Black Sun Cinema: White Noise

Triskel Arts Centre, Cork

Borrowing the title of Don DeLillo’s 1984 novel and curated by Florian Wüst, White Noise brought together ten experimental films drawn from Berlin’s celebrated Arsenal archive. Wüst, on residency from Germany at Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh, was invited by Max Le Cain, the organizer of Cork’s avant-garde film night Black Sun Cinema, to present a programme of films. Screened over two one-hour sessions, White Noise delivered some powerful shocks: to the image of the body in the first half, and to filmic representation more broadly in the second. Four films by the influential duo Birgit and Wilhelm Hein anchored the programme aesthetically and conceptually, and these were joined both by other seminal avant-garde films from the 1960s and early 1970s, and by three more recent contributions.
Wüst’s selection was both telling and intelligent, and he set out his agenda in the accompanying programme notes. For him, experimental, avant-garde and structural film constitute a radical challenge to the hegemony of a banalized and commercialized media at the service of corporate power and social control. Throughout the selection, violence was continually being done to the smooth, unified and straightforwardly intelligible surfaces of dominant cinematic modes. Instead, the interference and opacity of the physical, technological support of film asserted itself as inassimilable to the function of transmitting clear messages or providing a screen for the spectator’s identifications and escapist fantasies. While not all the films were equally persuasive, this was a rare chance to see them, especially as several were projected from 16mm film prints.
White Noise opened with Gunvor Nelson’s My Name is Oona, from 1969. The combination of a hypnotic soundtrack, in which the name ‘Oona’ was repeated to become pure rhythmic incantation, and a sequence of lyrical images of childhood and woodland, delivered a heady introduction to the programme. My Name is Oona carried over something of the romantic atmosphere of the San Francisco counter-culture, in its hallucinatory address to memory’s reconstructions of childhood, with all its mythic and oneiric resonance.
Nelson’s experimentalism and formal radicality retain a strong lyrical dimension, which was quickly dispersed by the assaults on cinematic conventions in the first of the Hein films which succeeded it. Rohfilm [Raw Film], 1968, is an exhilarating, even lacerating experience in which, for 22 minutes, the film stock is scratched, spliced, burnt and otherwise violated. It was a shame that, just a short way through, the 16mm projection was abandoned owing to difficulties with the sound, and a digital copy substituted instead. For experimental and structural film in particular, the change in basic structure in moving to a digital format does compromise the coherence of the work. Nevertheless, the furious procession of images and forms, described by Stephen Dwoskin as a ‘visual bombing’, accompanied by a frenetic soundtrack, was eloquent of the energy and outrage of those fighting the smooth, instrumentalized surfaces of a Germany in thrall to economic miracles and dream factories.
Following Wolf Vostell’s energizing early Fluxus film, Sun in Your Head, 1963, Sharon Lockhart’s disturbing Khalil, Shaun, A Woman under the Influence, 1994, analyzed the staging of bodily and psychic trauma. The first two sections of the film presented young boys apparently suffering from devastating skin diseases, although their condition was gradually revealed as the ingenious work of make-up artists; the third section re-enacts and conflates scenes from the eponymous John Cassavetes film, which dramatized the terrible mental disintegration of an American housewife. Affect and artifice collided in Lockhart’s film, and it served to frame the last work in the first half of Wüst’s programme, the Heins’ Charles Manson, the maniacal intensity of which was the brilliant result of the flicker, jerk and drift of a still image of Manson’s face filmed by the artists. Like Warhol, the Heins prove they have an eye for the killer image.

Wilhelm and Birgit Hein:Rohfilm, 1968 (still). Courtesy of Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art, Berlin.
Wilhelm and Birgit Hein:Rohfilm, 1968 (still). Courtesy of Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art, Berlin.

Part two began with the seminal 1973 critique of corporate media by Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman, Television Delivers People. To muzak accompaniment, text scrolls up the screen consisting of consciousness-raising, demystifying slogans about the evils of a commodified media. This work feels a bit dated, even if its fundamental messages are no less relevant or urgent. What particularly struck me was the way in which the artists comfortably decried what happens to ‘you’ owing to the impact of TV, without having themselves implicated: ‘What goes on over the news is what you know / It is the basis by which you make your judgements, by which you think.’ I’m not sure whether today’s artists would feel comfortable casting such verdicts upon their audience without including themselves in the list of those subjected in this way.

Television Delivers People provided a polemical frame for perhaps the most challenging film of the evening, the Heins’ 625, 1969, which consists of 34 minutes of static or ‘snow’ filmed from a TV set, together with sound derived from the pictured light levels, via a photoresistor. This sustained presentation of modulated sonic and visual interference certainly changes the structure of one’s attentiveness. Its sheer, opaque resistance to representation, and the apparent lack of action on screen, encouraged the viewer to register instead more unfamiliar kinds of sensory variation – a different visual and sonic incident. The senses felt keener afterwards, and I was imagining the value that an image would have had, had one been introduced, within what became a more (and not less) sensitive field of energetic potential. While 625 does not lend itself to the conveyance of explicit critical ‘messages’, as might be suggested by its juxtaposition with the Serra and Schoolman film, it was instructive to see different materialisms collide: that of a Marxist critique of the ideological power of the media, and that of a structural film confronting the basic physical properties of its medium. Indeed, the Heins’ enterprise might usefully be aligned with Serra’s own practice as a sculptor and draughtsman in their shared rawness of negotiation of perceptual and embodied experience.
In comparison to 625, Thorsten Fleisch’s Energie!, 2007, which also presents the precipitations of deranged televisual apparatuses, felt paradoxically contrived in its beauty and psychedelic appeal. Likewise, the stroboscopic montages and more straightforwardly thematic exploration of the subjective bases of vision in Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller’s Contre-Jour felt somehow too controlled and deliberate here. Perhaps this was a delayed effect of the brute negative capacities of the Hein films, however, which continued in their Weissfilm [White Film], 1977. This was an apposite work to finish with, given its reduction to a kind of absolute openness and negation. It signaled, as had Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings of 1951, an endgame in the drive to expose the specificity of the medium. As John Cage once said of Rauschenberg’s paintings, they constitute ‘airports for the lights, shadows and particles’, and the transparent leader of the Heins’ film continues to accrue dust and scratches each time it is exposed to the world, like a net of contingency.
Wüst offered us the rare chance to encounter such engaging and provocative films. While the early works, necessarily perhaps, cannot shock in the same way today as they did upon their initial reception, they remain potent and unexpected for other, perhaps more compelling reasons. Their mixture of weirdness and conviction still provides the potential for genuinely differential experience; and these enlivening opportunities are arguably less available today than they were in 1970, now that the effects of corporate media are even more pervasive, and the drive to instrumentalize experience even more relentless.
White Noise was screened on 22 September 2012. Black Sun was founded by Vicky Langan in 2009; its film programmes are curated by Max Le Cain.