Film Art Phenomena

By Catherine Elwes


Nicky Hamlyn is a second-generation experimental filmmaker who is well placed both to reflect on the first wave rising in the 1960s and ’70s and to observe the younger generation, many of whom were his own students. In a vivid and detailed account, Hamlyn catalogues the strategies that these artists have adopted to break down the structures of representation enshrined in what they regard as a conservative mainstream.

Operating like vivisectors in a film lab, pioneers such as Peter Gidal, Malcolm le Grice and Stan Brakhage unpicked the apparatus and conventions of filmmaking to expose the ‘passive’ spectatorial position we habitually adopt and the unified notions of reality that inflect the political and social sphere as well as the realm of art. Not only that, but the structures of vision itself were to be revealed in the deconstruction of illusionism in film. Back in the 1960s they believed that the cohesive worlds propagated by the movies and television could be rocked to their syntactical foundations.

The construction of meaning in film is dependent on the smooth running of the filmic apparatus and here Hamlyn is instructive in his descriptions of how film is made, from light passing through the camera lens, through the chemical magic that creates and reveals the image and back out into the world as a projected beam of light. He explains how the persistence of vision works and throughout the discussion uses artists’ films that interfere with the proper procedure to reveal the alchemical processes that would normally remain invisible.

We learn that in Against the Steady Stare (1988), Steve Farrer used the same machine to both record and project a film without frames, the resulting installation involving the audience sitting inside a circular screen while the camera/projector spun alarmingly to create a ring of ghostly figures appearing and mysteriously receding. The ‘flicker’ films of Paul Sharits and Tony Conrad accentuated the slight jumps we experience in the passage of 24 frames per second through a film projector by juxtaposing contrasting frames to create further ‘palpitations’ and abstract fusions of colour and form.

Many artists explored the baffling relationship between the static row of film frames that, once fed through the projector, creates a sense of movement mimicking life itself. We learn that blur is essential to our perception of movement and it is the brain together with movements of the head that compensate for the inadequacies of the eye. The corollary in film is the movement of the blurred film frames through the projector that produces for the eye a sharp image.

Hamlyn is particularly good when he describes work he knows well and which may have influenced his own films. Michael Snow’s classic Wavelength (1967), in which a very slow zoom into a photograph of waves stuck to the far wall of Snow’s studio inspires in Hamlyn a fascinating discourse on the frame and framing, arguing that the film reveals the “...rectilinear pictorial tradition which unites painting, photography and film.” It is this constitutive frame that determines what we see, what is excluded and what, within it, is given meaning.

Throughout the book, Hamlyn’s narrative is interspersed with enigmatic questions, the one raised here by Wavelength being, what is the appropriate framing for waves?

When discussing the work of Peter Gidal, Hamlyn shows his understanding of the artist’s hard-line structuralist position that leads to a total denial of narrative and representation and a reconfiguration of the moving image around process alone. Any intrusion of illusionism or aestheticisation would detract from the viewer’s attention to his/her own engagement with the work. I have always found this doctrine both didactic and somewhat infected by blind faith. In spite of Gidal’s position that some kind of enlightenment lies beyond boredom and exasperation, my experience tells me that disengagement is more likely to result from exposure to interminable, out of focus shots of someone’s room or the psychedelia of optical printer overkill.

However, the work that Hamlyn champions represents a critical practice, an essential ‘place of epistemological doubt’ that is much needed in these days of commercialisation and cultural dumbing down in both mainstream film and television. Hamlyn is amusing about VR, a form of interactivity that gives “an infantile master encased in video goggles and a data glove” the means to escape from the “messy, compelling complexities” of the real world. He rightly points out that interactive art, which offers a limited choice of mechanically produced variations, closes off the “insight and understanding achieved by contemplation.”

The contemplative films that inheritors of the structural film tradition are making remain virtually unknown and are obscured by the Hollywood and television pastiches that clog the major galleries and museums. This necessarily partial view of experimental film by an important participant in the story should go some way to arguing the case for medium specificity in an art world dominated by art directors who rarely touch a camera and do little to challenge the hegemony of a deeply conservative mainstream.

Film Art Phenomena is available from BFI Publishing priced £16.99

Catherine Elwes’ book, Video Art: A Guided Tour is published by I.B.Tauris in the Autumn.