Re: experimental film and genre films

From: Tony Conrad (email suppressed)
Date: Fri Apr 28 2006 - 10:09:45 PDT

Quoting Jonathan Walley <email suppressed>:

> From my perspective in academia,
> I agree that we're still stuck in the 60s and 70s. My own work is
> kinda stuck there. I'm not sure if this is a matter of the continued
> dominance of a modernist model of art abroad in avant-garde film
> (and among the academics who teach/write about it). Obviously it's
> complicated - I'd be interested in hearing other people's ideas
> about the causes of this....

I tend to identify "the 60s and 70s" with a hegemonic artistic interest
in formal structures, and consequently I agree with your suggestion that
"this is a matter of the continued dominance of a modernist [i.e.
formalist] model of art abroad in avant-garde film."

The problem for the modernist "avant-garde" experimental film scene (a
problem that I think stands some chance of being renegotiated as a
positive cultural "edge"!) is that there has been no "new" broadly
theoretical model of formal structures that is applicable both to art
making and to the complexities of corporate society. In this absence,
experimental film (with its dogged inertial commitment to formalist
interpretive scaffolding) faces certain aporias, and resolves--at least
in part--into a mannered refashioning of earlier conceptual developments.

It would be my hope that a new understanding of formal structures might
reinvigorate experimental film, authorizing it to truly "experiment"
with (as Gregg Biermann says) "some of the established conventions of
the experimental/avant-garde film genre...[using] parody, refinement,
revision, deconstruction of or assault on the genre's modernist
ancestry... [with] an awareness of what it means to be doing this now.”
This new conceptual platform will have to lead us into un(der)explored
territory, so that the revisionist approach Gregg suggests can have both
revolutionary fecundity and cogency in relation to contemporary
political and social matters.

My hints for this program are that it should center on the affective
logic of formal tools, by taking stock of advertising techniques and the
legacy of Ericksonian psychotherapy. I addressed this in an essay on
propaganda that appeared in The Squealer (here in Buffalo) in 2003, of
which this is the relevant excerpt:


[I]n practice, the [political] right—which I take as including the
corporate world, or at least corporate management—probably has the
sharpest propaganda strategists anywhere, and probably launches the most
focused and duplicitous propaganda of anybody. Aside from “news,” which
is the trickiest propaganda to figure out, the most humongous shitload
of propaganda is advertising. Any book that deconstructs advertising is
by the same token a propaganda “how to”.... [moreover,] an understanding
of advertising offers many tips for us in our efforts to unveil the
hidden “propagandistic” (that is, ideological) programs that may reside,
latent, in our own work.

        2. Now let’s look at some work that is “purely artistic,” and that
might easily convince us of its ideological neutrality. As an example, I
would like to consider the kind of work that is least likely of all to
appear propagandistic, and that to all appearances has a minimal
relevance to propaganda: abstract art. By this term, I intend to address
all kinds of work in any medium in which formal principles—-design,
rhythm, fragmentation, process, materials, and
decontextualization—-provide the dominant effects in the work. Most
artists whose work is abstract or formal tend to think of their work as
politically neutral, unconcerned with social issues, solely technical,
and esthetically rewarding simply in terms of its own inner integrity.

        I have made work with this kind of values; I still make work with these
values. I won’t try to discount the proven validity of the authentic
esthetic experiences that can arise in the presence of abstract work. In
fact, what I would like to do is refute the notion that because abstract
work does not (in itself) acknowledge its own propagandistic values,
that it is then [politically] discredited and valueless (or worse)....

        [A]dvertising has been there before us: the formal elements in
advertising are dominant; that’s why the commercials are separate from
the programs! And as one looks back over the historical course of
artwork that is recognized and praised for its value as propaganda, we
see a startling profusion of formalist approaches—the collages of
Heartfield, the constructivist posters of revolutionary Russia, the
design-conscious peace posters of Peter Max. How is it, then, that in
all propaganda abstract and formalist principles—the apparent antitheses
of propaganda—provide so dominant a function?

        The answer I have to offer involves areas of psychology that have been
more exploited by the right than the left: perceptual and motivational
psychology on the one hand, and on the other hand the most recondite
region of psychology—not the intellectually turgid theoretical domain of
psychoanalysis, but hypnosis research. Many findings of perceptual
psychology have of course long been incorporated in design principles,
for example the expectation that the moving eye will follow a border or
line. And advertising research is plowing up new psychological turf
relentlessly, continually exploring the perceptual and motivational
advantages of using particular colors, of using a particular schedule of
presentation, and so forth. However, what I would like to suggest goes
further, toward a more general accounting for “the formalism that
sells,” and an explanation of the need to rely on abstract and formal
devices for designing “content-oriented” messages—whether they are
framed as news, narratives, documentaries, or simply advertising
(propaganda pure and simple).

        It was a hallmark of the later work of Milton Erickson (1901-80), who
for decades was America’s premiere hypnotherapist, that by deliberately
puzzling or preoccupying his clients’ conscious attention, he was able
to achieve a more direct relationship to their unconscious
processes—including the clients’ fundamental sense of self, their
habitual behaviors, and certain of their attitudes; in short, he was
able to address the places where their psychological problems were
seated. Usually, but not always, his “depotentiation” of conscious
processes was characterized by a condition he called “trance.” What I’m
getting at here is that the most clearly-understood pathway to the seat
of our ideological outlooks, our habitual behaviors and attitudes,
bypasses our conscious processes—and in particular, it seems that the
route is most direct when the rational mind is set aside or directed to
other things. The tactics that are used by Ericksonian therapists to
depotentiate conscious processes include boredom, distraction,
confusion, and interruptions. Some examples will help to show how these
tactics are related to classic formal structures in media and other art.

The use of extended durations that is common in structuralist and
conceptual media works (which is to say formalist media works) is
usually treated as an exploration of an altered sense of temporality or
expectation. Said another way, these works are boring; yet boredom is,
as these works themselves demonstrate, in fact productive of a renewed
orientation toward those fundamental (ideological?) actuators,
expectation and the value of passing time.

An example of the distraction technique (cited in Stephen Gilligan’s
Therapeutic Trances) is to ask the subject “to count backwards from 1000
to 1 by 3’s, or verbalize the alphabet forwards while visualizing it
backwards (i.e., saying “A” while seeing “Z”, saying “B” while seeing
“Y”, etc.)….” The similarity here to certain formal/conceptual
paintings, films, and even performances is pretty striking.

Erickson himself once used confusion to rattle and destroy his opponent
in a debate, simply by deliberately and persistently using sloppy
grammar and an incorrect choice of words; that is, he wielded a formal
disruption of syntactical and semantic usages as a propagandistic weapon.

The interruption tactic includes introducing meaningful nonsequiturs or
rapidly changing the subject—which are stock formal techniques.

And so forth—with repetition, multiple communication modalities,
allegorical and figural meanings, confusions of reflexivity, and so on.
The wherewithal for distracting and depotentiating conscious mental
processes is almost a direct translation of the formalist artist’s

        What I have to suggest here, then, reflects my own personal ideology. I
believe that there is still much significant work to be done in the
development and thorough understanding of abstract and formal art making
tools, and that these tools have a prominent role to play in the work of
any propagandist. And since what we do is bound to be propaganda anyhow,
we owe it to ourselves and our friends and collaborators to make sure
that we fully grasp the ideological spin that is either overt or hidden
in the propaganda we make.

For info on FrameWorks, contact Pip Chodorov at <email suppressed>.