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Making The Soul Visible

William Moritz

Oskar Fischinger, with his brilliant film Motion Painting No. 1, inspired a whole generation of young artists (including James Whitney, Jordan Belson, and Harry Smith) to create visual music films with a spiritual or mystical dimension. But during the 1950s and 1960s Fischinger had no luck with grants or commissions or any other monetary source to enable him to make more films. So he began to work on creating a "color organ," the Lumigraph: an instrument about six-feet square with a flexible screen in the middle and colored light sources hidden in the frame. The colors could be changed manually with an annotated cord that indicated which position would produce all blue or all red, etc., or changed at random by a foot pedal. The screen was an inch behind the thin slit that let out the colored light, so the player could cause a visible light of a chosen color to appear on the screen by pressing the flexible screen forward into the narrow light zone. In addition to shapes modeled by the hand, one could use a dish or a box or a vase to make a geometric circle, square, or other controlled shapes. Chosen music would be played on a phonograph or live musical accompaniment. The Fischinger family played the instrument often, and Oskar played it a number of times in galleries at openings of shows of his paintings, and once on television. The film of a performance by Elfriede Fischinger, using Oskar's drawn synthetic sounds as the musical accompaniment, gives a suggestion of how such a color-organ performance would look, although the demands of the camera for stronger light phenomena caused the performance to be filmed at a slow speed, so the movement appears faster than it would have been live. Two Lumigraphs survive today, one at The Fischinger Archive in California, and one at The Deutsche Filmmuseum in Frankfurt.

The spiritual element in visual music survives in the masterpieces of the late 1950s, 60s and 70s. James Whitney's hand-made Haut Voltage (High Voltage) - the title from the accompanying electronic music by French composer Pierre Henri - dazzles with richly-textured solarized dot patterns, step-printed and combined in a flurry oforganic textures flickering in daring opposition of orientation. By contrast Lapis, for which James prepared hand-drawn artwork, was created on the Whitney brothers' analog computer-controlled cam machine system (a version of John's motion cam system) that allowed multiple exposures of the artwork into more complex configurations, conjuring up a serene mandala (perhaps the "philosopher's stone" of the title).
LAPIS was as close as I could come at the time of conceiving a totally balanced opposition of stasis and flow, holding the paradox symbolically through wave and particle, pointing to a still center of emptiness. Both in stasis and time, LAPIS conforms to the circular form of the mandala. Only at the end is there an off center parting of two central black-eyed forms, which allow an emptiness to pass through and return to the beginning image. - James Whitney, in Towards Being Choicelessly Aware, Conversations with James Whitney by T. Teramaye, unpublished typescript, 1974-
Jordan Belson continued his explorations of cosmic phenomena with Cycles, for which he collaborated with Stephen Beck. Beck describes Cycles as "a cinematic collaboration by Jordan Belson and Stephen Beck combining video synthesis with traditional chemical film processes. Sound score composed, collaged and performed by Stephen Beck. Cycles is a theme and variation on the myriad symbolism of kyklos, the Greek word for circle. Twelve thematic elements with twelve variations thereof depicting the flow of time as Yugas from past to present to future."

Beck describes his own film Union as an electronic videofilm, for which he composed and performed the music. He wrote, "Union is a visual language allegory reflecting on the processes of unification at material, psychological and spiritual levels. Union is one possible translation of the word yoga. Union portrays a journey of the self-seeking reunion with itself, and at times attempts depictions of certain invisible energy circuits within the human body, mind and spirit, such as kundalini, ida, pingala, and susumna. The imagery of Union was produced with the electronic Beck Direct Video Synthesizer as well as with traditional chemical film and editing methods." The film is "Dedicated to Jordan Belson, a master filmmaker and friend."

In the later 1960s and 1970s a new mysticism of sorts emerged: the psychedelic - which in Greek means 'letting the Soul be visible'. New technologies, or clever unusual use of the old technologies, began to create magical images that captured some of the feeling of trance and dreams where everything is possible. Pat O'Neill began his 7362 as a documentary about oil wells, but then extraordinary images began to occur when a contact printer reversed and mirrored the images and the particular film stock 7362 reacted to developing fluids by altering the color and texture of the images.
This Film started out to be about the motion and sound of the oil derricks that once lined the beach in Venice, California. The derricks, which had been built during the oil boom of the 1920's, were made of wood and rusted iron, and were largely open and unattended. I was attracted to these towers by their moaning sounds, their heady aromas, and the consolation of the endless rising and falling of the pump heads. Somehow it seemed like prayer. The film came to contain a human body, and then moving objects which I filmed in my studio: rotating and oscillating shapes whose outlines would merge with one another. But in a way the piece was really about re-photography - about making something out of ordinary parts using mechanical technology to reveal a glimpse of something uncanny. Thirty-some years later, it seems to be about orgasms. Joseph Byrd, later of the United States of America (a band) made sounds on the fly from a primitive synthesizer. Burton Gershfield stopped by with a gallon each of yellow, cyan, and magenta developers from Technicolor, which were used to develop black and white, emulsion 7362. - Pat O'Neill, 2002
Similarly Frank Olvey and Robert Brown submitted their footage of horses to optical printing which created after-images, multiplications of hoofs and gestures of the horses' heads and manes. The pastel colors and echoing of Beethoven's Tempest sonata support the lyrical magic of the scene. Ed Emshwiller's Sunstone consists of a single computer-generated image of a smiling face, which, although static, continually changes colors. OFFON was made by Scott Bartlett and collaborators Tom DeWitt, Michael MacNamee and Manny Meyer. DeWitt wrote,
"It is a manifestation of inner nature: a consciousness which we cannot present in words or actions yet is always with us at the core of our thought. This reality is the true-untrue: real-unreal: never-for-ever; flip-flop; yin-yang; off-on duality that divides all perception and thought into its inverse possibilities."
By contrast Jules Engel created Rumble as an extension of his graphic artworks. The hard-edged black-and-white shapes move with a fierce energy suggested by the "rumble" gang wars of West Side Story.
With Rumble I started with a specific image, as well as with an idea of what the whole picture would look like. I knew I would create a black-and-white piece, using hard-edged, geometrical shapes. I started with the first image and moved from there. I knew that as I moved with that one image, chances were that it would recommend another one to me; and then another; and then another... until there was a continuity of movement... each drawing, then, suggesting the next. I never storyboard anything on my abstract films. I simply start with what the idea will graphically look like, and then I let it develop as I move through the drawings. Then it's a question of timing - which will eventually make the film anyway: a sense of timing.- Jules Engel
John Whitney, Sr. wrote about Permutations:
The black field, always present in this computer graphics film, may function as a measureless void, a bare setting for conceptual space-time events. All the points of light, sometimes over a thousand points in various colors, are moving in this field at different rates and in independent directions. And yet every point has its particular explicit path and functions meaningfully toward generating, collectively, dynamic patterns which are part of an interrelated whole... The entire film was constructed from a rather surprisingly limited set of simple computer-generated visual action elements, all derived from one basic geometric equation. It was a happy discovery to find the flexibility with which these elements could be combined. It would not do to liken these elements to building blocks. Although the similarity is tenuous, serial music structures or even a form of primitive grammar is a better analogy. - John Whitney, Sr., in A Humanist Counterforce: Computer Motion Graphics in Art in Music, presentation, n.d.
John Stehura also worked with pioneer computer systems in the 1960s - systems at his colleges which were much simpler than John Whitney's. He mixed his graphics with some imaginative film sequences and an excellent musical score to create a fine film. Stehura's film footage was also used by the Single Wing Turquoise Bird Light Show, a large-scale performance on which a dozen artists might collaborate simultaneously, using film projections, slide projections, color wheels, liquid projections, calibrated-speed flicker mechanisms, etc. to modulate dazzling breath-taking visuals parallel to a variety of music and sound phenomena.
Unlike other light artists, The Single Wing Turquoise Bird has no definite program; each presentation evolves from the interacting egos of the group working in harmony. What we see cannot be called a work of art as traditionally conceived: a unique, perishable, non-replaceable entity reflecting the talents of an individual. They don't produce an object in the sense that a movie is an object; they produce software, not hardware. We witness an expression of group consciousness at any given moment. The range of their vocabulary is limitless because it's not confined to one point in time, one idea, one emotion. Depending on the variety of basic materials (they use everything from liquids to video projection to laser interferometry) they can continue into infinity, never repeating a single "word," always evolving visual-kinetic equivalents of the psychic-social climate of the moment. Their work strikes one precisely as a synaesthetic movie, yet a movie in which each image emanates from its own projector, its own human sensitivity. - Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema, 1970

Members of the group throughout its history were Peter Mays, Jon Greene, Michael Scroggins and Jeff Perkins. Members participating in various stages included Larry Janss, Rol Murrow, David Lebrun, Charles Lippincott, Sam Francis, and Bobby Maestri.

For more information please visit:
Stephen Beck:
Pat O'Neill:
John Stehura:
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