Some years ago, I helped organized the NYU Cinema Studies student conference, an annual event that started as a practice-run for the much larger Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference. Under my guidance, we expanded it from a single-day conference of about a dozen speakers to one where we had about a dozen panels, with about forty presentations, over two days.
One of my goals was to include as many students as possible to present and to have the faculty also contribute. Not only did we manage to get every single faculty member to either moderate or participate on a panel, we also included undergraduate students and even some graduate students from other departments, specifically some art historians from NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts. The IFA panel was controversial because the audience thought the papers were really bad. Was it sour grapes because someone outside our field encroaching on our turf? Or was it because, as novice film scholars, they were unfamiliar with the fundamental scholarship in our field? Whatever the reason, I distinctly remember someone—I won’t say who—told me an unforgettable nugget after the IFA panel:
This is why we don’t let art historians do film.
On Friday night, I went with my friend, softball teammate and esteemed art historian Annie to a screening of Gil Wolman’s L’Anticoncept at Light Industry, one of my favorite microcinemas in New York. The screening was packed. Part of that was due to the rare opportunity to see this particular work and because the College Art Association conference held its annual meeting in New York this weekend, bringing all kinds of art historians into town. One of them was Kaira M. Cabañas, an expert on the Lettrist movement and the author of a new book that includes an extended passage on L’Anticoncept. I’m not an expert on Lettrism, but I do have a very rough idea about it: I wasn’t expecting a “night at the movies.”
L’Anticoncept consists of a circular white image, alternating (or flickering) between complete white and complete black, projected onto a two-meter–wide white balloon. The white image fits exactly on the balloon that hangs from the ceiling. The work is historically significant because it anticipates the flicker films of Paul Sharits, someone who used single film frames and persistence of vision to fuck with viewers, by almost twenty years.
Also, the form and rhythm of the narration is as much a part of the film as is the image. According to Light Industry’s screening notes:
L’anticoncept’s sound track begins with a voiceover that invokes the history of moving images. Part two presents TRITS, a Lettrist poem structured around a chorus and punctuated by the whistling, phonemes, and other sounds pronounced from four superimposed voices, seemingly all Wolman’s. In part three, the longest part of the sound track, Wolman reads a disjointed story that he authored. Here the voiceover’s incessant speech contributes in large measure to the experience of an aural assault. The sound track provides little respite (that is, few silences) from its verbal bursts and abrupt shifts in volume and pace. Finally, after a short “Post-scriptum,” the film ends with approximately three minutes and thirty seconds of superimposed mégapneumie, what Wolman elsewhere described as a poésie physique that is based on breath, rather than on the letter as with Isou, and that explored the use of “all human sounds.”
As interested and knowledgable I am about experimental film, Annie is writing her dissertation on screens. A moving-image work that uses a white balloon as a projection surface is right up her intellectual alley, but neither of us could figure out how to engage with this work. Maybe because we were sitting in the back of the room, and couldn’t hear Cabañas very well, we didn’t know why this work is important. Instead of explaining in accessible terms the meaning of the work, Cabañas read a passage from her book. As I’ve written before, one of my biggest peeves with academic presentations is hearing someone read their paper instead of, you know, watching someone present their work. There were some interesting bits of information from Cabañas’s introduction, like that the film was banned, but I would have like for her to “coach us” on how to watch this film.
Another issue was the French-language soundtrack. To their credit, Light Industry distributed printed English-language copies of the narration, but since the room was dark, we couldn’t read the text unless one of us illuminated it with a phone. Moreover, attempting to read the text made it impossible to watch the image and its flickering. I understand that form is crucial for experimental works like this one, but it would have been nice to engage with the content, too.
Thirty minutes into the ninety-minute screening, Annie and I couldn’t take it anymore. We stopped paying attention and started to observe the number of people sleeping, texting, and otherwise uncomfortably fidgeting in their seats. A few minutes later, I turned to her and suggested we leave. Right as I turned to Annie, who sitting to my right, a guy sitting to her right shushed us and firmly suggested, “I think you should leave.” I was offended for a split-second but then realized that if this guy is really into the screening, God bless him. We promptly and quietly headed for the door.
On our way out, we encountered another art historian who was also in town for CAA and also left the screening early. We spent the rest of the night swapping stories about art and academia over a few drinks. At first, I felt like a troglodyte for not only leaving a screening, which I never do, but also being asked by a patron to leave. However, when we confirmed each other’s reservations about the experience, I felt vindicated about what I learned many, many years ago from organizing the student conference.