Abstract Film & Video: The Contemporary Period
story © Michael Betancourt, August 14, 2011 all rights reserved.
There was only a brief consideration of the contemporary period of US abstract film/video in 3 periods of Abstract Film and Video, but its analysis bears greater expansion. By focusing on the dominant characteristics of the three periods—experimentation, consolidation and institutionalization—the marginal position of abstract film emerges clearly at the start of the third period. The potential contemporary period reverses this marginalization, and so deserves a longer discussion.
Since the mid-1990s, several institutions comparable to what were created for the avant-garde film during the 1970s have been founded, in effect reversing the marginalization common since the start of the third period. This change began, in part, as a side-effect of how new digital technology enabled a visual music and color organ revival. The establishment of support institutions—created during the second period for avant-garde film generally—provide focal points around which artists and critics focus their attention.
Prior to this change, the “abstract film” was critically marginalized by the Greenbergian formalist approach that had become the essential mode for considering 'abstract' film and video. Film historian Maureen Turim’s book, Abstraction in Avant-Garde Films (1978/1985), based on her Master’s Thesis, is typical of the rhetorical shift around the term “abstraction” that happened in the third period. In spite of its title, none of the films addressed by her study are abstract—only Paul Sharits’ T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G comes close—instead, all the films examined are prime, even central, examples of structural film. Included in her historical study are Michael Snow’s Wavelength, La Region Centrale, Ernie Gehr’s Wait, and Serene Velocity, Hollis Frampton’s Winter Solstice, Autumnal Equinox, Zorns Lemma, Tony Conrad’s The Flicker, Alpha Mandala and Paul Sharits’ T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G and Color Sound Frames among others—a veritable role call of who’s who among canonical structuralists; many of these films were included in the American Federation of the Arts film program "A History of the Avant-Garde Film in America" (1976). The limited formal range focused on the materiality of the photographic basis of film, and emphasized the specific technology of film as distinct from the electronic medium of video. This is Greenberg’s self-critical model, one where the essential features of film selected as the “pure” elements—the four features of Sitney’s designation: fixed camera position (fixed frame from the viewer’s perspective), the flicker effect, loop printing, and rephotography off the screen—are different aspects of the same formal element: the intermittent projection of frames photographicly produced, i.e. the photo-chemical dimension of film rendered via optics. Within this construct, there is only limited potential for abstract, hand-painted, or electronic hybrids of film and other media. In this third period characterized by marginalization, abstraction had only a limited presence in the avant-garde canon or its history.
The demands of the institutional period for scholarship, conservation and the establishment of a canon continue as active constraints in this contemporary period, apparent in the two organizations created in Los Angeles to support abstract film and video. The first of these, the iotaCenter was started in 1994 with a simultaneous historical and promotional mandate; the other, the Center for Visual Music, an offshoot of the iotaCenter, whose focus is more specifically on historic preservation. The troubled relationship between these organizations is an illustration of the difference between avant-garde film and the specific tradition of abstraction: “visual music” (and its antecedent color music) is a much older tradition where the artists involved have consistently attacked one another: for example, Mary Hallock-Greenewalt sued Thomas Wilfred for patent infringement in the 1930s, and almost every artist has denied the existence of prior work by others, or denied the validity of one another’s work, while claiming exceptional status for their own. This partisan behavior, apparent in the "CVM vs. Iota" controversies, has consistently impeded the field of abstract film and video as much as it did the development of “visual music.”
At the same time as these institutional supports came into existence, the digital computer offered a potential for immediate, interactive control of imagery and sound. The visual music foundations of abstract film reasserted themselves around attempts to develop a general purpose, digital “visual instrument” (as John Whitney, Fred Collopy, and George Stadnik each did) whose heritage lies with the color organs built since the seventeenth century. his history, running parallel to motion graphics itself—often intersecting with its development, and starting in the 1980s, (and accelerating in the 1990s), with the rapidly declining costs for the real-time generation, keying and compositing of video and graphics—was the foundations of VJ and various types of synaesthetic performance. The contemporary return of abstraction to critical and historical consciousness followed the development of new software tools.
The software produced by the Adobe company incorporated many of the effects and features of earlier systems into single, expandable software packages that enabled the fluid movement between still image and motion image. The introduction of Adobe Photoshop (1990), Adobe Premiere (1991) and Adobe AfterEffects (1992), gave artists the ability to manipulate video in the same way as film. Adobe software was initially used in graphic design, and its expansion into photographic imaging, followed quickly by motion, is a prime example of the “convergence” that digital technology had on existing, discrete, industries. While the early versions of these programs were hindered by the limited computational power available in the early 1990s and by the difficulties of acquiring digital video, within five years their impact would be appearing in the commercial world, and within ten their effect would be apparent in video art as well. Because computers’ apparently different functions—among them being a word processor, video editor, or communications medium—are all a simulation, the ability to move between what were individual, independent and incompatible technologies is an inherent potential once those industries engage with using digital computers. To a computer, there is no inherent difference between a static and a moving image; it is simply a matter of how the data file is displayed, making the combination of photography, animation and typography with computers simply one potential that was waiting to be developed.
This digital convergence, a hybridity of formerly distinct media united thorough common technology, is the essential feature of contemporary abstract film. The linkage between what can be feasibly done with available technology, (both with the allocated budget and within the available time frame of deadlines and production schedules), and the types of motion graphics executed for any given commercial project has always been an explicit limit on the style and form of commercial production.
Periodizing abstract film and video using the dominant characteristics of "experimentation, consolidation, marginalization, and institutionalization" has a strong element of arbitrariness. The inflection points I’ve chosen enable the discussion of each period using particular breaks: 1946 (second period begins), c. 1965-1975 (third period begins), and c. 1990-1995 (contemporary period begins). Each point corresponds to a moment where there is a definite, qualitative change. These transition points are the first definitive moment when the conscious understanding and relationship between the newly emergent period and the preceding one can be articulated. They mark points where the field of abstract film has changed, bringing about a new context against which any new development must be measured. The overarching characteristic chosen to describe any particular period is not the only organizational principle in action at that time—instead, it identifies the dominant tenor of that period, the mode which does not imply a total break with the approaches (historical, theoretical, aesthetic) of earlier periods, but rather a reorganization of priorities.
Copyright © Michael Betancourt August 14, 2011 all rights reserved.
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