Re: experimental film and genre films - formalism

From: gregg biermann (email suppressed)
Date: Sat Apr 29 2006 - 15:53:14 PDT

To answer Jonathan-- I do think the continued dominance of the paradigms
of the 60's-70's in avant-garde cinema is relevant question for this
community. And it has been also a personal artistic one for me. I
welcome Tony's comments about the future viability of cinema art that is
concerned primarily with form. My work also reflects an interest in
form. Over the last 5 years or so I've been very conscious about the
"hegemonic artistic interest in formal structures" being associated with
artists of the 60's-70's. And so I've tried to make work that could not
technically have been achieved during this time. I've said before on
this list that I believe the tools we use are in direct relationship
with the kinds of decisions we make and ideas we have. And I've
championed digital art as a means to arrive at some new ways of
envisioning both the art itself and also how it is exhibited. I can see
the practical possibilities for this community opening up with new
technology while I see them closing with old. I'm not sure I understand
the full implications Tony's call for a "new broadly theoretical model"
but I am heartened by his belief that there are many more avenues to
explore with regard to form. The lines he draws between formalist art
making and understanding of the psychology commercial media are really
interesting. Maybe the best minds of my generation went into advertising.


Tony Conrad wrote:

>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>.

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