Wednesday, October 5, 2022

Frozen Music: The Celluloid Dreams of Richard Kerr

All images courtesy of the artist.

“Now, why should the cinema follow the forms of theatre and painting rather than the methodology of language, which allows wholly new concepts and ideas to arise from the combination of two separate concrete objects?” – Sergei Eisenstein

The elegant artifacts crafted in this time-tapestry originate in a mythical country I like to call Analogos. This land is the opposite of the digital world we currently occupy and harkens back to an era when the image ruled its optical kingdom in a nearly sacred dance of montage assembly and patterned sequence. This limited-edition artist’s book, as a kind of guidebook for tourists traveling in time, captures moments from a celluloid dream world that is anti-Hollywood and pro-haptic: it privileges a domain where physical touch was much more important than cerebral reflection. And yet much of its basic content also references the very dream factory that it also seeks to escape from, plunging us fully forward into the realm of experimental cinema and celebrating cinema itself as a kind of music for the eyes.

Kirk Tougas, the founder of Cinematheque in Vancouver, which traces its own origins way back to the land of Analogos in the early pre-digital 1970’s, has often cautioned me about using the word experimental to describe films which provide alternatives to linear entertainment and take us on a fabulous flight to the outer edges of visual art. Experiential, he has helped me realize, is often a more accurate term to characterize those filmmakers, such as the Canadian Richard Kerr, who wants us to experience and explore his works as paintings that move, or don’t move at all. Hence, perhaps, Kerr’s primary notion of a project which utilizes a haunting inventory of images solely as the raw material, the paint of light and time, so to speak, in a weaving motif which arrives at a core moment of inherent stillness: when time stops and looking starts.

In his new book Analog, Robert Hassan explores why, surrounded by screens and smart devices, we still feel a deep connection to the analog – to vinyl records, fountain pens, Kodak film, and other non-digital tools. Part of that why is embodied by Richard Kerr’s marvelous book project Inventory: Motion Picture Weaving Project, in which he literally weaves portions of actual celluloid film strips within wall-mounted light box pieces that exotically evoke stained glass windows, not from the past, but far into one of several available futures. Thus they also evoke a feeling of rarefied archival or even archaeological relics which could, might, or should end up in museums devoted to what we did to ourselves, by ourselves. Indeed, they resemble or feel like future relics offered by an archaeologist, probably because that’s exactly what they are: analog cinema linguistics.

Technicolour Countdown, 2022 detail.

Even though I will suggest that these powerful Kerr works point towards an unknown future archaeological dig somewhere on the planet earth, I will simultaneously maintain that they also bring us all the way back to the brilliant darkness of those secret sanctums of the flickering nicklelodeons: the private single-viewer progenitors of today’s movie theatres, which first drove lined-up audiences wild in about 1905, still only then barely 10 years from the first film projections via kinetoscope loops. To be able to listen to what images are showing: that is the counter-intuitive core of Kerr’s impressive body of woven cinematic strip works contained in his artist’s book Inventory (designed by Hadi Jamali, with photography by Soheil Sakamuri). Kerr is an exemplary storyteller of the optical unconscious, and his inherent fabula is a veritable web of images, numbers and words, caught in the amber-like chamber of his handsomely constructed lightboxes.

Cinema linguistics? Are images actually words? They used to be. Are films actually novels? They might be. Often the most striking narrative stories emerge from images in the most abstract and dreamlike manner, and this is what Kerr’s book of collages and assemblages illustrates so clearly in the form of frozen music: a pictorial vertigo designed to re-draw our attention to the haptic nature of film itself. He also reminds us, if obliquely, of the lessons in deep looking of two great Russian cinema artists, Sergei Eisenstein and Andrei Tarkovsky. The first invented the concept of montage, or meaning transmitted by sequence, and the second reveled in the fact that films are sculpting in time.

By stopping motion altogether and rendering actual celluloid film frames as painted moments in his lightbox compositions, Kerr also reminds us of Tarkovsky’s dictum that “cinema expresses the passage of time within the frame.” The resulting poetics of duration that Kerr achieves is subtle yet profound, since by using found film stock, leaders, and studio countdowns, he meditates on the optical language of film itself, and on its syntax, so to speak. This is the domain of the mediated montage of individual shots and frames, of both moving and still lumière paintings which cause us to pause, ponder and register the intuition of the instant once stilled.

Kerr’s use of found footage in his lightbox compositions is, however, distinctly different from and, for me, much more interesting than, artists such as the film and video-making collaborative team of Muller and Giradet, for instance. That German team utilizes actual found footage, of course, but they simply rescreen fragments in fresh contexts, or present icy stills in highly stylized sets, often drawn from Hollywood and especially from the stunningly sultry films of director Douglas Sirk. But Kerr is more daring by far, cutting and weaving the film stock itself in a mosaic manner, being less concerned with the imagery per se than with the delivery system. Thus he manifests an accidental meaning-archive while also conducting a rich excavation at the site of a cinematic mythology using appropriated footage but not imagery. He is even more of a visual archaeologist by virtue of his own transit from being a filmmaker and video producer himself, to his role as a visual conceptual artist as much intrigued by craftsmanship as by concepts. In other words, he constructs sentences and paragraphs out of the basic system and syntagm relationship between images and oneiric ideas. 

MGM Sync, detail.

St. Catharines-born Richard Kerr, a founding member of the Niagara Escarpment School – a loose collective of filmmakers with an interest in landscape and autobiography - has over the years produced an expansive body of work in analog film and digital video that has been screened at global festivals and been collected by galleries and museums internationally. Two of his much loved works, Canal (1981) and The Last Days of Contrition (1988), were recently screened at a retrospective presented by the Mighty Niagara Film Festival and The Niagara Artists Collective. But his latest work has brought a whole new area of meditative attention into clear focus, and as demonstrated by his artist’s book Inventory, it demonstrates how an innate penchant for storytelling can evolve over the years as it undergoes significant aesthetic development and becomes ever more subtle in form and content.

What stories does he tell? At one level his book shares a narrative which stipulates his own struggles with filmmaking, both the ‘experimental’ variety which is abundantly explored by a recent fine book from Goose Lane Editions called Moments of Perception: Experimental Film in Canada (about which I’ll be writing a more-in-depth review in an upcoming article) but also a parallel narrative, which we might, I suppose, call a meta-narrative, about the very essence of what cinema is and does, to and for us.

The works that prefigure and precede his Motion Picture Weaving Project are ably explored in essays and interviews by Bart Testa, a priceless reservoir of film history as an author and curator who teaches at the Cinema Studies Institute of the University of Toronto; and Jesse Cummings, a film critic who spoke in depth with Kerr during his art installation at the TIFF Bell Lightbox venue.

On the most personal level they include what he called “Richard Kerr’s Recuperation,” a literal reassessment of his mode of image-making and their transmission subsequent to many years of making movies that move, such as “After Motion Pictures” (1996), and even a couple, “Willing Voyeur” (1996) and “Human Tragedy on a Grand Scale” (1999), a magnum opus which has yet to fully see the light of day, let alone the dark of theatres. Several of them were honest yet troubled attempts to reach toward the more accessible feature-film mode of so-called entertainment, and their evaporation into the ether was the principal prompt for shifting Kerr’s attention to the self-contained and somewhat non-collaborative realm of being a visual artist and a maker of personal, private and intimate fine art environments in classical gallery and museum settings. And I’m glad he did so, because his light-box pieces are far more gratifying experientially.

Godard Space Flight, detail.

If I draw attention to certain key parallels between Kerr’s works and earlier methodologies by certain seminal artists and writers, it is not to make a comparison between them but rather to focus on what they all focus on: the primacy of examining the media themselves even more than on the messages being transmitted through those media, in a manner evoking McLuhan’s Understanding Media from 1964. The medium itself being the message rather than only the content it provides was explored cinematically by the great New Zealand-born experimenter Len Lyle, thirty years before McLuhan’s canny observation, in masterful works such as “Colour Box” (1935) and “Rainbow Dance” (1936). And in the literary realm, the assemblage techniques of André Breton and Robert Desnos extolled the virtues of radical free-flow word collages in their surrealist experiments.

But perhaps the most ideal and nourishing precursors to Kerr’s systems of fabrication were launched by the artist Brion Gysin and writer William Burroughs in 1959, when they began to practice their legendary cut-up method of assembling manuscripts by cannibalizing other texts, often newspapers and magazines, to unearth the magical connections between ostensibly unrelated sentences. Minutes To Go, an opening salvo appearing in 1961, followed by the early Burroughs canon of Naked Lunch, Ticket That Exploded, The Soft Machine and Wild Boys, demonstrated what shimmering meanings could result from free juxtapositions. Their joint use of the scissor technique to craft a whole new world of accidental insights might be seen as an early exponent of the visual cut-ups that Kerr employs in his light-box creations.

Inventory contains a marvelously revealing exchange between Kerr and Cummings called “Running Freely With Scissors,” which captures the above overlap, as well as some of the intensity of the artist’s encounters with the seemingly simple tool that would open up whole vistas for fresh contemplation. Cummings broached the core matter early in their discussion: “What sort of relationship exists between the material you’re working with and the form of each light-box? Does any single factor—whether gauge, content, or colour—play a determining role?” To which the artist provided an insightful commentary which again put me in mind of the great Hollis Frampton in his “The Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters.” Mostly in that it had a similar shared emotional feeling and lofty thought pattern. “This question,” Kerr began, “is really the central proposition of the whole weaving process and operation.

Above all what I like about it is that it’s non-technical—there are no computers or machines—it’s really essentially scissors and tape; there’s a real freedom from technology. My mind and hands move freely without machines. So what you’re faced with is a sheet of white Plexiglas of a predermined size and scale. And it starts fresh: you flick on the light and it’s white, obviously like a blank screen or a blank canvas. It’s formally very simple and the proposition before you is very basic. You have the film material, whatever you’ve selected, and inevitably you have to lay the first couple of strips down. You just follow the process all the while and you’re at the service of the material, which does what it wants to. Every weaving has its own process, its own puzzle. You work through it in this sort of physical/mental state, almost like a stream of consciousness; it’s look, make, learn and teach yourself.

This somehow also reminds me of the working method and creative process of composers such as John Cage, Morton Feldman and Terry Riley, being thusly process-based. And naturally, for many of us as cinéastes ourselves, I suppose, Kerr’s source materials are of great interest: Hollywood, industrial, leaders, test frames for colour and timing, even large format IMAX raw materials.

I’ve never looked for film. It just finds me and comes in waves. The first wave came when the NFB in Regina decided to get rid of their entire 16mm film collection and throw it out in a dumpster in the alleyway, so I was there and intercepted and carried it away in three pick up trucks, which included a complete set of Norman McLaren and Arthur Lipsett prints. More recently, at TIFF I met a projectionist and he knew about my weavings. We made an exchange and he gave me 800 Hollywood trailers from his personal collection, in exchange I made him a weaving, a good barter.

Wow, talk about a Cagean chance operation in action! And as to the question of whether Kerr’s source materials have become more and more rare as the digital domain colonizes our world, there might be an element of what for me feels something like an elegy to his methods and his works.

There is an exotic and mysterious nature to viewing analog film materials today. The “Motion Picture Weaving Project” resonates in this respect, as it preserves yet refines a sense of the archive. On the other hand, I’m a practitioner who works in the studio, with the most obvious of materials: recycled film, and a space where I can recuse myself from the institutionalism of the digital world—a space where I can run freely with the scissors.

Running freely: that is perhaps the essence of Kerr’s feverish grail quest, or even of his cooler alchemical experiments with montage, which is, at its core, playing with what is known in language as a syntagm, an orderly combination of interacting signifiers which forms a meaningful whole, sometimes called a chain of meaning. This is at the beating heart of Kerr’s marvelously compulsive enterprise: to plumb the depths of the mind under the influence of a drug called cinema, whether we call them movies or films: the addictive impact of its deeply felt communal experience in the darkness. The light-box filmstrip weaving works shared, almost curated, in his book Inventory, are celluloid dreams which often appear to also be visual haikus: they are not only paintings in/of film but also vitally fresh moments in the semantics and syntax of cinema as a new kind of visual speech. His woven celluloid works makes one thing abundantly clear: seeing is not always believing. Sometimes, seeing is simply seeing.

Richard Kerr’s poetic light-boxes of frozen music also rock, big time.

 Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the recent book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, as well as the biographies Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, 2018, and Tumult!: The Incredible Life and Music of Tina Turner2020, and a book on the life and art of the enigmatic Yoko Ono, Yoko Ono: An Artful Life, released in April 2022. His latest work in progress is a new book on family relative Charles Brackett's films made with his partner Billy Wilder, Double Solitaire: The Films of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.


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