nude, first reads out a set of questions related to physical characteristics and records them on tape. Then she goes on to respond to the playback in real time, the entire film unfolds in one uninterrupted take. Performatism, an aesthetic trait of Conceptual art, previously alluded to in the context of Standard Gauge, once again takes centre stage in Documentary Footage

Critique of composition, physical concreteness, and aesthetic autonomy- all hallmarks of Minimalism and Structural film, by literalism and performatism, are present throughout Fisher’s oeuvre. Compositional attributes common to experimental films like superimposition, flicker, montage, and abstraction do not appear in Fisher’s films. Another important feature of these films is a non-hierarchicalisation of different units of composition and hence a refusal to subscribe to established power relations inherent in industrial productions. 

In () (2003), Fisher constructed a film by arranging inserts from mainstream productions according to a rule that is withheld from the audience. Inserts are emancipated from their usual position of subservience to narrative and whatever new narrative can be conjured by the rule-driven arrangement of individual inserts is purely a function of chance, and is a testament to film’s inherent capacity to temporalize a sequence of images. The film is in part, Fisher’s expression of admiration for poet and playwright Raymond Roussel’s rule-based writings that went well beyond what literary imagination, even the most fertile kind, could conjure.  

Production Skills

Revealing the camouflaged aspects of production (and not just material) entails the destruction of film’s autonomy as a medium. The foregrounding of the entire process of production requires a secondary recording medium, either still photography or a second motion picture camera. This is done in Standard Gauge, where 16mm film is used to comment on 35mm film; Production Stills (1970), where one roll of Polaroids comment on the making of a 16mm film; and Production Footage (1971), where one 16mm camera records the process of making of a film using another 16mm camera. Using one roll of motion picture film for one shot to set the duration of the film, or using all of the eight exposures available in a pack of Polaroid film also establishes a relationship with Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades, further explicating how Fisher’s films undertake a similar critique of Structural film as Conceptual art did of Minimalism. 

It is possible to think of a term like Conceptual film in a broad sense; any film with the singular purpose of illustrating or demonstrating an idea could claim to be a Conceptual film. Various artists’ films such as those by Dóra Maurer, Robert Morris, Hanne Darboven, David Haxton, Bas Jan Ader and the early short films of Yvonne Rainer could fit such a broad definition of the term. For the purpose of a more useful investigation, it is, however, important to clarify the vectors of a conceptualist framework, namely performatism and literalism, which are integral to Fisher’s film practice. Here, Fisher, who has primarily worked as a filmmaker and editor, has an advantage over other visual artists venturing into film. 

Fisher’s conceptually dense and radically demystified films mobilise perhaps the most lasting criticism of the consolidated orthodoxies in experimental film practice by its historicization via Sitney’s modernist dictum of Structural Film. Fisher has noted that one alternative discourse that drowned in comparison was that of George Maciunas who challenged Sitney’s initial theorisation while fostering a link between the practice of Tony Conrad and Paul Sharits with that of Yoko Ono and Andy Warhol.9 Tony Conrad himself, somewhat belatedly acknowledged the formal quagmire that arrested the Structural filmmakers in the 1970s, 

“… It seemed to me that the institutional inertia of the art world, embodied in its fashion-driven critical literature, high-profile “theory” and a willingness to face down boredom, incomprehension, and distrust, had provided “artists” with an engine that had made more rapid “progress” than the filmmakers had, in the sense that the formalist aporias of artmaking were being exhausted and even challenged by the “artists”, while the “filmmakers” were still clumsily celebrating their own meagre successes in foregrounding formal “structural” ways of working”10  

In hindsight it makes sense that Sitney, in subsequent revisions, undid the reference to two films by Morgan Fisher that appeared in the first iteration of the iconic essay, a fact humorously recounted in Fisher’s own writing.11


  1. P. Adams Sitney, “Structural Film,” Film Culture 47 (Summer 1969): p. 115
  2. “I chose the word <<state>> to describe the different embodiments of the film because I thought it suggested the film’s being contingent and that the number of possible states was open-ended”, Morgan Fisher, “Screening Room,” Morgan Fisher Writings (2012): p. 112. Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach & Generali Foundation Vienna, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König.
  3. Thom Andersen noted the simultaneity of Fisher’s early films in the 1960s and the ideologically motivated theoretical advancements in Apparatus theory in France and Jean-Louis Baudry as its principal proponent. Thom Andersen, “Pebbles left on the beach: The Films of Morgan Fisher,” Cinema Scope, no. 38, (Spring 2009), pp.37-43.
  4. “Sol Lewitt’s early work is as pure a case of construction as I know, and Picture and Sound Rushes more than any of the films shows how important that work was for me,” Morgan Fisher in conversation with Christopher Williams, “The Rewards of Self-Repression,” Mousse 33 (Spring 2012), p. 56
  5. Morgan Fisher, “Picture and Sound Rushes”, Morgan Fisher: Writings, Sabine Folie and Susanne Titz, ed. (2012, p. 35, Museum Abteiberg, Mönchengladbach & Generali Foundation Vienna, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Vienna, 2012) p. 35.
  6. Peter Gidal: “Labour is the source of all wealth.” No, writes Marx, in Kritik des Gothaer Programms (Critique of the Gotha Programme), “Nature is just as much the source of use values, and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!” This kind of problem has bearing on production, so as not to fetishize it, and to recall that value is not an apriori “good,” somehow within moral/ethical categories.” in Peter Gidal, Materialist Film, “A little polemic on production” (London & New York: Routledge 1989), p. 154.
  7. Sol Lewitt, “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art,” Artforum, 5:10 (Summer 1967), p. 79
  8. Morgan Fisher mentions the line from a text on Andy Warhol’s Camp (1965) by Thom Andersen. Fisher’s mention appears in “Single Takes and Great Complexities,” A conversation with Morgan Fisher by Enrico Comporesi and Rinaldo Censi, MFJ 60 (Fall 2014), p. 85. and Thom Andersen, “Film Camp, Andy Warhol”, Artforum 4 (Summer 1966), p. 58
  9. Morgan Fisher, “Missing the boat,” in Scratching the belly of the beast: Cutting edge media in Los Angeles 1922-1994, Holly Willis, ed. (exh. cat., Los Angeles: Los Angeles Filmforum, 1994), the author is referring to George Maciunas, “Some comments on ‘Structural Film’ (by P. Adams Sitney),” in Film Culture Reader, P. Adams Sitney, ed. (Praeger, New York, 1970), p. 349
  10. “Progress / Tony Conrad (2003, Excerpt one),” in Tony Conrad: Yellow Movies, Christopher Müller and Jay Sanders, eds. (Cologne and New York: Galerie Daniel Buchholz and Greene Naftali Gallery, 2008), p. 22
  11. Morgan Fisher, “Missing the boat,” in Scratching the belly of the beast: Cutting edge media in Los Angeles 1922-1994, Holly Willis, ed. (exh. cat., Los Angeles: Los Angeles Filmforum, 1994)

About The Author

Arindam Sen is an independent curator and writer. He currently works as a programming consultant for Berlinale Forum. He co-founded the Brussels based platform for Experimental film programs, Cinema Parenthèse. His writings have appeared in magazines such as Millenium Film Journal (US), Lumière (Spain), Marg (India) and Mubi (US), among others.

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