Radical Light: Form from the Fog

Steve Seid


The following is excerpted from Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000, co-published by the University of California Press and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.

Form from the Fog: A Book Takes Shape
by Steve Seid

You have in your hands a compendium of critical thoughts, reclaimed documents, backward glances, pointed scholarship, and rescued ephemera. The sum total of this compendium can be termed a history, centered on image-making practices particular to the avant-garde and springing quite unsurprisingly from a specific locale, the fogbound scape of the San Francisco Bay Area.

This history—though “cultural geography” might also apply—begins in the late nineteenth century, in 1878 in nearby Palo Alto. It was then that Eadweard Muybridge began his pioneering experiments with the photographic image and the incremental improvements that would result in the motion picture. We, the editors, are quick to embrace those experimental tendencies so that our own history might claim a birthplace, no matter how romantic, fanciful, or appropriative that might be.

But our role here is to explain how this history found its natural form in these cornucopic pages. San Francisco’s topography—and by extension, that of the Greater Bay Area—lends itself to a certain rumination about verdant folds and gusty vales, about dusty undulations and rock-tumbled shores. These countless permutations of soil and stone are known no better than by the fog that commingles intimately with each crevice, niche, and drizzly dell. To be a true San Franciscan is to become the fog, to become a familiar of the land in all its minute and diverse splendor.

This unspoiled diversity seems to nurture and promote the arts like no other region. Witness the historical presence of untamed artists—the poets, painters, composers, and moving-image makers—who are unified less by a central aesthetic than by a promiscuity of purpose that draws inspiration from the variegated surrounds. If the land can breed anything, as T. S. Eliot might say, the Bay Area breeds its own community of anarchic artists known for their indiscreet, unorthodox, and mongrelized tendencies.

The Bay Area also has the de facto (and damned) privilege of being perched on the edge of the continent. The unruly and enterprising hordes that swept westward, part of that not-so-great manifest expansion, brought their own tradition not of settling but of unsettling a place, of bringing a restlessness and obstinance that, by reflex or reflection, rejected the normative, favoring the outlandish, the eccentric, and the self-possessed. Settling the West, then, was not a matter of transplanting the East and its civilizing force but more a matter of creating a refuge for the malcontents and revelators. Thus within its every crease and furrow, San Francisco seems to foster the wild thinking we associate with the arts.

Not surprisingly, irascible moviemakers and single-minded experimentalists were drawn to this place that has beckoned to artists, who in turn have found great nurturance in the area’s thorny hillocks and temperamental light. No apparent happenstance can lay claim to this attraction: It wasn’t just that out in Niles, Charles Chaplin created his signature film, The Tramp, in 1914, or that the next year, at San Francisco’s Panama-Pacific International Exposition, the “Scintillator,” a barge floating in the Bay packed with colored searchlights, may have constituted the first of the great light shows. Or even that Philo T. Farnsworth, the young television inventor from Utah, found quick investment in his enterprise from the city’s bankroll. It came more from a nascent awareness of the aesthetic notion that the land (and its human monuments) was already, in effect, an “enormous photograph”(1) beckoning to be viewed. Ever visionary, artists sensed the innate cinema of this place, and drew strength from it, while pursuing countless other cultural interests and points of reference from well beyond the Bay’s bounds.

From the mid-forties on, the true focus of our book, a postwar influx of the artistically predisposed could be found squatting the charmed upheavals of the land, like phototropic fanatics turning toward light. They were filmmakers, many of them not-so-recovered painters and poets, ill at ease with cinema as an entertainment but rather fondly fixated on the apparatus, the alchemy of light and chemistry, and their own eccentric admixture that might make this all art.

The title of this book, Radical Light, emerges from this sense of a cinema that considers its origins in a substrate of emulsion and luminescence. The title also calls forth those early experiments with a medium still raw, unchecked, and as boundless as the visible world.

It should be clarified that these film artists weren’t the Indies of their time. They weren’t tenacious directors existing outside the studio system but still paying heed to the parameters of commercial distraction. Rather, these were artists of film who entrusted a time-based medium, an industrial apparatus, with the stuff of their enchantments. For their ecstatic visions to find form, something almost miraculous had to occur: the notion that cinema had an innate shape had to be banished. The apparatus itself was not predisposed to the mandates of linear time, classical composition, or blatant exposition. Plasticity was embraced, lyricism sent soaring, abstraction loosed, a painterly manner much trumpeted, the personal slyly promoted, and all this was unified by the discernible mark of the artist in a cinema handcrafted and poetically hewn. This was the “experimental” cinema of Sidney Peterson, James Broughton, Sara Kathryn Arledge, Stan Brakhage, Lawrence Jordan, Bruce Conner, Jordan Belson, Bruce Baillie—the ranks would swell and, in time, be joined by new waves of artists, some turning to video, others to installation.

But how does one capture the reigning sense of this place and, more specifically, its community of sublimely inspired image makers? How does one encapsulate without homogeneous reduction the plethora of artists who have contributed so much to the global enterprise of freeing the moving image from the stranglehold of the mundane?

In modern parlance, one might diversify. And that is what we have done: cut loose from the unified text to embrace a style of collagelike portraiture in which studied critical writings by Scott MacDonald, Margaret Morse, Konrad Steiner, Rebecca Solnit, and Irina Leimbacher share the field with vintage posters and graphically intriguing newsletters. In this varied volume, first-person recollections by distinguished media artists such as Bruce Conner, Cecilia Dougherty, George Kuchar, and Yvonne Rainer are counterpointed by artists’ pages, production stills, and pithy Focuses zeroing in on seminal films and videoworks. It should be noted that the latter were not gathered to construct a pantheon but to speak acutely about individual works. That said, the Focus writers form a pantheon of their own, among them, J. Hoberman, Britta Sjogren, Tom Gunning, Bérénice Reynaud, P. Adams Sitney, and Marita Sturken.

Substantial and original interviews with local luminaries such as Sidney Peterson and Lawrence Jordan unfold as cohesive stories, while other interviews are deployed to refract singular moments from multiple vantage points. In the latter mode, the formative days of Canyon Co-op are relayed through excerpted conversations with Bruce Baillie, Chick Strand, Ernest Callenbach, Robert Nelson, Edith Kramer, and others. Kathy Geritz’s mélange of reminiscence about small-format filmmaking by a handful of significant Bay Area artists, Janis Crystal Lipzin, Scott Stark, Lynne Sachs, members of silt, and Daniel Plotnik, among them, is a prime example. Steve Polta’s shotgun collage of quotes concerning the insurrection that inspired No Nothing Cinema is another; in Polta’s “Emergency Cinema,” you’ll hear from Lynne Marie Kirby, Nathaniel Dorsky, Carmen Vigil, Dean Snider, and many other witnesses to the tumult.

Histories abound as well, such as Steve Anker’s revelatory explication of Bay Area pedagogy in film, since the mid-forties; Deirdre Boyle’s take on the collective spirit of seventies video freaks; Eric Schaefer and Eithne Johnson’s account of the crossover between San Francisco’s expansive porn industry and the body’s liberation in experimental film; Steve Seid’s resurrection of the all-but-forgotten National Center for Experiments in Television; and V. Vale’s pointed essay on the infiltration of avant-garde media by the bristling punk scene—or was it the other way around?

Our polyphonic approach favors unreserved diversity over the cliché of a cohesive film-video community; media practices—subsets of genres, aesthetics, and cultural preference—are keenly dissected to reveal, in some cases, their indigenous origins. Konrad Steiner on poetics, Irina Leimbacher on the essay film, Craig Baldwin on found footage, Kathy Geritz on feminist film pioneers, Steve Seid on conceptualism and the video apparatus, Michael Wallin on queer cinema, Scott Stark on film performance and installation, Maggie Morse on the emergence of the digital: these essays of varied aspect and entry attest to the multifarious makeup of a region whose artistic community has refused easy amalgamation. Rather like the land itself, a media practice has emerged that would require a map of like proportion to chart its every unsettling fold and seismic thrust.

And like a farmer’s almanac, this volume pays heed to the cyclical nature of aesthetic seasons, the native patterns of growth, and the tidal pull of artistic change. We include a chronological aspect to remind us that artists, practices, and institutions emerge, gather weight, resonate for a spell, then recede. And where some essays bore deeply into the soil of a particular artistic practice, such as found-footage film or queer cinema, other essays scan the field, remarking broadly on the panorama of artists’ works and sustaining landmarks.

No survey of cinema culture would be complete without resurrecting visual artifacts that reflect the mood and aesthetics of the time. Reclaimed documents and rescued ephemera are arranged as “Cutaways” in each part, grouping captivating posters, fanciful newsletters, significant correspondence, candid photographs, and other objects that project light onto intriguing aspects of the history.

We hope this survey culminating in the year 2000 shows how film artists have drawn inspiration from the San Francisco Bay Area and, more important, how they in turn have enriched and transformed its generous culture. And this transformation can be felt far beyond the region, in the global circulation of cinema culture. What you have in your hands, then, is a diverse study of an experimental media community bound to a place but not bound by it.

Note: 1. This refers to a now-iconic statement made by Robert Smithson in “The Monuments of Passaic,” Artforum (December 1967): 48.