The light, The orange
It’s the temperature, it’s the color, it’s the space, it’s what you see in front of the screen, it’s what you hear without the screen, it’s changing, it’s not changing, it’s bright, it’s overcast.
It’s the beat, it’s the rhythm, it’s the orange, it’s the arm, it’s the rotation, it’s the repetition, it’s the difference, it’s interesting, it’s boring, it’s normal, it’s unusual, it’s concentration, it’s an escape.
In this thesis, it mainly focuses on the sense of participation in simple form and repetition, which is related to my final project research, as well as leading to the following issues: What is the minimalistic way to attract an attention? Duration in a simple and repeating structure. Meditating experience in simple form and repetition.
When it feels that time slows down, when the surroundings turn quiet, when the environment becomes different or when there is simply not much to do. I start to observe and re-observe things surrounding me. However, what could attract my attention is not something huge or intense, but something slow and subtle. I see it’s an exploration of the connection between me and the environment or community, it’s a sense of participation, a feeling of being involved. However, in a quite subtle, slow process and repetition.
By doing research of simple and repeating form, I found structural films are mostly involved with the concept. Structural film do not document various film procedures, the film produces certain relations between what the camera is aimed at and in what way that image is presented. This kind of film focuses and analyses the structure and the procedure of the film, in a way it’s the purest way of how an object or image is presented. Therefore, it’s not necessary for structural films to be involved with specific narrative or storytelling. Structural film attempts to be non-illusionist, as P. Adams Sitney defines the structural film in his book “Visionary film,” it is a “cinema of structure in which the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified, and it is that shape which is the primal impression of the film”. In a way related to what Frank Stella said of his paintings in 1964, “What you see is what you see,” a phrase that exemplified the minimalist movement. However, is it always so or it’s also possible to transfer “what you see is what you see” to “what you see is not what you see”? In the article <Structural Films: Meditation through Simple Forms>, it says: Usually, in a structural film, the form is so simple that the viewer does not have to spend much energy on understanding their place in the work. This chapter mainly focuses on the relations between structural film and my own practice. Moreover, how my concept was developed from structural film to the form of repetition.
In addition, leading to the next issue for the thesis: simple form/ minimalism. How does minimalism work in video art? Minimalism appeared in the stage of art in the mid-1950s firstly in the language of painting and sculpture. What is the spirit of minimalism? Some say minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelming. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around. In a way, minimalism is a way to extract physical objects or spirits from a chaotic environment. Through the development of technology and art, it is not difficult to find the reflection of minimalism in video art, particularly in the contemporary art scene. When the form of a video focuses on its simple or minimalistic side, the issue of time appears. How do video artists and filmmakers deal with time in structural film and simple form? By designing the time and duration intentionally can catch and keep the attention of audiences. However, it’s possible that the artists don’t pay much attention to the elaborate design in time and duration. Thus, either it’s boring or interesting, repeating or different, to be trapped or involved. The space of these explorations could be controlled more by the audiences themselves, which is in another way, is to leave the freedom of thinking to the audiences.
Minimalism is closely connected with abstraction. The signs of minimalism appeared in mid-1950s, 60s of minimalism provided different views of the 50s, minimalism became a new kind of abstraction that merged around after 1960s. For instance: James Turell’s light installations. Thus, I see minimalism as a bedding to a new age of abstract art, particularly in video art. In the book < Abstract Video, The Moving Image in Contemporary Art >, Gabrielle Jennings who is an artist and writer mentioned his question in abstract video art: The late art historian Kirk Varnedoe’s book Picture of Nothing. Together the lectures form an inspirational meditation on why anyone (particularly the art-viewing public) would want to look at “pictures of nothing”. I began thinking about how this question relates to the moving image, particularly in the field known as video art. This question or confusion is as well as mine, additionally, what I found more interesting is several Chinese ancient philosophies in Zen and Taoism can be related to abstract art closely and subtly. Therefore, in the chapter: abstraction, the paper would start with a classic Chinese philosophy which still influences our ways of thinking nowadays. During the process of my project, I realized more about the sound part, particularly to an abstract video, sounds have to be selected, recorded, created excessively. This part of the thesis is as well as an exploration of my project in sound. It experiments the coherence of abstract visual and non-abstract sounds, for instance: environmental sounds. Through repetition, minimalism, duration, abstraction in videos. My research explores the sense of participation. I see this sense of participation as a sense of being involved in a procedure or an environment, a connection, an interaction. It can be a meditation, a spiritual experience, a resonance or eventually an illusion. Again, it can come back to the question: Why people would stare at a “picture of nothing”? The paper will demonstrate why and how I collected the materials for the project. To create the project as a metaphor to reflect the relationship between me and the new environment, community. Since the paper is closely related to my final project, the development of my concept would be elaborated in the paper: how it’s related to the topic. Additionally, where it led me to and where it would lead me to. Moreover, the further thinking, for example: how it comes and expands to anti-entertainment. Moreover, the difference and relations between my work and other similar works would be analyzed and elaborated in this chapter.
1. Structures of film:
It’s not avoidable to mention structural film when talking about structures of film. Structural film appeared way before the digital age apparently, when artists and filmmakers were mainly dealing with 16mm or 35mm films. Those films can be edited and “touched” physically. What is structural film? In a part of Peter Gidal’s book <Theory and Definition of Structural/Materialist Film>, he describes structural film attempts to be non-illusionist, it’s a record of its own making, not a representation or a reproduction. What’s interesting is in some reviews of structural films, critics do talk about representation. In P. Adams Sitney’s book <Visionary film>, the structural film is defined as a “cinema of structure in which the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified, and it is that shape which is the primal impression of the film”. This definition informs that the “primal impression” of structural film is created by the shape of the film. Both Peter Gidal and P. Adams Sitney’s definitions emphasize the “simplified and non-illusionist form”. It in a way comes into contact with what Frank Stella said of his paintings, “what you see is what you see”.
Andy Warhol’s film - <Sleep>, 1963.
The content of the film <Sleep> is not complex. It’s a 321 mins long, consists of a man sleeping for 5 hours. It shows different angles of the man sleeping every once in 20 mins, with no specific narratives or entertainment. Jonathan David Katz, an American activist, art historian, educator, and writer, said: “Sleep is one of the most boring movies Warhol made—and he made a lot of boring movies.” I first knew this film during my reading on “Boredom”, most of Warhol’s films are about people not changing because not changing was what most people do most of the time. Not changing is also known as boredom and Warhol liked “boring things”. This boring feedback seems to be the most obvious part of the film. It’s a simple question- why stare at a strange man sleep for 321 mins? The other part, in contrast, is a deeper digging and thinking of the film. Another core thinking about the film is the entertainment part, it’s not like the entertainment cinema, Warhol had no plans to control the viewing experience for an audience. However, he talked about interesting views about entertainment through his seemingly boring film. During a conversation of Joseph Gelmis and Warhol about his sleep film, Joseph asked about the reaction of audiences after watching the film, Warhol said: “When people go to a show today they’re never involved anymore. A movie like Sleep gets them involved again. They get involved with themselves and they create their own entertainment.” He also demonstrated that he’s no idea whether the audiences enjoy it or not. However, both ways can be fun. The film shows its emptiness of entertainment, an audience may find it extremely monotonous. However, it’s the fact that Warhol has depicted the nature of sleeping on the purest form, as what structural film does to film. In a review of the film, the author says: “Our modern day materialism, music, entertainment, technology, social media are all some sort of coping mechanism for living as an intelligent human being because we are finding ways to make ourselves happier with our physical and mental advantage compared to other organisms.” Thus, in a way, <Sleep> shows the purest form of entertainment, as well as a form to be against entertainment. Coming contact to my project <The Orange>, I aim to explore the purest form of a film, the sense of connection to cope with in the simple and repeating process. Furthermore, a way to “fight against” the chaotic internet, social media environment that is mainly created to “help” us gain mental orgasm intentionally, it can be way more complicated than that mental orgasm part apparently, for instance: consumerism, individualism, and collectivism, modern boredom and emptiness.
Hollis Frampton’s short film - <Lemon>, 1969.
Hollis Frampton is an influential structuralist, in his about 7 mins long film <Lemon>, what do we see? The answer is a lemon, which sounds quite promising. There’s no camera movement or sound. However, unlike <Sleep>’s almost still images, there’re more layers of motion in <Lemon>, to extract the core elements of the film, what have left are: lemon, light, the change of light. A lemon slowly appears from a pure darkness, the lemon doesn’t change all throughout the film, yet only the light changes. It’s a process we can observe every small change that is happening to the lemon, the yellow color starts to occupy the screen slowly, moreover, different levels of yellow color, the high-key, middle-key, low-key of yellow, the highlight of lemon skin surface, the shape of the highlight and all yellow keys change through the movement of the light. Then the lemon disappears into the darkness slowly again and at last, the lem appears again shortly as a shape of a shadow, like an actor to take a bow on a stage. It’s overall a very slow process, you basically sit in front of the screen for 7 mins to stare at a lemon as a viewer.
Lamos Ignoramous writes in the review of the film: “Lemon examines the nature of vision, illusion, spatiality, and film.” “Lemon is a typical structuralist film that emphasizes its formal structure. It investigates the nature of film appearance and its relation to the audience’s perception.” He also mentioned that the lemon in the film has the qualities of a superstar, almost like a sexy female in a Hollywood movie. It appears from the nothingness of movie screen and eventually dissolves back there. It thus symbolizes the vanity of cinema. Interestingly, this part of the review, in fact, elaborates more about the representing and metaphorical part of a film.
For structural film, it focuses on the structure and physical part of the film, in a way, it could be understood as it mainly works in analog film format. In my practice of final project, I took structural film as a starting point or an inspiration rather than making a structural film. Peter Gidal also demonstrates “The structural film must minimize the content in its overpowering, imagistically seductive sense, in an attempt to get through this miasmic area of ‘experience’ and proceed with film as a film”. What attracts me is the minimizing process and few attributes of structural film, for instance: repetition.
“Pete and Repeat were sitting on a fence, Pete fell off, and who was left? Repeat.” From my own perspective, repetition is about two statuses: one is to get rid of it, the other one is to get involved in it. However, sometimes these two statuses can overlap. This paragraph focuses on the “getting involved” part of repetition, as well as related to my project - <The Orange>. My first attraction caught by repetition in video work is by Bruce Nauman’s video installation -<Good Boy Bad Boy>. In this video work, same scripts were spoken by respectively a female and a male actor repeatedly, Bruce Nauman often uses language games and repetition to explore the nature of language and perception. In this video work, scripts are repeated, yet changing slowly by the actor’s speeds and emotions. Here repetition forms new meanings and new ways of perceiving reality and perception, the power of language seems to be increased through this simple repeating form. There’s a humor in the repetition in the video, same to Ragner Kjartansson’s performance video work <Me and My Mother>, a viewer may find it’s humorous, funny eventually, however, meanwhile it makes you think and question behind the humor and repetition, you would find yourself being involved in this repetition once thinking and questioning are started.
A things repeatability in language or symbolic system ensures its existence. Repetition ensures the possibility of a thing. In my project <The Orange>, the content is a hand tries to spin the tip of an orange with two fingers, the orange drops off from fingers, then the movement is repeated. As a daily life object, the orange in the work is applied with a new symbolic figure, the repetition ensures the existence of the orange, meanwhile expands the orange to the sounds, the rhythm, the hand, or even the desk. In Ragner’s performance < A Lot of Sorrow>, which is a collaboration with the band The National, the band plays and sings the same song repeatedly for six hours, “By stretching a single pop song into a day-long tour de force, the artist continues his explorations into the potential of repetitive performance to produce sculptural presence within sound.” Read the official MoMA statement, in the repeating singing, the emotions and existence of the song “a lot of sorrow” are expanded and broaden, the song almost becomes a prayer. It’s a nature of human to find the difference in seemingly same things. The relationship between difference and repetition somehow is like the relationship between non-boredom and boredom. In the form of repetition, a viewer would be more sensitive about difference. It is difference that is relatively close to infinite and repetition that is always variant. There is no such thing as an infinite repeatability without difference, the only repetition without difference is the operation of repetition itself, not what is repeated in the content. There is always difference, and when there is a difference there is always the production of something new.Difference and repetition can overlap, they are not contradictory, for instance: the different speeds and emotions in the repetition of <Good Boy Bad Boy>.
2. Minimalism as a bedding:
Structural film is influenced by minimalism and abstract art movements, to be continued..
3. Abstraction in video art:
In Song dynasty of China, a master of Zen -- Qing Yuan xingsi said three sentences about the journey of Zen, which are:1. A mountain seen is a mountain being, a river seen is a river being. 2. A mountain seen is no mountain being, a river seen is no river being. 3. A mountain seen remains a mountain being, a river seen remains a river being. These three different ways of seeing of the mountain and the river mean three different spiritual levels of humans. The first level: A mountain seen is a mountain being, a river seen is a river being. Every new born individual is curious about the world and surroundings, they believe what they see is the truth. The second level: A mountain seen is no mountain being, a river seen is no river being. Individuals start to get lost in the living society and community. They start to doubt if it’s true that what they see is the reality, they start to think more and be more rational when observing the world. The third level: A mountain seen remains a mountain being, a river seen remains a river being. It is a statues of returning to one’s original nature, recovering one’s original simplicity after seeing and experiencing the world’s complicities and chaos. It’s a cognition of one’s awareness of what he/she wants, what he/she needs to give up. By that time, you notice the mountain and river are still the mountain and river, yet with more inner thoughts. According to Qing Yuan xingsi, the third level is the rarest and most precious level of a human being. This ancient Chinese Zen philosophy somehow can be applied to abstraction in art. Connecting to my final project – “The Light”, the three levels could be: 1. What you see is the light. 2. What you see is not only light. 3. What you see could be just the light.
Abstract art movement dates back to late 1940s and became a dominant trend in western paintings during the 1950s. Abstraction merely appeared firstly in paintings, there’re quite many names you can call for abstract paintings: Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Mondrian, etc. Then artists started to put the practice in sculpture, the sculptures are very much about presence and the objects themselves. In the book <Picture of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock>, few questions were mentioned: Why abstract art? What is abstract art good for? Why people would stare at a “picture of nothing”? People have images in their minds about things that they’re familiar with, as well as they only have concepts about things they’re not familiar with. However, images can fade away with things or objects, yet concepts somehow can be forever. The Icelandic contemporary artist Jóhann Jóhannsson reckons that “people are hungry for new sounds, and for the experience of listening to unfamiliar music that you don’t hear on commercials and in every TV show” when he was asked why the experimental and modernism film soundtrack he created for <Arrival> is becoming popular. It makes me wonder that if it’s connected with what Krik says about abstract art: “Abstraction shows the interpretation that it doesn’t demand recognition or resembling, but main in fact profits from its absence. In cases like this, abstract art absorbs projections and generates meanings ahead of meaning, establishing the form of things unknown.” The process of abstracting something is a process of reduction. Keeping the core of a work helps transfer the concept. Perhaps it’s the seemingly unknown part of abstraction that makes us feel more free and fearless to think, and to read what others think.
During the making of my project – the light. I was amazed that there are more things I could feel despite the technical factors to make the video happen. Thus, led me to the questions mentioned. Moreover, when abstraction comes to a video which is mainly made of light and color, moves with time. Here to quote a good question from Gabrielle Jennings: can an image- which is not a thing, which may be fleeting, and is always moving – have the same kind of gravity and presence as an actual object?
In the book <Abstract Video: The Moving Image in Contemporary Art>, Gabrielle elaborates the differences between abstraction in video/moving image and in painting and sculpture. They can be concluded as the difference between a still image and moving images: In painting, we can sense movement as gestural, narrative, or a compositional pointing from one place to another through such factors as color, form and location. In the moving image, movement can be understood both inside and outside the frame, through the actual speed of recording or playback, through montage and editing, as well as through the narrative unfolding (if there’s narrative contained). Time in a painting is imagined, however, in a moving image form, it is brought to the fore and put into question. Time can be materialized in an abstract video through movement of light and color. For instance: in visual artist Rainer Kohlberger’s pure computer generated abstract film <Not Even Nothing Can Be Free of Ghosts>, the viewer is immersed in pure color and light, however, through the change of movement of color and light, viewer’s perception is challenged both spiritually and optically, which emphasizes more about the presence of the viewer. As well as in my project, the matter of time through moving image is one part of my exploration. I tried to materialize the awareness of time via changing the attributes and area of color and light in a quite slow and subtle process.
This paragraph (plans for later…): Expand abstract video from screen to space.
Abstract video as installation. Abstract the space. The intensification of an abstract video.
A body moving in space perceiving is very different from a body sitting and watching.
4. Sense of participation:
Meditation through simple formats. What are the mental influences from watching those artworks? Is it important to build this obvious or subtle connection between the artwork and viewers? The fact that an illusion is created by a representation becomes the subject of the film. This meditative process cannot be achieved if there is a story or many different forms that viewer has to make connections with; there has to be a simple form.
The light, like the abstraction, is the representation of an unreachable scene or object, it’s abstract itself. By putting the video back to the physical space, and apply the re-constructed light as the light resource of the space, it creates the perception of something that is at once there and not there.
Usually, the ideas are repeated again and again so that it becomes a meditative process where the viewer starts thinking only about the choice made by the filmmaker that can be called “a simple shape”. There can be no illusions of reality as the “shape” attracts all the attention, making the content of secondary importance. The fact that an illusion is created by a representation becomes the subject of the film. This meditative process cannot be achieved if there is a story or many different forms that viewer has to make connections with, there has to be a simple form.
It’s about particulars, the less that we look at, the more important we look at it closely and carefully. That’s also critical about what abstract art is about: small differences make all the difference.
Abstract art is an ideal vehicle for communicating spiritual realities for several reasons. It removes viewers from the world they think they know and allows them to focus their contemplation on symbols, the experience of a work, or its meditative character. Kandinsky said, “the spirit is often concealed within matter to such an extent that few people are generally capable of perceiving it.” Abstraction allows for an exclusive focus on the experiential or conceptual realms, which are the primary concerns of the spiritual. In a way, it’s similar to what it says in Taoism: the mountain is still the mountain, the river is still the river, what has changed is only our minds.
Time plays a quite crucial role in time-based artworks, especially in structural films. Thus, how do structural film artists deal with time in their works? How do they materialize time through moving images? What time tricks can they play, furthermore the impacts? This chapter will mainly discuss these. Small changes make big or small differences.
Feeling bored? Is it supposed to be boring? (not sure about this paragraph yet) This part will analyze the subtle relationship between boredom and non-boredom, how those structural filmmakers deal with the relationship in their works and how they deal with the challenge of durations.
It all started from boredom when it comes back to the very earliest motivation for my research and project. During the research of boredom, on one hand, it provided me a view to know some seemingly boring yet could be interesting works such as Warhol’s <Sleep>, Bruce Nauman’s <Good boy, bad boy>, etc. On the other hand, I noticed myself was always looking for an exit to get out of boredom. However, the boredom research provided me a good start to the gate of structural film, minimalism, furthermore, abstract videos. What attracts me the most among structural film, minimalism and abstract video is the simplified form. Besides the simple form itself, what’s more, is the subtle and various different connection between the viewer and the visual, which is the sense of participation in simple and abstract form. It’s a collide of the content and form, the medium is the message, the message is the medium.
Additionally, another interesting part I noticed during my research is the sense of participation is the “make-believe” part of abstract and repeating videos, perhaps eventually other art forms. To quote a comment from Jonas Mekas, a Lithuanian American filmmaker, poet, and artist on Warhol’s <Sleep> film, “Artists do not know why they do what they do. They just do it. They have a need to do it and they do it. When you begin to ask why you do it, they may give you some answer, but next time they will give you a different answer, because there is no answer. You invent and when people ask you for a reason, you try to give a reason, but you don’t know the real reason.” Again, it connects to a review of Ragner Kjartansson (an Icelandic performance artist who’s known of never tired of repeating )’s work <Me and My Mother>, “It’s both reality and make-believe.” This interesting and controversial opinion surely doesn’t apply to all artists either within or without abstract and repeating form. In contrast, it is this make-believe theory that pushed me to think and concentrate on the reason and motivation of my own research and project.
Whether or not an artist/filmmaker had any concrete mission in creating an abstract video or seemingly boring film, one thing is determined is the artists don’t control the viewing experience for other people. This viewing experience, which I call it as a sense of participation is subjective. Looking back to repetition, minimalism and abstract video, these three different forms have a similarity, which is the simple form. Unlike entertainment films or interactive games/works, there’re more layers between simplified video works and the viewer. You don’t usually get the sense of participation immediately, which can be the main cause of the seemingly boring part of those video works. However, as Krik Varnedoe said about abstract art: “The less we look at, the more important we look at it closely and carefully.” Therefore, it’s a request of a viewer’s patient and though rather than a challenge in my opinion. By communicating with repeating, minimalistic and abstract forms allow a viewer to have different opinions, be free and fearless to think or simply turn around and leave. It is a journey of exploring whether you’re seeing a mountain and river or more than that.
The MIT Press & Whitechapel Gallery, , <Boredom, Documents of Contemporary Art>.
Lamos Ignoramous, Hollis Frampton’s Lemon Analysis—The Nature of Film and Vision.
Yoel Meranda, Ways of Seeing, Structural Films: Meditation through Simple Forms.
Peter Gidal, Structural Film Anthology, Theory and Definition of Structural/ Materialist Film.
Jonathan TD Neil, “Structural Film,” as Technique of History.
Birgit Hein, Film as film: formal experiment in film 1910-1975, chapter “The Structural Film”.
Gabrielle Jennings, [Sep. 2015], Abstract Video: The Moving Image in Contemporary Art.
Kirk Varnedoe, , Pictures of Nothing: Abstract Art since Pollock, Part 1: Why Abstract Art? (audiobook)
Plans for next step:
- More space to write for chapters: Minimalism, Sense of participation and also a bit more for Conclusion.
- In the chapter Abstract video, more paragraphs to work on about abstract video as an installation in a space, not only as a screen work.
- Add more descriptions and analyzes on my own work.