| Dirk De Bruyn
 + Harmonic Three Three (Maheno) (still) Stephen Ball, 1991. Super8, colour, sound. 23 mins.


Text–Texture–Gesture | Dirk De Bruyn

(Avant-garde film) isn't concerned with the same aspect of literature as dominant cinema... (Dominant cinema) ignores all the rest, which is immense and corresponds to some of the most vital, refined and essential modes of human expression. In terms of narrative, it ignores anything that isn't tale or novel; and beyond narrative it ignores practically everything. As has often been the case with Avant-garde cinema, underground film began by tilling these splendid, fallow fields: the self-portrait, the diary, the essay, correspondence and every variety of poetry. (Noguez 26)

In Australia these splendid fallow fields have also been tilled and many of the traces of these acts can be found in Cantrills Filmnotes. Very little light however is illuminated on it from any other direction. This has led to a great deal of ignorance of film art within an Australian arts community.

Visual Music and the Film Poem

An area that should be known about and that has had creative attention by a variety of artists throughout the history of film in Australia is an area of the short film that has at times been characterised as visual music or as the film poem. I want to treat these two characterisations as points of departure, doors, into a landscape of film activity teeming with life and all its inconsistencies, where films become the signposts and reminiscences of a network of paths passed through in various tours of discovery and settlement. Its documentation tends to become a list of films and film-makers not unlike a tour book listing of all the little towns, their populations, their history and the landmarks that need to be inspected within them, those events that the writer has passed through. Such “guides” are artifacts in themselves but can not/should not replace the tour itself and the pleasures it brings.

The films I want to discuss in this tour often have to do with a level of abstraction of the film image and can deal with the film surface itself, the texture of film. This textural concern with film form has been primarily claimed or designated as a modernist concern. Yet the inclusion of gesture and text clearly moves it into a different space. The fleeting image, the written word, the fragmented movement are all playing their part.

Virginia Hillyard's E.G. (1990, 7.5mins) is a work that can signpost this shift. It is shot on super 8 and enlarged to 35mm. The film is an exploration of a textured cloth or skin? or is it parched earth? This texture is amplified by the grain of the film itself. Towards the end, in a monumental gesture, the camera moves away to reveal a whole new vista, a landscape in which the meaning of this "texture" is completely transformed.

Economics and Aesthetics

The economic imperative, of course, has forced many artists who want to work in film into its cheaper forms which they have then turned to their advantage. Home processing and super 8 have both led to oppositional, low- and no-budget strategies that have influenced abstract film-making and make one wonder whether, perhaps, it is the source of its originating impulse.

No photographer says he "home processes", it's an accepted part of his trade. Why then does it seem such a novel idea that film-makers process their own film. Film-making for various perverse reasons has developed “standards,” 24 frm/sec, feature length, script, producer, director, editor, cameraman, laboratory, etc. and budget. In other words, a person, presumably film-maker, writes a piece of literature called script, then sells it for a budget. Armed with this script and budget, gathers a large number of people to help him turn the script into a film. I say fuck that, film is playing with strips of images which play persistence of vision. When you process film, you see it as a plastic medium which can be played with and as an animator (film-maker), you see it as flickering images that produce an illusion within the eye and brain. It's through these illusions and the interplay between various illusions and sound that expression of ideas, emotions, etc. is achieved.(Frenken 13)

Chris Knowles’ super 8 film Excerpt (1983, 6 min) is based on super 8 film he developed himself and includes bleaching and refilming. It is married to an electronic soundtrack also produced by the artist himself. There is a dancing and meditative quality enhanced by the film's grain and organic changes of form and movement. Images are transformed by solarisation and changes in colour and flicker. Yet it is not “only” an abstract film because at another level its text is a transformation of the Melbourne inner urban landscape and the film becomes an examination of landscape as texture.

From the same period Michael Buckley and Sue McCauley's Exacuate (1984, 5 min, 16mm) is also a home processed film. Buckley used the term “no-budget” film-making to characterise this work and made the point that this film, that cost about $20 to make, quickly recouped its investment at its first screening. The mixture of animation and real-life superimpositions, its abstractions and fragmentations, suggest the early German abstract cinema of the 1920s that inaugurated this whole line of exploration and settlement. (The abstract work of Fischinger, Guttman and Richter, for example.) It is important to note here how these “interests” have influenced other areas of Buckley’s film-making. The personal documentary Ancestor Worship (1990, 40 min) is an example of how adventures with the materiality and abstraction of film can inform and be inserted into other types of film form. In Ancestor Worship he has used hand processed and re-photographed film to produce a texture that signifies and resonates with a parched outback history and memory and the uniquely Australian texture of “the sun-drenched land” and the saw milled, dissected and scarred timber, thus enriching the background within which his personal family story is being told.

Oppositional Strategies

Michael Lee's Razzle Dazzle (1992) is another work that can also be referenced back to the early German abstract cinema. It is an abstract work of meticulous construction with a soundtrack that stirs up reminiscences of childhood.

I see images and sounds I am working with as “energies”. These “energies” have qualities varying from the hectic to the serene, from the playful to the sombre.1

An interesting aspect of this work is the development of a marbling device that reinvents a wax slicing machine that was used for abstract animation by Fischinger and Guttman in the twenties.

I compress coloured plasticine in a cylindrical shaft and pump it out at one end where I slice off cross sections and animate the resulting images. It produces images reminiscent of marble paper patterns.

As well as the marbling device the film-maker has built his own aerial image printer, rotation, refilming and pendulum devices. I would argue that in these days of slick computer-generated images these strategies become an act of opposition to the new, fashionable and often highly priced technologies. The pendulum and marbling techniques produce images that often correspond to the abstract images of computer-generated Mandelbrot sets. Yet Lee's images are somehow more organic, contain greater subtlety and detail. Perhaps it is that they are “flawed” in a very human way that sets them apart. Perhaps it is that they have a greater and unexpected texture. Perhaps it is that you are asked to look at this film in an “other” way—to approach its images in a contemplative way.

I would suggest that the contemporary creation of such filmwork contains within it an important political impulse that modernism and the ensuing packaging of art has previously drained from it. For me it is connected to a vision and a cinema over which the artist retains control. This is an important alternative vision when you consider that our daily lives are played out within a technological landscape where we as individuals are increasingly becoming only the colonised spectator. This is a world where we are being occupied by a world media, a technopoly,2 into forms of information that are constructed in such a way that all we are asked to do, all we can do, is consume. It is all so “one way” that we begin to truly believe that we can have no impact on anything, that we are completely powerless in our daily lives.

It is certainly true that with much of this work we are asked to engage with it with skills other than those of the colonised spectator. “Visual Music” suggests that we use skills that we have developed to listen to music to see these works, and “Film Poem” suggests we use our experience to savour words and sounds and explore their echoing and multiplicity of meanings to meet and engage with a train of images.

The Great Unseen

There is a drive here to delve into the “great unseen” that can be an effective departure from the technopoly that envelopes us:

Back to the movie:
Robert Walser said
'he vanished from sight like an arrow' I say:
'follow the arrow'.(Stirpe 18)

This brings to my mind Marie Craven's (again Super 8) White Woman (1988) in which the camera follows a fleeting “white woman” through a garden. We catch glimpses of “her” as we move through a landscape that has been abstracted through the camera's movement and we are enticed “on” by a singing woman's voice. We are entering the great unseen. Craven comments:

There is certainly an impulse in me to distil things. In all three films (Morena, White Woman and Pale Black) I think this results in meanings that are abstract in a certain kind of way, even when, as in Pale Black, the soundtrack is full of stories. In fact, my next film uses narrative in an even more overt way, but still with a very strong impulse that transforms events and issues to distil or abstract the meanings. I have a powerful belief in invisible presences, deep structures. And I guess I am looking to make films that are difficult to intellectualise. I have some dream of a cinema that works more purely, like music, on the emotions.3

Super 8

There is an abstraction of the image that occurs in Nick Ostrovski’s work but it is a very different one. Emerging in the Melbourne Super 8 group in the early eighties, Ostrovski has produced a series of visually stunning kaleidoscopes of rushing images, colours, photographs and gestural movement, all with great technical virtuosity. From works like Gertrude Street (1982, Super 8) and Family Album (Super 8), to the recent 35mm film Colors (1992, 4 min), these films play with the physiology of the eye and its ability to grasp the flashed images that are thrown one over the top of another at you. A palimpsest of images are layered onto the eye. Gertrude Street can be read as a landscape film of pixilated images, gestures of camera movement and traces of image that suggest geometric form. The rhythm of these works is very clearly in the kinetic movement between the images and often alternates between aggressive and soothing contemplative states.

Over the last few years there seems to have been a greater proportion of experimental abstracted work coming out of the Melbourne Super 8 film group. Pete Spence's Diction (1991, 14 min), for example, is a reflective piece of cinema of abstracted lines and shapes which "shadow over" a woman's face which appears to be trying to, or is, speaking. There also seems to be a conjunction between the film's grain and the texture of the woman's skin. Abstractions seem to flutter and flicker over her face in a way that suggests a space between the thought and the uttered word. The chant-like singing underlines this floating quality. Is this not the space that poetry occupies? 

Steven Ball's rigorous and minimal Harmonic Three Three (Mahena) (1991, 23 min, super 8) plays with the suggestion of form. Most of the film consists of very dim, ghost black images in which contours of a landscape intermittently intrude. The viewer is given the project of constructing this landscape from memory and from cues that slowly transpire. The film suggests an earlier avant-garde of the sixties and seventies: an international avant-garde, one of whose spokesmen, Hollis Frampton, once told his audience that he was not there to fill their empty heads.

Reading Film

How to avoid suffocating impulse and imagination, yet still coherently animate? The old dream of music still haunts me.4

Neil Taylor's Roll Film (1990, 6 min, 16mm) is a very different kind of animation. It consists of long rolls of paper filled with continuous abstract drawings across which the camera continually pans. In this film you are reading these images as you would words, yet the meaning of these sentences are abstracted. This film is about process, yet an artifact exists: the paper roll. You come away with a sense that the paper rolls exist outside the film as sculpture in their own right and in turn are a manifestation, a reference back to an actual strip of film, unprojected.

Marcus Bergner's Musical Four Letters (1989, 6 min, 16mm) also needs to be read. This film consists of a promenade of hand-written four-letter words that all have something to do with sound or music. These words have been animated directly onto the film surface without the use of a camera and they dance and change to a rhythm determined very much by the inherent nature of the film medium. There is a game of reading the words which somehow invokes a memory of the sound they depict. It is perhaps a similar process to the bang and pow and boom that appear in comic books. Yet it is very different because it is also about the texture of inscribed and imagined sound. It is somehow about willing sound into existence which seeps from the spaces between these gestural and textured images and sounds. Behind and in this dance is the surface of this film, and old 1940s Hollywood musical which is only partially and intermittently visible as it has, it seems, decomposed like faded wallpaper, like history, like memory, like old, discarded skin. There is clearly a project here in Bergner’s work on animating visual poetry onto the surface of film from Bob Brown (1982), through such work as Handberg, Etrusco Me (with Marie Hoy) to Musical Four Letters and beyond. Bob Brown was inspired by the pioneering visual poet Bob Brown (funnily enough) and is a mixture of fragmented gestures of animation, word puns and found footage which in total develop a texture of partial meaning and form.

Arf Arf

Marcus along with Frank Lovece, Marisa Stirpe and Michael Buckley are the core members of the sound poetry performance group Arf Arf. Their recent Thread of Voice (1993, 18min, 16mm) is about their performance work and is clearly a synthesis of the artists' individual concerns in film and their sound poetry performances. Much more than a documentation, it is a continued examination of film form (both image and sound), gesture and the abstraction of the human voice.

I should mention Lovece and Stirpe's Te Possino Ammazza (1987, 16mm), as they are the members of Arf Arf whose individual work I have not yet discussed. This film also concerns itself with gestures of the human body and in terms of structure and look is somehow suggestive of Thread of Voice. There is something very emotional about Te Possino Ammazza. Its gestures of movement, words and actions build up a fragmented emotional maze of faces, bodies and camera movement. Images emerging out of a darkness, a suggestion of logic, but an affirmation of emotion. Lovece appears to have a unique skill in directing actors to create such spaces, as is also evident in some of his earlier video work. There is also a suggestion of this sense in Thread of Voice and it must be part of his contribution to this film.

Thread of Voice begins with an homage to the London sound poetry group Koncrete Canticle.5 This opens up the theme of the abstraction of the human voice. We see the texture of the tattoos on Griffiths’ arm, the texture of the scores. A door opens to a vista of the fragmented sound of the everyday where the texture of film finds a correspondence. The great unheard and unseen come together in a texture all of its own. This is the space that Arf Arf occupies. Shadows gesture, bodies move. The camera moves. Is it the shadow of conversation? The shadow of intent? A suggestion of a presence.

The film moves underground into a storm drain and finds textured inscriptions, suggestions of defiance, of the unheard. The shadow in the cave. There are animated sections, sheets, layers, a palimpsest of words that dance. The sound of work, in the home, the hammer, the saw. There are animated figures, boxes of them, pared down Muybridge, flickering and textured sheets of paper. This is the space in which Arf Arf works.


Thread of Voice is clearly a highpoint for Arf Arf’s members individually and collectively and for avant-garde film in Australia in general. It comes after long and meticulous examinations of text, texture and gesture by Arf Arf and by others in the community within which they practice. This is an examination that will continue and hopefully will continue to be informed by what has happened before.

This is probably as good a place as any to finish this present tour and perhaps contemplate why it is this area that is so highly developed in avant-garde film culture in Australia, with such a surprising amount of work being done by a good number of artists. Do we dare ponder that there has been something uniquely Australian about this whole enterprise, that it has manifest itself so strongly here? Somehow it feels that this work has taken up the great silence we find in our streets and the emptiness within the vastness of our land, within the tyranny of its distance and within the blindness and blandness of its commerce, politics and suburbia—I seem to be lapsing into some form of “I love my sunburnt country” nationalism (and what's the point of that?).

But still, somehow, this enterprise by all these artists reminds me of the struggle to pull something out of this vast space and silence. To pull something out of the great unseen and great unheard and settle there. And we have settled there differently than anyone has anywhere else. So much for grand ideas.


Originally published as Dirk de Bruyn, “Text ‐ texture ‐ gesture” Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies 8, no. 1 (1994): 152-165, DOI: 10.1080/10304319409365634

1. Lee, Michael. Unpublished statement (1990).

2. Postman, Neil. Technopoly. N.Y.: Vintage (1993).

3. Craven, Marie. Unpublished interview (1993).

4. Taylor, Neil. Experiment Tour Catalogue. Melbourne (1990).

5. Koncrete Canticle consists of Paula Claire, Bob Cobbing and Bill Griffiths. Their work is available on the L.P. Experiments in Disintegrating Language/Konkrete Canticle(London: Arts Council of Great Britain, 1971)

Works Cited:

Craven, Marie. Unpublished interview (1993).
Frenken, Richard. Where's Our Satellite! 1 (1985).
Lee, Michael. Unpublished statement (1990).
Noguez, Dominique. Millennium Film Journal 19.
Postman, Neil. Technopoly. N.Y.: Vintage (1993).
Stirpe, Marisa. Where's Our Satellite! 1 (1985).
Taylor, Neil. Experiments Tour Catalogue. Melbourne (1990).

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