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Reflections on the Blindness Series
by Lucas Hilderbrand
Originally commissioned and published by Video Data bank (vdb.org) for the collection The Tran, T. Kim-Trang Blindness Series, 2009.
Reflections on The Blindness SeriesLucas Hilderbrand
“Recent medical experiments have shown that a great deal of vision is unconscious: we are blind to certain things and blind to our blindness. Those twin blindnesses are necessary for ordinary seeing: we need to be continuously partially blind in order to see. In the end, blindnesses are the constant companions of seeing and even the very condition of seeing itself.”
-- James Elkins
“Deep down, deep down inside, the eye would be destined not to see but to weep. For at the very moment they veil sight, tears would unveil what is proper to the eye. And what they cause to surge up out of forgetfulness, there where the gaze or look looks after it, keeps it in reserve, would be nothing less than alétheia, the truth of the eyes…”
“History is embodied in physical characteristics.”
--Maxine Hong Kingston
When I was teaching at course on experimental documentary at New York University, the class session that most fascinated the students was about blindness and vision. I had assigned readings by art historian James Elkins from his The Object Stares Back, quoted above, and a case study by Oliver Sacks from An Anthropologist on Mars in which a man regained his sight after years of blindness but could not make sense of what he saw. I had also invited a friend, a doctoral student in neuroscience, to give a guest lecture on human brain’s visual cortex and lab experiments with attention and perception. And for screenings, I showed Tran T. Kim-trang’s Ekleipsis (1998) and Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), the latter about the filmmaker’s vision loss as a side effect of AIDS and featuring 70-some minutes of a blue screen. My goal for this class session was somewhat simple: to expose students to profoundly interesting work in order to, hopefully, inspire them to contemplate the sense of sight—that mode of perception upon which so much of daily life, communication, and art depends but upon which we all perhaps reflect too little.
Vision is inherently subjective, yet social. Vision is about more than the physics of light, the optics of the eye, the cognitive processes of the brain—though this sense takes up a disproportionate share of our mental activities. There are basic physiological functions for vision, yes. But there are also ways of seeing, to borrow John Berger’s famous title. These ways are learned, constructed, experienced, historical, personal. Why we look and the meanings we make of what we see are cultural. Seeing can be about desire, about control, about our pasts. As suggested in Ekleipsis, blindness may be the scar of history. With The Blindness Series, Tran created eight videos between 1992 and 2006 looking at the topics of cosmetic surgery, sexuality, surveillance, hysterical blindness, language, and actual blindness, framed by an introduction and an epilogue.
The Blindness Series’ thematic and formal complexity not only suggests the multifarious ways in which visuality can be approached, but it also reflects upon the complexity of Asian American identity. Since 1970, the immigration statistics in the U.S. have shifted dramatically so that half of all incoming residents come from Asia, with simultaneously increasing proportions of émigrés from South and Southeast Asia (compared to Chinese or Japanese immigrants). The greater Los Angeles area has emerged the de-centered center for these varied ethnic communities. Tran emigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam as a youth in 1975. She later studied at CalArts and has been based in Southern California throughout her professional life. Although her work is not reducible to this biography, the confluence of these details certainly informs her frequent focus on the experiences of diasporic South Asians in Southern California. As David James has observed, “a very prolific Asian American avant-garde film and video culture” has emerged in the region “on the periphery of the [Hollywood] industry.” Tran is not only one of the preeminent artists of this scene, but, on a personal note, she was one of the most welcoming people when I moved to the LA area.
Peter X. Feng has suggested that Asian American identity is constituted by gaps of history and representation, as well as tensions between Asian-ness as a general concept and particular ethnic and diasporic identities. Mainstream media has largely ignored or stereotyped Asians and Asian Americans, and thus artists such as Tran take deconstructive approaches in their own media representations; they “construct Asian American cinematic identity by locating their subjectivities in relation to dominant cinematic discourses… by repeating them ironically or ‘splitting’ them.” Tran’s work could be situated (and has probably screened) alongside recent experimental media by such diasporic Asian artists as Trinh T. Minh-ha, Richard Fung, Shu Lea Cheang, Janice Tanaka, Ming-Yuen Ma, and Rea Tajiri. The Blindness Series is, in many ways, about diasporic Asian experiences and may have parallels to other Asian American artists’ work. But I want to stress that it also offers general critiques of visuality and reflections on (nearly) universal phenomena of vision.
Tran has said that she begin work on her videos by reading. This shouldn’t be all that surprising for those who have seen her work. It rigorously yet freely quotes from an astonishing array of sources, becoming a compendium of insights and reflects on vision. Fortunately, though, she doesn’t merely quote the usual suspects or the expected texts. Nonetheless, her work reflects what might be called the academicization of single-channel video. I mean this in two ways. First, since the 1980s, there has been an increased influence from and engagement with critical theory in video art. Tran’s work is deeply informed by theory, and the aesthetics of her work reflect a kind of praxis. Secondly, the economic reality is that many video artists teach and rely upon institutional support in order to produce their work. Tran is a full-time professor at Scripps College and has previously taught at UC-San Diego, UC-Irvine, Otis College of Art and Design, and CalArts. I can only surmise that such pedagogical experience necessarily enriches her own work.
According to Tran, she was inspired to make The Blindness Series after seeing an exhibition curated by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, titled Memoirs of the Blind, which culled works from the Louvre’s permanent collection pertaining to blindness. She was struck by the generativeness of the framing rubric; there were so many works, so many ways of approaching the concept. Without suggesting that the work is derivative, I see The Blindness Series performing the same kind of curatorial project: seeking out and bringing together those aspects of the Southern California Asian American communities, popular culture, and her own life that in some way expanded her—and the viewers’—ways of thinking about vision. If The Blindness Series can be read as deconstructive, it’s in a way that refracts vision into layers of meaning, into complex ways of rethinking seeing and the varied cultural constructions that have been created around eyes.
In addition, Tran has indicated that these videos responded to her own personal fears of vision loss and to a longstanding emphasis on structural experiments with perception in experimental cinema. Each of the eight videos in The Blindness Series presents its own strategies of exploring non-fiction media-making and has its own internal structure, form, and logic allowing them to be viewed independently of the other tapes. As a collection, the tapes reveal innumerable strategies that span the field of experimental documentary: appropriation and citation, interview and narration, collages of sound and image, recording and manipulation, evidence and association, ethnography and testimony, technological play and historical critique. Although I have noticed a turn toward documentary, the archive, and historical speculation in video art and experimental cinema generally, I can think of nothing else quite like The Blindness Series. The series is complex, sometimes challenging, sometimes sexy, sometimes devastating, sometimes distancing, sometimes very human. Sometimes there are too many layers of information to process it all, and sometimes we simply listen to people tell us about their lives. Looking on the series as a whole, we can see how Tran has worked through distinct-yet-related issues of visuality, race, sexuality, technology, and trauma over the course of more than a decade. I comment on these issues in turn below.
The series begins with Aletheia (1992), and even more precisely, with grainy, close-up images of Braille. At first, it isn’t clear what we’re seeing. There are bumps, but they are indistinguishable as texts, and the soundtrack bristles with horrific strings. It’s a moment of non-recognition, as if our own processes of vision and cognition have failed us. Instead, we experience what Laura U. Marks has described as haptic vision: a sensual experience of the texture of the image, in which our eyes wash over the image rather than identify with specific forms. It would be misguided to claim that we actually experience blindness in these moments, but this opening is an invitation to see differently. This video acts less as a stand-alone investigation of particular aspects of vision than as a montage overview that introduces issues that will be addressed in the series: self-induced wounds from plastic surgery in the hopes of assimilating, sexual arousal as predicated on vision and teased by blindness, hysterical blindness as the result of political trauma, and a surveillance camera that looks like an eye.
The later Alexia: Metaphor and Word-Blindness (2000) reveals a similar emphasis on tactility as a mode of seeing. The fifth tape in The Blindness Series, it addresses a breakdown of cognition: word blindness. This condition, known as alexia or visual aphasia, typically results from brain damage. A person can still see, but he or she loses literacy. Words are visible, but the letters are an incomprehensible series of symbols. Throughout the piece, Tran’s finger presses down on adhesive plastic labels, physically scanning the raised white letters as if they were Braille symbols. Tran also materially replicates the inability of words to communicate by holding a sheet of paper with printed text under a faucet; water turns the paper flimsy while she scrubs and erodes the printed letters. They go from legible laser-printed characters to speckled fuzzy letters to indecipherable dotted residue. The video Alexia explores word blindness in relation to metaphor, as dialectical cites to explore the breakdown and invention of meaning. Again, the finger becomes an important tool of communication, as, in the absence of language, she turns to the fundamental gesture of pointing. Visually, one of the most striking traits of this video is that, in contrast to other tapes in the series, the dominant color is white. Throughout the tape, there is often a cloudy haze that obscures much of the frame as images appear through a small iris in the middle of the screen. The effect is not unlike a reverse cataract, one that suggests a kind of blankness or absence of meaning.
Physical blindness is represented in the most stylistically straight-forward of the videos in the series, Amaurosis: a portrait of Nguyen Duc Dat (2002). Nguyen was born with glaucoma and has never seen more than gradations of light; he liked watching lightening storms, but such focusing on light would give him headaches. He now sees nothing. His life has involved other trials as well: the son of an American G.I. and a Vietnamese woman, his father abandoned him in 1973, and his mother died in 1975. In 1990, prior to emigrating to the U.S., he spent six months in a Bataan refugee camp. Yet he is remarkably upbeat. He recalls his fondness for spending time in Hanoi barber shops because they were the only places to hear American pop music when he was growing up. In 1989, after hearing famed guitarist Segovia play, he began to learn guitar himself.
When we meet Nguyen, he shows off his custom guitar, with special dimensions and extra half-fret at the base of its neck. We see various concert footage of him playing guitar with the Orange County-based band Bayadera—a self described “melting pot of musical styles” including rock, R&B, and Latin music. He expresses desire to take up the flute because it conveys the sound of serenity and sweetness, so Tran gives him a flute and, in return, he performs an original tune six months later. Without sight of any kind, he finds inspiration in other senses—sound, obviously, as he is a musician, but also the all the sensations stimulated by water. He speaks of his love for the ocean—the sand, the salty air, the sound of waves, and wind against palm trees. Water—even just taking a shower—inspires him, and much of Tran’s interview with him takes place poolside. The testimonial footage may be deceptively simple, though, for it always speaks to greater issues of the personal impact of geo-political conflict, of diasporic displacement, of losing sight and yet finding one’s place in the world.
In other videos in the series, the tension between image and sound, or between layers of visual information, create another kind of blindness. In some of the tapes, there is too much to take in, and thus the viewer can’t see and comprehend the whole work. Aletheia’s collage-like structure frequently involves superimposed images, written quotations, clips from films, sound samples, and voice-over. Some of the works are clearly cited or are immediately recognizable, while others remain obscure. Simplified, yet still complex, in Operculum (1993) the screen is split in two haves. On the left, white text scrolls over a black screen; on the right, Tran presents black and white footage of her consultations with various plastic surgeons. Simultaneously, we hear her questions and the doctors’ assessments on the soundtrack, which may nor may not sync with the image on the right. The effect is again one of information overload. Through this layering, the viewer’s attention is divided—so much so that, for me, at least, the soundtrack dominates the tape. Even upon re-watching the video with the intent of reading the scrolling text, I find my concentration challenged. I enjoy that, in a video—a series—about vision, the audio trumps the image.
The second video in the series, Operculum focuses not on sight or blindness per se, but on physical alternation of the eyes. Like many of the videos in the series, Operculum addresses issues of race, ethnicity, and national identity. As may be so obvious as to be overlooked, racial and ethnic distinctions are by and large premised upon appearances. Beyond the happenstance of geography and heredity, it’s on the basis of the ways we look that we are racialized. And, as this video suggests, something as superficial as the shape of one’s eyes allows for both racial categorization and, through alteration, assimilation. The physiognomy of Asian eyes, of course, has become one of the primary markers of racial difference and bases of stereotyping.
Operculum begins with newspaper advertisements demonstrating before-and-after images of eyelid modification and an informational video’s disclaimers. Tran consults with a series of plastic surgeons about eyelid alteration surgery (blepharoplasty), and what is involved in terms of physical modification in order to create more rounded, creased, Occidental eyes. Tran shows us a computer mock-up of where incisions in the artist’s own eyelids would be made. We hear the doctors attest that Koreans, Filipinos and Vietnamese are the primary Asian eye surgery clients and assess that, “Vietnamese have a better eyelid crease than Chinese,” while Japanese eyes are sometimes “a mixed bag.” Doctors tell Tran that she has a promising upper eyelid crease, but that fat should be removed above her eye to look “more feminine” and from below her eye to get rid of her “tired look.” I suppose that cosmetic surgeons are supposed to talk their patients into procedures, but their rhetoric just seems insulting, even racist. Without any apparent sense of self-awareness, one doctor comments, “Oriental women have a lot of fat in the face everywhere.”
Operculum ends with a list of five tips for post-surgery recovery, including, “No sex involving the eyes for 2 weeks.” What kind of sexual activity would this mean? What kind wouldn’t it be?
Multiple works in The Blindness Series speak to sex, sexuality, and desire in relation to looking. As has been argued at least since Laura Mulvey’s 1975 essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” the gaze is sexual. Depending on one’s vantage point, looking can be arousing or it can be demeaning, but sexual attraction is nonetheless often a matter of liking what one sees. Among other appropriated film clips, Aletheia prominently features 9 1/2 Weeks (rather than merely two weeks) in its survey of vision and erotic fantasies. In an extended series of shots, Kim Basinger has a black cloth tied around her eyes, her mouth often gaping with performed arousal and signature blond mane falling around her. In this excerpt, it’s unclear whose fantasy is at play: his (Mickey Rourke’s) or hers (Basinger’s). What we see, however, is a classic pornographic narrative: a woman being trained into pleasure by a dominant man, being pushed beyond the threshold of prior experience. Blindness becomes not only about becoming submissive, but for her, it becomes a new way of experiencing the world. Blindness allows her to taste and to feel newly intense sensations. On the soundtrack, we hear dialogue from another, more explicitly feminist text, Lizzie Borden’s Working Girls (1986), which has been transposed onto the image; it is at once both more comically pornographic and more compelling. We hear a role playing fantasy of a doctor who touches a hysterically blind woman’s breast as she has “never been touched before”; he says that he will reawaken her sense of sight through sexual gratification, but the medical molestation is undermined when the woman asks the doctor why his cock isn’t hard. In one of those curious accidents of language, the French verbiage “bandé” means both blindfolded and having an erection.
In Koré (1994), the third video of the series, Tran offers her most extensive exploration of sexuality and visuality. Rather than retread familiar critiques (such as Mulvey’s), however, she offers queer and otherwise marginalized perspectives on the erotics and sexual politics of looking. Koré is clearly the queerest video in the collection, featuring two nude Asian women making love with blindfolds (echoes of 9 1/2 Weeks, though this time both partners are blinded), street scenes of homosocial crowds that seem to evoke gay cruising, and attention to critiques of the U.S. government’s counterproductive HIV drug testing policies. These three issues suggest the myriad relationships between looking and sex: in the first, blindness gives way to fantasy and heightened attention of other senses; in the second, hook-ups are (hypothetically) negotiated through the exchange of looks; in the third, AIDS’s devastation of the immune system renders the body vulnerable to CMV (cytomegalovirus), an opportunistic infection that can cause blindness. Arguably even more queer, Tran includes footage from low-budget sci-fi films that imagine perverse corporeality: in one instance, a worm-like cyclops that could double as an uncircumcised phallus and, in another, a pair of breasts with eyes in the nipples. The shoddiness of the special effects and make-up somehow add to their deviant allure. Tran also shows the ultimate taboo: footage of a white man’s penis shriveling in real time.
Of all the videos in The Blindness Series, Koré seems the most of its time—which is not to say that it’s dated, exactly. It’s not. But its juxtaposition of provocative images and discussion of AIDS does recall the cultural moment of radical queer politics of the early-to-mid 1990s. A woman identified as an “AIDS worker,” who gives an account of CMV and drug testing, is identified in the end credits as also being one of the women who has been featured in the erotic lesbian sequences of the video. On the soundtrack, she comments that being blindfolded made her more liberated to perform on camera, and that her eyes would have inhibited her. She also speaks to the importance of seeing fun and hot footage of same-sex activity between Asian women because such images are so rare in popular culture. These are visibility politics, indeed.
Ocularis: Eye Surrogates (1997) focuses on surveillance, or seeing by mechanical proxy. In this tape, Tran plays audio recordings from calls to a surveillance hotline. The respondents suggest monitoring children through secret cameras in their bedrooms and lockers and through wiretaps of their personal phones. Another respondent reveals her own paranoia as she wants to have her boyfriend’s every move monitored, while a man indicates that his biggest fear is being caught masturbating by a hidden camera. The artist recounts (her? others’?) stories—getting caught watching porn while babysitting, framing a school bully on a bus security camera to get him expelled, working for a surveillance company. Such surveillance—or fear of surveillance—not only acts to document or inhibit actual crime but also undermines interpersonal trust and intimate behavior. On the image track, we see low-resolution black-and-white video footage of the artist under surveillance in her own home, as she snacks in front of the TV or tries on clothes; she also records the world around her via a camera in her car. Occasionally we see her converse with friends, who seem unaware that they have become the subject of observation, and thus, part of her work. The tape seems more concerned with the impulse toward voyeurism and abuses of power than in making claims about the right to privacy. Says a woman quoted in the video, “Surveillance is kind of funny because it creates anxiety and boredom at the same time.” Finally, the tape also raises the specter of technological determinism—that is, the idea that technologies shape our desires and actions. In the decade since Tran made Ocularis, surveillance has only become a more prominent site of cultural anxiety, as security cameras have proliferated to the point here virtually all public spaces and many private ones are under observation. As Tran observes, the prevalence of surveillance in everyday life may both indicate an exhibitionistic desire to be watched by some and an even more common internalization of surveillance that leads to “decentralized self-policing.” As text onscreen indicates, “it triggers a shift from targeting a specific suspect to categorical suspicion of everyone in a particular group.”
Probably the most difficult work in The Blindness Series, Ekleipsis (1998) is also the most rewarding. The tape begins with a timeline of Cambodian history, and eventually it becomes clear that the work responds to the curious phenomenon of hysterically blind emigrants who fled Cambodia after years in forced labor camps under the Khmer Rouge and came to settle in Southern California. These women represent the largest known population of hysterically blind people in the world, one that is also rare in its uniformity. As researcher Gretchen Van Boemel told the New York Times, “I kept seeing women from Cambodia that came to me with basically the same ocular history. … Usually it was something like, they saw their husbands murdered in front of them and cried and cried and when they stopped crying they couldn’t see.”
Tran quotes Juan-David Nasio, “to treat hysteria, we have to create another hysteria artificially,” and she thus recreates a hysterical stroboscopic experiment as described by Freud. Images flash on screen in succession with interstitial black leader in-between. At first some of the images barely register as identifiable, and the breaks between images defy making cognitive connections between them. Tran technically creates an effect of hysterical blindness—or at least a reaction of physical trauma long the lines of agitation, dizziness, or nausea. It’s literally hard to watch, frustrating both vision and comprehension. But the series of images repeats, staying on screen a bit longer each time, with less and less blackness in-between. We begin to see patterns and recognize things that at first seemed out of focus or too close-up. The early images—of rice, pineapple, jewelry, eye-glasses—give way to scenes of crowds, camps, militarism, eye tests. Although Tran refuses to name Pol Pot in the tape, she has commented on his uncanny relation to the work: he died the day she completed it in 1998.
The closing chapter of The Blindness Series, Epilogue: the palpable invisibility of life (2006), considers life, death, and familial relationships—whether hereditary or intellectual. The video was inspired by Tran’s pregnancy with her son and the imaging technologies, such as pregnancy tests, sonograms, and x-rays, that allowed her to see him in development before he was born. (We also see stop-motion animation of her belly as it expands during pregnancy.) The piece changed, however, with a coincidence: her son was born on the same date and time—September 11th—that her mother passed away, in 2003 and 1997, respectively.
A year later, Jacques Derrida died, and so the series both begins (via inspiration) and ends with this philosopher. Tran quotes an exchange between documentarian Kirby Dick and the theorist from the film Derrida (2004). Dick poses the question of which philosopher Derrida would wish to be his mother. Derrida responds that for him, philosophers are masculine figures and therefore none that came before him could be his mother. A woman who thinks could only be imagined after deconstruction, and therefore his mother would have to be someone who was part of his legacy, not part of his heritage.
In the catalog of the exhibition that inspired this The Blindness Series, Derrida writes, “These blind men explore—and seek to foresee there where they do not see, no longer see, or do not yet see. The space of the blind always conjugates these three tenses and times of memory. But simultaneously.” This passage suggests some of the complexity of vision as a metaphor for looking back on history, for seeing the present as it is, for how we imagine the future. The Blindness Series explores vision with similar intellectual ambition, yet with its gaze focused on more specific issues of visuality, race, sexuality, technology, and trauma. These videos are not merely about seeing or not seeing. But, then again, neither is vision.____________________
Lucas Hilderbrand is an Associate Professor of Film and Media Studies and Visual Studies at the University of California, Irvine. He is the author of the books Inherent Vice: Bootleg Histories of Videotape and Copyright and Paris Is Burning: A Queer Film Classic and essays that have appeared in Camera Obscura, Film Quarterly, GLQ, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Women and Performance, Jump Cut, and Resolutions 3, among other venues. He co-edited (with Lynne Sachs) a special issue of Millennium Film Journal on "experiments in documentary" and co-curated (with David Evans Frantz and Kayleigh Perkov) the exhibition and catalogue Cock, Paper, Scissors for the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archives.
Metaphors on Blindness
by Jesse Lerner
Metaphors on BlindnessJesse Lerner
There is a strain within experimental filmmaking in the United States, the practice variously known as the Essential Cinema, the New American cinema, visionary film, expanded cinema or critical cinema that takes vision as one of its central topics. This grouping of films, now canonized due largely to the efforts of writers including P. Adams Sitney and Jonas Mekas (in his capacity as the Village Voice’s film critic) and venues such as Anthology Film Archive, a body of work updated annually by the New York Film Festival’s “Views from the Avant-Garde” sidebar, privileges vision as one of the medium’s primary topics. That Tran T. Kim-Trang’s video work (The Blindness Series, 1991-2006), which is often presented in the contexts of the festivals, micro-cinemas and museums that champion this filmic avant-garde, should take blindness as a theme suggests either a continuation or an inversion from this dominant thematic within experimental film. By reading Tran’s work through that of Stan Brakhage, arguably the Essential Cinema’s paradigmatic practitioner and most impassioned believer and spokesperson, both the shared and divergent agendas of these two projects comes more sharply into focus.
There is of course a broad range of themes associated with this North American avant-garde, ranging from low-rent poetics of Jack Smith’s ecstatic B-movie divas to Bruce Conner’s collaged atomic detournement and beyond, but the question of vision, typically framed in terms of the romantic quest of the male, modernist hero searching to recover the lost innocence of an unprejudiced sense of sight untainted by culture, achieved a centrality in the decade of the 1960s. Though structural film challenged this emotional pursuit with its cool rationalism, and subsequent tendencies have further complicated and expanded the overall picture, this remains a persistent and privileged concern. While Brakhage is closely associated with this project, he is by no means unique. Nathaniel Dorsky explains that the film medium itself can be understood as metaphoric of the process of seeing: “We view films in the context of darkness. We sit in darkness and watch an illuminated world, the world of the screen. This situation is a metaphor for the nature of our own vision.” The question of vision thus resonates beyond the cinematic work or theoretical discourse of any one individual practitioner, and speaks to the fundamental conditions and challenges of the reception of experimental media arts. At their best, these are films that invite (or dare) us to see differently, to look anew, more closely and more thoughtfully, and to rethink the familiar conventions of representation and perception. Nonetheless, the prevalence of the theme of vision is in no small part a reflection of the efforts, both as a filmmaker and as a writer, of one of the outstanding practitioners within “the Essential Cinema”—Stan Brakhage, who has been characterized, and not without reason, as “the preeminent figure in American avant-garde filmmaking.”
Brakhage opens his Metaphors of Vision with an oft-quoted passage that not only evokes a sequence from his Anticipation of the Night (1958) but more importantly articulates the central theoretical project that informs so much of his work:
This quest for the unprejudiced, pre-linguistic vision of the “untutored eye” can be understood as Brakhage’s life-long project. For the sake of manageability, this essay will address neither the entirety of Tran’s blindness series nor the whole body of experimental films pertinent to the visual, but rather aims to read one tape from the series of videos, Ekleipsis (1998) through the discourse of vision and the visual articulated by Brakhage in his writings and through one (admittedly uncharacteristic yet highly relevant) example of his filmmaking, the first section of his two-part silent short, 23rd Psalm Branch (1966).
Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye that does not respond to the name of everything, but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of “Green”? How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible gradations of color. Imagine a world before the “beginning was the word”.
As Fred Camper has stated, Brakhage’s call for the pursuit of untutored, preverbal vision is not a naïve one; six lines down from the opening quoted above, there is a disclaimer: “… one can never go back, not even in imagination. After the loss of innocence, only the ultimate of knowledge can balance the wobbling pivot.” And yet, his recurrent project as a filmmaker might be characterized by what follows: “there is a pursuit of knowledge foreign to language and founded upon visual communication, demanding a development of the optical mind, and dependent upon perception in the original and deepest sense of the word.” There is, at the root of this, if not an antagonism between language and seeing, at least a primacy claimed for the visual. In contrast to language-based theories of film, which had yet to make their influence felt within the English-speaking academy at the time of Metaphors on Vision’s publication (1963), the visual is understood as functioning according to its own, more protean system of meaning. William C. Wees, in his perceptive reading of Brakhage’s 23rd Psalm Branch, points out that any number of thinkers, from Aristotle to Rudolf Arnheim, concur with this assertion of the visual’s primacy. The voice-over narration of Tran’s Ekleipsis makes reference to one of these complementary positions, that of Freudian analysis with its emphasis on the process of verbalizing, of articulating the traumas within the context of the psychoanalytic therapy. Quoting Freud, one of the video’s narrators reads aloud:
Translating images into words, psychoanalysis maintains, we can work through our traumas and rid ourselves of these troubling visuals. As we articulate the traumatic events of the past, these images fade and break apart. Again, the relationship is not so much antagonistic as it is one of language supplanting a certain type of disquieting image, in this case, through the talking cure. Elements of the psychoanalytic model are not at all alien to Brakhage, whose Film Biographies, David James has noted, recurrently relies on the narrative of canonic artists heroically prevailing over the enduring impact of early traumas, though the “cure” is achieved through image making, rather than speech. Though it never articulated explicitly, Brakhage suggests that traumas can be overcome by visualization rather than verbalization. These psychoanalytic concerns bear a particular relevance to the 23rd Psalm Branch, the second part of which ends with a kind of homage to Freud in the form of a pilgrimage, in the company of Peter Kubelka, to the Viennese home of the founder of psychoanalysis. Ekleipsis, in contrast, does not find many answers in psychoanalysis, and quickly moves on to explore other explanations for the prevalence of hysterical blindness.
Hysterical patients are generally of the 'visual' type. Once a picture has emerged from the patient's memory, we may hear him say that it becomes fragmentary and obscure in proportion as he proceeds with his description of it. The patient is, as it were, getting rid of it by turning it into words. When this work has been accomplished, the patient's field of vision is once more free and we can conjure up another picture.
In spite of Brakhage’s stated desire to pursue a pre-linguistic way of seeing the world, his engagement with language is in fact deep and complex. On the simplest level, this engagement is the basis of his role as teacher, author and advocate for media arts; of his generation of experimental filmmakers, it is probably his contribution as a writer and lecturer that is the most extensive and influential. But beyond this, language enters into the films themselves into any number of ways. Poetry served as an important model and point of reference for filmic structure, and throughout his life Robert Duncan, Kenneth Rexroth, Charles Olson, Michael McClure and Gertrude Stein all functioned as sources of inspiration and, with the exception of Stein, friends and comrades in arms. Poetry provides a model for a filmic structure that does not rely on narrative, causality and Aristotelian unities. For the most part the Brakhage films themselves however are entirely devoid of both written and spoken language; the vast majority are silent films, and eschew intertitles or any other text on the screen, with the exception of a characteristic hand-scratched signature and title. The use of the written word is only one of the features that makes the first part of Brakhage’s 23rd Psalm Branch stand out as exceptional in his body of work. 23rd Psalm Branch makes extensive use of written text, deployed using a variety of strategies—words scratched directly onto the film’s emulsion, footage of the filmmaker’s own hand engaged in writing a letter to his wife, text shot off of a television screen and shots of fragments of printed pages, this last element extracted from a volume of poetry of Louis Zukofsky. Further, if his work generally embodies what Paul Arthur characterized as “an unspoken desire in American avant-garde film to exist outside of history, to operate in a realm of aesthetic expression that elided any recognition of a socially shared past,” then this particular short is atypical in its direct references to both the Second World War and the war that was at the time (1966) escalating in Southeast Asia. These two exceptional qualities of the film are not merely coincidental, but can be understood as causally linked: faced with a series of traumas—societal, world historical, and as the film makes clear, personal as well—the principle of the visual’s primacy fails, or at least falls short and must makes way for written language, a writing cure, to enter along side the images both as another graphic element on the screen and as a bearer of meaning.
The elements of texts that appear on the screen make it clear that Brakhage made this film in the midst of a period of despair and distress. “I can't go on,” laments the maker, scratched in black leader, “I must stop.” The images and other sentence fragments and phrases point to the source of his anguish. Flashing frames reveal corpses, beautifully hand-colored yet nonetheless horrific. A lone word legible on the television screen, “Nagasaki,” evokes for the North American not so much a city as the nuclear bomb and the devastation it wrought. Another more revealing written fragment is more cryptic, but has been convincingly glossed by one of Brakhage’s interlocutors:
William Wees identifies this as a reference to Thomas Mann’s novel Doctor Faustus, in which the central character, Adrian Leverkühn, enters into a personal crisis after witnessing the illness, suffering and death of a small child. If God permits this kind of torment, the character speculates, then He should revoke the beauty of Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. The two cannot or should not co-exist. Brakhage’s text hints at a similar dilemma, modified for times of war: how do we understand, create or celebrate beauty when it coexists not simply with tragedy on an individual scale, but with the collective, mass brutality of battles, death camps and bombings? Might the horror of it all move us, like the women of Ekleipsis, to shut down all together and stop seeing?
Beethoven’s 9th, then
The images of 23rd Psalm Branch reinforce this suggested reading. The endless succession of corpses, repeated explosions, emaciated prisoners from Nazi concentration camps, rows of marching soldiers and images of dictators all point to the origins of Brakhage’s trauma. His own anecdotal account of the film’s genesis sheds further light on this. In the Sixties, Brakhage moved with his young family to the remote cabin in the Rocky Mountains. Newspapers were not available in the area, he relates, and the family would rarely listen to the radio. But news of the outside world nonetheless insinuated its way into this insulated enclave by way of the television, and in United States of the late sixties, news from the world often meant news from Southeast Asia:
The intrusion of the War into the Rocky Mountain log cabin retreat thus occasions a series of refusals and denials. The first of these pleads ignorance on the basis of a lack of direct knowledge of the matter. Without the lived experience of the Vietnam conflict, without being actual eyewitness to the horrible events of war, how might the filmmaker begin to address this? By means of displacement, the topic becomes “memory recall,” more specifically, his own childhood memories, not of war itself, but of viewing newsreels of World War II, the kinds of archival images he appropriates and intervenes within through painting and otherwise defacing the emulsion’s surface. Brakhage’s own children, present in this film fleetingly, and so often central in of the films from this period, become surrogates for his own youth, reliving the societal poisoning as witnesses, in spite of their father’s best efforts, to massive devastation carried out in their name. In moving from the content of the images to the subject of memory recall, an engagement with political life is rejected in favor of an interior exploration of private consciousness and of the visual mechanics of memory.
I found I couldn’t deal at all with Viet Nam. I’ve never been there; I haven’t seen any imagery that presents it in any way that’s as close to whatever Vietnam might be, as it is to Strindberg or Max Reinhart. But, all the same, when you have a machine that comes in the form that television does, where the image is carried by the light directly to the eyes, that is, not reflected, and where language is composed of moving dots and particles, such as is the case of American TV, the effect psychologically that I began to feel was like I was so close to memory recall, to when an image is remembered from a person’s own experience.
There is another blind spot here that is not solely Brakhage’s, but rather one shared by all of his compatriots. While the war in Vietnam raged on in Southeast Asia and on the Brakhage family television set, the conflict progressively drew in its neighbor Cambodia. If in the United States the conflict in Vietnam was characterized by public debate, popular dissent and the mass media’s constant dissemination of images of the vast destruction wrought, then the Cambodian conflict was, at least prior to April 1970, distinguished in contrast by secrecy and government concealment. Before Brakhage had finished this film, Cambodia had begun to allow North Vietnamese soldiers to use their country as a safe haven for attacks against the South. This in turn set the stage for the tragic series of events that unfolded: the U.S. secret bombing, the destruction of the nation’s agricultural base, the 1970 CIA-orchestrated coup d’état, and the eventual rise to power of Pol Pot and subsequent calamities of mass murder, forced labor and starvation. While the destruction of Vietnam was broadcast into the Brakhage home, causing domestic strife and private distress, the devastation of its neighbor remained unseen, witnessed by the Cambodian women of Ekleipsis but out of the sight of the North American public who funded it all.
As the quote above suggests, Brakhage’s discomfort with the larger social context and specific visual content of this work of his is directly linked to a prevalent, and by that time dominant, technology of the visual: television. He states:
Rather to confronting that responsibility and wrestling with its implications, Brakhage turns his attention instead to the mechanics of the apparatus itself. Though the two technologies referenced produce moving images, they operate in significantly different ways: television set emits light that travels directly to the eye, while film is projected onto a white screen, which then reflects light to the eye of the viewer. If film is for Brakhage a metaphor of vision, and the Bolex an extension of the eye, then the cathode-ray tube of the Sixties era television monitor is here a metaphor for memory. Significantly, Ekleipsis also takes the process of visual memory as its subject matter. Again the dominant visual strategy is one of appropriation; the video uses found images, taken from television and from feature films like The Killing Fields (1984), conventionally (some would say “correctly”) focused, exposed and composed, and without the interference of overlaid coats of paint or ink, to suggest what might have been the last things seen “correctly” by the Cambodian survivors of Khmer Rouge brutality prior to the onset of hysterical blindness. Unlike the 23rd Psalm Branch, the memories are not in the first person, but rather in the third, the private reserve of a group of individuals the maker has herself never met or interviewed. The content is then necessarily speculative and tentative: what these women might have seen or might remember. The thrust of inquiry moves from the individual consciousness to the political crisis that is its context and on to a possible resolution, reversing the movement of Brakhage’s retreat from political crisis to interior contemplation.
I could make a film about anything in the house, it seemed, that touched me, except, I couldn’t deal with the television set. And it wasn’t just the object itself, but that it was our only specific connection to Society with a capital “S” or something we were expected to be responsible for … television, represented, was that something of the war was being presented to us and we were directly responsible for dealing with it.
Tran’s strategy is to fragment and isolate the archival images in repeated sequences interspersed with black. The result aims to replicate the visual memories of the Killing Fields survivors as the voices of the work’s soundtrack contemplate the root causes of their medical and psychic condition. The technique is strikingly similar to the 23rd Psalm Branch, which also makes extensive use of hypnotic, nearly stroboscopic fragmentation of the moving image through the interspersed sequences of black leader. Characteristically, the strategies that Brakhage deploys in order to make the archival images his own include applying paint and ink top on the emulsion, scratching the film—just a few the techniques associated with his signature style. As with his other hallmark techniques—superimpositions, over- or under-exposed footage, the placement of colored glass in front of the lens, the use of out-of-focus footage—Brakhage has claimed these are motivated by his own imperfect eyesight. His interest in vision springs from a physical deficiency, one that rendered “normal” vision impossible for him. In an interview with the avant-garde cinema’s most tireless scholar, we find this exchange:
This physical disability is then presented as the point of departure for the filmmaker’s challenge to traditional representation, making him acutely sensitive to vision, just as the poets’ stutters make them more attuned to the word. Rather than seeking to “correct” his vision to conform to a universally accepted norm, Brakhage suggests this defect informs and motivates his use of specific strategies—the use of superimpositions or out of focus images—and more generally to his approach to filmmaking, forcing him to struggling in order “to come to an understanding of how you achieve sight.”
Scott MacDonald: How bad were your eyes?
Brakhage: Pretty bad, actually. I had a bad astigmatism. I was walleyed: that is, my right eye was always adrift and didn’t focus well. I had to really struggle to come to focus. I couldn’t take focusing for granted. And much of what you and others have described as my experimentation is just a part of my scrambling to come to an understanding of how you achieve sight. Something that other people just have naturally, I had to earn. One time, an optician, on looking into my eyes, said: ‘Well, by your eyes, physically, you shouldn’t even be able to see that chart on the wall, let alone read it. But, on the other hand, I have never seen a human eye with more rapid saccadic movements. What you must be doing is rapidly scanning and putting this picture together in your head.’ In knowing poets, I was discovering that many of them stuttered, couldn’t speak easily at all…
Tran’s Ekleipsis takes as a point of departure a group of Cambodian refugees residing in Long Beach, California, women who are afflicted with what is called hysterically blindness. In other words, these are individuals who are physiologically capable of sight, but for whom the trauma of the Pol Pot atrocities has led to what has been characterized as a psychosomatic blindness, often only in one eye. The situation inverts the experience Brakhage describes: not faulty eyes making possible extraordinary vision, but rather normal eyes incapable of any vision whatsoever. Several film scholars have suggested that the encounter with Charles Olson’s thinking was formative influence in the maturation of Brakhage’s understanding of vision, and indeed, the frequent references to Olson both in Metaphors on Vision (which includes an extended extract from a letter to Jane Brakhage in which the filmmaker describes his first meeting with the poet) as well as elsewhere in his writings allow the reader to trace these connections. In an interview with Bruce Kawin, Brakhage states:
But the influence of Olson is more than the lesson in self-acceptance that Brakhage characterizes here, it is an intellectual debt that influenced the theoretical development of Brakhage’s thoughts on vision. In his prescriptive essay Projective Verse, Olson states that in poetry, “one perception must immediately and directly lead to a further perception,” in the ongoing contact between nature and consciousness. This conviction informs Brakhage’s theory of vision, and his claims to be a documentarian; his camera simply records his vision, his eye’s interactions with the world. “I document the act of seeing … I have added nothing.” The eye takes on a role comparable to that of breath for Olson, the embodied “biological imperative” that inescapably shapes this interaction.
The poet Charles Olson taught me to accept the vision that’s been given to you, including your various aberrations. That was what he credited my heroics the most with, where he was praising me for heroics that I had, he felt, more than any other artist he knew had accepted the given limitations of my...not just my vision, but much else of my health, and so on.
But the 23rd Psalm Branch in particular owes another, more specific debt to Olson. Brakhage’s own hand is seen writing on paper: “”The war is as in thoughts patterns are—as endless as precise as eye’s hell is!” Again, Willian C. Wees’ gloss proves helpful; he identifies this line as a paraphrase (though with a significant shift of emphasis from words to sight) of Charles Olson’s poem “In Cold Hell, in Thicket,” which reads, in part:
If, as Brakhage states, “war is as … thought patterns are,” then the effort to stop the war is ultimately a private act, one that must seek to reform the patterns of thought rather than the behavior of nation states. The concluding images of children playing war-like games with sparklers again suggests this aggression springs from deep-seated, destructive drives that are rooted in psychology and socially reinforced, not from any specific political circumstances. Using the theories of Bruno Bettelheim, Marjorie Keller’s close reading of Brakhage’s Murder Psalm (1980), a film that takes the violence of children as its central theme, suggests the same. Society perpetuates its culture of violence by indoctrinating each subsequent generation in its destructive values. If there is any hope for an alternative to this unending cycle of cruelty, it lies in our heads, not in diplomacy, activism, civil disobedience, or marching for peace. Brakhage regarded the peace demonstrations that were then engaging so many with particular suspicion, as he felt these replicated the same mass psychology of the wars that they ostensible opposed. But the alternative that Brakhage proposes is even less satisfactory.
precise as hell is, precise
as any words …
In 1967, as the United States spread Agent Orange defoliants on Cambodia forests and the Khmer Rouge joined a peasant rebellion against the government, Brakhage stated, following a public screening of the 23rd Psalm Branch:
Alas, Brakhage’s statement has none of the power of what Austin called “performative speech.” It is, instead, a declaration of his intention to continue the evasion, to go on with his aesthetic project (Songs 24 and 25) at the price of social engagement. Unfortunately for the women on Ekleipsis, the war was just beginning, and no such evasion was possible.
Jane and I are sure that the war is over, as far as we’re concerned, and I don’t mean that in any facile sense. I mean it deeply, like Allen said it. Eight months, ten months before me, he managed in Wichita, Allen Ginsberg, to say very deeply, ‘I, Allen Ginsberg, declare that the war is over.’ Now, the only difference between me and Allen is that I don’t declare it, I say, Jane and I have decided that the war is over. And she would probably say … Oh, I talk too much, the war is over and here are Songs 24 and 25.____________________
Jesse Lerner is a filmmaker based in Los Angeles. His short films Natives (1991, with Scott Sterling), T.S.H. (2004) and Magnavoz (2006) and the feature-length experimental documentaries Frontierland/Fronterilandia (1995, with Rubén Ortiz-Torres), Ruins (1999) The American Egypt (2001), Atomic Sublime (2010) and The Absent Stone (2013, with Sandra Rozental) have won numerous prizes at film festivals in the United States, Latin America and Japan, and have screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Washington’s National Gallery, and the Sundance, Rotterdam and Los Angeles Film Festivals. His films were featured in mid-career surveys at New York’s Anthology Film Archives and Mexico’s Cineteca Nacional. He has curated projects for the Mexico’s Palacio Nacional de Bellas Artes, the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao, and the Robert Flaherty Seminar. His books include F is for Phony: Fake Documentary and Truth’s Undoing (with Alexandra Juhasz, 2000), The Shock of Modernity (2007), The Maya of Modernism (2011), and The Catherwood Project (with Leandro Katz, forthcoming).