Cinema is often thought of as a passively received art form; a film projects on a screen, and an audience absorbs the image and sound. A great deal of mainstream movies treat viewers in precisely such a way, demanding and expecting little of them. But then there are works that actively encourage engagement by making viewers consciously aware of their modes of watching and listening. Many of the best avant-garde and experimental films do precisely this. With its series Feedback, Part 2, Anthology Film Archives presents a lineup of titles that specifically bend image, sound, or both back in on themselves, turning the feedback loop from an audiovisual phenomenon into its own art.
Anthology bills this as a sequel of sorts to its series Documentary Feedback from earlier this year. That program foregrounded the relationship between documentaries and their subjects, featuring films whose participants are not merely observed by the filmmakers but push back against how they are portrayed, or otherwise shape the movies around them. Works by Lizzie Borden and Jean Rouch were part of the series, along with an installment from Michael Apted’s Up series and William Greaves’s seminal Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, Take One.
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While this follow-up series, co-presented with the media art archive Electronics Arts Intermix, approaches the concept of feedback more literally, it’s useful to keep in mind the first program’s context of art that’s directly shaped by its own medium in the process of its creation. Rather than a straightforward act of capturing and exhibiting material, filmmaking is a deeply reactive process. By demonstrating this quality through works that experiment with cinematic mise en abyme or other methods of layering images and/or sounds, Feedback encourages curious viewers to think more deeply about everything they watch.
The techniques on display are impressively varied. One screening exhibits films made through redeveloping and reprinting the same celluloid strips multiple times, creating vivid experiments in the visual grain. Another presents shorts that utilize an “analog” type of visual feedback by pointing cameras at mirrors. In Robert Morris’s “Mirror” (1971), for instance, the artist walks backward through snow while holding a mirror, the reflection heightening the endless whiteness.
The most obvious example of cinematic feedback comes with video — a format often neglected in discussions of film history, situated as it is between the classical standard of celluloid and the dramatic upheaval of digital. The malleable nature of television signals and video strips has long made them fruitful media for artists. The series presents several programs featuring experiments in video feedback. Stan VanDerBeek’s “Strobe Ode” (1977) uses a flashing strobe effect to alter an otherwise placid central abstract image. In “Einstine” (1968), Eric Siegel increasingly distorts a still image of Albert Einstein until it transforms into a roiling, staticky pool of color and warps.
Experiments with broadcast television are similarly fascinating. “Video Tape Study No. 3” by Nam June Paik and Jud Yalkut is described by AFA as an “intervention,” with footage of press conferences held by Lyndon Johnson and onetime NYC Mayor John Lindsay. Also screening is a 1969 collective project that included Paik, The Medium Is the Medium, one of the earliest examples of video art to premiere on public television.
One of the series’ more intriguing programs highlights work that attempts to capture feedback via celluloid film itself. In 1974’s “Film Feedback,” Tony Conrad devised a quasi-real-time experiment by setting up a mechanism in which film would be shot, immediately processed, and then projected. Takashi Ito’s “Spacy” (1981) is a disorienting experience that situates a gymnasium inside a Droste effect, with the camera diving endlessly into portraits of the gym, within the gym, within the gym, seemingly infinitely. The short defamiliarizes a mundane space, transmuting it from a functional room into a canvas.
The breadth of Feedback, Part 2 is impressive. Along with those discussed here, it features films by Andy Warhol, Richard Serra, Charles and Ray Eames, and many others. The program even encompasses unlikely avant-garde touches found in mainstream television, like the kaleidoscopic, psychedelic opening sequences of the venerable British science fiction series Doctor Who. It’s one of the bolder, more innovative repertory programs to hit New York this year, and should not be missed.