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Iimura underground eigahyoron 1966 12 23 12 1 thumbnail

Special Report!: Seismic Rumbles from the Underground

Publisher

Eiga Hyoron

Language

Japanese

Iimura Takahiko reports from the United States that the rumbles in underground art are growing in intensity in a manner that nobody could have predicted. The expansion of media—so-called intermedia—has led to a radical transformation of the movie theater, and Stan VanDerBeek has established a theater named Tabernacle in a former church.1 The time for cinematic revolution has come!

Iimura Takahiko

Part of this year’s New York Film Festival is a special program on independent cinema, combining film screenings and lectures in a series lasting for all ten days of the festival. This is a landmark event demonstrating that independent cinema, also known as underground cinema, has claimed its civil rights. (It’s certainly the first time independent cinema has been represented on this scale in a venue like Lincoln Center.) Meanwhile, for the main events of the Festival itself, the American offerings do not include a single new Hollywood film. What the programs offer instead are silent films, such as Clarence Brown’s A Woman of Affairs (1928) and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat (1915); newer works, such as the independently produced American New Left film The Troublemaker (directed by Theodore J. Flicker); and the independent short Oh Dem Watermelons (Robert Nelson), which also has been screened recently in Japan as an opening feature. The big draws this year, however, are four Czech films; French cinema, such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Masculin féminin and Pierrot le Fou, Alain Resnais’s La guerre est finie, and Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar; and Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert. The only Japanese picture presented is The Burmese Harp, directed by Ichikawa Kon and made ten years ago.

According to the newspaper, there were no Hollywood films because the organizers refused to screen them. Whatever the reason, the result is a major promotion of the independent and underground film scene. The festival is a big annual event for cinema in the United States although, to tell you the truth, I was too busy watching the independent films to get around to the main features. The independent films are the ones that interest me in any case.

An independent film series does not necessarily bring together the most prominent works of the genre, although, at this stage, of course, it is difficult to say which works should be assigned such a status. While we may say that the underground has claimed its civil rights, this is merely a journalistic viewpoint, as it goes without saying that the films themselves couldn’t care less about their civil acceptance. The point is that films in the independent or underground category have gained a status they used to lack, much in the way that Marcel Duchamp’s urinal entitled Fountain was once scoffed at but is now considered a landmark work of art.

I Intermedia

One new wave in the storm of contemporary American art and film is that of intermedia, also known as expanded cinema. As these names suggest, it is the expansion, combination, or, dare I say, the copulation of media. It can take the form of an environment or an experience. One manifestation of this trend is the migration out of the theater to claim territory for screening films in the world at large. I refer, in part, to Stan VanDerBeek’s Movie-Drome, a hemispherical dome fifteen meters in diameter. VanDerBeek is known in Japan for his 1959 animated collage film Science Friction, shown there in 1965, made with pictures cut out and pasted from magazines such as Life (incidentally, in the U.S., the straightforward term “combine” is preferred to the vaguer “collage,” which has its origins in Surrealism.) The comical, often satirical film features automobiles, giant women, the president of the United States and other things transforming into rockets that fly around. I haven’t seen any of VanDerBeek’s other films, but apparently he has gone on to create more such “combine” animations. Evidently he has a sustained interest in this particular genre.

In fact, what happens in the Movie-Drome could also be understood as a “combine.” Certainly one could say that VanDerBeek has taken the “combine” methods he used previously within the rectangular frames of films and expanded them into the Movie-Drome’s hemispherical dome. Five or six film projectors, four slide projectors, and lights beamed through patterned or cut glass are placed inside the dome. The films and slides include home movies, newsreels, VanDerBeek’s own films, snapshots, scientific photographs of plants and classic paintings and are all simultaneously projected, either intermittently flashing or continuously spooling through the projectors. The audience lies on the floor to watch the show. The project is not yet completed, and it is not clear when or if it ever will be completed, but it works to create a maelstrom of chaotic imagery. Unbound from the flat surface of the conventional movie screen, the imagery envelops the audience. It has claimed the entire space as its territory.

This screening environment is outside the bounds of independent cinema, and it was built in a suitably fringe environment of a clearing in the woods in a rural area a two-hour drive from New York. VanDerBeek built a hut beside it to live in. When I visited the Movie-Drome it was being unveiled to the public for the first time, and even VanDerBeek said he had never seen it in full action. The dome is an entirely new experiment, a vessel that could potentially contain any and all images, and it seems his main intention in building it was to create a new projection environment, a unified microcosmos. Eventually, however, the mass-produced projection equipment he is currently using will have to be modified or replaced. Here, after all, projection is an art form, a performance unto itself, and projectionists are required to rise to the level of artists. For VanDerBeek, in charge of the entire space, the act of projection and the projected images oscillate between being divisible and indivisible as the audience mediates between being aware of and oblivious to the act of projection. Evidently his interest currently lies in the performative aspects of the work, and it is certainly true that changes in the performance methods bring about changes in the entire image-space. Personally I hope that rather than introducing some sort of order to this performance, he maintains the chaotic nature of the images while exploring the possibilities of creating new kinds of image-spaces.

To quote VanDerBeek from his article “Culture: Intercom and Expanded Cinema, A Proposal and a Manifesto” for the magazine Film Culture:

This vision concerns the immediate use of motion pictures . . . or expanded cinema, as a tool for world communication . . . and opens the future of what I like to call “Ethos-Cinema.” Motion pictures may be the most important tool for world communication. At this moment motion pictures are the art form of our time. We are on the verge of a new world / new technology / a new art. When artists shall deal with the world as a work of art. When we shall make motion pictures into an emotional experience tool that shall move art and life closer together. All this is about to happen. And it is not a second too soon. We are on the verge of a new world, new technologies, new arts.2

At times VanDerBeek refers to his dome as an “image library” or a “life theater.” In short, it is a venue in which the past and present experiences of humankind, on a global scale, are simultaneously depicted in a wide variety of image media. At the same time, it is a laboratory for the development of a non-verbal, international visual language as a means of offering new perspectives on the future of humanity. Motion pictures constitute the fundamental tool in this endeavor.

One might recognize a certain naïveté in VanDerBeek’s optimistic faith in the “world,” “technologies,” and “the arts,” but his outlook also stems from the sober recognition that, even in the 20th century, humankind has not yet found a common language that promotes understanding across national borders. From the same article, VanDerBeek says, “The world hangs by a thread of verbs and nouns. Language and culture-semantics are as explosive as nuclear energy.” Simply put, he wants to create a visual vocabulary that can replace the international language of nuclear threat.

One thing is clear: to Stan VanDerBeek, the roles of artist and inventor are two sides of the same coin.

II USCO’s Psychedelic Tabernacle3

At first glance it appeared to be a wood-frame country church just like any other in a rural community. When I entered, I did not know what to expect.

The show had already begun by the time I entered. It was daytime but the interior was dark, as all the curtains had been drawn. Strange music—Indian Buddhist devotional music—played in the background. The incongruity of Buddhist devotional music in a Christian church struck me. Another oddity was the pentagonal chamber erected in the center of the church, with a circumference of fourteen or fifteen meters and a diameter of four or five meters. The building was a hemispherical dome with a white screen stretched across it. The “congregation” removed their shoes, as is customary in Japan, before entering the chamber. It was the first time I had seen such a thing in the United States. Rugs were spread on the floor, and in the center was a mushroom-shaped, tin-plated fountain about two meters high with water coming out of it. It reminded me of a Buddhist water-drawing ceremony, albeit an automated version. On all five walls of the chamber were murals with abstract patterns of concentric circles, human forms, and so forth arranged in a manner reminiscent of tribal art. There were speakers on all five walls, with the sound emerging from each of them out of sync in a way that seemed to rotate progressively around the chamber. Lying on the floor in cramped conditions (there was no choice about that) I looked up and saw slides and films projected on the white domed screen overhead. The images were projected from outside the chamber, and the projection was electronically programmed, with no one resembling a performer in sight. (By contrast, at his Movie-Drome, VanDerBeek mingled with the audience, and there were five or six projectionists at work, causing the images to multiply suddenly, expand or overlap.) The images included landscapes, human faces, abstract patterns and the sun, and seemed to have been carefully selected. Mounted here and there on the walls were colored light bulbs, which also flashed on an off automatically. My eyes were drawn to the words “Peace,” “Love,” and other slogans inscribed on the enclosure around the fountain, which glowed, reflecting the light from the light bulbs.

During the hour or so that I spent lying there, time seemed to stand still. It only took about ten minutes to understand how the system worked. After that the presentation seemed to become repetitive.

The strange space, the Psychedelic Tabernacle, was a collaborative project by USCO, a media art collective of ten or more artists—poets, painters, film directors, and others—and engineers. Incidentally, according to the dictionary, the meanings of the word “tabernacle” include: a tent sanctuary used by the Israelites during the Exodus; a house of worship for religious dissenters; a physical body serving as a temporary residence for the spirit; and a tomb with a canopy. It is not hard to see why USCO selected this word for the environment they had created.

According to one member of USCO with whom I spoke, the Psychedelic Tabernacle was established not for a specific religion, such as Christianity or Buddhism, but rather to enshrine a sort of abstract sanctity or universal humanity. Certainly, there were no crucifixes or Buddhist statues in the building. The tabernacle seemed intended to amplify a certain wavelength of consciousness. To this end USCO have deployed all manner of media, film, painting, music, sound, light and language, fusing them together in the service of an abstract ideology.

However, it is difficult to pinpoint just what this abstract ideology might be. The tabernacle is an environmental and experiential gestalt. Taken to its logical conclusion, it might become a worldwide network of “houses of worship for religious dissenters,” or 20th-century houses of worship for the increasingly secular contemporary human. It could be called electronically automated art-as-religion, but it is certainly not religious art in the manner of medieval paintings of Jesus Christ. When I say art-as-religion, I might as well say religion-as-art. Either way, the important thing is that USCO is seeking to break free from stereotypical notions of what both art and religion are about and to create a particular kind of mental and spiritual environment; they have attempted to concoct a “white magic” ritual for the 20th century. The group of a dozen or so artists and technicians have collaborated to create a harmonious “house of worship” in their 20th-century tabernacle.

III The Encircling Universe of Robert Whitman

Just after I had come back from a one-day bus trip (Agnès Varda, who was in the U.S. to promote her new film Les créatures, and Andy Warhol were also on the bus), I caught one of Robert Whitman’s “theater pieces” that was presented toward the tail end of the festival. Whitman has been active primarily in Happenings and has been turning Happenings into a form of multimedia theater in a month-long series of “theater happenings” that he stages in a Greenwich Village theater during the summer.

The piece I saw only lasted about an hour, but it was a stunning illustration of what is possible in the field of intermedia and expanded cinema. While the two previous examples, the work of VanDerBeek and USCO, focused on the creation of a unique theater-space, Whitman arranged his performance in an ordinary theater. And while VanDerBeek and USCO pursued similar missions, though the former spoke of an “image library” and the latter of a “tabernacle,” Whitman is not advocating any particular idea for his performance. Of course, a work of art is always independent of the artist’s ideas, and one should avoid the pitfall of taking the artist’s ideas as a starting point for interpreting the work. (I mention this partly because in the U.S. it is rare for an artist to set forth a particular idea and become known for that idea, or turn it into the focus of his or her artistic activities.)

With this in mind, what sets Whitman apart from VanDerBeek and USCO is the clarity of the images (or the calculations) in his work. Whitman, like the others, is engaged in using all manner of media in a multifaceted manner and even engages with what we could call an Environment. However, he is not merely delivering multifaceted images but instead has developed a methodology for intermedia to become a unique means of self-expression. Of course, we are not here to pass value judgments on his work against the other performances we have discussed. For VanDerBeek, images are materials for building an all-enveloping space, a universe if you will—the dome being a private universe— a place of fusion, coupling, and encirclement. Meanwhile, for Whitman, intermedia is the layering and disassociation of consciousness in a multidimensional environment. His media pieces are flexible, as they can be staged in any theater and do not require a specific, customized space.

At the theater piece I attended,4 the first thing that one encountered was a pair of curved copper plates on either side of the entrance. The attendees’ distorted reflections on the surfaces of the plates were captured by a video recorder and projected on a wall inside the venue. Audience members spent some time looking at the image feed of people who came into the space after them, no doubt imagining what their own reflections might have looked like. After a while a film was projected on another wall, consisting of two superimposed images of a woman. In one image, she was seen from the front, and in the other, from behind. The woman undressed and then dressed again, and the overlapping images made it appear as though her breasts were on her back, and so forth. At the same time, films of the South Pole and slides of penguins were projected on the ceiling. Meanwhile, a film of a woman was projected on the curtains on stage, and the woman shown in the film appeared live in front of the curtains, performing the same actions that she performed in the film. The simple actions included standing up and lying down. On the other side of the stage, a piece of white fabric inflated into a large balloon-like form that pushed against the ceiling and forwards toward the audience. A film was projected onto the fabric, and the images in the film stretched out like the balloon. Meanwhile, the feed from the video recorder showed unsuspecting passersby outside the theater and footage of a woman putting on her socks (this was probably a performance) in close-up. The soundtrack consisted of frog calls and at times the sound of water. When we heard the sound of water, a film showing water was projected on the curtains. Both sides of the theater, the ceiling, and the curtains on the stage were all used as projection surfaces and the back wall was the only surface left untouched. When the performance ended, the images and sounds gradually receded like a tidal wave, and I have no clear memory of the curtain closing. What I found particularly interesting was the film projected on a giant ballooning cloth and the moment when it protruded outwards toward the audience, giving the image a physical substance. For the most part, Whitman’s work deals with images as reproductions: a film of a person and that same live person appearing together; the image of myself that I was not able to see, but that would have been captured and projected using the video system; the images of others that I was able to watch concurrently as they were being recorded; and the front and back of the same person projected, aligned and overlapping, onto a single surface. Only the giant balloon-like form with images projected onto it transformed into an actual object. In fact, the physical existence of the balloon was highlighted by the reproduced images.

One could say that for Whitman, the “media” in intermedia has a clear function as an artistic tool. He has turned his command of images into a methodology that allows him to manipulate the chance occurrences in Happenings to a desired effect. I can assume he used the same methods to entertaining effect at his other events in his summer series (as I did not see these, I cannot say for sure).

Overall, the fascinating thing about intermedia is its imaginative use of various media in a way that destroys preordained spatial and temporal restrictions imposed onto the medium. Of course, it would be difficult for us to say that these works are created in a new medium, since already existent media forms, including slide and moving-image projectors, are being used as part of the process. Instead, intermedia, is the intersection of different media, and part of what makes it interesting is the way these intersections willfully ignore the inherent grammar of each individual medium. The Dionysian celebration triggered when one medium violates another medium is also part of intermedia. Perhaps historically, artists have been too faithful in following the dictates of their chosen mediums. Although they might have thought that they dominated and controlled their medium, in fact, it was the medium that controlled them, and their self-expression was dependent on the validity of a particular medium. In film in particular, subservience to the mechanical aspects of the medium has meant that approaches to cinema have been defined by these mechanical limitations. It seems quite clear that the time has come for us to recognize these mechanical attributes for what they are, as limitations.

Naturally, intermedia will not replace the cinema as we know it. (It is impossible to predict such things, and in any case I am not particularly interested in mere changes of mechanism.) Intermedia is the discovery of a different type of space for images to inhabit. Incidentally, I have already written on the topic of images in theatrical space (Jikken no eiga ka, eiga no jikken ka [“Film as Experiment, or Experiment as Film?”], Eizo geijutsu (Film Arts) vol. 3).

IV Happenings as entertainment

I consider VanDerBeek’s multifaceted imagery, which is in some ways similar to Whitman’s use of multifaceted media, a form of “space drama” that develops a visual language, a new means of communication, that one might call an arrangement of space. While the images may be multifaceted, VanDerBeek’s images retain their integral meaning as images; however, he has turned the images into building blocks for the construction of an environment. Each block has its own unique dimensions that provide glimpses of an invisible drama. In any case, one could say that intermedia is currently in the experimental stage, an experiment without an end, and the inherent possibilities seem to be limitless.

Here I would like to quote a few words from Robert Whitman (extracted from the book Happenings edited by Michael Kirby). Although it is on the subject of Happenings and not necessarily intended to provide an explanation of intermedia, his words can help us understand the basic intentions behind intermedia:

The thing about the theatre that most interests me is that it takes time. Time for me is something material. I like to use it that way. It can be used in the same way as paint or plaster or any other material. It can describe other natural events. I intend for my works to be stories of physical experience and realistic, naturalistic descriptions of the physical world. Description is done in terms of experience. If somebody says something is red, then everybody knows what that means because they have seen it. They have had that experience. A story is a record of experience or the creation of experience in order to describe something. The story of something is its description, the way it got that way, its nature. The intention of these works has to do with either re-creating certain experiences that tell a story, or presenting experiences that tell a story, or showing them. You can re-create it or present it or show it. You can expose things. All these things have to do with making them available: you make them available to the observer, so called. (p. 134)

In conclusion, I would like to take a moment to recount my memory of a show at a discotheque that I attended soon after arriving in San Francisco. At this point intermedia seemed already to have been commercialized and turned into the medium for a sort of 20th-century religious ritual. This is common practice not only in San Francisco but in New York as well—there was a big report on the phenomenon in Life magazine just the other day. The event I attended was in a huge hall, with a band playing loud and intense rock music. The massive sound filled the space, which was packed with four or five hundred youngsters dancing wildly, wearing neon-bright colors, weird bell-bottom trousers, and clothes decorated with paint. On the walls a profusion of slides was projected in informel style (rather than ordinary slides, they were abstract pictures generated by kneading or splashing paint), in and out of synch with the music. Meanwhile, found footage, taken from old Westerns and newsreels, was projected in different directions, and the light show moved and pulsated at a frenetic pace. It went on for hours.

Intermedia was in full effect here, as the dance event incorporated not only rhythm and sound but also visual impact, incorporating multiple, diverse media. In situations like this, if we assume that auditory sensations are what move the body, it makes sense that visual stimuli have the strongest impact on the mind. Here the two were integrated seamlessly into a single environment. While intermedia was clearly utilized here for commercial purposes, it is not so clear which came first, intermedia as art or intermedia as commercial enterprise. It is like asking about the chicken and the egg. This confusion is illustrated best by Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable events featuring the Velvet Underground, but a discussion of Warhol will have to wait for another article.

Iimura Takahiko
Member of Film Independents

Originally published in Eiga Hyoron, 1966. Translated into English by Colin Smith.

1.

Tabernacle was the name of the USCO performance, as indicated later in the article. WE may assume that this is an editor's error.

2.

VanDerBeek, Stan (1966). 'Culture Intercom, A Proposal and Manifesto,' Film Culture, 40: 15-18.

3.

Another editing error mistakenly identifies the Psychedelic Tabernacle as a performance by Stan VanDerBeek and mistitles the chapter "VanDerBeek and the Psychedelic Tabernacle." We have taken the liberty of correcting this here.

4.

The performance Iimura attended is Two Holes of Water, Part 2, which was presented at Lincoln Center.