Printed in Millenium Film Journal No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews
My first experience in understanding how
color is layered in film and how these layers might break apart
or blend together was very exciting. It involved the film Stadt
in Flammen, from 1984. This was a color super-8 copy of a
B-movie which had been reduced to nothing but its action sequences.
During the same period of time, Schmelzdahin, the group with which
I was working, was researching the process of bacterial decomposition
in film emulsion. And so, it was only natural that one day I should
decide to toss my film into a dank corner of my garden. After
a hot, humid summer, I came to gather up the film, which over
the course of the summer I'd entirely forgotten. The superimposed
layers of color emulsion had split apart and partly mixed together
as well. The colors remained very pure and intense, but had departed
from their previous form. Indeed, they were laying themselves
down upon the old action film to form veritable mosaics of color,
remarkably like the stained glass of church windows. This was
a really pleasurable experience, and I struggled to make a copy
of the film on an optical printer that Schmelzdahin had tried
to use in such cases. As it turned out, however, the projector
lamp overheated and melted the original. And, sad to say, in related
work on the film involving bacterial decomposition, the losses
mounted. It is very difficult, indeed impossible, to control such
processes. The researcher must apply care and rigor in the choice
of materials and everything should be thoughtfully planned.
Parallel to these endeavors, we were attempting
hands-on manipulation of films, our object of study being color
negative. We availed ourselves of several means of manipulating
film: buffing, punching, carving, chiseling, scraping; we also
used sewing machines, knives, hammers, a soldering iron, etc.
We began by removing each layer of color, one by one, or we also
actually perforated the film. In all of this, the interest that
we found in these activities came more from a spirit of discovery
than from analysis. Projection of the pieces of film manipulated
along these lines showed a series of astonishing phenomena. When
we subject the film emulsion to regular, rhythmic rubbing with
a piece of sandpaper, the depth at which each different color
presents itself is revealed. If one scrapes the film even more,
the entire emulsion will be scraped away down to the base. A punching
gun or sewing machine (with or without thread) lets you make patterned
perforations in the emulsion and base. And after a certain degree
of experience is acquired, one is able to "dance about"
on the image and stitch a precise spot. We didn't engage in these
activities simply in order to manhandle the film strip. What we
really wanted was to discover the outermost limits, the boundaries,
at which film could no longer be projected. For the most part,
the experiments from this stage of our study gave us only fragmentary
During the years that followed, we conducted
rather lengthy investigations into the effects of atmospheric
corrosion on film, once again with a preference for color film.
We used to set it all up by unwinding hundreds of feet of film--a
melange of both our own super-8 as well as various sources of
found footage. We would then proceed to hang or drape the film
from the branches of trees in my garden. Usually after an intense
exposure to sunlight over a period of one to ten months, yellow
is the first color to disintegrate. Then, depending on the material,
the film loses its red and blues bit by bit. After just about
six months the gelatin becomes porous from the effects of wind
and rain. During the same period cracks and crevices appear. If
you were to visit my garden today, you'd find more or less soiled,
spotted and otherwise defiled strips of film in the trees--film
accumulated over a period of ten years. A few more years and--nothing.
Airborne dust, pollen, and dirt come to rest upon the naked base
of the film, upon which there used to be images full of color.
An act of purification of a certain sort. It is always amazing
and beautiful to see that novel realities come to replace the
multi-colored illusions and deceptions of film. In 1985, I tossed
an entire reel of film into a little pond in the garden. (I believe
that it was Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.) I salvaged the
reel a year later and the experience is recounted in Aus Den
Algen (1986). Following a narrative commentary, the spectator
witnesses the film being fished out of the pond. From the original,
only the base survived. Algae cultures had taken up residence,
their abodes now stocking the content of the images.
The final years of collaboration with
Schmelzdahin were primarily dedicated to the study of those chemical
processes that unfold during and after film developing. First
of all, we conducted color film experiments involving: changing
the hydrogen potential of the color developer, introducing deviations
in important temperatures among different baths, brutally interrupting
the printing process, and rinsing with chemical baths not permitted
by the standard procedure. These operations brought about quite
a series of intriguing results such as: the shift of overall color
balance to a single color, several false solarizations, alteration
in grain, and even the loss of layers of color. In other cases,
we divided the material among ourselves, each of us indulging
his particular fantasy, each with his own little bottle containing
a small amount of extremely concentrated developer. During developing
we would shake the bottle irregularly in order to obtain the greatest
possible variation in results. More often than not there would
be loss of control over both the unfolding of the developing and
attempts to repeat a result. However, it was often the "unsuccessful"
results that were truly interesting.
In regard to chemical manipulation, black
and white is even more interesting than color film. With the use
of toners, one can replace the particles dyed black with metals
that capture different colors, for example: sulfur=brown, copper=red-brown,
uranium oxide=yellow-brown, or gold=red-orange. White areas remain
unchanged. I would rather not elaborate because one can find these
recipes in any photography manual; for the most part, these are
the same procedures that arose in the first quarter of this century.
At this stage, the most stimulating new results obtained when we tried different toner solutions by interrupting the developing or rinsing with intermediate chemical treatments. Having recourse to developing black and white reversal proved to be very productive. It offered us the possibility of working with the chemistry of the first developer, normally obliterated by bleaching, and of disposing of all the silver particles. Moreover, we determined what substances allow you to dissolve a specific area of the gelatin with more or less precision; we practiced this technique on those parts of the gelatin with a reduced silver density. Coloring the remaining layer of gelatin which had not undergone this treatment, we were able to apply an additional color, freely chosen, to the entirely transparent base. The result is images that seem to be in relief or embossed, whose form and color vary from one project to another, and resemble those historic photographic images originally in black and white that used to be colored by hand.
The incredible richness of possibilities for combining these different techniques promised to immerse us in a truly complex, truly fantastic world, true beyond representation, abandoned on that account by cinematographic history. When we arrived to attend cinema or video festivals, the anachronistic side of our investigations clearly would command our attention. The digital revolution was already wreaking havoc; people were already in it to the extent that they had come to handle images without dirtying their hands, just through the use of brainpower and their fingers. (In Latin, finger is digitus). One pressed a button and the color blue appeared. This seemed to us absurd. We became irrelevant; we represented the Old Guard.
One of the productive outcomes of the
period when we experimented with chemical treatments deserves
to be highlighted. Particular parts of the collective work Flamethrowers
(1989, with Matthias Müller and Owen O'Toole) as well as
the opening images of Passion (1992) show a volcanic eruption.
In the conventional color film, one such event is decomposed chromatically
and the respective parts of color are then replaced, in the three
different layers yellow/cyan/magenta, by corresponding dyes. A
complete reproduction of the represented object results. In my
personal working method, the real world action (of flowing "lava")
is reproduced even in the emulsion itself with the aid of an aggressive
bath of bleach. This bath corrodes those parts of the image in
which the lava is projected from the crater, the layer of gelatin
included. The method of heating thus obtained corresponds exactly
to the original action. The primitive energy of the natural phenomenon
is preserved and a microcosm is created which materially reproduces
the macrocosm. The gelatin remaining on the film is then coated
with a deep red color that one obtains in mixing two relatively
lightly colored salts together. This coloring occurs chemically--and
what makes it particularly interesting is that it progressively
disintegrates in contact with light.
Two aspects of this work deserve emphasis: the first is unicity. If one contact prints the images described above onto color stock, this beautiful construction of the mind fades away. A relatively pale, banal copy results or the material is utterly lost. It only becomes interesting again if somebody reworks this material on the optical printer. In this way one gets a new and original work.
The second aspect that deserves emphasis is fungacity. I don't have a real need to present my work in a form and in states defined for all time. What interests me is the process, evolution, method, the march. So long as we scan the universe that surrounds us, we live in a fleeting world, full of shadows, which reconstitute themselves every single moment. The eye adjusts to these changes and also becomes creative at turns since it projects its interior world on the exterior fugitive universe and continually corrects its interior image. In a dream, the lived, or the real, lives its own (peculiar) life and projects itself. I have a similar experience in my films. The images from which copies were made several years ago have--on the original--profoundly changed, indeed they have, to put it quite bluntly, vanished. And it is this experience of "vanishing" that is truly interesting in the work that I made: to see and behold, to understand how the forms and colors yield to endless change, how they submit to perpetual motion. At the same time, the meanings and the connections among whole ensembles of images transform themselves. Film as an object or a thing, returns to us as a privileged subject; we rediscover it from new tracks, trails, and clues that we begin to pursue--all in order to be continued another time.
Finally, I have arrived at a point where
I no longer rinse film in order to remove chemical byproducts
that appear during the processing, but instead I let them dry
in the emulsion. This gives birth to all sorts of salt crystals.
These dry substances have the appearance of many structures and
colors and are quite abundant, especially in superimposition.
I moisten them with chemical dyes that, upon drying, add even
more new structures. I have confirmed as well that the luminous
connections are not established by natural light falling on the
film, but by light from behind or beneath the image. Therefore
I've continued my work on a light table. In certain spots, the
film becomes so thick that I have a hard time inserting, indeed
lodging, it into the optical printer. For composing shots, I help
myself to lights with different color temperatures, located in
front and behind. Color is a phenomenon that is born in the play
between lighting and camera stock.
In the mixed-media film and performance
Alchemy, I attempt to bridge the gap between processing
and fixing the film. During the projection, a reel of film that
has been chemically treated becomes distorted--it decomposes,
it rots--bit by bit. In the end, nothing is left but a dance of
chemical elements--basic ingredients--and a dance of basic (philosophical)
principles as well. The audience is present at a process of formation
and decomposition that unfolds in actual, material time. Shapes
and colors are born and disappear continually. What one sees seems
to be stripped of meaning. One is left understanding that we participate
only fugitively in the processes of chemical change, and that
beyond a certain point one is little more than the spectator of
these phenomena--that is to say--an onlooker, a bystander.
Alchemy constitutes the culminating point in my work. This performance proceeds as a conspiracy between two basic elements, the public and myself. It also proceeds from an emphatic (even categorical) rejection of the logic inherent to museums as well as the world of art, for which its quality as a precious object leaves a work of art to be surrounded, encircled, hemmed in by solicitude--something that is to be preserved. One would name the images that form and vanish in Alchemy as "temporary zones of filmic sensibility." These zones become impossible to preserve and accumulate despite the materiality of the apparatus. Zones of sensibility demand our attentive care and silence, stillness, reticence, the renunciation of everyday things, and meditation.
Film like the representation of material
reality will never be fixed or settled and determined once and
for all. Color=Form, conceived as an ephemeral phenomenon, leaving
us traces that arouse the remembrance of things past or to come.
So many substantial realities that teach us about the composition and state of the cosmos. Facing the world of media that daily knocks us on the head--the world of media that bores, stuns, pesters, and plagues us with copies, canned food, and plagiarism--film, apprehended almost as a metabolism, affirms and asserts its human character.
Kisses to Zack Stiglicz for undertaking this translation with great love and care.
Printed in MFJ No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews