Black Maria Essay Series

Why I Like the Light: Notes on an (Extreme) Avant-Garde

by Raul Garcia


Twice I've seen Stan Brakhage's The Text of Light at the Anthology Film Archives. And the viewing experience is growing to be something of a tradition.

It's partly because the film is not included in the Criterion Collection's anthology of Brakhage's films (out of the hundreds he has created). And it's partly because watching it on a big screen is mesmerizing and contemplative. Nevertheless, twice I was confronted with a symbiosis of corporeality and ephemerality.

Not only does light require a medium to be seen, but its qualities are perceived according to that interaction between the invisible and visible. A prism's rainbow. Through the glass ashtray that Brakhage photographed for The Text of Light, I perceived globular, vaporous, and fractal shapes as semblances of stars, nebulae, or clusters. The reflections, shot with a macro lens, obscure the object's typical function. But as an object of transparency, I consider the ashtray as an intersection of vision illuminating the spectrum we cannot see with our eyes.

Cinema as the intersection of memory and dreams, a metaphor of illumination.

Brakhage abstracted a concrete form to express an 'ecology of light.' My most recent work, The Transmigration of Light, responds to that idea. Completed for IMAP, New Jersey City University's Integrated Media Arts Production program in May 2017 as my MFA thesis, the work is a single-channel short video in which I express the movement of light through cosmic space. It follows Brakhage's conviction, via theologian Johannes Scotus Erigena, that 'all that is is light.' Thus, for my video I posit that all things, and ourselves, are ultimately reflections. When you look at the night sky and see the numerous stars, those bright or dim white dots are merely their light reaching our perceptual field from various timeframes - these stars could be thousands or millions of years old. Many have already died.

The night illuminated by ghost stars.

Imagine if a civilization glimpsed our light pollution from a billion light-years away.

Brakhage employed a metaphysical belief that substance actually comes into existence after light itself, that things are embodiments of light. For The Transmigration of Light, I wanted to convey what I believe a light ray ultimately is: a wandering ark of visual memory. It was through Brakhage's film that I developed this idea, as I saw that The Text of Light was not entirely 'abstract': I glimpsed a tree against a wide sky, the image bathed in a red hue. I found this symbolic of our mutable existence, and I incorporated this idea in my thesis as a sequence of world-streams. With an iPad's hyperlapse key, I recorded highway traffic, the sky at near dusk, and skylines populated by tall buildings. I incorporated NASA footage of Jupiter, Saturn, and the Sun. With these images, I wanted to illustrate how space-time and perception are alchemical: my visions of the world aligned with the journey of light.

Historically, abstract cinema filmmakers have abandoned the representation of common reality for the representation of the sublime. Even Russian painter Kazimir Malevich wanted to apply his ideas of Suprematism to the filmstrip, as a means of animating squares. Nevertheless, terms like absolute film, pure cinema, or ambient cinema all point to an identification of abstraction with a substratum of perceptual reality. Of realms not readily seen that permeate our lives like indefinite states of matter.

Abstract cinema as an unraveling of essences, the other-worldly.

I find abstraction and the other-worldly best expressed in science fiction cinema. One can see filmmaker Jordan Belson's contribution to the film Demon Seed (directed by Donald Camell) as a prime example. William Moritz remarked that Belson's films are like 'a complete portrait of spiritual states from astonishment and ecstasy, using soft abstract imagery of remarkable beauty and subtleness.' Such valuations can be applied to the film's antagonist, the supercomputer Proteus IV. The artificial intelligence is identified not only by actor Robert Vaughn's voice, but also by a visual representation of its essence: geometric shapes and translucent auras.

Abstraction as an embodiment of logic, of consciousness in itself. Abstraction as an autonomous image only representing itself.

Much cinema today is like a science fiction-like apparatus alluding to the ethereality of abstraction: an instant and simple image machine. If you look at the projection of light from a projector, there is indeed something indistinguishable from magic (Besides the multiplex, streaming films and series episodes need only a monthly subscription service and a monitor). For media theorist Lev Manovich, digital technology has reversed cinematic production and thereby cinema's trajectory of the theatrically-tinged mise-en-scène, from photorealism to the second-class genre of animation. With CGI, cinema became a subgenre of painting, where filmmakers, like canvas artists, manipulate the basic properties of art: color and line. Cinema then becomes nothing more than data arranged by consciousness. One can surmise with George Lucas's Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith that cinema and cinematic production of this century will potentially be entirely digital.

A simulacrum of the cinematic for the simulacra of experience.

Such ethereality only projects acceptable ways to experience cinema, to see. And so abstraction remains like TV static: visual noise veiled by high definition.

Journalist and media theorist Siegfried Krakauer believed that (photographic realistic) cinema redeemed reality for a populous whose culture was collapsing towards fragmentation of history and identity. If so, then we currently live in a state of indefinite redemption by social media imagery. With apps, we can engender multiple versions of ourselves. Our own preoccupation with the cinematic keeps the currency of photographic realism highly valuable, adopting narrative codes of SnapChat. The selfie is a strain of photographic realism.

A media ecology of mirror-image refractions and a renunciation of the invisible.

The recent controversy with Darren Aronofsky and his defender Martin Scorsese highlight the consequence of redeeming the real ad infinitum: cinema becomes valued for commodification ' the transformation of goods, services, ideas and even people into objects of trade. Commodification entrenches the notion of the disposable, the endless supply of entertainment. And so, readymade narratives acculturate us to demand answers when we come across something out of our normal ways of seeing, of envisioning.

Any kind of cinema outside the 'mainstream,' beyond standard modes of seeing is almost a taboo. A useless visuality.

I believe abstraction also returns me to the real, but specifically the real of the senses. It provides me with a much-needed escape from readymade imagination. It is how Malevich described his Suprematist works when he painted a black square on a white canvas, 'a supremacy of pure feeling.' A cinema of simplicity and instantaneity that veils a complexity of the irrational and the unknown. As a counterpoint to the loud and bombastic, it is the immediacy of artistic epiphany. An automatic cinema for the people. I agree with Bill Nelson, visionary musician, writer and visual artist, when he writes about one of his ambient music compilations: 'Attempting nothing and existing purely for itself.'

Is abstraction a signifier of something fundamentally cosmic? Portraits of our own electromagnetic neural strata? Or symbols of our contemporary state of existence with nature ' becoming cybernetic and independent? I believe that is one of avant-garde cinema's enduring aspects ' the imprecision of (its) existence. It is like individual consciousness: in a constant flux of becoming, transgressing cultural codes of identity, usurping modes of totalitarian thinking.

This is what I aim for when I make the 'invisible' visible.

Raul Garcia is a writer, teacher, and experimental video artist. His MFA (2017) is from NJ City University's Integrated Media Arts Production program.