It was natural to think of connections above the ground—roads, electric cables, forests, and seas—but more disturbing to think of them being beneath the ground as well. What we stood on, shouldn’t that be absolutely immovable and impenetrable?

– (Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book Three: Boyhood; p17).

Film images have been powered by electricity for well over a century. Since the advent of video, moving images have become electricity, a physical fact assumed but seldom foregrounded. In the work of video and installation artist Christoph Girardet electricity is a persistent and intrusive actor—or as the political theorist Jane Bennett would say, a nonhuman actant.2

In Girardet’s 1996 installation, Ventilation, images are projected directly onto moving fan blades that throw off visually crackling zig-zags of light trails resembling electrical circuit-jumps. Girardet constructs this image of electrical power in one of the few works he has made that is not based on re-edited found-film footage.  

Installation view: Ventilation (Christoph Girardet, 1996; photographer Christoph Girardet)

The 1997 video installation Exit begins with an electrical storm composed of found footage of looped lightning flashes projected by a string of projectors the length of a gallery ceiling. 

Installation views (simulations): Exit (Christoph Girardet, 1997; photographer Heiko Wrensch)

His three-monitor installation, 7:48 (2001), includes a waxing and waning light bulb that throbs like a beating heart that is worryingly dependent on an apparently undependable source of electrical power. 

Installation view: 7:48 (Christoph Girardet, 2001; photographer Roland Schmidt)

7:48 (Christoph Girardet, 2001)

7:48 (Christoph Girardet, 2001)

Girardet and Matthias Müller’s collaborative video Manual (2002) uses the same shot of the slowly throbbing, faltering light bulb, but also saturates the video with a crescendo of images of electricity.3 In a section near the end when found footage of older black-and-white television sets is mixed with footage from color film and television, the electrons that form the image seem barely under control as sections of video color repeatedly mix with and seem to degrade to black and white. Signals appear weak, and interference between 50- and 60-cycle current may produce instability, mirroring the instability of the romantic relationship that is evidenced in the narration that is delivered by reel-to-reel audiotape recorders. 

Installation view: Manual (Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller, 2002)

Manual also serves as an ironic reference to technical manuals that usually imply mastery over media machines. Girardet’s website notes suggest that by combining “the minutiae of endless buttons, switches and control panels and its choreography of a machine-like body language, Manual reduces the notion of any manageability of life to sheer absurdity.” While highlighting electronics, Manual also refers to the work of human hands, as in manual labor. Two of the most common images in the video are hands and electricity, an alarming combination come to think of it. Though the hands are often turning knobs, flipping switches, and pushing buttons to control machines, those hands are also vibrating and flickering uncannily, as if under the mysterious influence of those machines. 

Installation view: Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller – Manual, FACT (at Blue Coat Gallery), Liverpool, 2002, photographer Christoph Girardet (film image is from Manual, Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller, 2002)

TVs, video monitors, gauges, and oscillators click themselves off, fail to respond, or flatline. The last shot of the video is a close-up of two live electrical wires being brought into contact with each other, producing silence and darkness, ending the video as well as the tape-recorded voice of the female narrator and the happiness of the romantic couple whose story was unspooling on screen. 

Manual (Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller, 2002, film still)

Electricity continues as an alarming presence in Girardet’s work. In Storyboard (2007) a TV again mysteriously, and aggressively, clicks itself off, and an approaching electrical storm is represented by throbbing, lightning-blue clouds and the rumbling of thunder. 

Storyboard (Christoph Girardet, 2007, film still)

Storyboard (Christoph Girardet, 2007, film still)

Storyboard (Christoph Girardet, 2007, film still)

Delay (2001) shoots an electric flash bulb in the viewer’s face at close range in slow motion, so one can feel the live, crackling and menacing electricity of the light, which seems to emanate from the visible wire reaching up to the monitor from the gallery floor. 

Delay (Christoph Girardet, 2001, installation photos Christoph Girardet)

The two-monitor installation Double (2008) features no electricity in the diegesis or its filmic presentation, but the unhidden wires connecting the displayed human heads to their DVD player suggest that the headshots on the monitors are fully present droid-heads and are direct extensions of those gallery wires and of the media system connected to those wires. 

Installation view: Double (Christoph Girardet, 2008; photographer Frank Pusch)

And, ingeniously, in what could be taken as an updating of Brakhage’s early film Fire of Waters (1965), the only images we see in Girardet’s Enlighten (2000) are of lightning flashes, which occasionally fill the otherwise dark screen. It might be important to know that the lightning-flash images are really animations (drawings) done by the film studios that produced the films from which the clips are appropriated – “Fake nature (and fake electricity) so to speak.”4 

Installation view: Enlighten (Christoph Girardet, 2000; photographer Nick Kline)

Images occur only during the period when the images supply their own light and, seemingly, their own electricity—in other words when the lightning flashes; thus, electricity is what’s represented, but its representational medium, the video image, is also electrical. 

Enlighten (Christoph Girardet, 2000, film stills)

Electricity in this piece transcends utility; it seems by its self-presentation to be making a point of its own self-sufficiency and autonomy, and of its control over this representational situation. Insisting on the latter point, the lightning flashes gradually increase in frequency, approaching the fusion point of persistence of vision. The accelerating lightning flashes approach video animation from within the illusions of animation—a demonstration something like Thom Andersen’s accelerated editing in his animation of the Muybridge kissing scene in Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1975).

Girardet’s Schwertkampf (1991) manipulates existing footage to suggest electrification of the scene, in much the same way as does the later Release (1996) discussed below. Schwertkampf, however, is shot off the screen of a video monitor by a video camera, so the images of Samurai swordplay are systematically transposed in at least two ways. Firstly, they are degraded from the base level of pixel perfection, thus “baring the device” by showing the underlying electron flow. 

Schwertkampf (Christoph Girardet, 1991, film still)

The video machine’s swirling field of “snow” is as visible as the narrative action’s swordplay and the characters’ emotions. Secondly, the video image flickers constantly, creating a visual effect somewhat like harmonics in music. The TV system in Japan that produced the original video is based on 60 cycles and the PAL video system in Europe used by Girardet is based on 50 cycles. The overlapping wavelengths of the underlying electricity in the two systems produce interference patterns so that Girardet’s visuals flicker and flow, suggesting pre-fusion silent movies, phase interference between video frame rates, digital single-frame editing, and the alternating-current, or AC electricity itself. Schwertkampf’s soundtrack reinforces the electrification effect with a layer of electrical buzzing, like a high-tension wire or a transformer. The macro- and micro-looping of this flickering image produces another sound effect in sync with the artist’s re-edits, a sound like a nineteenth-century power loom. A similar sound emerges from the macro-looping of the next throbbing close-up of the heroine; her panting—a single breath captured and repeated by looping—sounds like a high-speed newspaper press in operation. 

Schwertkampf (Christoph Girardet, 1991, film still)

These mechanical, but also very electrical, scenes are followed by intense swordplay that is composed of half-a-dozen one-second fighting clips strung together into a phrase. 

Schwertkampf (Christoph Girardet, 1991, film still)

Schwertkampf (Christoph Girardet, 1991, film still)

This sequence seems to portray action illustrating individual combat skill and perfect body control, but after about five or six seconds, the sequence repeats exactly. Whatever representation of heroic autonomous action might have been inferred is thus reclaimed by heteronomic, and uncanny, machine control. Girardet demonstrates that the combat skills that seem to lie in the characters’ swordplay lie in his algorithmical re-editing.

Again, the soundtrack supports these impressions. A sequence of looped hand-to-hand fighting between two individuals sounds like a fire alarm. When the heroine is running to stab a Samurai fighter, the stutter-step editing produces a sound like a weaving machine or a mechanical calculator crunching numbers. After the stabbing, her sigh of relief and her brief nod to her male co-fighter are again looped by the machine that controls their every move and produces all expressive emotion with diegetic intricacies far surpassing human capability. 

Vibrant Matter

Instances of seemingly autonomous behavior by cinematic machinery have been a figure of western avant-garde film and video art since at least the 1960s with the initial explorations of the material apparatuses of the moving image by filmmakers such as Peter Kubelka, Tony Conrad, Paul Sharits, Ken Jacobs, and others. Girardet’s images of electricity as a nonhuman but active presence inhabiting his machinery also anticipate a more recent interest in the active role of nonhuman things in twenty-first century political theory.

In Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things political theorist Jane Bennett asks, “What difference would it make . . . were electricity to be figured not simply as a[n] . . . instrumentality but . . . more radically as an ‘actant’?”5 Bennett’s cautionary narrative about the actions of things includes nonhuman apparatuses and environments as actants, “actants” defined by Bruno Latour as “source[s] of action that can be either human or nonhuman.” Using this term, Bennett explores a “politics of things,” pointing to “nonhuman vitalities.” Bennett answers the “so what” question about her nonhuman-actant thesis: “Why advocate the vitality of matter? Because my hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalised matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption. It does so by preventing us from detecting (seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling) a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies.” In identifying these “material powers [. . . that] can aid or destroy, enrich or disable, ennoble or degrade us,” Bennett calls for “attentiveness, or even ‘respect’.”6

Bennett devotes a chapter to “the agency of assemblages,” taking as her example the electrical grid, which she treats as a nonhuman actant that helped autonomously to cause the blackout of much of North America in 2003.7 I suggest in this essay that certain filmmakers, such as Christoph Girardet, have signaled that moving-image animation is, like one of Bennett’s electrical assemblages, not just an instrument in the video-making process, but an actant . I use the term “animation” to mean the technique of deploying still images to produce the illusion of motion; that would include not only the animation mode of filmmaking such as cartoons and stop-action, but also cinema and video more generally, since every frame in those media is a still image. This technique of making dead things “come alive” has become pervasive, one could say epidemic. Both electricity and animation are major attempts to instrumentalise the material world and they require vigilance. Animation, like electricity, has been injected into daily life to such an extent that we, as more-or-less smart, educated humans, no longer know what we are looking at, listening to, or identifying with in our environment.
Bennett’s idea of the need for a politics of nonhuman actants was anticipated in the 1960s by apparatus-conscious avant-garde filmmakers such as Michael Snow, Tony Conrad, Paul Sharits, and others who were focused on nonhuman “vitalities” (Bennett, viii) inherent in their media tools. For example, a version of filmmaker Tony Conrad’s career-long discourse on moving-image form and matter is replicated below at length as an ur-text on electricity as actant:

All we do is take 60 cycle power out of the wall and do different things with it to the purposes of our own gratification. “There are a few isolated cases of other frequencies. For example, in southern California the frequency of 50 cps was in general use, but the 60-cycle power that is transmitted from Hoover Dam has necessitated changing a large proportion of the power systems to this frequency…. the Interborough Rapid Transit in New York and the Metropolitan Transit Authority in Boston…operate at 25 cps. For most power purposes, however, the frequency of 60 cps is quite satisfactory. Moreover, incandescent lamps when operated at 25 cps have a distinct flicker which is not noticeable at 60 fps.” But the true tonic of our social lives, though it does lie above fusion, has been pointedly handed down to us principally through the primary machinations of the primitive machines. 60 cycles is a compromise between the desires of motors and transformers and the reactance of long-line power transmission. Throughout our lives we hear with unresponsive insouciance the groans of the machines, ineffectively complaining on the long electromechanical wave band of their 60 cycle burden. Their wavelength is buried down there with the whistlers; one wave spans our continent. The revenge is simple: 60 cycles is the ideal killer frequency for bio-chemical lifeforms….

There is another way to tune in to 60 cycles. Keep the power away from you by transmitting it through the air. Use your ears as transducers. Convert from analog to digital. Join the most constant universal life even on our continent. Hum at 60 cycles, way down at the end of the Fletcher-Munson curve. Slip in between the molecules in the body and learn about being a clock.…

There truly is such a thing as perfect pitch, both alive and in legendary dead ears of such as Mozart…. The least precocious child alive today can hardly miss 60 cycles…the largest, most careful melody ever played. 60 cycles is pumping and surging all about the heart of the civilization….with ear pointing in the right direction, it will hear far far past the future, into the current of the living present (emphases added).8

Branden Joseph adds this commentary:

Whether or not one responds consciously to the machines’ moaning—as did the Dream Syndicate(, the avant-garde music group of which Conrad was a member,) humming or playing along with their resonant drones—the frequency of electric current, Conrad suggests, functions as a metonym of a larger realm of micropolitical perceptual regulation, not only resonating along with the ringing in one’s ears, but also setting the indiscernible, flickering pulse of artificially illuminated vision. (. . .) Thus are “the molecules of the body” infiltrated by a constant ambient regulation (emphasis added).9

Conrad’s theatrically hyperbolic statement—not unlike the comic-book-like dire warnings at the beginning of his pseudo-horror film, The Flicker (1966)—sounds like a warning; something is out there messing with us, is unpredictable and potentially lethal. 

The Flicker

Joseph’s commentary further characterises that threat as “a larger realm of micropolitical perceptual regulation,” a “flickering pulse of artificially illuminated vision.”

Political theorist Jane Bennett is issuing just such a warning, and she deploys the apparatus, or “assemblage,” of electrical-power grids as a prime macropolitical example of her “agency of things;” Bennett also focusses on the proclivity of nonhuman assemblages to misbehave.

As we have seen, filmmakers anticipated Bennett. Christoph Girardet has since the 1990s treated electricity, specifically, as an autonomous antagonist inhabiting his animation materials. In Girardet’s work, electricity—nonhuman vibrant matter—repeatedly asserts its own creativity and influence over the representational situation. Like Tony Conrad and like Jane Bennett, Girardet wrestles with a sublimely vast, dangerous, nonhuman technical partner that demands and resists supervision.

Backstory—c. 1911

The broader discourse of electricity in animation includes Tom Gunning’s work, for example his essay, “Systematizing the Electric Message,” which treats electricity in three related ways: as a metaphor for attractions, as in “electrifying” surprises; as a synecdoche for early twentieth century technologies including the emerging electrical and communications grids; and as a symbol of modernity.10 He shows how early cinema, in transition from a collection of attractions to a system of narration, used references to electrical devices—such as phone calls, telegraph messages, and grid-synchronised clocks required for railroad scheduling— to connect not just the people and events of the narrated story but also the proliferating edits characteristic of longer, more complex films. Electrical telegraph messages in D. W. Griffith’s story The Lonedale Operator (1911) not only help the heroine, played by Blanche Sweet, to reach out geographically in real time for help from her distant fiancé, but also to tell the film audience exactly where the fiancé is located at the other end of the telegraph line. Electrical wires work, along with Griffith’s continuity editing, to bind the story together geographically and temporally—thus are Griffith’s increasingly chopped-up and rearranged stories wired together for the sake of narrative clarity.

Gunning’s essay on early editing in relation to electric messaging resonates with avant-garde, new media, art-world cinema, including that of Girardet. Neither Girardet nor Gunning delves, as Conrad does, into the physics and math of electricity and its possible relations with artistic form, but Gunning’s and Girardet’s different but related formal concerns are nonetheless suggestively referential of alternating current, especially in relation to modernist, structural, and digital-media instantiations of the film/video loop. In film form, frequency is often paramount. Gunning refers to the emerging narrative employment of “systematic devices of repetition, alternation, and rhyming. . . (that) guaranteed not only narrative clarity but also an aesthetic sense of coherence and unity,” referring especially to Raymond Bellour’s “analysis of The Lonedale Operator, “To Alternate/To Narrate.”11

Contemporary critics such as Bellour refer often to cinematic elements of repetition such as animation loop editing and film flicker. Bellour even includes the micro-repetitions of alternating current that Conrad refers to. In encountering Doug Aitken’s suggestively titled Electric Earth installation at the 1999 Venice Biennale, Bellour said: “[T]he question is no longer one of critical relation, but rather of a pure expansion of information and flux. . . . In the temporal and spatial interval between . . . two screens, an imagery is narrated around (the actor/hero’s) vibrant body: the city, drugs, machines, screens that go on and off, images are shown, events accumulate, so many flickerings all along this rhizome-work.”12 Bellour is impelled to use the language of alternating electric current again in discussing the shot/reverse shot references in Sam Taylor-Wood’s installation, Travesty of a Mockery, describing it as “a mass infusion that recalls the effect of Godardian flickering, maintained at a distance in the fictive and unitary light of the projection (p. 413).” Bellour, at the end of his article, relates the burgeoning flicker effect to vibrant matter and the power to animate: “For due to the quasi-invisible links (within Thierry Kuntzel’s installation Venices) and its accelerated time, this view of the lagoon insensibly animates the endless but syncopated rhythm of all that is shown in the image.”13

Bellour’s language suggests the liveliness, and liveness in Jane Bennett’s sense, of the material situation of animation. Tom Gunning’s and Bellour’s “repetitions and alternations” can also be associated reflexively with not only the pervasive film/video loop form, but also with the basic electric current that is driving the projectors, forming the video image and burgeoning spectacle of cinema as a media system. In a section called “Systems: Beyond Alternation and Repetition,” Gunning shows that, “[l]ike an ‘electric message,’ Griffith’s editing moves as swiftly as thought itself [. . . ].”14

Electricity has been a presence in the arts since the late 19th century. The western film/video avant-garde have, since the minimalism of the 1960s, increasingly made viewers feel the actions of electrons inhabiting video-art experience and materials.15 Their critiques, such as Paul Sharits’s Ray Gun Virus (1966), have implicated film editing and film-projector light—protons perhaps—as nonhuman aggressors. Girardet, in videos such as Schwertkampf, discussed above, and Release, discussed below, have ramped up the editing frequency of these Ray Gun Virus-like art attacks so that the vibrant frequencies in the machines of animation seem the aggressors. Girardet’s videos illustrate Conrad’s wariness of the grid, and Jane Bennett’s idea of vibrant matter, as references to malign nonhuman actants.


In Girardet’s most aggressive video, Release (1996), the feeling of electrocution can be hard to watch. Release suggests an enhanced version of Thomas Edison’s original electrocution films, including Execution of Czolgosz, with Panorama of Auburn Prison (1901) and Electrocuting an Elephant (1903). Execution of Czolgosz is Edison’s semi-documentary recreation of an execution by electric chair. A Wikipedia entry says that “[w]hen the [electric] chair was first used, on August 6, 1890, the technicians on hand misjudged the voltage needed to kill the condemned prisoner, William Kemmler. The first jolt of electricity was not enough to kill Kemmler, and only left him badly injured. The procedure had to be repeated and a reporter on hand described it as ‘an awful spectacle, far worse than hanging.’ George Westinghouse commented: ‘They would have done better using an axe.’” Edison staged yet another such spectacle in order to disparage his competitor George Westinghouse’s electric-power company, which had supplied the alternating current that was employed in Czolgosz execution. Electrocuting an Elephant—a movie documentation of the high-voltage execution of Topsy, a Coney Island circus elephant who had recently killed three men—was meant to show that Westinghouse’s electricity was so dangerous it could kill an elephant. 16  With his snuff movies Edison was creating film thrillers to sell his “safer” electricity by disparaging his competitor’s electricity. 

Girardet’s Release could be titled “The Electrocution of an Elephant a Virgin.” 

Installation view: Release (Christoph Girardet, 1996)

By manipulating the quintessential Hollywood thriller, King Kong (1933), Release (1996) continued an experimental-film discourse that had been for decades putting on trial the commercialised system that Edison helped invent. Release had been preceded by the meta-cinematic film, passage à l’acte (Martin Arnold, 1993), which deployed frame-by-frame, loop-like micro-editing to alter a clip from To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962). Girardet’s Release extended Arnold’s commentary on Hollywood and its editing into a demonstration of the nearly invisible material system of video animation; his is a project of outing a pervasive phenomenon that is not just powered by, but is also made of, electricity. By increasing in Release the cutting rate toward the frequency of alternating current, Girardet created the subjective feel of animation itself, and of the vibrant matter produced by the dynamos that power it. Release’s editing suggests the feel of a Frankenstein machine that crackles and hums with excess electricity and that sometimes melds with the rate of the accelerating heartbeat or breathing rate of its depicted victim.

In Girardet’s work, such electrified animation can be as alarming as the plight of the represented victim. But why, in fact, should electricity, which today runs through most of our machines—and is the life force of our universal machine, the computer—be seen as alarming? For Girardet, and for other filmmakers today such as Ken Jacobs (discussed below), electricity’s articulations have evolved into forms of animation that are inscrutable and increasingly hard to separate from forms of human life. For these artists, the scene of video animation itself—as an articulated assemblage of vibrant matter in the form of electricity—is more to be feared than the gorilla that is animated by it.

Girardet has deflected the attention—the subjectivity—of the viewer from the gorilla and the manipulated victim on the screen, Fay Wray, back to the material workings of the medium that manipulates the viewer. In Release the clips of Fay Wray become infected with the editing patterns of Girardet’s video, which are the kinds of micro-loops that characterise electronic algorithms. We recall that Tony Conrad’s original flicker film was a spatio-temporal matrix of black and white, algorithmic frames. 

Film strips from a flicker film by Tony Conrad – probably The Flicker (1966)

Algorithms, digital programs and software apps are higher forms of animation, and are aspects Girardet’s concern with electronic media tools as inscrutable, black-box phenomena. Entangled thus in vibrant matter, Fay Wray’s character sometimes seems to be panting, convulsing, and repeatedly seizing up. Her motions are solenoidal, resembling responses to electrical switching; she becomes a frightening image of contemporary heteronomy—of life manipulated by a micro-managing epidemic of media. 

Release (Christoph Girardet, 1996, film still)

Release (Christoph Girardet, 1996, film still)

Fay Wray’s scream, which ought to be the human cry of her tortured body, is instead a transliteration of the frequencies of her electrical mediation—it has techno tempo and robotic pace. 

Release (Christoph Girardet, 1996, film still)

Human flesh and bone have become the medium of a higher power that is passing through her, a power more articulate than a gorilla. That controlling power, felt by the viewer in Girardet’s micro-editing, suggests a certain voltage that someone else, or something else, controls. Without warning, it sometimes seems to wane, but then winds back up to a crescendo, like Frankenstein’s generators, or like the adrenaline—or endorphin—of a person connected to those generators. Fay Wray’s repeating rotating convulsions rhyme with the implied dynamo that created the electricity that seems to be coursing through her tissues, animating her body—it is as if she is strapped to the spinning, flashing electric coils pictured optimistically in Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929).

Fay Wray’s scream may be trying to communicate, but it sounds just like the indifferent, mediating machine-tone—the 50- or 60-cycle tone that is driving the representational apparatus; it becomes, in Girardet’s hands, a voice of the alternating current in Tony Conrad’s prophetic allegories of the 1960s. 

Heteronomy—Animation as Sex Toy

Girardet’s transformation of Fay Wray’s scream from human-made toward machine-made can be taken as an artist’s warning. Release is a powerful and disturbing experience—that’s why it found its way to the gallery wall. That the victim up on that wall is a woman is not arbitrary on Girardet’s part, and it cannot be apolitical. Many key essays in film studies have, of course, discussed the female as object of subjective cinematic attention. One such figure is a recurring manmade robotic-woman that appears cinematically, for example, in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). Lang’s robot Maria is informed by prior female automatons in literature, especially the robotic sex-doll of Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s novel L’Eve future (1886), in which electricity is the nonhuman “life force” that a fictional Thomas Edison deploys in making the sex doll seem fully human. Annette Michelson has analyzed the role of electricity in Adam’s novel, L’Eve, in relation to the advent, or eve, of cinema.17

Michelson’s emphasis on the woman as embedded in the apparatus of cinema builds on Lucy Fisher’s essay that identifies, as a motivation for the invention of cinema, a male drive to fully control the female.18 Release—in seeming to electrocute Fay Wray by electrifying her whole celluloid medium—bears a family resemblance to Lucy Fisher’s and Annette Michelson’s critique of the original heteronomous motivations of animation. The electricity that animates the sex doll in Release seems to have escaped its original utilitarian function, thus exposing the motivations of cinema’s originators. It plays a nonhuman actant.


The first generation of structural-materialist diagnostics and critiques of the cinematic apparatuses included not just the flicker films of Peter Kubelka, Tony Conrad, Paul Sharits et al, but also algorithmically edited films like Bruce Conner’s poetically looped JFK-assassination news footage in Report (1967), and Hollis Frampton’s metered rendering of sexual relations in Critical Mass (1971). Later generations of this project of apparatus analysis continue with many atomised Hollywood specimens in the works of Martin Arnold, Peter Tscherkassky, Christian Marclay, Douglas Gordon, and Girardet with collaborator Matthius Müller, among others. 

Meanwhile, one of the most berserk and sublime examples of the continuing evolution of diagnostic, algorithmic editing tactics comes from a pit-bullish veteran of the minimalist era. Ken Jacobs’ Seeking the Monkey King (2011) is a maximalist articulation of raw electrified power, a baring of a heart and mind filled with fear of and rage at the Destiny-machine that is electronic media to him. Jacobs’s video animates nonhuman articles found around the house photographed with a high-end consumer-grade digital camera and subjected to some of the software manipulations that Jacobs has been exploring for years. 

Seeking the Monkey King (Ken Jacobs, 2011, film still)

The churning, looping, flickering, positive-negative switching, loop patterns are Rorschach-like, and, with the help of a music and sound-effects collaboration with composer J. G. Thirlwell, they drill straight into the observer’s brain. The soundtrack is referential to the arcing sounds of an electrical system that is in attack mode. This direct assault on the audience by the medium—reminiscent of Sharits’s strobing Ray Gun Virus—is occasionally accompanied by Jacobs’ printed text, which raves at the lethal policies that he perceives at work in the world, policies which he prophesies will soon unleash horrific consequences. Every one of the three main elements of Jacobs’s video—visuals, sound, and text—is over-the-top, and together they represent one of the most alarming films since Girardet’s Release. The almost-direct representation of the electrical power grid in Monkey King—which Ken Jacobs knows was driving the Blu-Ray technology and the lush projection that the film received at the Walter Reade Theater, where I saw it in 2011—is revelatory. The revelations resemble Girardet’s in Release, but Jacobs makes them Biblical.

The filmmakers mentioned above are engaged in taking the measure of their tools at the smallest and largest scales of their operations. These artists are political filmmakers. Critical theory and the Frankfurt School—with their vigilance toward the instrumentalism and alienation effects of capitalism—seem never to have receded in most of these artists’ visions of the world. They have been examining the apparatus of cinema critically. Federico Windhausen has identified this major mode of inquiry as “diagnostic, pertaining to the identification of cinema’s fundamental elements.”19 Among those fundamental elements that Girardet has brought to the avant-garde, diagnostic, political discourse of filmmaking is an uncanny feeling of the autonomous feel and heteronomous effect of animation’s electrical nature. He “physically” grounds his medium. That is also Girardet’s unsolicited contribution to political scientist, Jane Bennett’s, thesis about nonhuman actants.

Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things has an explicitly political purpose—to warn of and demonstrate hubris in humans’ relations to the nonhuman world. Hubris may keep us from detecting “a fuller range of the nonhuman powers circulating around and within human bodies[, which] call for our attentiveness, or even ‘respect’.” Bennett argues that “[t]he figure of an intrinsically inanimate matter may be one of the impediments to the emergence of more ecological and more materially sustainable modes of production and consumption.”20

Girardet’s political message is less clear; it is not an agenda. But it is part of a critical discourse in experimental filmmaking that causes viewers to feel and fear the unpredictable power that runs through the sophisticated assemblage of relentlessly turning media elements, such as video streams of electrons, their frequencies, wave forms, frames, and algorithms; viewers can sense inadequacy and potential breakdown of the controlling audiovisual codes that are analyzed by Tom Gunning in “Systematizing the Electric Message.” Girardet joins Gunning – plus Fritz Lang’s Destiny-machine from the 1920s, and Tony Conrad and the structuralist-materialists of the 1960s to the present day – in calling attention to the rising Faustian invoice that is coming due for our human merger with increasingly nonhuman electrified animation. Artificial Intelligence, for example, has been specifically designed to operate as a nonhuman autonomy—no one thinks nonhuman heteronomy is out of the question. AI gives new meaning to the idea of animation and of things as actants. Of course, artists who work closely with such machines are alarmed. Who knows what the complex, autonomous algorithms of Artificial Intelligence—and their owners—will make of all these nests of nonhuman vibrant matter?


  1. This topic extends a previous article in Senses of Cinema, “Animation Diagnostics: Power and the Loop,” issue 69, on Paul Sharits, Michael Snow, et al, and their critiques of their mediums. Snow’s Solar Breath (2002) for example includes the image of “electricity,” i.e., the solar panel that powers Snow’s camera plus the wire connecting them are all included in the lengthy shot.
  2. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010).
  3. Matthias Müller’s work, and his extensive collaborations with Girardet, are distinguished and well recognized. My choice to focus on Girardet’s work was semi-arbitrary, determined by the accident of my initial exposure to Girardet’s video Release in The Cinema Effect: Illusion, Reality, and the Moving Image, the landmark exhibition curated by Kerry Brougher at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C. in 2008.
  4. Christoph Girardet, email to the author, April 8, 2024).
  5. Bennett, op. cit., p. viii.”
  6. Ibid., p. ix.
  7. Ibid., Chapter 2, passim.
  8. Branden W. Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate: Tony Conrad and the Arts after Cage (New York: Zone Books, 2008), pp. 335-336. I have added emphasis to several passages of the Conrad quotation that particularly suggest the primitive dynamo and Destiny-machines that alarmed Henry Adams and Fritz Lang after the turn of the twentieth century.
    Branden Joseph’s citation for this text is:
    Tony Conrad, “On 60 Cycles,” two-page typescript, annotated as “Program Notes for Rhys Chatham video-electronic music piece,” May 21, 1972. Copy located in Conrad’s archives. Internal quotation cited to “Industrial Electricity, p. 15.” Conrad’s statement that “one wave spans our continent” refers not only to the ubiquity of 60-cycle current within North America, but also to the calculation of 60 cycles/second divided by 186,000/miles/second (the speed of light), which provides a measurement of the length of the wave form at 3100 miles (i.e., approximately the length of the United States). Conrad, conversation with author, January 6, 2007.
  9. Joseph, Beyond the Dream Syndicate, op. cit., pp. 335-336.
  10. Tom Gunning, “Systematizing the Electric Message: Narrative Form, Gender, and Modernity in The Lonedale Operator,” in American Cinema’s Transitional Era: Audiences, Institutions, Practices, eds. Charlie Keil and Shelley Stamp (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
  11. Gunning, op. cit., p. 44; Raymond Bellour, (“Of An Other Cinema,” in Art and the Moving Image:  Critical Reader, ed. Tanya Leighton (Tate Modern Publishing, London, 2009).
  12. Bellour, op.cit., p. 411; emphasis added.
  13. Ibid, p.422.
  14. Gunning, op. cit., p. 29.
  15. In the field of new-media scholarship, Laura U. Marks has since delved more rigorously than Conrad did into the physics of the electron in relation to image making. Examples include Laura Marks, “How Electrons Remember” (AKA “Nonorganic Subjectivity, or Our Friend the Electron”), Millenneum Film Journal, No. 34, Fall 1999, pp.66-80; Laura U. Marks, “Invisible Media” in New Media: Theories and Practices of Digitextuality, eds. Anna Everett and John T. Caldwell (New York: Routledge, 2003), pp. 33-45; published in revised form in Public 25, eds. Susan Lord and Gary Kibbins (Toronto: York University, 2002). Marks has insisted on the materiality of the electronically “virtual;” she has demonstrated the constructed invisibility of that materiality, and has iterated instances and possibilities of resisting—acting against—the current state of mainstream electronic-media-arts heteronomy.
  16. “War of Currents” (Wikipedia, accessed 8/25/2010).
  17. Michelson, “On the Eve of the Future: The Reasonable Facsimile and the Philosophical Toy,” October 29 (Summer, 1984).
  18. Lucy Fisher, “The Lady Vanishes: Women, Magic and the Movies,” Film Quarterly, Fall 1979, 29-40.
  19. Federico Windhausen, “Paul Sharits and the Active Spectator,” in Art and the Moving Image: A Critical Reader, Tanya Leighton (London: Tate Publishing, 2008), p. 132. And cf. my essay on animation diagnostics in Senses of Cinema, issue 69, op. cit..
  20. Bennett, op. cit., p. ix.

About The Author

J. Ronald Green is Emeritus Professor of film studies in the Department of History of Art at Ohio State University. His books include Straight Lick: The Cinema of Oscar Micheaux and With a Crooked Stick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux. Other publications treat media policy, documentary, avant-garde film, video, photography, installation, and digital arts.

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