Week 15: Searcher Post

For the last searcher post, I’ve selected a video art piece named Sound & Vision: Immortal Lands produced by British-born multimedia artist Alexander James in 2019. James has a successful career as a painter and is often renowned for his unique understanding and usage of colors. Nevertheless, the artist has long expressed his interest in working with mixed media such as fabrics, clothing, and even film. After spending time traveling and living on the road in both the Arizona and New Mexico deserts, James experiences “lucid dreams that he believes were directly manipulated by the surrounding atmosphere in the desert” (“Alexander James”, 2023). Fascinated by this experience, he decides to utilize raw footage recorded during his stay there to “recreate particular memories and moments from past experiences” (“Alexander James”, 2023).

The video begins with James providing a voiceover in which he mixes descriptions of the desert such as “this orbit of malicious intruding sand, little metal objects” with abstract phrases such as “ignite life’s freakish colors, bite back the delicate mirrors”. At the same time, the visuals are modified to evoke a quality assimilated to the thermal imaging. Such a design reminds me of Global Groove (Nam June Paik, 1973) as Paik also manipulated visuals in his work to maximize their impact on the audience. Concurrently, while I am unsure whether it is an intentional homage to the classic, the horse constructed by lines at 1:21 reminds me of the lion in Big Electric Cat (Dean Winkler and John Sanborn, 1982). The character with a mirror instead of a head shown at 2:20 prompts me to think of the mirror-faced figure wearing a black cloak in Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren, 1943).

James characterizes Immortal Lands as “a manifestation of my dreams into an unknown place bound together by sound, landscapes and meticulously edited footage” (“Alexander James”, 2023). As I recognize various elements that share similarities with those from works we’ve screened in class, I understand and realize James’s interest in mixed media. Corresponding to his own statement that “if I work hard on a subject or on a painting I’ll take the element of that painting that I really liked and then carry it with me on to my next thing”, James consistently creates interesting and insightful works that blur the boundaries between different art forms and produces interesting experimental pieces (Stanley, 2016).

Week 13: Reader Post

In the reading “The Spam of the Earth: Withdrawal from Representation”, Hito Steyerl centered her discussion around the idea of “image spam”. Steyerl’s main concern lied in the groups of people that got represented by those spam and how the spam revealed about humanity. Specifically, individuals in the spam predominantly embodied characteristics such as “horny, super skinny, armed with recession-proof college degrees, and always on time for their service jobs, courtesy of their replica watches” (Steyerl, 1). According to Steyerl, image spam presented “‘ideal’ humans, but not by showing actual humans”, therefore it functioned as an inappropriate model for the public to emulate (Steyerl, 2). At the same time, she introduced a second explanation regarding image spam’s representation, which was in contrast with the first one: the discrepancy between the idealized images in image spam and the real appearances of individuals indicated their refusal to have their true identities shown in a public media as “within a fully immersive media landscape, pictorial representation—which was seen as a prerogative and a political privilege for a long time—feels more like a threat” (Steyerl, 3). Such a reasoning was highly attractive to Steyerl as it diverged from the positive impressions people conventionally associated with representation. With that in mind, she went on to examine the political and cultural representation in current society and asserted that “while visual representation shifted into overdrive and was popularized through digital technologies, political representation of the people slipped into a deep crisis and was overshadowed by economic interest” (Steyerl, 6). She concluded the article by addressing the “crisis of representation” as she viewed this era as “an age of unrepresentable people and an overpopulation of images” as the image spam, regardless of which reasoning readers chose to align with, couldn’t serve as effective representations of the public (Steyerl, 7).


  1. At the very end of the article, Steyerl briefly talked about people shown in the image spam. In the previous paragraph, Steyerl called the image spam “a negative image” because she believed “it is an accurate portrayal of what humanity is actually not” (Steyerl, 3). However, if the image spam was synthesized by capturing actual individuals, would it still be a depiction of humanity?

Week 12: Viewer Response

My experience of viewing Vertical Roll (Joan Jonas, 1972) was certainly a complicated one. The persistent sound of metal tapping, spanning a daunting 18 minutes, not only constantly diverted my attention from the visual but also stirred a sense of irritation in my mind. Jonas’s use of this sound, as I interpret it, follows a similar approach to Buñuel’s famous eye-slicing scene in Un Chien Andalou (Buñuel & Dali, 1929). It presents a challenge and even a taunt to the audience while implicitly underscoring that the work is not designed solely for entertainment. As the film commences, we observe images of a woman emerging in the vertical direction, coming closer and then away from the screen. This design not only echoes the film’s title but, more significantly, emulates the operation of a film projector. Given the era when the work was created, it is reasonable to deduce that Jonas intentionally made this choice to illustrate that video art, as an emerging art form, held a broader potential compared to film as it could produce a similar outcome with greater ease. Another piece of evidence supporting this notion is that each segment of the sections in which the motion of the feet and legs of the woman is captured is a dynamic video sequence rather than a static photo as in traditional film projection. Therefore, the audience is offered a series of moving videos instead of images.

As the film proceeds to its end, a woman enters the screen, disregarding and disrupting the projection-like framework. Slowly, she turns her face to look directly at the audience which shatters the fourth wall. After maintaining this gaze for a while, she slowly departs from the screen along with the vertical motion of the background frame. This design distinctly ends the resemblance between this video and a traditional film projection, serving as a vivid reminder to the audience that they are engaging with a completely new medium that can offer diverse presentation forms.

My questions for this work are:

  • First and foremost, what is this video about? Is the woman who appears at the end the same individual as the subject of the video?
  • How can we interpret the breaking of the fourth wall in the final scene?

Week 10: Searcher Post

Among all the pieces we watched this week, I was deeply captivated by Norman McLaren’s Synchromy (1971) in terms of his innovative approach of translating sounds into visual images. Specifically, I was curious about the techniques McLaren employed to create the soundtrack as well as his intention to construct a film like Synchromy, given the fact that cinematic digital sounds were not invented until the 1990s, five decades after McLaren embarked on his career as an experimental filmmaker.

The first source I’ve found is a journal article that provides a great overview of McLaren’s career and his typical production techniques. According to William E. Jordan, “the popularity of Norman McLaren’s films is certainly due in a large measure to their appeal to the senses” (Jordan, 1). The focus of McLaren’s works lies on “animations”—he designated “‘lifelike’ qualities” to “what is ordinarily considered inanimate”—and thence often involves the visualization of sounds (Jordan, 1). Specifically, he created synthetic sounds by directly drawing on or manipulating the film strips: “I draw a lot of little lines on the sound-track area of the 35-mm film…The number of strokes to the inch controls the pitch of the note: the more, the higher the pitch; the fewer, the lower is the pitch” (Jordan, 6). This indeed helps to explain the shift in pitch as the numbers of cubes in the middle of the frame decrease in Synchromy (0:50-0:57). Moreover, McLaren claimed that “by drawing or exposing two or more patterns on the same bit of film I can create harmony and textural effects”, which is also consistent with the segmented sequence around 4:40-4:45 where we observe two types of cubes that both vary in colors and sizes and hear the chords they create (Jordan, 6).

In addition to the article, I also found a video in which McLaren directly demonstrated the process of hand drawing sounds. In opposition to the conventional way in which sounds were recorded and stored as distinctive patterns of light and dark on the films, McLaren manually drew patterns on the films and explored the possibilities of generating sounds. Such a method is considered to grant the filmmaker “direct, personal control at every stage of the film’s production” (5:16-5:19).  

Week 7: Reader Blogging

In the chapter “Andy Warhol: The Producer as Author”, David James presented the trajectory of Andy Warhol’s career as he transitioned from being a significant figure in pop art culture to emerging as a notable and distinctive filmmaker in the realm of Avant-Garde cinema. James commenced by pointing out the iconic characteristics of Warhol’s films— “the simultaneous interrogation and exploitation of the media and the meditation on the elusiveness of the un-media-ted presence”—and tracing their origins back to his earlier paintings (James, 58). Warhol’s paintings represented a fusion of art and advertisement and could be even considered as “components of his own marketing strategies in the art business” (James, 59). Furthermore, Warhol constructed his works in a manner that was “virtually independent of a real human body or personality” as he often “reinscribed the artifice of the public image” (James, 60-61). At the same time, he opposed the conventional understanding and approach to grant authenticity to the artists.

With his eccentric but unique perspective of art and the fame and wealth he has garnered through his artistic endeavors, Warhol began his career as a filmmaker in the 1960s. James pointed out that “a general distinction between an early Warhol and a late Warhol can be elaborated in both formal and biographical terms” (James, 63). Warhol’s cinematic works progressively assimilated to the Hollywood cinema marked by the evolution of technological components towards greater sophistication, the transition from small-scale showcases to public exhibitions, and a shift in the films’ form toward a narrative-driven structure. “Two most polemically opposed modes of production of the time—the underground and the industry” got blended and further unified in Warhol’s films (James, 63). Inevitably, the discrepancy between his creations and the contemporary Avant-Garde films and “lacked any Brechtian engagement with the political functions of the mass media” aroused criticism from the underground (James, 66). In terms of dissecting Warhol’s films, James argued that “what distinguishes Warhol from his predecessors and successors is his disinterest in moral or narrative inflection”—he drew no boundaries between high art and street art, and the mainstream and underground (James, 67).

James then went on to delve into three major themes Warhol tried to address in his works—“an investigation of the process of being photographed and of being made the object of film; the construction and fragmentation of artificial selves by means of roles appropriated from film history or metaphorically related in some other way to Hollywood; the representation of exhibitionism and spectatorship in the narratives of feature films which themselves approach Hollywood’s formal and economic terrain” and analyzed how these themes manifested in various Warhol’s famous works such as The Chelsea Girls (1966, Warhol)(James, 68).  

I perceive this article as an introductory, expository essay on Andy Warhol as James wrote in a relatively loose structure. The major takeaway for me is that different from lots of experimental filmmakers, Warhol didn’t resist mainstream art/cinema—in fact, he embraced the idea of commodity and popularity and often mingled them with his works. My questions arising from this article are: (1) James mentioned that Warhol began to delegate a substantial portion of responsibility to others in the production of some late films (James, 64). Wouldn’t this be in contrast with Camper’s idea that “an experimental film is created by one person, or occasionally a small group collectively” (Camper, 2)? What were some responses from the underground filmmaker community? (2) James described Warhol’s cinema as “his is thus a meta-cinema, an inquiry into the mechanisms of the inscription of the individual into the apparatus and into the way such inscription has been historically organized” (James, 68). How should we interpret the sentence?

Week 6: Viewer Blogging

Prelude: Dog Star Man (Stan Brakhage, 1961, USA)

Viewing Dog Star Man was quite an intriguing experience as I observed myself transition from complete confusion to a gradual appreciation as I shifted my focus from making meanings out of each frame to the extensiveness of the visual elements of this film. The film is heavily edited at an extremely rapid pace, making it free from the confines of traditional narrative cinema. Almost every frame is constructed with superimposition so viewers are saturated with massive information at all times. Such a design conjures a sense of hallucination, chaos, and enigma. While I was not able to identify a coherent logic throughout the piece, certain intentional repetitions in the content were rather apparent. First and the most obvious one, the images of the moon and the sun (3:10-3:14, 5:09-5:12, 7:42-7:44) which directly correspond to the theme star from its title. Secondly, the footage of the forest (11:49-12:04) which is often distorted and diluted in color. Third, a bloody, pulsating heart (14:31-14:34). Lastly, the nude female body (10:41). In addition, Brakhage also included hand-painted, tinted shapes and lines that almost served as the transition between these diverse elements.  

My questions for this piece are:

  • While the film seemed to exhibit a natural, rural atmosphere, Brakhage included footage of traffic from 10:03-10:10. What would be his purpose in doing so?
  • Why would Brakhage maintain such a rapid pace in the film? Is this a deliberate attempt to disrupt the audience’s experience in a similar manner to Dali and Bunuel’s eye-slicing scene in Un Chien Andalou?
  • What message or emotion was Brakhage aiming to convey through his unconventional approach? Does the film have/convey meanings?

Fuses (Carolee Schneemann, 1964-67, USA)

Fuses by Schneemann is an autobiographical film that captures the intimate sexual relationship between the director and her husband. Under its boldness in the content selection back in the 1960s, Schneemann aimed to break the long-existing image of women as sexualized, voyeuristic objects subjected to the male gaze in mainstream cinema by “position(ing) herself ‘not as sex object, but as willed and erotic subject, commanding her own image’” (MacDonald, 2). Her dual identities as both the subject of the film as well as the filmmaker empower her to deliberately present her body in a way that conveys her sexuality, desire, and euphoria instead of merely showing her sensuality to please the audience. In a similar manner, Schneemann extensively applied superimposition throughout the film: while the viewers are shown footage of Schneemann and her husband having sex, it is often veiled with other materials, thus cutting off the voyeuristic pleasure. Moreover, many shots are arranged in a way that makes it hard for the viewer to immediately distinguish the difference between male and female bodies, which further challenges the phenomenon in mainstream cinema that only female bodies get exposed to attract attention. I personally appreciate Schneemann’s bravery in including close-ups that capture female orgasm in the film especially considering the time her work gets created. She certainly confronted the stigma of female sexual desire and unquestionably laid the foundation for feminist cinema.

My questions for this piece are:

  • Shana MacDonald in her article considered Schneemann’s cat, which constantly appeared in the film, the actual “voyeur” of the film. What would be Schneemann’s intention to cut from a sex scene to her cat? Are we as viewers seeing the film from the perspective of a cat?
  • How should we interpret the scene in which Schneemann walks toward the sea? Does the sea here have a similar significance to the sea in Meshes of the Afternoon?

Week 4 Searcher Post: An Interview With Mikhail Kaufman

            The piece I chose for this week is an interview with Mikhail Kaufman, who appeared as the cameraman while served as the actual cinematographer for the film Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov, 1929), in terms of his intended envisagement of the film and his understanding of documentary cinema, which provided rather an insightful perspective for us to interpret the film.

Man with a Movie Camera, according to Kaufman, was an embodiment of “Kino-theory in cinematic form” (October, 54). Kino-theory constructed by Vertov believed in the surpassing potential of the camera in capturing events that were inaccessible to human eyes. Indeed, certain sequences of the film were intentionally filmed in a way to show the power of the camera, including the railway sequence (9:07-9:09) in which the camera was positioned on the railway and was able to capture the train hurtling by. Expanding upon the theory, Kaufman proclaimed that the cinematography of the film was “infused with the particular thought that he is actually seeing the world for other people” and “observing life from the point of view of the social structure” (October, 65). While the segments of the film seemed not connected at first sight, Kaufman stated that “the accumulation of tremendous number of phenomena” would lead to the comprehension of the world (October, 69).

Another intriguing point from the interview was Kaufman’s comment on the documentary cinema. He argued that “the working method of a documentary film director does not involve components such as design, acting, or dramatic composition” (October, 54). In fact, for documentary films, “the shooting process for ‘life as it is’ required that people’s attention be distracted” (October, 64). Kaufman stated it was equally challenging to have actors perform effectively in front of a camera and to have people look into the camera without any visible reactions. A great example to back up his idea would be the sequence in which the cameraman filmed the bourgeoisie sitting in the car next to him: the passengers couldn’t help but turn to the camera and look directly into the lens (21:13-21:20).

Interestingly, Kaufman also indirectly responded to the question of why Man with a Movie Camera was the last piece that he worked on with his brother Vertov. While both Kaufman and Vertov were involved in the Kino-theory, Kaufman held an even bolder and more discrete view in terms of filming as he stated that “material was supposed to be shot which would then lead to the search for other material, so as to comprehend all shooting processes, to interpret them” (October, 69). Also, Kaufman considered the editing of the film rather redundant and intrusive and didn’t fulfill his own intent.

Overall, this interview being a primary source provides us with a quite credible and intimate perspective in interpreting the film and dissecting the goals of the filmmakers.