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Fast Forward: Conversations with machines

From camera obscura to cybernetics: filmmaker Joost Rekveld outlines experimental cinema from its hidden past to a distant future.

By Joost Rekveld

Camera Obscura
In this essay I want to develop my thoughts about possible futures for what is now referred to as experimental cinema, inspired by some of the ideas behind expanded cinema. Experimental cinema is a marginal cinema, not in the sense that its purpose is to remain obscure forever, but in the sense that those filmmakers are called experimental who challenge the categories of mainstream cinema. These same artists often cross over from or into other disciplines, so in order not to lose ourselves in speculations concerning the future of everything, we will have to rewind until we find a starting point from which we can can try and extrapolate.

The most commonly chosen starting point is that all cinema started in 1895 when the brothers Lumière projected a film reel in front of a paying audience for the first time. For about a generation before and after this now mythical beginning, all cinema was experimental. This first screening was later picked as the beginning of cinema because it was the start of the industry as we still know it. Looking at the political and anti-capitalist motivation behind much experimental film work, it would be ironic to pick the first commercial screening as the point of departure for our speculations. Also, if we think about the future, we should not limit ourselves by sticking to the form mainstream cinema has taken over the last hundred years, certainly not at a moment in history when that form is rapidly changing and might dissolve altogether. For these reasons, I will not refer to celluloid or the ‘flat’ projection technologies currently replacing it.

A much less medium-dependent answer to the question of when cinema started is given by art historian Anne Hollander in her monumental book Moving Pictures1. She sees cinema as the continuation of a long tradition of visual storytelling in which the spectator is moved by optical means. She locates the beginning of that tradition in the fifteenth century Flemish School around painters such as Jan Van Eyck and Rogier Van Der Weyden, and traces its development through the history of painting, photography and various kinds of graphic arts. It is a tradition we breathe in by taking part in the visual culture around us. The future of this is in many ways already happening in television, games, on the Internet and in other places where images are used to involve an audience in a narrative. Hollander puts the kinds of storytelling that experimental cinema has always questioned and developed alternatives for at the centre of the cinema she so beautifully places in a larger context. Experimental cinema can also be a quest for new types of visual narration, but in experimental cinema, the maker’s hand is at least a part of the story being told. The spectator is made aware of the artificiality of what there is to be seen; the origin of the images is part of the work and the spectator is made to reflect on the relation between the moving image and him/herself. Those elements also have a tradition that is older than film and Anne Hollander explicitly excludes that tradition from the line she is tracing. We want to trace a line that is not primarily about storytelling.

If we think about a spectator who is confronted by an optical image and invited to reflect on its source, the most general model we can choose as a starting point is the camera obscura. Isolated mentions of the camera obscura have been found since around the fourth century BCE in the west and since about the same time in China. The first to correctly analyse it was Ibn al-Haytham in Cairo, a thousand years ago. He wrote the Kitab al-Manazir, a book of optics which is in many ways the first modern scientific publication. Ibn al-Haytham used the camera obscura to project images of artificial light sources and experimentally prove that light travels in straight lines. His book had a huge influence on optics in the west when an incomplete translation reached Europe around two centuries later. Also around that time, the Persian scientist Kamal Al-Din Al-Farisi wrote a commentary on the Kitab al-Manazir in which he observed the projection of passing clouds and of flying birds in directions opposite to their motion outside the camera.2 In the sixteenth century many proposals were put forward on how to use the camera obscura in theatrical settings to amaze an audience. These used lenses for the first time to increase the clarity of the image. These culminated in the descriptions that can be found in the second edition of the Magiae naturalis from 1589 by Neapolitan Giovanni Battista della Porta. About fifteen years later, Johannes Kepler discovered the similarity between the camera obscura and our eye.

As a model, the camera obscura captures three points I want to use as starting points for reflections on future developments. The first two become apparent from the double meaning of the word ‘camera’. On the one hand a camera obscura is a dark room in which spectators are confronted with a projected image that is located in the same space. The second and much more common meaning of the word, refers to a device that can capture images. The centre of these machines is still a small, dark room. It is not accessible to humans this time, but images of the world around it are recorded in it in some way, so that they can be looked at somewhere else. The third point is the fact that camera obscura presentations were mostly also demonstrations of its working principle; the artificiality of the image is part of the situation. The spectator is invited to be amazed by the image, but also by the way this image is formed and its relationship to reality. It is not only a medium for something else, but also an incentive to reflect on our relationship to images, our relationship to machines and the way we relate to the world.

The Cave
The camera obscura can be compared to what the American philosopher Daniel Dennett calls the ‘Cartesian Theatre’; a space in which images appear in a way that is similar to how mental images and experiences ‘appear’ in our consciousness3. This is a metaphor which works both ways: on the one hand, we can interpret a cinema space as such a mental theatre, while on the other, cinema is a model that helps us understand how our mind might work: our consciousness is akin to a spectator of the film presented to us by our senses, making all kinds of doubts possible about the intentions of the film operator. We are all captive in our private Platonic cave. A similar image of perception was formulated by René Descartes in 1641, about a generation after Kepler who had discovered that our eyes are like small cameras.

A recurrent filmmakers and audiovisual artists’ fantasy is to exploit this situation of control over the spectator. Over the years, many proposals have been made and experiments carried out to develop new kinds of images, projection methods and more ‘total’ stimuli including other senses such as smell and touch, with the idea of intensifying the effect on the viewer. In the history of mainstream cinema the addition of sound, colour and the use of panoramic devices such as surround sound and widescreen projection have been justified by the idea of enhancing the realism of the cinematic experience. When virtual reality became a cultural phenomenon in the nineties, many saw it as the next step in this development: an element of spatiality, added through stereo vision and interaction with a wider visual field. The logical conclusion and total control over the audience would be to feed the stimuli directly into the latters’ nervous system4.
In the history of experimental and expanded cinema, experiences that were more immersive were not motivated by a desire for more realism. In most cases, they were also not based on the desire to increase the impact on the audience, but on the desire to achieve the more active involvement of the latter5. Many of the historic expanded cinema projects are compositions for two or more projectors in which the focus is on the compositional opportunities of several film ‘voices’, analogous to musical voices. These films necessitate a conscious focussing of attention, so that each spectator has his or her own experience. Instead of being a passive receiver of stimuli, the spectator becomes an essential factor in shaping and completing a work that is partly left open. Many of the large scale audiovisual events of the art and technology movement in the sixties were very open in this sense and intended to explore a different web of connections between the work and the audience. Much more recent examples are the works Feed and Zee by the Austrian artist Kurt Hentschläger, which merely consists of fog, surround sound and finely tuned stroboscopic lights. Here the brain becomes the screen in a way that leaves the audience free to explore the ephemeral space that is generated somewhere between the work and the viewer.

When the Italian natural philosopher Athanasius Kircher described the camera obscura in his Ars Magna Lucis et Ombrae of 1646 (‘Great Art of Light and Shadow’), he did this in the context of other manifestations of nature as a painter. There is a great page where he combines an image of a camera obscura with the classical images of Natura Pictrix, such as fossils or other image-bearing stones that bore representations of animals, humans or saints. These were to some extent similar examples of how nature produces images without the hand of a human artist. The inventors of photography two centuries later were explicitly looking for a way to allow nature to paint itself without human intervention. The very first film spectators were as much impressed with the details in leaves and waves that were captured on film as they were with the scene as a whole.

Soon, especially in aerial and scientific photography, it became clear that the camera could produce many kinds of images that had never been seen before and which had the power to change our perspective on the world. One of the filmmakers who described this most eloquently was Dziga Vertov, who developed his concept of ‘Kino-Eye’ in the twenties. He compared the medium of cinema to a human eye, but praised all the aspects of the medium which made this mechanical eye more perfect to him than a human eye. In cinema, shots from various locations and times can be woven into a new whole and the camera can give us many visual experiences that would otherwise not be accessible to human spectators. This idea that cinema can provide a perspective we do not already have was an important motivation for many experimental filmmakers. Some of them, such as, for instance, Stan Brakhage or Jordan Belson viewed their filmmaking as a way to convey or even demonstrate a personal, human vision, often achieved by interfering with the standard way of capturing images. Others, like Michael Snow or Steina and Woody Vasulka, were more interested in the alienness of a non-human perspective.

These artists’ perspectives are very much a response to the camera as it existed in the twentieth century; a machine which was engineered to let nature paint pictures that resemble traditional paintings. Over the last twenty years, many very different and exciting methods have been developed to capture images, pushed by the demands of astronomy, robotics, the special effects industry, medical imaging and military imaging6. A lot of effort has gone into devising systems that can make three-dimensional models based on visual information. Many of these methods use curved mirrors or arrays of micro-lenses, similar to the faceted eyes of insects. As in holography, these can pick up information that is present in three-dimensional patterns of lightwaves, but lost when recorded with a normal lens. Similar principles enable the military to look through forests and heavy foliage.
The intelligent image processing methods behind these developments embody a model of perception that is very different to that embodied by the traditional camera. The latter is a passive receiver that responds the same in every situation. These new devices resemble more contemporary views of our own perceptual system in the sense that they are adaptive and active. They test hypotheses about the world rather than passively receiving images of it7. They often start from some kind of prior knowledge of what is to be seen, so that portions of multiple views can be combined into a single picture that contains more information. These techniques have hardly penetrated the art world yet and it is interesting to speculate on how artists could turn them into new ways of seeing.

A further step towards changing our perception is to create sensory interfaces that would make new interactions possible with the world around us. Such interfaces would change our world in a very direct way. There are many examples of the plasticity of our perceptual system: our senses can adapt to an incredible variety of situations. We can teach ourselves to perceive or do things that are very much outside the range of things that is reasonable to suppose humans should be capable of doing if you take our prehistoric situation as a starting point.
A telling example of this potential is the work of Paul Bach-y-Rita into sensory substitution. Around 1960, he started to investigate neural plasticity: the capacity of our nervous system to adapt itself to new situations and for instance rewire itself after serious brain damage. One of his lines of research was into the possibility of restoring blind people’s sight by training them to perceive images through their skin: a low-resolution video image was fed to a 40x40 matrix of vibrating pins which positioned to contact the back or the belly. After a period of accommodation, these test subjects could recognise objects, move through spaces or even catch a ball thrown at them. As a cyborg they were truly seeing, not through their blind eyes, but through their interface and their skin. Key to the success of these experiments was that the people involved could move around with their interfaces, so that their perceptions were always related to intentions, bodily movements and actions. Based on these experiments, it should be possible to design new senses.

Machina Speculatrix
In the previous paragraphs I have several times touched on the relationship between man and machine. The prevailing view of machines is that they are tools with a limited degree of autonomy. The most ancient tools, hand tools such as needles, knives or hammers, needed humans to both provide the energy to make them work and to direct their action. After the invention of the steam engine, human or animal energy could be replaced by heat or electricity, but humans were still needed to guide the activity of these machines. With the emergence of cybernetics, the first theories were developed on how machines could control themselves and attain a goal independent of direct, human control.

The flip side of the power of our mechanical servants is the nightmare that one day these tools will rise against us. This is a motive that can already be found in pre-industrial stories such as that of Frankenstein or the myth of the Golem. When industrialisation started to change patterns of work that had existed for a very long time, workers revolted against the machines and their owners that made them redundant. Just after the middle of the twentieth century, a common image of the computer was that of an artificial brain at the centre of a bureaucratic, totalitarian regime in which humans have become mere numbers. The current nightmare is that technological progress is beyond our control and will at some point produce a post-human species, more fit than we are. This would reduce humans to simply another stage in evolution, in retrospect similar to worms or monkeys. We are afraid that the slaves of our own making will one day revolt and become our masters.

These black visions show us the relationship between man and machine as seen from the perspective of the other, the machine. The way out of this double bind of both the exalted dream of the total human exploitation of the world and the nightmare of humanity subjugated by its slaves, is to develop a more balanced relationship. We should have conversations with our tools that consist of more than commands issued by humans and machine responses in terms of percentages of target. In our culture so far we have two professions that, ideally, specialise in these kinds of dialogues with things: inventors and artists. Under ideal circumstances, both these groups are free, have no productivity targets to meet and are open to anything that can happen. In their work processes, an unexpected outcome is not immediately viewed as noise to be suppressed or a mistake to be corrected, but can be the start of a new development, as is the case in any meaningful conversation.

Artists are specialists in externalising an idea into something that can be looked at, to reflect on the result and take the next step from there. This only makes sense if there is a difference between practice and theory; if the material offers resistance to ideas so that in the work of art we can witness the artist’s learning process. The increasing autonomy of machines changes the results of this externalisation and the kinds of resistance; instead of making static objects, for the past fifty years, artists have been designing processes, environments or interaction loops. Experimental cinema was perhaps the first art form in which artists reflected on the cultural and human significance of perception as it is shaped and mediated by machines. By questioning these machines, they attempted to develop, demonstrate and question new ways of seeing.

Perhaps one day we will be able to make machines which are themselves capable of perception and of the externalisation of an idea. When that happens, it will be crucial for them and us for them to be able to set their own goals8. Such an autonomous machine perspective on the world can enlarge our own understanding only if it is independent. In that case we can explore the world in a dialogue with our machines which will then be able to tell us something we did not know already.

Humans are the product of evolution, which is a process that is sometimes gradual and sometimes takes sudden leaps and bounds. It is generally acceptable to start talking about humans and stop talking about primates at the point when the right conditions for the development and use of tools emerge9. Machines can be our slaves and might be our masters, but more importantly, it is through our machines that we define who we are.

Joost Rekveld (1970) has been making abstract films and light installations for about twenty years, originally starting out on the basis of the idea of visual music for the eye. He has makes most of his animated films using optical and mechanical set ups, using the computer as a controller and composition machine in order to orchestrate the precise movements of optical components. His installations developed from the tools he developed to make his films, often inspired by the less frequented byways in the history of science and technology. His work so far has dealt with various forms of scanning or with concepts related to the early history of optics and perspective. His interest in the spatial aspects of light triggered a shift away from the screen, towards more architectural and theatrical work. At the moment he is increasingly implicated in activities that resemble cybernetics, artificial life and robotic architecture.
His films have been shown worldwide at a broad range of festivals and venues for experimental, animated or otherwise short films. He has collaborated on many theatre projects, often with dance group Emio Greco | PC or music theatre ensemble De Veenfabriek. He has put together numerous programmes on the history of abstract animation and light art, culminating in the 9th edition of Sonic Acts: Sonic Light 2003. In 2004, he curated ‘4D in the Filmmuseum’ a large exhibition, a series of screenings and lectures for the Dutch Filmmuseum. He is currently the head of the ArtScience Interfaculty of the Royal Conservatoire and the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague.

1. Anne Hollander, ‘Moving Pictures’, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1986.
2. Abdelhamid I. Sabra, ‘Alhazen’s Optics in Europe: Some Notes on What It Said and What It Did Not Say’, in Wolfgang Lefèvre (ed.), ‘Inside the Camera Obscura – Optics and Art under the Spell of the Projected Image’, preprint, Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftgeschichte, Berlin, 2007.
3. Daniel Dennett, ‘Consciousness Explained’, Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1991.
4. This idea was the basis for a 1983 film by Douglas Trumbull called Brainstorm. It is also one the visions mapped out in Peter Weibel, ‘The Intelligent Image: Neurocinema or Quantum Cinema ?’, in Jeffrey Shaw, Peter Weibel (ed.), ‘Future Cinema, The Cinematic Imaginary After Film’, MIT press, Cambridge, 2003.
5. Gene Youngblood, ‘Expanded Cinema’, Studio Vista, London, 1970.
6. An informal overview of these developments can be found in Patrick L.Barry, ‘Pictures Posing Questions, The next steps in photography could blur reality’, in Science News, Vol. 171, No. 14, april 7, 2007, p 216.
7. A great introduction in these more recent ideas about perception is Alva Noë, Evan Thompson (ed.), ‘Vision and Mind, Selected Readings in the Philosophy of Perception’, MIT press, Cambridge, 2002.
8. Joost Rekveld, ‘The Mechanization of the Magical Sign’, in Boris Debackere, Arie Altena (ed.), ‘The Cinematic Experience’, Sonic Acts Press, Amsterdam, 2008.
9. André Leroi-Gourhan, ‘Le geste et la parole’, Albin Michel, Paris, 1964.
Introduction to the work of Bas Jan Ader.
(See films: Fall I, Fall II)

“Bas Jan Ader was a master of gravity,” writes UK artist Tacita Dean in the catalogue of a 2006 retrospective dedicated to the Dutch/Californian artist's work. True as that statement may be, it is also testament to the fact that the perceived importance of an artist bears no relationship to the size of his or her oeuvre. Among Bas Jan's official works we count a total of 7 short films and videos, in which he can be seen falling from a tree, the roof of his house in Claremont, or on his bike into a canal in Amsterdam, while in another couple of films he drops heavy bricks on "vulnerable objects" such as light bulbs and eggs. This handful of shorts represents the majority of the work Bas Jan Ader left behind in 1975 when he disappeared at sea in his final masterpiece "In Search of the Miraculous."

Most of Bas Jan's movies look like they were made with the same casual ease as the videos of today's YouTube generation pointing a camera at themselves to capture their own performances. But in reality an enormous amount of work went into his art. Bas Jan studied philosophy for years and urged students in the art school where he taught to do the same thing before proclaiming themselves artists. Back then most people were not quite ready to fully appreciate a film in which a man drags a kitchen chair to the top of his suburban house, sits down for a moment, then slightly shifts his weight and tumbles to the ground. At the time the film was mostly perceived as irony, but recent retrospectives in major museums and a renewed interest in conceptual art films in general have greatly enhanced the significance attributed to Ader's work, while a groundswell of young people is connecting with
the artist, showing a much deeper understanding than ever before.

Ever since we we created, we receive emails on an almost daily basis from students all over the world, whose research papers about Bas Jan
explore such notions as "an in-between condition" or "the subjectivity articulated in In Search of the Miraculous. Others wonder why "Bas Jan chose himself as his subject," or want to know "which books by the philosopher Wittgenstein he read." It all serves as overwhelming confirmation that, more than 30 years after he disappeared, his work has finally come to resonate with all the philosophical meanings and sublimated feelings that informed the artist's sensibility all along.

It makes perfect sense that Bas Jan Ader should so prominently enter the Zeitgeist in the age of the Internet, which gives its users unprecedented access to his mystique. For starters there is the YouTube generation's identification with conceptual films in which artists feature themselves as the stars. But thematically there are also many points of reference. The irony of the work, tinged with a melancholy streak, has survived extremely well. And Bas Jan's acts of defiance against elemental powers much greater than himself reminds us of the best slapstick comedy as well as the edge of impending disaster that is the lure of extreme sports. It appears that Bas Jan's strategy to use gravity as a temporary relief from the everyday world takes on special significance for younger generations who increasingly live their lives at the intersection of a suffocating physical sphere and the disembodied virtuality of their online existence.

When Bas Jan sailed away in what would have been the smallest boat ever to cross the Atlantic, he took along a book by the German philosopher Hegel, who held the opinion that rather than intervening with reality through his work, the artist's real philosophical challenge is to directly participate with the Truth. Seen from that perspective in these times, we cannot help but interpret Bas Jan's search for the Miraculous as an essential escape from the mediated world, which today tracks our every move, online and off, and instills in us a deep-seated yearning to get lost.

RD '11

Where did that moment go? Experience has taught filmmaker and researcher Tina Bastajian that performances (expanded cinema, live cinema) are often impossible to reconstruct and archive. What are the possible strategies or conditions for capturing these ethereal events? Can we loosen the past to try to predict the future of where our ubiquitous mediascapes are heading? This essay was first published in the 2010 book FILM3.

by Tina Bastajian

Sequence No. 1, Sat Jan 27, 2007 as told on Sept 14, 2009

We arrive at the Lanteren/Venster venue early in the morning for the full day of Electric Cinema ReDux programmes at the 36th International Rotterdam Film Festival. It’s a typically cold January morning in Rotterdam. We take turns rolling cigarettes as we wait for the doors to be unlocked. By ten o’clock the four video documentation cameras have been set up, one of which, positioned high up at the back of the cinema, will document the entire day’s events using an interval timer. We decide to capture one frame every 10 seconds.

It’s now one o’clock in the afternoon and the programme Electric Cinema ReDux: Manifestations of Presence: The Expanded Film Performance and the Impulse to Preserve is running behind schedule. The audience, seated on the floor, re-shuffle themselves in accordance to the ad-hoc programme.

Viennese artist VALIE EXPORT prepares to perform Abstract film No. 1, a filmless film that uses the projector’s beam, a screen, a mirror and thick and thin coloured liquids as its materials, and accentuates the absence of editing which occurs in real time. VALIE motions to have the house lights dimmed. The projector placed at the front of the room faces away from the screen towards the mirror onto which – in the midst of the spectators – VALIE drips, squeezes and pours an array of store bought items: mayonnaise, ketchup, yoghurt, green laundry detergent, milk, Coca-Cola and other more colourful juices to add to the palate of cinematic colour and texture.

The audience changes position yet again to keep from being splashed by the unruly liquids. Claartje Opdam has the pivotal role of holding the mirror for VALIE, which I should mention is of a rather unwieldy size. Claartje remains steadfast as she struggles to hold the mirror steady whilst the liquids accumulate on and slide off her improvised plastic apron, eventually landing on her shoes; another unclassifiable record of the performance.

As far as I remember, the screen became mobile, raw, and unpredictable even to the filmmaker herself. Weeks after the event, I rewind the videotapes from all four cameras and try to isolate the moments right before VALIE began the dripping process as I remember this being a very crucial moment. I cannot find this instant on any of the three cameras; in fact the shots from before, during and after this segment are scarcely visible. The day’s events are nuanced by the interval camera, which reveals a glimmer of a moment (i.e. Abstract film No.1) that passes by so fast, that if you blink you might miss it.

What I am looking for actually does not exist on any of the tapes. Now a few years later, as I re-view this documentation, I look less for what is not there, and more for how what is not visible or audible functions and unravels in the present tense. The mirror shows only the opaque traces, dried, crusted and fragile. It goes missing for a number of days during the Rotterdam festival and a concerted search is organised to find it. Luckily one of the technicians locates the mirror, which had been carefully packed in the haste of the moment, waiting to be shipped to VALIE EXPORT as the one remaining object from the performance.

Slow Rewind
Between 2006-2007, I studied a micro time capsule of Dutch experimental cinema, circa 1969 to the mid-1970s, which was located in Amsterdam. My initial inspiration stemmed from the Filmbank’s first publication, mm2: Experimental Film in the Netherlands since 1960 and the interview with Barbara Meter in which she described her current film works and past involvement as a curator and co-founder of Electric Cinema and the Dutch Filmmakers’ Co-op.

My research thesis soon morphed into Electric Cinema Amsterdam circa 1970s: Re-Staging and Rendering in Praxis and Premise1 which articulated the processes of devising curated programmes in connection with Amsterdam’s underground Electric Cinema and speculated on modes in which the documentation could be integrated into a digital database which is constantly expanded, yet always incomplete. The starting point of my research underscored the importance of the Dutch Filmmakers’ Co-op, international makers and the Cooperative movements integral to the period, and the formal aspects that accentuated the works, and in parallel, punctuated film preservation through a less object based lens. Such a context could encourage ideas on how to literally and metaphorically negotiate and navigate forms of live and ethereal cinema works, such as Expanded Cinema, into the Netherlands Filmmuseum’s field of vision (and collection). To call attention to such blind spots would most inevitably reveal new blind spots.

Film researcher Nathan Carroll considers this less object-oriented approach to preservation and describes his alternative attitude: ‘Archival preservation is now understood as a complex ongoing process of maintaining cultural memories about film rather than merely duplicating film onto safety stock. It is clear that no film stock is safe across time, just as no media format or human memory is outside the historical probability of damage, decay and playback obsolescence.’2

In short, three programmes were compiled for the International Film Festival Rotterdam entitled Electric Cinema ReDux.3 The expanded programme subtitled, Manifestations of Presence: The Expanded Film Performance and the Impulse to Preserve in particular, attempted to agitate the notion of the redux and Expanded Cinema against the backdrop of the im/possibilities of its preservation. The programme consisted of a cross section of historical Expanded Cinema works with an emphasis on the physical presence of the filmmakers; modalities of the projection event—from the sensory to multi-projection, and the flicker film.

In the Electric Cinema ReDux programme’s case, there was indeed the desire to revisit the past or shall I say honour the past while infusing the fragility of the present. This is perhaps only to be understood or digested in retrospect, such as with written texts or an ensuing DVD, etc. Undoubtedly, there are multiple tendencies at work in rendering past Expanded Cinema works, as a returning impulse to repeat, retrieve, replay, re-activate, re-enact and recover. These impulses however became acutely time sensitive as such physical and documented traces had seemingly escaped the then current film restoration project (2004-2007) of Dutch experimental films initiated by the Netherlands Filmmuseum (now EYE) and adeptly spearheaded by film restorer Simona Monizza.

The notion of appraisal retrospectively calls upon us to interrogate the many layers when looking at film preservation; its oral histories and the writing or chronicling of events, collection policies and initiatives. This retrospective mode also affects how we initiate, view and arrange documentation especially when the event has transpired in the not so distant past, as was the case with the Electric Cinema ReDux documentation.

Echoing the words of performance art theorist Peggy Phelan: ‘Live performances in recent years […] often become more meaningful when reappraised in later years; it is hard to identify the patterns of history while one is embedded in them. We invent these patterns, pulling the past together into a manageable picture, retrospectively.’4

This attitude of retrospective appraisal is intrinsic to the many issues linked to rendering preservation, re-presentation, documentation and the archival that are situated within historical and other contexts. French philosopher Jacques Derrida reformulates such lapses or time lags, as a returning to the archive and underscores these as temporal and repetitive acts:

‘The question of the archive is not a question of the past. It is not the question of a concept dealing with the past that might already be at our disposal. An archivable concept of the archive. It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise, and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive, if we want to know what that will have meant, we will only know in times to come; not tomorrow, but in times to come. Later on, or perhaps never.’5

Sequence No. 2, Sat Jan 27, 2007 as told on Sept 18, 2009

'But at the instant the film is completed, the ‘object’ vanishes.'
Hollis Frampton6

I am watching the documentation from Jos Schoffelen’s, some thing/no thing, the last segment from the Redux Expanded Cinema programme. Camera two shows the pulse of six projectors, some spooled up, loops falling on the floor, lenses popped out, focus tweaked. Schoffelen gently shifts the position of the projectors incrementally and layers the images or rather the alternating black and white frames. A slow pan, also from camera two, captures the room vibrating. A glow on the faces of the spectators, the blue velvety curtains on the side wall even radiate, become part of the performance, albeit an ambient one. The effect creates various modalities: screen surface tension, depth, trance, irritation and disorientation, to name a few. The audience slowly drifts out of the cinema one by one, while camera number three concentrates on the glazed over and flickering faces that have endured a forty-minute plus expanded work. A handful of viewers remain, committed to watching the work in its entirety, as an immersive, sensory and acoustic experience.

I re-read Jos’ synopsis for some thing/no thing (1974/2007), which he described as: ‘A light, sound performance, the subject of which is the bare essence.’ In this case, the bare essence he is referring to is the alternating black and white frames, creating what is known as a flicker film – which he loops and manipulates live. So this is the bare essence, ‘of the object cinema, with some surface noise […].
No representation at all, just presence. All the elements not there and then, but right here and now, in real time and physically present in real actual space.’7

Retrospectively these descriptions seemed to encapsulate or punctuate Jos’ desire to confront the slippage between the ‘here and now’ and ‘the not there and then’ in which the former is amplified in the essence of Expanded Cinema and other live performances. Whereas the latter, ‘the not there and then’ is in response to the affect of the redux, which might be interpreted as Schoffelen’s semantic attempt to re-activate this iteration and to release the work from becoming a fossil.

Schoffelen’s work however has eluded the Filmmuseum or other archival initiatives in their celluloid collections. Schoffelen’s work incorporates this idea of recycling films in a cyclical fashion, a never ending work in progress or, more fittingly, a film with infinite versions. His filmography exists in bits and pieces: film titles and dates recur indiscernibly, altered, elongated or erased altogether, making it difficult to understand when a work originated and – in due course – became another version, etcetera. A tension also remains, a schism between the salvaging of film materials from the past and trying to make sense of them in the present knowing that their meaning is inextricably tied to a performed or unperformed version in the future.8

Dutch film/art history has undoubtedly brought forth expanded cinema under the rubric of other names and modes, and I will cite two large-scale, collaborative works parenthetically. Precursors or rather pioneers within these expanded fields include Poème électronique, the highly touted Philips Pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair Expo 58. The pavilion by the Dutch electronics company was created as a collaborative effort under the direction of the architect Le Corbusier and fused Iannis Xenakis’9 geometrical and mathematical designs with Edgard Varèse’s spatial compositions. They envisioned, ‘a collage liturgy for twentieth-century humankind, dependent on electricity instead of daylight and on virtual perspectives in place of terrestrial views.’10

Poème électronique can be mapped on the expanded time line. It conjured up the more metaphysical aspects or tendencies that Gene Youngblood described in his seminal1970 text Expanded Cinema that underscored that ‘Expanded cinema isn’t a movie at all: like life it’s a process of becoming, man’s ongoing historical drive to manifest his consciousness outside of his mind, in front of his eyes.’11 To some extent, the Pavilion also resembled Stan VanDerBeek’s infamous hemispherical Movie-drome (1963), which fused science, art, technology and architecture, and pioneered moving image and sound environments that promised a limitless archive of random image sequences using multiple projection.

Poème électronique was celebrated as a Gesamtkunstwerk (total artwork) though by today’s practices this concept seems rather obsolete. The work now remains as the sum of its parts: digital, analog and sculptural through an abundance of archives, websites, estates, blogs, article clippings, also by visitors who captured the Brussels Expo through the subjective lens of their 8mm cameras. A reconstruction was presented at the Holland Festival 2009, made by the Stichting Elektronische Gedichten (Foundation for Electronic Poems) and supervised by musicologist and composer Kees Tazelaar. This reconstruction was not an attempt to simulate the situation in the Pavilion built in 1958 – as was the case with prior reconstructions. Instead, this reconstruction was based on Le Corbusier’s descriptive Minutage Définitive and carried out all of his instructions for the colour projections, regardless of whether they had been possible to implement at the time or not. The reconstruction was made for a full-dome digital planetarium (i.e. the Artis Planetarium in Amsterdam) based on high-resolution digital scans made of all the Poème film material in the archives of the Netherlands Filmmuseum. Tazelaar and the Filmmuseum will continue to explore the re-mounting of such a structure and its interior moving image, audio and atmospheric components.
Indeed there have been countless attempts to resurrect the work in its entirety, however incomplete or dislocated spatially and temporally. This dispersed, abundant and collaborative reservoir in part manifested by digital proliferation, also lends itself to archival afterlives, and expands upon the potentialities to the work in the future. 12

In 1967, artists Jeffrey Shaw and Theo Botschuijver together with co-authors, Tjebbe van Tijen and Sean Wellesley-Miller mounted iterations of Corpocinema on Amsterdam’s Museumplein as well as on Rotterdam’s Schouwburgplein. Corpocinema has also been described as an expanded cinema environment, a mixed-media event, a pneumatic environment, etc., as created by the Eventstructure Research Group (ERG).

‘The basic structure was a large air-inflated transparent PVC dome onto which film and slides were projected from outside. These projections were made visible by physical events and performed actions that created temporary conditions materializing the projected imagery within and on the surface of the dome. [These events] also caused dramatic transformations and reconstructions of those images.
For example, white polythene tubing was inflated until it filled the interior of the dome, thus creating a complex, growing surface on which the image appeared and then the dome was deflated over this tubing. Fire-extinguishing foam was sprayed over the entire inner surface of the dome, building up an opaque white projection surface. As the foam dripped off the dome, the projected image disintegrated.’13

Films projected from the outside of the dome, ranged from Norman McLaren’s animations, to a documentary on the Netherlands’ occupation during the Second World War. These coalesced with various substances that drifted as luminous particles and fleeting transmutations when viewed from both the exterior and the interior of the dome. The manifestation accentuated the corporeal and tactile in terms of attenuated viewing and materialised projection.

Corpocinema has been scrupulously documented and disseminated in various modalities. Amsterdam-based artist, Tjebbe van Tijen14 created the documentation project, ART ACTION ACADEMIA 1960-2006, 15 that includes the documentation on Corpocinema. Like the distinctive elements from the Pavilion, the documentation from Corpocinema can be recalled on a myriad of archival surfaces, physical and virtual. The ephemeral and unstable nature of such manifestations cannot be conveyed, recovered or preserved in its totality – a fragile and formless by-product of the live event. Whereby the defining of what is actually the original state of a work that is object centred becomes dispersed as the elements or activities which surround such unstable media (i.e. Internet based works, Expanded Cinema, etc.), are not always apparent, classifiable or significant.16

Twists and winds
Surely, the concept of the cubic is nothing new. Yet I found it particularly useful to revisit this multi-perspective, modular (recombination of components) and geometric logic, and how it informs a work’s initiation, exhibition, reception, as well as its documentation and preservation. Likewise, these cubic traces and formations connect to the very essence and the architectures of the archival: particularly within the digital landscape of the multiple and infinite, via digits, indices and databases.

The notion of hindsight and moving image modalities within the field of film preservation played a constructive role in my prior research. With that said, archival time travel under the pretence of hindsight, with the works addressed in and beyond this publication would seem short sighted, given that these makers have proved both a defiant and unencumbered straddling of medium, format and site specificness.

Therefore I am inclined to resist hypothesis, simulation or pre-enactment17 and would alternatively suggest endeavours that generate and sustain proactive measures. Like the idiosyncratic straddling or toggling of mediums that these makers embrace, so too might future archival measures, as fluid and unencumbered, consider past and present traversals and a dose of speculated foresight. As archivists, makers and restorers we can perhaps anticipate what only time will tell i.e. identify modes of access and exhibition, together with the unique conditions of a work.

Sequence No. 3, as told on October 10, 2009

"Rather than the ‘new’ media overcoming the ‘old’, or the ‘old’ simply swallowing the ‘new’, the media space in general increases in complexity as new forms of production and consumption become commonplace."
Matthew Mitchem18

I have had the auspicious task of viewing and reacquainting myself with the works by the filmmakers included in FILM3 as an inspiration to assemble this text. A multiplicity of approaches, which have discrete elements that can be disassembled, re-mediated, combined, nuanced, remixed and spatially and virtually relocated. I am reminded of Rosa Barba’s agile crossing between web-based environments, modified cinematic devices in gallery spaces and associated textual book renderings. While Nora Martirosyan employs shifting architectures to exhibit her hybrid experimental documentary forms, that could be seen as a dialogue with her own personal and cultural trajectory, navigating between geographic and figurative borders. Whereas the artists known as Telcosystems have laid down live, algorithmic and generative works onto 35mm prints for projection as one such modulation (i.e. LOUDTHINGS, 2008 and Scape_Time, 2006). This tactic as employed by Telcosystems and the traversals by others across media might also have an impact on the way we preserve or think about preservation and filmmakers from the not so distant past. Of course this idea of challenging medium specificity is hardly a new concept given our age of media convergence as content is channelled through a plethora of devices and formats, delivered through multiple (networked) platforms and conjures up elements from art theorist/critic Rosalind Krauss’ post-medium condition. Indeed, our current era of technological reproduction and image saturation induces the reinvention or re-articulation of traditional mediums.19 In particular, this collapse of mediums and the movement away from so-called ‘pure film’ is accentuated when negotiating more alternative approaches to preservation.

To study this even more closely, consider filmmaker Joost van Veen’s film, Harrachov (2006/35mm) made together with UK filmmaker Matt Hulse, which involves live action, stop motion animation and kinetic sculpture. Harrachov ‘explores the effect of an arcane force that, like a black hole or an immensely powerful electromagnet, exerts a far-reaching and irresistible power upon certain objects and materials, wilfully seducing, centralising and internalising them.’20 These disparate objects (ironing board, lawn mower, air pressure gauge, metal spatula, typewriter keys, wheel, etc.) reappear as an uncanny assembly of kinetic parts, in the ensuing collaborative installation, Harrachov Experiment by Van Veen, filmmakers Matt Hulse and Ben Rivers, and visual artist Guy Bishop that also integrated the concept of ‘live documentation’ into the gallery installation.

The kinetic cinematic elements are recycled and re-activated in both the installation and its subsequent afterlife, this time in the form of a limited edition DVD. The elements of the DVD include: the Harrachov film, artworks, documentation from the sculptural installation, extras or ephemera like inclusions (film strip and button giveaway), even a making of segment, together with a vast selection of re-mixed soundtracks by a host of collaborators. What becomes amplified in this iteration are the archival impulses that surround the works and the blurring between their role(s) as artists, alchemists and self-chroniclers.

These inclinations can all be seen as compatible frictions, which inform aspects of FILM3 expanded and live cinema, and potential archival strategies. Although I have merely illustrated a sample of works or makers, I found it useful to underscore the essences that have resonated in terms of past initiatives or impulses, which could reflect on the longevity of these more recent works and their unforeseen futures. The aforementioned passages might seem to suggest that the future, for both archiving and presentation by design, leads to digitisation as its primary option. Instead I have attempted to provoke this predictable gesture with a hint of paradox given that both De Filmbank and the Filmmuseum have diligently kept projection prints as a viable and distributable medium. Therein lies one of many expanded niches of both the makers and the Filmbank’s approach towards a sort of inverse tendency in some instances – as the re-returning to film after all, as an enduring and concerted strategy.

In parallel, I would anticipate that the Netherlands Filmmuseum remains mindful to integrate these works into their respective digital, live and/or other presentation landscapes, thereby creating expansive and collaborative ventures between artist, distributor, archive and audience.

Given the theme of this essay as the mode of rewind, one should remain cognisant of the fixity that preservation implies, to keep one foot firmly placed in the here and now. As I write these words, I too, am constructing my own work-in-progress; a text that has been cut-up and pasted, mobile and fleeting paragraphs grappling to articulate an unperformed speculation.


Tina Bastajian is a film/new media artist born in Los Angeles, who moved to San Francisco to study experimental film in the 1980s. In 2005 she moved to Amsterdam to continue with her curatorial and archival research in the Master’s programme Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image. Currently she is a PhD candidate at the University of Amsterdam-Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis, and is a member of the Imagined Futures (iFut) research group, which interrogates the triangulation of the avant garde, the academy and popular applications of media technology. Her research has focused on strategies of documentation, preservation and re-presentation of filmic performative works (e.g. Expanded Cinema) as well as dis-locative, nuanced and subjective mapping tendencies in locative media. She is interested in the afterlives produced: performative, archival, and documentary elements as new connections surface with the passage of time and through the migration of sound and image. Themes of the fragment, translation, the trace and returns are also intrinsic to her work within experimental, exilic and diasporan film.

Notes:1. Bastajian, Tina. ‘Electric Cinema Amsterdam circa 1970s: Re-Staging and Rendering in Praxis and Premise.’ Collection: Library of the Humanities (Media Studies) - University of Amsterdam, unpublished manuscript for the Masters Programme, Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image, 2007.
2. Caroll, Nathan. ‘Unwrapping Archives: DVD Restoration Demonstrations and the Marking of Authenticity.’ Velvet Light Trap 56.1 2005, p. 24
3. The word redux derives from Latin, literally this idea of something brought back, or returned.
4. Phelan, Peggy. ‘Unmarked: The Politics of Performance.’ New York: Routledge, 1993, p.152.
5. Derrida, Jacques. ‘Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression.’ Translated by Eric. Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1996, p. 36.
6. Frampton, Hollis. ‘For A Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses.’ Circles of Confusion. Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop Press, 1983, p. 113.
7. Source: full synopsis by Jos Schoffelen, International Film Festival Rotterdam catalog, 2007, p. 311.
8. Bastajian, Tina. ‘Scratching Some Surfaces: Electric Cinema and the Re-rendering of Expanded Cinema’ in Philippe Dubois, Lucia Ramos Monteiro, Alessandro Bordina (eds), Oui, C’est du Cinéma / Yes, It’s Cinema: Formes et espaces de l’image en mouvement / Forms and Spaces of the Moving Image. Pasian di Prato, Italy: Campanotto Editore. 2009, p. 64-77.
9. Xenakis was also a celebrated modernist composer informed by architectural concepts, mathematics, game theory, etc. He composed the score Concrete PH for Poème électronique, as an interlude between events.
10. Treib, Marc. ‘Space Calculated in Seconds’. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996, p.3.
11. Youngblood, Gene. ‘Expanded Cinema’, New York: P. Dutton & Co., 1970, p.41.
12. I would like to thank curator Mark-Paul Meyer from the EYE Film Institute Netherlands for providing this account of the Filmmuseum’s rendering of Poème électronique in Amsterdam 2009.
13 Anne Marie Duguet/Heinrich Klotz/Peter Weibel (eds.), ‘Jeffrey Shaw: From Expanded Cinema to Virtual Reality.’ ‘Jeffrey Shaw – a user’s manual.’ ZKM Karlsruhe, Germany: Cantz Verlag, 1997. p 67.
14. Tjebbe van Tijen founded and curated the Center for the Documentation of Modern Social Movements at the University of Amsterdam (1973), which has now become integrated into the International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.
15. See:
16. This attitude towards preservation and archiving is in part inspired by ‘Capturing Unstable Media’ – a research project by the V2_, research archive team, Sandra Fauconnier, Rens Frommé (Rotterdam-2003).
17. I am thankful to Zoot Derks and Jeanette Groenendaal for their insights into to the détournement of the term re-enactment, by bringing the concept pre-enactment back into my lexicon. I use this term specifically to convey the unstable and unpredictable futures of preservation within an ironic, speculated and performative context.
18. Mitchem, Matthew. ‘Video Social-Complex Parasitical Media’. ‘Video Vortex Reader: Responses to YouTube.’ Geert Lovink and Sabine Niederer (eds). Amsterdam: Institute for Network Cultures, 2008, p 138.
19. Krauss, Rosalind. ‘A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition.’ London: Thames and Hudson. 1999, 56.
20. Source: De Filmbank,
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