Potamkin and the Energies of Modernism

On October 19, Potamkin will be screening in my hometown, Toronto, for the second time. This is an essay that I wrote for Parol: Quaderni d’arte e di epistemologia, a variation on a talk I gave about the film at University of Toronto’s McLuhan conference in 2017.

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Hard times are here and everywhere you go
Times are harder than they ever been before
And the people are drifting from door to door
They can’t find no heaven I don’t care where they go
You hear me singing this lonesome song
These hard times can last us so very long
And if I ever get off this killin’ floor
I’ll never get down this low no more.

Skip James, “Hard-Time Killin’ Floor Blues” (1931)

Harry Alan Potamkin, born 1900, was a film critic and poet. In 1933, at age 33, he died of complications relating to starvation in a hospital in New York City. When he starved to death, he was beloved in communist circles as a writer of film criticism that charted the simultaneous evolution of formalism and socialism in cinema, widely read in both specialist magazines and worker newspapers. His death led to the formation of one of the first schools of cinema, the Harry Potamkin Film School at the Workers Film and Photo League, where his comrades Ralph Steiner, Lewis Jacobs and Jay Leyda taught.

In the mid-1920s, Potamkin was an acolyte of Pound and Eliot, a devoted poet working through the vortex of competing forms and ideologies that followed the challenge of Imagism. He was also a community-builder whose passions extended to the editing of little magazines and the committee work of American labour organizations. While likeminded poets were forming the Objectivist school, Potamkin moved toward the cinema, which he perceived as a new form of poetry. He would not pursue it as a maker, as acquaintances such as Blaise Cendrars and the French surrealists had; instead he set out on a new vocation as a critic of the cinema, among the first to regard it as a legitimate art form and afford it due seriousness. For Potamkin this was an art form in which the impulse of modern poetry, to explore new perceptions, was combined with the ambition of social revolution, to stir the common soul of man to justice.

Potamkin is a 16mm film, 67 minutes across two reels of equal length, made as some small reflection of Harry Alan Potamkin’s legacy. I describe this work as a film-biography, but it contains no context on Potamkin’s life, presents us with no images of Potamkin and responds a bit tangentially to his theories of cinema, through which he so clearly saw the flaws of an existing system and the brave directions it could move in to save its soul. And while there are no images of him, every image herein was a part of his experience of cinema.

This film-biography is made out of fragments of films that he reviewed—those still extant—to compose a singing out into the hereafter. These images are distressed through chemistry. The first reel is a broad survey of images, some of which bear correspondences to events in Potamkin’s life. Ivy Close, Marlene Dietrich and several other movie stars play themselves and their characters and also appear as surrogates for Potamkin’s wife Elizabeth. Werner Kraus, Dr. Caligari himself, appears as Kenneth Rexroth. The fever-struck face of Gustav Diessl, dying in a military camp in G.W. Pabst’s Westfront 1918, recurs as a surrogate for Potamkin on his deathbed. In a sequence drawn from Cecil B. DeMille’s This Day and Age (1933) an open grave, seen from the vantage point of a coffin lowered into the ground, becomes a tunnel endlessly resurfacing at the feet of a priest. The crowd from Oleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (1930) becomes the worst omen of all, a featureless chorus that rotates in the about-face of a soldier’s drill to signify structural shifts in the film.

The second reel features many variations on the Odessa steps of Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin. It plays as a shot list, isolated to a few frames per image. It plays backwards and forwards, and even alternates in both directions at the same time. And when at last it plays backward in full, the horror is impotent: trampling gives breath to the child. The bullet miraculously reforms the face. The Cossacks march backwards, retreating unseen into their nothing, the unfired rounds of their rifles restored to their menacing potential. Feet tread backward up the steps as the steps themselves collapse in a splintering emulsion. The carriage is set upright.


In my filmmaking, I have augmented traditional photochemical images with digital technology. I use digital tools in much the same way that I once used optical printers: to create superimpositions, to make time elastic, to crop, reframe and zoom within an image. In the early stages of my filmmaking, I would shoot material with a 16mm Bolex camera, process it through a commercial lab, then digitize and edit it before rephotographing it back to 16mm. This process allowed me to explore, among other things, intensities of colour as well as elasticity of form in both time and space. Sequences expanded and contracted like an accordion bellows and likewise did the frame itself, freed to flexible recomposition.

This early stage had allowed for maximal exploration of the capability of digital imaging to support the photochemical image, a topic that has bled into my work in film preservation. But my films were largely unconcerned with those plastic techniques that, through the history of experimental film, have been inflicted on the strip itself, for example, scratching and tearing film or chemically treating the film image to expose a material substructure. I moved in this direction in 2014 with Jenny Haniver, my first film to explore the potential of hand-processing (roughly dunking film in developer, bleach and fixer), as well as advanced photochemical techniques such as bleach etching and reticulation. Jenny Haniver assumed these strategies in acts of portraiture, allowing the sitting subject a compromised presence, the emulsion damaged, worn and lacerated.

I continued to explore the collision of this “hand-made” photochemical form and digital augmentation. In 2014, I began to acquire digital copies of every available film that Harry Alan Potamkin had written on. I didn't want to make a film that reflected his taste in cinema, or that took as its sources only his ideals, but which was drawn from his total experience of cinema, and of the world as reflected in cinema. I began to rephotograph scenes from these films, from a monitor to 16mm. I gained the noise of low-resolution video, through which I had first seen so many of these films as a child; my first education in cinema was through late-night lo-fi arthouse television broadcasts and VHS tapes borrowed from libraries. The films were then hand-processed using a bucket method—buckets of chemistry were laid out in the dark, the film moving from developer to water and on to either fix (to keep the image from vanishing in light) or bleach (to reverse the image from a negative to a positive). Roughly half of the film was developed as photo-negative and half as photo-positive, and subsequent chemical treatments affected those images in distinct ways. At this stage, the project involved roughly four hours of images; as my work continued into its more destructive stages, that material was whittled down by chance or selection.

Bleach etching, also known as mordançage, is the act of altering the film image using a bleach mixed from high-volume hydrogen peroxide, copper chloride and glacial acetic acid. The resulting solution is used as a bath in which emulsion softens, cracks and achieves a pronounced two-dimensionality. It often peels off the plastic base in curtains, what is referred to as veiling, the loosened emulsion drying in such a way that the image appears to have folded over itself. This technique can be used for precision work or it can be embraced by chance.

Reticulation is the process of breaking an image down into kernels of emulsion, revealing the underlying pattern of the film’s grain structure in such a way as to resemble an op-art pattern or a textile print. Unlike bleach etching, which has a tendency to disrupt the continuous structure of images, reticulation is a grand stylization that allows grains to animate the whole. Reticulation is typically achieved by moving processed film between boiling and freezing water baths. I refer to my approach as an emulsion melt, which is to only use boiling water until the emulsion is dripping off the film strip. The reticulation of grain structures remains, in part, but the overall effect is to create an illusion of melting contents: a face, a battlefield, a tall ship is stretched and smeared by the heat.

I consider these photochemical techniques to fall under the designation of décollage, a term coined by the German artist Wolf Vostell that describes an art of obstruction, tearing an image into fragments, making readymades and anti-collages out of lacerated posters. But there is one technique used extensively in Potamkin that is nearest to Vostell’s idea than the others, and that is the use of barriers—tape or oils—to selectively prevent household bleach from eating away at the image. The tape is cut into particular patterns and shapes and then applied to the emulsion-side of the film strip; the strip is then placed in a bucket of household bleach until all exposed emulsion is eaten away. In digital post-production, images can be imposed into the fissures formed by this bleach, where one may once have used an optical matte.

In the early decades of its evolution, video’s primary reimagining of reality was by forms of synthesis, to oscillate wildly in colour or texture or to bend the electrical signal into new shapes. Where film delivered a high detailed description of light, video could at best readily assume the metaphoric haze of memory in its description. Potamkin takes advantage of digital video’s ability to extend the film image into impossible territories, and through the course of this project my methods strayed willfully into the obsessive. The restructuring of the Odessa steps throughout the film’s second reel subverts the haiku computation of montage and demonstrates motif structures run amok. Like the motley crew of works that anticipate Potamkin—for example, Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1938), Charles Ridley’s Schichlegruber Doing the Lambeth Walk (1941), Bruce Conner’s Report (1967), Ken Jacobs’ Tom Tom the Piper’s Son (1969) or Jim Garrison’s frame-by-frame courtroom analysis of the Zapruder film (1969)—its acts of repurposing, fragmentation and reordering are as inexhaustible as a search for the nine billion names of God. By combining the gestural expressiveness of photochemical techniques with the ready structural elaboration of video, Potamkin pursues a hybrid of the legacy of poetic cinema and the open field of an emerging digital poetics.

I offer Potamkin at a time of widespread celebration of found materials in artists’ cinema. It took 50 years of cinema for the gesture to take shape, Cornell and Ridley as the first paired opposites of the practice, the psychic restructuring of Cornell against the incendiary lampoon of Ridley. This method had its rare (steadily increasing) protagonists in the years that followed, from the sardonic, semi-comic wave of Bruce Conner and Arthur Lipsett, through to the tangled, axis-twisting inquiries of Peter Tscherrasky, Craig Baldwin and Martin Arnold. But the found footage film has experienced an extraordinary explosion of activity in recent decades, struck between the Pop Art notion of appropriation as a Trojan horse and the lingering Dada impulse to the readymade and the psychic collage. One explanation for this is the ease of access that artists have to ephemeral films on video (via the Prelinger Archive); another is the reorienting of digital practice toward the citation and manipulation of film images.

It might be argued that found footage has achieved a new relevance as the age of film ends, as the material tradition of film is weathered into non-existence with the decline of labs and technical skills, as digital matures to absorb and extend the aesthetic forces that circulate within the film image. The film image becomes a relic, translated from the charnel house of cinema into the electromagnetic wave of the digital. In Potamkin, the image is aware of its historicity, that is, to both the history that it is citing (the Russian Revolution, the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, etc.) and as a construct of its own era, as a work of an evolving cinematic language; and yet it is not merely past, instead, it lives again as the present moment. The image is translated freely between film and digital, and in this process, it is renewed as the present moment. It is rearticulated as my own vision and it closes the distance between my experience and that of Harry Alan Potamkin.

Potamkin should not be mistaken for a paean to the death of film. This is a work about survival, resistance and the resilience of that redeeming light that manifests as cinema. This is not a declaration of misery and suffering but an exorcism and an exercise in the healing potential of cinema.


Les amours de la reine Elisabeth (Louis Mercanton, Henri Desfontaines, 1912)
Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914)
The Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915)
The Cheat (Cecil B. DeMille, 1915)
Male and Female (Cecil B. DeMille, 1919)
The Love Flower (D.W. Griffith, 1920)
Orphans of the Storm (D.W. Griffith, 1921)
La souriante Madame Beudet (Germaine Dulac, 1922)
One Exciting Night (D.W. Griffith, 1922)
La Roue (Abel Gance, 1923)
The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1923)
Coeur fidele (Jean Epstein, 1923)
The Covered Wagon (James Cruze, 1923)
Warning Shadows (Arthur Robison, 1923)
The Crazy Ray (René Clair, 1924)
Strike (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
The Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
Varieté (Ewald Andre Dupont, 1925)
The Sea Beast (Millard Webb, 1926)
The Scarlet Letter (Victor Sjostrom, 1926)
The Volga Boatman (Cecil B. DeMille, 1926)
Tartuffe (F.W. Murnau, 1926)
Mechanics of the Brain (Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1926)
Beau Geste (Herbert Brenon, 1926)
Poil de Carotte (Julien Duvivier, 1926)
Ménilmontant (Dimitri Kirsanoff, 1926)
Michel Strogoff (Viktor Tourjansky, 1926)
Secrets of a Soul (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1926)
Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
Underworld (Josef von Sternberg, 1927)
Two Arabian Knights (Lewis Milestone, 1927)
The End of St. Petersburg (Vsevolod Pudovkin, 1927)
Sunrise (F.W. Murnau, 1927)
Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni, 1927)
The Love of Jeanne Ney (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1927)
Abwege (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1928)
The Docks of New York (Josef von Sternberg, 1928)
Italian Straw Hat (René Clair, 1928)
Wedding March (Erich von Stroheim, 1928)
Sadie Thompson (Raoul Walsh, 1928)
White Shadows in the South Seas (Robert Flaherty and W.S. Van Dyke, 1928)
Le Diable au Coeur (Marcel L’Herbier, 1928)
The Trail of ’98 (Clarence Brown, 1928)
Verdun, Visions of History (Léon Poirier, 1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer, 1928)
The New Babylon (Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg, 1929)
Turksib (Viktor Alexandrovitsch Turin, 1929)
Taming of the Shrew (Sam Taylor, 1929)
Regen (Mannus Franken and Joris Ivens, 1929)
Piccadilly (E.A. Dupont, 1929)
Le Capitaine Fracasse (Alberto Cavalcanti and Henry Wulschleger, 1929)
Hallelujah (King Vidor, 1929)
Applause (Rouben Mamoulian, 1929)
The Big House (George W. Hill, 1930)
The Big Pond (Hobart Henley, 1930)
Billy the Kid (King Vidor, 1930)
Africa Speaks! (Walter Futter, 1930)
Earth (Alexander Dovzhenko, 1930)
Moby Dick (Lloyd Bacon, 1930)
Westfront 1918 (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1930)
Salt for Svanetia (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1930)
Transatlantic (William K. Howard, 1931)
Trader Horn (W.S. Van Dyke, 1931)
The Unholy Garden (George Fitzmaurice, 1931)
The Millionaire (John G. Adolfi, 1931)
The Bad Sister (Hobart Henley, 1931)
Tabu (F.W. Murnau, 1931)
Skippy (Norman Taurog, 1931)
Sporting Blood (Charles Brabin, 1931)
Arrowsmith (John Ford, 1931)
Bad Girl (Frank Borzage, 1931)
Dishonored (Josef von Sternberg, 1931)
An American Tragedy (Josef von Sternberg, 1931)
Ten Nights in a Barroom (William A. O’Connor, 1931)
Cimarron (Wesley Ruggles, 1931)
City Streets (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)
Phantom of Paris (John S. Robertson, 1931)
The Man Who Played God (John G. Adolfi, 1932)
The Match King (William Keighley and Howard Bretherton, 1932)
The Age of Consent (Gregory La Cava, 1932)
Silver Dollar (Alfred E. Green, 1932)
Blonde Venus (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)
American Madness (Frank Capra, 1932)
L’Atlantide (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1932)
Three on a Match (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)
Young America (Frank Borzage, 1932)
Washington Merry-Go-Round (James Cruze, 1932)
White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932)
Wild Boys of the Road (William Wellman, 1933)
This Day and Age (Cecil B. DeMille, 1933)
Blood Money (Rowland Brown, 1933)
Don Quichotte (Georg Wilhelm Pabst, 1933)

Tondal's Vision (2018)

For the first time since I finished Potamkin last year, I re-entered the darkroom to make a new film, again a long film, an adaptation of the twelfth-century religious text Visio Tnugdali, the protagonist's name translated variously as Tnugdalus, Tundale and Tondal. The premise of Tondal's Vision is recognizable as the template for Dante's Divine Comedy - the protagonist is given a tour of the afterlife - however here rather than the poet Virgil as a guide, Tondal has an archetypal angel, and Tondal is himself an archetype, a knight and noble who lives a sinful life and whose excesses instigate his journey by knocking him to the edge of death. The tour he is given is  a familiar lesson - ironic punishments await those who sin, one of medieval divinity's most perfect clichés.

I don't like didacticism in art but here are a couple of lessons that feature in this work: poetry is poison and even your angels will get you lost.

I don't like didacticism in art but here are a couple of lessons that feature in this work: poetry is poison and even your angels will get you lost.

I first encountered Tondal's Vision in Eileen Gardner's Visions of Heaven and Hell Before Dante, where I understood it simply as a fable. In the years since it took up root in me - I had read it before reading Dante - and so with each new understanding of Dante I arrived at, for instance, in reading La Vita Nuova, learning the roots of his self-consciousness and his implication of himself in literary history, I found it easier to understand Tondal as a raw source to be synthesized into a profound and personal truth. For this work I wanted to return to that primitive state of the fable, sifting through the cloak and rubble of synthesis, to vision-before-Dante. It is both fable and immram, a charting of otherworldly lands.

Last year, when Potamkin was just starting to pick up momentum after its screening in A Coruña, it was invited to screen at MUTA, a festival of found footage filmmaking in Peru. The organizers of MUTA gave the film a tremendous amount of support, and it led to this wonderful article that Ivonne Sheen wrote for Desistfilm. They had invited me to come for their second edition this year, but while timing did not work out, I decided to use the invitation as an occasion to make Tondal's Vision, which will premiere there in my place.

To start, I rephotographed Giuseppe de Liguoro's 1911 adaptation of Dante's Inferno. As the Inferno has an immediate structural similarity to Visio Tnugdali, it could serve as the image source. Once processed, I had roughly 2000' of 16mm film for chemical experimentation. I spent four days in August 2018 applying mordancage chemistry to the film. It is presently in the process of being digitized before further manipulation is done to it. The goal of this process is to create a largely abstract adaptation of Tondal's Vision, in colour, applied through tint, tone, paint and digital tools, that will draw from the colour palette of Simon Marmion's illuminations for the fifteenth-century manuscript, Les Visions du chevalier Tondal.


Following South: Madi Piller's Untitled, 1925

This essay first appeared in Shock, Fear and Belief: The Films and Videos of Madi Piller (Toronto: Pleasure Dome, 2016), edited by Mike Hoolboom and Clint Enns. Many thanks to Mike and Clint for the invitation.

Untitled, 1925 is a suite in three parts, through which filmmaker Madi Piller retraces a journey taken by her grandfather, Isaac Banarer, from his native Romania to Peru. Her tracing of this journey is not simply a physical re-enactment, a visit along a mapped route, but a confrontation with the nature of identity itself. Piller’s accompanying texts tell us that through the course of Banarer’s journey, he became a Peruvian citizen, a citizenship that later, with the coming of the Second World War, carried him and his family out of Europe to safety. With this suite, Piller confronts her identity, not by definitions of blood or sensibility, but as the result of a complex migration, an identity pitched between civilizations, each with their own deep roots and legacies. In a reductive sense the films mirror Banarer’s journey upon landing at the Pacific coast and travelling from Lima to Cusco in the southeast, and yet, each film is enhanced by Piller’s skill and poetic spirit to cast the journey elsewhere, into the metaphysical and memorial. Each film renews this task with narrations that ruminate on identity, time, and memory; and each has a distinct character in its imagery, in its interior relations of landscape to abstraction to figurative presence and absence. In this sense, the work is a travelogue in only the most porous sense, more memoir than diary, not a mere record, but a carefully deliberated reflection.

I. The Pacific Coast

As the suite begins, Piller speaks of mass migration, and of an uneasy relation between the city of Lima and the nature that surrounds it. The patterned rugs and decaying facades of the city — its ornate balconies, curtained windows, the huge steel doors of a church —  will soon stand in sympathy with other forces in the region, gulls and ducks performing their own rituals. Water careens down rocks, through a set of locks in a harbour, the largest steps. The city is seen through the steel bars of a railing. From a lookout point, the first sight of civilization: gulls and trawlers, a crowd of circling, bobbing ducks. The ducks spin and the gulls dive in mass unisons, amid all of these signs of man. And all of these signs point to absence. In the shattered brick walls and curtains rippled by wind, Piller betrays the city in repose, a city which has borne the brunt of transient visitors, a landing port for those journeying inland.

Piller’s hand holds a photo of Isaac Banarer against a backdrop of the docks, and this image gives way to fields, without a sign of human presence but by the signature of their tilling. The docks rise up over restless waters. When the image becomes interminably static, subtle variations of light bleed in. The soundtrack, of percussion with a falling decay, enhances the film’s spatial relations, the reverberations of each staccato beat becoming a call-and-response memory-game in itself: the strike, the resonance. As the film ends, on the shoreline, the gulls shake off water. As we leave this city it maintains its illusion of emptiness, like a painted landscape, and the clouded hills, the waves breaking on the rocks, persist in their remote continuity.

II. Port of Shadows

Piller’s introduction reminds us that this journey is a conflict between the romantic character of nature, and its unpredictable silences. The image finds us elsewhere along this journey: a restless sea, and wooden shacks erected over rocks and steep drops. The images glow unnaturally, assuming the perfect shape of something summoned out of the unconscious — water on a rocky shoreline, an image of Isaac Banarer, flags billowing in the wind. The images are flattened with a milky grey light, suddenly shifting to a sharp contrast of white and black. Rails are laid across an unsteady ground, disparate to the more traditional Andean pathways, built over time by the migration patterns of man and beast. The history of the land is etched upon its rocks. Silhouettes of buildings reveal a style that speaks as near to cathedral tradition as it does to the electric fantasy of the twentieth century, elaborated in bulbous poles.

Photographs show the stately dress of stadium entertainment, antique and distant. A boxing bout plays out in the stagger of animation: this must be, or must be a substitute for, Isaac Banarer’s Peruvian boxing match. Bowed music comes in short bursts against the bleating of children and animals. Speech varies in tempo and volume as it plays against the restless noise of the crowd. A pan along stones gives way to a pan of market stalls, each line again glowing at its edges. At this film’s outset, having travelled inland, Piller has turned to the stone to reveal time itself; it has given her only perceptual and sensual mysteries. The image has become stone-like by its silver visions; as a result, it has assumed these enigmas.

III. Everything remains the same

Piller’s narration has shifted from reflection to frank yearning, for a life of rich and earnest perception. When the image arrives, it is of the sea, so still that grains and specs of light show more movement than its waves. As the waves become agitated, the sky darkens. In a park, light bleeds down through trees, as Piller manipulates the aperture, giving us only glimpses of the full scene. This image is reduced further, to vibrant white lines, streaking horizontally in movement, that suggest again that electric century, like the staggered time of a tape rewinding. As in the suite’s earlier parts, the landscape is bereft of human presence save for that of Piller, behind the camera, and these compositions are stretching to a vast scale. The landscape takes on qualities of painterly brushstrokes. There is a contrast between ashen vapour and fog against the mountain ranges, and along the mountains stand preserved ruins of the Inca. This atmosphere achieves a grace against the coarseness of the land. The scale becomes intimate again as Piller admires the stalks of wet flowers, and blades of grass.

We are returned to the present as children play soccer under the windows of little shops and homes. People walk through the stone streets and steps of the densely built city of Cusco. Chickens and ducks are held in a pen, and by a revolutionary sympathy, the film cuts from the caged animals to survey an Indigenismo march, quickly passing over the faces of many indigenous Peruvians in lineups, and then, slowing to hold still on the faces of individual men and women, settling on the face of a child before shifting back into timed exposures.

A man makes bricks, densely packing wet cement into wooden molds, and a woman picks mushrooms on a hillside, daily labours that see their continuity in an entrenched tradition and skillset. An inland reservoir, packed on all sides by steep stone drops, reminds us as we approach the end of this journey of not only the tremendous beauty of the Peru, but the menace of earthly things, the menace of those geographic forms by which our identities have been historically cast. An arena, arranged for la Tauromaquia, has its seats designated and divided by hand-painted numbers and lines, each level extending in a circle around the centre. It has become the measured schedule of an immense timepiece, that summons pilgrims to gather around rebellions & main events.

Stephen Broomer, November 2016

Sabrina Ratté: Surfaces in Space

This essay on Sabrina Ratté was first published in BlackFlash Magazine.

Since the advent of the Portapak video recorder in the 1960s, the tools for video have been increasingly accessible to artists. The images taken by early video equipment were markedly imperfect; faint and ghostly records of flat grey forms. New movements were pushing toward conceptual and performative art, and many artists would use video as a tool to bear witness to, and give evidence of, this newly evanescent art.

In contrast to the documental use of video, pioneering video artists such as Nam June Paik and Steina and Woody Vasulka would alter their images with synthesizers, shedding the documental act to reveal an electronic signal prone to beautiful abstractions—a signal that was malleable and might be stretched and distorted to reveal further dimensions buried within the flattening plane of the video frame. But video technology evolved toward a finer approximation of conventional realism, with analogue giving way to digital and tape formats giving way to memory cards and higher resolutions.

In the present, the documentary tradition continues alongside a range of other styles. Artists concerned with the dominant aesthetic language of filmmaking are demonstrating wit by their use of digital editing and effects. Others are acclimating to the newest iterations of high-resolution video by pushing the boundaries of its containers, as with data-moshing, where compression artifacts are welcomed as signs of video’s material interior. Still other artists are finding inclusive directions that parcel and reconcile the analogue and digital processes of video and computer art.

Though working in a climate of diverse concepts and forms, Montréal artist Sabrina Ratté is a unique figure. Her work is deeply aware of its historical roots in video and computer art, yet she has built a highly individual aesthetic on the themes of architecture and landscape, and on a collision of analogue and digital signals. For Ratté, the video synthesizer—so central to her predecessors—remains an essential tool that she combines with its descendent digital effects to cause shapes and lines to turn and bow on their axes.

Video, taken as either a document or generated image, is drawn by such synthesis into a realm of spontaneous transformation; a video image that can be rearranged in time. These processes break the existing signal down into components with which to improvise. That improvisation is at the core of Ratté’s art, whether her source material is the recorded video or photograph or an electronically generated environment, and whether her work manifests as single-channel video projection, installation, or audio-visual performance.

Ratté first began her work in moving images while pursuing her BFA at Concordia University in Montréal, where she worked with Super 8mm and 16mm film. It was not until 2010 that Ratté’s exploration of video began in earnest. Her first works include L’entre-deux (2010) in which video had not yet been synthesized out of the realm of realism. The resulting work bears a certain resemblance to the psychodrama tradition in experimental film.

In the years since, Ratté has produced a vast and rapidly growing body of work increasingly concerned with the generation of a digital environment contrived from reality, but distinctly unreal. In addition to her single-channel videos and installations, Ratté has made music videos with Boxcutter, Cooly G, Tim Hecker, Plaid and others, and performs in live collaborations with musician Roger Tellier-Craig under the name Le Révélateur. In addition to this collaboration, Tellier-Craig has also scored many of Ratté’s films.

Ratté’s mature video work began with Transit (2011) in which, according to the artist, “an illuminated map of Paris becomes a landscape.” This source is indistinct, and from its first instant the resulting image (even without the aid of this note) resembles a horizontal landscape more than a topography, broken and recomposed by horizontal bars that part from the centre of the image to reveal new iterations beneath. Triangular wipes and approaching “zooming” interior frames later complement these transitions.

She followed this with Station Balnéaire (2011) in which scenes taken along Italy’s Almafi Coast are subject to video feedback that draws perfect, stylized forms over the subjects and emits a colour cast that spans from neon to the cosmic and infernal. The images are alternately refined and coarse in line, and intermittently, the image pauses and a scanline comes down from the top of the frame to serve as an erasure that exorcises the horizon for her next sequence.

These videos establish not only the artist’s preoccupation with environment and vista, but also the ways in which her interference in the image is itself architectural, reimagining the signal as a cavern navigated by digital transitions and the echoes of video feedback.

Activated Memory I and II (2011) follow in the same visual order. In Activated Memory I, a still and translucent wilderness is seen first on the walls of a rotating cube. Eventually, the eye enters the cube, and the frame begins to pan to the right, fractured by glowing bars of feedback. A black monolith arrives, multiplies and departs as an echoing corridor of light gradually punctures the wilderness like a bellows. Ratté uses this feedback to construct standing forms in serene, green fields. Those fields become increasingly closed and symmetrical. In Activated Memory II, Ratté takes a building as her subject, a vertex of its roof entangled with its seemingly endless doubles, panning through one another. As feedback introduces a new range of neon colours, the building’s orientation is repositioned so that it enters the frame from all directions, its architecture translated onto conflicting, warping planes.


The “Experiment” series (2012) is a quintet of video feedback and synthesis studies in which solid colours interact with faint and ambiguous traces of images, cleared frequently by digital transitions that eclipse and enfold them, each component part a work of video plastique unified by seamless transitions. These techniques persist in Aurae (2012), in which Ratté broadcasts an environment by manipulating the signal of a single photograph. Her frame drifts around geometric forms, turning the suspended instant of her source photograph into a thorough study of forms that suggest an art deco edifice. Aurae clarifies the role of frontal perspective in Ratté’s work. By her debts to architecture, these images become the reredos behind an altar, glimpsed in fragments, curved by her transmissions and gilded by the glow of the signal.

The project of environment building first realized in Ratté’s Activated Memory works,continues in The Land Behind (2013). In a generated environment, the frame is host to a vanishing horizon populated by jutting, triangular forms. As the frame begins to track forward toward the vanishing point and with no apparent destination, it is derailed by continuous wipes and grid forms that eclipse or reset the frame. These interruptions form a cosmic rhythm and contain fragments of the same forward-tracking gesture.


Ratté would again use the three-dimensional animated environment at length in Visites Possibles (2014) a study of a large and modular generated space populated by moving panels. The frame pans and occasionally stalls to witness apparitions of video feedback, porous in contrast to the geometric refinement of the space.

In her most recent work, Ratté has used these generated environments to venture into increasingly unrealistic territory. The realist referents that passed through Activated Memory are absent from works such as Portals (2014) and the “Sightings” series (2014). In Portals, pale bars infringe on one another, recalling the pure forms of Plasticien painting as they move in time to the sounds of Tellier- Craig’s synthesizer. The resulting work is one of pure geometric abstraction. The extension and retraction of these pale lines is made cosmic by the score of percussive, electronic tones that emulate industrial- mechanical sounds. As this gives way to overlapping forms, a range of new and bright colours are introduced and the image stutters to a flickering halt.


In further resistance to realism, the “Sightings” series is comprised of three parts. In Littoral Zones, doors manifest to vibrate, multiply, and shift along a horizontal axis, flickering in their passage from left to right. In Landfall, striped parallelograms become launchpads, pyramids, and conductors of light distortions in an environment without a horizon but dominated by a glaring light. Finally, in Habitat, this same environment is muted, yellow-tinted and intermittently concealed behind vertical lines, panning steadily to the right and culminating in a series of downpours of video noise that perfect the illusion of water.

These “Sightings” are to date the apotheosis of Ratté’s explorations of video as environment, having stripped away the crowding movements of her earlier work. Architecture and landscape had served as themes, as literal presence and vista, and as highly symbolic allegories. While their influence as perspectival modes remain cast over the work, Ratté now constructs her environments as acts of pure invention freed from the bonds of realism. These videos are undeniably of architecture and landscape, but they dwell in the house of the Signal to map the interior of video itself.

Willie Varela: The World in the Window

This text was originally written to accompany a survey of Willie's work staged at REDCAT in Los Angeles last summer. It was printed in the new issue of UZAK, in a dossier edited by Valentina Dell'Aquila, alongside writings by Mariangela Sansone, Michael Sicinski, Dorottya Szalay and Brian Wilson. The dossier was published on Willie's 68th birthday. He writes me from El Paso to say that 2018 will be the year of new work. For us both, I hope, my friend.


The films and videos of Willie Varela have in the past reflected the artist’s terror and outrage. Since the beginning, Varela’s work has dealt in scenes of daily life (in El Paso and San Francisco), an autobiographical sensibility (which casts him, like so many artists, under the sign of a bleeding Christ), and a plastic manipulation, through cinematography and editing, that aspires to abstraction. While these characteristics of Varela’s work have often been set to the service of love, charity and the noble aspiration of trading visions and experiences, they are also marked by a pageant of death, a legacy of wounds, and a fury, provoked by injustice and the devaluation of human life and perception.

This Burning World (2004) is Varela’s response to, among other things, the 9/11 terror attacks. But put more broadly, it is a vision of an ossifying global society, driven toward death, terrorism, environmental destruction, aspiring toward the end of life on earth. Varela gathers images that reflect mortality—graphic medical procedures, pornography, news images of the towers falling. The world that he shows is one of greed and death; there is no reprieve. This stance is intensified by the work’s dual screens, a diptych of onrushing horrors.

Synthesized televisual signals, sometimes forming symmetries, combine with hand-painted film strips, painted a messy, bloody red, to form a dominant theme. Against this, scenes of professional wrestling, the fated Kennedy motorcade, Ku Klux Klan rallies, an invasive eye operation, and planes colliding with the World Trade Center, come to embody the title, a burning world of miseries, all the worst of humanity. Late in the video we are confronted with the word ‘redemption’, cast in the commercial lettering of a storefront name; even redemption has been copyrighted.

This Burning World is largely unified with Varela’s other work in video—his rhythms stagger as if a series of still images, and his manipulation of contrast emphasize the plastic qualities of digital renderings of light. These acts reflect Varela’s embrace of the elasticity of video time, which can stretch in infinitesimal ways but which soon no longer resembles an imitation of life; and of the bleed of video light, which is distinct in its flatness, in its natural consonance with commercial images. The work rejects depth, in part because it has been assembled out of surface-deep images, rephotography and ready symbols; but it also rejects depth in such a way that the dual screens become inflexible, so that the video images assume the impenetrable bas-relief of stone carvings.

Varela’s use of the diptych form suggests many things: a Warholian endorsement of dispersed attention, a citation to image-in-image news media, an act of forced similitude. Unlike Warhol’s treatment of the diptych, Varela is not ambivalent to these images, which shift between personal observation, archival materials, commercial and news images, all cited to state an unambiguous outrage. In practice, the dual screen manifests as polyphony, occasionally receding into pure abstraction, and the calming effect of these abstract images—of pure white and blue symmetries, or of light patterns and refractions, or even just a pulsing screen—are countered by our confrontation with scenes that devalue life and perception. But to counter is not necessarily the intention in joining these screens; this is not a game of contrasts between rich valuations of human perception and scenes of despair. Instead, the whole of it is weighted with heavy omens, that this age of cruelty and menace is still only in its infancy.

Codes for North (2017) -- Introduction: The Invention of Difficulty (excerpt)

Codes for North: Foundations of the Canadian Avant-Garde Film is the result of a decade of engagement with the work of Jack Chambers, Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland. The bulk of this work was the basis of my doctoral dissertation in 2015. The book was published by the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre in December 2017 to mark their 50th anniversary. It is now available for order from the CFMDC. Below is an excerpt from the book's introduction, which deals with the evolution of difficult forms in the transit between medieval and modern art.

The Map of Hell , Sandro Botticelli, c. 1485.

The Map of Hell, Sandro Botticelli, c. 1485.


The Invention of Difficulty

Difficult aesthetics cannot be said to have a fixed point of origin, an hour of invention, much less to have entered the world as a symptom of the modern era. A long-advancing impulse toward difficult forms in art conspired with the epistemological transformations of the post-Victorian era to bring us into the modern, to create a difficult modern art, an art that is a contest of complex pleasures. Difficulty evolved in tandem with modernism, a radical break from the past that simultaneously bound itself to that past. To map the evolution of difficult art is to map the precursors of modernism.
    Difficult aesthetics have their origins in medieval and renaissance literature, from the pantheistic allegories, self-reflexivity and vernacular of Dante Aligheri’s Divine Comedy (1321), to the intertextual and metatheatrical strategies of Miguel De Cervantes’s Don Quixote (1605).(1)  In the visual arts, a primitive difficulty begins in the telltale emblems of painted saints, for example, in the cross, skull, Bible and lion that indicate St. Jerome even as other aspects of his appearance change to reflect the era of that representation. This encyclopedia of symbols signalled the world as the text of God. Slowly we would come to engage the perceptual difficulties of dynamism and perspective, but difficult aesthetics began from an understanding of the work of art as a container into which one could collapse the world into symbol and allegory. When the Moderns arrived, they were not only responding to political and social transformations and to the new and different experiences, sensations and visions that came with the industrial age, but also to a rare urge that runs through the history of cultural production, to “bring light to bear upon a dark age.”(2)  Their work emerged out of a heritage of paintings and texts that employ self-conscious devices, texts that are steeped in obscurities, ontological barriers, slang, complex programmes, iconography and ambiguities. These texts necessitate interpreters whose task is seemingly infinite, toiling in the total library of a deep history. This concept for literature finds its apotheosis in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), its world constricted and magnified, detailed to minutiae, the tiniest detail rich with ambiguous meaning, yet still by its roots in Homer a cosmic odyssey; and in Ezra Pound’s The Cantos (1915–1962), a text that integrated many languages and Chinese logograms, a text of sudden allusion without transition, holding to its own mysterious logic and its oracular rhetorical strategies, a text under endless construction terminating only with the life of the author. In 1891, the poet Stephane Mallarmé observed that, “everything in the world exists to end up in a book.”(3)  Such books-to-end-all-books, books to contain all knowledge, all insight, all experience, became the mission of twentieth-century modernist literature. Those who set themselves to the task of this writing–Joyce and Pound foremost–were following in a tradition older than Mallarmé, a tradition passed across disciplines in rare, visionary works that had heralded the modern. The makers of this art-to-end-all-art would produce works that were conscious of their own mediation of reality, that would contain not only a vastness of experience and information, but which would also have inbuilt obstacles. These works would be fortified against ready understanding, posing challenges that would involve the reader in the construction of meaning. 

Las Meninas , Diego Velázquez, 1656

Las Meninas, Diego Velázquez, 1656

    All schools of painting have codes. Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), a painting of perspectival enigmas, contains at once a self-portrait of the artist at work, a royal portrait seen in a reflection, a high-ceilinged room decorated with paintings and mirrors, and the titular subject of the painting, the maids of honour and other members of the royal entourage as they attend to the young Margaret Theresa of Spain.(4)  Michel Foucault wrote that Las Meninas was the midpoint between the classical and the modern, that within it “representation, freed finally from the relation that was impeding it, can offer itself as representation in its pure form,” and yet even freed, that pure representation had a history embedded in it.(5)  The painting is simultaneously an erasure and a container of its world and its predecessors, recalling Frederick Karl’s thesis that modernism sought “to capture the present while denying the past, and yet to use every aspect of the past to develop ideas of presentness.”(6)  The paintings that hang on the walls are scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, first painted by Peter Paul Rubens, copied by Velázquez’s son-in-law and assistant Juan del Mazo. Las Meninas therefore contains Velázquez’s representation of Mazo’s copies of Rubens’ paintings. By this mimetic echo, by its inventory of perspectives, by its metatheatrical staging, Las Meninas foretells the impulse in modern art to subsume the world.(7) The veil between representation and the perceptual experience of reality was under duress in the Baroque paintings of Velázquez and his contemporaries, for example, in Luca Giordano’s Rubens painting the Allegory of Peace (1660). Giordano, with coexisting planes and perspectives, depicts Rubens sitting in the world of his own paintings, selecting a detail from the limitless universe of his fantasy, a fantasy of luminous and divine erotomania. These painters knew the traps of vision. Their labours would cause painting to break from the restrictions of realist representation. 

Rubens painting the Allegory of Peace , Luca Giordano c. 1660.

Rubens painting the Allegory of Peace, Luca Giordano c. 1660.

    In the twentieth century, crises of perspective and of the subject would become the governing theme in art. But in the decades leading up to the twentieth century, a crisis of vision would already begin to play out, in the shift away from naturalism and toward abstraction. Photography displaced the value of realism in painting. From the photograph’s evolution beginning in the 1840s, through to its assumption as the essential medium of realist representation, painters gradually turned their attention to the expression of interior experience. The photograph, as a tool for precise documentation, gave form to a scientific record of reality. This not only freed painters to develop representations of inner life, but also gave rise to art that engaged with a scientific understanding of optics.(8)  The divisionism and pointillism of Paul Signac and Georges Seurat is a sea change in the formal representation of vision in painting, not as concerns perspective or symbol, but in its relation to the physics of vision. By choosing as his subject A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte (1884), Seurat remained connected to the tradition of conventional representation, a tradition dominated by the ready pleasures of naturalism and realist figuration. The method of the painting held to realism, but the divisionist form suggests the composition of photographic vision, understood as the granular makeup of the photograph, a complex mimesis arising from a scientific knowledge of perception; this form extends even to the frame, now realized as simply a margin of the whole, as the divisionist pattern continues outwards, extending the composition to the limits of the art object.(9)  The divisionist painter breaks down his scene into granular fragments that reassemble into representation. Even this post-Impressionism, with its ostensible ties to the tradition of realist depiction, was embracing a coming fragmentation and recombination of vision, a departure from classical ideas of time, space and sight. The modern movements of the early twentieth century would see a further dispensation with realism, a detachment of form from representation, toward freer, improvisatory, gestural, content- and form-dense work. The perceptual possibilities of such work would further foster resistance to realist conventions.(10)

Portrait of Félix Féneon , Paul Signac, 1890.

Portrait of Félix Féneon, Paul Signac, 1890.

    Visual art pressed forward through the fragmentation of Italian Futurism, the prismatic imagination of analytic and synthetic Cubism, and the anti-art of Dada. This series of movements showed a pronounced resistance to realism. Futurism had prefigured the fragmented vision that, in Cubism, pushed toward a fuller abstraction. Cubism in turn partly prefigured Dada, in its plastic aspects: the affixing of paper fragments directly to the canvas foreshadowed Dada collage, but to a vastly different end. Dada was, by Hans Richter’s account, “anti-art,” anti-aesthetic, anti-tradition, a rage against the demoralization of man in the shadow of progress. Dada was ushered in with the Great War and lasted from roughly 1915 to 1924, beginning in Zürich and spreading out to other European territories and to America. It was an ideology arising out of the disgust that its artists and poets felt in the course of the War, an outraged response to the fatal logic of bourgeois capitalist society. It was a rejection of the cold reason and strategy that had choked men with chlorine on the front. Against the scale and horror of the War, it was an embrace of the irrational, the intuitive, and, despite the weight of its protest, the comic. These themes took form in the performances and poetry of Tristan Tzara, the collages of Hannah Höch and the sound poetry of Kurt Schwitters. Form, even photorealist form, took on an abstract dimension in the associative collage of Dada. The art object, increasingly abstracted since the 1880s, had steadily divorced from realist representation. Through Dada, art would reconnect with a perceptual reality, in the tremors of hearing, in the disfigurative collage. The world of art was no longer slave to the uncanny pleasures of realist rendering; real things, drawn out of the everyday, could now be declared art, and in that declaration the purity of their forms would take on manifold meanings. Dada’s subversion of the everyday is most prevalent in Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, for instance, Fountain (1917), an ordinary object, a urinal, signed and declared as art. Against this reality, an embattled realism could not stand. 

Bouquet of Eyes , Hannah Höch, 1930

Bouquet of Eyes, Hannah Höch, 1930

    Dada was a prelude to the postmodern, to the Neo-Dada, Pop Art and Situationist movements, but its immediate descendent and the recipient of its anti-realist tendencies was Surrealism.(11)  Surrealism emerged with the decline of Dada, formalized in André Breton’s 1924 manifesto, which stated its intention “to resolve the previously contradictory conditions of dream and reality.”(12)  The nonsense of Dada extended here into an embrace of the sublime, the surprise, by logic of dreaming; it was an embrace of the processes of the unconscious, of automatism as a process to bring the maker and the viewer closer to the realities of perception, and to assemble new unities out of the discontinuities of perceptual experience. Automatism joined creative action to the crude structures of the subconscious, of the unguided hand. In Surrealist painting, familiar forms and figuration would be compromised by dream and fantasy, for example in the automatic drawings of André Masson, whose spontaneous webs of pen strokes suggest the reordering of a conventional subject; in the paintings of René Magritte, where hats rest on phantom heads; those of Salvador Dalí, where temporal and spatial distortions of his subjects bely a bridge between dream and reality; or in the boxed assemblages of the American Surrealist Joseph Cornell, in which commonplace objects gathered from thrift stores form lyrical and nostalgic juxtapositions. This movement would last until the Second World War and the rise of Nazism displaced a great number of European artists.(13)

Abraham , Barnett Newman, 1949.

Abraham, Barnett Newman, 1949.

    With the end of the Second World War, the American Abstract Expressionist movement took up the modern impulse against realism. A movement primarily based in New York City, Abstract Expressionism signalled the end of common figuration, as individual expression became dominant in the act of painting. Paint would be applied for expressive purpose, for its raw colours and textures, and artists would master new forms of craftsmanship based in a comprehensive knowledge of their materials and the application of that knowledge to spontaneous forms. Such craftsmanship might appear ingenuous to those entrenched in more traditional schools. Theme and symbol remained in the programme of works such as Robert Motherwell’s Elegies to the Spanish Republic (1948–1991) and Barnett Newman’s Abraham (1949), but form, having long abandoned the representational aspects of earlier modern movements, was becoming increasingly radicalized. The great envoy of Abstract Expressionism was the critic Clement Greenberg. For Greenberg, modernism had established the autonomous expression, which in turn created a pure art, freed from the traps of representation to pursue its own agenda. Raw material engagement was the path of bare expression. External influence was eliminated, privileging the elements of picture plane, frame, depth, consistency and the application of paint and other materials to the canvas. Abstract Expressionism aspired toward a confrontation with pure form. Vision would have to surrender its search for reality in art, to give itself over to form, mechanism and pluralism. 

Estate , Robert Rauschenberg, 1963

Estate, Robert Rauschenberg, 1963

    Difficulty had reached a new height in Abstract Expressionism, for the paintings placed a direct demand on the viewer’s perceptual faculties, suspending their search for referent and symbol.(14)  Abstract Expressionism was soon followed with post-painterly abstraction. The dense surfaces of Abstract Expressionist paintings were a site of obscurity; by contrast, post-painterly abstractionist paintings achieved a greater clarity in precision of paint application, and that clarity was simply an evolution and refinement of that obscurity. Post-painterly abstraction went further than abstract expressionism in abandoning the link between art and reality, minimizing the marks of its own construction. Coming in close step with post-painterly abstraction, and to a vastly different end, was Neo-Dada, which drew from the methods and spirit of the Dada movement, for example, in the tool sculptures of Jim Dine and the collage and sculptural works of Robert Rauschenberg. In Neo-Dada, the execution and labour of the work itself was more important than its concept, its objecthood suspended beyond the contemplation and emotion of process. In the branch of Neo-Dada that became Pop Art, painters and sculptors reclaimed the realist project, with a newly pliable line between conceptualism and formalism. For Andy Warhol, contemporary iconography, in the form of mass media images, was elevated to the order of the empty signifier, against interpretation. In his photorealist canvases, of repeating images of Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, the repetition itself became iconic, the granules of halftone newsprint and Polaroid colour palettes casting these icons as an echo of an echo, the tireless gesture of post-modernity.(15)  The absurdist soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg, such as Floor Cone (1962), undermined the familiar, a continuity of Marcel Duchamp’s readymades. For artists such as Warhol, Oldenburg and Jasper Johns (who had come through the American Neo-Dada), Pop Art was as much a reaction to realism as it was to abstraction, and its confrontation repurposed the modes of Dada, and the power of its subjects, into a realm of apathy and indifference.(16)  Its surfaces were impenetrable, and in it, mimetic realism was replaced by the reality of the mass media cliché. 
    Conceptual and perceptual challenges pervaded modern art movements, from the fragmentation of Cubism and Futurism, to the ineffable power of Abstract Expressionism, to the allegorical indirection of Pop Art.(17)  All were engaged in a resistance of realism. This project was not restricted to the visual arts, but was also at the core of modern and post-modern literature and music, from the opaque poetry of John Ashbery to the dissonance and spatial fragmentation of Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz (1961). The modern, in response to the age of enlightenment, introduced into culture forms of knowledge and art that are full of restrictions and barriers. “In modernity,” Maurice Merleau-Ponty wrote, “we have a representation of the world which excludes neither fissures nor lacunae, a form of action which is unsure of itself, or, at any rate, no longer blithely assumes it can obtain universal assent.”(18)  In modern art, the art object itself critiques and departs from representation. It is less assured of the definitive and singular meaning, less assured of the value of meaning, less concerned with speaking directly. By the 1960s, modern difficulties had reached a point of such diversity that the boundaries of art were in continuous development. Even the densest of difficult forms could lie ahead, in a radical domain of the arts that was ever opening to new expressions. To others, aesthetic difficulties would remain a point of contention, the product of a cloistered elite, to be defeated with the insurgence of an all-accessible realism. 


  1. A book of particular value to the study of difficulty in literature, specific to Dante, is James Wilhelm’s Il Miglior Fabbro: The Cult of the Difficult in Daniel, Dante, and Pound (Orono: National Poetry Foundation, 1982). Wilhelm explores the deeper motivations that guide difficult periods in literature and his argument pivots on the notion that difficulty “does not necessarily arise in every period of literary history,” but emerges primarily in the medieval and the modern. It is a great challenge to locate difficult forms in Romantic and Victorian art and literature to bridge the medieval and the modern, but my position diverges from Wilhelm’s in that I believe Dante tested the boundaries of medieval thought even as he shaped it, and so is among the earliest emissaries of the modern.

  2. Frederick R. Karl, Modern and Modernism: The Sovereignty of the Artist 1885–1925 (New York: Atheneum, 1985), 9. Karl characterizes this notion, of modern thought as light and traditional thought as darkness, as “an unjust frame of reference which (...) enabled Modernists to justify their work.” It simultaneously denigrates the past (the dark age) and establishes that past as the base material of cultural production (light as illumination of a dark age).

  3. Mallarmé’s original remark, “Le monde est fait pour aboutir dans à un beau Livre,” given in an interview with Jules Huret (Revue Blanche, 1891), is translated as the common expression given here. A fuller account of Mallarmé’s intended meaning, and his later modulations of this statement, is offered by Roger Pearson in his Mallarmé and Circumstance: The Translation of Silence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004): that the book is a “human accessory [waiting] to serve its purpose as an ‘instrument spirituel’”, a book an assemblage of the component parts of a global totality, and that Mallarmé’s remark is not the “Wildean claim that the purpose of life is to be turned into (literary) art,” but rather a neutral expression of the relationship between words and things (Pearson, 255). The most comprehensive discussion of Mallarmé’s difficult aesthetic strategies is in Malcolm Bowie’s Mallarmé and the Art of Being Difficult (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), which, as with other studies of difficulty, focuses on the audience as decoder of complex texts.

  4. When he first encountered Las Meninas, the painter Luca Giordano is said to have declared it the “theology of painting.” Antonio Palomino, who recorded this remark, explained it as an expression of praise: that this work is to painting what theology is to ‘lesser’ branches of knowledge. This is a reductive interpretation of this statement. The work contains, as did Giordano’s own work that followed it, a totality of vision, a representation of every possible hierarchy, aligning its governing perspective with the eyes of the royal subject, a confluence of social and aesthetic hierarchies. This work was the theology of painting for it was an enclosed visual system, a realization of the potential of art to vanish into itself.

  5. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archeology of Human Sciences (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), 16.

  6. Frederick R. Karl, Modern and Modernism: The Sovereignty of the Artist 1885–1925 (New York: Atheneum, 1985), 13.

  7. The composition of Las Meninas has also become an iconic tableau, repeated through the history of art. It inspired works by Goya, Salvador Dalí, Richard Hamilton and perhaps most famously a Picasso series of 58 interpretations (1957).

  8. The junction of the science of vision and post-Impressionist painting is explored in José A. Argüelles’s study of Charles Henry, a French librarian who conceived of the doctrine of the psychophysical in the age of post-Impressionism. His was a pursuit of a harmony beyond symbolism, a harmony between scientific knowledge and the expression of interior experience through art. For further information, see Charles Henry and the Formation of a Psychophysical Aesthetic (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972).

  9. With Evening, Honfleur (1886), Seurat again painted the frame, again penetrating the very boundaries of painting that separate representation from reality. This act forces the eye to seek continuity between Seurat’s divisionist pattern on the frame and the ends of his exposed canvas, as if the scene that he depicts will pass out of art and into reality. In A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grand Jatte, there was such continuity. But two years later, with Evening, Honfleur, the pattern of the frame is fully abstract. It resists continuing the scene from the canvas and does not extend that scene to the limits of its objecthood. By doing so it sets an impasse between reality and its representation.

  10. This is not to say that photography would remain a slave to scientific observation; on the contrary, the desire amongst visual artists to explore interior experience would soon be extended to photography, and as photography developed as an art form, it too would engage a resistance to realism.

  11. Surrealists, on an individual basis, employed sources such as Symbolist literature and painting, itself an important rejection of naturalism and realism in painting.

  12. André Breton, “Manifesto of Surrealism,” (1924) republished in Breton, Manifestoes of Surrealism, translated by Richard Seaver and Helen R. Lane (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1969).

  13. Surrealist Antonin Artaud, conceptual architect of the Theatre of Cruelty, once called rational discourse a field of “falsehood and illusion.” His work extends the resistance to realist representation and its basis in the rational. For Surrealists, the rational discourse of politics, like the rational discourse of pre-modern movements, was a disconnection from reality.

  14. This is not true of all Abstract Expressionist paintings; while the search may have been suspended, there was still symbolic and referential intention. Consider Motherwell’s Elegies for the Spanish Republic; the artist has described the oval black forms that dominate the canvas as an invocation of bull testicles.

  15. Warhol did not confine this strategy to his iconographic paintings; he did the same in Birmingham Race Riot (1964), a work that, like his celebrity paintings, and despite the apparent social meanings conferred on its subject, held no inherent social ideology.

  16. In Donald Kuspit, “Pop Art: A Reactionary Realism,” (Art Journal, Fall 1976), Kuspit argues that Pop Art–specifically the art of James Rosenquist, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol–endorsed the mass media clichés that dominated their work, that they became “part of that organization of optimism so essential to consumer capitalist society, and had nothing to do with the derision of that society socialists imagined they saw in it” (38).

  17. Other modern and post-modern movements excluded from this cursory introduction to difficulty, such as Fauvism, Suprematism, Fluxus, Minimalism, the particularities of Orphic Cubism, and so on, are not irrelevant to this discussion. I have elected to focus on only one strata of this evolution, and even then, there are admitted limitations to this line.

  18. Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The World of Perception (New York: Routledge, 2004), 106.

Throwing Voices: Madi Piller and John Straiton

This essay first appeared in Shock, Fear and Belief: The Films and Videos of Madi Piller (Toronto: Pleasure Dome, 2016), edited by Mike Hoolboom and Clint Enns. Many thanks to Mike and Clint for the invitation, which gave me an opportunity to acknowledge one of the most fascinating, passionate forces for a vital local cinema in my hometown, Madi Piller. On the occasion of the screening of her 2010 documentary on filmmaker John Straiton and a partial retrospective of Straiton's own work (January 18 at PIX Film Gallery), here is one of two essays I contributed to that book, this one focusing on the exchange between Piller and Straiton.


Throwing Voices: Madi Piller and John Straiton

The amateur filmmaker, working from passion and pleasure, with a firsthand view of strip and sequence, becomes aware — often more urgently than professionalized filmmakers — of the frame itself, how each image is indebted to its adjoining frames, and what rhythm the sequence is giving to the subject as each frame recedes. Those who work a frame at a time, or in fractional sets of frames, develop an enhanced sense of working in time. Handling the filmstrip confronts us with past, present, and future. But a reel of film is increasingly past, having been rung out of its creative potential with each new step of shooting, processing, editing. Each step has rendered it more and more a creation. Once exposed and developed, it is past, present, and future, but it is always past. All the more reason that the makers of art cinema, in all of its various manifestations, are prone to crises of community memory, a willful, even eager dispensing of the past. The artist survives by a forced stare into the oncoming frame. It stands, then, as a testament to Madi Piller’s generosity that her sense of community-building looks not only toward the future — by fostering in younger artists a wide-ranging appreciation of skill, and an accommodating definition of animation — but to the past, its fissures and blind-spots, a deep knowledge of the artists who came before her. That her filmmaking since 2003 has held at its centre a balance of historical and personal memory only reinforces the esteemed role that history plays in her work, which has often employed found photographs, personal recollection, and other aspects that summon the ghosts of the twentieth century.

Animals in Motion  (John Straiton, 1968)

Animals in Motion (John Straiton, 1968)

John Straiton was a pivotal force in the Canadian independent cinema of the mid-1960s, an independent animator whose first film, Portrait of Lydia, received honours around the world, welcomed broadly at both major film festivals and underground film shows. Over the course of a little more than two decades following Portrait of Lydia, Straiton completed eight more films, often using an unfocused but masterful range of techniques, including rotoscoping; thirty-frame-dissolves; single-frame re-photography; clay animation; in lieu of and in complement to traditional drawing methods. His filmmaking unfolded around his own habits and desires for self-expression, and not out of any plans for ‘professionalization’. He was, proudly, an amateur filmmaker, working, as he puts it, to please first himself, and then his friends, and then those like his friends. This presumption, that we might find fellow travellers off the back roads of cinema, is one of the gratifying certainties of an amateur film community. The underground cinema, at its very best, hosts a search for kindred spirits.

Steam Ballet  (John Straiton, 1968)

Steam Ballet (John Straiton, 1968)

In 2010, Madi Piller completed a documentary on Straiton, then 84 years old, a portrait encompassing Straiton’s work in advertising, the genesis of his filmmaking, and the techniques and ideas underlying his films. It is an undoubtedly affectionate portrait, and one that, on its surface, is distinct from the rest of Piller’s filmmaking. It is an interview illustrated by excerpts from his films, his home movies, his paintings and drawings, his advertisements, and by additional photography gathered around the occasion of his interview — scenes of his studio, artifacts of his career. Through the course of the film, Straiton’s life story is told, with an emphasis on his filmmaking, by the man himself, with occasion title cards to clarify and fill in gaps, and to introduce the topics at hand. Piller’s presence enters the work in a subtle way, in her careful manipulation of Straiton’s work as illustrative material, giving the film’s biographical features a light and playful tone while allowing the darker dimensions of Straiton’s filmmaking, those qualities that emerge from his most mystical work, such as Portrait of Lydia and Eurynome, to play out with a necessary intensity.

Portrait of Lydia  (John Straiton, 1964)

Portrait of Lydia (John Straiton, 1964)

As an artist, Piller’s relation to Straiton goes beyond that of subject and documentarian. In Piller’s films, one can see the same fluid treatment of form, veering between figurative rendering, photographic abstraction, wispy charcoal lines, and direct application of paint to film. Straiton’s work bears strong themes, some first articulated by Piller through her documentary — in particular, a pronounced eroticism, and a confluence of mythic and technological fascinations, are major themes of Straiton’s work that gather the films as a coherent body of work, and that also mark them as a distinct auteur contribution to the technological themes of Canadian cinema. In these films, man is both impoverished and enhanced by technology, for technology is an extension of man. Straiton, by his technology extensions, is able to compose films to deliver an intimate, interior world. In her filmmaker, Piller has likewise responded fluidly to technology, consistently working within related themes of dehumanization, the consequences of fascism, and the mystical potential of the photographic image. Straiton describes himself as a maker of animated poems, and he undertook his activities as a form of poetry, knowing his ambitions and intentions to be distinct from those of the professional filmmakers that made his advertisements. Piller is, likewise, an animating poet. In her other work as a filmmaker, but also in her work as a community builder and curator, Madi Piller has long embraced a broad and accommodating definition of animation. For Piller, all cinema is animation. Some films persist in realist illusion, others turn a mirror on consciousness, and still others move a frame at a time, in pure abstraction. But all filmmakers are sequentially stamping-out their images on film strips, and the projector reacts with a seance, casting rhythm out of absolute stasis.

Eurynome  (John Straiton, 1970)

Eurynome (John Straiton, 1970)

Piller’s portrait reveals other dimensions of Straiton’s creativity, including his half-century-old hobby of ventriloquism. The ventriloquist’s dummy that Straiton produces at the end of the film serves a metaphoric purpose as well, inferring that this, too, is animation; that animation is a common thread across Straiton’s activities, but also across those art forms that serve to lend a living presence to the inanimate. As Straiton had animated the figure through his films, so too does he with his dummy, so too did Rodin in sculpting The Kiss. The eroticism that runs through Straiton’s films extend this theme further, and resonates in Piller’s films as well: that acts of love and communion are indeed acts of animating the other and the world at large. 

Stephen Broomer, November 2016

John Hofsess: Man in Pieces

This article was first published in Hamilton Arts & Letters 9.1 in 2016. My thanks to Paul Lisson and Fiona Kinsella.

Contact sheet of John Hofsess, photographs by Arnaud Maggs. 1976.

Contact sheet of John Hofsess, photographs by Arnaud Maggs. 1976.

John Hofsess was born in 1938 in Hamilton, Ontario, the single child to his mother Gladys, and a largely absent father. He was born Canadian in the decades immediately preceding the nation’s centenary, an era when his people, still wrestling out from a colonial heritage, were awaiting self-definition. Canada was further inhibited by its nearness to America, that mythic nation to the south where independence had been captured rather than gifted. John Hofsess was born into a harsh and impoverished life with few prospects beyond its own brutal circulation. By Hofsess’s own telling, his early life was marked by poverty, abuse, and rebellion, but the facts of it, gathered out of articles and letters that he wrote between 1962 and 1991, give conflicting accounts of his family life and his social experiences. Hofsess learned early in his life to mythologize himself, to accentuate his trials, to show and to command empathy, in order to escape the difficulties of the life into which he was born.
    By his accounts, he left home as a teenager to live on his own in Toronto in the 1950s, a life he later characterized as that of a ‘thug’, before returning in order to care for his increasingly infirm parents. By the late 1950s, back in Hamilton, he was feeling the restrictions of a working class Canadian life in an era increasingly marked by optimism, social mobility, and hope. By a combination of chance and determination to change his life, John Hofsess arrived at McMaster University in the early 1960s, first as a special student with a precarious conditional standing, and later as a non-student.
    At McMaster, many of his peers and professors found much to admire in Hofsess — his brilliant, precocious development, his creativity, and in time, his dedication to the greater causes that he would acclaim. Others, in both the student body and administration, met him with an immediate disdain. Among his enemies on campus was the Dean, who resented the faculty’s insistence that Hofsess be admitted. Soon enough, Hofsess was expelled. He continued to attend classes, regardless, and also continued to participate in student union activities, writing for the campus newspaper, and later revamping and editing the campus literary magazine, the Muse Quarterly. He was vilified as an outsider by conservative and elite forces at McMaster, but in the campus art community, he found a group of likeminded students who were interested in journalism, poetry, visual art, music, and cinema. In Patricia Murphy, an active presence in the student art community and an organizer of both the McMaster Art Festival and the McMaster Film Society, he found a muse and inspiration, as well as a hard-working and insightful collaborator. Through the course of 1965 and ’66, Hofsess and Murphy developed an interest in the New American Cinema, the American underground film movement being championed by poet and filmmaker Jonas Mekas in New York City. They travelled to New York to meet Mekas and to see such films at the New York Filmmakers Co-operative. As a result of this experience, as well as the encouragement of Vancouver filmmaker Larry Kent and Quebecois filmmaker Claude Jutra, they began to see personal filmmaking as a new and, in Canada, a largely unprecedented possibility. Hofsess began to make films in the winter term of 1965, enlisting his peers in what would become a student filmmaking society, the McMaster Film Board.
    Hofsess also came to see, by his readings in Herbert Marcuse, Wilhelm Reich, and Norman O. Brown, among others, that society was in need of a widespread psychological and emotional emancipation. In the films that Mekas had shown him, Hofsess had seen ways of organizing experience that were truer to the good life that he sought, a life of ecstatic sensation, of love and liberation, without the fear, torment, and hopelessness that he had come of age through. He believed that he could be a messenger of the senses, a guide on a freer path. This was what underground filmmaking came to represent to him, but as he began to put these ideas into form, both in his films and his writings, they also fostered in him a social philosophy that he pursued through the remainder of his life. The film that he was making, The Palace of Pleasure (1967), was conceived to be shown in double-projection, side-by-side, with each projector casting scenes that ranged from domestic scenes of a couple fighting, bored, and in love; a ritual sacrifice; two men and a woman in bed together (joining in tandem to the sound of Leonard Cohen reading his poem, “You Have the Lovers”); and kaleidoscopic scenes of blazing lights and shifting shapes. Palace of Pleasurewas a powerful, sensual experience, unprecedented in Canadian cinema, one which combined light, colour, and pattern to bear on love, alienation, and suffering. When it was released, Mekas called it “a vital part of the new cinema,” and the Toronto Telegram’s Clyde Gilmour wrote that it “haunts the mind long after the screen has darkened.” In anticipation of the film’s release, Hofsess wrote a manifesto on contemporary life, the psyche, and society in which he concluded, “man is a process and the truth is in flux.” Through this art he was putting himself together, a process of becoming.
    John Hofsess’s work with the McMaster Film Board, as founder, visionary, and chief filmmaker for its first years, was under scrutiny from the university administration who resented his presence on campus, and from the Toronto vice squad who became aware of overt sexual content in the rushes of his films and seized them. This would become a familiar scene in Hofsess’s life, and because of his messianic nature, he was delighted to be subject to these little crucifixions. By the time that he was expelled from campus, Hofsess had already made sufficient connections in the world of underground film to receive a job with Aardvark, an American underground film distributor in Chicago. He lived there for a year, working on an unfinished final sequence for the Palace of Pleasure titled Resurrection of the Body. When he returned to Canada, Hofsess began to work on a film that dealt with the Penetanguishene mental hospital (best known as a hospital for the criminally insane), where psychedelic treatments were being enforced, using combinations of psychedelic cocktails and sense deprivation. He planned to call his film Man in Pieces.
    Within a year, his project had been derailed by the suspicions of hospital staff who were surprised that he had donated books to the hospital library that included the writings of the Marquis de Sade. He found himself working instead on a long-form film adaptation of the Victorian-era pornographic autobiography My Secret Life, by the pseudonymous Walter, a notorious illustration of the lust underlying the Victorian aristocracy’s veneer of respectability. Like Palace of Pleasure, this film, titled The Columbus of Sex, was conceived for double-projection, and was in the style of the underground film.


    At its premiere on the McMaster campus, the Hamilton vice squad arrived, seized the film, and even seized the projectors. Hofsess and his producers were put on trial for obscenity, though the charges against Hofsess were dropped on a technicality, effectively writing him out of his own trial. The film’s producers, Ivan Reitman and Dan Goldberg, were ultimately found guilty, and The Columbus of Sex is believed to have been destroyed. Hofsess announced that he was compiling a book of commentary on the trial, along with excerpts from the trial transcripts, titled The Night They Raided McMaster. He also announced that he would be making a documentary about the criminal justice system titled Man in Pieces. Neither the book nor the documentary were released. 
    Through the course of this trial, Hofsess had become increasingly invested in critical writing, and began to see himself more as a film critic than as a filmmaker. He was an extraordinary writer, much of his work marked by a unique voice that he had developed in his 20s while immersed in a strange collision of post-Freudian aesthetic philosophy and Victorian romanticism. Hofsess took up the post of film critic at Maclean’s Magazine, one of the most prominent and stable positions a critic could have at that time in Canada, and there he would remain for five years. He also made one final stab at filmmaking, with a narrative film titled Tenderness, a confessional autobiography which was to star a pair of American porn actors and himself. He began to burn his bridges to the film world when he wrote an article confronting ridicule of his project gathered by word of mouth and eavesdropping. By the mid-1970s, he was shifting away from film criticism and towards literary and social criticism.
    As a journalist, Hofsess took up causes, and those causes often transformed him. He made tremendous efforts fighting for a variety of causes that were unpopular in their time - modern art, independent cinema, gay rights. Hofsess had always sought some sense of fellowship among other outsiders, and he struggled more than most people in reconciling that with his need for assent, which haunted him throughout his life. In the years following the collapse of his unproduced film Tenderness and his departure from Maclean’s, a series of episodes altered Hofsess’s newfound career as a professional writer. In addition to his works of film and literary criticism, as a freelance film critic and as a regular contributor of book reviews and author profiles to Books in Canada, he also began to write human interest stories with an activist bent. In the late 1970s, he was taken with the plight of an Ontario Racing Commission steward, John Damien, who had been dismissed from his post after being exposed as a homosexual. Hofsess, who had recently begun an affiliation with Toronto’s gay radical community and had embraced his own homosexuality, started to write articles on Damien.
    The organizers of the Body Politic, a controversial Canadian gay radical magazine, were receptive to Hofsess’s contributions, even though he had the profile of a mainstream liberal journalist. But he would soon alienate this community, and simultaneously compromise his relations in the country’s liberal media, in his attempts to stage a celebrity-endorsed telethon in support of John Damien. His proposal was to have a fundraising telethon for John Damien hosted by Canadian liberal icon and actor Gordon Pinsent, and would include the participation of figures such as Pierre Berton and Margaret Atwood, among others. This was very early in the era of telethons, and prior to any significant mainstream acceptance of homosexuality in the west, and so it combined tacky (telethon) and radical (gay) interests, off-putting to both his mainstream liberal friends and his gay radical associates. What was most troubling to Hofsess’s newfound community was the abstraction of Damien’s plight, which had been translated from a matter of gay rights to the more general cause of human rights. To those converging around the Body Politic, this was obfuscating, liberal pandering, and whitewashing the specific crisis to make it more palatable to the mainstream. To Hofsess, it was simply an act of respecting Damien’s own wishes. Hofsess had played his hand with a cause too radical for liberal assent, and methods too conservative and populist for his new community. He found himself cast out of yet another gathering of outsiders with whom he had felt affinity.
    Hofsess would often say, of the work of the entertainment critic, that so much of it “wasn’t writing, just typing.” It was perhaps this casual outlook, combined with depression and frustration, that led Hofsess to the most embarrassing moment of his career as a professional writer. Among his tasks as a freelance writer, Hofsess was an occasional contributor of film reviews to the Calgary Albertan. In 1980, he was accused of having plagiarized a review by Janet Maslin of the New York Times, an act of plagiarism that many in his community found pathetic and amusing, and reflected a final fall from grace. His friends may have found something more baffling and willfully self-destructive in this act, that a skilled writer of remarkable articulation and determined individuality was caught stealing copy from one of the most prestigious newspapers on earth. Hofsess subsequently apologized and withdrew from critical writing for several years. In his time away from journalism, Hofsess worked researching and developing advertising copy and recipes in the earliest days of the Loblaws grocery chain’s President’s Choice brand, an innovative advertising campaign through which the company’s generic in-house brand became a gourmet brand. Hofsess also made attempts to become a playwright. He began to work on a play inspired by true events of rough (and fatal) trade in Vancouver, the story of an older man who was murdered by a younger man after picking him up at a bar. This play was to be called Man in Pieces.
    In spite of his transgression, Hofsess was able to resume his career as a journalist, in the unlikely forum of Homemaker’s Magazine, beginning in the late 1980s. In his first eight-part series he penned scientific articles about man and technology, the technological future, and the future of home computing, among other things. In his second eight-part series he surveyed qualities of life on earth, wrote introspectively on his own life history, on his sexuality, and his family life. All of this writing, whether rooted in science and social survey, or in internal monologue, was consistently introspective and confessional. In 1991 he published his final article for Homemaker’s Magazine titled “Candle in the Wind,” which dealt with his decision, in light of his friend Claude Jutra’s suicide and his mother Gladys’s painful final years, to found an organization, the Right to Die Society of Canada, which would petition the government for the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. He wrote of this organization with profound moral conviction, and this provided not only a sense of purpose, it also gave him an opportunity to be creative, to serve as a media impresario, to undertake promotional campaigns involving web-building in the early years of public internet, and, perhaps fatally, to write speeches. It was in this capacity that Hofsess became involved with - indeed, conceived and implemented - the Sue Rodriguez campaign. Sue Rodriguez, a mother living in Victoria, British Columbia, had been diagnosed with ALS in early 1991. She became iconic in the petition for the Right to Die, asking the nation in televised speeches, “Who owns my life?” This statement, like the rest of this famous speech, was written by Hofsess, and stated plainly, it addresses a broader crisis of identity that Hofsess struggled with throughout his life — his desire to take ownership, responsibility, charge of his life, a gesture so often in conflict with strictures of government and society. This question was a signal that Hofsess’s primary theme — liberation — had survived into his new and final creative evolution.
    His skill at writing speeches gave Hofsess a false sense of mastery over the situation he found himself in, and he famously overstepped his bounds when he signed a letter to a newspaper with Rodriguez’s name. The press characterized this as forgery, to match Hofsess’s earlier plagiarism. Although he saw it simply as an extension of their existing relationship, this event was miscast as a malicious violation of trust, in which Hofsess was taking advantage of Rodriguez’s weakening agency. Hofsess once again found himself cast in a harsh light, alienated from Rodriguez, receding from her spotlight. The Right to Die Society thrived regardless, publishing a successful magazine, Last Rights, and a video about methods of assisted suicide. Other cases akin to Rodriguez’s came to Hofsess attention, and he again served as a media wrangler. His was a position of empathy and decency, occasionally overshadowed by his penchant for carnival barking. In 2002, the RCMP arrested Evelyn Martens, a member of the Right to Die Society, on the grounds that she had been assisting suicides. We now know that she was a collaborator of Hofsess. He left the organization soon after her arrest. 
    It took me several years to reach John Hofsess. I began to research his work when his name crossed my path in several contexts — as a Canadian film critic, as an avant-garde filmmaker, and as a strange presence in a television documentary on Sue Rodriguez. When I tracked John down in 2006, he was living in exile, in San Diego, doing community work with a local church, and rooming with another retiree under increasingly difficult circumstances. His history of broken trust — perceived very differently by him than by those he had considered his friends — made for a long period of trust-building between us. When finally he gave me his confidence, we became good friends, at a distance. For the final decade of his life, I am under the impression that he had very little social contact beyond the closed circuit of the Right to Die network, the casual friendships he struck up with healthcare professionals, and the network of journalists and writers who he came into contact with in his final days. I was fascinated by his character and by his history, but my professional interest was in his filmmaking and his critical writing, and in 2008, I undertook a restoration of The Palace of Pleasure and later wrote a book about the formation and dissolution of the McMaster Film Board, which was published shortly before his death. As I wrote and finished my book and waited for it to come out, he was at work on his memoirs, which at times were titled Man in Pieces. We shared drafts at various stages over the years, as I wrote his beginnings and he wrote his end. John struggled in his last years, against failing health, to get his necessary writing down, clouded from the medicines he was taking. He found support to travel to Switzerland in February of this year, where he had arranged to have a medically-assisted suicide.
    John Hofsess’s final act was not his death. In the hours following his suicide, an essay written by Hofsess for posthumous publication began to circulate. In it, he declared — ‘confessed’ is a cruel misnomer — his role in eight assisted suicides through the course of his work as an activist for the Right to Die. In his final decades, Hofsess had often cut the figure of Charon in the eyes of his critics. But as in the 1960s, what he truly believed in was the pursuit of a good life, of liberation from all repressive forces, and these beliefs led him inevitably toward the ultimate freedom of timing the final breath. At the end, he chose to disclose that one man who had received his help was the poet Al Purdy. To John, the weight of Purdy’s memory, as one of the great Canadian poets of the twentieth-century, could help to assuage the grief and horror that many felt toward these acts, for through Purdy’s poems, many readers might already hold a fully-formed image of Purdy’s humanity.
    John was often brave and selfless in the face of criticism. His career was marred by some of his methods that many will have difficulty sympathizing with. But throughout his transit from artist to journalist to activist, he showed a resolute concern for mankind at its most frail and vulnerable. He was publicly doubted, even humiliated, by many journalists over his commitment to his final cause. It is only a small part of all of this, but, I believe by his testimony on February 29, 2016, his sincerity has been proven.
    John believed in a Great Becoming of man, that our jailed hearts could be freed by turning away from those aspects of life, law, and society that injure our dignity, that reinforce our prejudices, that further close us off from joy. The methods that he chose to pursue such liberation disturbed even his closest friends, even those who had admired him most, for his methods were often perceived as being willingly deceitful, of a sort that so many of us would associate with selfishness, misanthropy, and cynicism, values opposite to those he believed himself to represent. For John, he was making a sacrifice — a sacrifice of his own dignity, a willingness to live through shame and embarrassment and abandonment, for his cause and for the benefit of others. There were times when he could not understand why society responded emotionally, rather than intellectually, to his challenge, and he was bewildered by the confusion and anger with which his methods were so often met.
    He could not arrange that new life on earth. That Great Becoming, of liberation and unity, has not come to pass. Those of us who were close to John at the various stations of his life witnessed his messianic tendencies, his willingness toward crucifixion, but if he resembled any god, perhaps it was Osiris, broken and scattered to distant points. John was a compromised and troubled person in many ways, but such is the character of visionaries. He saw too clearly the psychic fracturing of man in the modern age. He knew on sight the miseries and pains of daily life that arise from man’s unrealized, unnourished potential. This he saw in others as in himself, a rare bridge in a lifetime of alienation. In his own mysterious way, John was devoted to righting that wrong. He knew these psychic fractures; he felt them in his own constitution. Rather than vanish into narcissism and self-pity, he was sensitive to the suffering of others.
    He journeyed on. I will not know if he found relief in his final hours, amidst the clichés of beauty that arrive to pacify those who die planned deaths. Even in his final act, he was a man divided: on the one hand, he was exercising final and total control over his own life, and on the other, he was a man suicided by society, facing the final episode in a lifetime of exile.
    His was a lifelong process of putting himself together.

A Road Outside: Crossroads 2017

The San Francisco Cinematheque, founded in 1961 by filmmaker Bruce Baillie, has long been a focal point for underground filmmaking in the Bay Area, retaining something of the vitality of San Francisco’s wooliest era. As experimental cinema has changed to accommodate the theory-heavy aspirations of contemporary art, the Cinematheque has embraced such work as well, keeping current with new forms that have emerged first out of intermedia and video art, and more recently by digital means.

The organization operates on a year-round agenda that includes theatrical screenings, gallery exhibitions, and publications, and each spring filmmakers from the international underground converge on San Francisco for the Cinematheque’s Crossroads Festival, a celebration of experimental cinema in its broadest sense. Some of those filmmakers can claim a direct inheritance of the radical spirit of the underground, but the diversity of Crossroads’ programming, from lyrical, romantic visions to mechanical, material confrontations, reflects a cinema of porous boundaries and flexible genres, not anchored in cinemas past but unmoored freely into the present. In other words, its diversity in itself bears a thriving utopian spirit.

But that’s not to say that Crossroads is unfocused, or all-accommodating, in the mode of the open screening. Rather, it is rigorously shaped by the Cinematheque’s staff to present brilliant corners of an international movement, one that is now larger and more diverse of forms than ever before. From works dealing with the legacies of corruption, racism, and inequality in American society, to cameraless videos that combine text with perfect digital geometries, to the more personal visions issuing, for the most part, from the commonplace fellowship of the Bolex, Crossroads ties thematic threads that bear joy, wit, and outrage.

Zachary Epcar’s Return to Forms begins with the filmmaker’s hand tapping and rubbing the surfaces of objects out of what can be presumed pleasures of resonance and touch. Like the ASMR video of a madman, Epcar extends from there into close-ups of toes on carpets, flowing water (both real and digital), and a gliding tour through an apartment that bears the overt markers of a real estate advertisement. Against these strange stagings, Return to Forms asserts images of beautiful textures, reflections, summoning up for us some of that same allure that guides the filmmaker’s hand to rap, rub, and grip against the objects of his fascination. 

Return to Forms , Zachary Epcar

Return to Forms, Zachary Epcar

This holds together in a style that recalls the comic lunacy of Owen Land. The film reaches its apex in two extended sequences: one of rapid panning between windows and palm tree-trunks (with a real mastery and precision of focus), the other, of a series of objects placed upon a Lazy Susan, surrounded by mirrors, as again the film assumes the character of advertising. These displays reach a ludicrous comic punctuation, with a small plant smashed through an iPad, its roots on one side, its leaves on the other, a wry, blunt image of life failing to take root in the Cloud.

I'll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You'll Become , Sky Hopinka

I'll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You'll Become, Sky Hopinka

I’ll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You’ll Become, Sky Hopinka’s elegy to the Chemehuevi/Anishinaabe poet Diane Burns, is a film of complex form and power, alternating between Burns’ texts, often in the form of concrete poetry; mysterious landscapes cloaked in night, a returning theme from Hopinka’s earlier film, Jáaji Approx ; and scenes of ritual dancers in photo-negative, streaking pastel tones, accompanied by sacred harp singing. It would be tempting to compare this photo-negative dance to a vision of the afterlife, if not for Burns’s portentous warning that the road to perfection is a path to reincarnation, a return to earth; no, as a pantheistic spiritual vision, this dance suggests a more earthly scene, one where forms and colours are stripped of their names, defamiliarized, to an eye reborn into the world. The film furthers Hopinka’s growing reputation as a filmmaker of unique, individual force; and it also stands as a spellbinding illustration of Burns’s poetics and themes.

Paul Clipson’s Feeler continues the artist’s fascination with double-exposure, building a labyrinthine flow of images through truncated editing, repetition of gesture, and vibrant, kinetic photography. Feeler begins with monochromatic images of a woman seemingly asleep, layered with light passing through grates and reflections in puddles that manifest as a kind of inner vision. Clipson cuts to colour images of sun seen through trees and in watery reflections, a sepia tone that further gives way to rich orange and yellow, and eventually to the richest variety of colours, all arranged around analogies between the body, the arcs of bridges and pathways, and landscapes that have been made cosmic by the flashes of coloured light that cross them in layers. 

Clipson, by his masterful photography, keeps alive within the underground the finger-skills of photo-mechanical craft, but he is not alone in this: Dianna Barrie’s Last Train is a film of remarkable lab engineering, made in multiple passes of reprinting, of a film reel going ‘off the rails’ by way of photogramming, in slowed rhythms that suggest a train. Barrie, who with her partner Richard Tuohy runs the Australian nanolab artists’ lab, has had an influence internationally thanks to their regular touring workshops. Barrie made Last Train from an Indonesian film, from which her own film takes its title, and its root images appear only briefly, barely registering, overwhelmed with bars of colour produced by printing and processing techniques. The familiar shapes of sprocket holes give that Bo-Diddley-esque engine-pumping rhythm to what without it would be the pure rhythm of chemical revelation.

It is much to the credit of Crossroads’ programming that each year, artistic director Steve Polta endeavours to spotlight the productivity of a few artists by showing multiple recent works by a single maker, either in concentration or through the course of several programs. This combats a false notion, one that has sadly taken root within the filmmaker community, that to make experimental films means to fashion one confectionary work each year for the sake of festival deadlines. This fraudulent ‘market’ sensibility has done much to injure the heritage of filmmaking as a daily act. Rejecting this, the Crossroads event makes such a gesture, supporting artists whose productivity exceeds the increasingly rationed expectations of this cinema’s festivals. This year Polta has cast attention on, among others, Mónica Savirón and Mary Helena Clark.

Answer Print , Mónica Savirón

Answer Print, Mónica Savirón

Since 2013, Mónica Savirón has been making films that fit within the tradition of ‘found footage’ filmmaking. Her first in this mode, Broken Tongue, was made out of rephotographed pages of more than a century and a half of New York Times’ New Years Day editions, forming a comment on migration, diaspora, and passing time, in a form of continuous, ecstatic disclosure, accompanied on the soundtrack by the poet Tracie Morris reading her poem AfrikaBroken Tongue developed from questions of origin, displacement, and belonging, while Answer Print focused on the estrangement and orphaning of images themselves, drawing its content from a variety of film prints that had gone magenta, arranging images by the degree of their fading, a long strip of gradation; further, all sound has been displaced by the film’s 26-frame cutting technique (the distance between the gate of a projector and the bulb that reads optical sound). 

One of the more striking gestures in the presentation of Mónica Savirón’s films at Crossroads lies in the choice of works. While Broken Tongue (which showed at Crossroads in 2014) and Answer Print (screening this year) have been deservedly acclaimed and stand as two of the strongest found-footage films of the past decade, her Wedding Song has been little seen, a powerful work made to accompany Janel Leppin’s titular song. Indeed, it transcends the term ‘music video’ and its implications, allowing the lilt of the song to lead a consistent metric revelation of still images—of aged, amateur photography that assumes a glorious power in its translation to the moving image, in the rough marks of the film’s hand-processing and the slight fades that begin and end many of the images. It is a modest work but one that reminds of the energy held within images, and of the illusion of life that photography maintains against the ceaseless march of time.

Mary Helena Clark is represented this year by a survey of three of her films, bold work that deserves to be seen in such a concentration. Clark’s films deal with illusionism, mechanism, and the legacy of moving image forms. Orpheus (Outtakes), made using fragments of Cocteau’s Orphée, among other sources, is a peculiar retreading of that underworld, offering up as one of its central images a bizarre set of disembodied eyes atop the voice of silent comedy star Buster Keaton, interviewed on a game show. The film ends with photograms that summon up a self-awareness of the film strip, but the primary power of the film is in Clark’s sequencing, that she never summons back images, rather pressing forward through increasingly alien and abstract apparitions.

Palms carries on the earlier film’s firm sequential ordering, in four parts: a pair of hands displayed plainly, headlights on a road shot from a moving car, a tennis court floor rapidly followed from each end to the beat of a game, and a shifting black semi-circle against a solid white background. The deliberation in Clark’s sequencing suggests that these forms fit together not as a set of like things, or by thematic union, but in a curious rhythm that shifts from spontaneous and meditative to mechanized and insistent. The most recent of Clark’s films, Delphi Falls, named for a town in New York State (and by that, named for the Pythia), is also her most ambitious in scope, a confounding film that maintains Clark’s commitment to cryptic design, and emphasizes her fascination with narrative subversion and the defamiliarization of images. 

Delphi Falls , Mary Helena Clark

Delphi Falls, Mary Helena Clark

Clark describes the film as “testing the limits of identification with the camera’s point of view,” and indeed, a viewer who looks upon it as a cipher might be surprised by the stymying of their expectations. The scene shifts from cows in a field, to a forest of trees marked for removal, to an elaborate sound-proof room, to an empty house. A group of youths appear as presumed protagonists, though their presence becomes as spare as any of the film’s environments. The alienation between viewer and image culminates in an extended zoom in on a monitor, upon which a woman runs her hands through her hair, sighs, twists her neck, rubs and contorts her face, and finally, in close up, yawns. The result is a film that has more palpable menace than Clark’s earlier work, but that extends her overarching project of subverting film form into new and promising territory.

Delphi Falls , Mary Helena Clark

Delphi Falls, Mary Helena Clark

Codes for North (2017) - excerpt, Joyce Wieland: Ars Longa, Vita Brevis

Codes for North: Foundations of the Canadian Avant-Garde Film is the result of a decade of engagement with the work of Jack Chambers, Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland. The bulk of this work was the basis of my doctoral dissertation in 2015. The book was published by the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre in December 2017 to mark their 50th anniversary. It is now available for order from the CFMDC. Copies are available to reviewers upon request. Below is an excerpt that introduces Joyce Wieland, from her emergence as a painter to her first three films, Larry's Recent Behavior, Patriotism and Barbara's Blindness.

Joyce Wieland in  Water Sark  (1965).

Joyce Wieland in Water Sark (1965).



Canada’s sovereignty arrived slowly, from initial European explorations and settlements in the sixteenth-century through to its confederation in 1867. Its evolution was a struggle between language, customs and staked territories. Settlers faced inhospitable seasons and dangerous terrain as they assembled their new culture. Susanna Moodie became an icon of both British colonial settlement and of Canadian settler womanhood for her book Roughing it in the Bush, published fifteen years before the country’s confederation, and the regard for Moodie’s account as something exotic betrayed an inscribed puritanism in British and Canadian culture. Canadian women would gain some advocacy through the National Council of Women of Canada, formed in 1857, only a decade before confederation, and by the end of the nineteenth century it pursued a campaign to upgrade the status of women, albeit without pursuing the vote.(1)  Eventually, in 1918, in tandem with movements elsewhere in the west, Canadian women gained the right to vote in federal elections. A female nationalist would see two things arising in the era of confederation: a slowly forming critique of hegemony and gender inequity, and a growing pride in Canada as an autonomous presence, a nation that formed slowly but was now assured in its cultivation of citizenship and patriotism. Against this history of slowly evolving gender equity, Canadian women painters began to emerge. The first to achieve recognition engaged with romantic styles, but by the twentieth century, when modern movements arrived in Canada, female painters would form a minority among those who would pursue and expand the new vision.(2)  As modern art struggled into Canada, any acclaim for it was directed primarily to the post-Impressionist paintings of the Group of Seven, but it was also present in the work of other artists, such as the post-Impressionist Emily Carr and the geometric abstractionist Kathleen Munn.(3)  In these modern movements, there was a pronounced lack of female painters, who for the most part were ignored or at the fringes of discussion in Canadian art criticism, much of which was hostile toward modern art. In order to pursue the most difficult ends of art in Canada, a woman would endure twofold discrimination and exclusion, both for her gender and for the direction of her calling. Modern art represented the newfound and elaborate pleasures of the perceptual challenge that came with freer forms. The expressive potential of gesture, unhindered by the straits of realism, was not isolated from the senses but of the senses. This art stemmed from a critique of the faculties, a position that first formed around the effect of the art itself and which also, most evident in the transit into the postmodern, could turn to critique history and society.

    Joyce Wieland was born in 1931, the daughter of working class English-Scottish immigrants living in the Trinity-Bellwoods neighborhood, a low-income immigrant community in Toronto’s west end. By age 11, both of Wieland’s parents had died. She lived through a series of upheavals, moving with her elder sister and brother into precarious arrangements, struggling through debt to achieve financial security.(4)  As a teenager, Wieland studied art at Toronto’s Central Technical School, gaining a high school education that emphasized commercial-industrial skills. There, she encountered women artists for the first time: among the faculty were sculptor Elizabeth Wyn Wood and painters Virginia Luz and Doris McCarthy.(5)  Wieland took classes in dress design, through which she learned figurative drawing from McCarthy, a graduate of the Ontario College of Art known for her abstract landscape paintings. At McCarthy’s urging, Wieland enrolled in the school’s Fine Arts stream, where she would first develop a technical knowledge of drawing and painting.(6)  Wieland came to understand the purpose of art as a force for both creative and social expression, influenced by an atmosphere of class unrest. She devoted her creative energies to building a skillset that would help her find employment, but her early experiences of art making and the experiences particular to her class and gender would later inform the directions of her painting and filmmaking.

    In her final year of high school, Wieland attended a labour strike at Eaton’s. The event would prove a formative introduction to the grim realities of labour politics. Her experience on the line would further strengthen her identification with the experiences and trials common to workers, suffering at the hands of an elite business class and struggling, much as Wieland and her siblings had struggled, for stable work and a living wage. She would recall in later years the frightened faces of the marching workers, but ultimately, it was the collective, collaborative action of the strikers that would leave the deepest imprint on her.(7)  Wieland’s mature work would come to echo that action of collective resistance and outrage, a great unity in the service of justice. Her childhood anxieties about work and domestic life, coming of age as she did in unstable circumstances, found consonance in the politics of labour. This vision, of the personal in the political, would later emerge as an insistent theme in her art. To make art was to engage in another form of labour, likewise worthy of collectivity and protest. A cartoon found in one of Wieland’s journals shows a male and female, drawn as a highly stylized cartoon, as dwarfed rotund forms. They hold signs that read “Ars Longa, Vita Brevis,” the Latin translated to English on accompanying signs, “Art is Long, Life is Short.”(8)  Her protestors declare art eternal, a classical idea but one best explained, in the context of modern art, as finding the universal in the particular.

    Wieland’s engagement with fine art also developed outside her formal education. Growing up in Toronto, she had seen the collection of the Art Gallery of Toronto (renamed the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1966), and a trip to New York City to visit galleries in the late 1940s found her in Rockefeller Centre, in awe of its murals. She attended screenings of the Toronto Film Society, a community group interested in advancing the cause of artistic filmmaking.(9)  In 1949, they invited the Dada artist Hans Richter to screen Dreams That Money Can Buy (1947), a Surrealist feature film in which a man becomes a dream merchant upon realizing that he can sell psychic projections, or ‘dreams’, summoned by a mirror in his apartment. Richter made the film in collaboration with artists such as Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp and Alexander Calder, his collaborators crafting the ‘dreams’ for the film. To Wieland, it was an early introduction to the possibilities of film as art, and to Dada and Surreal aesthetics as a living force as powerful as they had been in the 1920s. At the time, there was no Canadian cinema to speak of, save for the educational and animated films issuing from the National Film Board as an alternative to the Hollywood film. The Film Society screenings of European narrative art cinema and films by Richter and Maya Deren introduced the city to the artistic potential of filmmaking. For young artists like Wieland, the experience connected this medium with the aspirations and forms of the other arts struggling into modernity.

    Wieland’s training at Central Tech had prepared her to assume a position in the design workforce. In 1948, she was able to secure a job designing packaging with ES&A Robinson, and she remained there for five years.(10)  When she left, she took freelance jobs in the design industry and also began to design greeting cards. In 1954, she took up regular work at the animation firm Graphic Associates. Her time there would be short, with the firm closing little more than two years later, but in that time she met her future husband, Michael Snow, and began to make films communally with the rest of the staff. By the time that she and Snow married in the fall of 1956, they were both committed unequivocally to their art practices, working at the heart of a loose Neo-Dada community to build something new, in a city with a history of closed, exclusive art scenes, from the Group of Seven to the Painters Eleven.(11)  The narrow channel of Toronto art in which Wieland, Snow, and their friends and contemporaries found themselves would in coming years be challenged, bent into a form more accommodating for confrontational and dense modern and postmodern art. The work of Jack Bush and his peers, with their debts to Hans Hoffman and painterly abstraction, had tamed Toronto audiences to celebrate them, if more as a movement than as individuals. That same audience would now face work that was lacking in common values of beauty and that followed in the psychic collage of Joseph Cornell’s boxed assemblages and the precise mess of Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, toward raw expressions of a different order.

    Wieland had spent much of her time in high school drawing comic strips and writing journals. They survive today to reveal common experiences of youth, for instance, a longing for romantic love, but they also demonstrate an instinctual critique of such longing.(12)  Ideals of love would take on a greater thematic design in Wieland’s character, in her abstract paintings that were messy and dramatic in their sexuality, in paintings and installations that spoke explicitly of brotherhood and love, and in the repetitions of valentine card hearts and lipstick traces that would, in her mature work, become synonymous with her ironic expression of nationalism. Her work was not naïve, but indirect; even as she mastered the symbols and gestures of sentimentality, she cultivated a rich sense of irony. Her art could not be taken by its surface, whether of sentimentality or mere whimsy and joy, because that surface masked the work’s greater investment in which whimsy and joy were a subversive force. Just as Michael Snow would construct an open, adaptable, neutral form with the Walking Woman, Wieland would adopt stylized hearts and lips, cutting and pressing them in series, made ironic by their malformation, by their presence in fine art, by their allegorical indirection. As her work matured and she experienced personal crises, these ironies would likewise mature, becoming more pronounced and grim, even as these symbols became increasingly earnest in their sentimental declaration.

    When Graphic Associates shut down some months after their wedding, both Wieland and Snow took on odd jobs in the design industry while devoting their free time to their painting activities. Early drawings of Wieland’s that survive show a combination of enigmatic perspective and cylindrical figuration. Her work through the 1950s used a variety of materials, for instance, untitled (heartgame) (1956) combines red ink and charcoal on a torn piece of notepaper; elsewhere she was using crayon and paper collage. Her work of the mid-to-late 1950s, and in particular the evolution of her figuration, included a series of oil on canvas paintings. In Green Lady (1956), Wieland paints an amorphous form that takes on the position of a seated figure. The figure is reduced to a series of abstract shapes, creased by faint black lines down its centre, all forms serving the purpose of flattening the image and annihilating conventional figuration, a resistance to realism. In two canvases, Morning (1956) and Myself (1958), the subjects are recognizable as abstractions of the figure, the former with debts to Malevich, two figures realized by an assembly of circles and rectangles; the latter a self-portrait less concerned with geometry than her contemporaneous paintings, more a work of expressive brushwork and strategic coloration. Her interest in the figure turned to programme-informed abstraction such as The King & Queen (1960), an enigmatic assembly of forms against a pale blue background, roughly forming three abstract figures. Her new embrace of abstraction placed large, amorphous forms, often partly obscured by the boundaries of the canvas, in fields of gradated colour. This was true of Time Machine (1959) and Time Machine Series (1961). Redgasm (1960) continued these forms, distortions in a red-pink colour, and was followed by the violence of War Memories (1960), a scattering of circles in red. The programme of these works group the experience of orgasm and menstruation with that of wartime, signaling a cornerstone of Wieland’s art, the simultaneity and co-penetration of intimate and universal experience.

    In 1961, Wieland would begin to pursue mixed media collages such as her Summer Blues series. Like Snow, her work shifted from the influence of abstract expressionism to Neo-Dada. With these assemblages, Wieland departed from oil-on-canvas work, returning to the fluid material repurposing of her earlier work in paper collage. Her integration of objects and her use of paper collage extended the forms of her abstract paintings, but now her work would integrate refuse and markers of common experience and mass culture. In Summer Blues – The Island (1961), spent cardboard tubes, some creased and bent, combine with electrical tape, a piece of paper cut into the shape of a crescent moon and a crude encaustic to form an image that is at once topography and horizon. The materials used in the work are the refuse of mass culture, but they do not turn critically on mass culture; rather, they bear enigmatic perspective, primitive and chaotic representation or evocation, and an intimate and memorial presence beyond material introspection. Her Neo-Dada influence was most pronounced in The Clothes of Love (1961), with roughly cut rectangular fabrics—marked by ink and paint in a manner resembling Colour Field painting—strewn on a clothesline within a tall wooden frame. Of Wieland’s work in this period, this piece has the strongest ties to Robert Rauschenberg’s combines, an ordinary sight recast as something alien.(13)  It is not only a collage of materials but of styles, with the textiles, crudely stained and painted, suspended across a rectangular frame, the upper region of which is a dense and subtle abstract painting of dark blues concealing black charcoal lines, the lower region empty, showing through to the gallery wall. Like the Rauschenberg combines, The Clothes of Love employed real things, arranged and altered, to combat realism. Its difficulty was particular to its time, the markers of process placing the work far from the illusion of figurative realism, as strange in 1961 as Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain had been in 1917; its difficulty, like that of Fountain, was an enduring one that posed open-ended relations of cultural valuation, objecthood, purpose and meaning. When Robert Fulford wrote on it in the Toronto Star in 1962, he described The Clothes of Love as “a flung-together collection of cloths […] open to the widest possible variety of interpretations,” and nothing more.(14)  Wieland’s work passed from abstraction, and its young material traditions, through to a confrontation with real things, drawing forms and shapes out of reality and, in a primal act, blending them into unresolvable mysteries. In a statement on the collage Heart-On (1961), speaking on her obscurity, Wieland said “it’s good because no one has to know it. It just might come up some day that these things exist. It is good to have mystery because people want to explain everything.”(15)

The Clothes of Love  (1961)

The Clothes of Love (1961)

    In short order, Wieland had developed a number of complementary aesthetics. Her oil paintings dealt with abstract forms and, increasingly, with erotic evocation. Her mixed media collages were not merely wild for their multi-dimensionality and bare confrontation with the surface and presence of the art object, but for their integration of objects that were memorial to both the individual and the crowd, that turned them into scrapbooks of experience. By the time Wieland and Snow began their move to New York City, Wieland was fluidly combining these aspects of her work, as in Time Machine #2 (1961), a Union Jack emblazoned in the centre of a black canvas, offset by a pale tan pool, a clockwise form etched around it, with numbers assembling at the bottom. As Snow was beginning his Walking Woman variations, Wieland was pursuing an almost opposite path to the same end of material consciousness, her gestures less structured in their repetition, her work more autobiographical and personal, and at the same time, largely unconcerned with graphic form, invested instead in texture, perspective and presence as vehicles for obscure, ambiguous meaning (as in The Clothes of Love and the Summer Blues series). In Wieland’s poetics, conventional representation would act against the expressive possibilities of art, as her own representational interests had moved so far from the erotic drawings of Matisse-like figures that had occupied her in the 1950s, going toward an obscure programme that assembled a familiar unfamiliar out of painted abstract shapes and paper cut-outs, some likewise abstract, others crude series of symbols (the valentine heart, the lipstick trace). Soon she would shift to the stylization of the cartoon, figures drawn from comic strips and greeting cards. Such cartoon forms, bulbous and rounded with loose, curved lines for details, would appear frequently in the figurative painting that she would pursue through the remainder of the 1960s.

    When Wieland moved to New York City in 1962, Wieland’s painting had only recently taken on mixed media forms. While she would continue to be represented in Canada by Av Isaacs, and through the Isaacs Gallery would participate in regular shows of new work, Wieland would begin to work in film. Wieland’s immersion in the New York art community further introduced her to the rough and spontaneous fringes of cinema. In her first year in New York, screenings of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures—and the consequent arrest of Jonas Mekas and Ken Jacobs for exhibiting it—affirmed the wild and difficult pleasures of avant-garde cinema, a sometimes camp cultural critique joined to an exposé of inner life. George and Mike Kuchar, who had become collaborators of Wieland’s friend and former Graphic Associates coworker Bob Cowan, also served as a prime example of artists for whom cinema represented freedom of form rather than commercial enterprise. The grammar of film was expanding, and forms as disparate as those of the Kuchar Brothers and Jonas Mekas were not merely coexisting but implicated in a brotherhood of aesthetic freedom. Freedom of form rested on the surface of these practices, their difficult pleasures to be wrestled by the delights of perceptual enigmas and allegorical indirection, by the freedom of wit and satire or love and joy which in itself was a shelter from the despair and hopelessness of critical neglect, poverty and persecution. Cinema could also hold pure motives concerning expression, relative to the competition for wealth in the city’s gallery scene. Like Jack Chambers, who achieved a purity of expression in his films, making art without a saleable result in a medium at the margins of critical assent, Wieland would find freedom from the pressures of New York gallery representation, balancing her filmmaking with new painting activity that was still gaining recognition in her native Toronto.

    Wieland had placed love and its symbols at the centre of her work, in her use of valentine hearts and lipstick, but also in her erotic programme and with her long-standing series of drawings of Lovers. That love was not a naïve declaration, but an increasingly ambiguous comment, manifested in misdirection between sentimentality and irony. In 1963, when Wieland discovered that she was infertile, this misdirection would become more pronounced. Love, brotherhood and the body would become enduring symbols in her work, signaling fracture, disappointment and absence; though these ideas had been present in her earlier work, they would expand in the wake of this experience, her ironies revealing deep torment and gallows humour, her sentimentality increasingly earnest, her art falling between these traditionally incompatible positions. Adopting a posture of naïve, uncritical joy and love, Wieland could conceal a more personal and profound confrontation with the menace of nature and the earth’s critters, both animal and human. The gratuitous platitudes that formed across her work were simply a veneer masking insights formed by grief and pain. It was in this misdirection that her mature work achieved profound difficulty: it could simultaneously offer earnest sentimentality and winking irony, in a devastating combination and to the ambiguous end of coexistent, incompatible meanings.

Boat Tragedy  (1964)

Boat Tragedy (1964)

    Elizabeth Kilbourn, reviewing Joyce Wieland’s 1963 solo exhibition at the Isaacs Gallery, acknowledged references to both the comic strip and the film strip in the sequential action of Wieland’s paintings, the latter made explicit in a series titled Homage to DW Griffiths.(16)  In Wieland’s paintings, sequential action is governed by horizontal grid forms (Car Crash, 1963; Sinking Liner, 1963; Sailboat Sinking, 1965; and many others) and vertically stacked panels (Sailing on the Bay, 1963). All of these paintings involve events made mysterious by fluctuations of perspective and by ambiguous interim movement between panels, concealing action.(17)  The film strip was most explicitly referenced in two paintings from 1963. The First Integrated Film with a Short on Sailing runs two sequential strips, one horizontal (of a sailboat) and one vertical (of a white woman and a black man kissing). Four Films has a series of four vertical strips: one of alternating red and pink solids; one of an ocean liner sinking into a white sea; a narrow strip unmediated by frame lines featuring a series of cartoon phalluses; and finally, one of a sailboat, each frame changing the dimension and presence of the subject. Although the sequential aspect of Wieland’s work would naturally lead to the expectation that her films would be grounded in sequential relations, as she began to make films, her work would be less concerned with conscious editorial construction. Her first films would more closely resemble her assemblages, raw, crudely fit, drawing from the Neo-Dada strain of her work, which suited her assimilation into the New York Underground.

    Out of her exposure to the New American Cinema, Joyce Wieland would make her first film, Larry’s Recent Behavior (1963). The film, influenced by Jacobs and the Kuchars, would introduce certain concerns that would mark Wieland’s later films, chiefly her interest in political iconography and obscurantist form. The body of the film is a series of vignettes, most marked by intertitles introducing the sequences in one or two words (for example, dance, drums, feet, and most obscurely, ‘manus felicitus’). The titular Larry’s aberrant behaviours (picking his nose and tasting his fingers, licking jam from women’s fingers, smelling feet) were inspired by the nervous illness of a friend. The film therefore bears an obscure personal programme, shifting from the particulars of Larry’s behaviour and into Wieland’s vision of American culture and her interest in John F. Kennedy, in the wake of his assassination.

Larry's Recent Behavior  (1963)

Larry's Recent Behavior (1963)

    The actor contorts his face, exaggerating joy and disgust, as he performs Larry’s behaviors. He plays with soft fabric hearts, making them beat, chewing on and spinning them. His activities (picking his nose, smelling feet) are held against scenes of other figures: Sylvia (Sylvia Margret Rose) pops her pimples in a mirror until blood streams from the lesions; Michael Snow dances with a cat; Wieland herself sits with her dress open, a construction paper heart across her chest; Snow eats and drinks sloppily, food spilling from his mouth. Sylvia kisses Larry’s nose; he licks jam from her fingers, to her protests, her expression struck between horror and pleasure. In the film’s final sequence, Larry gives mugging, ambiguous expressions, intercut with images of a flaccid penis. Wieland lies in bed, reading Vogue, in a raccoon-skin cap. A close-up on her eyes cuts to a brief image of Napoleon Bonaparte, and from there, to images of John F. Kennedy. Scenes of Kennedy and his family, rephotographed from magazines, show the president as an ideal of American manhood and the first family an ideal of the American family. On the soundtrack, a distorted recording of the Chiffons’ “I Have a Boyfriend” (1963) is sped unnaturally so that the words are barely comprehensible. A cat wrestles with the American flag, and a model boat appears in soft focus and compositionally fragmented, the hull a looming soft form. Finally, paintings of sailboats are rapidly intercut with the flaccid penis. A concluding title is superimposed over Larry, as he chews on a soft sculpture of a heart.

    Although the film deals, on its surface, in the comic miming of a nervous condition, ultimately, it is about love, among men and women, and between the individual and the state; of the former, the unconventional passions of Larry and Sylvia, and the family of Wieland, Snow and their cat, form one vision of love, as something spontaneous and even disgusting, in step with the wild loves of Ken Jacobs and Jack Smith’s street theatre performances. The second and more complex matter of love, idealization and nationhood, comes with the arrival of Kennedy, accompanied by the song that Dallas radio had been playing at the time of his death, a song made painfully ironic by the presence of Kennedy in American culture as an icon of manhood, idealized boyfriend to the nation’s women. Canada plays no explicit role in the work, but Kennedy is Canada with different vowels. Wieland’s regard for Kennedy suggests admiration and longing, compromised in the fleeting glimpse of Napoleon as the Kennedy sequence starts, casting the fallen hero of American statesmanship as master strategist and conqueror.(18) 

    Larry’s Recent Behavior announced certain formal difficulties particular to film. It begins with a prologue in which a rapidly sped-up and incomprehensible recording of voices plays under a projected image of Larry, mugging and contorting his face, sped up by way of stop motion photography (pixilation). The projection is rephotographed in straying composition, in and out of focus, and objects pass in front of the beam: a valentine heart cut from construction paper, a cat, and Wieland’s hands performing shadow puppets. This opening sequence foreshadows several aspects of formal difficulty that will enter the film later, in fragmentation and obscurity of sound and vision. As she began to work in film, Wieland discovered these ways to assemble film form in a perceptually distressing way, grotesque and comic vignettes punctuated by images and sounds that were disconnected from the staged sequences. Wieland referred back to ideas that had dominated her paintings and assemblages, such as the distorted figure and the raw marks of construction, and these gestures further situated the film in the discourse of Neo-Dada.(19)  For example, the valentine heart soft sculptures have a strong relation to other works of New York Neo-Dada such as the soft sculptures of Claes Oldenburg; however, while Oldenburg was creating representations of real things, realized in crude paint and at comic scale, Wieland was drawing the commercial symbol of romantic love, a graphic icon that conveyed an idea, and not a form drawn from reality. The sailboat and tall ship, persistent subjects in Wieland’s sequential paintings, are likewise integrated into the film, either as non sequitur or, as a tall ship may be, a symbol of colonialism.(20) 

Patriotism  (1964)

Patriotism (1964)

    Wieland followed Larry’s Recent Behavior with another film in the same comic vein. With Patriotism (1964), she would stage a short scene, in a style recalling Norman McLaren’s Neighbours (1952), combining stop-motion and live-action photography in the service of metaphor. It features a simple series of actions: a man (David Shackman) sleeps in a bed, his figure partly covered by a white sheet. Hot dog buns assemble out of thin air on his bed, advancing like an arrow in a march across his stomach, circling around to occupy the space next to his pillow. Shackman yawns, turns and sees them, with a look of disbelief. They overtake his face, march out of his armpits and perform strategic formations around a miniature American flag napkin. The napkin strokes each hot dog, in a sexual motion, destroying and sweeping away the buns. In an act of war, the napkin consumes all of the hot dogs, and then retreats under the covers. Shackman wakes up with a look of discomfort, reaches underneath the covers and pulls out three hotdogs and an American flag napkin. He gathers them up, smells them, and the film ends with him holding them in the napkin, grouped as a bouquet. The film’s simplicity, relative to the unwieldy structure of Larry’s Recent Behavior, could disguise its ambiguity. Its performance of American patriotism, and patriarchy, as a destructive, consuming, assimilating force is unambiguous, but Shackman, as happy, sleeping witness, is an ambiguous, unallied subject at the centre of the film, both victim and victor.

    Having completed two films in the comic vein of the New York underground, Wieland turned, with her friend Betty Ferguson, to making a film using 16mm found footage.(21)  Much as Jack Chambers had used found footage in Hybrid to advance a vision of the barbarous exchange between humanity and nature, Wieland and Ferguson used materials, culled from the refuse of commercial and educational-industrial films, to form a darkly funny parable, Barbara’s Blindness (1965). A blind child wears surgical bandages over her eyes. Her bandages are shorn away and she regains her sight. This process is interrupted by images of atomic explosions, Buster Keaton, flowers blooming and tribal dances. These visions appear in reverse, turned upside down and in photographic negative as malformed visual pleasure, or, in the case of the most menacing images, as ironic contradictions of the glory of the child's newfound vision. The child, wandering through a meadow to smell and pick flowers, has her actions intercut with elephants charging through and decimating a forest, her bounding joy akin to the blind force of a stampede. In a long sequence that serves as a further analogy for recovered sight, a woman emerges from padded dirt, her stone-like features making her a Golem, her eyes sealed by dirt. She staggers in the sunlight, her expressionless face frozen between ecstasy and suffering. She finds her way to a river where, stumbling through reeds, she submerges her body in water. A series of further images, taken from other contexts, extends this setting: a woman looks out on a lake; a man saves a drowning woman from rushing water; a fight between a man and a child occurs on a boat; an alligator sinks into water, intercut with an infant wading. Crowds of chickens are intercut with crowds of men. The film takes as its central device a series of cuts, establishing early on that the cuts are going to have logical cohesion. It then resists those instructions, with non sequitur digressions, logical pairings that are divorced from surrounding material or images that serve as comical exclamation. The film ends with a prolonged exchange between a man and a young woman, her weeping into his chest, on board a ship. Their eyes search the viewer, the gaze of the camera, as if waiting for direction.

Barbara's Blindness  (1965)

Barbara's Blindness (1965)

    Barbara’s Blindness has many aspects to its authorship that, by evidence of their later work, could be readily assigned to Ferguson, who would go on to work exclusively in found footage filmmaking. However, the elusive and decentered meanings and false instructions demonstrate Joyce Wieland’s ideas as to the innate mystery of vision and the importance of obscurity. Further to Wieland’s contribution, the editing advances almost exclusively disjunctive pairings, extending Wieland’s distinct sense of irony. The title of the film is spelled out in braille, hands passing over it, an image of tactility, yet also a declaration of obscurity, the embossed letters encoding a different or absent meaning for the fingers rather than the eyes, the irony of a repurposed linguistic system made meaningless to its own blind audience. Wieland and Ferguson appear in four frames between the titles and the film body, their eyes blocked out with black construction paper. The difficulties of Larry’s Recent Behavior and Patriotism in their political ambiguity, programme obscurity and, in the case of Larry’s Recent Behavior, the aggression of its disorientation as well. With Barbara’s Blindness, difficulty shifted into another mode, of literacy, the anticipation of coherent structure, here undermined by an unhinging of film’s grammar, pairing a sentimental parable of eyesight returned to the ironic grief of eyesight ‘redeemed’. Logical inference, between two or more alternating passages, creates a comedy of recognition, but it can suddenly be turned by the illogical comedy of the non sequitur. This essential oddness is perhaps best felt in the intrusion of African tribesmen and Lon Chaney’s gruesome Phantom of the Opera, intercut with paradisiacal scenes of a child frolicking along a garden wall. The compositional fragmentation of Wieland’s sequential paintings is not present in Barbara’s Blindness, its parts assumed from the conventional compositions of commercial or industrial cinema; instead, the film subverts the logic of film editing itself, giving way to fragmentation of theme and of meaning. The ready meaning of Barbara’s Blindness finds a blind child, the viewer’s alter ego, discovering vision as darkest comedy. A more complex meaning comes from the destabilization of the film’s subject, the miraculous experience of vision, eventually settling instead on the image itself, as a kind of blindness; its grammar, a kind of braille; and the ironic, obscure comedy of its sightlines.


  1. The National Council of Women of Canada, an organization still in place today, held a contentious position in the transit from the nineteenth to twentieth centuries, arguing for recognition of the communal role of women rather than lobbying for withheld rights, like the vote, to be bestowed. Their causes aimed to upgrade the status of women through ‘transcendent citizenship’, a citizenship that posed women as a moral influence over men, and by that, rationalized that the vote was unnecessary. Their platform has, in the interim century, become more progressive, but its resistance to the suffragette movement reveals a conservative, puritanical bent present throughout the evolution of Canadian society.

  2. The earliest among Canada’s female painters to achieve some recognition were Mary Ella Dignam and Laura Muntz Lyall, contemporaries born in the mid-nineteenth century, both working with sentimental subjects in styles that mirror nineteenth-century Dutch painting. This work of sentimental realism had no visible influence over the work of Canadian moderns, who, like Dignam, Lyall and their contemporaries, had developed styles and technical vocabulary out of the influence of European and American movements.

  3. Despite the present regard for them as pioneering figures in Canadian modern painting, Emily Carr did not receive significant recognition for her art until very late in her life, and Kathleen Munn’s debts to Cubism made her a target for Canadian art critics resistant to modernism.

  4. The pains of the Wieland children are described extensively in Jane Lind, Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire (Toronto: Lorimer, 2001). Lind’s precise accounting of the family’s hardship, down to the minutiae of bills and earnings, characterizes the situation of the Wieland family as dire.

  5. Jane Lind, Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire (Toronto: Lorimer, 2001), 56.

  6. An early portrait, Untitled (portrait of Chris Karch), c. 1948-49, of housemate Chris Karch, betrays an interest in, or at least, knowledge of, the technical execution of realism, the figure seated at a slight angle, offsetting the shadow on his turtleneck sweater. The portrait demonstrates an engagement with the technical precision of realist painting, knowledge of light and shadow, and, by the flush of Karch’s face, a superior skill at rendering skintone. This painting, made toward the end of Wieland’s high school education, shows a technical knowledge of traditional painter’s craft that could be overlooked in critical considerations of her abstract or stylized works, but which also broadcasts her prodigious knowledge of traditional composition.

  7. Wieland would later describe the experience: “Everything looked grim, and it was the middle of winter and those people were walking up and down and looking scared and there were a bunch of students watching.” Qtd. in Jane Lind, Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire (Toronto: Lorimer, 2001), 55.

  8. This image is reprinted in Jane Lind, Joyce Wieland, Writings and Drawings 1952– 1971 (Erin, Ont.: Porcupine’s Quill, 2009), 129.

  9. The Toronto Film Society’s most significant achievement in relation to avant-garde film came in the early 1950s, when it brought Maya Deren to Toronto to show a retrospective of her work. During the course of her visit, she collaborated with members of the organization on a film she would later disown as unfinished, Ensemble for Somnambulists (1951). The history of the Toronto Film Society has been recounted in detail by John Porter, “Maya Deren and Hans Richter in Toronto,” The Funnel Newsletter, Nov-Dec 1983.

  10. Jane Lind, Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire (Toronto: Lorimer, 2001), 64.

  11. This idea has its roots in an interview given by Snow to Jane Lind, in which Snow remarks that the Painters Eleven, despite its ushering in of abstraction, was just “another scene,” in the tradition of landscape painters and other groups that had restricted the possibilities of Toronto art by defining it in a narrow way.

  12. Jane Lind has published a collection of Wieland’s journals, Joyce Wieland: Writings and Drawings 1952–1971 (Erin, Ont.: Porcupine’s Quill, 2009). Lind has elsewhere, in Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire, written that these records demonstrate longing for romantic love as learned through popular culture and commercial images.

  13. Wieland’s relation to Neo-Dada might be best demonstrated through a parallel: The Clothes of Love, which manipulates real things in such a way as to confront the nature of art in itself, has much the same technique and effect as Rauschenberg’s Monogram (1955-59), a mixed media work in which a taxidermy goat is placed on top of a canvas, a rubber tire around its waist, a tennis ball on the canvas by its rear. Both Monogram and The Clothes of Love are assembled from multi-dimensional mixed media components that challenge conventions and uniformities.

  14. Robert Fulford, “Wieland,” Toronto Star, 2 February 1962, 30.

  15. Iris Nowell, Joyce Wieland: A Life in Art (Toronto: ECW Press, 2001), 224.

  16. Elizabeth Kilbourn, “Art and Artists.” Toronto Star, 23 November 1963, 36.

  17. In the twelve-compartment oil on canvas grid Nature Mixes (1963), a hand gradually turns into a flower, and then to a penis, like a furious act of masturbation, the hand and penis divided by what, in George O’Keeffe’s kitsch aesthetic, became a surrogate for the vagina.

  18. Napoleon is a minor figure among the icons that Wieland would use in her art, adopted in the late 1950s after she read Emil Ludwig’s Napoleon (Garden City, New York: Garden City Publishing Co., 1926) and became taken with him for his consolidation of power, coming as it did by the force of his class mobility as he rose up from the Corsican underclass to become the Emperor of the French. Jane Lind has speculated that Wieland’s interest in Napoleon was due to this, her desire to simultaneously transcend and embody her impoverished origins. In Wieland’s Josephine’s Last Letter to Napoleon, she writes, “Many people chastise Napolean for killing people needlessly but, how hard it is to do good without being bad” (in evidence, n.d., unpaginated). This statement, not so much an act of apology or justification as an admission of the ironic compromises that come with power, suggests how Wieland came to view contemporary figures in North American politics, in particular John F. Kennedy and Pierre Trudeau, idealized and powerful figures who, like Napoleon, were formed of contradictions.

  19. Wieland’s collages and drawings had often used the form of the valentine heart. This icon entered her work of the early 1960s, with works such as Hart News (1961), in which a series of blocks and semi-circular forms make red and pale blue impressions around serial repetitions of red valentine hearts, some stenciled, others more inexact, given fluctuating dimensions against white paper. With Heart-On (1962), the heart form was painted in oil on linen. By the time that Wieland made Larry’s Recent Behavior, the heart form had departed from two-dimensional illustration and had become a multi-dimensional trademark, in the form of the cardboard cutout as well as the soft sculptures seen in the film. The heart form would be integrated into Wieland’s painted constructs Cooling Room II and Young Woman’s Blues (both 1964), and Larry’s Recent Behavior demonstrates the ways in which this form was coming off the canvas.

  20. Wieland’s use of nautical and aeronautic imagery is tied to her sequential canvases, often as a representation of catastrophe, even as they also reflected her newly stylized figuration. The tragic cartoon faces of Ill Fated Crew of July 6 1937 (1963), bound in portholes that become cameo mementos, extend the sequential nature of Wieland’s nautical paintings, but are also a rare early example, alongside an earlier collage work, Laura Secord Saves Upper Canada (1961), of allusive programme, an idea that would come to be of increasing importance to Wieland as her work became strongly identified with Canadian history. The figures are grotesquely exaggerated, like figures that populated her journals, illustrations and contemporaneous paintings such as Clues and Fine Foods (both 1963).

  21. Betty Ferguson was at the time married to Graeme Ferguson, one of the founders of IMAX, who had also been a member of the Toronto Film Society. The Fergusons had met Snow and Wieland in Toronto, but had moved to New York shortly before them. This would serve as Wieland’s first substantive work in found footage filmmaking, and it was the birth of Ferguson’s practice, which would continue through the 1970s with Telephone Film, Airplane Film and Kisses, all films which delivered what their titles suggested, serving as catalogues of images assembled in witty formation. Much like Wieland, Ferguson’s experience of the Depression had influenced her desire to rescue film materials that were being thrown out by television stations, and so, for Ferguson, the repurposing of film materials was about finding a second life for refuse.

The Gift-Culture of the Underground: Jeannette Muñoz's Envíos

In spring I was invited by Francisco Algarín Navarro to contribute this short piece for a book on the work of Chilean experimental filmmaker Jeannette Muñoz, Jeannette Muñoz: El paisaje como un mar, which was published by Lumière this October in a bilingual edition. It is, by all appearances (my copy is in the mail) exceptionally thoughtful in its assembly, featuring long-time supporters of Muñoz's work (such as Ute Aurand, Oona Mosna, Robert Beavers) as well as writings by more newly initiated admirers (such as myself).

Ventanas (negativo 16 mm) b-n  - Arbeitskopie 2.jpg



I offer this in response to only a small selection of Jeannette Muñoz’s Envíos, films that the artist has made as gifts. Each Envío is dedicated to its recipient, and Muñoz’s accompanying statement further distinguishes these works not in the life-writing tradition of letters, but as a distillation of time. Lending further complexity to their authorship, Muñoz has written that the Envíos are “realized with and/or for” the recipient.

The underground cinema was anchored in a generosity of spirit when the lyric film first emerged out of the utopian ambitions of the 1960s. It was in this era that Stan Brakhage announced his desire that his work should be seen in-the-parlour, in intimate space, and he manufactured 8mm home-copies for this reason. Gregory Markopoulos, with his Galaxie (1966), assembled a group portrait of Greenwich Village artists in their homes, a kind of public memento of such intimacies. Jonas Mekas’s soulful, epic film-diaries are compartmentalized by typewritten descriptions that make his portraits and experiences all the more gifted. For such filmmakers, cinema became an occasion for trading visions, for giving witness to love, a communal act, each film a pouring of experience into simultaneously physical and ephemeral forms, the physical reel, the ephemeral projection. One or the other can be given freely. This magnanimity of vision was particular to the possibilities of that era, to the singing in of a new world, the abandonment of ego, the vanishing of the artist into the object. Such ambitions for the underground cinema characterize it as one where selflessness is paramount, where the artist becomes increasingly anonymous, minimizing the role of personal authorship in favour of communal authorship. Each work becomes a modest contribution to one of the underground cinema’s great projects, that of translating visions of the world into the higher realm of poetry.

Jeannette Muñoz’s Envíos (2005—) follow this line in personal filmmaking, moments captured in their presentness and gifted to others in the form of the 16mm film reel. Her project literalizes this act of giving, each film made for/to friends or family and packaged in dedication, a gesture that recognizes, first, that film gives us a means by which to share perception, but more, that those experiences are enriched and made meaningful in the act of gifting. This sets fascinating, even oppositional stakes for the Envíos, in that they are tokens of community, specifically, of community largesse, and yet, as the yield of Muñoz’s vision, these moments are also personal and individual. In other words, all of this gift-giving would be meaningful only for the act itself, but their meaningfulness is enhanced by the fact that Muñoz’s films are marked by an incredibly individual sensibility, one which has remained mature and consistent throughout the development of this project. Even in those works where the suggestion of collaboration indicates a truly mutual vision, the whole of the project coheres piece by piece.

In the Envíos, this individuality is evident through the films’ reflections on time. One aspect shared among many of these films is the sustained attention that Muñoz gives to specific sights, long takes on landscapes, dancers, shorelines. There is a uniformity to these long takes, in that they are consistently extended into the realm of meditation. For example, in Envío 27 (2013), a take of waves breaking on rocks extends well beyond telling, conveying the experience of sitting and staring into the ocean. This is not the searching eye of the lyric tradition, but a probing and insistent gaze into the landscape, and so what is being shared is not mere experience; there is also an invitation to enter and share space. Likewise, in Envío 5 (2006), two shirtless men playfully mug for the camera and mime fighting, in a long take with a fixed composition, broken by rapid scenes of bus trips in Santiago de Chile. Unlike the shoreline in Envío 27, the focus is on human presence, and the result remains an invitation into space, in this case an intimate space of cheerful occupants. Human and animal presences appear in a number of the Envíos and distance the series from becoming strictly psychogeographic and environmental, for example, in Envío 13 (2009), where a young woman’s shuffling dance dominates the image, first in close-up, then in medium, the two compositions divided by scenes of a woman and five children in Santiago de Chile. A similar bounding of vision occurs within another of Muñoz’s series, Puchuncavi (2014–), marking this as a characteristic common to Muñoz’s cinematography. This embrace of stasis does not restrict Muñoz from pursuing other dynamic territories, for instance, in Envío 23 (2010), where kinetic gestures and fragmentary compositions give rise to abstractions of light.

The Envíos are both reports of vision and collaborations. They are not merely outgoing correspondence, for Muñoz’s vision has been so coloured by instruction and intention, by her knowledge of these ideal viewers. In this the work again enters an oppositional territory between concept and expression, with concept serving to disavow the individualism of the image, and expression inevitably reinstating that individualism, bonding each to the integrated whole. Now ongoing for the past twelve years, the Envíos assemble a vision for life that is dedicated to community and continuity, to a coming generation. Envío 21 (2010), a portrait of children on swings, divided by close-ups of the children laughing, speaks to this dimension, that when these films stare at the domestic, they stare to the future. Such visions also serve to make the gestures of this tradition, inherent to the underground, to the Bolex, and shared between Muñoz and many of her dedicatees, not merely past or passing but eternal.

Muñoz has established within the Envíos a number of parallels and oppositions, between presentness and telling, reportage and dialogue, the communal and the individual. What does it mean, then, to be both public and intimate? Meeting in caves, meeting on edges, meeting as a sacred order, sharing light, sharing time, sharing visions that are tender and fleeting, compounding visions, making them dense, direct and personal, individual as the tone of the dedicator as she addresses this experience to you.

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Codes for North (2017) - excerpt, Michael Snow: Signs and Silhouettes

Codes for North: Foundations of the Canadian Avant-Garde Film is the result of a decade of engagement with the work of Jack Chambers, Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland. The bulk of this work was the basis of my doctoral dissertation in 2015. The book was published by the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre in December 2017 to mark their 50th anniversary. It is now available for order from the CFMDC. Copies are available to reviewers upon request. Below is an excerpt that introduces Michael Snow, from his emergence as a painter to his first film, New York Eye and Ear Control.

Michael Snow dances with a  cat in Joyce Wieland's  Larry's Recent Behavior  (1963). Courtesy of CFMDC. 

Michael Snow dances with a  cat in Joyce Wieland's Larry's Recent Behavior (1963). Courtesy of CFMDC. 




Michael Snow was born in Toronto in 1928, the son of an Anglophone father, a civil engineer and surveyor, and a Francophone mother who loved languages and music. Raised between English- and French-Canadian societies, Snow’s dual heritage formed the bulk of his cultural experience, and was complemented by a fascination with the senses. His father’s partial and later total blindness, arising from a workplace accident, stimulated Snow’s interest in vision, and his mother’s attraction to language would similarly guide his passion for sound and music. In Snow’s own words, “the two most important things in my life were that my father went blind when I was 15, and that my mother loved music.”(1)  In his youth, Snow took up painting, drawing, writing and music, but even then he did not cast rigid divides between these pursuits, allowing the activity of one to inform another. An interdisciplinary sensibility is evident in the early painting Jazz Band (1947), a bizarre and elastic depiction of a septet in which the environment, figures and instruments share a common plasmaticness.(2)

    As the son of an affluent family, Snow attended the prestigious Upper Canada College and afterward pursued a formal art education at the Ontario College of Art (OCA). His studies there had emphasized design, but with a Bauhaus model of interdisciplinary foundations, by which the curriculum guided him toward painting and sculpture. Snow shared his paintings with his teacher, John Martin, who encouraged him to read the books of artists’ writings issuing in the Documents in Modern Art series, edited by Robert Motherwell and published by George Wittenborn. Through this, he came to study the work of Paul Klee, who would become a major influence on his development as an artist.(3)  His most pronounced debts to Klee were in works such as his Wall Panel series (1951–52) and Still Life: Red Goblet (1952), in which geometric forms, distorted from perfection by pliable lines, are dissected, fitted together, in a style recalling Klee’s work in the Bauhaus period, for example, Red/Green Architecture (yellow/violet gradation) (1922). In Snow’s paintings from the mid–1950s, the application and density of paint, pronouncement of line, billowing of forms, evident in works such as Reclining Figure (1955), recall Klee’s mystical-abstractionist work of the 1910s; and the line, naïve figuration and frontal portraiture of Georgine (1954) and Colin Curd About to Play (1953), in which faces are rendered with features tilting across a round plane that comes to a pointed chin, have debts to Klee’s portraits and figuration, such as Senecio (1922), in which a human face is assembled out of gradating and bounded colour contrasts, the face subdivided by a series of curvilinear forms and ninety-degree angles.(4)

    Shortly after completing his studies at OCA, Snow undertook travel throughout Europe, which exposed him to both the historical roots and modern vanguard in painting. This early immersion would inform his later decision to shift away from the business of graphic design and toward the calling of art. After his return to Toronto, Snow was hired by the firm Graphic Associates, an independent animation company founded by former NFB animators Jim McKay and George Dunning. His first Toronto show of drawings at Hart House in 1955 had impressed Dunning, who had brought him on board the fledgling company.(5)  Graphic Associates would ultimately disband in 1957, but for the short time it was in operation, the company had a lively staff of artists such as Warren Collins, Graham Coughtry, Bob Cowan, and Snow’s future wife, peer and collaborator Joyce Wieland. At Graphic, Snow would make his first film, A to Z (1956). Snow described the film as a “cross-hatched animated fantasy about nocturnal furniture love. Two chairs fuck.” The film holds a tenuous relationship to his later films and art, coming as it does almost a full decade before his next finished film, but it does bear relation to his work in other media at the time, for instance, the pliable, elastic forms of the dinner set; the comedy of personified action, the furniture anthropomorphized into ecstasy; and the rhythm of those ecstatic motions, their punctuations, in continuity with visual music films, such as Norman McLaren’s contemporaneous Blinkity Blank (1955), which shared Snow’s rhythmic affinities for modern jazz, though little else. The choice of subject mirrors Snow’s contemporaneous painting Table and Chairs No. 1 (1956), in which the overlapping silhouettes of a table and two chairs make a stark, flat, black form against a red background, painted in visible strokes showing through to a black base. In its spatial execution, Table and Chairs No. 1 is unlike A to Z; in the latter, blue ink cross-hatching and depicted action gives the subjects a dimensionality that is absent in the former. The film also demonstrated Snow’s transgressive comic sensibility, descended from the absurd shocks of Dada, which would become an enduring mark of his style.

    Snow’s involvement in improvised music began in his teenage years and by the late 1940s had developed into a vocation. From 1948 to 1950, Snow spent several weeks each summer in Chicago, serving as an informal pupil to the boogie-woogie pianist Jimmy Yancey and jamming with, among others, Cootie Williams, Buck Clayton and Pee Wee Russell. Yancey would serve as a key influence on Snow’s aesthetic sensibilities in general, for his sense of vamps, motifs, and wild, mechanized action.(6)  Years later, while at Graphic, Snow would divide his time, off the job, between painting, drawing and performing as a pianist in Toronto’s traditional jazz ensembles such as Ken Dean’s Hot Seven and later, after Graphic dissolved, the Mike White Imperial Jazz Band. But Graphic also provided Snow with an early exposure to film, a medium that would become increasingly central to his work through the 1960s. In addition to A to Z, Snow made a number of short films in collaboration with Graphic coworkers Joyce Wieland, Graham Coughtry, Warren Collins and others: Tea in the Afternoon, A Salt in the Park, Assault on Grenville Street and Hamlet.(7)

    In September 1956, Snow and Wieland married in a small civil ceremony at Toronto City Hall.(8)  In coming years, the couple would at times exhibit their work together in two-person shows, both channeling Dada in their approaches to painting and collage, their work ultimately diverging as their styles became more determinedly individual. When in subsequent years Snow would develop statements about his activity as a painter, his ideas were pitched between radical aesthetic gesture and a deep knowledge of commercial design, both under the influence of Dada and situated in an awareness of the implications of insignia and signature. In Snow’s thought, formal radicalism and commercial branding could correspond; in the late 1950s, his painting was becoming increasingly radical, while his ‘day job’ kept his attention on commercial design. As the films of Graphic’s staff demonstrate, this workplace was another venue for joyous expression. As Snow had found peers and companions at Graphic and was fostering some of his experience in the practical manifestations of commercial art, he maintained a serious commitment to his work as a painter, and was building his reputation in the Toronto art scene. To that end, he joined the original group of artists represented by the Isaacs Gallery in 1956.

    Av Isaacs had grown up in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the heartland of Canadian red politics. It was perhaps that exposure to class and labour politics that had led him to study Political Science and Economics at University of Toronto. Isaacs began a framing and art supply business in 1950, and soon his shop would become a commercial gallery specializing in modern art. He proved to be a champion of new and difficult forms as he gathered his first stable of artists—Snow, Graham Coughtry, William Ronald, Gerald Scott and Robert Varvarande—later expanded to include Wieland, Chambers, Robert Markle, Gordon Rayner and Tony Urquhart, among others. Isaacs’ role went beyond sales and representation, as his gallery became a focal point in the local and national modern art communities, hosting poetry readings, concerts and groundbreaking shows.(9)  Between the Isaacs Gallery, its neighbor the Cameron Gallery, and the Librairie Française, the Gerrard Street Village bookstore of Dada scholar Michel Sanouillet, a generation of Toronto artists would receive an informal education in the styles of late modernism and would build platforms for their own radical practices.(10)  Michel Sanouillet would serve as a central guide to the Dada movement and a champion of its resurgence among painters in New York, Paris and Toronto. A leading expert on the original Dada movement of 1916 to 1924 and a friend to Marcel Duchamp, Sanouillet had published the first collection of Duchamp’s writings in 1959, Marchand du sel (Paris: Le Terrain Vague), and had, through his years in Toronto, engaged young artists in that movement, many of them members of the roster of the Isaacs Gallery, their own work already emerging from a mix of the comic, lively, dissatisfied and uncertain vicissitudes of modern life in a mode of perceptual challenge and distress. 

    With the closure of Graphic Associates in 1957, Snow focused on his painting full time. Both he and Wieland had begun to move in the direction of Neo-Dada. Snow’s work no longer bore an obvious debt to Klee. It became increasingly abstract, still painterly but rough-hewn, using cardboard and plywood in lieu of canvas. He began to make sculptural works such as Colour Booth (1959), a standing corner, narrow, ninety-degrees at its base, dark blue with yellow bands painted vertically from its midpoint up, recalling the zips of Barnett Newman’s zip paintings. In 1959, Snow’s use of geometric forms and space showed the influence of abstract expressionists such as Newman and Robert Motherwell, with firm geometry, often in the form of paper collage, serving as fixed forms under spontaneous brushstrokes. Snow’s work dealt increasingly in the relation between paint and other materials, integrating paper collage and adhesive tape. In Snow’s painting Two (1960), linear form, present in the impression of a rectangle, is revealed by a loose application of paint, strokes moving outward from the rectangular stencil, forming an oblong circle. The Klee influence remained, but the work that Snow would develop through 1960 would emphasize the demarcation of the frame, a self-consciousness of painterly activity and obscure programme, evident in Green in Green, Years and Lac Clair (all 1960).

    Of these works, Lac Clair was a breakthrough achievement, a dense, pale blue painting composed in pronounced brushstrokes, flowing on a slight curve. There is no other guide to its orientation within the image, as adhesive tape runs in a repeating pattern from each corner, demarcating the frame and placed in such a way as to give the work a rigid symmetry.(11)  At the same time that his painting became abstract, Snow was honing his relation to realism and the photograph. This is most evident in Drawn Out (1959), a work of twenty-two charcoal-on-paper drawings, based on a diptych photograph of a murderer and his victim taken from an old newspaper. Twenty-one of these illustrations are portraits of the murderer Alan James Grierson, each one marked by absences, partially filled silhouettes, including and excluding features such as his nose, eyes and mouth. Each illustration was in a markedly different style. In the first image, Grierson is rendered by the conventional expectations of realism, his visage resembling the source photograph, and likewise, in the final image, his victim Molly Brown is rendered realistically. She is never subject to these variations that turn the photograph into a series of changing impressions, reassembling Grierson’s face in pieces to mirror his compromised humanity. This is not mere gradation through the features of Grierson but a catalogue of recognizable styles of art and portraiture. They bear marks of primitive and naïve movements, of Cubism, Surrealism and Dada, one in cross-hatching, another in a style that recalls bas-relief. Some bear the boundaries of the frame while others allow the face to dissipate into the paper. These variations recall Pablo Picasso’s 1957 suite of variations on Velázquez’s Las Meninas. Even by its grave nature, the work took on the form of play, punning on Grierson’s face, but also bearing an earnest rumination on photographic accuracy and truth.

    From December 20, 1961 to January 9, 1962, the artist Richard Gorman held a show of local manifestations of Neo-Dada at the Isaacs Gallery, featuring work by Gorman, Snow, Wieland, Curnoe, Rayner, Dennis Burton and Arthur Coughtry (Graham Coughtry’s brother).(12)  This would prove one of the rare group shows to announce the presence of a Canadian Neo-Dada. Michel Sanouillet wrote that this show indicated “a healthy reaction against a lethal form of stuffy conservatism which has pervaded most of this country’s artistic circles.”(13)  While Neo-Dada thought and expression is inextricable from Snow at all stages of his art from 1957 onward, and the legacy of Dada informs so much of his aesthetic philosophy, by the winter of 1961, his work had already begun to depart from the dominant aesthetics of that movement. He would confront realism and representation, adopting an inclusive attitude toward form and content, and that inclusiveness would become a dominant characteristic in his mature work.(14) 

    Snow wrote poems and texts sparingly, but one early text, “Title or Heading” (1961), served as a free form statement of his ideas about art that included aphorisms, descriptive expressions and lists of influences from Gustave Flaubert to Art Blakey. It was an inventory, a mode of speech, rife with enclosures and allusions, a declaration of art as “Difficult Entertainment,” and it began with a statement of Snow’s process that would declare the most enduring and difficult character of his work: “I make up the rules of a game, then I attempt to play it. / If I seem to be losing I change the rules.”(15)  These ideas of difficult entertainment and the flexible game would achieve most vivid application as Snow began, in subsequent years, to develop films and happenings, work that could play out in time and that would take as the variables of its games perspectival enigmas, clarity of forms and visual and verbal puns. Snow’s relation to punning, mass culture and modal tension (between artwork, perception and context) would evolve his work further, away from painterly abstraction and toward the reproducible gesture of postmodernity, toward the self-conscious manufacture and repetition of the icon.

Michael Snow in his studio, 1962.

Michael Snow in his studio, 1962.

    In late 1960, Michael Snow developed what would become the enduring sign of his work through the 1960s, a cardboard figure in the shape of a woman mid-stride. He would later write that this resulted after several years of “worrying about where the figure is or could be or would be.”(16)  The Walking Woman, as he would call it, was first cut from cardboard, creating a positive-negative stencil that Snow would use to initially reproduce the work, and as a model for later stencil reproductions of varying scale. The figure’s contours would remain fixed, or else, elasticized in a consistent way, but it was cast on many surfaces, on paper, wood, canvas, cardboard, even a car door; and in many media, including acrylic, enamel, ink, spray and oil paints. It was a symbol synonymous with Snow and yet anonymous, an icon of marketing, manufacturing, commercial culture, and was itself aware of these traits, assuming a semi-ironic presence within that culture.(17)  It was also an expression of pure form, a stylized silhouette that could be repurposed, a mark of continuity in varied styles and environments, to exhaustion. Snow would cast it unsigned on lampposts, subways, buildings, and it became his signature, or as he would pun, his “trademark.” This lost art, like much of the Walking Woman work, was rooted in the Dada gesture, continuing from the found objects that Marcel Duchamp had exhibited in New York forty-five years earlier. The Walking Woman would serve as witness to and central object in a continuous evolution in Snow’s art from 1961 until 1967. The presence of the figure allowed Snow to challenge any expectations an audience might bring to his work as regards realism, figuration and classical perspective. For example, in the distortion of Touched Woman (1961), in which the figure is fragmented by paper folds; Forty Drawings (1961), one of several works in which repetitions of the figure reveal anamorphic distortions and variations, following in the line of Drawn Out; the painting 61-62 (1962), in which a pair of Walking Woman forms are then filled by colour differentiations that divide the figure into an abstract composition, departing from the figurative dimension and returning to Snow’s Klee influence; the figure is slowly realized in the seven-panel sequence of Clothed Woman (In Memory of My Father) (1963); another sequential work of the same year, Olympia (1963), renders the figure in positive and negative stencil, in photographic detail and in styles recalling Pop or the Neo-Classical. By the time that Snow made Five Girl-Panels (1964), in which the Walking Woman is repeated on five canvases, distorted as through a funhouse mirror, by width and height and angle, the figure had been realized in painting, sculpture and as ‘lost art’, as Snow called it, in environmental stenciling throughout Toronto and New York City. Much as Jack Chambers had come to see the figure as “an object into which you unload experience,” with the Walking Woman, Snow had conceived of an icon that could serve as the prison-house of art, a series of lines that were simultaneously limiting and freeing, and a path toward a greater understanding of the relation between form and content, and between realism and abstraction. The silhouette could suggest realism and yet, as pure form, resist it.(18)

    At the same time that Snow’s work was moving in the direction of the Walking Woman, Snow and Wieland were planning a move to New York City. Snow would later tell Joe Medjuck that his reason for going had been “to get out of me what I hoped was there.”(19)  He believed that the energy of New York would draw out all dormant abilities, that it would make new things possible, an intention that mirrored the role of the Walking Woman, which was essentially an organizing principle for formal radicalism that challenged Snow to work around the parameters of the icon, and in doing so, to draw out from him and refine a total vocabulary of form.(20)  Snow would later describe New York as “a sampling of everything good and bad everywhere,” and there, Snow and Wieland received greater exposure to contemporary movements.(21)  They would befriend others who, like them, had come under the influence of Dada and Surrealism and were wrestling with the experience of making radical art and poetry, chiefly, Jonas Mekas, Ken and Flo Jacobs, and Paul and Jo Haines, among others.(22)  Soon after arriving, Snow would begin to work in film again, with Walking Woman in New York, a project first discussed in winter 1962 as a collaboration with filmmaker Ben Park and TV presenter Hugh Downs. Not many details are known of the film’s content, but Marcel Duchamp, to whom Snow and Wieland were introduced by Michel Sanouillet, was to appear on camera. Walking Woman in New York was conceived for television and art house theatres, and it was to be a non-narrative film in which the Walking Woman icon was sighted around New York. Asked at the time why he wanted to get into films, Snow replied, “I don’t. It’s just another way of using the walking woman.”(23)  Although the film would never be completed, the idea of making a film that would serve as a vehicle for the Walking Woman stayed with Snow, and the process of working with film became more appealing. 

    Much as the Walking Woman was inspiring Snow to carry on his painting in the mode of Difficult Entertainment, it, and the influence of his and Wieland’s New York social circle, was also drawing him toward underground cinema. In New York, Snow and Wieland had been exposed, via their friend and former Graphic Associates coworker Bob Cowan, to the work of George and Mike Kuchar, twin brothers whose underground films such as The Pervert (1963) and Sins of the Fleshapoids (1965) parodied melodrama and established the camp aesthetic. They were also exposed to the films of Jack Smith, specifically Flaming Creatures (1963), an explicitly gay work, equal parts shocking, repellent and joyous, which was immediately seized by the police on charges of obscenity. These charges hit close to home as Snow and Wieland’s friends were directly involved in this work, as exhibitors, distributors, allies and collaborators with Smith. At a screening the following year, police seized the film again, and arrested Ken Jacobs and Jonas Mekas for exhibiting it. Some strata of New York society were just as threatened by modern art as stuffy, conservative Toronto where, within a year, gallery owner Dorothy Cameron would be arrested for exhibiting Robert Markle’s nude drawings. Against this climate of censorship and suppression, the films of Smith and the Kuchars represented freedom, and what is more, these films had made filmmaking seem a possible and worthwhile activity.(24)  The film community in New York City, and in particular this lively group of personal and satirical underground filmmakers, revealed to Snow that cinema still had diverse artistic application, and that like painting and sculpture, it held unmapped territory for him to explore.

    In 1964, Snow was commissioned by Ten Centuries Concerts in Toronto to make a film. That film, New York Eye and Ear Control, would act as a prelude to the aesthetic concerns that would dominate his filmmaking through the remainder of the 1960s. It would signal a coming change in his work, a shift away from the iconographic activities that he had pursued around the Walking Woman, and yet it would also be an essential part of the Walking Woman series. The earlier film project with Ben Park, Walking Woman in New York, had collapsed. By Snow’s account, this was because the enthusiasm with which Park had initially approached the project had waned. Park’s original ambition was to make an artistic film that would be palatable to a television audience. New York Eye and Ear Control, the film that Snow would make with some of the same ideas, had elements of material self-consciousness uncommon even in avant-garde film at the time, elements that remain incompatible with the mass audience. Snow wrote of the collaboration with Park that it seemed “to concern itself with the poetry of the juxtaposition of the static and the dynamic, absence, presence, development of events for capture…” and New York Eye and Ear Control would be haunted by his icon accordingly, occupying compositions, sometimes announced, sometimes hidden.(25)

New York Eye and Ear Control  [Film Still], 1964, 16mm, 34 minutes, black and white, sound.

New York Eye and Ear Control [Film Still], 1964, 16mm, 34 minutes, black and white, sound.

    If Walking Woman in New York had been posed around the loose narrative structure of a day-in-the-life of the icon, that mission continued in New York Eye and Ear Control. The Walking Woman travels from rustic, natural settings, shorelines and woodlands, to the city, largely empty in early morning. The icon is insinuated into nature, on beaches and in forests, alternately stood upright and laid flat on the ground, obscured in trees, stood among rocks on the shore, and in one witty image, stood in water on the shoreline, walking on water. The figure is reversible, black on one side, white on the other, mirroring the black and white of the film stock. The camera rides through a forest wildly, trees becoming abstracted by motion and speed, their original form evident in silhouettes as sun breaks through them. The camera slows as it approaches the Walking Woman in the woods, then starts again. It ends up in New York City, entering over bridges. Trumpeter Don Cherry stands on a sidewalk as a car approaches and slows. He waves to the camera, gets into the car and departs. The title is photographed in fragments of awnings and signs, broken down into individual letters. Cherry arrives at his destination, exits the car and enters an apartment. The black Walking Woman is stood in front of a series of buildings in New York. In a long shot, light and smog overtake the image in a gauzy blur. Back on the beach, the white Walking Woman is stood against rocks on the shoreline. The Walking Woman becomes a graphic form when laid flat, but when stood, becomes both graphic form and a part of the landscape, blending with her surroundings. Sand and water wash over the Walking Woman, laid on the shoreline. The white Walking Woman is set on fire and burns against an otherwise black set, burns against a background of white light, until all that remains is her ashen impression. After its day out, the icon retires to a studio, where, now in the form of a cut-out silhouette, the icon is filled by real women.(26)

    Snow would describe this work as an attempt to make a film in which sound and image had equal weighting, neither one subservient to the other. The sound component of the film is a group improvisation performed by Albert Ayler (tenor saxophone), Don Cherry (trumpet), John Tchicai (alto saxophone), Roswell Rudd (trombone), Gary Peacock (bass) and Sonny Murray (drums). For this session, Ayler’s trio (Ayler, Peacock and Murray) was supplemented with Cherry, strongly affiliated with Ornette Coleman’s Atlantic quartets, and Tchicai and Rudd of the New York Art Quartet. Their faces also make up the penultimate sequence of the film. The band arrives in their recording space and each member is filmed in a frontal portrait. As the film ends, two figures, a black man and white woman, are seen having sex, embracing nude, in a bed with white sheets. The Walking Woman has entered reality in the literal representation of the woman. And yet, the notion and function of that icon, as a positive-negative suggestion of form, one side black, the other white, is also present in the interplay of black and white forms, in skin tone but also in illumination and shadow, in all aspects of this final episode. This final sequence is at once image and theme, graphic form and realist form.

New York Eye and Ear Control  [Film Still], 1964, 16mm, 34 minutes, black and white, sound.

New York Eye and Ear Control [Film Still], 1964, 16mm, 34 minutes, black and white, sound.

    New York Eye and Ear Control begins with a text by the poet Paul Haines; in Snow’s writings, he indicates the role of this text as an indicator of the flatness of the screen: “Start with Words. Words flat on screen which is Flat. Words don’t have much visual space unless you’re asked to see that.”(27)  The text, therefore, not by its content but by its presence, announces the role of the screen as a flat plane. The viewer is confronted by this, but indirectly, without context and without instruction to connect this idea with the rest of the film. The film invariably casts the flat form of the Walking Woman into three-dimensional space, spaces occupied by the dramatic, shifting surfaces of nature (sand, rock, forest), and the flat planes of civilization (street signs, buildings). There is little editorial mediation in what follows, as one roll leads to another, with light-struck ends bridging the sequences. The aperture changes on the same compositions, indicating that each camera roll contains several exposures of the same shots. These strategies distress the conventional realist expectations of cinema, as the camera rolls play against the artifice of film editing, and bear the marks of their material base, process and construction. As a document of Snow’s artistic activity, in the context of activity with which he identified (the free jazz of this ensemble), New York Eye and Ear Control was profoundly difficult, alluding to his sources and his prior work, placing it in a context where parallels (between his Walking Woman activity and free jazz) were not comprehensible or immediate, and in disorienting sequence, the relation between one episode and another forged by physical editing alone and not by logical, causal transition. Snow could build perceptual puzzles in film, and extend to cinema the most difficult ends of his art, the work developing around puns, disjointed sequence and self-referentiality. The film was perceptually distressing, dense, fortified against ready interpretation, and yet, it remained as vibrant and witty as his work in other media.

    When New York Eye and Ear Control premiered at Ten Centuries’ season finale in April 1965 at the Edward Johnson Building, home to University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, it inspired a massive walkout from angry, confused patrons. A local newspaper headline read, “300 flee from far-out film.”(28)  The premiere in New York inspired similar hostility, with the audience throwing popcorn at the screen. Gerard Malanga, despite his enthusiasm for the film, charged that it could not have been made when Michael Snow said it was made because of its formal correspondences to Andy Warhol’s Screen Tests series (1964–1966). While this correspondence could be taken as derivation or dismissed as coincidence, it might best be regarded as a sign of the common disposition of Snow and Warhol toward structural transparency and choice of subject, that both were essentially devoted to the repetition of the icon, but to different ends: Warhol to the emptiness of experience, Snow to the richness of forms. In a statement that Snow wrote about the film, “Around about New York Eye and Ear Control,” it is clear that he did not see his method, what P. Adams Sitney would later name structural film, as clinical. Snow connects New York Eye and Ear Control, in the abstract, to the authority of experience (“James Joyce could legally pun because he had the Background […] Who has the foreground?”); to ecstatic experience, in a long digression dealing with emotional response to art; to the Difficult Entertainment of jazz and its ascension toward freer forms; and to the classical idea of art and its aspiration toward scientific declarations of form. This connection is stated but not directed to any evidence of the film itself. It is only an impression that forms around the film. The statement reveals that the primary concern of the work is not the image as an isolated thing, or as a thing put into conversation with sound, but as the contemporary end of several lines of thinking, around race, art, authority, rhythm, presence, and the spatial and temporal relations between language, image, representation and real things.



  1. Manny Farber, “The Arts: Farewell to a Lady,” Time (Canadian Edition), 24 January 1969, 17.

  2. In much of the work that immediately followed, Snow used jazz, as improvisation and liberation, as a subject or to inform structure. Later, his work would involve free jazz musicians such as Albert Ayler and Roswell Rudd, and he would be a founding member of the improvisatory Canadian Creative Music Collective, or CCMC.

  3. Joe Medjuck, “The Life & Times of Michael Snow,” Take One 3, no. 3 (January-February 1971, published April 1972), 7.

  4. These debts would carry on in Snow’s other figurative paintings in this period, such as On the Hero Myth (1955) and Young Girl (1955).

  5. In a show of Canada’s puritan, anti-modern sensitivities, Nathan Phillips, then-Mayor of Toronto, demanded that those same drawings be removed, deeming them “offensive.” This incident is elaborated in David Kilgour, A Strange Elation: Hart House, the First Eighty Years (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1999), 57.

  6. Michael Snow, “Michael Snow Musics for Piano, Whistling, Microphone and Tape Recorder, 1975,” in Louise Dompierre (Ed.) The Collected Writings of Michael Snow (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier Press, 1994), 175.

  7. The dates on these films are a matter of some speculation. An illuminating account is provided in Iris Nowell’s Joyce Wieland: A Life in Art (Erin, Ont.: Porcupine’s Quill, 2001), which describes their content and rightly positions Warren Collins as the instigator of these collaborations; however, Nowell’s dates for the production of the films and the closure of Graphic Associates are not reliable.

  8. Jane Lind, Joyce Wieland: Artist on Fire (Toronto: Lorimer, 2001), 103.

  9. The Isaacs Gallery had a public program of artists’ films in February 1964. Participating artists included Snow, Wieland, Bob Cowan, Graham Coughtry, Louis de Niverville, Arthur Lipsett, Al Sens, George Gingras, Carlos Machiori and George Dunning, a mix of artists working in late modern idioms and career filmmakers working within the institutional mechanisms of the National Film Board and the CBC. Where Wieland, Snow and Coughtry represented the former, Machiori, Sens, Dunning and Lipsett represented the latter, with figures like underground filmmaker Cowan falling somewhere in between.

  10. This community originated in the Gerrard Street Village which had developed in the mid-1950s, a Toronto cousin of New York’s Greenwich Village, which would stand as the centre of the city’s avant-garde jazz, art and poetry movements through to the late 1950s when an expansion of Toronto General Hospital annexed the village. Isaacs started his first gallery here in 1955 as the Greenwich Gallery. For further discussion, see Stuart Robert Henderson, Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2011), 33.

  11. It is also worth noting another relation between Lac Clair and one trait found in allusive abstractionist painting: the title is programmatic, suggesting a subject. Many of Snow’s other titles of the period had not been so much suggestive as indicative of formal construction (for example, Blue and Purple Drawing, Painting Un-Foldage, Between, Title). By 1960, programme in the form of allusive titling had clarified the relation of Snow’s painting to exterior experience, for instance, showing debts to jazz, with Green in Green (1960), an abstract description of colour relation within the work but also an allusion to Bill Evans’s composition “Blue in Green” from Miles Davis’s album Kind of Blue (Columbia, 1959); and Snow’s Blue Monk, its title taken from a Thelonious Monk composition first recorded for the album Thelonious Monk Trio (Prestige, 1954). Snow’s allusions did not begin and end with jazz; consider the literary debt of Notes from the Underground (1959) to Dostoyevsky, or the historical debts of Petrograd 1917 (1958), an allusion to the February Revolution.

  12. Donnalu Wigmore, Isaacs Seen (Toronto: University of Toronto Hart House, 2005), 158.

  13. Michel Sanouillet, “The Sign of Dada,” Canadian Art 78 (March/April 1962), 111.

  14. The notion that Snow’s work is inclusive of various forms comes first from Snow himself, in “A Lot of Near Mrs.”, in which he writes: “My work is inclusive not exclusive, puppetry, choreography. I’m not so interested in making a lot of paintings, sculpture etc. as finding out what happens when you do such and such a thing” (18); but to speak of this as an inclusive aesthetic that simultaneously endorses realism and abstraction comes from R. Bruce Elder’s writings on New York Eye and Ear Control in Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier University Press, 1989). Inclusivity is one of the central modal difficulties of Snow’s work, which arrives at a time when so much modern and postmodern art demands that artists and critics take sides between oppositional and ideologically exclusive manifestations of form and content.

  15. Michael Snow, “Title or Heading,” (1961) reprinted in The Collected Writings of Michael Snow (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier Press, 1994), 13.

  16. Michael Snow, “A Lot of Near Mrs.” (1963) reprinted in The Collected Writings of Michael Snow (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier Press, 1994), 19.

  17. The complexity of the Walking Woman, as a sign caught between marketplace and aesthetic radicalism, and its ultimate implications, recalls Donald Kuspit’s discussion of Pop Art’s devotion to the empty signifier and to the ideology of capitalism, as well as the way in which Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns used repetitions of mass images, the celebrity portrait and the American flag respectively. The Walking Woman works parallel the Pop Art movement, and they are the next evolution in Snow’s art, in continuity with his Neo-Dada and abstractionist periods. They assume some similarity with both Warhol’s and Johns’ acts of repetition in ideology, or at least inasmuch as they resist the social commentary that might be assigned to them by critics and audiences who search for inherent comment, rather than form, within the works. Such works are a declaration, not that anything can be art, but that art need not have its meaning dictated by anything beyond its own values; that beyond its formal values, a work might contain thematic ambiguities that could not be resolved with any certainty in surrounding discourse. This is especially true of Walking Woman works of 1964, dealing explicitly in perspectival distortions, such as Hawaii and Five Girl-Panels.

  18. In Snow’s period of transitioning between Toronto and New York, he began to write a statement to clarify aspects of the Walking Woman works that he felt were being misunderstood by audiences and critics. This statement, “A Lot of Near Mrs.”, continued the punning of “Title or Heading” but focused on matters of representation and meaning. It was more combative than “Title or Heading,” in that the earlier piece was posed to declare certain forms and sources, its own form of punning resonating with Snow’s painting, and announcing the comic sensibility of the Walking Woman works. With “A Lot of Near Mrs.” Snow was less concerned with playful declaration than with introducing critics and audiences to the potential meanings of a significant and focused body of recent work, to disabuse them of interpretations he believed to be incorrect or reductive, and to declare his movement across media. The resulting text offers expository statements, still often punning, that gave considerable insight into Snow’s use of the figure and his relation to real things. Perhaps the most definite statement in the text is this: “My subject is not women or a woman but the first cardboard cutout of W.W. I made.” This is an explication of his distinction between form and content, and of his rendering of the Walking Woman as icon rather than stand-in. Snow reveals, in his reflections on real things, a deep debt to Marcel Duchamp, for instance, in this statement that suggests a relation between Snow’s thinking on art and the “Unhappy Readymade” (1915): “Use time: outdoor exposure for one month: weather woman Jan. 1 to 31. Weather report. (...) in the process show the path of the model.” On the relation between abstraction, realism and subject, he writes, “An ‘abstract’ shape can be sexier than a representation of a (beautiful) breast but neither are sexier than a (beautiful) breast,” a claim that the purpose of art is not to supplant the experience of reality but to give rise to experience and sensation that is, in the resistance of realism, as distinct from real things as is realist representation itself.

  19. Joe Medjuck, “The Life & Times of Michael Snow,” Take One 3, no. 3 (January-February 1971, published April 1972), 6.

  20. In this context, the Walking Woman becomes the flexible game, a fixed form that is subject to acts of recontextualization, and that is encoded with process instructions, but despite those instructions and fluctuating contexts, the artist may spontaneously change the rules.

  21. Kay Kritzwiser, “What’s So Special About New York? Ask an Artist.” Globe and Mail, 15 April 1967, 13.

  22. The influence of Neo-Dada is common to Mekas and Jacobs, apparent in their sense of a living community and of the agency of art, to which end, of the two, Jacobs puts those ideas into practice with films such as Little Stabs at Happiness (1960) and Blonde Cobra (1963), both of which are raw in construction, improvisatory and mysterious, and defiant to order. Later, Jacobs would depart from these ideas, but the rough material awareness of these early works would stay with his films. Mekas, on the other hand, embraces the anti-art aesthetics of Dada and Fluxus as a thinker, but not as a filmmaker, as he began to advance an elegiac body of work in the resonances of Romanticism. Of all of Snow and Wieland’s friends in New York, it was the poet and sound engineer Paul Haines whose work most strongly resonated with Neo-Dada, by its fragmentary construction, its cooption of idioms and images out of everyday experience, surreally recapitulating the everyday into foreign syntax and minimal expression.

  23. Arnold Rockman, “Same Woman, But In All Shapes and Sizes.” Toronto Star, 6 July 1963.

  24. For its liveliness and its explication of material illusion, much of the New American Cinema bore a resemblance to the Neo-Dada performance art of the era. For instance, John Cage’s Theatre Piece No. 1 (1952), a proto-Neo-Dada performance piece, brought about a confrontational experience that, in its assembly through multiple media, distinguished the work produced from the action and minds that produced it. As the Neo-Dada formed in New York City through the 1950s, it arose from the idea that art and life were distinct but connected, that existing confrontational impulses in art, even the material consciousness inherent in work that distinguished expression from meaning, was a false confrontation, that the necessary artistic gesture of the present moment was to ask Cage’s question, “which is more musical: a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?” Out of this mentality came the formation of intermedia and Fluxus, with its emphasis on performative manifestations and happenings. For example, the happenings of Allan Kaprow emphasized spontaneous situations and audience participation. This formed the basis for the Neo-Dada of the New American Cinema as seen in the films of the Kuchar Brothers, Ken Jacobs and Jack Smith.

  25. Michael Snow, “A Lot of Near Mrs.” (1963) reprinted in The Collected Writings of Michael Snow (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier Press, 1994), 18.

  26. This sequence has direct correspondence to Snow’s Carla Bley (1965), a photo-collage portrait of the composer posed as the Walking Woman, but it also corresponds to the variations on the fill of the figure that had come through the Walking Woman works of 1963, such as Olympia. In the paintings, the Walking Woman silhouette is ‘filled’ by representations of women, stylized in the various idioms of representational painting. By contrast, the film and photograph might be taken as documentation of a direct interaction between icon and woman.

  27. Michael Snow, “Around about New York Eye and Ear Control.” In The Collected Writings of Michael Snow (Waterloo: Wilfred Laurier Press, 1994), 25.

  28. Ralph Thomas, “300 flee from far-out film.” Toronto Star, 5 April 1965, 22.

In the Embryo of All Things: The Poems of Harry Alan Potamkin

This is the introduction to In the Embryo of All Things: The Collected Poems of Harry Alan Potamkin, the inaugural release of Sightline Editions, a publishing company that I began in 2017 to release books on the intersection of poetry and cinema.

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Harry Alan Potamkin is best remembered for his contributions to film criticism, writing for Hound & Horn, Close-Up and The New Masses. He developed one of the first coherent, impassioned bodies of critical writings on cinema, in the daily chore of reviews, in philosophical speculations on the possibilities and applications of the medium, and in a series of essays dealing with the complexities of sound and image relations, what he would come to call the “compound cinema.” Potamkin’s ideal film would elicit all of the potential of the marriage of sound and image, in the dawn of the talkie, to achieve something akin to the character of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is to say, his ideal was a cinema of difficult pleasures arising from a meeting of narrative risk, formal adventure and polyphonic experience. He understood the motion picture as a new art form, one in which primitive bridges and juxtapositions of image and sound could form complex meanings; his writings on the aesthetic dimensions, social responsibilities and narrative powers of film influenced a generation of critics, cultivating the field as a forum for intellectuals to bring their critical acumen to bear on cinema. His contributions sowed the field of film criticism, and his devotion to it is further evidenced by the plans that he set in place to develop film education in America.(1)

    Potamkin was raised in Philadelphia, the fourth child of six to a poor family of Russian immigrants, his father an educated man who worked as a fish-seller in the slum in which they lived. A range of formative experiences in his school days led Potamkin to choose writing as his vocation, and he began contributing to his school’s literary journals and newspapers. He was forced to leave the University of Pennsylvania because he couldn’t pass a mandatory swimming test, eventually earning a degree in English from New York University in 1921.(2)  Many of Potamkin’s more radical ideas in art, politics and progressive education had come to him as a resident of the Stanton, New Jersey anarchist colony, and he would bring these ideas home to Philadelphia, where he became a social worker in the 1920s. There he served as director of the Northern Liberties Playground, developing programs to teach youth through what he called “educational play,” a Children’s Play Village, in which children more fully realized their imaginative potential, forming a micro society in which the children created and patronized imaginary, self-run businesses. The children also collectively wrote and published a newspaper under Potamkin’s supervision. The Village Gazette featured verse, stories and observations. The American historian Louis Filler offered a personal reminiscence of Potamkin, under whose supervision he, at age twelve, served as an editor of the Gazette. Filler describes Potamkin as a man who invested tremendous time in imparting skills to children, but whose reservation in sharing the full scale of his intellectual life had left the author doubting his teacher’s motives.(3)  He nevertheless paints a portrait of Potamkin as a driven, lonesome figure, whose generosity and dedication enriched these children’s lives with skills that might help them attain their creative potential. Such selfless organization was at the heart of Potamkin’s work as a public intellectual and as a promoter of humanist ideals.

    While Potamkin’s writings on cinema remain his abiding gift to the world of letters, he was first a poet, writing for modernist “little” magazines and political newspapers beginning in 1920, and continuing until his death. His contributions to modern poetry are dimly remembered vessels of the poet’s indignation and wonder that reflect a range of social and aesthetic beliefs. These poems include meditations on early conflicts between revolutionaries and capitalist society, such as the Haymarket Affair and the Paris Commune; explicit indictments of international anti-revolutionary events, such as Woodrow Wilson’s intervention in the May Fourth Movement and the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti; and evocations of ancient, mythic and literary figures of contemporary resonance, such as the cyclops Polyphemus, Shakespeare’s Mercutio and the Jewish prophet Malachi and poet Susskind of Trimberg.

    Many of his poems serve as despairing accounts of injustice, balanced with calls to action, rubbing his observations of misery and endurance against anthemic slogans (“Dig on, dig in, comrades, / There’s water!”) His rage at injustice was not restricted to the struggles of labor movements: he also wrote an unfinished collection of poems, Spectacle Negre, on slavery, African art and landscape, and the ancient nobility of blackness. And still there is another line of thought in his poetry, a formalist line that speaks of history, love, death, and the aesthetic dimension, and which is anchored in neither the politics of labor nor race. An early example of such a poem is “Dissertation” (1923), from which this collection takes its name, what might be called an inquiry into the reflecting, circulating, syncopating energies of the universe. With one of Potamkin’s longest poems, “Burial by an Inland Sea” (1927), we see this line reach its end, in a sequence of four component poems that invoke funerary rites. 

    Between 1920 and 1925, writing and editing poetry commanded all of Potamkin’s attention. In 1925, he married Elizabeth Kleiman, who like him was employed as a social worker in Philadelphia. A year later, for a belated honeymoon, they travelled to Europe. This trip had a practical, professional purpose for Potamkin: he had planned to meet writers whose work he admired, to solicit manuscripts for his journal, The Guardian. In Paris, he met Blaise Cendrars, Joseph Delteil and Jules Romains, all writers of difficult, surreal texts, whose interests in filmmaking were growing. Many in their circle, including André Breton and Robert Desnos, were writing mini ‘cinéarios’ for the Nouvelle Revue Francaise. It was on this trip that Potamkin came to see cinema as an art form thoroughly distinct from the literary and theatrical precedents of narrative that it had been forced to mime. From the same circle of artists and writers that he had sought out in Europe came early contributions to an artists’ cinema, in the films of René Clair, Fernand Léger, Man Ray and others. The artistic integrity of filmmakers such as Jean Epstein, Abel Gance and the Soviet formalist school of montage further provided evidence of an aesthetic cinema coming into its own as an art form. Criticism could celebrate and encourage its most artistic manifestations.

    Potamkin was, in this sense, reborn alongside the arrival of The Battleship Potemkin (1925), Sergei Eisenstein’s dramatization of the Soviet uprising which would serve as a foundational work of an international art cinema. Faced with his new calling to film criticism, Potamkin’s ambitions to the life of a poet, a constant from his childhood into adulthood, began slowly to fade, helped along in its decline by the indifference of literary editors. While he would continue to write and publish poetry, he would do so with less frequency, but the poems that he produced in his final years demonstrate the brave new directions and necessary provocations that he had always aspired toward. He was a man who carried around an excess of reflective learning in a time that demanded action, and he knew it.

* * *

In 1920, Harry Alan Potamkin published his first poem, “Shantung,” written while he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania. The poem is a response to the May Fourth Movement, a scathing critique of Woodrow Wilson for his role in the negotiations between Japan and China in the territorial disputes surrounding Shandong. It establishes the theme of fatalism that would recur throughout Potamkin’s poetry (the Chinese are “rescued from the lion to be thrown as meat again”) as well as allusions that tie the contemporary event to a more ancient order of heroes and villains. These aspects of his poetry would be further cultivated in his treatment of the Haymarket Affair, the fatal 1886 bombing of a labor demonstration at the McCormick Harvesting Machine Company plant (“four workers slain — / by McCormick the Reaper!”) In “Haymarket” (1932), he condemns those masters of industry, charging that their commitment to iniquity and their rush to conspiracy and murder has caused such strife that they must be forcefully rejected, commanding them, “balance your ledgers and take your rewards, / these are the days of liquidation!” His response to the execution of the anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, “The Infamous Ritual” (1927), is likewise commanding in tone, a moral redressing of American society for indulging in politically-motivated execution.

    His poem on the Holodomor, a man-made famine in the Ukraine fashioned by Joseph Stalin, written in the famine’s first year (in “Fruit of the Strife,” 1932), seemed to prematurely commemorate a coming windfall from austerity that never materialized, in what has in years since been roundly condemned as a brutal Soviet genocide. Potamkin’s obscurantism combines with his ideology to create a tangle of Marxist optimism, religious mysticism and celebratory propaganda. Even if his admiration for such austerity were sincere, there is admission of distrust of “the young man from the Party,” who insists that there is water underground—“dig on, dig in, (…) there is water / to well into sustenance and flower”—there is distrust of he who demands devotion without evidence, he for whom agronomy is not science but prayer and miracle. While these poems are written about events that fall beyond the realm of Potamkin’s immediate experience, they have a desire for relevance, as a form of documental reportage, enhanced by the poet’s allusive tendencies, his ability to draw parallels between labor struggles and other moral conflicts that haunt our histories and myths.

    In the mid-1920s, at the same time that Potamkin set film criticism as his primary focus, he began a series of short poems focused on his and his society’s imaginings of Black life and culture. These poems were published serially, in a number of different periodicals, but according to his correspondence with publisher and social critic W.E.B. Dubois, they were intended as a collection.(4)  They first appeared in Black newspapers in the late 1920s—The Crisis, Opportunity and The Messenger—through the patronage of poet Countee Cullen and Dubois, among others. Blackness, and specifically, the graphic forms of Black humanity, fascinated Potamkin. In his work as a film critic, he witnessed the widest range of misrepresentations, including grotesque portrayals of fear and stupidity in many “race” films of the era. His writings on the subject, beginning in reviews of poets such as Cullen and Langston Hughes, and later refined in aesthetic criticism of films and art, were where his aesthetic and social beliefs were most entangled. Potamkin saw the social conditions and aesthetic character of blackness as largely indivisible, and as such, his take as a poet fluctuated between radical, liberal and paternalistic. Consequently, the poems, though no less a result of earnest fascination and blazing empathy, still formed out of humanistic love, are often less effective than his Marxist ‘reportage’ poetry. Spectacle Negre adopts a tone of praise, even envy, of blackness as something nearer to godliness. The poems are most effective when they are portents and hymns; at their most compromised, they are too well-intentioned to incite contempt.

    But that rage that haunts Potamkin’s reportage poetry, in which we as moral beings stand united against the predators—Pinkertons, company men and their ilk—is often present in Spectacle Negre, with Potamkin serving as a self-appointed revolutionary agent on behalf of Black humanity. The strongest of these poems, such as “Black Prophet,” carry that same fatalistic sensibility that began in “Shantung”: the poet sees in the other the certain and deserved reckoning of an oppressive society. Thus, blackness bears simultaneous wisdom and innocence, attuned to the knowledge of the ancients by suffering and faith. Potamkin traces Black suffering from lynchings and plantations to the darkness of the African jungle, dreams of pagan gods and the exotic threats of lions and snakes. The misfortune of Spectacle Negre, and the likely reason that many of its component parts were left unpublished and are now lost, lies in Potamkin’s necessarily ambiguous, unresolved ideas of blackness, which alternately engage the ‘noble savage,’ the image of a distant, alien tropic, and the plastic qualities of both the African totem and the Black body. While these aspects of the poems allow Spectacle Negre to collapse into gross exoticism, ultimately Potamkin sings out, here as elsewhere, the inherent, neglected humanity of the oppressed. It is surely for this power that the Spectacle Negre poems found their first audiences and publishers in Black intellectuals such as Cullen and Dubois.

    The political dimensions of Potamkin’s poetry would reach their apogee in his final year, 1933, when he completed two poems, “Merchant Marine” and “Mecklenburg County,” for The Daily Worker. These poems indicate a direction Potamkin may have taken in his poetry had he been able to continue. Both were examples of what he called Workers’ Correspondence Poems, a style of found poetry that Potamkin had begun to develop, with text drawn purportedly from letters to the Daily Worker and the Marine Workers’ Voice, reshaped with the unmistakable articulation of Potamkin’s bookish revolutionary.(5)   Both poems are anchored in anecdotal narratives, each a story of injustice, the vernacular and vividness of each account providing a formal position from which Potamkin extends and contemplates their themes. “Mecklenburg County” is inspired by a letter from a Black farmer from whom a promise of ownership over the land he has been tending has been revoked by the White landowner. Through balladic repetition of the site of this dispute, “In Mecklenburg County, in North Carolina,” the conflict is made immediate, contemporary and as unmistakably American as the slave plantation. “Merchant Marine” takes as its source a letter of complaint about the misdirection of employers over the compensation of a ship’s crew, culminating in a call to arms, that men of all colors and tongues unite in Red Corners to make these harbors home to their philosophy, to oust the capitalist accountants who would deny an honest wage for honest labor. By choosing as his source the passionate yet casually phrased correspondences of workers, Potamkin had found an approach to poetry that would allow him to chant slogans in a borrowed voice, changing his role as poet from creative actor to creative assembler, presenting these accounts in their own vernacular, locating and exploiting their intrinsic structures and motifs.

* * *

Potamkin’s approach to difficult, mystical modernism had bled into and enriched his labor anthems and race poems with allusions, dynamic structures and a certain stiffness of voice. But there remains a distinct body of poetry that took as its ideal the path of aesthetic exploration and rumination, following in the steps of Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, drawing upon the gods and politics of the ancients, literary history and the more arcane obscurities of autobiography and intimate experience. While many of Potamkin’s politically explicit poems were published in leftist newspapers, the bulk of the remaining poems were published in little magazines like The Fugitive and Tambour, and in the Jewish literary magazine The Menorah Journal. They often appeared alongside writings by other American and European poets and writers of the Lost Generation, and as that term implied, the journals were radical in their diversity, moving in many directions, a cauldron of shifting influences, moral and spiritual fascinations and bruised dogmas. It is in these poems that Potamkin cuts a lonesome figure, writing in the borrowed tongues of aesthetes, deeply in the shadow of Pound and Eliot, out of step with his comrades and fellow travellers.

    His poems do not fit naturally with the movements that had clearly influenced him—writing in the tall shadow of the Imagists, and in the midst of the new-forming Objectivist poetry—largely for the unpredictable perpetuations of style throughout the texts, shifting within poems from metronomic, rhyming structures to free verse, and drifting in his debts between earnestness and parody. The strongest of these poems follow Pound not only in their deep obscurity and stylistic construction, but in Pound’s debts, to Fennalosa, to the Spanish Provencal poets, to the faults and inventions of vernacular diction. In other words, Potamkin writes not only as a poet indebted to a slightly older order of poets, but in the path of the critic-poet, after Pound and Eliot, in an era when that role was increasingly ceded to the past, and the reigning order was becoming, at least in his Red corners, that of open protest, unambiguous language and eternally accessible meaning.

    There is an unmistakable sadness and isolation in his tongue, which in the pages of Black and Marxist newspapers stands at such certain odds with the poems that keep it company: plain odes to labor, fastened against injustice, tending toward literalism. However, it is also by this debt that Potamkin later makes such powerful integrations of slogans into his poetry, for he had already mastered the rousing, declarative tone so studied and profound in Eliot, specifically Eliot’s Prufrock, and in other championed modern poetry of the 1910s. That Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), with its harmonies of myth and contemporary life, arrived early in Potamkin’s life as a poet had an undeniable impact upon Potamkin’s ambitions. So often, these poems mirror the despair of The Waste Land, its classicism, its mixing of heroic couplets and enjambed lines, pitched between certain and broken syntax.

    It is neither Potamkin’s politics nor his style alone that set him at odds with his peers and editors. The Objectivist movement in poetry of the early 1930s had in its ranks many poets, such as George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, Charles Reznikoff and Louis Zukofsky, who shared a great deal of common territory with Potamkin: their interests in classics and myth, their Jewish heritage, their Marxist politics, their formal structures evolving out from under, among other things, the ideogrammic approach and other methodological inventions of Pound and his peers. What is more, the Objectivists, like Potamkin, were met with open hostility by literary society for not fitting the mould established by their contemporaries. The major distinction that set Potamkin out of step with his contemporaries in the tradition of difficult modernism was his divided loyalties between popular and classical renderings of experience, as well as his stylistic inconsistencies that trade voice from line to line, not necessarily by design but by a distinct splitting of the poet’s perspective between academic exercise and earnest force of will. It is useful, therefore, to consider Potamkin’s poems not only as evidence of his inner life, motivations and aesthetics, and as evidence of his shifting and ambiguous idealism and morality, but as acts of love and outrage often unmoored from the comradeship of a scene.

    The Malidon poems (1923–24), published in The Fugitive, describe a figure, Malidon, first as the picture of vitality, “Singing Life Noble and Complete,” subject of the narrator’s admiration; and then, as a husk of his former self, “ensnared, betrayed” by vitality, sunken into sterility and awaiting death, defeated by “mischievous element / that twists all meaning to its own defeat.” In “Malidon,” the contrast between narrator and Malidon is stated plainly: “Singing his large, eager Yea / To my small, flaccid No.” Potamkin followed “Malidon” a year later with “Disintegration of Malidon (Post-Mortem),” concluding that “Malidon said Yea, but in a quiet voice, the voice of praying.” The poems are cautionary and observational, making pointed distinction between narrator and figure, to declare this invention not as a double of Potamkin, but as an ideal; that ideal is destroyed by the forces that fell those of curiosity and preternatural grace, “wonder wise,” vessels to the muse of poetry. An appetite for beauty fades to inner doubt and desperation. The former poem casts Malidon as an outspoken, eager force, and the latter, as silenced by disillusionment, awaiting slaughter. Such disillusionment is sustained by the heroes of Potamkin’s poems to follow, for instance, in the titular “Hubert” (1928) who tells his gallows choir at the hour of his judgment, “My heart, singers, is an empty church.” The ideal, as given in “Malidon,” is elsewhere echoed in “Aesthete” (1927), which presents the poet as cursed with the burden of aesthetic experience, a force of epic transformation.

    Among the most difficult and experimental aspects of Potamkin’s work arrive in speech forms, often in direct derivation from Pound and Joyce. For example, “Collyridian” (1929) takes its name from an early Christian heretical movement in Arabia, which worshipped the Virgin Mary as a goddess. It is a poem of goddess imagery, both Christian and Hellenic, but it also bears out the vulgar speech forms that people Pound’s Cantos, a strong Irish brogue, stuttering rites. A similar use of vernacular speech occurs in “Between the Sheets” (1925) collected here under its revised title, “Will Craigie to Will Craigie (Between the Sheets),” first published under the pseudonym Will Craigie in the Potamkin-edited little magazine The Guardian. The poem uses Irish vernacular consonant with—perhaps in tribute to—Ulysses. Its revised title implies it as self-directed monologue, that the narrator declaring “Will Craigie the boy!” is Craigie himself, an invention of Potamkin’s, who through the course of the poem speaks as a phantom of sleep, of ambiguous menace.

    Those of Potamkin’s poems that are joined definitively to the Jewish intellectual tradition (for the most part published in The Menorah Journal) are of the most heightened mystical and historical obscurity, with cabalistic and medieval allusions mixing with contemporary reflections on faith and wisdom. For example, the titular Radanites of “Cargoes of the Radanites” (1924) were a class of Jewish merchants who served as neutral messengers between Asia and Europe, and as trade operatives between the Christian and Islamic worlds, in the early Middle Ages. The Radanites maintained a monopoly on the spice trade until their disappearance in the tenth-century, when the fall of the Tang Dynasty and the destruction of the Khazar Khaganate made trade routes unstable. Potamkin offers the Radanites as paragons of the worker, as they voice a proud declaration of the mercantile life, trading in goods and slaves, an anthem that gradually assumes the form of a list of goods. The everyday stuff of their trade routes thus combines with a romantic portrait, one that casts the tireless labor of the Radanites as heroic in itself. In “Susskind of Trimberg” (1925), Potamkin casts a multi-planar portrait of Susskind, the thirteenth-century German-Jewish poet whose Jewishness is a dominant theme in his own poetry. Potamkin’s poem is one of dramatic shifts that set the figure of Susskind at odds with the abusive demands of Christian society, responding to their commandment for a “war-cry” by singing instead “of the planets, the wonders of space, / God that is glory and God that is gleam.” In one of his first published poems, “Malachi” (1922), Potamkin likewise turned back toward Hebrew iconography. Malachi, whose Book aimed to direct the Israelites toward grave austerity and devotion, gave his prophecies as a corrective to the declining social and religious values experienced in post-exilic Jerusalem. Potamkin’s poem offers a Malachi whose contemplations have plucked his beard clean, to be reassembled as a shroud, woven by “the ladies / who loved to smooth / the soft and silken / swandown.” His citations to prophets and poets are in hand with his fascination with esoteric, theosophical method: “Cabala” (1928), like “Malachi,” returns to the stroked beard of the mystic—the beard of Macroprosopus, which bears the principles of divine mercy—as an act of contemplation and of semi-comic self-destruction, with ‘the young cabalist’ stroking his beard in violent agitation. His act of stroking his beard defies its principles, and his prayers are eventually met by the “voice from the pools of Paradise,” in which wisdom entwines with mercy.

* * *

In the early 1930s, Potamkin began to supplement his income by editing and writing texts for socialist publishers aimed at a young audience. This work resulted in two books, Our Lenin, a biographical account of the revolutionary leader written for children, and the Pioneer Song Book, for the Young Pioneers, a communist youth organization, which is reproduced here in large part. The illustrated component of these publications links them to the poetry captions that Potamkin had begun to provide for editorial cartoons in the early 1930s. Included in this volume are one for an Abe Birnbaum cartoon on the occasion of Herbert Hoover’s medal to crooner Rudy Vallee (for ‘prosperity’), and another, a series of Valentine’s Day ‘jingles’ of ironic address. Both were written for the New Masses. While the captions demonstrate Potamkin’s timely wit, the lyrics of the Pioneer Song Book show another dimension to Potamkin. The project involved, for the most part, the writing of revised lyrics to traditional children’s rhymes (“Jack and Jill,” “Tom-Tom the Piper’s Son,” “Hickory Dickory Dock”), a mission for which Potamkin could draw from his considerable experience as a social worker and teacher. The Pioneer songs are songs of joy and confrontation, ranging from the pleasures of brotherhood and togetherness to rage at oligarchs, cops, scabs and strikebreakers. Like so many lyrics written for children, they are cautionary songs, to strengthen the sentiments familiar from the homes of the pioneer youth, that cops and capitalists did not have their best interests in mind, that to be a scab or strikebreaker was an irreversible betrayal. While the lyrics of the Pioneer Song Book do not reflect the heights of Potamkin’s artistic ability, they do show his humour, the humanity with which he taught children, and the passion of his beliefs. Without the ramparts of obscurity that had characterized his strongest poems, and saddled with prescribed rhymes and rhythms cribbed from the oral tradition of nursery rhymes, Potamkin’s Pioneer lyrics nevertheless demonstrate his playfulness with language, at once clowning, savaging capitalism, and fortifying the social bonds of youth through that primary communion, song.

* * *

Harry Alan Potamkin died in the summer of 1933, at age 33, in the aftermath of a hemorrhage that had kept him in hospice for the final month of his life. He had been suffering for three years from an ulcerated abdomen. Upon his death, an obituary notice credited to W.E.B. Dubois noted that “because of his devoted and understanding service to the cause of the working class, he received a Red Funeral … the first time a non-Communist Party member has been given a Red Funeral.” At the time, he was not only a prominent critic with Marxist sympathies, but also served as the secretary of the John Reed Club in New York, a major socialist organization with strong organizing and publishing activities. Kenneth Rexroth, then an emerging poet, five years his junior, was in attendance at Potamkin’s funeral. Rexroth had been a peer of Potamkin’s, had known him not only for his work as a film critic, but as a fellow poet, one whose contributions to the field of modern poetry had been routinely rejected by the Left press, who dismissed the allusive and mystical obscurities of his poetry as anti-populist. Potamkin’s Red Funeral was attended by hundreds. Rexroth later wrote that “small-minded intellectuals who had accused Potamkin of obscurity, who had called him a metaphysician, who had said he was incomprehensible to the workers, were dumbfounded at his popularity.”(6)

    “What happened to Potamkin?” Rexroth asks this question in “Thou Shalt Not Kill” (1953), a poem composed in response to the death of Dylan Thomas, a reckoning against those forces in society that are “killing all the young men […] every day.” Though Thomas’s death offered the occasion, Rexroth reflects broadly on the fates of the many artists destroyed by society, dying in poverty, ravaged by addiction and illness, their blunt deaths in tragic contrast to the force of their inextinguishable character. This question about Potamkin is put to the reader blankly, posed alongside many names. Potamkin was a fellow traveler, one who, like Rexroth, had devotions to the obscurities, codes and myths of art, as well as to the empowerment of the worker. These devotions hold within them contradictions to many—the perceived ‘elitism’ of allusion and indirection, the demand for populist expressions to support people’s movements—but Harry Alan Potamkin understood both humanitarian concern and aesthetic experience as not only equally worthy of his commitment, but inextricable from one another; that in his odes to Jewish mystics, his songs of Black experience, his semi-autobiographical inventions and his ballads of labor activism both historical and contemporary, there is an overarching, common gesture, a collision between language structures and social structures. In his poetry, the reason for this equation becomes clear: the dread tidings of workers at the hands of ledgermen, and the ethos to strangle the ambiguity and depth from art, are related impulses, acts against love, a market phenomenon that benefits only the greedy and selfish and that punishes the vulnerable.



  1. After his death, Potamkin’s “Proposal for a School of the Motion Picture” was discovered among his papers. The Workers’ Film and Photo League organized the school and named it for Potamkin as the Harry Alan Potamkin Film School, offering courses in theory, production, history and criticism. The instructors included Ralph Steiner, Lewis Jacobs and Irving Lerner, among others.

  2. Virtually all that is known of Potamkin’s life is charted by Lewis Jacobs in his introduction to The Compound Cinema: The Film Writings of Harry Alan Potamkin (New York: Teachers College Press, 1977).

  3. Louis Filler, “Play and Circumstance: A Reminiscence of Harry Alan Potamkin,” Midwest Journal 3:2 (1951), 22-27.

  4. Among the poems submitted for Dubois’s consideration (to be published in The Crisis) was one titled “Dahomey Potentate,” the typescript of which is now missing. Potamkin, Harry. Letter from Harry Alan Potamkin to W. E. B. Du Bois, February 21, 1927. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

  5. Potamkin’s workers’ poetry was credited, in The Daily Worker, as the first to use workers’ correspondence as its basis. Other examples include anti-modern Bolshevist poet Mike Gold’s ‘proletarian realism’ poetry, such as “A Report from the Dakotas,” and Tillie Olson’s “I Want You Women Up North to Know,” efforts dwarfed by Charles Reznikoff’s epic Testimony: The United States (1885–1915): Recitative and Holocaust (1934–1979). The gesture of absorbing a common voice is also found in the myth of Joe Gould’s An Oral History of Our Time and in the texts of Harry Partch’s Barstow—Eight Hitchhiker Inscriptions from a Highway Railing at Barstow California (1941).

  6. Kenneth Rexroth, “The Function of Poetry and the Place of the Poet in Society,” in World Outside the Window: The Selected Essays of Kenneth Rexroth, ed. Bradford Morrow (New York: New Directions, 1987), 2.

Codes for North (2017) - excerpt, Careful Symmetries: Jack Chambers' The Hart of London (1970)

My new book, Codes for North: Foundations of the Canadian Avant-Garde Film, is the result of a decade of engagement with the work of Jack Chambers, Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland. The bulk of this work was the basis of my doctoral dissertation in 2015.

The book is now available for order from the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre and is expected to be in stock as of this coming Wednesday. Copies are available to reviewers upon request. Below is an excerpt that introduces Jack Chambers' The Hart of London (1970).





By the time that Jack Chambers began to make films in 1964, he had already undergone a “series of births,” as he had characterized them, through his training in Spain. There he had cultivated an individual approach to painting, measured by an objective standard of craft. After his return to Canada, his style continued to evolve. His homecoming to London, Ontario, had signalled further development of the memorial and sensual ambitions of his art, and more births would follow, some through his initial engagement with photography, others after he was diagnosed with leukemia in 1969.(1)  His early films were technologically primitive, compositionally and sequentially masterful impressions of his life, philosophy and environment. This work, and the impulses that had simultaneously emerged in his painting activity, gave way to his final film, The Hart of London (1970). It would serve as an ultimate reckoning of his apocalyptic vision of man at odds with nature, a film of cosmic and spiritual immediacy, a reverie of childhood and fatherhood. The Hart of London dreams, not in the conceits of Mosaic’s trinity of early, middle and late life, but in a freer stream that fastens those stations to the evolution of the spirit; it symbolizes a tragic current in modernity, not through the binary analogues of Hybrid, but by the menacing and universal implications of local newsreels; it documents, not in the narrow particulars of R34, but by the wider scope of social history; and it passes in instants, not only in the circulation of loss and rebirth found in Circle, attendant to the past, but toward a union of joyous and suffering witness remembered, a hesitant stare forward from its present moment. 

The Hart of London  [Film Still], 1968-1970, 16mm, 79 minutes, colour and black and white, sound. Courtesy of the CFMDC.

The Hart of London [Film Still], 1968-1970, 16mm, 79 minutes, colour and black and white, sound. Courtesy of the CFMDC.

    The Hart of London marks the culmination of formal and social concerns that had dominated Chambers’ earlier work as a painter and filmmaker. It results from Chambers’ heritage of difficulty, which first arrived for him in the gulf between the plasticity of painting and the dimensional depth of photography and filmmaking, and which matured in its merging with his mystical notions of poetic sensory intuition, his embrace of multi-tiered perception and his devotion to perceptual mystery. This film would be the final evolution of this branch of aesthetic difficulty in Chambers’ art, as the paintings that followed it would adhere more strictly to his philosophy of Perceptual Realism, a pursuit of sublime vision that dealt in a more mystical difficulty, and that was not so fortified and obscure as his preceding work had been. The Perceptual Realist paintings were concerned with the exaltation of perceptual experience, with vision as an entrance to a greater interior chamber of the senses, an extension and departure from the obscurities of the works that presupposed them. These works were open to engage the casual viewer.

    Paintings such as 401 Towards London No. 1 (1968-69), Victoria Hospital (1969-70), Lombardo Avenue (1972-76) and the Sunday Morning series (1968-1977), contrary to their meticulous form, were primitive riddles. But they were most celebrated for their extremity of technical skill that approximated realism, in a manner distinct from the kitsch of contemporaneous American photorealism.(2)  Their form had the superficial integrity of the photograph, but they were essentially painterly, their textures created with marble dust and rabbit fur that altered the plane of the canvas and augmented the multi-dimensional presence of the work, bodies and spaces rendered in the distinct compressions of a lens’ focal length. Their presence, the true content of the work, would in Chambers’ view be a communion of artist and spirit, or God, the artist as the eye, the spirit in the landscape, the suburban street, or the interior of the Chambers family home. So startling and visceral was the viewing of a Perceptual Realist canvas that their allusions and other referential difficulties became elusive, further masked by the potential relation of the work to the ready pleasure of the Romantic landscape, that narrow passage of aesthetic disavowal by which the post-Impressionists would come to be embraced in the popular imagination.(3) These paintings represent a height of rendered reality, an endorsement of the real and a disavowal of the perceptual falseness of realism. Perceptual Realism allowed Chambers to further brand his work in its relation to reality, to cultivate a philosophy, at the dispensation of the obscurities and rage that had marked his earlier work. 

    A Perceptual Realist painting was offered as an elevation of the camera’s mechanical description, be it of a figure or a landscape, but the work was as much about time, not only the interval of vision unfolding—as opposed to the suspended action of the distilled moment, the ‘still life’ that had haunted Western art—but the interval in which profound perceptions are encountered. What Chambers called the ‘wow’ moment of Perceptual Realism was an artifact of temporal perception, a moment when sense-comprehension is disrupted and must be gathered up again.(4) Chambers provoked those moments through his paintings. His sources included the past that informed that moment, the elastic interval of that moment, the distance of memory from the present and a profound knowledge of the relative impotence of moments lacking such temporal frames. The work itself was ultimately one of disrupted perception that is reconfigured, that permeates and is permeated by experience. The stakes in this work are spiritual. Chambers wished to celebrate glories of perception, and what meant more, to redeem perception, from the quotidian, from the impotent moment, from the spiritual alienation of the modern observer. This was the redemption of reality itself. He arrived at this work after his most sinister period, out of the oppressive atmosphere of his studio, filled with the fumes of aluminum paint, with which he made his silver paintings. The silver paintings had used fractured perspective and plane divisions and, in their most dramatic engagement with time, affected a positive-negative transit in their viewing, so that as the viewer passed, an image was actively transforming and transformed by time. Some of Chambers’ images were plundered from mass culture, others from his own life, and the work integrated photographic renderings with design text in an overt critique of media and society, specifically, society’s cruel skill at reducing extremities of love and hatred, joy and tragedy, to a neutral baseline. Against the falseness and indifference of mass culture, Chambers’ silver paintings were indignant statements of his position against the devaluation of perception. This position would be tempered and refined into Perceptual Realism.(5)  This sinister work constitutes another tier of what Chambers called the spiritual preparation of the artist. 

The Hart of London  [Film Still], 1968-1970, 16mm, 79 minutes, colour and black and white, sound. Courtesy of the CFMDC.

The Hart of London [Film Still], 1968-1970, 16mm, 79 minutes, colour and black and white, sound. Courtesy of the CFMDC.

    On January 20, 1968, the London Free Press’s Bill Webster announced in his column that Jack Chambers was making a new film. His headline announced, “Underground film on London planned.” This film would be about life in London, Ontario, and through Webster’s column, Chambers was placing a call for snapshots from Londoners, “of any vintage and any quality.”(6)  In a follow-up column, Webster gave the address for submissions, adding that Chambers would “make his film directly from the material he receives and title it, Heart of London.”(7)  Chambers repeated this request on local television and radio. He also achieved access to “all the TV footage shot by the local station since it went into operation” 15 years earlier, in 1954.(8)  Chambers travelled to Madrid, Orense, La Touza, Sevilla, Huelva and La Antilla, in September and October of 1968, shooting footage for what would become The Hart of London. The homophonic title had, as Bill Webster had indicated in spelling it ‘heart’, implications that this work would reach the irreducible core of the city, and drew the parallel of architecture as metaphor for interior being, as in St. Teresa of Ávila’s seven mansions of the soul. The hart of the title was the city’s heart, its central organ and life essence, and it was also a literal hart, a deer which, as the film begins, wanders into the city, becomes trapped, disoriented, ensnared by suburban fences, and is consequently captured by hunters, placed in a metal holding fence and killed. All of this action, from the deer’s terrified galloping on the outskirts of the woods to its execution, was captured by television cameras and would be integrated by Chambers into his film, as its prelude, the declaration of a theme.(9)

The Hart of London  [Film Still], 1968-1970, 16mm, 79 minutes, colour and black and white, sound. Courtesy of the CFMDC.

The Hart of London [Film Still], 1968-1970, 16mm, 79 minutes, colour and black and white, sound. Courtesy of the CFMDC.

    The term hart was already antique when Chambers began his film, replaced widely by the terms deer and stag. His choice of this word, and of the deer as icon, is not limited to homophonic punning, but rather drew from his knowledge of the deer’s symbolism in medieval Christianity.(10)  In the medieval hunt, the hart was a prized game, and by pursuit of it, hunters participated in an allegory for Christ’s ordeals. The process of the hunt was elaborate and ritualized: an expert huntsman would track the hart and identify its lay. A party would then assemble, and dogs would be positioned along a path to serve as relays. When the quarry was sighted, a chase would begin, and finally, when the hart could run no longer, the leader of the hunt would make the kill. The hart’s carcass would be subject to ‘unmaking’, a dissection ritual.(11)  For its agony, the hart became a symbol of Christ, an allegory that was reinforced in Christian mythology. For example, the Christian martyr Saint Eustace was said to have undergone conversion after seeing a crucifix suspended from the antlers of a hart.(12)  People of the middle ages believed that the hart could live for hundreds of years, and that a mature one could therefore be several hundred years old, the beast host to the wisdom of witness. In their superstition, medieval folk also believed that a bone in the middle of its heart prevented the hart from dying of fear.(13)  The imagined hart, for its age and endurance, was a symbol of immortality. Choosing a modern-day slaughter of the hart as his central metaphor, Jack Chambers would embark on a work of environmental, moral, spiritual inquiry into the dread character of the present. 

The Hart of London  [Film Still], 1968-1970, 16mm, 79 minutes, colour and black and white, sound. Courtesy of the CFMDC.

The Hart of London [Film Still], 1968-1970, 16mm, 79 minutes, colour and black and white, sound. Courtesy of the CFMDC.

    As he was in the midst of making the film, Chambers learned that he had terminal leukemia. In the ensuing decade he would fight it, and survive far longer than had been expected. Our knowledge of this might lead to the conclusion that the work itself was formed by his diagnosis, that its grieving and angry confrontation with mortality and its lamentation of the sins of man and of modernity result from his awareness of his own mortality.(14)  But The Hart of London also continues the sinister topics and aesthetic assembly of his earlier films and paintings. It represents the apogee of the work that he had pursued throughout the 1960s, with an eye to death gained in his Spanish conversion, and in its use of film time and sequence, with its calculated editing and visible roughness. Chambers had known terror in Spain, embodied in the predators that stalked the suffering Picasso-like figures of his paintings of the late 1950s. They were the specters of illness, poverty and indifference. Such beasts gave form to the stalking menace of modern convenience and complacency that Chambers had seen first in provincial London’s resigned imitation of life. In the mid-1960s, he spoke out against the grave effects of chemical warfare in Vietnam and the inhuman practices of the American armed forces. In an act of environmental morality, he confronted the compromises dealt to the land by sophisticated agricultural practices and aspirations toward technological mastery. These moral stances would become urgent as he assumed his role as a father. The grief and rage of Chambers’ film came from something greater than his own doom, more encompassing even than the individual causes of his grief. His overarching concern was with the denigration of life and of perception, and the aim of The Hart of London was not merely to illustrate suffering, but to redeem perception through new and old myths. It joined a haunting vision of his life, his perceptions and his rituals, to an anonymous, unconscious record of his hometown, a stage for paradise and inferno. 



  1. Chambers had been ill through much of his adult life prior to his diagnosis, for example, when he contracted pleurisy while living in Chinchón, and in the damage wrought to his breathing by the atmosphere of his studio during his silver painting period. While the presence of death and despair in his work was partly inherited from Spanish art and from his Catholicism, his fascination with death as a theme predates his illness, traced to a possibly apocryphal anecdote of his having been arrested for breaking into a London mortuary as a teenager, presumably in pursuit of a close encounter with death.

  2. For a fuller discussion of Chambers’ work in relation to American photorealist painting, see Chapter 1 fn43. It is central in addressing the effect of Perceptual Realism to distinguish it from kitsch ‘hyperrealist’ paintings by artists such as Richard Estes and John Baeder who, despite a superficial relation of skill, exemplify the disparity between Jack Chambers and other artists who pursued photorealist painting in his time.

  3. Just as Chambers did not fit easily into the American hyperrealist movement, he did not fit easily into a lineage of romantic landscape painting, although romantic landscapes are among the best known Perceptual Realist paintings. In the Canadian context, much of that tradition was influenced by Dutch painting with motives and skillsets distinct from those of Chambers. As audiences acclimated to post-Impressionism, by disregarding the alien nature of its form and focusing instead on the more standard fare of its content, the Group of Seven and associates formed the context for Canada’s modern landscape painting, a context which Chambers steadfastly resisted by working in portraiture and social scenes, and which the presence of photorealist technique already resisted, for the fine density of its forms, and for an appearance that could be presumed inherited from older Spanish styles and pre-modern notions of precise representation.

  4. Chambers describes this as such: “Perception in process is like a sound movie. Suddenly the picture freezes and loses focus. The sound goes. The de-focusing brightens and becomes white light. Then the focus returns, the sound comes back and the film starts moving again. That’s the slow-motion version of what happens. The moment of ‘white-light’ is the moment of perception. The frame returning to focus and the first returning sounds are the registration of object-world on the nerves as the senses recover. What the senses record and how and when they record it is an example of creation projecting its pattern on the world.” Jack Chambers, “Perceptualism, painting and cinema.” Art and Artists 7:9 (December 1972), 31.

  5. The last of Chambers’ sinister paintings came in the same year as The Hart of London, for example, the Regatta series and Grass Box No. 2 (1968–1970). His paintings of the late 1960s bore his skill for realist representation, but also demonstrated his use of firm line as a tool for compositional fragmentation and of the rhythm of images within images. In his work that dealt with compositional divisions, the photorealist representations were increasingly rendered as photographs, on boxes, in strips, and as if taped to a wall or pinned to a board. His approach to realism had much in common with Wieland’s sequential paintings, inasmuch as fragmentation reimagined the images as component parts of something else. Where in Wieland’s work, that ‘something else’ was the illusion of ‘real time’ in moving images, Chambers cast the photo as a memento occupying the greater reality to which he devoted his Romantic style. With the Perceptual Realist paintings, this relation finally matured into a simultaneous rendering of the craftwork of realism and Chambers’ own Romantic ambitions, joined to provoke the exalted moment of perception.

  6. Bill Webster, “On Entertainment: Underground Film on London Planned.” London Free Press, 20 January 1968, 43.

  7. Bill Webster, “On Entertainment: Back to Heart of London.” London Free Press, 22 January, 1968. 27. The working title Heart of London is not Webster’s error; it is spelled as such in Chambers’ own notebooks and correspondence held at the archives of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

  8. Ross Woodman, “London: Regional Liberation Front.” The Globe and Mail. 13 December 1969, 27. It was, presumably, from this arrangement or from an earlier, similar arrangement that Chambers secured the footage that appears in the final section of Circle.

  9. This event, and in particular, the newsreel source footage, was also used by Chambers in his painting Hart of London (1968).

  10. As further evidence of Chambers’ intentional use of the hart as an allegory for Christ, his notebooks describe an original opening sequence wherein Christ arrives at the Chambers family home. The deer sequence becomes a substitute for this scene.

  11. This description of the medieval hunt is informed by an account given in Anne Rooney, Hunting in Middle English Literature (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell & Brewer, 1993).

  12. The story of Saint Eustace, in which the hart serves as an instigator of conversion, might further testify to Chambers’ film and its role in the greater allegories of Chambers’ life. As a General in the Roman army named Placidus, Eustace was on a hunt when he experienced an ecstatic conversion. A vision of a crucifix appeared to him, fixed between the antlers of a stag. Eustace subsequently converted himself and his family, and changed his name. After this, he suffered a series of calamities, like those of Job. His faith was tested through poverty, the death of his servants, the kidnapping of his wife by a seaman and of his sons by a wolf and a lion. Despite his grief, Eustace did not lose his faith. His family was restored by the endurance of his faith, but he was consequently condemned to death by the Emperor Hadrian for refusing to make a pagan sacrifice. As in Eustace’s trial of faith, Chambers’ faith, which is simultaneously Roman Catholic and more broadly encompassing, endures this lamentation of the miseries and terrors of the world.

  13. Much of this account of the mythological significance of the hart is condensed from a more detailed account found in Boria Sax, The Mythical Zoo: An Encyclopedia of Animals in Myth, Legend, and Literature (New York: Overlook, 2013), 141-149.

  14. This claim has been advanced widely, most recently in Mark Cheetham’s Jack Chambers (Toronto: Art Canada Institute, 2013). It is important to state Chambers’ diagnosis as an influence on the film, but to regard it as the key to the film supports the mistaken belief that The Hart of London is merely a set of stages on the Elizabeth Kübler-Ross chart of grief, that ends with the Perceptual Realist paintings as ‘acceptance’. To view Chambers’ work in such a trajectory is a disservice to him, to his most difficult works of the 1960s, and to the profound and complex pleasures of the Perceptual Realist paintings, the power of which is too often treated in step with the low ambitions of American photorealist kitsch.

Potamkin (2017) - Editing

In my previous posts on the process of making Potamkin, I wrote about the influence of Harry Alan Potamkin's poetry on the film, and the use of chemistry to selectively strip, stylize and transform the image. After a year of working with these chemicals, I had generated several hours of material. The process of working with the chemistry was not always controlled--at times I would submerge the strips in the chemicals, at other times I would use brushes to paint the chemistry onto the film strip. The result of this was that, of the four hours or so that I had initially shot, roughly two hours had taken to the process and were ready to be edited and digitally altered.

In order to do this, I first had to perform an assembly of the suitable images. This was done in a traditional, if haphazard, way by grouping the altered strips together by source film, ordering the source films by chronology, and then digitally transferring them. Once they were digitally transferred, the images were further paired based not on their isolated sources but by rhythmic and compositional sympathies. This is how, in the final film, certain images and sequences emerge as motifs (the deathly stare of the soldier; Rexroth/Krauss bolting upright; the casket perspective). The digital nonlinear mode of editing allowed for a lot of flexibility in identifying these motifs, and then generating variations on them, staggering their rhythm as in a simulation of step-printing, altering their contrast and superimposing them to build more labyrinthine compositions.

Fragments in a lightwell, March 2016.

Fragments in a lightwell, March 2016.

The assembly and digitization of these images opened them to another layer of augmentation. Since 2010, when I began to make 'underground movies', I have used computers more often than not to substitute for the traditional processes of optical printing and negative cutting - to work in elastic time, to tint or matte or superimpose images, to disguise splices and effect dissolves. As a result of this translation, the images achieved maximum flexibility for stylistic restructuring. At the same time that I began working on the digital phase of this project, I was commissioned by Clint Enns and Madi Piller, via the Toronto Animated Image Society, to make a video using key-framing techniques (the result, Carousel Study, 2016, is a prelude to a longer work that will combine mechanical rotary tripod heads). While I had used key frames consistently since 2012 (in the programming of superimpositions and dissolves, and really, in most aspects of digital augmentation), this commission challenged me to explore other uses of the keyframe, including the idea of guided motion and reframing (the City of Gold effect, but done with moving images). As such, there is a greater occurrence of digital 'zooming' and panning within the frame throughout the film. 

Potamkin has its origins not in 35mm and 16mm film prints of the source films, but in video transfers, often mediocre 'VHS rips' found on YouTube and by other means, and so the idea of translating these rephotographed films into a digital form seemed only natural. I grew up in the 1980s and 90s, and my exposure to these films was through bad television prints and worn VHS tapes. The resulting image, in its final 16mm form, is a gathering of shadows, but it is made possible by cross-media translation.

The film is broken down into two halves: the first is a survey of all of the films involved in this project, assembled into a thematic montage where figures and scenes have specific resonance to the life of Potamkin, and to the era of Potamkin. Even the costume dramas herein, which summon up the Revolution, are marked by the acting styles and codes of the 1920s. Scenes of the Great War, simulated into 1920s and 1930s melodramas, establish the world of H.A. Potamkin, an aftermath to such fury and horror. Multiple figures came to stand in for Potamkin, his wife Elizabeth, his acquaintance Rexroth and the figures of Potamkin's poetry, some fictitious, some rooted in history (Malidon, Hubert, Malachi, Susskind of Trimberg). The second half is made up almost entirely of the same sequence, the most horrific sequence in the history of cinema, the Odessa Steps of Sergei Eisenstein's The Battleship Potemkin (1925), here disassembled into its component parts, made subject to flicker, set in reverse. It is not to me to assign a meaning to this second half, but I have approached it with a probing insistence inherited from Ken Jacobs' Tom Tom the Piper's Son. I am magnifying the experience of the Odessa Steps so as to disempower the brutal cossacks within it. I condemn them, as Eisenstein did before me, and as Charles Ridley's Schichlegruber Doing the Lambeth Walk (1942) set fascists to rhythm to make them look ridiculous, as Martin Amis's Time's Arrow (1991) hit 'rewind' as to conflate destruction with creation and healing with killing, here, elastic time unspools the massacre. And as with Amis's novel, to perceive atrocities in reverse does not erase the atrocity, but rather amplifies their savagery through parallels of creation, love and healing.

The clock from Eisenstein's Strike! (1924) in a single cast-off frame.

The clock from Eisenstein's Strike! (1924) in a single cast-off frame.

Potamkin (2017) - Surface Treatments

In my last post, I talked about gathering the sources of Potamkin--Harry Alan Potamkin's poetry, and the films that he reviewed--but more often the questions I get about this work ask after the chemical processes that were used in making it.

I don't have a proprietary attitude about techniques, so I'm always happy to answer questions about how a particular effect was achieved, but I need to give the caveat that this film is about much more than this. The spirit of the work is not rooted in its chemistry, that's just one scale on which it is occurring.

For Potamkin, the techniques used were a mix of analogue chemical processes (bleach etching, the use of resists with full bleach immersion, reticulation) and digital animation techniques (keyframe repositioning, digital superimposition). The bulk of the film was subjected to bleach etching, which I learned through the notes of Kevin Rice of Process Reversal, and this and other techniques were enhanced by the example of films by Jürgen Reble, Phil Solomon, Richard Kerr, Carl Brown, and others. My partner in working through these techniques is Eva Kolcze, who has used such processes masterfully in her films Badlands (2013), All That is Solid (2014), and By the Time We Got to Expo (2015), and I credit her enthusiasm and generosity with keeping me going with these strategies. I note that especially in this case because I find the atmosphere created by one particular chemical (mordançage solution) to be strangling; as I was making Potamkin, I kept thinking of Jack Chambers and his silver paintings, and what atmosphere must have been created in his studio by those toxic aluminum pigments (I also thought of Morris Louis's lungs, turned by the vapours of his long-drying canvases...).

Jack Chambers,  Plus Nine  (1966)

Jack Chambers, Plus Nine (1966)

My use of these so-called 'alchemical' techniques was decidedly unromantic: I was first inspired toward hand-processed filmmaking by R. Bruce Elder's Eros and Wonder (2003), which I presented at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in 2009; and Eros and Wonder is a film that uses the idea of alchemy not as transmutation of base metals (a movie) into gold (a good movie), but as a transformation between states of being, from the image as reality's-shadow to the image as plastic (malleable) expression. Such a sensibility was my guide in earlier hand-processed films (the Landform series, Jenny HaniverGulls at Gibraltar), but in working on Potamkin, I turned to another of Elder's films, Crack, Brutal Grief (2000), in which Elder takes on the troubling banality of our experiences of arousal, disgust, and terror. It struck me that these transformative gestures could also be set to the task of outrage. Potamkin, like Crack, Brutal Grief, is a film that begins from a position of outrage at a society that kills its poets.

R. Bruce Elder,  Crack, Brutal Grief  (2000)

R. Bruce Elder, Crack, Brutal Grief (2000)

The primary chemical used after initial image processing is mordançage solution (for bleach etching). This solution is mixed by combining high-volume hydrogen peroxide, copper chloride, and glacial acetic acid. The resulting solution looks like blue Koolaid (don't drink it). It causes the emulsion to separate from the plastic film in veils, in areas where emulsion lies in great concentration - so, darker images, preferably with strong contrast, can be run through this and the resulting image will look as if it is being eaten away at, peeling up to give sharp, geometric shape to the contents. Almost all of the footage used in Potamkin was run through this solution to varying degrees. One of the major effects of it is an illusion of shallow depth, a bas-relief, which contradictorily makes the image look more flat than it would otherwise appear (by annihilating the traditional focal-length distortions of cinema, making all images an extreme variation on squished, telephotographic distortion).

The second technique used in making this film was reticulation, which allows the bean-like structures of the emulsion to become pronounced within the image, traditionally achieved by alternating between boiling and freezing baths of water. While making Jenny Haniver, I began to boil only, getting the emulsion so loose that it would continue to drip off as it hung to dry. I call these emulsion melts, and I achieve them with less of a sense of precision than most darkroom workers would be comfortable with; but for me, this process is about generating material for digital manipulation. I don't use these results without further enhancement because those bean-like patterns so readily achieve a lazy op-art effect, like a modern print on a carpet or a cross-hatched elevator door.

The third of the techniques that I used in making this film was the use of resists to selectively bleach away portions of the image. What this means is, a 'resist' of some sort is applied to the emulsion side of the image, so that when a corrosive bath is used (for example, household bleach), it will prevent those portions of the film from being erased. I know that others have used particular 'resists' to achieve specific effects - for example, the use of oil, applied by paintbrush, will allow the image to be preserved in brushstrokes. In my case, I use tape, just standard paper tape, which allows for clean, geometric blocks, but which I often tear and fray into other forms, to varying degrees of success. I first started doing this after taking a workshop at the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto with visiting artists Richard Tuohy and Dianna Barrie of nano lab in Victoria, Australia, who practice a technique called chromoflex, in which resists are laid down on an unprocessed negative, a colour image is processed as a positive, and then the resists are peeled off in the dark, and it is processed again as a negative. I used this technique in Jenny Haniver, in sections that feature a coexisting negative and positive image. In Potamkin, there is occasional coexistence of negative and positive imagery, but it is done through digital compositing. My use of resists in this project was restricted to blotting out (to 'save') portions of image.

While much of this work was primarily done solitarily (albeit, with occasional help from Eva Kolcze and Emmalyne Laurin), the first process that all of these images were subjected to was bucket-processing, which was performed by a darkroom crew of Eva, Emmalyne, Cameron Moneo, and Martha Cabral. The reels were alternately developed as positive or negative, and the image would occasionally be solarized during processing, by flashing the film with light during the first minute of its development.