Mandalas and Black Holes: The Effects of the Flicker Film on Human Consciousness
May 22, 2019
By Jason Ooi, New York University
Originally published in the 2019 print edition.
An article from legendary avant-garde publication International Times contains some of the only discourse on Paul Sharits’s elusive film Ray Gun Virus (1966). Writer David Curtis begins with a precise formal description—“Just colors and strobes”—before citing Sharits’s ambitious animus for the work. Curtis writes, “light-color energy patterns (analogies of neural transmission systems) generate internal color-time shape and allow the viewer to become aware of the electrical-chemical functionings of his own nervous system.”1 This terse capsule aptly describes the flicker film sub-genre as a whole: a scarce body of avant-garde films built entirely on patterns of flashing lights. Foregoing further analysis, Curtis augments the mythology surrounding the rarely-screened work. By implicating the complex neurological processes of our brain, as well as the ongoing evolution of the sub-genre within the digital age, Curtis prompts an investigation into the ways that seminal films such as Ray Gun Virus transcend the simple affectations of the cinema.
Early flicker films such as Peter Kubelka’s seven-minute Arnulf Rainer (1960) or Tony Conrad’s thirty-minute The Flicker (1960)—both deemed structural films—use the two fundamental components of light, sound, and the absences thereof—in a singular fashion that redefines both their use in traditional and avant-garde filmmaking “in an attempt to divorce the cinematic metaphor of consciousness from that of eyesight and body movement.”2 This pair of original works consists entirely of alternating frames rhythmically arranged and rearranged into abstract sequences, simplifying the increasingly complex cinematic techniques developing within the avant-garde that would later evolve into mainstream practice. The filmmaking process is compressed by these self-imposed constraints, but complicated nonetheless; the common dialectical ambition to educate or explicate is replaced with more ontological interests of self-discovery by way of brain-body-film synchronicity. These works are not concerned with content, but rather the celluloid film structure itself, rendering what was once the vessel which carried the image into a synecdochical representation of itself. “It is that shape that is the primal impression of the film,” describes P. Adams Sitney in his formative text on the structural film, titled after the movement.3
These works disrupt the traditionally linear trajectory of art and art consumption by altering the universal consciousness that films replicate through editing. Generally, perception is limited to vision and interpretation whereas the flicker-image addresses all aspects of corporeal being in order to incite a full-body reaction. The primal impression may be of an epileptic kind, defined most commonly as “a neurological disorder marked by sudden recurrent episodes of sensory disturbance, loss of consciousness, or convulsions, associated with abnormal electrical activity in the brain.”4 The Flicker even cautions its audience of this possible effect, with a tempting introductory frame accompanying the dual frames of black and white, and two other title frames disclaiming:
WARNING. The producer, distributor, and exhibitors waive all liability for physical or mental injury possibly caused by the motion picture The Flicker. Since this film may induce epileptic seizures of produce mild symptoms of shock treatment in certain persons, you are cautioned to remain in the theatre only at your own risk. A physician should be in attendance.5
Even within those not affected by the epileptic condition, the flicker-image stirs volatile reactions that disorient sensory understanding. Other neurological phenomenon such as flicker vertigo or the Bucha Effect can arise from the stroboscopic effects and cause the temporary loss of motor functions, dizziness, or disorientation, and leave the audience members vulnerable, disassociated from the comfort of every-day consciousness. Within everyday life, flashing lights are an intrusion on cerebral processes and serve more pragmatic causes: sirens and fire alarms warn us of surrounding dangers by compelling our attention, while bursts of light can also be weaponized in war and riot control scenarios to incapacitate threat. With these known risks in mind, the popularity of the flicker-image in the avant-garde and the loyalty of its limited followers suggest a more intangible connection between the flicker film form and the nervous system. Conrad, influenced by early 20th century experiments in neurology with regards to epilepsy, appears to have intended for such an effect, as though it evinced the “the synchronisation between the flicker and the brain rhythm.”6 Sharits shared a similar fascination with the epilepsy, devoting a full film to the capture of epileptic fits of two patients in Epileptic Seizure Comparison (1976). These symptoms and their possible emergence within the body of the spectator are directly indicative of the ways which the flicker film is more intensely enmeshed with the processes of the brain and body altogether than other forms of cinema by “speak[ing] directly to the correlations of the mechanics of film and of visual perception by addressing the frequency at which the eye can detect light.”7 This is not to say that convulsions are positive experiences to be sought out, but rather suggestive of the potential for alternative perceptive experiences. This impetus can be further tracked by the ways which experimental cinema followed the trajectory of recreational drug use in the 1960s as part of a countercultural movement which aims to expand perception; many writers liken the effects of Sharits’s works to those of psychedelic hallucinogens, which neurologically bind to brain receptors and reshape the impression of reality.
The brain is imperfect. The psychological impetus that would motivate someone to actively pursue such a jarring viewing experience implies a need to escape the confines of the mind. Entire fields of study (psychology, sociology, neuroscience, et al.) struggle to understand the intricate workings therein; entire industries (pharmaceutical, tobacco) chemically endeavor to quell the natural dysfunctions of the mind and recognize some comfort within its augmentation.
In a similar sense, natural elements of cinema editing stipulate a sequencing of images in a rational manner, encouraging a broader understanding of art by adhering to noticeable patterns vis-a-vis narrative and theme. Cuts, in a traditional sense, both expand the boundaries of what the cinema can accomplish and restrict it to a single logic. Gilles Deleuze describes these units of film spliced together as constituting “the whole rhythmic system and harmony of classical cinema.”8 He then complicates the linearity of cinema by defining the “irrational cut,” employed by the more radical directors canonized within the arthouse, of which “there is no longer linkage of associated images, but only re-linkages of independent images.”9 Though these filmmakers experimented more with the interstices of each cut, they still stake themselves on the comprehensive linkage between separate images, if not logically, then emotionally. Regardless of either style of cut, an audience communally watches a film at the local theater and is fed coherent imagery that is then constructed into narratives and interpreted into broader thoughts and emotions.
The flicker film, in deconstructing the viewing experience to its most simple elements, liberates itself from these associations between images. There is no more discernible image, only light and dark. There is no more emphatic discourse, only latent and intimate hypnosis. The images, as described by Conrad vis-a-vis The Flicker, are “going on—not just passing by,” situating the working mind in a specular metaphor-setting of itself.10 An audience succumbs, is fed to the stimuli. The unstable mind is soothed by the unstable flicker, no longer dependent on reasoning. In these cases, there is once again that paradoxical security in the unknown: Consciousness is suppressed, overpowered by the cerebral transfixion caused by pure light imagery.
Though the action that comprises the film, like the flipping of a light switch, is uniform throughout each flicker film, a chaos manifests in the experience through rhythmic variation that differs from the rising-action, climax, falling-action structure of traditional moviemaking, or even the crescendo of the similarly light-oriented firework show in which smaller bangs and sizzles lend themselves to the catharsis of a finale. Within its intended screening room setting, the flicker film is a sustained explosion, always peaking, until it is abruptly over. In a way, the irregular pulse of each flicker film and the transient dissonance of strobe lighting, when contrasted with the tranquil attention demanded by spectatorship, evokes a calm, spiritual resonance. In explaining his decision to complicate the flicker work of Conrad and Kubelka with neon colors, Sharits himself directly compares the revelatory shifts in consciousness to a form of Buddhist meditation:
The mass of the film is highly vibratory color-energy rhythms; the color development is partially based on the Tibetan Mandala of the Five Dhyani Buddhas which is used in meditation to reach the highest level of inner consciousness—infinite, transcendental wisdom. This formal-psychological composition moves progressively into more intense vibration until the center of the mandala is reached.11
This fixation with the circular mandala (embodying the shape of the film) lent itself to a series of flicker films—most notably, Ray Gun Virus, N:O:T:H:I:N:G (1968), and T:O:U:C:H:I:N:G (1969)—with the visual aim of representing the Universe abstractly through geometric patterns that further denote the significance of the metaphysical ontologies of Becoming that emphasize impermanence and growth within a Buddhist framework. These films, most prominently N:O:T:H:I:N:G, embody the “real and paradoxical concreteness of ‘nothing’” by engaging viewers in a metaphysical journey in and out of his flicker-mandalas. With this in mind, these flicker films become about deriving spiritual growth from a physical embodiment of nothingness represented in the stripping away of “anything (all present definitions of ‘something’) standing in the way of the film being its own reality.”12 A testimony of this effect on experience by godfather of the avant-garde Jonas Mekas: “You become aware of changes, of tones around your own daily reality. Your vision is changed. You begin to see light on objects around you…Your experience range is expanded. You have gained a new insight. You have become a richer human being.”13 The only film procedure left remaining is the monotone of the “soundtrack,” contrapuntal to the volatility of the light patterns and composed of the mechanical staccato of sprocket holes running through the projector’s sound reader. This clicking sound at 24 frames-per-second composites to a single static drone, acting as a formal “representation of technological modularity” while more abstractly invoking a recognition of the modularity of the soul, not unlike a Buddhist Om chant, with its calm and conscious linkage of the changing soul with the flickering universe.14 Consequently, the full sensorial experience of these original flicker films are contingent on analog film projection and its invocation of audience physicality.
The flicker image, after being purely featured in those aforementioned films, becomes a staple motif through the historic diffusion of experimental methods into mainstream culture. It therefore achieves different effects, contingent on the various genres which appropriate it. Its usage in punk cinema and aesthetic, for example, is predicated on similar formal desires—jarring and energizing calls to arm that disrupt the Hollywood apparatus’s commodification of art while simultaneously signaling the repressed consciousness. In horror, a more metaphysical reading is invoked, with flickering lights bolstering narrative tension and unease, often by implying the presence of spirits. Though these usages key into the same motivations as the original flicker film, their common service to narrativity often mitigates their liberated effect. Within the contemporary avant-garde, however, it is possible to find examples of works that modernize the flicker by exchanging the physical effects of flickering film stock with the literal nothingness of digital files, expanding Sharits’s experiments with new technologies.
Austrian avant-garde filmmaker Rainer Kohlberger continues to compress the video medium with the help of computer algorithms that systematically strip the image from the frame until all that remains is static. With millions of random pixel patterns in flux, this “noise”—visual produced by televisions to signal the loss of connection (the lack of any content: nothing)—flashes with a higher frame rate and intensity. In Keep That Dream Burning (2017), Kohlberger applies his algorithms to extract the noise from various action films, essentializing the digital image into its purest form by freeing it from narrative associations. “Here we are in the presence of a shimmering consciousness,” the film opens, as if analyzing the pareidolic noise as an extension of humanity negotiated by consumer culture and simultaneously at risk of disassociating from human interpretation. The images of shifting static—a flicker in itself—is eventually interrupted by more familiar flashing lights that progress from black to white. The film looks as if it were constantly magnifying itself like a perpetual dolly zoom which disorients the senses: “a black hole subtly growing deeper and deeper” rather than a mandala.”15 Occasionally, lingering images of real action motifs can be made out, if only barely. By abstracting concrete explosions or fireballs, Kohlberger deconstructs the algorithmically-assembled human objects and events back into its basic digital form. The resulting fractal-like images are at once both cinema spectacle and incoherent noise; nothing transformed into something, returned to nothing. In Not Even Nothing Can Be Free of Ghosts (2016), Kohlberger presents pulsating gradients of black and white to visualize abstract after-images unique to the viewer. These eponymous and immaterial “ghosts” conjured up from a digital nothing are “hallucinations evoked by the imperfect human-biological data processing system.”16 In synchronizing the art object with the unconscious brain, Kohlberger aims to guide viewers to a “digital nirvana”—a physical and metaphysical experience predicated on sensory overload that is both material in its dependence on the brain and immaterial in its digital construction. It is there and not there.
Sharits, Conrad, and Kubelka expanded human perception by inducing a non-normative state of consciousness through the reframing of bodily association within a processual film reality. Kohlberger, in subconsciously aligning the human body with pure representations of the digital, seems to represent a post-humanist philosophy which aims to transcend materiality to a conscious state beyond physical being. The sensorial impact of such decomposed digital stimuli seems appropriate in a modern age marked by “the decentralization of the self into virtual bodies and digital identities” and indicative of the resulting “paradigm shift in the ontological and epistemological perception of the human body.”17 This is a logical continuation of the spiritual fluidity significant to those earlier works, further shifting the way in which reality is perceived between the physical body and the metaphysical spirit. Films generally purport a representation of reality that engages the audience’s understanding of the universe surrounding them. Flicker films represent a new form of understanding, confronting the viewer with an imploded medium in order to change the ways they individually perceive the universe within. The broad spectrum of physical and psychological reactions only confirms their success in reorienting the way in which film is experienced sensorially and spiritually. To parrot Curtis’s conclusions regarding the effectivity of Ray Gun Virus in its attempt to temporarily assassinate its viewers’ normative consciousness: “It’s true.”18
1 David Curtis, “Names That Arrived,” International Times, Jan. 19, 1968.
2 P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-2000, 3rd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 348.
3 Ibid, 348.
4 Oxford English Dictionary, “Epilepsy.”
5 The Flicker, dir. Tony Conrad (1966)
6 W. Grey Walter, The Living Brain (Australia: Penguin Books, 1961), 92, quoted in Bridget Crone, “Flicker-time and fabulation: from flickering images to crazy wipes,” in Futures and Fictions ed. A. Hameed and S. O’ Sullivan (UK: Repeater Books, 2017), 232.
7 Bridget Crone, Futures and Fictions, 232-33.
8 Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image, (Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1989), 214.
10 Tony Conrad, interview by Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 5: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (University of California Press, 2006), 90.
11 Paul Sharits, cited in P. Adam Sitney, Visionary Film, 360.
12 Paul Sharits, “Notes on Films/ 1966-68,” Film Culture, Issue No. 47 (1969), p. 13-16.
13 Via various descriptions and gallery notes for the film. This review along with another from Stan Brakhage (“The screen, illuminated by Paul Sharits’ N:O:T:H:I:N:G, seems to assume a spherical shape, at times – due, I think, to a pearl-like quality of light his flash-frames create… a baroque pearl, one might say – wondrous!… One of the most beautiful films I’ve seen.”) often take the place of film description.
14 Paul Sharits, “Hearing : Seeing,” Film Culture, Issue No. 65-66 (1978): 71.
15 Rainer Kohlberger, “Keep That Dream Burning,” Rainer Kohlberger. http://kohlberger.net/work/keep-that-dream-burning.
16 Norbert Pfaffenbichler, “Not Even Nothing Can Be Free of Ghosts,” Rainer Kohlberger, http://kohlberger.net/work/not-even-nothing-can-be-free-of-ghosts
17 Francesca Ferrando, “The Body” in Post- and Transhumanism, ed. R. Ranisch and S.L. Sorgner (Peter Lang Publishing, 2014) p. 213.
18 David Curtis, “Names.”