Three transcribed interviews by…
John Du Cane and Simon Field (1970),
Dr. Gerald O’Grady (1976),
Linda Cathcart (1976).
Other interview scripts not included yet…
Interview with Paul Sharits, Jean-Claude Lebensztejn, 1983
Interview with Gary Garrels, October 1982
Interviewed by Hollis Frampton for SUNY at Buffalo Media Study Tape Archives (part of “Oral History of the New American Cinema” series at SUNY) Spring, 1973
Interview of Film artists Gunvor Nelson for SUNY at Buffalo Media Study Tape Archives (December 1973)
Interview of film artist Tony Conrad for SUNY at Buffalo Media Study Tape Archives (February 1974)
Interviewed on video tape by James Blue, Director of Media Center, Rice University (Summer 1974)
Interviewed on “Magazine of the Arts,” Channel One, West German television (Summer 1974)
Interviewed by P . Adams Sitney, “Art’s Forum,” Radio Station WNCN, New York (January 1975)
Interviewed as guest filmmaker in Ms . Annette Michaelson’s graduate seminar on economics of independent filmmaking, New’York University ” (May 14, 1975)
Interviewed on Renate Strauss’s “Art Beat,” Amherst Cablevision, Amherst, New York (April 1975)
Mental Funerals: an interview with Paul Sharits by John Du Cane and Simon Field (London, 1970)
John Du Cane: Could you talk about your beginnings in painting and how that led you to an interest in film?
Paul Sharits: Actually the work didn’t originate from painting, in fact before I was interested in art at all, I was making films strictly for the pleasure of making them. I destroyed all those early works. When I was in high school I was pretty anti-social and had not begun to think seriously or critically. I felt that society didn’t merit intellectual consideration and I was making films that were very much involved with my own adolescent sexual feelings. Like most of the early psychodramatic works of the 50s, they were about sexual neuroses. We made them in 8mm with my friend’s parent’s camera. When I began studying painting and sculpture I just kept making films, though I didn’t want to study film. It was at the end of abstract expressionism when it was a sin to do figurative work. I felt that this is the kind of work I’ll do in my films so I don’t have to be evaluated on it. This is strictly my own conception, my own development, and it really didn’t bother me that it was just a past time.
Eventually it become more engaging and I was very surprised that theories I had developed about a sort of ‘haiku’ narrative film structure were very similar, theoretically, to Eisenstein’s montage. At first I was quite depressed, because I thought I’d figured out this thing that I never saw in regular movies, and then I found it in Eisenstein.
In graduate school at Indiana University I was making films, but not studying them. I didn’t think there was any place where it would be valuable to study film. Henry Smith encouraged me in photography, and I quickly learned its technical aspects. He said why don’t you go ahead and make films and I’ll give you credits. He was always very helpful to me and allowed me to devote a lot of time to my work and even helped a little with financing. I found directing a bore as it was not the thing I wanted to do with film. I started fragmenting my narratives to such an extent that I felt that this was the subject matter. The way I was editing/thinking made the acting and drama increasingly extraneous. There was little sense of beginnings or ends, everything overlapped, and I suppose many of my ideas were informed by my studies in the visual arts. But all along I felt I wasn’t going to apply theories and ideas from painting to film. You can’t apply the principals of painting to a medium that’s not painting. I was very much against abstract film and I remain uninterested in the traditional abstract film.
John Du Cane: When you say abstract film, which filmmakers are you really talking about?
Paul Sharits: I’m thinking about the early avant-garde European movement, for instance, the films that were influenced by Constructivism. It’s not that I dislike them, I just don’t think they’re theoretically viable. Maya Deren also attempted to point this out. I think most people are somewhat aware of this. In any event my own work… I didn’t want the work I was doing in painting to directly inform my work in film. I was going to keep my film work off to the side so that it was completely free of any teaching. Well, I was getting ideas from all kinds of things, but they were my own synthesis, not pre-formulated conceptions of what film should be. I think it would be very bad for a serious filmmaker to go to a school and learn technique with the idea that after he learns the technique he will then have the tools to create intelligent, technically adequate forms. This seems silly to me; one doesn’t study sculpture by going through four years of woodworking. The attitudes those schools imbed subvert personal growth. Even if it’s not openly done, simply the training in what is right and wrong prevents one from seeing certain things through one’s own vision. Very few people survive this, even if their intentions are good. It’s like acquiring a lot of knowledge that you just have to suppress… I feel.
John Du Cane: How did you come to make Razor Blades?
Simon Fields: Making Razor Blades was presumably a distinct step from what you had been doing before.
Paul Sharits: No, first there was Ray Gun Virus, which I don’t believe has been shown here at all. That film, I think, is the most radical film, if not the most accomplished. It was a break for me because the only subject matter was the film grain and the structuring of colour in time. The soundtrack is the continuous sound of the actual sprockets of the film. This is where I became…
I suppose it is true that I made an abrupt cut, the look of the work radically changed. I was very apprehensive about this, but I felt like I was coming very close to having a breakdown, so I tried to see through my own preconceptions at that particular time and that led me to try to eliminate absolutely everything and start from the most basic elements. I think I overlooked many of the basic elements, and I did not have a very sophisticated conception of how to approach this, but I was very conscious that I was eliminating a great deal. At that time I wrote on the way Godard was using colour in some of his early work. This was the sort of thing I wanted to do using a very pure form. I was still thinking in dramatic terms, in the sense that I felt the basic system, the machinery, could be compelling drama. I feel that I ‘m going through another big transition at this point in that I realize more and more that that is a conception I must break through. I must allow myself to negate this desire to make anything with dramatic qualities. So that I will be able to perceive from a new base again. This is why I no longer did any mandala-structured works after T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G. T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G is the end of my involvement with worrying about, or thinking about, films that should have some appeal to the cruder emotions. I want a cinema that is more distant from the whole theatric tradition. Even though film has been stripped down to changes in colour, the impulse remains to make something dramatic, it’s still being influenced by theatre. I made Ray Gun Virus and then became interested in using things I’d discovered with colour and this brought about a synthesis with my interest in Tibetan mysticism and my own experiments with Yoga meditation and to some extent an interest in drug experiences to make a meditative kind of cinema. This is not the normative idea of something being dramatic, but I see it as drama now, I see it as a stage. T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G was a dramatic film. I could go on making more dramatic films, I’ve learned enough about how to structure it that way, but I simply don’t want to. I think that it’s a quality that has to be negated to get to other levels.
John Du Cane: You feel you were using dramatic imagery?
Paul Sharits: Besides the imagery, the rhythms are dramatic, though they might seem mathematical, even geometric. I know that I could evoke certain sorts of feelings without images, simply with the rhythm of the film. One could conceivably do a film that would leave people weeping via some variation on the black film form.
John Du Cane: It strikes me that something like T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, besides being meditative, is also an exorcism.
Paul Sharits: Yes, yes. At that time I believed that film could be a lovely, magical object, a charmed experience. This is very personal, but I don’t particularly wish to do that any longer. I may change my mind some day but now there’s a big break.
With Ray Gun Virus I had imagined a form that had no end or beginning. I was thinking of a very long film with reels that could be played in any order. It wouldn’t show progression or development. There would be no overall shape to the film. None at all. Any part would be as appropriate as any other part.
Of course that’s not the same kind of drama that is involved in the mandala films. My intentions… you see there are so many things operating… we are talking about the idea of the mandala and the irony of structuring a film like that, that tries to put a centre in the film, which at once cancels the possibility of that film doing what a mandala does. Formally, to have a complete mandala in film, is to negate the possibility of an extended, meditative experience. Defining the overall shape negates the possibility of a true meditational experience; it’s a fragment of the meditative experience.
John Du Cane: I think there seems to be a conflict in your desire to remove meaning from your films, at the same time that there is, let’s not say an obsession, but a great concern with death, which is probably one of the reasons why your films remain dramatic.
Paul Sharits: I don’t think many of us in Western culture are trained properly in seeing or responding to our eventual death. I’ve been struggling with this – to see life as a series of deaths and births. I think the body of work I’ve made struggles to present myself with certain questions on a formal level about death. I think it’s interesting that I’m doing it with a dying medium, as I think cinema is, in the form that we’re working in, technically obsolete, and will eventually be looked upon as quaint gizmos. But I love them, they have many interesting aspects that I’m just beginning to recognize. At first one thinks that a machine cannot be simply the delivery system for a process. The idea is that these machines have to serve us, they need to be used for something. To use them simply to amplify their own nature is not often thought interesting. Dadaists like Picabia made jokes about machines and the idea of machines. But I’m more interested in the Russian Constructivist reaction to the Industrial Age than the negative Dadaist reaction.
John Du Cane: I think one thing that you are obviously developing is a completely different sense of humour which ties in with your feeling for paradox. This humour might have been lacking a little in your earlier work, perhaps this absence didn’t allow you to have such a balanced understanding of the oppositions you were working with in your films.
Paul Sharits: I have so many different moods. Sometimes I think about my things in a very serious manner. At other times I think it’s so absurd I just laugh. Sometimes I laugh when I see T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G because I think it’s very funny. But other times I feel a great horror. Sometimes I feel completely detached and just observe it.
John Du Cane: Could you talk about the oppositions you worked with in those films, in terms of the sound, colour and rhythms?
Paul Sharits: The whole aesthetic was an attempt to synthesize opposites. Or not so much a synthesis but a plausible co-existence of opposites. No, not even opposites, but whatever lies beyond the opposites of irony, paradox and conflict. I just try to do whatever I feel is necessary.
John Du Cane: So the theory develops in the making?
Paul Sharits: Sometimes everything seems theoretically very clear and other times it seems hopelessly complex and confused. I don’t mind contradicting myself; I think I probably contradict myself quite frequently. This is directly relevant to the kind of things I’ve been working with in my film. My life is very confused; so part of my struggle with these films was to find ways that made these things coherent to me. Intercutting positive and negative footage is an obvious way of dealing with dualities, for instance, or having opposing vectors in the temporal shape of the film.
Simon Field: Was that the reason for using two screens in Razor Blades?
Paul Sharits: Yes, I wanted a dialogue that would begin in Razor Blades with a harmonious relation until gradually more non-relational syntax (and symbology) were introduced. It gradually introduces various levels of meaning in the structure and in the referential qualities, then returns to a more related dialogue. But the dialogue is altered because of the previous changes. I’m not sure whether people experience the film this way or not. My idea is that these images slash at each other.
Simon Field: And the same holds true for the stereo sound?
Paul Sharits: Yes, one track is exactly inverse to the other track.
John Du Cane: Could you talk about the importance of seeing movies as a procession of discrete events appearing 24 frames per second, comprised of single frames with pauses between each frame?
Paul Sharits: If you see a movie there is an illusion – it’s not an illusion, it’s a physiological event in your nervous system – that you’re seeing a continuous light. But in fact the light is not on screen all the time. The soundtrack is different, because the sound is not interrupted by a shutter. The sound is continuous. So the sound can act in a way that the image cannot; the image cannot be on the screen continually. But the sound can be continual and mark out segments of time very exactingly, by emphasizing each frame, for instance.
Simon Field: One film we haven’t talked about so far is Piece Mandala/End War.
Paul Sharits: Well, I said I would talk a little about the magical aspect. I’ve given the impression at times that meditation itself was a major formative and generating source for the mandala films, but another reason they have that form is the magical aspect. This is not magic as Crowley would define it, this is a more personal sense I have that we make things, and if they’re devoid of normal usage then it’s possible, if they’re structured in certain ways, to have other effects. They have other usages that I can’t define exactly, but would name “magic.” I don’t mean magic in the “magician” sense of conjuring up an illusion. I mean an object, or an experience, that is charmed. One traditionally charms objects by making them oneself, or at least acquiring the materials oneself. This is one prerequisite of magical objects. And although you may be using very classical principles, another thing that’s important is your intention, which is an invisible quality. You really have to believe, and belief can’t be measured except in the effectiveness of the experience.
I don’t mean for my films to be magical to strangers. In many ways, I direct them to people that are close to me. I understand that Harry Smith at one time did not care to show his films to the public because he felt they were magical and were addressed to people he knew. I don’t know if you can address this kind of magic to strangers. I don’t know if film can do those kind of things to people that you don’t know, care about or think of while you’re making the thing; because part of the ritual of construction is intention. Piece Mandala/End War has a great deal to do with the relationship with my wife at that particular time. We are separated now, but at that time we had been separated for a short while and we got back together. Then the form crystallized for me: how could I make a film that would have a magical effect in our relationship? The film is dedicated to her.
There’s an image in the film of me shooting myself, that is also un-happening. I don’t what suicide is like, but there are other forms of suicide that I’ve practiced in my life that allow a rebirth. They’re not pleasant, I think of them as a form of death. Giving up whole frames of reference. One evening in the country, in the company of several very close friends, my wife and I performed a ritual of throwing away the charmed objects of our marriage. This was an event that my wife programmed for me to understand her frame of reference, so we threw away our wedding rings. What we were trying to do was find new levels of coordinating our relationship and get more intense.
A film like T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G is trying to negate certain forms of negation in several people, including myself. This film is directed towards a couple of other people who, like myself, are self-destructive. I wanted to frame this for us to study and respond to. The dedication of the film has never been formally accepted, and I believe it has been informally rejected by my brother. I don’t know if he’s seen the film or not, that certainly isn’t the level on which the acceptance or rejection would occur. But it was a film for him and for the people in it. The main image shows David Franks, a very close friend of mine, who I think is a very fine young poet, and his – how shall I say it, we have to be careful about this on tape – his lady at the time. She appears in the film scratching his face. It was a very intense occasion when we filmed this. Of course she didn’t really scratch his face; we applied streaks of glitter to his face, but we had to do it in such an intense psychological manner that she fainted. I became very incensed and had to transcend my personal feelings to care for my friends and insist, absolutely insist, that she get back and hold this posture properly, and become almost trance-like while shooting. It was a very intense occasion, part of the process of charming and investing the object-film with these intentions and vibrations, and so forth. Although it’s been condemned at times as being a sadistic work, I feel that the film essentially has to do with healing. It’s anti-sadistic.
John Du Cane: Can you talk about the image of the operation and the people making love?
Paul Sharits: The image of sexual intercourse and the image of the eye operation do not have to be recognized as such. The only thing that’s necessary is that they’re briefly shown on the screen at certain moments to create an ideogram that tries to show an image of two creative forms of human contact. Both cases feature a probing or touching. In one case, a chrome instrument is put into the new lens of the eye. The sense of vision is constantly referred to, as well as the sense of creation. The poet and his tongue. The filmmaker and his eye. David’s eyes are closed until the end. When his eyes open, the screen collapses. The lust image frames the eye, or is in relation to the eyes and the mouth in such a way that it focuses on those areas, and in both of those shots the mouth is closed and the eyes are open.
John Du Cane: In Razor Blades there’s a similar kind of magic related to your mother’s death. In N:O:T:H:I:N:Gyou do this with death itself via the falling chair.
Paul Sharits: Yes, the chair falls on its own, there’s no cause. It’s like a purified form, an uncaused negation. That film does not have any references to any particular function that I might impose on it. Whether it operates that way or not I’m not sure. With N:O:T:H:I:N:G I felt different, there was a struggle that was going on within me.T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G is also directed at myself. I spent several terrifying years in Baltimore, there’s a great deal of crime and anxiety there. In New York City the energy is not as neurotic and purely anxious, it creates things. In Baltimore, at least in the world that I knew there, there was a non-generative anxiety. It did not generate any forms, except more anxiety, and I was reacting to these kinds of things.
Many images come in dreams; most of my films would be full of images if I would have made them upon first conception. What I’ve done is eliminate images. In N:O:T:H:I:N:G there is a process of three years of eliminating images conceptually before I began shooting the film. In the beginning, the film was densely populated with images. I edited and edited and got to a point where I felt I didn’t need to eliminate any further. As you suggest, inRazor Blades, the sort of joke poem about suicide for my mother, who committed suicide… yes, that’s like a mental funeral for me. My mother influenced me in many ways that I must still probe. I feel that she has spoken to me several times after death, and I’ve had the sense that she has asked me to give up this life. But I don’t want to talk too much about that.
John Du Cane: I see a connection between the falling chair and dying and the light bulb. The same sort of magic is involved.
Paul Sharits: Well, one of the aims of magic is to negate the concrete body state. As Crowley says, what you must do is convince yourself, finally, that you’ve become light. You’ve just become light instead of a being. And death, of course, is the most obvious form of negating the body, at least for the spirit or consciousness. The falling chair is a very evident image of death. My son Christopher was three years old at the time, and he regarded it as a dying chair. He asked me about that. But then to test where his level of symbolic understanding was, I wanted to see if he thought that objects had spirits in them. How could a chair die if it was not imbued with an anthropomorphic sense of being? I asked him why he wouldn’t give his pillow a drink of milk. He said because the pillow has no mouth, but what he meant was that the pillow didn’t have a spirit.
Paul Sharits interview with Gerald O’Grady (1976) (Online Video)
From the series “Film-Makers,” WNED, Buffalo.
Gerald O’Grady: The filmmaker is Paul Sharits, he was born in Denver. He was the founder of the film program at Antioch College, and he now teaches film at the Centre of Media Study at the State University at Buffalo. Wherever experimental work is shown around the world, whether it’s at Montreaux in Switzerland, or at Knokke-le-Zoute in Belgium or the Whitney Museum in New York his films are shown. His films are in the collections of most major museums around the world. In the fall of 1976 the Albright-Knox Gallery here in Buffalo is going to accord you a complete retrospective of your work and some of your drawings and compositional columns that we’re going to look at in the program. I think of all the contemporary filmmakers your work, your films, your movies, relate to other contemporary art movements.
Paul Sharits: Well I do feel very comfortable in the gallery/museum context. My background in college had been studies in visual design, painting, sculpture and art history, although I don’t like to think of my work as coming out of painting, for instance, although it has a certain relation to abstract painting. If I might characterize the work I suppose it has more to do with contemporary art I think well for many years it has been constantly searching for valid subjects, testing the boundaries of what it is supposed to represent since the invention of recording instruments like cameras, cinematography and so forth, those functions were abandoned in a way by painters and sculptors. But I find myself that there’s a crisis in the image, I cannot accept illusionism without criticizing it, somehow within. My subject has become actually more the physical qualities of film, the structuring process of making films.
Gerald: Ordinarily when we go to a movie, or a film we tend to look for a representational image of someone acting out something. There’s generally an actor involved. And yet your work people often say: what’s happening? Maybe we should look at one of your early works, N:O:T:H:I:N:G, and perhaps you can talk about what’s going on. What is the subject here?
(N:O:T:H:I:N:G excerpt shows on a screen behind the two speakers)
Paul: OK. Yes. My work is concerned with perceptual responses, so in a sense the subject becomes the viewer of the work. This is a film wherein the frames are differentiated by solid colour at a rate of speed that causes certain kinds of optical phenomena. The idea of the work is a little difficult to articulate…
Gerald: Because we’re just seeing a few minutes…
Paul: Yes, I should think that the idea of the film would be more available if we would see the entire film which is 36 minutes long but we can’t so what I’d like to concentrate on in this particular film there are a few images that set up a conceptual context for the work. The subject here is the film frame itself, there are 24 of them going by each second, the, their existence becomes the subject. And of course I’m using their rhythms and patterns that vary throughout the film, in fact, gradually change from a slower rhythm to an increased rhythm, a very definite point in the centre of the film is emphasized, and then the whole structure reverses itself. The theme, there are several themes in the film that also do this on different levels, some of them representational, the light bulb imagery. There’s an image of a chair falling over backwards, without any apparent reason.
Gerald: The subject is the frame itself, and elements such as colour, flicker and rhythm, in other words the subject of the film are the material qualities of the basic elements of celluloid and emulsion itself.
Paul: Yes, there are so many, in my way of thinking, there are so many subjects that it’s rather hard in a condensed way to enumerate them all. But those are basic to that kind of work. There’s, I think, perhaps we can make some of these ideas more clear if we present some slides. This is a series of strips from the film, arranged in a manner that allows us to see what was generating some of those optical effects and rhythms. This sketch here on the left, we see a little sketch of a Tibetan mandala, it’s a symmetrical meditational device, I tried to, on the right, find a way to, of mapping that kind of… the mandala is a single image, a symmetrical image. I tried to find a way of modeling that into a time dimension.
Gerald: Which is at the top.
Paul: Yes. Here’s another way of viewing it, from the left to the right, you can see there is a definite centre to the film, and a progression of colour that inverts, it goes to the centre and then inverts. That’s an overall picture of the whole form of the film. The shape of the film becomes a subject, in a sense. These are some sketches to show a little bit about how I was diagramming some of the various movements, and rhythms and colour developments in the film. This shows general overall patterns of movement and frequencies of fade ins, fade outs, different kinds of colour formations. This is another way… I would actually visualize, as if it were a film strip, the relative distribution of colours and so forth. This is a few seconds, about 20 seconds actually, drawn in a way that would look something like a filmstrip that would result in following this kind of score, if we could call it that. In later work, scoring films that are actually shot on an animation stand, I can make a score and someone else can actually shoot the film knowing how to read the score, as if you would read a book. So that you’re reading from the top left horizontally to the right and then down. Now if that were to generate a film and I were to take the strips of that film and hang them, this is reading horizontally, if I hang the resulting film vertically, I can see here that it will form certain kinds of patterns, that are obviously related to the way that paintings are…
Gerald: This drawing is done with coloured pencils on graph paper.
Paul: This is a study for what that score would look like if it were what I call a frozen film frame. This is a series of strips from another film that’s related to the film N:O:T:H:I:N:G. This is the first colour film I worked on with this idea of the film frame. This is another little section of it. You can see some of the spatial forms that these temporal directions…
Gerald: What you’ve done there is to take the film…
Paul: These are actual film strips.
Gerald: … that goes through the projector as one strip, and then you’ve cut it into strips and put them into a grid side by side.
Paul: In a serial arrangement. This might make it a little bit more clear. This is the entire film, Ray Gun Virus, 14 minutes long, put into a serial arrangement of strips. It’s sandwiched between plexiglass. This is another film that’s symmetrically made, you can see in the centre there that there’s a different sort of emphasis than out on the edges.
Gerald: This is a black and white photo of an installation.
Paul: Yes. These are pieces that have been exhibited in galleries and museums I continue to work on. In other words, when I’m planning a film I’m planning it for a temporal projection, of 12 minutes in the case of this filmT,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, and in the spatial format of the frozen film frame, the film sandwiched between plexiglass…
Gerald: It’s interesting because in some of the sketches you’re actually using the five line structure of music. You’re actually using musical composition musics, and in others you’re using graph paper, thinking of it spatially and in the same time in a temporal way.
Paul: Yes, I think that my background as a child playing classical music certainly informs the structuring of the work. It’s not based on mathematics, it often has that look but it’s a system that I’ve developed myself. From the frame to the frozen film frame pieces with the strips I had become more interested in literalizing the actual film strip. And I’d like to show a film now Inferential Current which is a nine minute long film, the subject is a film strip, two film strips superimposed.
Gerald: How was this made?
Inferential Current excerpt plays
Gerald: What is the sound structure on that film?
Paul: We’re hearing the latter part of the film, it’s in three parts. It’s the word miscellaneous which has been taken apart into parts: misc, sel, lane, eous, and compounded in various ways. We’re hearing the last two fragments.: lane, eous, overlapped, phasing in and out of relationship, somewhat in the way that the two superimposed filmstrips are moving at different rates. I’m interested in trying to handle the sound structurally in the same, or in a related manner to the visual aspect of the film. Rather than the sound being an over-narration, as in a travelogue, or synchronous.
Gerald: Was that shown on multiple screens?
Paul: That is a work that is related to another film called Soundstrip/Filmstrip, and perhaps we can take a look at some slides. This work is an installation in a museum and it’s a four-screen piece. These are four projectors in the middle of the room, the image takes up the entire wall, eight feet high, thirty feet wide. The four images are turned sideways. The image is like the one in Inferential Current. It’s of a filmstrip, and here as they’re lined one after the other, at times they look as if they’re one long filmstrip. The arrangement is a sort of metaphor of a filmstrip and the subject itself is a filmstrip with scratches, illusional scratches and sprocket holes… I was interested in here is the physical linearity of the film as a contrast to the flickering pulse of the frame oriented work, the earlier work,.
Gerald: You can see that these are the four screens as they’re actually being projected on the wall.
Paul: Yes this is, the scale of this is thirty feet wide and eight feet high, and we’re getting cut off on either end. The image there is images of film that were rephotographed on a system that I’ve built specifically for this purpose that will see the entire strip of film. In recent years this preoccupation with the strip of film as a linear, modulating flowing element has been interfaced with the earlier concern with the abrupt change from frame to frame into work which is a rephotographing of film frames which, if they were normally projected, would have a flickering effect. So I’ve kind of compounded I believe both systems. The fourth section of the twenty minute long film I’d like to show now, Color Sound Frames>, the sound actually is the sprocket holes which are in synch with the image,. Perhaps we can have that before we discuss it any further.
Color Sound Frames excerpt plays
Gerald: When you’re conceiving of a film, in your mind, when you’re thinking of the film going through a projector and being projected on a screen, as we see ordinary films, at the same time you’re thinking of it as a frozen frame that you can cut up and sometimes show in space, but within plexiglass, and at the same time you are, in a way, thinking of it almost in terms of performance, in what you call “locational”pieces. I know you’ve talked about Frank Lloyd Wright and a democratic space where people can enter in. So you’re actually thinking of it in at least three ways,.
Paul: Yes, I continue to make films for regular theatrical presentation. Films with beginnings and ends. On the other hand, I see that that space is a bit authoritarian in that ever yone is directed towards a particular image at a particular time. The locational work, the works I do in the gallery and in the museum context, don’t really have a duration, and they don’t really place the viewer of the work. The viewer places himself in relationship to the work and comes and goes at will.
Gerald: We even have a set of slides that will probably show some of the generation of the…
Paul: Yes, in this slide we’ll see how this last film that we’ve seen, Color Sound Frames, is related to a gallery piece which we’ll come to in a moment here. This here is some scores that are oscillating lines that intersect and create flicker footage. There are ten drawings here that create a five minute long film. This is just three of the drawings. So it goes from this drawing stage, and then we have the five minute long film we’re seeing here in a frozen film frame of it, it’s matted a little bit by the TV format, and I made a film of this and that would be Color Sound Frames. I also made another film that is an installation piece that was first done in the Bykert Gallery in New York and then it was shown in another show Projected Light work at the Walker Art Centre last year. This again is a format of putting the work into a particular space, the film is on loop projectors and it doesn’t have any specific duration. These go in and out of sync, these images, the film, filmstrips, so that there is no concept here of beginning or end, there is just duration. It’s a spatial experience, and you look at yourself within it.
Gerald: You can actually look at it for a month without repeating.
Paul: Yes, the amount of information. However on the other hand I would like to make them so that in the immediate moment of seeing them, there is an all at once quality to them that is much like the presence one might sense in a painting or a piece of sculptural wholeness to it. This shows some of the variations. This is a sketch to show the variations in the kinds of movements that can occur in this three-screen format that is similar to Color Sound Frames film. This film is actually called Synchronous Sound Tracks. This is a work I’ve been working on now that’s silent, Oscillation, working with the principle of oscillation, a four screen work in an environment, a locational piece.
Now there’s another kind of thing that I’d like to talk about a little, to work with the idea of developing the stages of a work as being the subject of the work. These are some scores, four scores, let me just go through them, that even, with some of the distortion, that perhaps we’ll have with the video we can see that there’s a relationship between these drawings in that they all have colour that’s somewhat related. This generated four different films that were five minutes long, and I project them in variations of overlapping screens. Now these are flicker works, going back to the earlier like N,O,T,H,I,N,G. But for the first time I developed them for a locational situation.
Gerald: This is the piece you did in Artpark this summer?
Paul: Yes. This was continuously projected for a couple of weeks. Now I changed the relationship of the projectors so the screen overlap would be different. I found that the best format was finally this last one, right here.
Gerald: So as you were watching your own work at Artpark, you began to create a new set of sketches for another work, based on that almost.
Paul: Yes. First they started out as theoretic sketches. Let’s have a look at a couple of those. This is one is to explain the… one of the basic ideas there is that the shutter blade in an out-of-phase, in-phase, relationship.
Gerald: The shutter blades of a projector.
Paul: Yes. The film is kind of about the shutter blades of a projector abstracted into a whole idea involving colour, movement, and rhythm and so on. This is another drawing. A rather schematic and didactic. I’d just like to show, rather quickly, a series of drawings that are not particularly didactic but rather a metaphor for the kinds of, what I thought would be the very creational possibilities of this approach. So we just go through this sequence of slides now.
Slide sequence plays.
Paul: This is from a series of about 50 drawings and I found it very interesting that in this case I was able to use the final film as a resource or subject for a series of drawings which I believe will perhaps inform me of some other direction to go in developing a film concept again. So the process of thinking about the work is not just from the beginning sketches to the film, it has now extended beyond the film back into the sketches and perhaps from those sketches then onto another film.
Gerald: In some ways, getting back to the question I raised earlier in the program, about what’s happening, what’s on the screen. In some ways what’s on the screen, now, and more and more, in this fashion, seems to me the process of thought itself.
Paul: Yes, that’s the way I think of the work and that’s why I like it to be broken down into different stages so that the different part of the processes can reflect off of each other and crate sort of paradigmatic structure of how an idea can be seen and felt and responded to at different levels.
Gerald: The works show this, you show us a sketch, compositionally you project it, you show it in what we call locational arrangements, people can follow that trajectory, this interaction with yourself, your own perceptions and of course their perceptions,.
Paul: Yes, ideally all the work would be seen in a relatively proximate space as you see the film piece in one room you’d see these sketches, diagrams in another space and some of the frozen film frames also. So that would set up a kind of conceptual space, rather than one thing being hierarchically superior to another, it’s more of a reflective process. My hope is that even in limiting myself to the kind of subject that I have decided is valid film subject matter, I have a richness to work with.
Gerald: I think we’re out of time. Thanks very much for coming.
Paul: Thank you.
Host: Gerald O’Grady
Producer/Director: Dan Healy
Film-Makers is produced in co-operation with Media Study, Buffalo and is a video tape production of WNED Buffalo.
An Interview with Paul Sharits by Linda Cathcart (1976)
(Paul Sharits: Dream Displacement and Other Projects, exhibition catalogue, Albright-Knox Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 1976)
Linda Cathcart: Where does the title Dream Displacement come from?
Paul Sharits: From Freud’s discussions of dreams. I fall into reading various things at various times. Then they move into the work or the work moves through them. It’s often blurred as to which came first. For a while I was very interested in structuralist and phenomenological writings and linguistics, but more recently I’m rereading Freud. It seems that (the film installation) Dream Displacement is acting as a way of getting at some sort of forgotten dream image. I feel like I’ve displaced some significant data and I’m trying to locate it or at least recapture the mood through a particular combination of sound and image.
Linda: Can you talk more specifically about those emotions or experiences you are after in Dream Displacement?
Paul: I can’t really say. I know it is composed of a couple of different emotions superimposed, and the sense of it, which I’m trying to get at, is one whole feeling but the only way I can express it is to pull it apart – a bit like classical montage – so that the collision of the sound and the image starts to suggest something whole. However, it is not going to ever be the emotion – it’s not going to ever have that kind of actual and total wholeness.
One thing that is happening in Dream Displacement is a conflict between sound and image. They seem on the surface to be somewhat disrelated. It’s almost as though the film frames within each screen image are going against each other which is more coherent than the sound which is that of glasses breaking and yet that image is more distant than the sound of glass breaking.
Linda: This work, which consists of four loop projectors and a quadraphonic sound system, is enclosed in a single room – the four loops are projected as a single image. Does this filmic expression relate to Freud’s discussions of the compaction of experience in our dreams?
Paul: Yes, I want to create intensified places. In a single-screen film you can only build up to a point or develop themes or crisscross them and so forth whereas I’d like the space itself to have a feeling of being ritualized. If you go into a movie theatre everything else is gone – you just move off into that other space – you go right out the window. I want to keep within that real space. I want the space to be a place – a whole place.
Linda: Is that desire for wholeness at odds with the notion of displacement? For example, there is a lack of visual sources for the sounds in Dream Displacement.
Paul: In traditional film there is always the image as a visual source for the sound. In these “locational” works (Dream Displacement and Shutter Interface) it seems almost by accident that the sounds and images happen to be in the same space. I have the feeling that the relationships they have is part of a distant feeling or memory. The general psychiatric definition of displacement is the transference of an emotion to a socially inappropriate object. I do that quite a lot. I take an emotion and try to transpose it onto a set of illogical objects or experiences. Behind them is some emotion or some cross of an emotion and an image. I have to take hints or work intuitively because how could I approach that layer of my feeling or memory by doing something logical? If I do something logical it’s never going to lead me there.
Linda: There is in Dream Displacement and Shutter Interface (as with your other locational or multi-screen pieces) an assertion of the physicality not only of your medium but of the images and sounds you use, as well.
Paul: I want the films to have a physical presence and there is also a kind of physical adjustment I want to get between the sound and the image. It’s not any rational measure or anything – I’ve just got to figure out how to get it to be the right balance so that one is constantly threatening the other. One element threatens with violence, the other with beauty.
Linda: In Dream Displacement the sound works to emphasize the circularity of the film which is on loops. Having a speaker in each corner allows the sound to go around the room. Also the noise itself has a circular quality. Throwing the glasses by hand is almost a circular gesture one can hear – lifting, dropping, lifting, dropping.
Paul: I wanted a certain kind of rhythm. It was interesting shooting the tests for the film. I kept finding it was too fast; I had to keep slowing it down. The sound has to be slow too – the rhythm couldn’t be staccato, it would destroy the whole mood I want to set up. I used a quadraphonic sound system so the spatial locations of the crashes shift from one speaker to the next without any apparent pattern.
Linda: It occurs to me that as one approaches the projection location, one is able to hear the sound before one can see the images.
Paul: I never really thought of it that way – I like it though – it stresses the importance of the sound. Rather than it being a backdrop or a postscript, the sound becomes the first holistic image of the piece. I want people to have to walk into the space and past the projectors (which are free-standing and exposed to view) to get to the visual image – by the time they do that the sound is going to be all-pervasive.
Linda: The sound/image relationship seems to be quite a bit different in Shutter Interface – do you agree?
Paul: I certainly do agree. For Shutter Interface I wanted a sound rhythm and a visual rhythm that would have something to do with high-amplitude alpha waves. I think that’s why it’s such a pleasant film. I did some biofeedback to listen to the sound of my alpha rhythm and I tried to approximate it in the piece. I wanted that sound to fit with the flicker and it does exactly. Every series of frames of colour – which are each from two to eight frames long – is separated by one black frame and the sound is in direct correspondence to those black frames. The black frames are like little punctuation points.
Linda: Shutter Interface seems to very straight forward because the sound/image relationships are less complex and subtle than those in Dream Displacement, which seems closer in feeling to perhaps, S: TREAM : S : S ECTION : S ECTION : S : S :S ECTIONED, where your realization of the levels of meaning involved is slower. Do you feel there are those differences?
Paul: Yes, I think that’s true. I kind of drift back and forth between wanting to express what I know about my medium in a kind of grand form and, on the other hand, wanting to create a problem for myself which throws me into another mood. My work has been back and forth between these two polarities through the years: on the one hand I attempt to be declarative and, on the other hand, I’m generating questions which have no apparent ready-made answers. The films sometimes seem rather “pure’ and sometimes they appear somewhat violent, psychologically and even physically; often these aspects get mixed up as in T,O,U,C,H.I,N,G where they kind of mesh. Also, I’ve always been interested in the differences between sound and visual image – I’ve usually rejected associative relations between sight and sound – for instance where sounds create images or where an image is obviously the source of its sound. That bores me.
Now the sound in Shutter Interface does have a very direct relationship to the visual aspect. The sound is only where there are black frames. There is this constant field of colour punctuated by these black frames that you can’t really see – this is where I chose to put the sound and that creates a firm relationship. You can’t directly observe this relationship but you feel it. It is so smooth an experience you don’t ask why it works. You don’t question it. But, if I’d chosen yellow frames and associated sound with them, the whole thing would have been too obvious. I think there is a little bit of a mystery as to why the piece works as it does.
Linda: is what we’ve been referring to as relationships (between colours and sounds) really some sort of perceptual dialogue?
Paul: I would say, in general, that a lot of the work deals with perceptual thresholds. It brings us to the limits of our perceptual abilities so that often one cannot tell whether or not what one is experiencing is in the work or in oneself. So I think there is a kind of a dialogue between the viewer and the work in the sense that there’s a perception that’s a kind of outcome of both of them interacting. A great deal of perceptual confusions and actual misperceptions can occur at such levels.
Linda: Maybe dialogue is the wrong word, maybe orchestrated is a better word.
Paul: Well, yes. Shutter Interface is a kind of a quartet. Physically the way the screen s overlap creates three overlapped areas that are actually physically involved in a pulsating dialectic. The four screen images are fluctuating, sometimes they’re acting in unison, sometimes they’re having a kind of argument – going off in different directions. So there’s a kind of flux or drifting between continuity and various kinds of discontinuity. The whole idea of dialogue or, more generally speaking, dialectic, is operating.
Linda: Many of the things you do seem to test the qualities of time. These new installation pieces are a little bit reminiscent of your earlier flicker films where time is not of interest because they are continuous projections. The new works, because of their circularity, allow you to feel you can come into the projection space and stay there however long you want. You don’t feel like you may have missed something by coming in in the middle. There seems to be a way of getting into the experience sideways and not having to worry about beginning, middle and ending.
Paul: I agree. There is a quality that is very typical of dramatic narrative film: it’s a kind of temporal anxiety. You just want to sit through Gone with the Wind again and again and again. I’ve had that feeling many times watching a film I particularly enjoyed – a dramatic narrative film – that I didn’t want it to end. I wish it would stay at a particular moment and just do variations of itself.
Linda: So that’s what your films do!
Paul: Yeah. I prefer to have this sort of operatic situation where the scale and the volume of the space you’re in becomes significant. It’s more non-linear, non-temporal – not without time but not dependent on the flow of time.
Linda: Have you been influenced by mathematical or frequency theories of time?
Paul: I’ve been very concerned with relativistic ideas about time. Some of my work seems to be metric, repetitive, and even, but actually there’s a lot of internal variation which is testing one’s ability to realize that there is variation. Making these films I use a polytemporal scale so the time measure is always shifting slightly. It’s like stretching part of a tape measure and contracting another part of it a little bit.
Linda: These temporal shifts are heightened by your use of unexpected elements. In N:O:T:H:I:N:G there is the sudden appearance of a light bulb.
Paul: That film also has unexpected sounds – like milk pouring into a glass and cows mooing at the end. There are a series of relationships but they are not linear. In N:O:T:H:I:N:G I was particularly interested in having the light bulbs occur between long colour flicker intervals. The images of the bulb are all metrically spaced but the colour intervals between them are so long that I don’t believe anyone could have the feeling that in the next two seconds they’re going to see an image again; they come as a surprise almost. You get to the point where you almost forget the whole development which is going on and then there is an image which reminds you again of the chain of logic (or illogic) which is very gradually being enunciated at the level of referentiality. They are markers – real metric markers – markers of time. But they are markers which you are experientially unable to relate to rhythmically.
Linda: Is that kind of abstract linearity (in Shutter Interface and Dream Displacement) somehow connected with horizontality for you?
Paul: I seem to be drawn to a horizontal way of doing things… It always seems painting that are mythic are horizontal. Very horizontal paintings seem to take a series of time layers and symbolically hold them all together on the same level. Verticality, to me, has an entirely different feeling, one which borders on being non-corporeally representational.
Linda: Maybe it’s that surface you relate to rather than the shape?
Paul: Maybe. My recent work, Epileptic Seizure Comparison, moves towards being vertical, since one of the two image projections is above the other. The usual 16mm format is a 3’ by 4’ horizontal rectangle but when one screen image is projected above another – “stacked” as it were – the screen area becomes a 6’ by 4’ vertical rectangle. But even in this work, I use mirrored walls so the film flashes out laterally (along the sides of the reflective-metallic enclosure). I wanted the sides to function so you couldn’t quite see the films’ images reflected on them but you’d still be aware of the surface. Most of my films set up an experiential field wherein the film is not constantly imposing itself on you yet has enough consistency that you can “move through” yourself rather than just follow the development of the film. All the films have a little bit to do with meditation. These locational works becomes the ultimate field for that kind of contemplative reflection. It becomes like watching fireflies or water flowing over a dam – something that’s moving. A fire or a candle flame – it’s shifting – but it doesn’t change its form dramatically.