Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Artist Stripped Bare by Her Models, Experimentum (Art and Scientism)

The Artist Stripped Bare by Her Models, Experimentum
(Art and Scientism)

Robert Edgar

There’s some old business that I feel needs attending. It’s the term “experimental”, as in “experimental film” or “experimental filmmaker”.

It's for this experimental film
Which nobody knows about and which
I'm still figuring out what's going to go
In my experimental film

You're all gonna be in this experimental film
And even though I can't explain it
I already know how great it is” 1

TMBG usually seems on target to me, and their song “Experimental Film” is not an exception.  If I have students who say they’re going to make “an experimental film” I feel that the words have been passed on without enough consideration. 

And if some kids dying of youth try to play in the higher-than-thou wading pool of art film, and pick up the swagger along with the DSLR, well, they’re just beginning anthropologists, who aren’t yet able to distinguish the magic from the process. And they’re all swimming looking for funding along with those with polished 15-second storyline-movie elevator pitches. So they’d better go ahead, wag their asses and swim.

However, I feel that there are questions that are absolutely fair to ask of those who say they make experimental films. First of all, are there really experiments that experimental filmmakers perform? Is this a field of science? Is there a kind of knowledge that artists pass on to each other that they are examining and developing through some sort of shared process? What kind of gold are we making here?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, in a manuscript he left titled “Remarks on Color”, commented on Goethe’s book “Theory of Color”:

“Goethe’s theory of the constitution of the colors of the spectrum has not proved to be an unsatisfactory theory, rather it really isn’t a theory at all. Nothing can be predicted with it. It is, rather, a vague schematic outline of the sort we find in James’s psychology. Nor is there any experimentum crucis (italics are Wittgenstein’s) which could decide for or against the theory.” 2

Wittgenstein, while not going on to devalue Goethe’s writings on color, makes that point that these  writings to do not describe an experiment that could be used to test a theory.  So, Do experimental films test theories? Is that what Hollis Frampton, or Stan Van Der Beek, or Mike Snow were doing? Is that what Frampton was writing about when he wrote that Eisenstein:

“"...was at once a gifted linguist and an artist haunted by the claims of language--and also, by training, an engineer. It seems possible to suggest that he glimpsed, however quickly, a project beyond the intellectual montage: the construction of a machine, very much like film, more efficient than language, that might, entering into direct competition with language, transcend its speed, abstraction, compactness, democracy, ambiguity, power--a project, moreover, whose ultimate promise was the constitution of an external critique of language itself." 3
I love this paragraph by Frampton.  In it he is showing himself glimpsing that project, and sharing that glimpse with us as he does so. He seems to be laying out a foundation for something experimental: a structure (montage) that uses something outside of language to “critique” language. 
What I see here is a practice, not a theory. Neither Eisenstein nor Frampton—both of whom both made films and wrote about the process—set up experiments that could be used to verify a theory. Without diminishing their importance at all, I’d say they were more involved in play than work.
When I think of art as a process, I prefer to think about what three- and four- year olds do when they are working through their scribbling phases. Do children make experimental art? There is a sense of conjuring in children’s art making. But that which is conjured is experiential to the child, not external and verifiable.  And if it could be verified, the process of that verification would not look like the child’s art making.
The artist becomes involved in the making, lost in the stuff and the moment, and often, at the end, has some object that has been produced. But an object in itself is not a proof, disproof, or verification. That still awaits an experimental—in the scientific sense—construct and procedure.
There’s a term for practices that imitate science but aren’t science: “scientism”. If art is bad science, then what has been called experimental film is probably exactly that. In the late 20th century, there were many practices that were thought to promise the eventual attainment of scientific method, including many anthropological, psychological and semiotic studies.  It was in the air.
The phrase “experimental film” is certainly part of that scientism. But that doesn’t mean that those filmmakers who were accused of being experimental were bad scientists. They should, instead, be approached simply as artists, who conjure experiences and in so doing, often leave art objects as the outcome.  
There’s no shame in trying to do something you haven’t mastered. If only everyone believed that! If only our society supported that! Naked, without a need for the protection of scientism, without the need to be “right” when one makes art. It’s not that science—and the development of technology, or verification, or being right—isn’t important. It’s that art is also important, without the embarrassing armor of scientism. It’s not one of those, it’s one of these.

“The artist, when he encounters the present…is always seeking new patterns, new pattern recognition, which is his task.  The absolute indispensability of the artist is that he alone in the present can give the pattern recognition. He alone has the sensory awareness necessary to tell us what our world is made of.  He is more important than the scientist. 4” 


1. “Experimental Film”, They Might be Giants
2. “Remarks on Color”, Ludwig Wittgenstein, University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1977
3. "Film in the House of the Word”, in October 17, p. 63-64, Hollis Frampton, Summer 1981, MIT Press.
4. Marshall McLuhan, in conversation with Normal Mailer, 1968

September, 2011
Sunnyvale, CA

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Watching and Listening to Stockhausen

In the mail today received a DVD I'd ordered from Germany about a month ago, Stockhausen conducting Region III of Hymnen in 1986, my favorite section of my favorite piece of his. Great to see it performed live (which I otherwise haven't); it was absolutely magical to hear the density of musical ideas in the piece, and hearing it l
ive after so many years of listening to the vinyl recording, it was like seeing something in 3D that had been a flat painting. I'm so glad it held up for me (or I for it?). So beautiful to have someone form the ideas of the tonal and overtonal elements of the notes themselves, and using such a balanced mix of acoustic orchestra and electronic sounds.

For all my musical friends, I include these recommendations from the person in charge of the Stockhausen archive. It is difficult to purchase Stockhausen recordings except through the archive (I couldn't find them in stores even in Berlin, however Amoeba in SF has a small collection of them). Of course some pieces are more involving than others, and some time spent composing electronic using electronic components can help one create a door into a music which is usually both arhythmic and aggressively non-ambient.

If you are a musician and have not sat down in the evening and listened in a darkened room to one of his recordings on a good sound system, you should not yet feel world-weary. There is more awaiting you. He composes inside sound like no other composer I've heard. Along with fellow student Pierre Boulez, he studied under Oliver Messiaen, whose incredible percussion work and composition with bird song is with me whenever I travel and hear new birdsongs announcing the new morning in far off places. Really, this is mothers' milk. That said, when Meredith was growing up she used to refer to this as "Daddy music".  -RBE

Dear Robert Edgar,

thank you so much for your wonderful e-mail!

If you are interested in orchestral works, I can highly recommend the CD 100 with JUBILEE and Stockhausens last work for orchestra, which he finished on December 4th 2005 (he died on December 5th), which is called FÜNF WEITERE STERNZEICHEN for orchestra.

My personal favorite is INORI for orchestra also.

Electronic works which are a "must" are on CD 3 (GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE, KONTAKTE etc.). Just yesterday we received a notice that finally GESANG DER JÜNGLINGE will be performed at the Cologne Cathedral on April 30th 2013. Stockhausen composed this electronic work to be performed in the Cathedral in 1956 but up to date (!) they refused to perform it because of the loudspeakers. So The world finally cathes up after more then 50 years…

Later electronic works like OKTOPHONIE (CD 41), MITTWOCHS-GRUSS (CD 66) and his last electronic work COSMIC PULSES (CD 91) show that he continued being experimental and searching for new worlds.

I just finished mixing MICHAELION (4th scene of WEDNESDAY from LIGHT) which I recorded this year in Birmingham with the London Voices. This recordings is also amazing and will hopefully ready by the end of the year.

But I could write on and on as I am of course Stockhausens biggest "Fan" :-)

Have a wonderful 1st Advent!

Mit herzlichem Gruß

Kathinka Pasveer

für die Stockhausen-Stiftung für Musik
51515 Kürten

 I note that his last work was "FÜNF WEITERE STERNZEICHEN" or "Five Additional Zodiac Signs". I remember reading Giordano Bruno's text "Spaccio della Bestia Trioufante" ("Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast") where Bruno replaces the constellations with new sets. Great thing to do.   

Friday, November 30, 2012

Pinterest Memory Theater Page

Memory Theaters are models for how we process information in our environment. They provide a process, as I've argued elsewhere, that is the opposite of museum curation.

Here is a work in progress--a pinterest page dedicated to memory theaters.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Not What, But How

Back in the 1970s I made my first trips to New York city as an art student, and one of the artists who attracted me most, and who has remained a major influence for me, was Richard Foreman. I bought a copy of his book Richard Foreman, Plays and Manifestos (NYU Press, 1976), and couldn't help but notice that there on the cover of the book was an illustration of a theatre by Robert Fludd, one that I first saw in The Art of Memory by Frances Yates.

Now, the image on the cover would have been enough to sell me on the book, but Foreman's texts were so focused on exactly where I wanted to focus, on that moment where one notices. It isn't a scientific type of focus or noticing. It's a noticing where one suddenly finds oneself aware that one had been carrying around a conceptual frame that was not synched with what one was confronting, and then one notices that frame shift so that one is suddenly resonant with that confrontation. What happens in this type of noticing, is that one is not so involved with WHAT something means, as one is with HOW something means.

After a lifetime of focusing on how things mean, it is a response that is always ready to erupt. If one continually had that as an initial reaction we would not survive--we'd get hit by cars while staring at the walk/don't walk signs, instead of just waiting for the proper sign to blink on. But it is a response that occurs enough with me that it is my main source of humor, and I'm sure I annoy many people with my deliberate misinterpretations of statements. It's not that I think I'm clever, my mind is just constantly looking for the pun, the parallel meaning, the unintended wordplay, and it goes there first. I live in an alternative universe.

Here is a note in one of Foreman's "manifestos" from the book: "Write by thinking against the material. Since you don't want to convince self of your vision, etc.--but to let it be informed by the disintegrating non-moment".

For me his plays throw everything at each other so that all of us--and I believe Foreman himself as a viewer--is actively engaged in trying to find anything that makes sense. With no traditional story or narrative, objects are present as objects, and only on occasion, seemingly unconsciously, they collide with the right object and a symbol radiates from the crash. And as the symbol emerges from our suddenly noticing, from an otherwise noisy but meaningless stage, we are able to better notice elemental aspects of our "making sense".

In October, Foreman premiered a new film "Once Every Day" at the New York Film Festival. He was interviewed by the critic Amy Taubin. Here it is:


Saturday, November 17, 2012

Last Mistake -> Next Content

Narratives are interesting because as we go through life, we're always looking for navigational strategies... how do we move from what we're doing to what to do next?

Narratives, and (with language) syntax, and (with painting) edges, and (with music) modal and rhythmic modulations--these are all models for how we can change our lives. They let us sample the feel of the change before we try them. 

And so we look at the form and map it, and the map becomes the cognitive model--as well as the model in sensory memory--and we use the hints from those internalized maps to navigate the now time.

Of course, acting in the world isn't entirely a matter of conscious choice. Even navigating using such models isn't necessarily conscious, any more than a syntactical map is conscious, or our reaction to a sensory stimulus.

Art working provides an opportunity to consciously examine media for models of action that we can use outside of those media. 

In his 1970's book Beyond Modern Sculpture, Jack Burnham wrote about a goal of art being to make a model of what it is to be human. He noted that there had been a change in how that was handled, moving from an image/icon of a human, to a model that acted in the manner of a human. There was a shift, for a while at least, from picture of to art-as-process. This certainly extended to areas of robotics, and to algorithms.

I'd like to postulate an art-making  model derived in part from Burnham's text. It's this:
The artist models what it is to be human. The artist, through experiencing the piece and its reception in the world, finds a part of the model that didn't work. That mistake becomes the subject of the next piece.

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Go to 2nd Fridays site:

The music was fantastic last night.

Respectable Citizen started playing about 7:15. Michael Zbysznski on saxophones and electronics, Bruce Bennett on keyboards and their downstream modulation, and Byron Diel laying down one of the most absorbing 45 minutes of trap set drumming I've heard.

Like Stockhausen's improvisatory group, Respectable Citizen starts with traditional musical instruments, feeding their output into a set of software and hardware modules to modulate and shape the sound. Unlike Stockhausen's group, the musical source for R.C. is improvisatory jazz. However, after laying out some modal Coltrane-like sax riffs that established a musical base for the music, Michael set off in any manner of directions. Of the three musicians in the trio, he was the most continually balanced between music and noise, melody and raw sound, allowing your ears to get into a scale and feel how it provides identify to the notes and rhythms, then electronically modifying the output outside of that established acoustic space so that one saw it, fleetingly, from the perspective of a new sound and rule-set. In this way Michael traveled from acoustic gravity to acoustic gravity, compressing the distance of each journey through his ability to play within a perceivable rule set and immediately jump to another rule set, related by those sonic attributes that defined the edge between them (scale, rhythm, pitch, timbre etc.).

Bruce Bennett played his keyboard and other hand-based interfaces as if he had an axe--carving out rich, full sounds, doing high-definition shaping of timbre and volume that created sound shapes of particular clarity and presence. These worked particularly well in juxtaposition with Michael's musical riffing and Byron's shifting percussion patterns. Since between sax and drums rhythms and polyrhythms were already established, Bruce provides sounds and shapes that masterfully moved between being objects set against those rhythms, and a dark acoustic backdrop that surrounded them. It seemed to me what what Bruce provided was a forceful and ever-modulating sound set that morphed between being foreground object and background, providing the spatial basis for the trio's musical cyclorama.

Usually I don't like electronic music that has a single percussion track that is sustained throughout a piece. It seems to me mindless, the sort of composition exemplified by paintings of Elvis or matadors on black velvet. It's not that it doesn't' have an effect, it's that the chief problem of establishing background from foreground is already solved. and set This is one reason why dance music is usually snubbed by non-dance music musicians; solving nothing, it becomes the sugar in our water that rots our teeth as our invested years run out.

However, Byron Diel's playing avoided that. His trap set playing technique was such that he was constantly modulating between time signatures, length of measures, and polyrhythmic juxtapositions, so that what seemed to be firmament was actually a shifting ground beneath you. While Byron occasionally slowed and sped up tempos, most of his playing did work against a steady tempo, but a steady tempo suspended above a continually re-parsed phrasing.

So what Respectable Citizen presented last night was a set of three musicians, each exploring different musical compositional strategies in parallel, in such a way that each complemented the other, and never became muddied or repetitious. At the California Art Institute/Sunnyvale, the majority of students in the audience were there from a sound design class offered from their Digital Film major. I can't think of a better presentation of profound and intricate sound design, and I applaud Digital Film Director Christina Ri and Sound Design Instructor Andy Puls for their foresight in having the class attend the performance.

Following Respectable Citizen was "Toaster", otherwise known as composer/performer Todd Elliot. Todd played a trio of pieces, moving from an ambient droning piece triggered through a MIDI-based instrument called an eigenharp tau, through a sequenced pattern piece, to a very nicely cinematic piece using movie soundtrack and acoustic piano samples (with the note samples either recorded from a distance in a live room, or processed to seem so).

Todd's performance was recorded and is available on this website, so I'll recommend listening to it first hand, rather than reading a long description by me. But I'll recommend the first, ambient piece, which provided a nice example of woven sound textures that move in and out of focus. What sounds static to the unobservant is a constantly modulating set of sounds without sudden attack or decay, but with a gentle undulation not unlike a flag in a breeze, or cross-patterns of ripples on a pond. Similar to early Eno or Riley, it provides a fine and subtle texture for close listening.

Toward the end of Todd's performance came a couple minutes that were quite unlike the others. The sounds slipped out from the triggered lockstep of the second piece, and the individual sounds away from the sharp definition of the filmic soundtrack spoken word samples. The few sounds slipping by became something of an emulsion, for what was for me a very compelling musical environment. I don't know how this holds up in the recorded version, but in the acoustics of the room last night, it was a great way to end the performance.

Our next 2nd Friday will be on October 14th. Bring your ears and your heart.

Robert Edgar
September 10, 2011

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Beefheart's Wake and the Cultural API

Attended the Beefheart "symposium" last night. Enjoyed it. As one speaker said "This is really a wake". Very few young people, mostly old men--except for Robin, who came along. Earlier in the week I'd asked my film students how many had gone to the SF Cinematheque, and no one knew what I was talking about. On the way home last night, out in the world, while passing bright new billboards for the Beatles, I had a sudden "Blade Runner" feeling. I had a kind of flash-backed premonition. Instead of buildings and physical infrastructure left in disrepair, there was a culture with so much of its vitality lost that the present couldn't be understood, we are left with behavioral habits without knowledge of their cause. The Beatle billboards were the ads in Blade Runner, and Beefheart and Independent Cinema were the missing creators of the unmaintained architecture and infrastructure. Where are the counter-cultural inventors who construct truly new meaning from the new technologies? Who create art that is unsalable not because it is scatological, but because it is so radical in its form that it demands work from the viewer to perceive that it has an aesthetic source. There is absolutely no need for another Beefheart, or Beatles for that matter. But I look for more desperation to invent one's self even at the cost of losing one's self.

Or maybe invention maintains the same relation to the underlying culture as it ever did, and we just have less underlying movement to be reflected in new art. That seems hard for me to believe, with all the technological innovations present. And we can see those so clearly reflected in Egypt, as the people there are forced to reinvent themselves as free souls within a world community. Perhaps here we have too little need to reinvent the self as presently imagined by society.

Gary Lucas shared a Beefheart quote last night: “I think of music as primarily an irritant”. There is no understanding this unless you posit a disconnect between the form to which the society requires the artist to con-form, and the need by the artist to produce a form that differs from it. If the self-form that the artist/citizen requires matches the one enjoined by cultural infrastructure (the API calls work in both directions), you don’t get the desperation to reinvent the self. Note this isn’t at the social level (which is analogous to a digital “skin”), but at the cultural level (not directly available to the conscious, but sensed by the conscious as an emotional or physical/synaesthetic malaise). If that malaise isn’t present: no need to create a self reformed so that it can survive without the cultural API communications. The “irritant” is such not because the artist wants someone to feel badly, but because s/he is trying to invent his or her own albumin…one that because of its source and purpose is impermeable to the cultural API…and that creates a mirrored malaise between the albumin and the outside society.

So perhaps it is a good thing that it does not occur to youth to basically reinvent itself: as sign of alignment between the young individual and the surrounding culture. Either that, or there is no sensitivity left: no individual, no name, numb.