Incremental Framebusting: The Paragon Example of Lynn Marie Kirby

The parergon is a form which has as its traditional determination not that it stands out but that it disappears, buries itself, effaces itself, melts away at the moment it deploys its greatest energy.

                                                          -- Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting

For any of this to make any sense at all, we’re going to need to establish a frame of reference.  At least one. Maybe a few.  Perhaps we should start with Lynn Marie Kirby’s position vis-à-vis the present situation in experimental film and video. Then we can work out from there.

If in the post-identity politics era, many media artists have been unwilling to commit to rigor and medium-specific concerns (for fear of seeming off-putting or inadequately “engaged”), the flipside has also been true; the reaction against so-called issue art has often resulted in a climate in which younger experimentalists insulate themselves from criticism by blithely refusing to take much of anything seriously. Emerging in the wake of this dialectic, Lynn Marie Kirby’s recent film / video hybrids strike a rare balance between austerity and playfulness, a trick that much of the avant-garde has been trying to pull off in recent years, with uneven success. Kirby’s latest work is deeply unfashionable. It stakes out formal problems so specific to the history of film, video, and the plastic arts as to risk incomprehensibility for the casual viewer. The work can, from a certain misguided angle of approach, look like nothing, some blippy forms and test pattern fragments dancing around with intractable purpose and then evaporating, perhaps serving as visual sorbet to cleanse the palate before the next piece in the group show (usually something “lyrical” and “poetic,” or a lackluster piece of computer animation). All by way of saying, these pieces are virtuosic, even stunningly so, but the risk they run is one that most contemporary media art studiously averts.  

This risk is exactly the point.  Kirby’s “Latent Light Excavations” series, a set of gracefully knotty video improvisations, operate at the awkward juncture between film and video at their most adamantly medium-specific. These works begin life as cameraless films, with Kirby exposing raw stock to the shifting available light at a predetermined location. There is always some conceptual basis for the site of exposure, sometimes social (the Piaute Indian reservation), sometimes socio-spiritual (the Golden Gate Bridge), other times completely personal (a neighborhood landmark, a family event). She then loads this information into a video synthesizer, where the raw stock encounters both the built-in settings of the machine (scan lines, wipe techniques, pre-set forms such as triangles and squares) and Kirby’s live, real time performance-editing, in which she assigns durations to different segments of the original footage and sculpturally shapes it in a single improvisational pass.  In describing her process, Kirby has remarked, “I like to think of myself as a jazz musician when I’m making these pieces. For some reason, I think of [the console] as a saxophone.”

Just like each of the pieces themselves, Kirby’s recent turn toward ultra-minimalism has a backstory.  Actually, to be more precise, we might say it has at least two backstories, one pertaining to shifts in San Francisco-based avant-garde production, and one pertaining to Kirby herself. We can begin with the “broader” one. For decades, left-coast experimentalism was synonymous with a certain strain of hippy-Zen, typically contrasted to the more levelheaded, intellectual work produced in the New York / Toronto corridor. (Such structural investigation was often derided as “chilly” or worse, “masculinist” by the California sector.)  This division certainly eased in the 1980s and, by the 90s, the San Francisco scene was supporting a new kind of practice.  Certainly too diffuse to constitute a movement and with no definitive beginning or end point, the Bay Area bore witness to diverse film and video artists united by a new approach to structure, a wry, self-effacing humor, and a playful but honest commitment to film-theoretical concerns.  A mere laundry-list of some of the individuals constellating the SF scene in the 90s – Kirby, Scott Stark, Anne McGuire, Luis Recoder, Jun Jalbuena, Dominic Angerame, Craig Baldwin, along with the bicoastal Ernie Gehr – is enough to convey the broadest divergences, but also to hint at a sea-change in the scene, a new generation operating from the standpoint of having moved through structural film, keeping its Oulipo-esque gamesmanship without hewing to its ontological excesses. Although some of the ideas and approaches that characterize Kirby’s creative practice have been “in the air” in recent decades and are related to general shifts in Bay Area practice, hers is a unique conjunction of conceptual rigor and investigative spirituality. This is one conceptual framework within which Kirby’s film and video work could be said to “make sense.”

Here’s another, smaller frame.  Lynn Kirby’s work since the 1990s has often focused on family life, domestic space, and other traditionally “feminine” subject matters.  But like Yvonne Rainer before her, Kirby subjects this autobiographical material to highly formal procedures, abstracting it in the belief that its personal valence will be heightened through its interaction with medium-specific concerns.  Kirby began studying cinema at the San Francisco Art Institute in the seventies, and although she was enrolled in one of the most doggedly medium-specific film programs in the U.S., she began experimenting with video quite early.  “I was incorporating video into performances and people sort of looked askance at that at the time.” Although Kirby has identified the structural / materialist tradition as being one of her major influences from the start, her work from the seventies and eighties has a very different feel, more in keeping with the abstract, personal-voice works that characterized much feminist film work of the period. A film like Sincerely (1980), for example, adopts an approach is miles away from the recent work, although just as conceptual. Virtually all text, Sincerely provides a succinct (and bracingly funny) report on one U.S. Senator’s reply to Kirby’s letter urging him not to vote for the Hyde Amendment, a piece of legislation designed to impose serious restrictions on a woman’s right to choose.  In a more poetic vein, Sharon and the Birds On the Way to the Wedding (1987) interrogates the ideologies that saturate the available vocabularies for describing love relationships. Textually, Sharon evinces an intuitive encounter with the work of Julia Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, while the free-associative, almost fugal image track recalls contemporaneous work by Rainer and especially Su Friedrich.

From there, Kirby began a series of films, installations, and videos that zeroed in on particular textures of landscape and its interaction with the build environment.  Through the nineties and into the first few years of this decade, Kirby’s work gradually shifted its focus away from the explicit languages of politics, but the politics, you might say, began bubbling up from underground. Kirby’s films and digital videos from this period foreground the cognitive and time-based human absorption and assimilation of space and spatial information. Referring to some of these works as “Time Dilations,” Kirby has characterized this work as an attempt “to express a way of looking at time and space both simultaneously and pulled apart” (quoted in Skoller, 2002).  Again returning to the formal procedures gleaned from her structural forebears (Gehr, Hollis Frampton, Malcolm LeGrice, and especially Michael Snow), Kirby’s later works emphasize the “mediation” of media, staging encounters between Parisian views, for example, or the rolling hills of the Napa Valley, and the mathematical dissolution of the digitally manipulated image. A video such as Out of Step (2001) collides unassimilable visual languages – the family vacation video, the fixed-frame landscape study, the ethnographic survey, and the pure Ben-Day abstraction of Op Art or De Stijl. Although Out of Step’s political critique is performed within the image and is somewhat less overt than Sincerely, the piece is, among other things, a consideration of the way we consume spaces and people as we move through them, our bodies and cameras unwittingly absorbing the sedimentary histories and social formations that predate our arrival. This account of Kirby’s artistic evolution, and in particular the intimate connection between spatial inquiry and increasingly abstract means, could serve as a second, complementary framework for understanding this difficult new work.

The landscape, then, is free to “speak” in Kirby’s light exposures, but not without a structuring framework of its own. With the Latent Light Excavations, Kirby has expressed a desire to both concretize the political landscape through materialist records of its available light and energy, and to capture the spiritual reverberations of traumatized sites, performing a kind of cinematic alchemy.  Some have characterized Kirby’s work as “esoteric,” and I suppose this is true to the extent that the specific histories of the Light Excavations sites are required for full understanding.  But it may be more proper to say that Kirby is opening her work to the possible intervention of a spirit world, in the form of chance procedure.  Do the ghosts of suicide jumpers, for example, haunt the Golden Gate Bridge, and if so, is some aspect of their being recorded in Golden Gate Bridge Exposure: Poised for Parabolas? The film is open to the question, but Kirby explores the problem in a strictly materialist manner, much in the same way that Michael Snow acknowledged that Wavelength contained, among other things, his “religious inklings.”  (Appropriately, Kirby’s 1996 installation C to C, included in the upcoming MoMA show, is, among other things, an homage to Wavelength.) Kirby’s work in effect uses structural rigor to problematize, revise and expand the spiritual tradition that characterized the west-coast avant-garde in the first place.

Following this line of thought from materialist filmmaking to her commitment to new and hybrid media, Kirby’s process plumbs the gap between film- and video-specificity. Cameraless films abandon cinema’s traditional segmentation into frames, but Kirby’s video translation of this raw material introduces mobile framing and reframing through strictly video means, such as off-center split-screen and multi-image refraction. 2004’s Lenten Light Conversions, for example, manipulates its color-fields with formal precision, but also has a funky bebop swing to it that supplements the rigor rather than implicitly apologizing for it. In description, it all seems very simple. Kirby shows a red frame, then a yellowish one.  She then letterboxes the red frame, cropping it on all sides as if placing it on a layout table.  In other parts, she bounds the video frame with a static vertical yellow stripe, while the remainder of the frame changes colors and exhibits the scratches of film in motion.  In less than two minutes, Kirby orchestrates her souvenirs of pure light into arrangements resembling Barnett Newman’s "zip" paintings, or even populist sources like the sleeves from old New Order 12-inches. Lenten Light Conversions reopens certain key problems in the history of video art (particularly how to harness the raster’s “flow”), examining them from the standpoint of a showdown between different media at their irreducible limits. The result is appropriately catholic; Video enters the temple of Cinema, and is converted.

Similar methods obtain in Pyramid Lake Piaute Reservation Exposure, also from 2004. Whereas Lenten plays pure colors against one another, Pyramid Lake manipulates figure / ground relationships. The baseline image is a canary yellow field interrupted by a tilted white triangular form, and against this home-position Kirby bumps the image upward, emulating the celluloid frame-adjustment, while also introducing carefully manipulated vertical lines on the left and right. The dual work on the frame seems to function musically, like naturals played against sharps and flats; Kirby’s improvisational style suggests the post-Cagean art music of Morton Feldman or Giacinto Scelsi, operating on the basis of variances of attack within a restricted tonal range. Moreover, this is the first of Kirby's pieces in this vein that struck me as having a relationship to animation, albeit a contrary one that thwarts the expectations typical of animated films. The main form doesn't move, and its compositional context shifts around it. In this regard Pyramid Lake contains echoes of Robert Breer's work, but its chief strategies are painterly. The piece almost functions like an Ellsworth Kelly canvas evolving in condensed time.

In their own way Lenten Light Conversionsand Pyramid Lake are every bit as parsimonious and preordained as Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer or Sharits’ Ray Gun Virus. But other works in the Light Excavation series are more erratic and discombobulated, perhaps none quite so much as Black Belt Test Exposure. The filmic material was exposed, as the title suggests, at a martial arts expo in which Kirby’s young son James was undergoing his black belt examination.  Whereas earlier Light Excavation works are compact and, like the great structural masterworks, teach the viewer how to watch them over the course of their running time, Black Belt is devoted to continually throwing the spectator off-balance, flipping us around without necessarily pinning us to the mat. To call it "sprawling" in this context probably makes it sound sloppy or uncontrolled, and that's the furthest thing from the truth. During one presentation of the piece, Kirby explained that she was attempting to approximate the ten grueling rounds her son underwent, how the examinee must endure various types of sparring and in doing so reflexively react to the unexpected. Here, saturated color frames reminiscent of the earlier exposure-works are disrupted by pure black-and-white scan lines and video feedback. Black Belt is a summary work, combining techniques from several different phases of Kirby's practice, and this allows Kirby’s improv strategy to achieve a new level of freedom, with certain expected formal gestures disrupted by whole new frames of reference. While watching the piece for the first time, I grooved on it but also felt an acute sense of confusion, particularly in relation to the rhythmic exactitude of other works in the series. In short, I entered the ring with the best intentions, had a great time, but got my ass kicked. In light of this energizing defeat, this viewer respectfully requests a rematch. Hopefully by then I’ll have developed a few more frames of reference of my own.

Work cited:

Jeffrey Skoller, “Looking Back From the Middle: The Domestic Lives of Lynn Marie Kirby.” Lynn Marie Kirby, ed. Discrete and Continuous Boundary Problems. San Francisco: San Francisco Cinematheque Press, 2002.