Chemistry and the Alchemy of Colour


Jürgen Reble, 1995

Printed in Millenium Film Journal No. 30/31 (Fall 1997) Deutschland/Interviews


Schmelzdahin / Color Film / Bacterial Composition

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.

Schmelzdahin / Color Film / Hands-on Manipulation

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 knowledge.

Schmelzdahin / Color Film / Atmospheric Corrosion

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.

Schmelzdahin / Color Film / Developing

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.

Black and White Film / Chemical Treatment

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.

Creation / Unicity / Fungacity

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.

Buried Images

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.

Alchemy / Philosophy

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.

Ontology=Zen / Material/Reality=Nothingness

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