Experimental Science and Cinema at The Museum of the Moving Image
By Sonia Shechet Epstein
April 28, 2016
In the 1960s, computer programmers at IBM, the MIT, and other research labs experimented with purely competer-generated films. Some of these works comprise “Computer Films of the 1960s,” a 37-minute reel of psychedelic films currently at the Museum of the Moving Image. The exhibition is organized by guest curators Leo Goldsmith and Gregory Zinman; it features the work of Stan VanDerBeek, Kenneth Knowlton, A. Michael Noll, and John and James Whitney, among others. In 2013 Goldsmith and Zinman talked to Science & Film about these early collaborations between artists and scientists on the occasion of a program featuring many of these same films. An edited version of the interview follows, and you can read the full interview in the Science & Film archives.
Science & Film: Can you talk about the genesis of the series “Computer Age” at the Museum of the Moving Image?
Gregory Zinman: When we began to look back at the origins of computer films, we found strangeness—instead of images of reality, we saw wild abstractions, ones that marked differences between the real and perceived world, or that attempted to find correspondences between machine logic and subjective experience. We also found that early computer films featured some of the very first collaborations between artists and engineers—the kinds of partnerships that blossomed, for better and for worse, into the highly Fordian separation of labor we find in Hollywood special effects spectaculars and billion-dollar grossing video games. We realized that our present, commercial, digital moment was shaped by radical experimentation and artistic endeavor, and we wanted to show just how diverse, bizarre, and enthralling its origins were.
S&F: So many of the films come bearing the insignia of technical laboratories (IBM/Bell) and the final inscription of “A Poemfield #2” is “A Study in Computer Graphics.” This connection led me to think about the interrelationship of science and art. Where did the filmmaker/programmers behind these works position themselves along that spectrum? Were they making films or carrying out experiments?
Leo Goldsmith: I think there’s a pretty rich spectrum of intentions, from those who see their work primarily in an artistic tradition to those who see it as a form of research. But most of these filmmakers are positioned somewhere in between.
This raises the larger question of what experimentation actually is—both in scientific experimentation and in experimental cinema. Of course, in both cinema and science, experimentation can be playful or searching, but in both instances there are also goals or anticipated results. And a great many experimental filmmakers—from Hollis Frampton to Jeanne Liotta—have engaged very deeply with science, mathematics, astronomy, and so forth.
GZ: I also think that there hasn’t been much attention paid to abstraction in moving images. As is the case with the vast majority of abstract painting, abstract films are very rarely mere formal exercises. Instead, they are often about new ways of seeing and new forms of sensory engagement with cinema and the world. In other words, abstract films almost always mean something. Part of what many of these early computer films were about was finding new ways to communicate beyond language, and with technology.
LG: Many of the works we’ll be screening—films by Mary Ellen Bute, Stan VanDerBeek, Ken Knowlton, and Ed Emshwiller—resulted from residencies with companies and institutions like NASA, IBM, NYIT, and Bell Labs, and this suggests a fascinating culture of collaboration, which the 1968 documentary THE INCREDIBLE MACHINErepresents quite well. The history of this culture is a ripe area for further scholarship. But of course it’s not just a question of how scientists and programmers influenced the way films are made, but also the opposite: how did the work of artists affect the design and functionality of interfaces the programmers were producing?
S&F: Is there a traceable relationship between these works and more “traditional” experimental filmmaking? Several of the films–AROUND PERCEPTION–directly challenge the limits of what can be seen with the human eye, which brings to mind many different strands of avant-garde filmmaking.
GZ: Absolutely. The use of the computer by filmmakers such as John Whitney and Stan VanDerBeek relates directly to the graphic avant-garde films of the 1920s and 1930s—made by Oskar Fischinger, Hans Richter, Walter Ruttmann, and Viking Eggeling. John and James Whitney had seen these works as part of the "Art in Cinema" series at the San Francisco Museum of Art in the late 1940s, and they knew Fischinger and other artisanal filmmakers, such as Harry Smith and Jordan Belson, personally. Ron Hays' work in the 1970s stems directly from a history of visual music—the efforts by artists to find perceptual and thematic correspondences between moving images and music, as seen in the work of Fischinger, Len Lye, and Norman McLaren. Like those artists, Hays made use of the available technological tools of the day, including Nam June Paik's video synthesizer and the Scanimate process. Similarly, the films of Mary Ellen Bute and Lillian Schwartz both represent extensions of Ruttmann's desire to use new technologies to paint in time, or to draw with electronics. And, as you point out, Hebert's AROUND PERCEPTION shares formal characteristics with the perceptual flicker films of Tony Conrad and Paul Sharits.
S&F: Early works in the series like PERMUTATIONS and AROUND PERCEPTION are built around geometric abstractions, but as the technology progresses, you start seeing things like the smeared imagery of AQUARELLES. Since this is a science-themed blog, could you tease out some of the technological changes in the period covered by your series and how they affected the work being produced?
LG: Certainly, texture-mapping—the practice of wrapping a flat, textural “shell” around a three-dimensional figure—was a crucial shift in these effects that’s quite visible here. Texture-mapping was developed in the early 1970s by Ed Catmull, later president of Pixar, so one can see how innovations like these led directly into the sort of computer animation we know today. In AQUARELLES, Dean Winkler was using hardware and software he designed himself. One of the things we wanted to capture with the program was the degree to which these computer filmmaking processes were homespun, idiosyncratic, and innovative.
S&F: Can you discuss the early films’ fascination with Asian music and imagery?
GZ: The influence of Asian music and imagery in early computer films can be traced to a couple of intertwining concerns. Following the horrors of the Second World War, many people, including artists, were searching for different belief systems and ways of thinking about humanity's place in the universe. This resulted, in part, in a flowering of interest in Eastern religions and philosophies, which in turn resulted in a number of cinematic works that simultaneously referenced other worlds and altered consciousness.
The Whitneys’ films, in particular, dedicated to representing complex mathematical patterns that occur throughout nature, philosophy and music. James Whitney's LAPIS, for example, is an attempt to portray Pythagoras’ music of the spheres via tetractys, or pyramids of dots. LAPIS refers to the alchemical philosopher’s stone of transformation, and Whitney himself thought of the film as a “space/time mandala”. Elsewhere, James described his art as being informed by “Jungian psychology, alchemy, yoga, Tao, quantum physics, Krishnamurti and consciousness expanding.”
“Computer Films of the 1960s” is on view now until August 14 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens. Look out for films such as LAPIS and POEMFIELD.