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Oliver Dickens: A Potted History of Synaesthetic Cinema

Ahead of his #ReviveTheDark sponsored show, AUSTRIAN SYNAESTHETIC CINEMA at Cafe OTO (06 MAY 20:00), Sonic Cinema programmer Oliver Dickens offer newcomers some references & starting points to guide them on their viewing journeys.

By Oliver Dickens // Twitter @Sonic_Kino / Instagram @sonic_kino

Book now for the next screening event supported by #ReviveTheDark, RADIANT CIRCUS’ audience-backed campaign for distinctive/DIY cinema! Sonic Cinema presents AUSTRIAN SYNAESTHETIC CINEMA at Cafe OTO (06 MAY 20:00). Please note that all of the films in this programme contain flashing and strobing images.

A Potted History of Synaesthetic Cinema by Oliver Dickens

The world of experimental cinema can seem impenetrable at times, visual music and structural film particularly so due to their conceptual and formal concerns. All of the works selected for Sonic Cinema’s upcoming Austrian Synaesthetic Cinema programme at Cafe OTO maintain elements of the conceptual rigour of their forebears, whilst moving forward into the digital realm. These works sit within a rich tradition of cinematic and physiological exploration, which I will attempt to provide some brief and very selective context. It is my hope that this may provide some useful background when viewing this programme, or at the very least offer newcomers some references and starting points to embark on their own viewing journeys.

Synaesthesthesia can be roughly defined as a perceptual phenomenon or neurological condition where the senses are blended, with individuals experiencing it being able to see sound, taste colour, or feel images etc. Therefore synaesthetic cinema encapsulates works which attempt to push the audience’s perceptive limits, confusing the senses even for those of us that do not experience synaesthesia in everyday life. Though it could be argued that cinema is inherently synaesthetic, the works in question here generally draw upon the rich traditions of abstract film, visual music and psychedelia.

Coined by Roger Fry in 1912 to describe the Russian abstract painter Wassily Kandinsky’s translation of music into painting, visual music is the creation of a visual analogue to musical form by adapting musical structures for visual composition. Though its groundwork was laid in abstract painting, it was early 20th Century abstract painters’ desire to further capture time in their work that saw film become the medium of choice for successfully combining the visual element of painting with the temporal qualities of music. The abstract films of Walter Ruttmann, Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger laid the foundation for the language of visual music.

Fischinger holds perhaps the most direct influence on the artists included in Austrian Synaesthetic Cinema. His early silent works Wax Experiments (1921-26) and Spirals (1926) anticipate visual music’s development as a synaesthetic art form into more overtly psychedelic works, with their use of pulsating and hypnotic abstract forms which appear to create 3D depth in the image. Ornament Sound (1931) would see him exploring the possibilities of synchronised sound and image in a way which prefigures materialist and expanded cinema practices of the 1960s onwards. In Ornament Sound Fischinger flips the ideas of composing music for already prepared visuals or producing visuals to represent existent music and instead makes sound the central performer by printing the sound strip in the image. By making sound waves visible Fischinger allows us to literally see what we’re hearing, a concept that was pushed to its limits by the structuralist filmmakers of the 1960s and beyond.

Spirals, with its rotating optical illusions, shares concerns with another of Fischinger’s contemporaries, the French-American artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp’s investigations into optics with the construction of perception challenging kinetic sculptures would lead to the creation of his only film Anémic Cinéma (1926). Shot in Man Ray’s studio with the help of cinematographer Marc Allégret, Anémic Cinéma in effect produces a filmic object featuring nine consecutive whirling disks decorated with spirals, alternating with spiralling puns and complex word play. Committed to film, the paper disks with spirals or Rotoreliefs create optical illusions, appearing to pulse in and out as if they were three-dimensional, whilst those with puns must be read, emphasising the flatness of their surfaces. In typical Duchamp humour, playing across these formal and perceptual concerns the texts’ wordplay hold sexual connotations whilst the pulsating illusion of the spirals add to the overall sexual allusion.

In 1958 the American artist and cultural visionary Brion Gysin experienced a lucid dream induced by the flicker of sunlight streaming through leaves as he was sleeping on a bus. Gysin wrote, “an overwhelming flood of intensely bright patterns in supernatural colours exploded behind my eyelids: a multidimensional kaleidoscope whirling out through space.” Touched by inspiration, Gysin set about trying to recreate this experience for others, working with the mathematician Ian Somerville to create a mechanical device that would induce waking hallucinations without the need for psychoactive substances. The resulting Dreamachine (1961) was constructed from a metal tube with rounded parallelograms cut into it and then set upon a turntable with a light source at its centre. With the “dream machine” set to rotate at 78rpm, the subject sits facing the contraption with closed eyelids, allowing the flickering light play to induce synaesthetic/psychedelic visions.

The very same year the Austrian filmmaker Peter Kubelka received a commission from the Viennese painter Arnulf Rainer to create a film about the artist and his work. Though Kubelka initially attempted to stay true to his friend’s request whilst incorporating experimental camerawork inspired by the American filmmaker Stan Brakhage’s Anticipation of the Night (1958), he was ultimately unsatisfied and instead turned to making an entirely abstract film from transparent leader spliced with black film and strips of magnetic tape. The resulting film Arnulf Rainer (1960) combines flickering black and white images with a soundtrack of white noise and silence pulsating in and out of sync with each other to produce a minimalistic rhythmic pattern.

Though Kubelka’s achievement was to break down the plastic and illusory nature of film by making visible the physiological sensory process that usually takes place when watching a film -ie making 24 images flickering by on a film strip appear as fluid movement- there is a striking similarity to the closed-eye hallucinations produced by Gysin’s Dreamachine. Upon viewing Arnulf Rainer, Stan Brakhage wrote that Kubelka “has even created a film whose images can no more be ‘turned off’ by the closing of eyes than can the soundtrack thereof it (for it is composed entirely of white frame rhythming thru black inter-spaces and of such an intensity as to create its pattern straight thru closed eyelids).”

Following in the lineage of Arnulf Rainer -as well as Oskar Fischinger’s early experiments in “absolute film” and the flicker films that would follow in the 1960s and 70s by Paul Sharits, Tony Conrad and Guy Sherwin- Tina Frank and Peter Rehberg’s collaboration Frozen Jumper (2020) playfully muddies the distinctions between digital and analogue technologies. Starting with shapes recalling sprocket holes found on analogue film, Frank feeds them through algorithmic processes until they warp and abstract into new, entirely digital forms phasing across the colour spectrum. Rehberg’s percussive minimal soundtrack hammers home the physical nature of the piece before mutating with the imagery into caustic noise.

Drawing on Duchamp and Gysin’s optical experiments, Siegfried A. Fruhauf’s Thorax and Peter Kutin, Patrik Lechner, and Mathias Lenz’s (as NO1) ROTOЯ | Sonic Body push their forebears’ ideas of plasticity and perceptive trickery the former probing into the beating heart of cinema, becoming a swirling virtual object suspended on screen and the latter, documentation of a custom built kinetic sculpture which is transformed into “a dizzying and unreal three-dimensionality, a play of visibility and invisibility, actuality and virtuality, visual abstraction and acoustic affect.” (Shilla Strelka). Both works create sculptures of light and sound, utilising virtual or physical motion to replicate their mechanical precursors’ movements along with ample use of strobing light. As it is documentation of a mechanical contraption, ROTOЯ | Sonic Body interestingly not only explores human perception but also grapples with the ability of the camera to accurately record it’s flickering light play, causing an additional layer of abstraction.

Though there is a distinguished influence of elements of structural film, particularly flicker, on the works of Billy Roisz and Dieter Kovačič, it’s the films of American artists Jordan Belson and Pat O’Neill -as well as Harry Smith’s No. 2: Message From the Sun from Early Abstractions (1946-57)- which perhaps resonate most deeply with their synaesthetic works. Anticipated by Oskar Fischinger’s Wax Experiments and Spirals, Jordan Belson’s works such as Allures (1961), Samadhi (1967), World (1970), Chakra (1972) aimed to both induce and reproduce transcendental experiences. Fusing movement, sound and colour, Belson created deeply psychedelic and mystical films which appear to flow through 3D space into and out of the screen in cosmic ecstasy. Notably, the influence of Belson’s astral take on visual music can also be felt elsewhere in this programme, in Fruhauf’s Thorax and Rainer Kohlberger’s not even nothing can be free of ghosts (2016) with their churning vortexes of digital noise.

Pat O’Neill’s densely layered collages of image, sound and movement blend iconography, surrealism, humour and sound design to reveal his interest in the connections and divisions between humans and nature. Often taking place in a static frame and illustrating the materiality of sound and image, works such as 7362 (1967), Trouble in the Image (1996) and Horizontal Boundaries (1997) come across like moving paintings, breaking down and reconfiguring genre and narrative into new hyper-sensory forms. Collaborating on and off in both single channel and live audiovisual performances since 2001, Roisz and Kovačič’s work together utilises digital layering of sounds and images to explore and reconfigure cinematic genres.

Roisz and Kovačič’s string of collaborative works, smokfraqs (2001), THE (2015), TOUTES DIRECTIONS (2017), Surge (2019), Aquamarine (2019), and do they speak color? (2022) share similarities with O’Neill’s compositions, with their dense collaging of digitally manipulated textures and rhythmic movement through all axes of the screen.

Beginning misleadingly serenely with black and white footage of flying through clouds, as if in a dream, THE quickly descends into a nightmare of dimly lit digitised textures accompanied by a droning tone and vinyl crackle, further destabilised by pulsating light leaking in accompanied by blasts of caustic noise, record scratching, and Phil Minton’s tortured vocals. Utilising self-shot footage and abstracting it into textures, shapes and colours, THE is an experimental take on horror movies, with an unsettling soundtrack which effectively reconfigures elements of genre cliche. Largely utilising imagery shot from a car moving through varying landscapes TOUTES DIRECTIONS rhythmically layers imagery to present both a graphic score and an exploration of the road movie genre. Though ostensibly following the format of a journey, the work occasionally veers into horror territory, though not to the extent of THE, with foreboding music soundtracking our passage through an unknown rural landscape calling to mind the Texan landscape of Tobe Hooper’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). The soundtrack (made in collaboration with the trio Radian) here develops THE’s lower key textures and scratchy ambience, with interludes of jazz, post-rock, kraut and white noise tuning in and out.

Abandoning concrete self-shot imagery Surge (2019) moves almost entirely into abstraction to explore rhythm and image distortion, mirroring the group schtum’s metallic beats to create a very contemporary take on visual music. Where previous works used real imagery as a basis, here the artists work exclusively with computer generated objects and a static frame. Together with THE and Toutes Directions this material forms the basis for the TWIXT audiovisual performance project, where Roisz and Kovačič (operating under his alias dieb13) push this methodology of collaging and manipulating sound and imagery to further extremes with the addition of live bass guitar and turntables.

It is beyond the scope of this article to go deeper into the rich historical connections these works hold, but hopefully this has provided some useful contextual information to think about when watching these works and perhaps inspire further investigation into some of the areas touched on here.


Sonic Cinema is a research project and event series by Oliver Dickens, exploring the intersection of moving-image, sound art and experimental music practice. www.soniccinema.org


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