Siegfried Zielinski


My special interest in our subject is my special interest in experimental film and – in general – in arts:  in contrast to CHRONO-design and chrono-decoration. It is not all new, but still original: a film articulates something, which is not identical with its internal psycho or techno-reality as a cinematic construction. At the same time a film, which may dare to call itself experimental, always articulates and addresses the reality of film or cinema and adds something to their existing qualities. Even if this surplus is not substantial, but only creates a minimal shift. We can call this a form of double-coding or a multiple coded reality, which is inherent to everything that is projected (and also rumouring inside the title for our conference).

Let us remember: The meaning of the term “projection” oscillates between two poles, which are intimately connected with the two perspectives mentioned above that epistemologically run in opposite directions. On the one hand projection is about the spectacular (in the literal sense) proof that something that is sent through an image machine constructed according to mathematical laws was or is like what we can see in the half-space of the projection screen. On the other hand, projection includes the production of a reality as an image, which only exists in the way that we see it within the area of the created ever flat pictorial object.

This gives rise to a basic problem that is shared by all the avant-gardes, and particularly the artists who use film and other advanced technologies to generate techno-visual realities. One works with efficient techniques to produce effects and illusions, and at the same time one wants the pretty outward appearance that is generated to remain tangibly and intelligibly created by technology.

For the spectators and listeners this means: They are offered two realities at the same time, sojourning simultaneously in parallel worlds: in the world created especially for cinema and in the world that exists without cinema, which, however, becomes a different world with each film that is produced.

“On the screen we can sit inside and outside ourselves at the same time”, said film buff Henry Miller looking into the eyes of Maya Deren and Luis Buñuel, when he introduced the festival and symposium “Art in the Cinema” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art 65 years ago, in 1947. With this idea Miller was describing the fundamental tension that results from this circumstance, the debates and productions also of the second avant-garde, after the disaster that modernism had experienced in German fascism, in Auschwitz and Hiroshima.1 For the artists this meant they had to abandon once and for all the concept of duplicating the world by using technology. “The experimental film, called such only because it dares to lie to the mirror...”2, Miller stated with emphasis. The art of mirroring without just reflecting. Or to use Walter Benjamin’s terminology with reference to the specific work of the artist: to be both magician and surgeon in the same person,3 laying on hands and cutting (analytically) into the body. I cannot see any reason to fall back behind positions that were formulated 60-70 years ago. The past is something still to come, we may treat it like a potential space.


A special genealogy of the interrelations between thinking and film/cognitive and technical images can be written by focussing on some dramatic cuts through the eye, which happened to occur a few times in the past. Those cuts always had been both: painful physical cuts and slashes through existing concepts of seeing. Regarding the tradition of seeing by technical means in a deep time perspective and having the projected world of the experimental cinema in our minds we go back roughly one millennium before Buñuel & Dalí organized their spectacular cut through the cow’s eye in Chien Andalou (the dog from Andalusia, which was their common lover Garcia Lorca).

If one flies Far East into regions of the Earth, where the sun rises in the morning, one encounters a different view of the complementary relationship between light & shadow than we are used to in the occident, philosophically constituted through Plato’s allegory of the prisoners in the cave. In the orient, shadows are an object of enjoyment, contemplation, instruction, religious ritual, and only seldom of fear or terror.

The shadow in this tradition is above all an object of longing (Eros and Thanatos together). Like the Hellenistic myth concerning the origins of painting written down by Pliny the Elder, the derivation of the shadow play in ancient China, too, is associated with a love story. When Emperor Wu’s favourite concubine died, a magician named Shao Weng put up a white cloth screen at night and made an illuminated female figure dance behind it whose shape exactly resembled the emperor’s departed loved one.4 (In the Greek myth the gender relations had been vice versa and was closely connected with the experience of war.)

From the deep time of Chinese culture knowledge concerning calculation of the passage of time, from day to night and light to dark, was not dubbed heliologics, but was known as gnomonics. The name comes from the gnomon, a perpendicular rod that was driven into the ground or a many metres-tall obelisk, which then cast a shadow upon the even plane around it showing the passage of the hours. The gnomon is the artificial agent positioned between the natural light of the sun and the abstract measurement result that can be read off the graduation: the shadow rod functioned as the medium in gnomonic projection.

A master text from the deep time of Chinese natural philosophy that expressly engages with optical phenomena is the so-called Mohist Canon, which is named after its founder Mo-tzu and was written between the late fifth and the mid third century B.C.E. The Later Mohist Canon consists of a great number of short propositions on various themes, particularly of a philosophical nature.5 Only eight of the highly condensed statements are devoted to optics, but they are quite something. (See the slide, I shall not read what you can read by yourself.)

Even a superficial reading of the propositions leaves an astounding impression. The character for kuang (light) appears only a few times, whereas the character for ying (shadow) appears in all eight propositions and several times in each one. With Nathan Sivin we can sum it up like that: “The Mohist optics is primarily the study of shadows.”6

For our context especially interesting: According to many modern commentators these theoretical physical definitions are probably the result of experiments with an artificial experimental apparatus, which in the history of optics we know as the camera obscura, or pin-hole camera.

Without question, observations in connection with the phenomenon of shadows attained a high degree of precision in the Chinese scientific tradition long before the advent of the Italian Renaissance. This is due in no small part to the work of the polymath and outstanding astronomer, Shen Kua (1031–1095) from Ch’ien-t’ang, today’s Hangchow in Chekiang province. His Dream Book (Meng ch’i pi t’an) of 1086 contains the discovery of what we know today as the focus (or focal point), the exact centre mid-way between the object and the projection surface. Shen Kua described its function for seeing via optical instruments giving impressive and also beautiful examples of flying birds and moving clouds, whose shadows were already included in the propositions of the Later Mohist Canon.7

Shen Kua was the contemporary of another great polymath and optics researcher from a region where the sun stands high at its zenith, Ibn al-Haytham from Baghdad, who spent much of his life in Cairo. Science historians maintain that both protagonists, from entirely different cultures, described the camera obscura more precisely as an instrument for making observations, particularly in astronomy, through exact study of the mathematical-geometrical laws that obtain during the projection of rays of light through a tiny opening in a dark room. Additionally, both scholars worked on reflection and refraction, even on double refraction, which occurs, for example, in the prismatic light of rainbows and in crystalline objects. Both Shen Kua and al-Haytham were early protagonists of a physics of the visible, of geometrical optics, which proceeds mathematically and experimentally.

But Ibn al-Haytham went one important step further, which leads us right into the heart of the theme for our conference: Think:Film. Let us summarize his 7 Books of Optics with the help of the Egyptian scholar Abdelhamid Sabra:

“Ibn al-Haytham’s theory of vision was the only one circulating in Europe, up to the time of the Renaissance (between the 11th and the 16th century, SZ), that interposed between the centre of vision and the seen object a surface on which configuration of illuminated points of colour directly corresponded to their arrangement in the field of vision. That interposed surface was the slightly flattened spherical surface of the crystalline humour, and the visually relevant class of points of light and colour existing in it marked intersections of the surface with the straight rays proceeding from points in the field toward the centre of the eye, or vertex of the geometrically defined ‘visual cone’. The theory maintained that ‘perception’/idrāk/comprehensio of any object in the field, and of all its visual properties (size, shape, distance, and the rest), consisted in a mental reading of this colour mosaic ... after it has been transferred as a coherent whole through the humours of the eye and through the optic nerves, and after being ultimately presented to the brain where the final reading process was performed by a sense-faculty understood as a faculty of discrimination and judgement (tamyiz).”8

This is a remarkable shift and transformation of the Euclidian and Aristotelian position. Their shining eyes belonged to the context of the pneuma-doctrine, which still is incorporated in Descartes’s Lebensgeister (spirits of life), which for him are responsible for aisthesis and the budgets of affects.9 The divine, the beautiful – those metaphysical concepts had become suspicious for the Arab eye doctors (who wanted to heal) and astronomers (who wanted to observe and experiment). The past is still in front of us, as the Maioris say.

In his truly modernist approach Ibn al-Haytham also wanted to show “that this law also applies to reflections in cylindrical, conical, and spherical mirrors and to coloured light rays.” This was the purpose for which he designed a wall to reflect light rays which had seven mirrors: one planar, two spherical, two cylindrical, one concave, and one convex — in short, the entire range that constitutes modern opto-mechanics.10  Modern optics have been invented by iconoclasts (as most of the media theoreticians of the past decades have been iconoclasts: McLuhan, Flusser, Kittler, Virilio… just to mention a few. (slide:al-Haythams book!)

3. Time / Time Recording / Time perception

Something I would like to work on for some years:

There are some valuable philosophical texts on time and time perception. (My favourite is Michael Theunissen’s NEGATIVE THEOLOGIE DER ZEIT.) But there is no genealogy of recorded time that includes the recording of the voice, signs, music, still and moving images, time images.

For our purposes here I would like to differentiate for a start between three modes:

  • The time that has resided inside of beast machines and anthropomorphic artificial realities for roughly 2,000 years. (The example of Giovanni Fontana from Padua, early 15th century, or the violon playing monkey by Théroude)
    Obscene acts of monumentalization of time (as life-time).
  • The cinematographic time storage principle with its peculiar devices / the assembly line / chronological and successive organized photographs. Muybridge, Kohlrausch, Skladanowsky and others.
        Kino: the sensational perception of time / time to look at
  • The audiovisual / videographic time storage device (from the longitudinal via Helical to Quadruplex): a specific time/space-relativity
       Video/experimental film: recorded time itself becomes an object of perception: There is no Rewind button on the Betamax of your life.

    • Finally: the smallest time units in permanent dynamic relations to and connections with each other.

           Computer: the viewer inside of a complex time/space-dynamics / the participant inside of the artificial visual world.

I think there is an increasing necessity to think about the quality of time that is produced in film. Nowadays, daring to lie to the mirror means creating remarkable and enjoyable differences between input-time and output-time. (“You can always recover the space lost, but you can never recover the time lost” - Nam June Paik quotes Napoleon, when he discusses the necessary discrepancy between the time you feed into a machine and the time you get out of it. By the way: A few pages after this quote in Ira Schneider’s and Beryl Korot’s famous book, Michael Snow’s kinetic object “De La” from 1971 is presented, an aluminium and steel mechanical sculpture, with electronic controls for the movements of the electronic camera, which was in fact a production device for his film “La Région Centrale”, which Heinz mentioned yesterday.)

The most distinguished task of the filmmaker is to create gifts in the form of objectivized time. Gifts which are not simply consumable, but which expand psychologically – and this means: real – the life-time of the spectator. Nothing has changed regarding this task. But the challenge has become much bigger: Being confronted more and more with machines, which heavily and excessively are consuming time, the responsibilities regarding the aesthetic structuring of time, of time processing as a donation, has grown enormously.

A concluding remark:

When I read the title for our conference for the first time I immediately had to think of a concept that is familiar to me from Ernst Kapp and his “philosophy of technology” (from 1877). He calls it “Organprojektion” [the projection of an organ], and defines it as follows: “Projection is in all … cases more or less the throwing onto or out, the putting forth, relocation, and displacement of something internal to the outside.” Projection and imagination are in essence not very different “insofar as the innermost act of imagining is not free of the object that is in front of the eyes of the imagining subject.” With reference to contemporary findings of psychology (a long time before Freud’s work) Kapp insisted that projection should be understood as “the soul apparently stepping out of the body in the form of a sending-out of mental qualities” into the world of artefacts. (Kapp 1877: 30-31)

We have no good reason for falling back in relation to this position? Perhaps the new filmmakers can be the pataphysicists of the 21st century?

  • 1. Henry Miller: “The Red Herring and the Diamond-backed Terrapin,” in: Art and Cinema, San Francisco Museum of Art (1947). Contributors to the symposium and proceedings included Luis Buñuel, Maya Deren, Hans Richter, and the Whitney Brothers.
  • 2. Miller 1947, p. 4.
  • 3. Walter Benjamin: “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in: W. Benjamin, Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, (London [1970] 1992), p. 226f.
  • 4. According to Clara B. Wilpert in her book Schattentheater (Hamburg, 1973), p. 59; on the modern history of Chinese shadow theatre and its many cultural meanings see particularly Fan Pen Li Chen, Chinese Shadow Theatre. History, Popular Religion, and Women Warriors (Montreal, 2007).
  • 5. For a thorough and systematic analysis see: Angus Charles Graham, Later Mohist Logic, Ethics and Science (Hong Kong, 1978), which also contains meticulous translations of the traditional texts.
  • 6. Here we follow primarily the essay by Nathan Sivin and A. C. Graham, “A systematic approach to the Mohist optics” (ca. 300 B.C.), in: Chinese Science, ed. N. Sivin and Shigeru Nakayama (Cambridge, MA, 1973), pp. 105–152, quotation p. 113.
  • 7. Nathan Sivins published a lexical essay devoted to Shen Kua in 1975, which appeared in Sung Studies Newsletter 13 (1977): 31–56.
  • 8. A.I. Sabra, “Ibn al-Haytham’s revolutionary project in optics,” in: The Enterprise of Science in Islam. New Perspectives, ed. J.P. Hogendijk and A.I. Sabra (Cambridge MA, 2003), p. 96.
  • 9. "Die leuchtenden Augen gehören (...) ins Umfeld der Pneuma-Lehre, deren letzte Ausläufer z. B. in den Lebensgeistern, die Descartes körperimmanent für die Wahrnehmung und den Haushalt der Affekte verantwortlich macht, zu finden sind. Das Göttliche, das Schöne, das Lebendige: was mit dem antiken Pneuma-Begriff verbunden werden kann, ist ein "Etwas", dessen körperliche Existenz dubios wurde.” (Ursula Baartz, Tumult 1990)
  • 10. Quotations and descriptions in: Fuat Sezgin, Wissenschaft und Technik im Islam, vol. 3 (Frankfurt am Main, 2003), p. 172f.