Monday, 1st November 2021
Panel 1: Moving Images Between Art and Science (14.10-15.45)
Chair: D. Graham Burnett
“Alchemical Transmutation in Postmodern Aesthetic Philosophy: Sexuality, Identity and Material Generation”, Chandler Allen
The first attempts to depict non-binary sexed bodies in film were by artists whose practices were influenced by the history of alchemy. The American artist Matthew Barney investigated early modern alchemical imagery of intersexed gods to render real sex and identity transitions taking place at increased rates during the end of the 20th century. His controversial work, which encompassed film, photography, sculpture and performance, would later be exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and spark intense debate among art historians on the nature of postmodern aesthetic philosophy. Were artists of the postmodern era motivated more by developments in gender studies or by advancements in anatomical medicine? Perhaps a new form of analytical psychology was emerging that reevaluated the notion of self and other?
Although these diverse conceptions all have merit, art historians failed to recognize the importance of older scientific practices to postmodernism. By uncovering the relationship between postmodern art and early modern alchemy, two extraordinarily semantically-rich sets of disciplines, this project presents profound connections in the traditionally separate histories of art and science. Further, in focusing on artists working with the moving image, it reveals shared thematic concerns in the treatment of the human body between specific artistic and alchemical practices, and situates them into broader contemporaneous intellectual currents.
“Theorizing a Regional Science in Early Latin American Video Art”, Benjamin Murphy
Emerging in the late 1960s, video technology presented novel imaging techniques, distinct from those already available in film, through its capacity for closed-circuit transmission and networked broadcast. Visual artists quickly seized upon these unique affordances, producing works of video-based art that often closely engaged concepts drawn from the natural and social sciences. An extensive art historical literature has analyzed these transdisciplinary works, exploring how the unique features of video’s moving image facilitated aesthetic experimentation with contemporaneous ideas from diverse fields, notably cybernetics. However, this literature has largely restricted itself to developments within Europe and the United States, ignoring video art’s trajectory in the Global South. This paper intervenes within this historiographic lacuna by attending closely to several early, little-known works of video art created by artists from Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia during the 1970s. Often collaborating directly with academics from across various disciplines, these artists used video technology to intervene within debates then animating Latin American intellectual spheres about the definition of science itself, and about whether there could exist a distinctly Latin American science, built of methods attuned to the region’s geopolitical specificity. Video remained a prohibitively expensive technology throughout the 1970s, and Latin American artists responded to this condition of limited access through a piecemeal strategy that combined and extended the video medium across other, more accessible material supports. Through this intermedial approach, they thus posited a science predicated on a fundamentally reflexive methodology that would be responsive the precarity of the mediums through which that science sought to communicate itself.
“The New Cinema Festival, John Brockman, and the Direction of Experimental Media”, Matt Rosen
The New Cinema Festival, held at the Filmmakers’ Cinematheque in New York City in November 1965, offers a rich and underexplored case study to historians of science interested in intermedia. Melding bodies, projections, and machinery, the artists on show moved beyond the limits of the screen to examine the relationship between the physical medium of film and the human environment. At the same time, disputes over the festival’s management and branding testified to the struggle to define just what intermedia art could and should be.
Cinematheque founder Jonas Mekas’s ambitious programme of ‘expanded’ filmmaking practices included leading experimentalists Nam June Paik, Robert Rauschenberg, Stan VanDerBeek, and USCO. Despite Mekas’s professed amateurism, the handling of the festival was entrusted to John Brockman, a young business graduate. Brockman sought funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, foregrounded press-friendly work, and emphasised his own contributions, which saw him dubbed ‘intermedia’s intermediary’, much to Mekas’s chagrin. Though Brockman 1 was soon fired, the high-profile showcase proved the first step in launching him as an arbiter of scientific excellence; he went on to broker deals for intermedia artists, software writers, and, ultimately, numerous stars of science writing.
How do stakeholders historic and contemporary, lay and academic, contest the boundaries of a method said to transcend or meld formal constraints? Drawing on archival work and oral histories, this paper will examine Brockman’s brief tenure at the Cinematheque in order to contribute to a growing body of literature surrounding attempts to professionalise experimental media practices.
“Animating Light: Elsa Garmire’s Laser Science and Expanded Cinema in the 1960s”, Colin Williamson
Between 1968-1972, an American physicist at the California Institute of Technology named Elsa Garmire produced a series of artful photographs, films, and science demonstrations that explored the aesthetic potential of manipulating laser light into brilliantly colored and swirling arabesques. These moving “laser images” call to mind abstract transformations of chemical reactions, microscopic films of cells and time-lapse films of flowers blooming, and the cosmic formations of nebulae. Garmire’s experiments have received little to no scholarly attention, partly because of disciplinary commitments that continue to separate the history of science from art history and cinema studies. By exploring her attempts to bridge art and science through photography, film, and performance, this paper locates Garmire as a fugitive figure in the landscape of science and the moving image whose work cut across everything from physics research and media theories like Gene Youngblood’s to the intermediality of expanded cinema and experimental art in late 1960s America. I focus in particular on how Garmire’s laser images joined the science of matter in motion with questions of the moving image and medium specificity in the photographic arts. In the process, I trace a longer history of intermediality stretching back to intersections between art and science in Loie Fuller’s famous Serpentine Dance of the 1890s that reveals how Garmire’s light forms reimagined the very idea of “the moving image” in the shared visual cultures of art and science in the 1960s.
Panel 2: Intermedial Animals (16.00-17.30)
Chair: Carlos Tabernero
“Vittorio Tedesco Zammarano: big game hunter in Italian Africa between cinema and literature (1922-1934)”, Beatrice Falcucci & Gianmarco Mancosu
Since the late nineteenth century, the boundaries between exoticism and allegedly scientific purposes in the representations of Africa became blurred in the pictures and films shot by European filmmakers, who crafted footage instrumental to colonizers’ agenda and desires. Images and narratives about the untameable and dangerous flora and fauna, Big-game hunting and safari played a crucial role as tools of imperial administration as well as in the diffusion of a biased knowledge of the colonial world.
Although short films, ethnographic documentaries and travelogues focussing on the exotic encounter with “different” landscapes and cultures have been largely studied in major colonial and postcolonial experiences, no thorough studies have been devoted so far to these visual products within the Italian context. Against this background, our proposed paper aims to highlight the intermedial traits characterizing the construction of the colonial fantasies linked to the themes of hunting and safari in the Italian colonial context between the 1920s and the 1930s, a discourse which crossed different media formats and practices. Against this backdrop, the case of Vittorio Tedesco Zammarano (1890-1955) is probably one of the most significant: he travelled across the African colonies since the Italian-Turkish war (1911-1912), then he moved to Somalia where he was appointed as envoy for scientific missions on behalf of the Royal Italian Geographic Society and of the Ministry of the Colonies. There he tried his hand as a naturalist, cartographer, and filmmaker, making his first film in 1922 with title Hic sunt leones, whose literary adaptation came out the following year. On the contrary, Il sentiero delle belve was first released as an adventure book in 1929, and then as a film in 1932. Zammarano did not limit himself to ‘main’ literature, producing children’s books such as Azanagò non pianse (1934) and Cuoresaldo a caccia grossa (1934).
The paper therefore aims to investigate the relationship between film and literary work in Zammarano’s production, and his contribution in the construction of colonial imaginaries and fetishization of African wildlife. In fact, if Big-game hunting was an activity reserved for a few experts and wealthy tourist-explorers, popular literature and short films helped in the vulgarization and diffusion of such imagery.
“Proto-scientific curiosity interpreted through the intermedial lens of books, films, educational TV programs, and games, all featuring Curious George“, Kristian H. Nielsen
This paper traces the discursive, material, and institutional intermediality of Curious George, the small monkey with childlike attributes invented in the 1940’s by H.A. and M. Rey. Originally conceived as a careless and nonchalant animal, Curious George has since become an icon of the kind of spontaneous and insatiable curiosity that many people believe drive processes of scientific inquiry. As a proto-scientist, George now features in many different media including books, movies, educational TV programs, and games. The 2006 animated film, Curious George, featured Will Ferrell as the voice of the Man with the Yellow Hat and Drew Barrymore as Maggie Dunlop, an elementary school teacher, sparking renewed interest in Curious George as a character. The story focused exclusively on science and science education, more specifically natural history and museum learning. In this film, George with his natural instinct for curiosity and learning was instrumental in changing the Museum of Natural History into an interactive science center. Three years later, the Obama Administration launched the Educate to Innovate initiative to move American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) achievement over the next decade. In my talk, I will emphazise the intermediality of the Curious George “industry”, describing the narratives, visual and material practices, and institutions that have shaped Curious George and the ideas about proto-scientific curiosity that he embodies.
“Intermedia/Interspecies: The Use of Film to Create Human/Animal Models in Comparative Psychology”, Benjamín Schultz-Figueroa
Comparisons between humans and animals are foundational to the experimental branches of medicine and psychology. Yet converting the bafflingly complex bodies and behaviors of nonhuman animals into scientific models is not a straightforward process, requiring careful interventions through a variety of technical concepts and technologies. From testing apparatuses to spreadsheets of findings, from textbooks on animal handling to published journal articles, such a transformation requires an intricate system of interlocking media technologies to accomplish. In “Intermedia/Interspecies: The Use of Film to Create Human/Animal Models in Comparative Psychology,” I argue that film is an essential, yet largely overlooked, element within this process, identifying three crucial approaches to creating onscreen animal models in comparative psychology. The first approach represents animals as emotionally sympathetic and available characters, as seen in the films of early primatologists such as Robert Yerkes and Wolfgang Köhler. A second approach renders animals as abstractions, displaying behavioral principals as such rather than for specific species. Here, mid-century laboratory rat films are the defining example. Finally, a third approach creates an onscreen web-of-life by surveying similar behaviors in a broad range of species, exemplified by Pudovkin’s 1925 film on Pavlov, Mechanics of the Brain, and the animal mating films made for Alfred Kinsey as part of his research into human sexuality. Each of these approaches orchestrates laboratory media in different ways to produce their human/animal comparisons, differences which I conclude have important political ramifications once these films enter the public sphere.
“‘Where do they all go?’ Jerry Payne’s Decomposition of Baby Pigs (1965) and the history of photographic and time-lapse studies in taphonomy”, Ana María Gómez López
In 1965, Jerry Payne, a graduate student in entomology at Clemson University, carried out an experiment where he let the bodies of still-born piglets decompose outdoors in a wooded area of South Carolina, United States. Payne filmed the complete process of decay, setting a clock next to the carcasses to record the passage of time. In the course of the experiment, Payne recognized 522 species of detrivores–“3 phyla, 9 classes, 31 orders, 151 families and 359 genera”—who consumed the entire piglets within days, leaving only bones and integuments. This was the first detailed documentation of arthropod succession in animal decomposition—a subsequent standard in the life and environmental sciences. This paper examines the making of Payne’s Decomposition of Baby Pigs, as well as its broader connection to taphonomy, or the physical processes that affect a biological organism after death, from immediate post-mortem to fossilization over geological time. The first person to document taphonomy in situ was Johannes Weigelt, a German paleontologist who took photographs of hundreds of decomposing animals throughout the U.S. Gulf Coast in the mid 1920s. Although Weigelt produced still images taken with glass plates, his 1927 monograph Recent Vertebrate Carcasses and their Paleobiological Implications (Rezente Wirtbeltierleichen und ihre paläobiologische Bedeutung) is a fitting predecessor to Payne’s Decomposition of Baby Pigs. Both fall squarely in camera-based and time-lapse studies of decomposition in the 20th c. United States and Europe—an intermedial tradition that will be the primary focus of this presentation, which continues to be deployed today in natural reserves, hunting grounds, and taphonomy research centers alike.