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Community of Image: An Examination of Environments in Art

Publication

Kikan Film

Publisher

FILM ART

Language

Japanese

Media and Identity

In the summer of 1967, the hippie filmmaker Ray Wisniewski asked me to shoot some footage. When I asked what it was he wanted shot, he told me just to bring my camera and we’d take it from there. Puzzled, I brought along my camera on the appointed day, and he gave me some film and told me to go out and film people in the vicinity in any manner I pleased. This was in the neighborhood they used to call the Far East, the slums to the east of my own neighborhood, the East Village. It was a jungle, the streets littered with trash and dog turds, ravaged buildings abandoned and left to deteriorate. I recalled that a hippie had been murdered nearby at one point.

I wasn’t altogether unfamiliar with the area. I had visited it a few times, and filmmakers I knew lived there. When I went out on the street and started to film, right away kids came up and said, “Hey, film me, man,” and wouldn’t go away. I went inside an apartment building, where I found elderly people and children in a room with crumbling plaster walls lit by a bare bulb. The bright light mercilessly illuminated the grubby interior. Far from being embarrassed by the camera, though, they pointed out a place where the wall had crumbled and told me to get that on film.

The neighborhood was an enclave of immigrants—Puerto Rican, Jewish, Polish and so forth—a ghetto very far removed from the trim, tidy Main Street of middle-class Caucasian America. The film I shot that day was material for an art “environment” to be held on that city block. This environment was a large-scale multimedia event, incorporating tens of thousands of feet of film, countless slides and tapes, and a live band. It was an environment in the true sense of the word, created by and for the local community.

The participants were filmmakers, artists and other neighborhood residents. They took photos and shot film while they themselves were being photographed and filmed by other people. Several giant makeshift screens made from bedsheets sewn together hung from buildings, and quite a number of projectors were placed in windows and ran simultaneously. The band played raucous rock music while children shouted and jeered delightedly. They were excited when they found their own faces on the screens. It was raw, practically unedited footage, with slides overlaid randomly and projected on screens that fluttered in the wind. The street was jammed with people, some of whom were dancing. Everything and everyone that had been filmed and photographed was shown to the subjects themselves, in their own environment. This simultaneous viewing and being viewed was a feedback loop of the residents’ identity. The projection environment was ideal for this endeavor.

The budget for the event came from a local fund for community projects, but it was not enough. A lot of cameras, projectors, and screens were provided free of charge by local artists and residents. Andy Warhol had already filmed himself and his surroundings and then screened the unedited footage as a cinematic environment, but this block party environment was done on a larger scale. The footage of the local people ran on and on, and the event lasted from early evening until deep into the night.

An exploration of identity and the self was carried out in a more sophisticated manner in Marta Minujín’s Minucode. At a party in an art gallery, she mounted cameras on the walls and filmed a segment of the party from various angles, then started projecting the footage from the same points it had been shot from. There were now life-sized projections of people on three walls. The camera had recorded them faithfully (although when the results were played back, the same person appeared three times, from three angles, on three different surfaces.) During the playback, the silhouettes of the flesh-and-blood people watching the footage synced up with the projected people on the walls. In this peculiar, immersive environment, not only were the viewers and the viewed one and the same, they were also synchronized, and the actual, physical people seemed to become shadows while the ghostly, colored images in the film became real people. Multiple identities overlap. The very faithfulness with which the film medium records reality poses questions about what the act of recording means. The coordination of filmed subjects and played-back footage in both time (length of time) and space (size) assigns identity not only to the human subjects but also to the medium itself.

Environments and Multiple Screens

The two events I have just described are prime examples of environments with multi-screen projections. I have given these examples in order to combat the tendency to appreciate contemporary multi-screen and cinema-environment works for their stylistic and technical aspects alone, or the tendency to confine visual-display media to the realm of design alone (although in fact there is no definable distinction between design and art.) Of course you are free to interpret the two examples I have given above any way you wish, but I myself think about the first example primarily in terms of environment, and the second primarily in terms of multi-screen projection.

Both terms could be applied to both of the art projects, but in the first example, the word “environment” can be used in its literal sense to describe a local society or community. In Japanese cities, it could be said that people do not form communities (with the exception of groups like the Neighborhood Associations during World War II), or that the city is beginning to replace the fading paradigm of the rural community. In cities of the United States, however, a community mentality remains strong. This collective spirit operates in a manner that is both progressive and reactionary. For example, on the one hand, black people tend to be shut out of white communities (reactionary) while, on the other hand, the Black Power movement actively calls for the creation of black communities under black control (progressive). Meanwhile, hippies in the East Village have clamored for the liberation of a local commercial theater on behalf of the community, and managed to obtain a free “community day” at the theater.

The street environment described in the first example above was also largely the work of hippies. In that case, the simultaneous use of all available materials in an environmental fashion was a very natural way for them to operate. After all, this is the way that everyday life is lived, and a community is a group of people who are individuals and at the same time a collective, sharing the same segment of time and space. When there is no temporal or spatial hierarchy, and especially in a racially mixed milieu like that of the East Village, a street environment like that described above is simultaneously highly diverse and clearly illustrative of the community’s image. It represents the people’s desire for identity. If an environment is rooted in a sense of community, that environment will be presented in a way that reflects the essence of that community, and the images it incorporates will be those that the community members all share. The street environment I described at the beginning was an archetypal example of this expression of a community’s image (the global community in the Stan VanDerBeek “Movie-Drome” illustrates the same phenomenon on a larger scale.)

The multi-screen work by Marta Minujín, the second example, entails multiple views of the same space projected on multiple screens, synchronized so as to coalesce as a single idea. Projection of footage of a single space shot from various angles on multiple screens is not unique to this piece: another example is the Disney production Canada, screened at Expo 67 in Montreal. The work, projected on a circular screen, showed a 360-degree panoramic view of the Canadian landscape shot by nine cameras. The projectors were positioned in the interstices between screens so as to recreate the 360-degree panorama. The audience viewed this panoramic landscape from the center, encircled by screens, but at all times they were directed to face one of the multiple screens, and their movements were thus restricted. This is because most of the footage consisted of moving shots. Rather than capitalizing on the multifaceted nature of the images, the viewing guidelines stand in the way of a simultaneous group experience of the film. An environment is meant to be fluid and all-encompassing, with “forward” and “backward” not fixed but interchangeable. The significance of multiple screens is that they share the same space at the same time. Imposing a guideline to the viewing process of such works would be to merely another attempt at forcing the viewer to adhere to cinematic rules found in entertainment cinema. Almost all of the multi-screen projections at Expo 67, including the Czech Laterna Magika, were geared toward entertainment in this way.

What differentiates Minujín’s multi-screen work from entertainment of this sort is her posing of questions about aspects of reality that arise through the multi-screen medium. In this case it is necessary to equate multiple screens with multiple projections, with the synchronization of projections being key to the total image environment that encompasses the entire room. However, multiple projections do not necessarily mean multiple screens, as demonstrated by films like Warhol’s ★★★★ (Four Stars, 1967), which features multiple overlaid projections on a single screen. That film derives impact from the temporal disjuncture caused by multiple images projected on top of one another.

Intermedia in Film

There are many names for the new phenomena that are currently emerging in the art and cinema worlds. Some of the broad categories are intermedia, mixed media, environments, expanded cinema (or art), projection art, multi-screen, and multi-projection. Some of these terms indicate modes of expression, while others are technical terms, and in many instances they overlap. In any case, none of them fit neatly within conventional categories, all push the boundaries, and all seem to have a kind of inevitability. While time-honored art forms such as film or painting, in and of themselves, will not fade away, these new media make the very classification of art according to medium seem outdated. The future may bring works that can only be labeled broadly as “art,” by which point art may have become indistinguishable from life.

This evolutionary step, which encompasses all art forms, is the greatest leap forward since art was first divided into multiple art forms. In the process of integration, each art form retains its intrinsic independence, rather than being patched together from various others. Within the various art forms, intermediate or hybrid mediums are not necessarily something new. In recent times, Happenings played a key role in their emergence in the early 1960s. Environments can be seen as preceding, following, or overlapping with Happenings. Kinetic and light art are intertwined with these genres as well. As stated earlier, art forms overlap, and a single work can be both light art and an environment at the same time.

Since the 1950s, artists in music and dance, such as John Cage and Merce Cunningham, have been propelling intermedia forward. More recently, the incorporation of technology into art by Group E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology) has received much acclaim. The above examples roughly belong to the category of 1960s American art, but what I must point out here is that interpreting these changes as linear and chronological would be a serious error. Hasty critics tend to oversimplify by saying that Happenings came first and gave way to Environments (or Intermedia), but in fact Happenings continue to evolve today.

Here I would like to share my thoughts on the progression from movies or films (including slides) to intermedia built around moving images, including televised ones, based on what I have seen firsthand. Like Happenings, intermedia shows are often one-off affairs. Even if they are repeated, they change with each staging, and it is rare to see a work that takes a fixed form like a conventional film. When such works do exist they are usually big-budget productions, automated and computer-controlled like those of Expo 67. Even leisure and entertainment facilities like the Electric Circus1 feature electronic automation, though they retain some manual elements.

Prominent artists in the field of intermedia (or expanded cinema) who use film include Stan VanDerBeek, USCO (a technological media art collective) and Robert Whitman. Other well known names are the ONCE Group in Michigan, Milton Cohen, and Robert Blossom, who combines live acting with recorded film in his performance Film Stage. Earlier on, there was John Cage’s 1952 performance incorporating film at Black Mountain College2 and Allan Kaprow’s 18 Happenings in Six Parts in 1959, the title of which is widely regarded as the origin of the term “Happening.” Experiments such as these have been underway for many years.

The various intermedia works that incorporate film can be roughly divided into two categories. One of them fuses film with live acting or props, and the other consists solely of two-dimensional images such as film, slides, and television. Practitioners of the former include Whitman, Cohen and Blossom, as well as a great many Happening creators and dancers (Ken Dewey, Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth King, Meredith Monk, Carolee Schneemann, Alex Hay) and musicians (La Monte Young, et al.). Among the exponents of the latter are Stan VanDerBeek and USCO as well as Aldo Tambellini, Jackie Cassen, Rudi Stern, Ben Van Meter, Don Snyder, Marta Minujín, Ken Jacobs, Andy Warhol, Matsumoto Toshio, and myself. However, these two categories are not mutually exclusive. There are numerous examples of collaborations between image-creators and live performers, such as the joint intermedia project undertaken by Cage, Cunningham, and VanDerBeek.3 In some cases engineers also work closely with artists. Intermedia inevitably gives rise to new forms of collaboration between artists working in different media.

Rather than being led by a single director, the projects are based on the premise of each participant presenting 100 percent of what he or she has to offer. In many cases there is no preliminary discussion before the work is presented to an audience. Live projections without human performers often go beyond the projection of two-dimensional images to incorporate lamps, strobes and various unique projection devices. Unlike light sculptures, they rely on the projection of light for effect. Luminous objects such as neon art works do not fall into this category.

Works involving the projection of pure light can be further divided into two categories. In the first, projected light itself is the means of expression; in the other, shadows create meaning. The former is exemplified by the work of Nicolas Schöffer, and the latter by Thomas Wilfred. One example of Schöffer’s work is an enormous tower equipped with a specially designed reflective plate that casts light in all directions when a light beam is projected onto it. Another piece that represents the projection of light is a performance by Forrest Myers that I saw in a park in New York’s Greenwich Village. Gigantic searchlights beamed light into the night sky without the use of reflective devices like as in Schöffer’s work. The beams of light themselves were the art work.

Thomas Wilfred’s work, in the collection at MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art), involves a screen onto which smoke-like, multicolored light from a specially designed reflective device is projected at regular intervals. Another example is the work of Earl Reiback, who replaces the screen with a light box. Also, the filmmaker Robert Breer has fitted a projector into a screen box and showed his own animated abstractions in a gallery. Tony Conrad’s stroboscopic film The Flicker turns the projector into a source of light minus the usual images. This is a case of approaching light art from the perspective of film. Others, such as Jackie Cassen and Don Snyder, have projected light through materials other than film, such as glass vessels or glass plates onto which oil, paint, or ink are dropped. Psychedelic projection art makes liberal use of such techniques, and they are an indispensable element of light shows at venues like the Electric Circus and the Fillmore East. These are just a few of examples of the commercial applications of projection art.

As we have seen, when light itself is the focus of a work, the significance of projection art is in the act of projection itself rather than in the contents of the two-dimensional images presented on film or slides. In some cases, the image projected is simply a medium in and of itself.

Aspects of Multiple Projection

Multi-screen projections are one kind of projection art, a category of multi-media incorporating filmed images. In projection art, film may be used in intermedia works paired with live acting, but while the character of individual works may differ, the difference, in the end, between film by itself and film paired with live action is nothing more than a difference of approach. The distinction between the two is merely a matter of convenience. While keeping this fact in mind, if we compare the two we find they have a mutual influence on one another. Unless it is truly fully automated, projection contains an element of human performance, with no two projections exactly alike. This is a crucial distinction between projection art and conventional film projection. Until now, filmmakers were involved with their work until it was in the can, but they took no responsibility for its screening. As an expressive medium, film becomes visible only when it is screened and it is only then that it communicates to the viewer. It is the right of the filmmaker to play an active role in screening his/her work, and there is absolutely no reason for commercial agents to have control over the film. In the mainstream film world, producers of independent films have little choice but to relinquish the rights of their films to distributors with capital; films that are independently produced are not necessarily independently screened. By contrast, as we shall discuss later, intermedia projection art actively seeks viewer participation, seeking to create a community through the agency of the motion picture medium.

On the one hand, in the case of intermedia utilizing film, the presence of recorded images juxtaposed with live performances introduces an extension of the “site-space” of an environment, which creates a larger environment than the site-specific environments of Happenings. You could say that the presence of film brings an entirely new dimension to such environments.

Multi-screen and mixed projections are sometimes interpreted as extensions of conventional film. In such cases multiplicity and multidimensionality are handled according to existing cinematic rules. For example, at the Montreal Expo, the multiplicity, or the unity (integration) of the multiple screens, was performed almost completely according to guidelines prepared in advance. The montage was basically governed by an orthodox cinematic grammar and arranged on multiple supports. In the same genre, however, there were notable works at the Expo, such as the National Film Board of Canada’s Labyrinth, which featured movie screens placed on top of each other and mirrors used to multiply a single image in a virtually infinite kaleidoscope, as well as the Czech works Polyvision and Polyekran, which featured a mosaic of screen boxes that moved forward and backward while images were projected on them.

Some multi-screen works depart completely from orthodox cinematic grammar (in particular, that of the montage technique). In Andy Warhol’s Chelsea Girls, two films are shown side by side on a split screen, seemingly unrelated yet generating serendipity. In Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles, Etc., George Landow loops an off-centered image so that it appears doubled on one half of the screen while the elements described in the title appear on the other half. Also, in a recent multiple projection event by USCO at the Whitney Museum of American Art, a motorized revolving column in the center of the room equipped with twenty slide projectors flashed images around the gallery. The beauty of the piece was that each individual projector flashed a single image, but as the projectors rotated, the image appeared in a different place at every flash, in a way that tested the intellect. Another innovative idea is explored in Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome, a structure in which film is projected on the inner surface of a hemispherical dome. Rather than appearing across a series of discrete screens, as in a flat multi-screen projection, the film becomes a cosmic collage where the borders between images are blurred. In Les Levine’s work featuring multiple TV sets scattered across an environment, images are played back on videotaped loops in a highly mechanical manner. In contrast with conventional television broadcasting, which uses montage to make TV flow smoothly, like film, Levine lays bare the essentially mechanical nature of TV as a medium. Aldo Tambellini is another artist who mixes television and film. And Marta Minujín, who I mentioned at the beginning, is an excellent example of an artist who eschews montage in favor of multiple screens that create a single, enveloping cinematic environment.

Part 1 of 2. Originally published in Kikan Film, 1969. Translated into English by Colin Smith.

1.

Electric Circus was a dischotheque located in East Village, Manhattan. Opened in 1967, Electric Circus was where The Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol presented the "Exploding Plastic Inevitable."

2.

John Cage staged what has been considered the first happening to incorporate multiple mediums called Theatre Piece No. 1 at the Black Mountain College in the summer of 1952. Films and slide projections by Tim LaFarge and Nick Cernovich were a part of a presentation that included theatre, dance, music, painting, poetry, photography and film.

3.

Variations V, presented at Philharmonic Hall in New York, 1965.