1983 et 2004, bilingue in Robert Breer Films, Floats & Panoramas, catalogue de l’exposition du Musée d’Annecy éditions de l’œil, Montreuil 2006
INTERVIEW WITH ROBERT BREER
New York, November 15th, 1983
yann beauvais : How did you come to film? I’ve read what you’ve said about it. You seem to have gone from painting to film and then from film to sculpture and I would like to explore that movement and to understand it, in some ways.
Robert Breer : Well, the first film I made was in 1952 and it’s a brief animated film (called “Form Phases”). Very strange. I did’nt make it in France, I made it in America on a visit back there because my father had a camera which I could use. I had been living in Paris since 1949 and I was a painter at Gallery Denise René, practising neo-plastic orthodoxy that was considered avant-garde at that time. My interest in film then was marginal. In that neo-plastic period, one made “absolute” paintings. It was “art concret”. So I made about one “absolute” painting every week, and it occurred to me that there was a contradiction in being able to make so many absolutes. So I thought that maybe the interest was, for me, in arriving at the absolute rather than being there. So I thought maybe the process was more interesting than the product.
yb: Is it from the idea of process that you went to films?
RB : Process is a word that become used later and differently and I, of course, didn’t use that word then thinking about it but that was the idea. So I made a Flipbook of small paintings to try to understand how I arrived at making this final painting. I was working in very simple geometric forms, hard edge, conventional, you know more or less conventional neo-plasticism. So, this first Flipbook then became the basis for a film on my next visit to America, which was that year 52 and yet I didn’t really use those original images. I had to invent my own system because I had no training in filmmaking at all and certainly none in animation. I only knew that I had to do one frame at a time. I Had to invent the method. I rented a slide projector that would project big slides (3”x4”) that you could draw on and I bought packages of transparencies – I could have made my own actually. Anyhow I cut out forms very carefully in transparent self-adhering cellophane and made images which I then projected onto a screen. With a 16mm camera next to the projector, I then filmed them one frame at a time. It was an awkward process. Then, I tried some other totally different frame by frame and some continuous shooting with ink in the water and so on. I was then just playing with film for the little while that I had a camera. So those were my first experiments. I, of course, very quickly got interested in film itself as opposed to film as an analytical tool. I got interested in film’s potential for synthesis and continued to make films, borrowing the camera from my father. He was making three dimensional movies by that time. In the ‘40s he was making home-movies in 3D, with a twin camera which he had invented. As an inventor it was easy for him… and quite natural then for me to try to make films, even without any formal training. I was very suspicious of the books on animation which were too infantile for me to be interested in, except for some of the techniques I guess. Usually I didn’t like to look at them. I wanted to invent my own system anyway.
Yb: From painting to film you were reaching stuff not obvious in painting which is time, which is not really within the painting : time an rhythm.
RB : Well, by 1955 I continued to paint and I began to introduce elements in the paintings which broke with the neo-plastic orthodoxy, because usually what we were working with then were forms which were locked to one another and it was some sort of religious heresy to have a form which floated free. It was considered a weakness in a painting if there was any suggestion of elastic space. Usually, the space had to be very concrete, very tied down to the frame, tied one to another and so forth. In my case, I introduced a floating line, quite deliberately. I don’t pretend that it was great aesthetic breakthrough because in a sense it was going backwards in terms of pure plastic …
Yb : Was it a bit like some Kandinsky?
RB : It could be Kandinsky with cosmic space suggested and so forth. I, wasn’t interested in doing that. I, of course, didn’t want to repeat Kandinsky. The point was that my films did affect my paintings and finally by 1958 I quit painting altogether. The films went on from painting… from looking like my paintings to suddenly going in various directions and of course, the most radical one was, the little film I did before “recreation” which was very similar to “recreation”, it got destroyed because it was a loop and wore itself out. Anyhow, the principle was there. The earlier “Form Phase” owed something to earlier experimental cinema; Hans Richter and Eggeling in the formal use of space. I must have been influenced by Richter…
Yb: But had you seen those films at that time?
RB : Well, I can’t remember but it’s just too obvious in “Form Phases 4” that by that time I had. By 1954, I must have seen Hans Richter because there are some parts of that which are too similar to be coincidental, but you know that artists often repress their influences. Most real influences are absorbed subconsciously. But I have to acknowledge that and that’s fine because “Rhythmus 21” was an important film for me , it still is I think. Anyhow, there was that influence in those early films, at the time I played with colour mixing, I don’t know about any pre-existing experiments with colour changes from one frame to the next, it doesn’t matter, but I did it in “Form Phase 4” enough so it gave me the basis for speculating on what could happen if I changed form from one frame to the next, I could see that green and red did not make grey as it does on a palette but makes a kind of yellow. It’s common knowledge now that mixing projected light is different from mixing pigment, so I wanted to speculate on what would happen if I changed form radically in the same way since that was purely a rhetorical question. I shot a strip of film very quickly in which every frame was completely different in form and colour. I made this into a loop about ten feet long and projected it continuously.
Yb: That’s before you did “Eyewash”?
RB : Oh yes, “Eyewash” was later but “Recreation”… I don’t know what I called that first loop, somewhere it’s been described as “Image by Image”… All I know is that “Recreation” is very similar to this other film.
Yb: The question of how you arrived at film, what is the connection exactly?
RB : In 1955, I had a show of paintings in Brussels. I was there for the opening and I showed “Form Phases 4” Jacques Ledoux was the director of the Cinémathèque, he showed the film during my opening. The public was really interested and then later it was shown at the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique. A critic named Paul Davay, Wrote an introduction to my film and it was shown with Murnau’s “Sunrise”, which was one of my favorite films from way back. And suddenly I realized that my film was being taken rather seriously in the noble tradition of abstract films. It gave me a sense of belonging in a way. Also, having for the first time a public reaction was interesting, a collective reaction in a theatre. I’m sure that it helped stimulate me to make more films. It was encouraging. By that time, my painting was a mixture of American and French conventions and was mostly ignored. There was no reaction to my painting. So the contrast of response to these two different media probably helped push me into film, I also dropped painting because I could see I was going towards a kind of expressionism and yet another orthodoxy.
Yb: So, although without really knowing what was happening with painting in the States, you were doing similar work?
RB : No, I knew what was happening in the States but it was something that was not a first appreciated or acknowledged by my ‘confreres’ or even me. I had seen a Pollock show at Studio Facchetti in ’52 and I visited America that same year to make films, so I saw things. In 1956, at the Student Artist Centre, on Bd. Raspail, I showed paintings and films with the same results as in Brussels and I got hooked on making films.
Yb: Is it at this time that you worked with Fano?
RB :Yes, later it might have been around ’57. I spent time in Shaeffer’s Studio but I never did anything. I was tempted but then also I felt that I wanted to do everything myself and it would be a more normal process, and it would be more integrated and unified if I did the sound also. By this time, I was beginning to get quite playful with film, I did a little collage film of Pope Pious XII, very sacrilegious film, 30 seconds long, then “Cats”, then after “ Recreation” I made “A man and his Dog Out For Air” which had naturalistic sound, birds…
Yb: Yes, what is interesting in the film is that the naturalistic drawing appears just at the end of the film. So there is a contradiction between the sound that you hear, the title and what you see until the film ends. So there was a good response in the ‘50s towards those films in France, late ‘50s?
RB : Yes. I showed them, I was with Agnès Varda, together one night at the Palais de Chaillot in a Ciné Club de something and I was attacked, because my stuff was bad for the eyesight, “Recreation” was… I showed my film at the Ciné Club des PTT, (laugh), very strange, an audience of 500 people. The President of the Post Office Club had seen my films, and he thought that they would be interesting for his audience which was otherwise too bourgeois and too normal, they needed something to provoke them, so he invited me to show my films.
The audience got very hostile, especially toward “Jamestown Baloos” because Napoleon is made fun of ; a man got up in the audience and said : “donnez l’appareil à quelqu’un de Charenton, il peut faire la même chose”, that my films were a product of a sick person and someone else asked me : “dis donc Monsieur Breer, il parait que vous n’avez pas un grand amour pour Napoléon”, and I thought this is horrible, I never thought at this late date that Napoleon could be possibly so provocative. Anyhow there were some other places where to show films, not too often, but a few. Then someone sent me to see Langlois with my films and he was very enthusiastic. No doubt Langlois’ encouragement had some affect on me because, for one thing, this question I was hard to be oblivious to the difference of showing films in a theatre. I could be provocative, I got a reaction, I could be a political person as well as an anesthetician , so it was interesting, it was open; a field where aesthetic values were still being formed. I felt uninhibited. The tradition of avant-garde cinema was’un peu desséchée’ at that time, no one had been working in it much since the ‘30s.
Yb: Especially in Europe, especially in France.
RB : Especially in America, there were only a couple of people, there was Fischinger in California…
Yb: And Maya Deren and those people….
RB : In the ‘50s there were quite a lot but I didn’t know them. I found out about them because they came to Brussels.
Yb: Had you met at this time the people who were called the Lettristes?
RB : I knew about them.
Yb : But had you seen their films?
RB : Maybe, but from what I had heard I was not interested. My feeling was, and I might modify my feeling now, also I might have seen one, but what ever, I know I rejected the idea, I had the same reaction to Fluxism. I felt that it was too much a rehash of Dada. George Brecht was a special person and a good friend and I knew a lot of these people and we showed together sometimes, but I always felt that these were Americans re-living European art history too closely, and as a part-time European, I mean, some of their events were almost identical to previous events, why do this all over again? It seemed very academic to me.
Yb: Too concerned with art history?
RB : Yes, I think there were very good people doing those things but only changing the name; and of course it was Macciunas who maybe was responsible for it happening again. He was European, really an interesting case…
Yb: Because at the same time Isou, Lemaître were both working in film, one was called “Traité de Bave et d’Eternité” and the Lemaître one was “Le film est déjà commencé?”.
RB : Well, I was an anti-intellectual snob and I was also questioning the validity of Duchamp at that time. I was interested in Schwitters very much, I liked Léger very much and Richter, and so Duchamp seemed maybe a bit “trop précieux enfin n’est ce pas”. But I have changed quite a bit, I had arguments in 1960, very strong ones I also thought Rauschenberg was simply re-doing Schwitters, you know and didn’t think that much of his work. Then, I became very fond of Rauschenberg as a person, he was the first man to buy my work and also I collaborated with him on a performance piece involving my sculpture. I had once to defend him on a European radio. I met Duchamp in Paris. I showed him my films around 1956. I put them in the projector upside down, unintentionally, and there was this confusion even though I knew he would appreciate that. He was a very sweet man, I loved him, after he saw my films he said : “We used to play around like that”. But he said, confidentially to me in a low voice : “Don’t you think they are a little bit too fast ?” And I love that. Then in New York I saw him when he was back here. I had Man Ray come over one time and we gave him dinner and I say : “you show me your films and I show you mine”. I was very naïve then, I didn’t know. A lot of the things that I thought were new were not new. They had already done all that stuff. I know it’s different but still it was a good experience for me to not be so arrogant.
Yb : So you were titally immersed in that world after a while?
RB : Not really in France.
Yb: No, later in the States.
RB: Oh back here, yes. When I came back here we showed our films together: Anger, I met Kenneth Anger in Europe and I met Brakhage, I think over there. But, we were shortly together after that. I got to know Kubelka quite well. Well, I came back to America in ’58 or ’59, I got to know Pop artists like Oldenburg, Lichenstein, Warhol and all those people and we used to hang out with them. I was involved more socially with them than with filmmakers, but our films were shown together through Jonas and Amos Vogel. We became identified as the so‑called Underground. So I knew those filmmakers, I spent more time with artists than with filmmakers. Brakhage and I have been trading films and corresponding, lately.
YB: I can notice, in your films, a Jump around ’65,’66, there is something new which happens within the film itself. With « Recreation » you were playing a bit and then you seemed to become more involved in a formal and analytical process, of the film itself.
RB: When I came back in 1960 thew were no places to show my kind of film. Not many places and so I thought it had to be in a gallery because that would be the proper audience; they would understand my films. So, I found a gallery which would show films. Jack Mayer had a pretty good gallery and we showed several evenings of films; he rented chairs, I got films from the Modern Museum. The first night I made up a program of films, the usual pretentious historical arrangement whereby I would be included with all the previous great filmmakers ‑ I didn’t know it was pretentious, but anyway… In those days most people had forgotten or hadn’t seen these films in a long time. There was the usual Richter, Eggeling, Léger probably, Man Ray and Duchamp. Jack had a good list of art people, we had 200 chairs, the place was filled up and there was another 200 people waiting outside and I had to introduce the films ; I didn’t want to, I was terrified, typically American, very shy about talking in public and untrained I guess. And Duchamp came, himself, sat in the second row, and here I was having to explain Duchamp to himself, I was terrified. Anyhow, we did three showings because people kept coming, it was successful. It was before Tinguely, so it must have been around ’59‑’60.
YB: Was it before the Film Theatre of Mekas?
RB: Jonas was writing for the Village Voice, and Amos Vogel had his Cinema 16. That already existed though it didn’t show these films. Because it was in a gallery it brought people interested in art and because all the films were films made by artists that was important. So then I decided that I would also like to show some objects or things related to films in this gallery. You know I had been making Mutoscopes in Paris and I was going to show them at Iris Clert Gallery before we left, between Tinguely and Klein ‑ in fact Tinguely helped me make some Mutoscopes. He welded a stand for a great big one. I don’t have the ones of Paris because the images were in paper, I have pictures of them but they were destroyed. After that I made them in plastic, it lasts longer.
Yb : Do you think there was a relation between those Mutoscopes and those objects of Tinguely?
RB : Tinguely’s sculptures ? About 1958 he helped me make some Mutoscopes which I showed in Antwerp in an exhibition with Yves Klein, Tinguely and Spoerri. There were about 10 of us. It was at the Hessenhuis in Antwerp, a big twelfth century warehouse. Tinguely had a fistfight with Von Hoydonck, a Belgian artist who tried to kill Tinguely with a chair because he resented this French artist organising a show in his country. Yves klein sold a piece of the Hessenhuis air that he had occupied for gold. And the artists in Belgium were very upset because this place belonged to them and Yves klein sold it, even though he just sold their air. Anyway, that was an early group show. I had my Mustoscopes on the walls, but as far as o showing of works with Tinguely, except films, that was the only time I guess.
« Eyewash » was made to be shown on the window of the Iris Clert Gallery and that’s why some of the images are reversed because I wanted the public to be able to see it both from inside and from outside, so you could see it from the street. My show didn’t happen, Yves Klein wanted more time for his show in June and he began to squeeze me and Tinguely was scheduled to precede me, so Iris asked me if I would accept a shorter show, instead of four weeks I’d have three weeks and then she said : « How would you like two weeks » and I said : « you know, now it’s too short » and she said: « I’ll give you a show in the fall if you don’t want a short one now. » And she signed a piece of paper : « I will hereby give Robert Breer a show in September 1958 », I have a piece of paper, but I went back to America and didn’t come back to France. I never had that show. I didn’t show the Mutoscopes publicly there until Paris-new York at Beaubourg in 1977. There are other Things I made, contraptions, like a rear projection machine with a film that would wind itself back, it was like pretelevision, for the Grand palais Salon de Mai or something like that. When I got to New York – with the Mayer Gallery I throught – now I can show other things that I make, Mutoscopes and scrolls, I had drawings from films etc… So I began to think of objects that would relate to film but would relate to film but would nevertheless remain objects. I made many kinetic objects before I began to make the sculptures that glide along the floor. You know about those ?
yb : Yes, I have read about them in Downtown Review.
RB : oh well that’s a whole other career that I had. By’65 I started to have shows of sculptures that moved, I showed films in the Gallery at the same time as showing objects, and they were all related to me, as far as I am concerned.
Yb : is there some relation between your sculpture that move and Pol Bury’s sculpture?
RB : The difference is that parts of his sculptures move and in my case the whole piece moves, gliding along the floor. I knew Bury a Denise René, he showed in that same gallery with Tinguely and Vasarely and co. At that time, I was not making objects, I was making objects, I was making paintings and films, but no sculpture. In 1955, Pontus hulten and I made a little film about the Movement Show that includes a Bury wall relief that could rotate. He started making his slow motion things a few years later I guess. How can I explain… we both used very slow motion ans when I first started making my pieces I said to him : « Look Pol, I’m sorry that I have to use slow motion, like you do but it is the only way for my pieces ». And he said : »oh sure, fine », it’s like he owned slow motion. Now really the point of my pieces is that they travel. They move around the space by themselves.
Yb : Why don’t you speak about the relation between your sculpture and film, because I think there is a distance that’s interesting to talk about.
RB : I have a little super 8 film that I made of my sculptures moving but I’ve never really combined sculpture and film. I mean the obvious connections such as showing films on the tops of my sculptures I’ve never done. When I’m working on sculpture I am not thinking of film and when I’m working on film I’m not thinking of sculpture. Now some of my films do have animated sequences depicting the sculptures in them, in two or three films there are some references. That’s because I don’t want to be systemetically excluding sculpture. Obviously, there are a lot of theoretical connections. I’ve been asked this before as you can imagine and in one case, my answer, was that an explanation might be that in each case I’m dealing with thresholds of awareness, of perception if you like. In one case with the sculpture, their movement is almost imperceptible, their behavior is illogical ; they seem to be static in looking at them, it’s not excepted that they would move but they do, so they are defying expectations in this way, they also move slowly enough so that if you see one here and then you look away and then minutes later it’s over there, there’s a recognition of not only having passed but also there’s quite a change of space involved. So, this depends on, I suppose a sense of surprise , although I never wanted that to be the case. I wasn’t interested in anecdote, I didn’t want any interest in them by bumping into each other for instance : oh isn’t that interesting ? ». I never wanted to anthropomorphise them either. My first vision of a sculpture was a field that was literally a field, outdoors, not just an abstract notion of a field but a « champ dehors ». These objects in this field as I saw it, placed randomly…
Yb : Like a playground?…
RB : If you like, or with grass growing in it : a park. In fact, I thought of grass and then these objects « semi-obscurs » that were alive but my thinking was not anthropomorphic or biomorphic in terms of shape or in terms of content. I was thinking, Sculpture. Strangely enough. This was pretty corrupt I was coming from centuries or art consciousness to arrive at what amounts to a motorized mollusc. Although I could find on a superficial level confirmation in nature : there are plenty of shell creatures that move very slowly and imperceptibly, snails and so on… But apart from that I am not re-creating nature. But I was dealing with that field that I imagined used, that had life, the idea of motorizing them was a second thought. At first, I thought maybe they should change their appearance. The idea of them moving away from their positions and the idea of them becoming automobile excited me very much.
Yb: Around which year did you start them?
RB : The first one had to be around ’64 or ’65. I think that’s right, my first show of them was in ’66. Before these « floats » I made kinetic objects.
Yb : But these ones are not kinetic.
RB : Oh you say they’re not. That’s fine because I hate the word. The reason you might say they’re not kinetic is because they activate the space around them more than they seem to be doing anything themselves. They isolate motion itself. I think that the way I approach film is the opposite but it gets the same results, for instance a film like « Recreation » created static images for all its activity. The activity emphasises its fixity, almost stopping motion by going so fast that it doesn’t exit anymore. It’s anti-kinetic too. In a sense it might be true about these things : they have to declare themselves by being kinetic and they deny it… I could agree with that. So maybe what they have in common is that they are both dealing with thresholds. It’s the thresholds of experiencing them ; in one case you’re looking at film which doesn’t move and yet it’s conspiciously active. You can do that, it could be a black film with occasional appearance, I mean one knows the film is continuing to go through the projector and so on. The difference between slides and film is a very powerful difference, that everyone experiences. But anyhow it has to do with thresholds of definition, in other words, challenging film and challenging sculpture is done by going to the limit of the definition and going past it. You have to call my films, films even though there are conventions, well I’m talking about original films. Of course I have come back within all kinds of bounds. They’re not very radical my films, many of them. But the original step anyhow was that way and the same with these sculptures. For one thing the sculpture has been taken off the stand and not only that but its connection between itself and the floor is a very active area and this has no precedent for sculptural concern, there is no way to deal with this, the bottom of this piece that is sliding along and its relationship to the floor. That’s a very intense area of unresolved aesthetic.
Yb : I don’t know anyone who has dealt with that subject.
RB : No, even I haven’t in a way. I mean I’ve tried to, I thought about it a lot but it’s very difficult so that poses an interesting problem. This corresponds to what I feel about film too. There was a dance group in Sweden which was going to ask Yvonne Rainer and some other avant-garde people to go there, this was in 1965, and I was invited to maybe take part and I conceived a project for it. It never got past the proposal because what happened is that the whole thing fell through and became « Nine Evenings » that took place in New york in ’66. « Experiments in Art and Technology » was responsible and was a group with whom I did the Pavilion at Osaka 70. Before that, a thing at the Old Armony, « Nine Evenings » of interaction between science and art. A kind of a critical disaster at the time but really an interesting set of events. Anyhow, that’s what finally became of the original Swedish thing. My project was to construct a building for meetings that would be self-propelled and mobile, that would like a building but would roam around in Stockholm, in the city, and when people had conferences in it they would never know where they were going to be when the meeting was over. They’d be some place else. And this of course, was anti-structure, anti-authority, it was anti-positive thinking really. That’s a very important ingredient : destruction of authority, destruction of logic, these are all typical anarchist thoughts. So there is a certain provocation in these sculptures for the same reason ; it exists and it defies categorizing. So, I’m hoist by my own « pétard » because art collectors seem threatened by such independance. Did you see my mural by the way ?
Yb : Yes, I’ve seen it. But I didn’t know that it was you who did it.
RB : You didn’t know it was me ? But I signed it on one end, so next time you will see it. I had to decide should I sign this or not, it’s fashionable not to sign things…
Yb : Is there any filmmaker, painter or any artist who has been very important and who has influenced you ?
RB : In another interview, we were talking about influences and as usual I had just digressed off into some other area and he said « Ah, now we were talking about influences before, what about Mondrian ? » And I say « Mondrian, I didn’t have any influence on Mondrian, forget it ». And he published it that way. Well, sure there are many people who influenced me and some I acknowledge and some I don’t, but I think I am very obviously indebted to Léger and « Ballet Mécanique » in a very direct way, I mean it shows in a film like « Jamestown Baloos » I think, but at the same time when I absorbed « ballet Mécanique » it was subconsciously and I did not realize how strongly it was in fact, until later because I throught I had developed Léger’s whole theory by myself. Too late. But I’m sure that wase the case, early filmaking, that Richter’s « Rythmus 21 » had a big impact. Otherwise spiritually, I feel very akin to Jean Vigo, I have a very strong affinity to Vigo, not so much plastically, although a film I made with Oldenburg, I like to think, honors Vigo in a sense. You don’t know that film « Pat’s Birthday » ? It would be very pretentious on my part to compare it to compare it to Vigo, I’m not doing that, but I’ve always admired Vigo. You askedma that question and that’s the answer. Otherwise as far as painter…
Yb : I don’t know, maybe there is no influence…
RB : There was, but these are people I admire and think are wonderful. I had a very great admiration for Len Lye.
Yb : Do you like, have you seen his sculptures?
RB : Yeah sure. I know his later sculptures. I was doing mine when he was doing his, I liked him as a person, I really admired his work and thought he was under-appreciated and still do. Anyhow, Len Lye was a very important filmaker to me and just by his existence, probably allowed me to do things that I wouldn’t have done otherwise.
YB: And you’ve been quoted as having said : John Cage also.
RB: Of course, Cage spiritually or philosophically I guess. Or wherever he is in between, yes, absolutely. And Charles Ives I admire very much and think of him also as an American artist of special interest and power presence. There are a lot of younger artists whose work I admire: Ken Kobland, Sandy Moore, Keith Sonnier and Jacob Burkhardt. That gets difficult ’cause you get blinder as you pass your contemporaries…
YB: For a while you were working mainly by yourself and then you became aware of experimental film, that all the people were working with experimental film. Were there any movements in experimental film that influenced you?
RB: Oh, the contemporaries of myself you mean?
YB: Yes. Because there was this jump in the ’60s when you went back to some formalism and geometry, even with film, you were much more formal.
RB: I’m not aware of much influence on my work coming from other filmmakers in those days, though it might have happened, but what probably did have some impact was the « Minimalist » surge getting under way. I had always been unhappy with my very first attempts at filmmaking in the early 50’s. I guess I didn’t know film well enough to make the logical move from one medium to the next. But now, 15 years later, I was ready to tackle the problem again and ironically, in sync with art world fashion. As for the question of artists using new media, they tend to get conservative in a new medium because of the risk involved, because of the loss of security. Also another thing more superficial but as equally true is that there are some artists in search of novelty, newness, rather than trying to find personal expression within conventional means and who look for unconventional means to cover a lack of personal expression. It’s dishonesty of thoughts. A kind of fake avant‑gardism.
YB: They will try to be more fashionable, to pick up on the newest thing.
RB: Film also allows for eclecticism because of it being a time medium. You can, at least mechanically, encompass heterogeneity better on film than on canvas. It’s the collage nature of film that permits this, and also because of its linear exposition.
YB: When you were painting you composed in some way the painting and when you compose film, each image, do you compose them one by one or in relation to each other?
RB: Well, I’ve done it both ways. Always in relation to each other because that’s the way I’m going to see it. If I don’t want to see one frame in relation to the next frame, then I have to isolate it, which one can do. You hold it on the screen for a certain amount of time and then follow it by something neutral so that it remains as a single impression. Otherwise, if I want it to relate directly to the next frame, I can minimize their differences so they blend one into the next or I can exaggerate their differences and still throw them together, one right on top of the other. So the rapport can be very harmonious or it can be quite discordant.
YB: So it’s not systematic.
RB: There’s no system. I work over a light table so I’m seeing the latest image on the top of the previous one. I’m not always interested in gradual progression of motion. I often prefer contrast, opposites.
YB: I’ve noticed in « LMNO » and « TZ » a thing appears more obviously which has started in « 66 »; « 69 »; « 70 » and that is that you seem to take different sequences, for example, a door doing this or a column doing that but in the later films the sequences are much more delayed. There is a different combination like as if you had moved from an abstract pattern to something else, to a « delire ». Is that true or is it a feeling that I get but which is not totally correct ?
RB: No, no. I’m sure that I recycle, reuse images and that is of course the typical economy of animation. You know, but that is the least of the reasons, economy, it’s that, because I’m willing to work and work and work with different images but they’re reoccur in order to make a tapestry of sorts. Since I’m not using a narrative structure, that would have a literary, would make literary connections between the things seen on the screen, that if they reappeared in a different incarnations, even if they reappear identically, this kind of serial imagery makes for an understanding of… Oh, how can I explain : it’s something like weaving I guess. It’s like making a tapestry in that it flattens out dramatic curves.
YB: The concept of tapestry is interesting because it’s totally opposite to another way of dealing with film which is a collage.
RB: Yes, well opposite maybe not so much, but in some sense. It’s maybe the size of the fragments; tapestry is a finer texture than collage but there are similarities of course. In a sense also, in that these images reappear, it depends on what the images are of course. If it’s in the case of « LMNO », there’s a little figure, person that reappears. I think that figurative, especially anthropomorphic elements, suggest narration. The audience identifies with the person who is having different experiences, it concentrates on that individual. That individual becomes the continuity and then it tends to relegate everything else that happens as happening to him in this case and therefore, makes an anecdotal sequence.
YB: You do that also with the sound because you have a sound which is doing tak, tak, tak… I don’t remember if it is in « TZ » or “LMNO”.
RB: Oh I see. Yes, I think what I’m trying to do in most of these films is trying to create of mass of energy that does repeat itself enough so that the only modification that takes place is in terms of subjective modification of looking at it. That the next time you see the same thing your experience of it is different because it’s the second time you’ve seen it. This is why I was asking you the other night about modification, apropos, your own films.
YB: That is exactly the question you were asking me.
RB: I was trying to understand this myself and thinking that’s a very real part of the linear experience. You make it linear by your consciousness. It might be linear in physical time but it’s also that you set up action and response and that this is constantly going on in your brain. I think that in composing a film yourself in a certain way, unless you practice Cagian, if you’re trying to use techniques to avoid this kind of structuring, it is going to happen when you compose a film and you’re going to have to deal with it. How do you decide to connect this material? It’s linear, you’re going to compose it according to your …? You contrive yourself to be a fresh audience when you edit films, I do and that’s why it takes me several weeks.
YB: Yes, but this type of question you would never ask it to a musician. For example a musician would take a motive, do variation of it then go back, and you would not ask him how he feels about the shape of the time that he has used to do that motive.
RB: No, maybe not, some musicians maybe. But, of course the correspondence is there in music, I mean the theme, counter‑theme and so forth and so on. I find it mostly depressing to make this comparison because then you’re invoking musical convention and it’s quite different.
YB: Yes, that’s on a conventional level. But if you speak about contemporary music you have again this problem which is the experience of special time.
RB: I’m not sure about musical memory. How it works for me, I don’t have a very good musical memory.
YB: Does this mean that you shoot your films first and then edit them ?
RB: Yes, usually I shoot everything and then I decide that I have enough material although I have no sense of the overall appearance. I want to use structure, it’s a dangerous word, but I have no idea of how to put it together and it doesn’t worry me that I don’t. I don’t know what will be first, last, in the middle but I have enough material. In fact, I’m interested in avoiding the question of linearity. I just want enough material so that I will have enough variety to choose from. I am also aware that something that seems banal by itself will become interesting once it’s involved with something else. So I never throw away things that are apparently no good. There’s no definition of that yet. It will be a matter of relationships. So that’s the way I do it and then, in spite of efforts to the contrary, sound, I add last, and that’s just my conditioning as a painter to work in silence. Sound is kind of an admission that I’m working in theater and, therefore, sound is expected somehow. Brakhage doesn’t acknowledge that. And Brakhage actually came to filmmaking as a filmmaker, he never worked as a painter but he chose silence …
YB: It depends on your feeling, how you feel about things, and maybe sound helps sometimes the audience as well.
RB: Oh, I know I’m trying deliberately to leave space for sound, at least, because I think ideally I’d like to be able to do it all at once. I think part of my problem is a practical one of not having an editing table for most of my films where you can play with sound and pictures simultaneously. I’ve always been hampered that way and since I want to work privately, it’s hard to use public equipment where I’ll be disturbed when I want to leave things for a long period of time. But also from the beginning I have the same objection that you have about the synchronicity of sound and image that was normal to the first abstract films. I mean, Fischinger is the most outrageous practitioner of Mickey Mouse sound and there were many others where films were a kind of decorative addition. In fact, Fischinger escaped condemnation of being a decadent artist by Goebbels by not calling his films abstract but decorative. That’s an interesting irony. I don’t condemn his films, they’re really interesting, fascinating, but there is this terribly big problem of his sound/picture relationship which is so interdependent. That’s true of Len Lye and of a lot of people. My pretence was to make a visual structure. I was interested in making a visual structure ‑ I mean it would be weak in terms of rhythm perhaps and in terms of conventional sound systems. That’s why I was interested in Richter’s comment of rhythm being an emotional ingredient, I am interested to know what that meant. Whether that just meant lower cortex vibrations to metabolic vibrations, heart beats and so forth. If that’s emotion, I mean it probably is, the sexual ingredients these are emotions. I think our emotions are on a sub‑mental level and so it could be the rhythm but I assume that one can arrive there visually. The intellect is a good conduit.
YB: I think the beat too is important to the emotion.
RB: The beat yes. In a consistency?
YB: Yes, I think.
RB: Okay. The way one transcends numerical repetitions or metric cutting is by considering the true impact of each image. The content of the image affects your consciousness of it, obviously, depending on your cultural make‑up you will respond to a particular image in a particular way. I saw that right away when I made this loop. The hand that appeared was the first thing that I picked out of this morass of twenty‑four different frames. I could recognize a hand before I saw anything else. The effect of recognition and ho long it takes will affect how you cut the film to achieve the effect of metric consistency or a beat ; the length of each shot will vary. But with music, as it’s defined in western society the harmonics and length of the waves are very precisely the same as the next ones. I think what I’m doing will allow for these other differences and therefore the beat is not systematic, it’s not predictable. I’m very concerned about that. It’s why Len Lye and his films, I felt that he always used popular music with a very conspicuous beat, very predictable, regular beat and that’s a weakness of sorts a concession of sorts.
YB: That’s why also this Richter film – from one of the versions I know – « Rythmus 21” with its boogie, boogie soundtrack…
RB: Did Richter do that himself?
RB: He did some terrible things later to his films in putting sound on them. « Ghosts Before Breakfast » now has a terrible soundtrack…
YB: He gave a program of one hour where he spoke first and then he showed his first film « Rythmus 21” and it’s got music which is boogie, boogie.
RB: He had terribly bad judgement sometimes. He was very intelligent, a very articulate man, yet, he did make some embarrassing films : « Dreams that Money Can Buy », even though parts of it, of course Léger’s part was pretty good. Max Ernst did a rather nice sequence for it. But this was the same man who made « Rythmus 21 »! Nobody’s always perfect I guess. Sometimes I wish he’d quit after he made « Rythmus 21 « . Fortunately I’m not in charge…
November 21th, 2005
Yann Beauvais : Few years ago we did an interview together about your work, it was in 1983. Since then you have made more films and you work as a painter and sculptor has been more visible here and there. I would like to ask you some questions concerning your filmmaking and your art practice in general.
R. B. : My first euphoric episode that inspired me to devote my life to ART happened while I was painting one of my first « abstract » paintings. Looking at it now, it’s painfully obvious in this timid work that Mondrian was my inspiration. At the time I was thrilled to be thrilled by formal arrangements – color and line. My social realist teachers in the Stanford art department had somehow organized a trip to San Francisco to see a Mondrian show which blew me away and I immediately started painting abstractions. I was subsequently told by these same teachers that if I continued to paint abstractly they would not/could not continue to teach me.
A new head of the art department gave me a faculty studio. Do you mean a studio or a class to teach? For my last year I was left alone to paint what I wanted. That was 1949. That Spring I took
a former troop ship to France for $150 and on arriving received the annual painting award from Stanford for $150.
In my previous interview I described my gradual disenchantment with at least the Vasarely school of abstract painting and my welcome of film as an escape. I soon discovered that I could sneak images into films without their being given undo attention and or being given extra attention – a new device absent from painting. You know how far I went with that.
Y.B.: It seems that since a few years your films are more obviously personal, to not say biographical. I didn’t catch on this aspect earlier; maybe it was due to the epoch. But looking backward it seems that it has been always an issue for you, despite the specificity of your filmmaking colors, patterns, and rhythms. Is this (auto) biographical impulse stronger has time passed ? Does the used of these biographical components shape the narrative?
R.B. : Pandora’s box!! I probably concluded long ago that my personal history was not interesting enough to other people but should be examined closely by and for myself and that avoiding it would be unhealthy, I must have reached a compromise by including (and therefore confronting) at least some of it in my works. It was also a ready source for material that was familiar to me and real and yet could be kept second in importance to the formal construction of my works themselves. There have been lapses in this method when I have allowed narrative to creep in but I am more likely to construct my films on a formal basis as far as possible away from and above personal/sentimental experiences.
Y. B. : Could you speak about the opposition one feel while looking at your films and seeing your sculptures?
R.B.: Quiet viewing time of my sculptures is sabotaged by their movement. I suppose this surprise ingredient is continuous in a way because they are quiet and slow and autonymous. Another way out of conventional viewer-object relationship leading to euphoria I would hope. In both fast film and slow sculpture I’ve included audience expectations in the compositions.
Y.B.: The films are load with sound while the sculpture moved quietly; in a similar way than some of your mobile painting moves?
R.B.: Music has often been compared to film composition and vice-versa as temporal media. Coming from painting, I didn’t at first feel the need for sound accompaniment to film images until I realized that our daily experience was often a combination of image with sound so that the absence of sound in some cases became a concrete experience. As you know, I’ve often isolated sound from image to give them both equal and independent importance in many of my films. I have found that rhythm in visual sequences can be quite a different experience from the measured beat of sound. Autobiographically, I’ve alluded to my deafness as in my film BANG! for instance. Maybe in the attenuated process of drawing sequences, I make personal allusions to reconnect with myself and then leave them in the final film if they fit rhythmically. In this sense grounding myself in my work with an homage to DADA thrown in ? I merely refer to Arp’s original gesture of letting pieces of paper fall to decide his compositions back in 1917. That DADA gesture gave me permission to appreciate chance in my own compositions. I must see expressive possibilities in non-sequitor references that demand attention – non sequitor might sometimes be so sometimes only in the mind of the spectator of course.
Y.B.: Your sculpture work is now more present than ever in the art scene. The focus on the mobile sculpture, the soft one has the more geometrical ones seems to be understood better. The work’s recognition has benefit all the other aspect of your art such as the mutoscope, painting…. At the same time the card on which you draw your films on, have acquired an autonomy that they didn’t have in the past. How do you see things now ?
R.B.: I’ve been working on some extended panels that are perforated so that images on a recessed rear panel are revealed through the openings as the viewer strolls along the length of it. I’m not good at explaining these « panoramas » and can hope you get to see some photos at gb agency if you go there or better see the real things in my show in Annecy. Otherwise, I have a new slogan : EVERYTHING GOES – NOT ANYTHING !