Cinema depends on negation. Framing is a form of exclusion; cutting is destructive as well as constructive; the projected image turns on presence and absence; and both film and digital projection involve periods of black or blanking between frames. As such, negation often finds metaphorical resonance in one’s favourite existentialist auteurs (say Robert Bresson or Béla Tarr) but for the most part the negative aesthetics of film and video are suppressed in cinema. In contrast, experimental film and video, which is usually characterised by what it eschews (principally narrative structure), might be defined in terms of negation from the outset. The history of experimental cinema is underwritten by systems and symbols of negation, from recursive strategies that that lead to exhaustion through to different ways in which the image is obliterated. Negation has different aims and ends though. In the tradition of ‘visionary film’ outlined by P. Adams Sitney, for example, the attack on ordinary sight in the imagery of Un Chien Andalou through to the films of Stan Brakhage, allow for the rejuvenation of cinematic vision. 1 In an alternative history, comprising films by artists associated with Dada, Fluxus and the Lettristes, one could plot a lineage that is rather antipathetic towards cinema, envisioned instead as a means of re-imagining the role of media en masse. 2
The most provocative account of negation to have been published in Britain is Peter Gidal’s ‘Theory and Definition of Structural-Materialist Film.’ 3 Contemporaneous essays by the filmmaker Malcolm Le Grice, as well as writing by the critics Deke Dusinberre and A.L. Rees, contributed to an exposition of highly charged aesthetic strategies and their affinity with critical theory, which captured the imagination of filmmakers and film studies alike. 4
With video not having taken the stage in cultural studies as readily as film, and with British art institutions’ cool reception towards its pioneering video artists, propositions regarding the ‘negative capability’ of video art has not had equal attention in Britain. 5 Still, David Hall’s early essay ‘British Video Art: Towards An Autonomous Practice’ was an important thesis regarding the characteristics of experimental video and the role it might play in overturning default patterns of spectatorship as prescribed by television. 6 Correspondingly, many of Hall’s monitor pieces and installations, from 7 TV Pieces (1971) through to A Situation Envisaged: The Rite (1988) and 1001 TV Sets (2012), are a testament to the fact that the strategies in his practice – images of a burning television, banks of detuned televisions sets, and stacked monitors turned to the wall – often turned on negation.
One of the defining features of experimental film and video in Britain has been its critical stance towards cinema and television. However, a survey of contemporary British artists’ film and video, such as Assembly: A Survey of Artists Film and Video, Made in Britain 2008-2013 (Tate Britain) reveals an ambivalent attitude towards the moving image. 7. Works that involve a critical approach to film, video and digital technology, and related assumptions concerning spectatorship, are in fact marginal to the field. That the moving image is the medium of choice for many artists is not necessarily surprising; after all, the moving image is the dominant mode of visual communication and display. But how could one ever compete with the flow of dramatic image-messages that proliferate ad infinitum on ubiquitous flat screens that range in size from the handheld devices to electronic billboards and cinema screens?
In part this essay is a response to a call for papers presented at a conference at the Whitechapel Gallery in London (November 2015), entitled ‘Artists’ Moving Image Practice in Britain: From 1990 to today’. The aim of the organisers was to define a coherent field of academic study. What they had in mind, perhaps, was the spectrum of work that spans a subcategory of contemporary art (where film, video, and digital media are used as a means of expression or commentary on contemporary ideas) and the ‘artists’ feature film’ (a sub-genre of commercial movie-making proper). The two wings are related because numerous artists have graduated from one arena to the other, attracted by funding opportunities and production awards to make ambitious single-screen works that tend to be produced on the basis of a scaled down commercial production. 8
In the funding and promotional contexts associated with artists’ moving image, I suspect ‘moving’ implies the emotionally moving image as much as the image in motion. Either way, moving images have never been a pre-condition of experimental film and video. Though film and video are time-based media, motion is only one possible outcome. Jennifer Nightingale’s pinhole films, which she has steadily produced since 2001, exemplify this perfectly.
The first film was made by hand-cranking a16mm Bolex camera with a pinhole in front of the aperture rather than a conventional lens. The second was an 8mm film simply made with a pinhole covering the cartridge, the film wound through with a hairgrip. Her recent films, West Window East Window (2013) and Rectangle Window Arch Window (2013), have been made with 400-foot rolls of 16mm film. Each of the pinhole films has been exposed in front of a set of windows: at Canterbury Art College; Canterbury Cathedral; in the filmmaker’s living room; and at the Camden Arts Centre. The window becomes lens, the space becomes camera, and the artist the camera mechanism. Hand-winding the film doesn’t produce frame-lines, so each work records a trace of the filmmaker’s action rather than images per se. Movement is the happenstance result of the film’s idiosyncratic exposure and the propulsion of the filmstrip in projection.
Analogous video pieces include Gareth Polmeer’s Sea (2011) and Field Variation (2014), where the image in each case is comprised of numerous woven bands of video’s scan lines, derived from separate video recordings of a seascape or landscape, made from a fixed camera position. Interference between the bands produces patterns of motion evoking waves and a tracking motion across the landscape. As with Nightingale’s films, motion is a product of the systematic processes of the work, not a matter of the ordinary given mode of representation.
There are several other contemporary film and videomakers in England who are only tangentially linked to the field of ‘artists’ moving image’. Their work has often been shown together in new programming strands, which are usually artist-led initiatives. The broader context of their work is a long history of practices that start out from what could be conceived as negative aesthetics, where unseen underlying processes associated with the technology are made manifest in the work, and structures in the work itself turn on negation. Various strategies might be involved: negative footage used in equal measure to positive; intervals and gaps between frames, lines or pixels presiding over images; the sequencing of images and sounds that cancel or counteract one another; and darkness prevails as much as light.
A cinema of negation goes back to Dada, notably Hans Richter’s Rhythm 21 (1921-24) and Man Ray’s Return to Reason (1923), both of which turn on inverse relationships between light and dark, positive and negative. The formal ingenuity of these films made them significant works in the trajectory outlined by Malcolm Le Grice, in his book Abstract Film and Beyond (Boston: M.I.T. Press, 1977). The influence of Man Ray’s film can also be seen in his films Castle One (1966) and Yes No Maybe Maybe Not (1967), both of which turn on the obliteration of imagery, in different ways. Negative aesthetics have been a key feature in the work of other diverse British film and video makers whose practices sometimes span several decades. In contrast to Le Grice, whose work has become far more imagistic, nearly all of Peter Gidal’s films, from Clouds (1969) through to Not Far At All (2013), have been steadfastly designed to obscure identifiable content. Annabel Nicolson’s Reel Time (1973) is a seminal film-performance piece that involves puncturing the filmstrip. Jeff Keen’s anarchic comic book inspired films, spanning the 1960s through to the early 2000s, often involved images of the screen’s destruction. Stephen Partridge’s early video works Grey Scale (1974) and Monitor (1975) utilise recursive strategies of re-scanning that go further and further into the empty screen. David Larcher’s later videos, Videovoid (1993) and Ich Tank (1997), take on complex analogue/digital manipulation at the same time that they revolve around signs and symbols of emptiness. Guy Sherwin’s optical sound films from the 1970s and new variants, such as Sound Cuts (2004), are often derived from incisive strategies that treat film as the pulse of light and dark, rather than a vehicle for representation.
The list could go on, but the point is that there’s a certain lineage, or tradition even, that’s marked out by negation. This lineage plays a significant role in the work of several younger artists too. Perhaps one way to understand what your medium is, in the first instance, is to establish what it is not. Pieces by Karolina Raczynski and Amy Dickson both start out from extremely pared content, and as a consequence they and their audience are made explicitly aware of the relationship between the processes their work uses and what they produce.
Raczynski’s Signals (2013) is a live video piece that has had different iterations. One version, shown at the Apiary Studios in 2014, involved two audiences located in separate rooms in the dark. Laptops with built-in cameras, connecting via Skype, were placed in front of the audience in each room; a video projector was plugged in to each laptop as well. With the projectors turned to face the audience in each room, spectators were allocated small mirrors. Because the camera at each end of the Skype connection was located in a dark room, the beam of the corresponding projector was ostensibly blank, but a video projector always emits a certain amount of light. Encouraged to reflect the vestigial light from the projector, the two sets of audiences could signal to another. Given the bare tools of communication media and little else, something comes from nothing (and exponentially so because the longer the piece lasts the greater the amplification of light).
Amy Dickson’s Light Time (2013) is another original ‘para-cinematic’ piece that has shown in various venues and quickly becomes a notable work. The piece involves Dickson lighting rows of candles placed behind a tall canvas primed with black thermochromatic paint. As the candles heat the surface of the canvas the paint becomes temporarily transparent, revealing the blank surface of the canvas. Out of the dark (again) comes a temporary image; this time made by the heat of the light source.
Dickson and Raczynski are part of the filmmaking and programming group Collective-iz with Maria Anastassiou and Deniz Johns, who have also made works in this vein. Besides showcasing their own work, their programming has highlighted shared approaches and ideas that have spanned different generation of makers (ideas that I have picked up on here). Their last programme, ‘Black and Light’, included a performance of Annabel Nicolson’s Matches, originally from 1975. The piece is a canonical (though little seen) work that turns on light and its negation, with a pair of performers reading a text by the light of quickly extinguished matches.
Significant links could be plotted between several of the artists mentioned here, particularly via the now defunct Maidstone College of Art, and the Royal College of Art. The crossover of students and tutors at these institutions has been an important bridge, especially in the guise of the critic and historian Al Rees, who was a supporter and invaluable link between many of the artists mentioned here. One of Rees’ last essays, published in Millennium Film Journal, entitled “Physical Optics: A Return to the Repressed” proposes a related lineage to my own, and it is one that we shared recognition of. A key phrase of his is that certain works ‘admirably bind in the negative.’ 9 One way in which my own lineage diverges from that of Rees is in the designation ‘physical optics’. There is certainly a haptic, or physical, tendency in some recent expanded cinema works – often associated with flicker, glitches and cranked up noise, which could well be described as negative aesthetics – but work in this vein sometimes seems merely retinal (pace Duchamp). 10. The negative aesthetics that I’m keen to outline here are not exercised in pursuit of stimulating optical effects particularly (nor that dreaded word ‘affect’). The critical function of negation is where it prompts reflection.
Black and Light
Neil Henderson’s Candle (2009) is another film that Collective-iz have recently programmed. It is a complement to an earlier expanded piece of his entitled Black and Light Movie. The latter has been shown in different configurations since 2001, involving up to 100 Super-8 projectors loaded with lengths of black leader, producing an array of light when the leader has passed through the projectors. Candle is made with one 100-foot roll of 16mm film, the duration of which documents the time it takes for the development of a polaroid photograph of a lit candle in the dark. The film is shown in reverse though and as the image of the candle disappears into whiteness, the film illuminates the screen. The passage of the film through the projector speaks to film and polaroid photography as passing media, and in that regard it is a concept film. Another feature of the film is the imaginary flicker of the candle’s flame that is produced by the illusion of movement, an effect that is endemic in the random distribution of film grain. These aspects of the film might be construed as didactic, but the intelligence of the film is matched by its elegance.
The ideas in Nick Collins’ films are expressed through subtle craftsmanship. Dark Garden (2011) is a particularly apposite example. Shot with a single light source in the filmmaker’s garden during a winter’s night, the film is a bravura combination of views that combines deft superimpositions and focus-pulls to resolve transient imagery of the garden’s deciduous plants. Delicate forms appear out of the darkness of night-time, and the filmstrip’s opaque emulsion; or disappear into lit white snow, and the white light of the projector bulb illuminating the screen. The lyricism of Collins’ Dark Garden and the logic of Henderson’s Candle are both derived from the tentative nature of images in film that exist between the two poles of white and black, transparency and occlusion.
One of the traits of Collins’ Dark Garden, and an aesthetic understanding shared by other filmmakers discussed here, is the degree to which shadows become as substantive as any other object in film. The phenomenon chimes with observations in Roy Sorensen’s book Seeing Dark Things, on what it is that we think we see when we’re looking at shadows. 11
– Neg. / -Pos.
A film by Nicky Hamlyn that sees shadows as equally significant as objects is the aptly named Object Studies (2005). Another recent piece entitled ‘Meshes’, one of his Seven Windsor Films (2013), treats black and white images, in negative and positive, as interchangeable. The film centres on layered imagery of wire fences and a superimposed lattice of structures in informal grids. The second half of the film is an inversion of the first half: material that was first seen in negative, but the right way up, is flipped into positive and turned upside-down. This inversion makes the overarching structure of the film coherent, but the experience of actually watching the film is quite disorientating. From the start of the film, the close framing and shifting focal point make the content of the image indistinct and relationships of scale, distance and orientation are difficult to fathom. The fact that we are introduced to negative footage first is also alienating. The effect corresponds with the aim of certain strategies in some of Peter Gidal’s films, where the viewer is left uncertain as to what he or she is looking at; a position that he sees as a productive one.
The ‘negative’ is a material element in the process of filmmaking, and thus examples where negative imagery is used in tandem with positive imagery are particularly telling. Another recent work involving negative and positive in equal measure is Exposure Test (2014) by Laura Hindmarsh, a young artist from Tasmania who has recently relocated to London. The piece involves two projectors, showing overlapping and looped negative and positive footage of a figure shot in a continuously panning motion. The superimposition of negative and positive film stock produces a wholly filmic (fourth?) dimension at the same time that the gait of the figures and the panning camera threaten to cancel each other out if they fall in synch.
In filmmaking there is a readymade negative image to hand. In video and digital imaging there is not, but the structure of negation is the essence of digital media, given their basis in coded relationships that can be transcribed as a sequence of signals based on the binary oppositions on/off or 0/1. A negative entity is only construed as such in contrast to a positive counterpart given a common scale that acts as a point of comparison. Thus a ‘negative’ image in video is achieved by shifting the value of every pixel in the image to the other end of the luminance/chrominance scale.
Many of my own videos have been built around more or less wholly abstract forms, with rotating, expanding or contracting graphic patterns in either primary or secondary colours, or black and white. In Iris Out (2008) graphic compositions, involving circular forms, alternate between combinations of colours on polar opposite sides of the video spectrum. The quick cutting of the piece, at the rate of 25 frames-per-second, results in another terrain of negation with respect to the effect of negative and positive afterimages, which counteracts and complicates one’s sense of the image that’s momentarily present. This piece and others, such as Vice Versa Et Cetera (2010) and NOT AND OR (2014), have a systematic approach to negation that follows from the essential logic of digital media through to projection. One looks to produce experiences that are particular to the technology at hand, but the medium includes the act of viewing too, and in this regard the fact that the work generates contingent and irresolvable perceptual phenomena is key. Like all of the work discussed here, the aim of the maker involves undermining and negating the viewer’s assumptions and expectations about what one is actually confronted with in a screening.
In contrast to the other filmmakers discussed here, Samantha Rebello’s films involve a form of associative montage. Montage, as the sequence of images and sounds, has classically been defined as a constructive principle, but it also has the capacity for the negation of meaning. In The Object Which Thinks Us (2007) close-up images of a mouth, nose, a blinking eye, milk, blood, medical instruments and liquids follow one another in sequence, sometimes in graphic matches. A particularly striking moment is the sequence of shots of an eye, a dead fly, nail clippers and a syringe that were made with a camera that had a faulty claw mechanism. A low bass rumble that increases exponentially in volume accompanies the imagery. In Forms Are Not Self Subsistent Substances (2010) animals and meat also feature. Pigeons, pigs, steaks, clotted blood and eggs are interspersed with medieval stone carvings, frescos of animals and significant segments of darkness. The earlier film is a meditation on the corporeal, the medicinal and scientific modes of assessment; the latter a meditation on materiality conceived in terms of bestiary. The component parts of the film (its separate shots and sounds) suggest a chain of association, but the syntax of the film can’t be easily parsed, and it’s meaning as such, defies translation. Instead, the mode calls to mind Vlada Petric’s phrase ‘disruptive-associative montage’, which he uses in an account of Dziga Vertov’s and Sergei Eisenstein’s films, and traces back to Friedrich Engel’s ‘dialectical unity of opposites’:
The two poles of an antithesis, like positive and negative, are just as inseparable from each other as they are opposed. … Despite all their opposition, they mutually penetrate each other. … Dialectics grasp things and their images, ideas, essentially in their interconnection, in their sequence, their movement, their birth and death. 12
In their different ways Vertov and Eisenstein both saw the filmstrip’s passage through the projector as a dialectical process, evidenced when cutting between conflicting images, sometimes at the rate of every frame. The express purpose of Soviet montage was to highlight this process, as a function of the medium at the level of the filmstrip, but also to harness and resolve it, at the level of ideology. The montage in Rebello’s films chimes with the Engels quote, with regards the interconnectedness of things, but in contrast to constructivist principles of montage, where the dialectic of disruption/association is resolved, the relationship between sequential imagery is purposefully unresolved. The title of another of Rebello’s films, In Suspension (2008), is indicative of the move to hold meaning at bay.
Avant-garde cinema might be construed as the flip side of cinema as it is generally conceived; in this model of opposing poles, the existence of experimental practices affirms the dominance of cinema as spectacle. The type of cinema discussed here is antithetical to moving image culture at large – and it is in this respect also that it might be cast in a negative light – but antagonism is not its function, nor its raison d’être. Construed in more positive terms it affirms is the existence and possibility of an utterly different set of aims and practices.
In each of the works described here there is a move towards pared means and content. At the same time, the strategies of negation outlined give rise to widely different ends that are might be considered poetic, transformative or open ended. Not every film/video by the makers mentioned in this essay turns on negative aesthetics, but negation has been a motivating force and a recurrent starting point for different generations.
- See P. Adams Sitney Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3rd ed. 2002) and Eyes Upside Down: Visionary Filmmakers and the Heritage of Emerson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) ↩
- Pavle Levi’s Cinema by Other Means (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) suggests such a history. ↩
- Peter Gidal “Theory and Definition of Structural-Materialist Film” Studio International vol. 190, no. 978 (1974) ↩
- See: Malcolm Le Grice’s collected essays in Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age (London: BFI, 2001); Deke Dusinberre “The Acetic Task: Peter Gidal’s Room Film 1973” in Peter Gidal, ed. Structural Film Anthology (London: BFI, 1976), pp.109-113; and A.L. Rees “Conditions of Illusionism” Screen vol. 18, no.3. (1977) pp.41-54. ↩
- It wasn’t until 2014 that Tate Britain bought David Hall’s seminal 7 TV Pieces. Video art, and artists’ film, seems to have meant very little to Britain’s foremost national collection of contemporary art prior to a generation of young British artists, including Gillian Wearing, Steve McQueen and Tacita Dean, who came to prominence in the 1990s. ↩
- David Hall “British Video Art: Towards an Autonomous Practice” Studio International, vol. 191, no.981 (1976), pp. 248-252. ↩
- Assembly was a series of 23 programmes shown at Tate Britain between November 2013 and March 2014. Works were proposed by several nominators, and programmed by Andrew Valance and Simon Payne (as independent programmers) and Stuart Comer, Katharine Stout, George Clark and Melissa Blanchflower at Tate Modern and Tate Britain ↩
- The foremost agency in the UK is FLAMIN (Film London Artists’ Moving Image Network) an organisation that commissions and produces artists’ film and video, as well as giving the annual Jarman Award. ↩
- A.L. Rees “Physical Optics: A Return to the Repressed” Millennium Film Journal no.58 (Fall 2013) pp52-58. ↩
- For Marcel Duchamp, ‘retinal art’ appealed only to the visual sense, at the expense of the intellect. See: Calvin Tomkins Duchamp: A Biography (New York: MoMA, 2014), p.55 ↩
- Roy Sorensen Seeing Dark Things (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) As the absence of light, shadows are negative phenomena, but we often see them as positive phenomena. We might readily describe shadows as being able to move, for example, even though they have no mass or energy. In several of Nick Collins’ films, including Dark Garden, it is striking how the movement that is captured and represented is that of shadows as much as objects per se. Film fixes light and dark in equal measure though: in a positive print, patches of light are areas made transparent, while dark surfaces, silhouettes and shadows are areas made opaque. The shadows fixed on a filmstrip are therefore distinct entities. Then again, the screening of a film is projection of shadows, and so the question of what it is that we think we see sometimes comes to light again. [12. Hence the conundrum that can be traced back to G.E. Moore, which can be paraphrased as the question: ‘What is it we see when we see moving shadows in film?’ Sorensen refers to Moore in Seeing Dark Things, on p.78. A.L. Rees has referred to the same discussion in his A History of Experimental Film and Video (London: BFI, 2nd ed. 2011) p.25. The original source is G.E. Moore’s Commonplace Book 1919-1953 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1962) pp.139-143 ↩
- Engels in Vlada Petrić Constructivism in Film (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2nd edition, 2012), p.96. ↩