The art world, in its ignorance of art, sells objects, but we create experiences, we create life and death challenges to the psyche
– Ken Jacobs (1)
This year in November (2007) Dirk de Bruyn was invited to present a major retrospective of his work at the OtherFilm Festival in Brisbane, an event that (intentionally or not) commemorates more than thirty years of creative production by this Melbourne-based experimental filmmaker. Here in Melbourne, de Bruyn has established a profile as a promoter, curator and theorist of experimental film (readers of Senses of Cinema should recognise him as a regular contributor), yet his own creative practice has received very little acknowledgement or critical attention over the years in spite of its apparent scale and consistency. (2) One aspect of de Bruyn’s work in obvious recrudescence (perhaps stimulated by the recent visit to our shores by the Cellule d’Intervention Metamkine?) is the performance-based “expanded cinema” series of pieces – which he has been re-presenting in various venues in and around Melbourne recently (at Greyspace and Jacques Sodel’s Undue Noise), as well as at Audio Pollen and the OFF in Brisbane – and it is this series that I want to focus on here. It should be said from the outset that, rather than provide a close-reading of individual films as part of a “body of film work”, I want to try to define and draw out the broader æsthetic and theoretical lineaments of these performance-events, and suggest ways in which they intersect with, and perhaps extend, the thinking and theorization of this not only peripheral but notoriously elusive practice.
Expanded Cinema: definitions and critical histories
As a perennially marginal, even countercultural form, expanded cinema has occupied a commensurately marginal position in the critical debates, even in the 1970s when the avant-garde was argued to be more central to questions of the theorization and teaching of film. Having said that, there is a rich history of discussion and theorisation of expanded cinema dating from the early ’60s onwards, which would suggest to me that recent claims that the form has been “under-explored” (3) or even a “lost history” (4) somewhat overstated. The term “expanded cinema” was popularised in a text of the same name by Eugene Youngblood, and was most commonly used (though Youngblood’s definition was considerably broader) to describe multi-screen and mixed-media presentation built around one or more film projectors. Cinema is “expanded” in more than one sense in this definition: it could utilize a number of screens or surfaces, it could involve other not-strictly-cinematic mediums, and it could utilize the conventionally static screening environment; even the audience could be implicated or drawn into the flow of performance/event. In the diverse literature, testimony and activity of this conjuncture – in the journal Film Culture, in Cantrills Filmnotes, texts by Youngblood and Douglas Davis, the cinema-body performances of Carolee Schneeman and the powerful presence of Fluxus and Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable – the term “expanded cinema” seems to me not easily distinguishable from the wider social project of the ’60s counterculture to radically alter individual and social consciousness.
In the ’70s, expanded cinema practice was drawn into the then current theoretical debates in Britain about film, politics and the avant-garde. Under this re-definition, the emphasis on an expansion of perception through cinema-technology was preserved, but the goal here was not general individual consciousness-raising, it was an intended activation of the spectator’s awareness of, and participation in, the processes of signification. The implications of this theoretical shift were that expanded cinema became less identified with psychedelia – epitomised by the “thousands of images” of Stan Vanderbeek’s Movie Drome (5) – and more with æsthetic austerity and the “projection situation as material event” (6). Thus Malcolm Le Grice describes his Horror Film 1 (1971) as making use “only of the simple components readily visible within the projection event itself, simple loops of changing color, directly cast shadows and moving projectors” (7). Additionally, instead of being invited to “take what it wants and can from the presentation” (8) in Vanderbeek’s formulation, the audience was defined in theory, and within the conceptual design of each piece, as intellectual worker: “engagement in the problematics of, meaning, signification, structuring and material process etc extends the rudiments of awareness of substance into material reflexive attention” (9). Following this moment of high theory, from the latter part of the ’70s onwards, interest in expanded or “performed cinema” (10) diminished as film and then video-based installations became “increasingly important” (11) or fashionable. In our own age of digital media and VJ culture, expanded cinema has not disappeared but has instead returned to the underground, and as Dirk de Bruyn’s recent series of multi-projector performances brings into clear relief; its sporadic yet stubborn re-appearance can provoke some unsettling questions about the assumed “radicality”, “newness” and æsthetic integrity claimed for the emergent artistic forms of our contemporary conjuncture.
Ephemerality and the æsthetics of process
As I suggested earlier, one of the ways in which expanded cinema poses problems for analysis is that it is a notoriously elusive, essentially transitory form. Based strictly in the live event, each performance is as such “a single moment, never to be repeated, and its complete form will resonate only in the memory of its audience” (12). As such, according to artist and theorist Jackie Hatfield, expanded cinema has avoided or “resisted taxonomy” (13), and has remained outside interpretation and even historical canonization in ways that art forms based around concrete, finished “texts” have not. I would add that in the same way expanded cinema has also resisted commodification, a point of defining importance to the various sub-cultural filmmaking co-ops from which it emerged in various countries after the late ’60s. Though provocative, this aspect of expanded cinema should not strike us as unfamiliar in these times where, Hatfield points out, “artistic practice has become increasingly removed from the production of objects” (14). But, clearly, expanded cinema is not the only art form grounded in the performance event, and some works might foreground and exploit the æsthetics of ephemerality and process more than others. In an article on expanded cinema published in Studio International in 1975 (this same watershed edition launched Peter Gidal’s “Theory of Structural/Materialist Film”), Deke Dusinberre discusses projects by William Raban, Annabel Nicholson and Ron Haselden, which he argues, utilizing techniques such as live rephotography and physical assaults on the film and projector, specifically emphasise “the constant metamorphosis of the work” and draw attention to the “intense presentness of the current performance” (15).
Dirk de Bruyn’s expanded cinema performances engage the æsthetics of process at a number of levels. At the core of these performances are several of two- or three-screen, essentially abstract films of the same duration which comment upon and echo each other in a constant interplay of flicker-like positive and negative imagery. The soundtrack of the films works in a related way: the same or similar words and sound fragments are overlayed, or are repeated in an absurd call-and-answer pattern running from one speaker to another. This overall design or formal system is then set into play and relativised in the live event through a number of treatment-techniques. Reels are placed out of order or interspliced with other short films or fragments of found footage or tests, the bulb of one or more projectors can be occasionally turned off while the soundtrack continues, or the projector can be stopped altogether, extending, stretching out or disrupting completely the apparent synchrony between each screen and soundtrack. The light beam of each projector is filtered, distorted, split and multiplied using hand-held colour gels, plastic bottles, prisms and mirrors, or else silhouetted or blocked completely with the artist’s own hands and body. The projectors themselves can be inverted, turned around or physically transported across the space, mixing and overlaying the imagery, animating different areas of the performance environment and transforming the body of the audience itself into a screen medium. Added to these techniques of live processing and re-mixing is the revisional approach de Bruyn has adopted in the production of images on the film surface: “I never throw out a sequence [...] later on I might add another layer, or process it – bleach half of it or scratch something, perhaps transfer it to video and add an optical layer of image.” (16) So each film is in a constant state of revision and re-building – as de Bruyn says, “a continuously changing, intervening, recycling” (17) – and instead of a “whole body” of work there is rather a permanent incompleteness and inter-blending of works. In de Bruyn’s version of the æsthetics of ephemerality in expanded cinema, essentially unfinished projects are broken up further through the restless processes of the live event.
Reflexiveness and ‘real’ time/space: structural/materialist film
The ’70s expanded cinema experiments that sought to orient audience perceptions towards reflexiveness, and the “awareness of the physicality of cinematic image production in space and time” (18) brought this form within close alignment to Peter Gidal’s dense and highly influential structural/materialist formulation. (19) The implications of reflexivity and its importance to the structural/materialist position are defined in an often-quoted passage from Gidal’s essay:
a film practice in which one watches oneself watching is reflexive: the act of self-perception, of consciousness per se becomes one of the basic contexts of one’s confrontation with work. The process of production of film-making and the filmic practice of film-viewing as production become interlinked. (20)
It could be objected in hindsight that, to some degree, all of expanded cinema, video installation and even VJ-ing might engage the “proceedures” of reflexiveness as outlined here, since as a consequence or accident of the projection situation the awareness of viewing and the production of meaning could in some way be underscored by the physical presence of the equipment and its manipulation by the artist. This has become increasingly common as the corporate aura of the gallery space or indeed of the technology itself – typified by the glowing apple icon which inevitably draws the spectator’s eye – are implicated more and more transparently into the meaning of artistic practices. But whilst there might be degrees of reflexiveness in the design or effect of many individual pieces, clearly not all performances consistently engage reflexive strategies in Gidal’s strict terms as “one of the basic contexts of one’s confrontation with work” or indeed as a way of de-centring the consciousness of the viewer, “to break [...] the illusion of their automatic oneness” (21).
Many of Dirk de Bruyn’s films employ proceedures of reflexiveness that are then underlined and further elaborated in the performance moment. Perhaps the most rigorously reflexive of de Bruyn’s films is the two-screen project Experiments (1974-80), in which diaristic elements and strikingly banal domestic spaces and objects (recalling in some sections Peter Gidal’s minimalistic Room Film 1973) are interrupted by physical or graphic assertions – in the form of shadows or silhouettes of the camera and body of the artist, hands holding colour filters in front of the lens, and direct address shots in the mirror – of the filmmaker and the material “production of film-making”. In the performance moment, this reflexiveness is brought to the level of a system as de Bruyn doubles or visually ‘repeats’ these images in real time with his own body and hands in the projector beam. Such reflexive proceedures not only pose a challenge to the ontology of the image but also initiate a disorientation of reading, where increasingly it becomes difficult to discern the real/live shadow, body part or filter from the pre-recorded one. This recalls Gidal’s insistence – inspired perhaps by Warhol’s experiments with duration in recording and viewing – upon ‘real time’ (opposed to the “illusionist time” of narrative) as another component of structural/materialist film, in which the duration of “operations” depicted and the time of watching or “operation” of the film are blurred together. A particularly powerful means by which de Bruyn mobilizes this conception of “real time” is with the use of an intermittently flashing lamp throughout the performance, a technique first employed in 1966 by Malcolm Le Grice for his Castle I project, and later to somewhat more sensational ends by the Cellule d’Intervention Metamkine. When switched on and off, or mixed in by the artist, this lamp momentarily “burns out” the projected screens and the entire performance space, short-circuiting the (already tenuous) immersive experience of the audience and violently asserting the primacy of the present time/space. The sheer aggressiveness of this technique as physical and optical assault, and exploitation of the vulnerability of the audience within the dark auditorium introduces another aspect of de Bruyn’s expanded cinema æsthetic which I want to discuss in what follows, and in doing so attempt to draw closer in to the overall meaning of these problematic works.
Punk anti-æsthetics and the theatre of cruelty
My first reaction upon attending one of de Bruyn’s expanded cinema performances earlier this year was not one of awe at the “bursting, blooming [...] dance of colour” described by Mike Hoolboom (22), but rather one of dumb shock and surprise at the primal screamings, harsh light flashes, and the general but overwhelming expression of dissonance and rage. However “eye-boggling” (23) the films might be in themselves, de Bruyn’s live presentation of them would perhaps be better described as “gut-wrenching”. It may at first seem unusual or even disturbing that, alongside the more abstract and formal concerns I have discussed earlier, there lurk in de Bruyn’s work a whole ensemble of explosively anarchic, less cleanly classifiable gestures and emotions. For this reason, it seems to me to be important to recall that, aside from whatever personal vicissitudes at work in the life of the artist over the years, these multi-screen films came out of a conjuncture from the late 1970s to mid-’80s, not only during the dominance of the structural/materialist mode in experimental film, but also the apex of the punk subculture in Britain and Australia. (24)
Punk subculture, according to its principal historian and theorist Dick Hebdige, “represents noise” (25). In this sense, punk style was he says not only “a metaphor for potential anarchy and but an actual mechanism of semantic disorder” (26). Dirk de Bruyn’s films are a working through of formal system, but at the same time abound with instances of punk-ish “semantic disorder” and absurdist attacks on linguistic signification. A number of the films contain goofy letraset symbols, written text or isolated letters – such as Traum a Dream (2002), White Bat (aka White Bait, 2007) and Bridges (2005) – which flash by at the extreme outer limits of readibility. In these films, the text is used neither as a pure graphic element (an emptying out of meaning) nor as an imperceptible flicker device (subliminal or “deep” meaning) but in a “cut-up” style which, as in punk lyrics, graffiti and t-shirt slogans, goads us into a game of connecting letters or words into clichéd phrases or looping infantile or Fescennine rhymes. The soundtracks of de Bruyn’s films are nothing if not loud and noisy, and again are constructed in sequences of “cut-ups” – of voice fragments and distorted sounds – which complement the distinctly spastic visual rhythm generated by the hand-drawn, direct animation technique of this artist. In a number of films, punk music is directly evoked, most memorably in Bridges which uses highly-contrasting forward and reverse excerpts of a raucous Melbourne horse-race commentary, and the aforementioned two-screen film Experiments, where over the static image of a suburban backyard window we hear a furious, outsider-art-style drum solo and the voice of de Bruyn himself, hysterically screaming excerpts from Buddhist scripture. This could easily be a track from an unknown punk record or an out-take from a more extreme free jazz session, and it is difficult not to conclude, as I suggested above, that these more anarchic modes of ’70s culture were not consciously built – in “bricolage” fashion (27) – into the artist’s own experimental æsthetic.
But the connection with punk style does not end with the films themselves. In the live performance, alongside the previously mentioned reflexive and re-mixing strategies, de Bruyn adds improvised vocal noises and, in certain sections, an amplified cacophony of his own guttural screams. It is above all this visceral screaming and groaning (which, in the darkness of the performance space, seems to strike a note of vulnerability as well as rage) that for me provokes the most challenge to the reception and analysis of de Bruyn’s work, the equivalent perhaps to “the arena of punk performance” which for Hebdige “posed the greatest threat” (28). Is it possible to understand or theorize this most extreme of æsthetic registers, or have I arrived, as Hebdige ultimately did in his analysis of punk, “at a point where meaning itself evaporates” (29)? The difference I think is that of all the expressions in de Bruyn’s repertoire this is not, as in Hebdige’s reading of punk iconography, “as ‘dumb’ as the rage it provoked” (30), but replete with a raw but deeply-felt emotion that resonates directly through the bodies of the audience and performance space. Here Antonin Artaud’s vision of the theatre of cruelty seems perhaps more apt as a theoretical model than punk. Indeed, so generally applicable is Artaud’s text, in its deconstruction of the binaries of traditional theatre, to expanded cinema as a form that it strikes me as strange that theorists such as Youngblood and Le Grice overlooked it in their writings. In the following passage Artaud seems to be anticipating the expanded cinema of the ’60s:
It is in order to attack the spectator’s sensibility on all sides that we advocate a revolving spectacle which, instead of making the stage and auditorium two closed worlds, without possible communication, spreads its visual and sonorous outbursts over the entire mass of the spectacle. (31)
But, in the end, the crude violence of Artaud’s language and thought were probably inappropriate to the countercultural and theoretical projects of Youngblood and Le Grice. Not so in the case of de Bruyn’s version of expanded cinema. When Artaud speaks of “the vibratory quality” of terrific “sounds, noises, cries” and a “theatre that induces trance, as the dances of Dervishes induce trance, and that addresses itself to the organism by precise instruments” (32), he seems to me to provide an eloquent vocabulary for the tangible tension and shock I have seen registered in faces of the audience (including my own I am sure!) at the aftermath of a performance by de Bruyn, And so, as the artist himself has declared, if it is possible that dim recollections of emotional stress and trauma lie so much at the base of his work, then it would be the function of his expanded cinema, in Artaudian terms, to transmit – using “precise instruments” and a whole ensemble of “crude means” (33) – these inarticulate but savage energies through to the very nervous systems of his audience. De Bruyn’s expanded cinema might in this sense be considered part of a tradition of excessive, “cruel practice” (34) artworks which operate and are understood strictly in performance as a bodily, almost cellular exchange between the artist, the technologies of the artwork and the spectator. (35)
That such apparently arcane theoretical currents are re-activated in the work of artists such as de Bruyn would seem to me provocative in a number of respects. Not the least of which is the question this raises about the teleological posturings, academic boundary-drawings and narrative-based anthropomorphizations of the arrival of “new” media (and the “death” of another), within æsthetic theory and debate. Similarly, the recent revival of interest here in Australian in the work of de Bruyn, Bruce McClure and the Metamkine collective I would suggest is more than merely a fashionable return to 1970s art and culture, or postmodern nostalgia for the naïve “eye-bogglement” of psychedelia, it is a confirmation of the freshness of the interrogative position this work has maintained, at complex conceptual and æsthetic levels of the work itself, in relation to emergent technologies of the moving image and their reception. This is not a mystifying message that constructs expanded cinema and the ideas supporting and informing it as trans-historical or somehow inherently radical. But any theory or practice that posits a direct, unquestioned relationship between a technology-based art practice and the functions or ontology (however non-ontological) of the technology it uses would be equally as mystificatory, and would only succeed ultimately in delivering art and artists into the hands of those who control the production of technology and determine what is available and when. Indeed, those arguments that would mobilise over and again Andreas Huyssen’s renowned assertion that “all modernist and avant-garde techniques, forms, and images are now stored for instant recall in the computerized memory banks of our culture” (36) would do well to do so, as Huyssen himself did – “the cultural history of the 1970s still has to be written” (37) – as part of a strategy that might enable and open out possibilities for the research and theorization of all recent movements in art, not foreclose them in the facile and erasing metaphorics of futurism.
This article has been peer-reviewed.
- Paul Arthur, et al, “Round Table: Obsolecence and American Avant-Garde Film”, October, No. 100, Spring 2002, p. 126.
- As I write, a biographical, interview-based dossier on de Bruyn has just been published in conjunction with Deakin University.
- Jackie Hatfield, “The Subject in Expanded Cinema”, Filmwaves, 24/2, 2004, p. 14.
- Sean Cubitt, foreword in Jackie Hatfield (Ed.), Experimental Film and Video (London: John Libbey & Co, 2006), p. ix.
- Stan Vanderbeek, “Culture: Intercom and Expanded Cinema”, Film Culture, No. 40, Spring 1966, p. 16.
- Malcolm Le Grice, “Material, Materiality, Materialism”, Experimental Cinema in the Digital Age (London: BFI, 2002), p. 167.
- Vanderbeek, p. 16.
- Le Grice, p. 170.
- David Curtis, A History of Artists’ Film and Video in Britain (London: BFI, 2007), p. 240.
- Hatfield, p. 75.
- Ibid, p. 65.
- Deke Dusinberre, “On Expanding Cinema”, Studio International, 190: 978, Nov-Dec 1975, p. 222.
- Lienors and Dan Torre, Australian Animation: Dirk de Bruyn (Melbourne: Cinematic Seedlings, 2007), p. 16.
- Ibid, p. 22.
- Le Grice, p. 170.
- I am concerned here with the influence of Gidal’s ideas on expanded cinema practice, not with an assessment of those ideas, though I would suggest that his critical interventions in Screen during the 1970s were the most radical gesture of that journal. For more on Gidal’s influence on experimental film practice, see Curtis, pp. 207-9; Jeffrey Skoller, Shadows, Specters, Shards: Making History in Avant-Garde Film (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), pp. xxvi-xxviii.
- Peter Gidal, “Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film”, Gidal (Ed.), Structural Film Anthology (London: BFI, 1976), p. 10.
- Quoted in Danni Zuvela, introduction in Torre, p. 2.
- The demonization of the avant-garde in cultural studies (going back at least as far as the Scrutiny journal) has effectively closed down the possibilities for the study of the relations between experimental film and subcultures. I will be looking to explore this area in my own work.
- Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (London: Methuen, 1979), p. 90.
- Ibid. In this section of the essay I am indebted to Ken Gelder’s analysis of Hebdige, in Ken Gelder, Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice (London: Routledge, 2007), pp. 92-6.
- Hebdige, p. 103.
- Ibid, p. 110.
- Antonin Artaud, Mary Caroline Richards (translator), The Theatre and its Double (New York: Grove Press, 1958), p. 86.
- Ibid, p. 83.
- Ibid, pp. 83, 81.
- Georges Bataille, Supervert (translator), The Cruel Practice of Art, 2003: p. 1, at http://supervert.com/elibrary/georges_bataille.
- On the “cruel” tradition in art, see Alyce Mahon, Surrealism and the Politics of Eros, 1938-1968 (London: Routledge, 2005).
- Andreas Huyssen, After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997), p. 198.
- Ibid, p. 216.