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Non-Visual Films


Notes: Artist Project from the Journal of Neuro-Aesthetic Theory #2

In 1965, American artist Tony Conrad made The Flicker, a film consisting entirely of black and white photograms, which alternated according to different arrangements or frequencies.

When projected, The Flicker produces a stroboscopic, or flashing, effect that often leads audiences to ‘see’ images or colored motifs. According to Jonas Mekas, the film actually provokes an epileptic attack in one out of every 15,000 people. Conrad, who studied the physiology of the nervous system at Harvard University, invents through this film a new film image that is different from the usual narrative or pictorial ones generally put forward in cinema.

By implicating the retina rather than sight—that is, by stimulating physiological rather than psychological impressions—the film displaces the centers of reception from the sensorial to the neural. Upon its release, The Flicker stayed confined to New York’s underground scene, only to be recalled in 1999 when its Japanese counterpart, Pokemon, had similarly vibrating images that triggered epilectic fits among hundreds of children.

We know cinema can deeply impact organisms. The Ludovico therapy that Stanley Kubrick imagines in Clockwork Orange (1971) is a physiological cinema that provokes nausea. Video films may even provoke heart attacks, as demonstrated in 1998 by the Japanese filmmaker Hideo Nakata in his film Ring. Television, too, may have an effect, such as causing the viewer to fall asleep. This was recorded in an investigation led by journalist Peter Entell (http://www.filmtube.com), in which he revealed that when looking at television, the brain only receives alpha waves (flat waves devoid of stimuli), whereas cinema and written text generate beta waves (waves that stimulate the mind).

Indeed, The Flicker could be interpreted as a pornographic film, if one considers the theory that orgasm is a form of reflexive epilepsy initiated at the point of excitement. Consider as well the power of imagination and the placebo effect, as confirmed by the American designers RAW when they exhibited water in association with images of sex, chaos, and speed. Observers were to choose the water they preferred, which was then bottled, labeled, and became a fantastic souvenir to take home. The traumatheque of French artists Berdaguer and Péjus functions on a similar scale: infra-visible and infra-audible videos charged with emotion and narrative. They are homeopathic horror films, non-visual snuff movies.

(translator Nathalie Angles)

Philippe Rahm is an architect at Décosterd & Rahm Associes (Lausanne, Switzerland and Paris, France). He is currently in charge of the Swiss Pavilion for the 8th Biennial of Architecture (Venice, 2002).
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