November 29, 2017
Cinema for the inner eye: On the films of Paul Clipson
San Francisco Cinematheque presents the World Premiere of Black Field (2017) by Paul Clipson & Zachary Watkins December 14, 2017 at The Exploratorium. Info and Tickets here. The commission and World Premiere screening of Clipson & Watkins’ Black Field is made possible by a generous grant from The Fleishhacker Foundation.
Cinema for the inner eye: On the films of Paul Clipson
“Tsong-kha-pa tells us of a transformed universe:
1. This is a Buddha-realm of infinite beauty
2. All are divine, are subjects
3. Whatever we use or own are vehicles of worship
4. All acts are authentic, not escapes”
— Gary Snyder, “Poetry and the Primitive”
How can one translate the experiences offered by Paul Clipson’s films into linear writing? It can’t be impossible, for the films themselves proceed in such a direction: each one has a beginning, a middle and an end. Yet they do not work in that way exclusively—there is more at stake here than simple causality.
Clipson’s cinema is one of eternal recurrence. Subjects continually repeat themselves: bridges, buildings, fences, metal gratings, trains, airplanes, trees, suns, leaves, grass, eyes, hands, mouths, silhouetted figures walking on shorelines, puddles in concrete pathways, power lines, neon signage and blinking night-time lights, and water—lots of water. Beads of water on leaves, pools in puddles in concrete, waves crashing against beaches, raindrops falling on glass. These subjects are revisited again and again, sometimes to the exclusion of all else beyond their mirror-like realities. Clipson is unafraid to draw continually upon this basic set of prime subjects, which are linked in their capacity as otherworldly thresholds, their shimmering reflections and dynamic edges transforming material reality into the vibration of light. Such transformations are common to the model of cinema, which takes up the appearances of the world into a dynamic temporal flux of montage, yet Clipson’s primary concern is not alluding to the properties of cinema, but rather to the properties of perception itself. Even within a given film, the same objects reappear, passing into frame, passing out, and passing into frame again—a carousel of attractions. This structure is again repeated at the level of the shot, as the meter of Clipson’s films are set by short bursts, often no more than a few seconds at a time, with the filmstrip then rewound in camera and exposed again, rewound again and exposed again, a process that offers infinite and unending potential for iterations. Each object thus comes into visible presence in a multiple capacity, producing spaces where things are both the same and not-same: in each instance a subject is encountered freshly, made anew through the dynamic force of handheld camera movement, through the rhythm of its execution in temporal montage, and its juxtaposition with other subjects through the layering of superimpositions. Water is water, until it is suddenly melting away the hard edges of buildings and bridges, until it is a texture behind the darkened shadow of a fence, until it is crashing onshore in an explosion of particles of sunlight that sends the outline of a human figure into a vortex. Then, it is no longer mere substance—it becomes process.
Clipson’s films are among the clearest articulations since Brakhage of how vision is formed through process—how sight is not a passive and inert function, but equally shapes the world just as it is shaped by it. By probing the universe in its closest detail, often through a macro lens, Clipson shows us again and again how to ‘make it new’ through the act of seeing with one’s own eyes—directed at any ordinary object such as a leaf, a bead of water, a rusted bottle cap, a cigarette butt—each moment an occasion for wonder in how an object’s edges are formed, how it relates to and is produced by its environment, how it comes into and out of presence. He never appears to pre-compose the contents of his frame, choosing instead to follow the traces he finds on his journeys. In Clipson’s films, we begin to understand objects as events operating in slow motion. Things are broken down into their constituent shapes: that light is really an orb, that fence is really a grid whose negative space forms a tesseract, that puddle in the road is really a portal that leaks into another dimension. The camera is a layer of the body, a perceptual apparatus that acts in union with the surfaces of the world, as the body does. It does not separate us from what is external, but instead dissolves boundaries of internal/external by joining inner and outer realms in an act of union forged through sight. Through his lens and constant overwriting of images, Clipson reconstitutes vision in a fashion similar to the Ancient Greek concept of extramission, in which the seer beholds the world through rays that extend from the eye to the object. In this model, the viewer is bound up with the world in a tactile embrace, without the possibility of distance required to be distinct from what is observed, to be a passive spectator. This is a basic reality of quantum mechanics that a metaphysics based on the primacy of substance (a view from which the Western tradition has been built) cannot admit—yet this framework is one that process philosophy has no quarrel with whatsoever. It is a truth that our fragmented modern culture has not fully come to terms with—we live predominantly within mediated relations that promote the passive model of vision, that repress the necessity of our visual labour except through approved forms of consumption that maintain our isolation in order to sell aspects of ourselves back to us—but this truth is as old as time. As the third Mahāvākya of the Upanishads tells us, tat tvam asi—“thou art that” (or, “you’re it”). The answers are simple enough for all to see, the only thing required is to unlearn enough false ideas.
HYPNOSIS DISPLAY (2014)
To understand the world as process means to reject objects as the primary constituent of reality, for objects are not static, but are continually shaped by perception. To understand the world as process is to implicate oneself in it at every step of the way. Since Aristotle, the Western metaphysical tradition has maintained a central bias towards things (and especially those things that are visible within the range of human perception), with events seen as of secondary and incidental status. Process philosophy has its origins in Heraclitus’s doctrine that the fundamental nature of reality is flux, that “all things flow,” and the rejection of the atomistic view that reality consists of relations between stable, unchanging forms. Among its fullest expressions within the contemporary era are Henri Bergson’s ideas on durée and A.N. Whitehead’s philosophy of organism, but nonetheless, it still remains an undercurrent, a terrain mapped most extensively by poets and artists. To understand nature as primarily composed of relationships—of events, occurrences, energy exchanges—is to arrive at an understanding much closer to the physics of our era, in which matter is comprehended as condensed energy, in which time is a relation measured between dynamic forces, and in which tools of measurement are understood to not merely represent and record facts and truths, but to also produce them. Relationships of process are often difficult to appreciate, as the structure of the English language maintains a bias towards according primary status to things, with proper sentence construction designating that verbs require nouns to be set into action. However, the notion that a thing can initiate a process is quite tenuous when one fully considers this relation. Examples such as the blowing of the wind, the formation of waves in water, the erosion of shorelines, or magnetic fields—all are caused by interactions of processes and are not set into motion by a discrete subject. Even the very notion of a discrete subject has been undercut by insights into the nature of the mind, the relationship between self and culture, and the various ecosystems that compose our physical organisms. Process philosophy prioritizes temporality, activity, and change as central to the understanding of reality. It implies a realm of fields and forces against a notion of atoms set within a void—a relationship of the basic units of reality whose existence has been confirmed by quantum theory. Through such a model, we can arrive at a better understanding of ecological being, of the circulation of natural systems, of life cycles, of the actual structure of organisms, of non-deterministic concepts of the self and the divine—all can be best understood through process. To turn nature into an object is linked to a sense of mastery over it; by seeing the world as a process, one begins to appreciate it as an extension of self.
All places are connected, all energy circulates. Clipson’s films give us a cosmology of pure energy; they stem from the realization that within all space is the compressed force of a thousand suns, waiting to be unlocked. In his vision of the world, matter is composed of veils that barely constrain the energy within them; objects interpenetrate one another as liquid forms whose edges are permeable. In COMPOUND EYES #1-5 (2011), a series of short films commissioned by the San Francisco Exploratorium, the possibilities of insect vision are manifested through macro images that open our eyes to the potential for the optical unconscious, which Walter Benjamin posited as among photography’s greatest asset, to wholly transcend the anthropocentric through the defamiliarzing effect of the close-up. In ANOTHER VOID (2012), we are plunged into the realm of quantum vision and the sight capacities of particles of energy. This transformation is continued in OTHER STATES (2013), where water becomes like fire, hands caressing grids of light become empty portals of blackness, forms oscillate between figure and ground as the image plane appears both utterly flat and infinitely deep, and the rising, uncanny atonality of the soundtrack by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma conjures an affective sensibility akin to a dream sequence in a horror film. This alchemical dynamic, a coincidentia oppositorum that produces a delicate balance between terror and beauty, is retained in much of Clipson’s work, which registers in its best moments a sense of the sublime from within the most familiar of landscapes.
ANOTHER VOID (2012)
In Clipson’s films, natural and technological forms coexist in a mutual dynamic. In SPHNIX ON THE SEINE (2008-09), we see a landscape of train tracks before any river, their metal forms reflecting as gold in sunlight. Just as dualisms of inner and outer are transcended, nature and artifice are subsumed and resolved within the scope of the visual imagination, through a dialectical montage of organic forms and geometric constructs. The bridge and the fence, shot through the dynamic movement of the camera, merge with the water and sunlight to produce a flickering perceptual experience akin to a Dream Machine, a feat repeated in several subsequent films. Just as the Dream Machine was meant to be viewed with closed eyes, the most potent images in Clipson’s films are not what is seen—though nonetheless, his images are among the most exquisite any filmmaker of the past decade has offered—but what is conjured in the mind. In its most transformative capacity, art has the ability to function as a machine for transforming the capacities of thought itself—an atomic bomb of perception that detonates within the realm of consciousness. Artworks can reveal a single object as capable of offering a reverie that can transport one to a higher plane. Every object is the Buddha, Clipson is telling us, but it is not the nature of object itself in which we find a portal towards transcendence, it is in the means of our relation to it.
Clipson’s relationship to time is one of dilation. Here, duration exists without clock time—only a present moment in which both past and future are implicated. His films offer us time constructed out of experienced, engaged durations: the indivisible flow that Bergson saw as the true nature of the temporal dimension, rather than the pseudo-truths of linear continuity and causality, in which instants are divided (always artificially) into separate, alienated moments. Space as felt by the body internally is prioritized over space as exterior fact. In CHORUS (2010), the camera zooms slowly into luminescent objects, their sharply defined features revealed only for a momentary focal glimpse before channeling into and out of hazy, gas-like fields. The form here of interest is not the sharply defined feature, but the resonant energy of each shape: its color, its intensity, its proximity, its scale. Its edges dissolve into the blackness point to the erasure of boundaries, the truth that no objects are separate from each another, that world and object co-constitute one another. Again: objects are processes in slow motion. For a momentary glimpse, a neon sign is visible that reads “PAST PRESENT FUTURE”—here we reach the crux of the matter: in one frame, past present and future coexist. Linear time is encircled and a door to another world is found. Clipson’s films show us what David Bohm’s concept of the implicate order might look like: a realm in which things that appear as separate are potentially facets of a higher-level object.
This temporal dilation is the result of Clipson’s use of the Super 8 cartridge’s film loop as a stave for his basic meter of vision. Shooting fifty frames at a time in bursts, divided by winding back the film in order to layer additional images on top of what has come before so that the gathered light begins to stack like bricks, Clipson forms his palimpsest-like temples of vision. The rhythmic visual fields that emerge from this process form the cornerstone of Clipson’s films, and he has continued to draw upon this fundamental approach, developed within the constraint of working in the small format of Super 8, in his recent shift to 16mm. One is tempted to compare this baseline rhythmic pulsing produced through the mechanics of the instrument with Charles Olson’s identification of the typewriter as stave for language—Olson’s breaking up of language through the use of this technical device was meant to restore its connection to the breath, to deliver an embodied poetics of the present tense. In the same manner, the staccato bursts of images in Clipson’s films are shot exactly as they appear—there is no post-production beyond their assembly to a musical score. (In this regard, it is important to note that not only does Clipson collaborate with a variety of composers, all of whose sounds gesture towards infinite spaces and open-ended temporal structures, but he also develops many of his films gradually over time within the context of live performances with musicians.) The genius of Clipson’s fragmented sequences is that this is how we really see, when scanning our surroundings, when blinking or tired, when remembering an image from a past moment as we casually walk down the street. This mode of perception is uniquely urban in its character; it is derived from the mosaic of city life and the constant array of stimuli encountered there. The common delusion of spatial continuity is a trance bestowed to us by optical paradigms that have long since become obsolete—continuity in any simple sense has little bearing on the multifaceted and overloaded environments of our contemporary era. Towards the end of his masterful feature HYPNOSIS DISPLAY (2014), much of which deals with the character of the urban landscape, we hear a woman’s voice on the soundtrack leaving a voicemail: she describes endless email chains, and the “nightmare and speed at which words are flying at you.” This inclusion is telling in a film that contains few words. We have become so engaged with constantly acquiring information that we risk dispensing entirely with exploring the potential for seeing what is new. Clipson’s films are unique to the contemporary moment in their visual intensity, but also in their commitment to a realm beyond language, beyond the culture of ‘information.’ Clipson wants to deliver us knowledge of the world—real, discrete, actual things. No ideas but in things.
In our world, space as an external phenomenon has been charted to exhaustion—Clipson gestures to this again and again in his landscapes, with their buildings, bridges, fences, and power lines that intersect the skies, waters and other natural forms. Various mapped coordinates, roads, and property lines demarcate the geography of the modern world and the boundaries and potentials for sight; there are few fresh territories left to explore. But just as Vico saw descriptive language as the weakest form of language, a form which triumphs only in the final stage of his model of cyclical history before giving way to a ricorso, in Clipson’s films we see the edges of these markers blurring and eroding: the buildings are suddenly underwater, the city fences are turned into occasions for hypnotic trance. We are looking at the films with eyes open and yet what we see is an inner space, a space that is everywhere and nowhere. The spaces of Clipson’s films are spaces of internal bodily perception.
A relevant model to this sensibility in Clipson’s work is the concept of haptic visuality, explored by scholars such as Laura U. Marks and Jennifer Barker, who consider the role of embodied vision developed in the philosophy of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in which vision is co-constituted by subject and object through mutual exchange. Merleau-Ponty emphasized the body as the primary site of knowledge, rather than assigning such a role to the mind or to consciousness. This led him to view the function of perception in a novel fashion, for the body is directly entangled in the world in observable ways which the mind or consciousness are not implicated in as directly. For Merleau-Ponty, perception does not merely filter and interpret stimuli, but exists in a form of interconnected agency between body and environment to foster a relationship that produces consciousness—observer and observed are intertwined, a dynamic most clearly understood through the sense of touch. This constant moving activity of the body, its methods of coping with the world to get an optimal grip on experience, are pre-linguistic and pre-conceptual, and constitute a subject that is not transcendental, but instead emerges from nature and the conditions of embodiment. In his final unfinished work, The Visible and Invisible, Merleau-Ponty describes this connective tissue between body and world as “flesh,” and it is this concept of flesh which is illuminated by the haptic visuality of Clipson’s films, where sight shifts along the surfaces of objects by scanning movements which provide gentle caresses, zooms probe details beneath surfaces without incision, and the surfaces of materials conjure an erotic relation to the eye. The material sensuousness of substances is fore-grounded through their layerings, even in the cases where the subjects are no more than abstracted patterns of light. Color produces a physical effect, both in Clipson’s use of certain palettes as thematic registers akin to musical keys, and in his occasional shifts between saturated images and high-contrast black and white. The densities of certain colors register on the body as much as the eye.
In “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” Benjamin comments on the nature of consciousness as proposed by Freud and its relation to the shocks of modernity, in which constant collisions produce sudden (and often violent) transferences of energy that can overwhelm the nervous system:
In Freud’s view, consciousness as such receives no memory traces whatever, but has another important function: protection against stimuli. “For a living organism, protection against stimuli is almost more important than the reception of stimuli. The protective shield is equipped with its own store of energy and must above all strive to preserve the special forms of conversion of energy operating in it against the effects of the excessive energies at work in the external world—effects which tend towards an equalization of potential and hence towards destruction.” The threat from these energies is the threat of shocks. The more readily consciousness registers these shocks, the less likely they are to have a traumatic effect. […] The greater the share of the shock factor in particular impressions, the more vigilant consciousness has to be alert as a screen against stimuli; the more efficiently it does so, the less do these impressions enter long experience [Erfahrung] and the more they correspond to the concept of isolated experience [Erlebnis]. (2003, 317–19)
Here, Benjamin suggests the constant debilitating threat of overstimulation posed by the modern world must be countered somehow in order to find sufficient integration into experience, rather than being inflicted as forms of trauma. For Benjamin, as well as for Marshall McLuhan, that ‘somehow’ is found within the experiences offered by vanguard art, whose poetics are meant to equip their audiences with the means for integrating such radical forms of experience. In his lecture “Art as Survival in the Electric Age,” McLuhan suggests the function of art is to act “as a liaison between biology and technology.” In Understanding Media, he writes: “I am curious to know what would happen if art were suddenly seen for what it is, namely, exact information of how to rearrange one’s psyche in order to anticipate the next blow from our own extended faculties… in experimental art, [we] are given the exact specifications of coming violence to [our] own psyches from [our] own counter-irritants or technology” (1964, 71).
In MADE OF AIR (2014), we see a figure raise her hand towards ocean waves, the camera rapidly zooming in on the silhouetted hand, again and again, reaching out to the hand just as the hand reaches out to the ocean. We feel the registration of the image on a physically kinetic level that goes beyond the visual field, one that connects the eye to movement and to the entire body. We are seeing through our eyes, but we are reminded here that we also equally seeing through our entire body, that our entire body is an instrument of perception. Through this sensory reintegration we can experience a rebirth, a returns to the oceanic experience the hand reaches towards. These visions are a corrective, a warm salve bath to wash away our fragmented sensory overload, to melt away the hardness of our perceptions and cultivate a newfound sensitivity towards the world. They offer us a new sensation of touching, a pulsating vision for the cold optics of our era, a necessary tactile embrace. Clipson’s work demonstrates that the function of the avant-garde to necessitate the furtherance of radical perception has not ceased, that it is still required, that continues to propel onwards, and that it is we, as audience members, who must struggle to keep pace. This is what the bleeding edge looks like in 2017.
MADE OF AIR (2014)
Paul Clipson: Filmography
BLACK FIELD (2017) color, music by Zachary Watkins.
at hand (2017), 6 minutes, 16mm, B&W, music by Sarah Davachi.
TENDERNESS (2017), 6 minutes, 16mm, color, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
TOTAL FICTION (2017), 4 minutes, 16mm, color, music by Jeremy Young and Shinya Sugimoto.
SPECTRAL ASCENSION (2017), 5 minutes, 16mm, color, music by Byron Westbrook.
CRUEL OPTIMISM (2017), 7 minutes, 16mm, color, music by Lawrence English.
HEADACHE (2016), 5 minutes, 16mm, color, music by Grouper.
LOVE’S REFRAIN (2016), 7.5 minutes, 16mm scope, color/B&W, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
FEELER (2016), 6.5 minutes, 16mm, color/B&W, music by Sarah Davachi.
FELL ON MY FACE (2016), 5 minutes, 16mm, color, music by Young Moon.
LIGHTHOUSE (2015), 5 minutes, 16mm, color/B&W, music by King Midas Sound and Fennesz.
DISPORTING WITH A SHADOW (2015), 4 minutes, 16mm, color/B&W, music by Alex Cobb.
COME ON (2015), 5 minutes, 16mm, B&W, music by Ilyas Ahmed.
LOVE AFTER LOVE (2014), 5 minutes, 16mm, color, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
TRAJECTIONS (2014), 14 minutes, 16mm, color, music by Tashi Wada.
MADE OF AIR (2014), 11.5 minutes, 16mm, color, music by Grouper.
THE LIQUID CASKET / WILDERNESS OF MIRRORS (2014), 9.5 minutes, 16mm, color, music by Lawrence English.
PULSARS E QUASARS (2014), 5 minutes, Super 8mm, color, music by Arp.
HYPNOSIS DISPLAY (2014), 75 minutes, 16mm, color/B&W, music by Grouper.
LA PALOMA (2014), 6.5 minutes, 16mm, color, music by Austin Cesear
TRANSPARENT THINGS (2014), 9 minutes, Super 8mm, color/B&W, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
LIGHT YEAR (2013-2014), 10 minutes, 16mm, color, music by Tashi Wada.
BRIGHT MIRROR (2013), 9 minutes, Super 8mm, color/B&W, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
DIFFICULT LOVES (2013), 3.5 minutes, Super 8mm, color/B&W, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
OTHER STATES (2013), 7 minutes, Super 8mm, color, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
ORIGIN (2009-12), 9 minutes, Super 8mm, color/B&W, music by Che Chen.
LANDSCAPES DISSOLVES (2012), 6 minutes, Super 8mm, color/B&W, music by Alex Cobb.
ABSTEIGEND (2012), 7 minutes, Super 8mm, B&W, music by Evan Caminiti.
THE CRYSTAL TEXT (2012), 3 minutes, Super 8mm, color, music by Young Moon.
ANOTHER VOID (2012), 10.5 minutes, Super 8mm, color, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
SPEAKING CORPSE (2012), 8 minutes, Super 8mm, color/B&W, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
CARIDEA AND ICHTHYES (COMPOUND EYES No. 5) (2011), 6 minutes, Super 8mm, color/B&W, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
ARANEAE (COMPOUND EYES No. 4) (2011), 5 minutes, Super 8mm, color/B&W, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
DIPTERA AND LEPIDOPTERA (COMPOUND EYES No. 3) (2011), 7 minutes, Super 8mm, color, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
ODONATA (COMPOUND EYES No. 2) (2011), 5 minutes, Super 8mm, color/B&W, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
COMPOUND EYES No 1. (2011), 6 minutes, Super 8mm, color/B&W, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
LIGHT FROM THE MESA (2010), 6 minutes, Super 8mm, color/B&W, music by Barn Owl.
UNION (2010), Super 8mm/16mm, 15 min, color/B&W, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledesma.
CHORUS (2009), Super 8mm, 10 minutes, color, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledsma.
WITHIN MIRRORS (2008), 10 minutes, Super 8mm, color, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledsma.
SPHINX ON THE SEINE (2008-09), 9 minutes, Super 8mm/16mm, color/B&W, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledsma.
BEND SINISTER (2007), 12 minutes, Super 8mm, color, music by Metal Rouge.
THE PHANTOM HARP (2007), 21 minutes, Super 8mm, B&W, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledsma.
TUOLUMNE (2007), 15 minutes, Super 8mm, color/B&W, music by Tarantel.
ECHO PARK (2007), 9 minutes, Super 8mm, color/B&W, music by Tarantel.
SUN PLACE (2007), 7 minutes, Super 8mm, color, music by Tarantel.
CORRIDORS (2007), 27 minutes, Super 8mm, color/B&W, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledsma.
PASSAGEWAYS (2007), 28 minutes, Super 8mm, color, music by Tarantel.
CONSTELLATIONS (2006), 7 minutes, Super 8mm, color, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledsma.
THE LIGHTS AND PERFECTIONS (2006), 10 minutes, Super 8mm, color, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledsma.
WATERCOLOR NIGHT MONTAGE NO. 7 (2006), 9 minutes, Super 8mm, color, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledsma.
OVER WATER (2006), 6 minutes, Super 8mm, color, music by Tarantel.
EARTHLIGHT (2006), 5.5 minutes, Super 8mm, color, music by Tarantel.
TWO SUNS (2005), Super 8mm, 20 minutes, color, music by Jefre Cantu-Ledsma.
PUT IT ON THE GROUND (2004), Super 8mm, 10 minutes, color, music by Tarantel.
BIG BLACK SQUARE (2004), Super 8mm, 6 minutes, color, music by Tarantel
BUMP PAST CUT UP THROUGH WINDOWS (2004), Super 8mm, 4.5 minutes, color, music by Tarantel.
Dan Browne is a filmmaker and multimedia artist whose works explore patterns and nature through dense and kinetic forms. He is currently a PhD Candidate in the York/Ryerson Joint Graduate Program in Communication and Culture, where his research focuses on cinema, technology and embodiment. He lives and works in Toronto.