AFS Presents Works by Bill Morrison for its Winter 2022 Essential Cinema – Starts Jan 20

This January and February AFS presents works by renowned contemporary American filmmaker Bill Morrison for its Essential Cinema program. His masterful and critically acclaimed works, constructed from mostly decaying nitrate films, are achieved through extensive archival research as well as close collaborations with some of the world’s most innovative contemporary composers, including William Basinski, Michael Gordon, Julia Wolfe, Philip Glass, Jóhann Jóhannsson, Bill Frisell, and David Lang.

Our series begins with the opening night presentation of DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME on January 20 at 7:30 PM. Bill Morrison will join us along with Craig Campbell, Associate Professor of Anthropology at The University of Texas at Austin, to introduce the film and a Q&A afterwards. See the full line-up and get tickets here.

We asked Professor Campbell to provide some context ahead of the series. Here he shares his thoughts on damage, ruin, and decay in relation to the photographic image and the work of Bill Morrison:

The upcoming series of events focused on the filmmaker Bill Morrison is an opportunity to explore a remarkable and unique body of work. Curated by Donato Loia, 2020-2021 Curatorial Fellow at the Visual Arts Center (VAC), we are invited not only to view Morrison’s films and hear him introduce and talk about them during this screening series at the Austin Film Society, but also to encounter the associated exhibition Bill Morrison: Cycles & Loops installed in the VAC gallery and listen to the original score of The Great Floor, a collaboration between Morrison and legendary musician Bill Frisell, which will be presented at the Texas Performing Arts on January 21. From the cinema to the gallery and concert hall, this curated set of events is unlike any I have been involved in before.

As an anthropologist and scholar of archival photography, I have been asked to introduce the film DAWSON CITY: FROZEN TIME on January 20. What fascinates me about Morrison’s work with found footage in DECASIA and DAWSON CITY is the way that he uses damaged images to animate our relationship to the past and in doing so, exposes the double fictions of actors acting in a world that no longer exists, that has become to us unfamiliar and strange.

Visible damage on the surface of a photographic image enacts two fascinating processes: it produces both a radical clarification and a temporal convolution. As with all representations there is a distance between that which once was and what we see now. Looking at a photograph, particularly an old one, I am struck by the absolute particularity of a moment that has been captured. I rush past the representational construct to the thing itself. This photographic encounter, of the camera and the world that stands before it forces itself to the front of my attention. I’m not thinking about the cuts or manipulations but of the piercing eyes, the beautiful motion of the horse, the bodies of the men walking towards me, the curious gestures and gazes looking through the camera, unknowingly across a hundred years to me, here, now. Yet this is complicated when I look at an image that is evidently marked by damage and decay, by ruin.

What follows is an excerpt from an essay I wrote in 2016 titled “The Ephemerality of Surfaces: Damage and Manipulation in the Photographic Image”:

The impossible concealment of the real punctures surface.  For example, breaking the fourth wall in theatre effectively reinforces the reality of the everyday by naturalizing its difference: “this is real, this looking at you is the real; the stuff on stage is fiction.” This willing and playful suspension of disbelief in the fantasy of the theatrical production can be repeated through a similar operation in photography.  The peeling emulsion on the film is a failed masking, where the artifice of the photograph is too evident. The 2002 collage and found footage film DECASIA by Bill Morrison places damaged film footage at the center of his experimental project.  Like Peter Delpeut’s 1990 LYRICAL NITRATE, DECASIA foregrounds the “death of film in motion by using film footage damaged by water, dryness, fungi, discoloration, celluloid acetate degradation or nitrate decomposition” (Cramaaer 2009: 371).  The structure of concealment and disclosure that surrounds the truth claims of the documentary photograph is called out through the materiality of damage.
Still from DECASIA 

The image itself is no less easily secured than its surface.  The world inscribed as the photograph becomes murky on the perimeter of the negative.  Before being lost to the edge of emulsion the image is often swollen, misshapen, deformed and tortured. Such evidence of material process is typically effaced through active cropping and (later in the technological biography of photography) tighter mechanics so that now a hard edge is natural to the photograph and edge effects are not implicit in the production of the image but added after the fact. How does all this signify?  What is the semiotic life of damage, decay, and manipulation?  Michael Pierson argues that collage films like those of Morrison and Delpeut draw “spectators to an affective realization of the lived reality of the past” (2009: 19).  More than that, just as the age of an image is signaled by the medium (consider for example black and white and sepia photographs) the evidence of the material life of an image can be signaled by the accretion of patina.

In the past twenty years electronic images in conjunction with a ubiquitous and globalized internet infrastructure have led to new post-institutional image archives.  These are de-centered archives that are no longer defined around the consignation of artifacts to a particular locale but rather by the surface of the individual images that are constantly forming and re-forming in diffuse relational constellations both on and off the internet.  Archival photographs have traditionally been administered by sanctioned gatekeepers—archivists, curators, and historians—whose function, beyond controlling who can see the images, is to interpret them and to generate meaning from them. The instability of images as signifiers of anything other than the everyday is highlighted when they are released from the rarified environment of museums and archives.  This is the contemporary cultural scene where formerly circumscribed images are mobilized through digital proliferation.

The myth of the photographic copy is that it returns the same thing in each iteration.  The sensuously persuasive evidence of this masks the more significant point: that of image-encounter. This image differs from that for its relational triangulations; its referential ecology.  To insist on this radical materiality is to insist on a recalibration of our tools for looking at and writing about the mediated world.  I wonder if damaged photographs disrupt the easy path of representation. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett expresses anxiety over the totalizing discourse surrounding representation and its stubborn obsession with the distance between the real and the representation.  She appropriates the term mediation to side-step and keep a curious and analytical spark alive. Quoting Jeffrey Shandler, she writes: “we are interested in ‘the relations among creators of a mediation, its medium and genre, its audience, its critics and epiphenomena, its history of remediation, as well as the form and content of the media work itself’” (Hirsch et al. 2005: 1500). For Kirshenblatt-Gimblett the complexity of human life necessitates intellectual objects that don’t either pretend to exhaust their referent or get irreparably mired in their failure to represent.

What is so exciting about Morrison’s films is that they do not fetishize damage. Rather they dwell in it. They embrace the ruin and play it in the foreground as a technique that complicates the fabulations of belief. This both signals the materiality of film: the death of film in motion and the experience of visual encounter that has the capacity to draw the viewer into an affective realization of the lived reality of the past.

References Cited.

Cammaer, Gerda J. 2009. “Film Reviews: Lyrical Nitrate. Directed by Peter Delpeut, The Netherlands 1990. Decasia. Directed by Bill Morrison, USA 2002.” Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 15, no. 3 (August 1, 2009): 371–73.

Campbell, Craig. 2016. “The Ephemerality of Surfaces: Damage and Manipulation in the Photographic Image” In Materialities. Curated by Kyler Zeleny. TVC#47. London, UK and Taipei, Taiwan: The Velvet Cell. 57-89.

Delpeut, Peter. 1991. Lyrical Nitrate. Documentary.

Hirsch, Marianne, Kishenblatt-Gimblett Barabara, and Taylor Diana. “What’s Wrong with These Terms? A Conversation with Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett and Diana Taylor.” PMLA. Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 120, no. 5 (2005): 1497-1508.

Pierson, Michele. 2009. “Avant-Garde Re-Enactment: ‘World Mirror Cinema, Decasia’, and ‘The Heart of the World.’” Cinema Journal 49 (1): 1–19.