The Regions of Experience – Alice Růžičková: Biostructures

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In some sense scientists, specifically cell biologists were the first experimental filmmakers. Their stunning movies of cells, tissues and embryos under the microscope were shot in laboratories. Though they did not necessarily direct their “actors,” as the cells were mainly responsible for their own performance, they framed their stories by carefully choosing the type of microscope and lens, deciding on the lighting, sometimes even experimenting with subtle editing techniques, like time lapse. [1] Soon after the advent of motion picture cameras around the turn of the century, scientists such as Etienne Jules Marey, Jean Comandon and Ronald Canti[2] turned their cameras on microscopic specimens making red blood cells, cheese mites and syphilis bacteria the first “stars” of these experimental movies. By arranging images of the complex inner structure of a flower Alice Růžičková follows on a similar path in her 1997/1998 film Biostructures.

The references to the display of Canti’s recently discovered and digitized cell film series The Cultivation of Living Tissue prove that these scientific experimental films were not only aimed at a special scientific audience but were widely distributed among uninitiated viewers all around the world.[3] Without any explanation insiders saw movements of specific cultured cells, while for others they were “only” unidentifiable, abstract moving images. Experts identified them as documentation of specific scientific experiments, while the rest without knowing the context and the framework could see them as fascinating moving images of different forms and figures – artistic even. These scientific experimental films and the difference in the perception and the interpretation of their imagery anticipate a long standing debate rooted in 20th century art theory concerning the distinction between abstract and figurative imagery. They also immediately resolve the problem by stating: abstraction is relative. As formal predecessors of the lyrical avant-garde films which appeared in the fifties and have maintained an active relationship with science ever since, these early scientific recordings also seem to prove in advance that abstraction does not necessarily free art from relatability to life, “it merely alters the regions of experience which can be dealt with and the kinds of relationship which are possible.”[4]

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When Marey, Comandon and Canti started to edit their films by applying different techniques to  accelerate and decelerate they put their signature on them and drew attention to their presence behind the camera. With the appearance of lyrical avant-garde film, in contrast with previous avant-garde film trends, the filmmaker behind the camera became the first person protagonist of the film without leaving his original position. “The images of the lyrical film are what he sees presented in such way that the viewer knows how he is reacting to his vision. […] The screen is filled with movement and the movement, both of the camera and the editing, reverberates with the person looking. [The space of the film] transforms itself into the flattened space of Abstract Expressionist painting.”[5] While movie making has become a ubiquitous experimental tool that biologists use to dissect their processes of interest,[6] biology has become a favoured source for experimental filmmakers to come up with new methods for creating abstract imagery more distant from the known fine art practices. Similarly to the cinemicroscopic studies of Canti, Marey and Commandon they utilized cinematic technology to get closer to their subjects.

For his 1963 film Mothlight, Stan Brakhage collected dead moths, flowers and leaves and seeds and placed them between two layers of Mylar editing tape, “a transparent, thin strip of 16mm celluloid with sprocket holes and glue on one side.”[7] The passing light through the construction revealed the veins and netlike structures of the plants and moth wings, which were transformed into a three minute long abstract pulsation thanks to the extreme speed of the film.

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With a calmer rhythm Růžičková’s Biostructures adapts an analogous technique and presents a study of a cherry flower glued to the film material with onionskins pigeon plumes and dandelion’s fluff fixed to scotch tape and movable celluloid.[8] Though this film belongs to a group of Czech experimental works made in the nineties emphasizing the materiality of film and the artisanal nature of filmmaking, interpreted as a protest against the complete digital switchover (Blažíček: Test, 1997; Neo-B, 1997); it is also directly connected to the “trend” of cinemicroscopy. For Růžičková the chosen topic was more than just a random subject to present an idea. She graduated from Charles University’s Faculty of Science with a teaching degree in biology-mathematics and zoology-entomology in 1991 and from FAMU’s Documentary Department in 2004. In Biostructures she combines science and art, creating a lyrical experimental work with abstract and half-abstract images functioning both as informative documentary and a purely aesthetic vision.

Contrary to Brakhage, Růžičková introduces the subject of her investigation in its complete, figurative form. Before breaking it down into parts and revealing its structure, she shows a black and white image of a flower and its reproductive system. This black and white picture of the whole is contrasted by the warm colourful images of the details. The editing technique of Brakhage’s Mothlight seems to reflect on the brisk movement of the moth, while the rhythm of the images of Biostructures recall a more subtle movement of a flower in a summer breeze. Instead of nervous flickering Růžičková choose a more demure floating rhythm, and so some of the images of Biostructures are more likely to be identified than the rushing fractures of Mothlight. But at the same time, just as in the early films of scientific experiment, the level of interpretation in Růžičková’s piece depends on the scientific competencies of the viewer. Even with time to take in the floating long yellow brown shapes and dark oval forms seem rather abstract for most viewers.

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Růžičková took on a similar topic departing partly from the lyrical form in 2014, when she recycled the scientific film experiments of Jan Calábek himself a scientist (botanist) and filmmaker, to make Calábek Autonomous. Here Růžičková alternates time lapse macro shots with descriptions of measurements, which appear, to the uninitiated, as abstract images with live action scenes creating a slightly surrealist homage to the work of “this enthusiastic popularizer of science”.

In his iconic book about abstract film Malcolm Le Grice claims that through abstraction art, instead of representing the world, could be a model for it, functioning as analogy rather than imitation. “In addition artists could explore regions of perceptual experience which could only be the product of the special nature of the medium in question, in no way available in the world except as created through art.”[9] This transformation is well illustrated in the difference between the seemingly abstract imagery of the cinemicroscopic cell experiments and the later lyrical avant-garde film inspired by biology. The early scientific filmmakers recorded what was happening in front of them, resulting in a piece mainly functional as an informative work, but capable of providing an aesthetic experience for a wider audience. The lyrical films, like Růžičková’s Biostructures, rather use the images of reality that would be inaccessible to the naked human eye, to create a more perceptual personal experience, an impressive collage of the abstract structures of nature.

Written by: Dorottya Szalay

 

[1] Stramer, Brian M. and Dunn, Graham A. (2015) “Cells on film – the past and future of cinemicroscopy”, Journal of Cell Science, January 1, 2015, 128/1.
[2] Comandon even became a professional cinematographer.
[3] Stramer and Dunn, 2015
[4] Grice, Malcolm Le (1977) Abstract Film and Beyond, Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 15.
[5] Sitney, Adams P. (2002) Visionary Film. The American Avant-garde 1943-2000. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press. P. 160.
[6] Stramer and Dunn, 2015.
[7] Sitney, 2002, p. 174.
[8] Bergner, Marcus (2001) “A puddle 400 years ago”, MESH #15 (experimenta.org)
[9] Grice, Malcolm Le, 1977, p. 16.

 

 

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