Flicker stories

if by chance

Flicker-track was originally meant to be part one of a long-dreamed-of project to which I’d given the name If by chance. Both the project title and its premise continue to intrigue me, though at the time I was brought to a complete & unexpected impasse — though a highly instructive one.

The project’s original inspiration had come several years earlier as a sudden spark from a book I was reading. (So vivid was it that I can still remember the precise moment: riding the Geary bus, standing-room only as usual, lumbering down the long final hill into downtown San Francisco).

Here’s the exact passage from Actual Minds, Possible Worlds by Jerome Bruner: There is a celebrated monograph, little known outside academic psychology, written a generation ago by the Belgian student of perception, Baron Michotte. By cinematic means, he demonstrated that when objects move with respect to one another within highly limited constrains we see causality. An object moves toward another, makes contact with it, and a second object is seen to move in a compatible direction: we see one object “launching” another. Time-space relations can variously be arranged so that one object can be seen as “dragging” another, or “deflecting” it, and on so on. These are “primitive” perceptions, and they are quite irresistible: we see cause.

I had long been interested in involuntary perceptions — as a teacher I’d encouraged learning disabled children to create and then exchange interpretations of inkblot patterns, which later led to my making the Inkblot Projections kiosk for the Exploratorum. Now I wondered whether one could generate digital animations that would trigger involuntary narratives in each viewer —a kind of story-making machine that would tap directly into subconscious thought.

I had met the curator Larry Rinder who was planning an ambitious show (“Searchlight”) on art and consciousness for the CCA in San Francisco, for which this project seemed to be a perfect fit. And so I began working on it with Shelley Eshkar, even going so far as to create the previsualizations that made their way (most misleadingly!) into the Searchlight catalogue.

But as soon as we actually started putting the animations into motion, they became revoltingly anthropomorphic: the little circles & squares automatically assumed antic cartoon personas as if created by Disney or Pixar rather than by — well, whoever we are as artists it’s anyone but that!

It’s not that I turned away completely from the idea, but I was intent on burying it more deeply into the foundation of things. So it keeps resurfacing in subsequent works, but never so nakedly.

In any case, casting the whole notion aside for the moment, I decided to make something completely different & to do so alone. Perhaps in reaction to this experience, I wanted something hard & violent, very different both from the elegant previsualization & from the three dance projects we had just completed.

flicker film

In the back of my mind, I had kept alive an even earlier unfulfilled dream. As a teenager I had been inspired to become an experimental filmmaker more from the books I read than from any actual films I’d yet seen: for even then it was difficult to find such work in theaters. On a spring vacation, then — armed with cement splicer, a hand-cranked viewer, and 2 small Super-8 reels of black and of white leader — I was determined to make a flicker film to match those I’d read about by Tony Conrad and Peter Kubelka.

Hands sticky with cement & eyes like a raccoon’s, I emerged two weeks later with a good 35 seconds of edited film. But when I finally got back to the Bolex projector at boarding school, the film immediately jammed in the gate, its thick, densely-packed splices bursting apart before they could even start their intricate flickering pattern.

Now I returned to the idea of a flicker-film, thinking I might add something to this odd tradition using digital tools instead. Of course, while I was now free of cement, I still conducted a decidedly backward effort, especially compared to later collaborations with Marc Downie — for while I had figured out various abstract rules to guide the interactions of my flickering cubes, I then had no choice but to keyframe them painstakingly “by hand” in the 3D program.

The rules, by the way, certainly didn’t give rise to the cute Disney anthropomorphism I was so intent on avoiding: but they did hide the ghost of a story inside somewhere.


As for violence — the curators posted the usual warning to epileptics outside the door to the gallery first at CCA & later at the Whitney. As it happened, when I was younger, epilepsy was another of my fascinations, feeling that my kind of nervous dread might somehow put me on the brink of it. I formulated a theory about the “destructive cut,” an act of montage so severe as to plunge you into an epileptic fit. And I collected stories about epileptics, one of which has stuck with me even now. It concerns the predilection of some sufferers to stage their attacks in doorways, so that when they collapse, they are not only spiritually but also physically in two places at once. Of 2 minds. This turned into a text for Other Bodies.


A year after making Flicker-track, I used a variation on it to send gigantic meteor-like letter-blocks hurtling at the backdrop of Bill T. Jones’s You Walk? dance performance. They hit the screen as if to annihilate everyone on stage — and in the audience.

Flicker-track also resurfaced in the Warsaw section of Trace, where it sends letters written to my childhood blackboard into the science-fiction orbits I was so busy trying to imagine then.