Lapis by James Whitney

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Lapis (1966).

Proof of the conservative nature of cinema as an artistic medium can be found in the way its abstract practitioners don’t merit anything like the attention received by Piet Mondrian or Jackson Pollock. In cinema narrative is all, and it’s ironic that when artists such as Julian Schnabel or Robert Longo turn to film they end up telling stories.

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James Whitney’s Lapis (1966) is a classic work in this field, a 10-minute animation that took three years to create using primitive computer equipment:

In this piece smaller circles oscillate in and out in an array of colors resembling a kaleidoscope while being accompanied with Indian sitar music. The patterns become hypnotic and trance inducing. This work clearly correlates the auditory and the visual and is a wonderful example of the concept of synaesthesia.

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James and his brother John were pioneers of the use of computers in animation. Looking around for stills from Lapis turned up this fascinating page of early computer graphics:

In the early 1960s digital computers became available to artists for the first time (although they cost from $100,000 to several millions, required air conditioning, and therefore located in separate computer rooms, uninhabitable ‘studios’; programs and data had to be prepared with the keypunch, punch cards then fed into the computer; systems were not interactive and could produce only still images). The output medium was usually a pen plotter, microfilm plotter (hybrid bwn vector CRT and a raster image device), line printer or an alphanumeric printout, which was then manually transferred into a visual medium.

It’s difficult to see these films outside a special screening at a gallery or arts cinema. The Keith Griffiths documentary Abstract Cinema is an excellent introduction, including both Lapis and James Whitney’s Yantra among many other short works. However, this isn’t available to buy so viewing it means scouring TV schedules or waiting for some of these neglected works to turn up on YouTube. Gene Youngblood’s 1970 book Expanded Cinema discusses abstraction and the Whitneys and is available as a free PDF download here.

Update: Lapis on YouTube again, in full this time!

Previously on { feuilleton }
The art of Harry Smith, 1923–1991
Cronenberg curates Warhol
Expanded Cinema by Gene Youngblood

Quite a performance

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As mentioned earlier, I designed the jacket for this excellent biography of Donald Cammell some time ago. The book is reviewed in today’s (London) Times by Barry Miles.

Quite a performance
review by Barry Miles

DONALD CAMMELL: A Life on the Wild Side
by Rebecca and Sam Umland
FAB Press, £24.95 hardback, £16.95 paperback; 304pp

THERE IS A PERSISTENT rumour that after shooting himself in the head the filmmaker Donald Cammell lived on in a delirious, euphoric state for 45 minutes. The story is that he asked his wife China to place a mirror so that he could watch himself die and said: “Do you see the picture of Borges”? This is a reference to the death scene in Performance, his best known film, when the gangster Chas (played by James Fox) shoots the rock star Turner (played by Mick Jagger).

In a profoundly shocking sequence, the camera follows the bullet into his brain, only to find there a photograph of the Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges who is much quoted in the film. This is but one of the many myths surrounding Cammell that these authors debunk — he died the instant the .38 bullet entered his skull.

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Strange Things Are Happening, 1988–1990

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A NOTICE TO OUR PUBLIC…………
It’s now a shade over twenty years since Rolling Stone was launched, complete with a brave new broadside on its interests and purposes.

So we too now announce our aims and prejudices and strive to clear a path laying bare our hopes and inspirations. Strange Things will deal from the heart and feature items that we would wish to find on offer. Music, from whatever era, will always be the core, with in-depth studies of a sound or an individual, or a laugh and a picture whenever the situation arises. There will be discographies, reviews, rare photographs; there will be threads or themes across several issues or even, instead, a one off appreciation.

That aside, there will be literature, film and television; cult curiosities or mainstream geniuses. In short, the boundaries are limitless. Over the next few issues the tale of Greenwich Village will unfold; so too the life and work of Richard Brautigan. Frantic new pop will sit beside English folk-rock, the Silver Surfer will meet the San Franciscan scene and white Chicago Blues will rock with Thunderbirds. “Whatever Fits” is our new motto – we’re there wherever strange things are happening.

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