ARTHUR LIPSETT: ABOUT TIME


A Film Retrospective

CURATED BY BRETT KASHMERE


MUSEUM OF MODERN AND CONTEMPORARY ART, Strasbourg, France
November 27 & 29, 2007


Propelled to international attention through an Oscar nomination at the age of 25, the legendary National Film Board artist Arthur Lipsett remains an anomaly within avant-garde film histories. Uneasily oscillating between a personal, artisanal tradition and the NFB’s institutional mandate “to interpret Canada for Canadians,” he was a popular experimental filmmaker whose eccentric, satirical collage films were renowned around the world. Born in Montréal in 1936, Lipsett displayed early creative talents, winning top honours at the prestigious Museum School of Art and Design. As an artist he came of age during an era of conflict and change. The arrival of television, the communist scare, nuclear anxiety, the Vietnam War, the escalation of the civil rights movement, and Québec’s Quiet Revolution (a period of rapid social transformation and rising Francophone nationalism), all contributed to an emerging cultural style. This new spirit of approach, manifested in the individualism and challenging aesthetics of Le Refus Global and Les Automatistes, Abstract Expressionism, Beat literature, bebop and post-bop jazz, and the American avant-garde cinema, can likewise be found in Lipsett’s films of the 1960s. As the preeminent film experimentalist Stan Brakhage stated in the late-1980s, “If I had just known of Arthur Lipsett in the ‘60s! So many people would have cared in the United States to see his work, and they would have felt it vibrantly. He would have been important.”

However, during the 1960s and ‘70s Lipsett was one of Canada's best-known filmmakers. Thanks to the NFB's promotion and distribution mechanisms, his works were screened frequently at international festivals, on public television, and in university and high school classrooms. The NFB's former “boy genius” was admired by such diverse film patriarchs as Stanley Kubrick, Brakhage, and George Lucas and has been compared favourably to William Blake, J.D. Salinger, Glenn Gould, Dziga Vertov, and Bruce Conner. Despite the awards, accolades, mainstream exposure and cross-continental circulation that Lipsett’s work received in his lifetime, his films have since faded into semi-obscurity. Though once recognized and appreciated inmany countries, he is now better remembered as “the ghost of experimental film in the NFB documentary machine” (Take One’s Essential Guide to Canadian Film) and proof that “experimental film-making at the NFB is an impossible proposition” (David Clandfield, Canadian Film).

There was a time when that proposition wasn’t impossible. While apprenticing with Norman McLaren in the NFB’s animation department, Lipsett developed an original method of audio-visual counterpoint. According to George Lucas, “No one understood the power of image and sound better than Lipsett.” Lipsett crafted his films from documentary outtakes, stock footage and sound extracted from cutting room trim-bins, which he combined with his own moving and still images. Humorous and darkly ironic by turns, his films encompassed many genres, blending experimental form and structure with insightful sociopolitical critique. They also revealed his growing inner turmoil. Although his films were bold, stunning and successful, bureaucratic pressures and Lipsett’s deteriorating mental health forced him to leave the Board in 1970; his filmmaking soon came to a standstill. In 1982 Lipsett was diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia and he died a few years later, just short of his 50th birthday.

The exhibition Arthur Lipsett: About Time presents the first European retrospective of Lipsett’s concise but influential career, re-assembling his dazzling collage work alongside correlative Canadian media artists from the past half-century. Always rhythmically “in time,” Lipsett’s filmmaking opened new directions and possibilities for his and subsequent generations. Seen in this context, Lipsett’s experiments, with time, assume ever richer, more abundant meanings.

Special thanks to Patrick Javault and Catherine Hubert, Musée d'art moderne et contemporain de Strasbourg; James Roberts, National Film Board of Canada; Lauren Howes and Jeff Crawford, Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Center; Wanda Vanderstoop and Erik Martinson, Vtape; Christophe Bichon, Light Cone; Valérie Perrin, Espace multimédia Gantner; Martine Markovits, École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts; Stéphanie Côté, Cinémathèque québécoise; Lois Siegel, Eric Gaucher, Astria Suparak, and Marian Arnold for their generous assistance.

Arthur Lipsett: About Time is produced by the Musée d'art moderne et contemporain de Strasbourg. Travel funding provided by The Canada Council for the Arts. The films of Arthur Lipsett are produced and distributed by the National Film Board of Canada, except for Strange Codes, which was preserved and provided by La Cinémathèque québécoise. Additional films and videos are courtesy Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre and Vtape.

TOUR SCHEDULE
PROGRAMS PRESENTED IN PERSON BY CURATOR BRETT KASHMERE

Musée d'art moderne et contemporain de Strasbourg, France
November 27 & 29, 2007

École d'art Gérard Jacot, Belfort, France
Presented by
Espace multimédia Gantner
November 30, 2007

École nationale supérieure des beaux-artsParis, France
Presented in collaboration with Light Cone
December 4, 2007

Cinema L'action Christine, Paris, France
Presented by Light Cone
December 4, 2007

MuHKA (Museum of Contemporary Art), Antwerp, Belgium
September 12, 2008

Cafe 1001, London, England
Presented by no.w.here and Close-Up
September 16, 2008

Cinematheque Quebecoise, Montreal, QC
Presented by Double Negative Collective
June 4-6 & 12, 2008

Winnipeg Cinematheque, Winnipeg, MB
October 17, 2008


Program I
Lost & Found: The Films of Arthur Lipsett


Arthur Lipsett recognized cinema's ability to reveal the ugly side of life, the things we don’t want to acknowledge: the refuse. By pursuing truth within the everyday, Lipsett also discovered beauty in the basic and the absurd. Utilizing found materials in concert with self-shot photos and footage, his films transform the fragmentary nature of refuse into a unified material vision. This program brings together Lipsett’s first five celluloid compositions, produced at the National Film Board of Canada across the 1960s. These films, which represent the primary arc of his artistic evolution, exemplify how pictures and sounds can be fused in a synthetic yet sincerely personal form.

VERY NICE, VERY NICE --- 1961, 16mm, b&w, 7 min
Arthur Lipsett's first film received a 1962 Academy Award nomination in the Best Live Action Short category. Like all of his films, Very Nice, Very Nice disrupts the representational value of documentary image and sound, moving beyond the genre's aesthetic codes of truth and reliability. The result is a sardonic re-reading of 1950s consumerism, mass media and popular culture. Images of the repulsive and often overlooked damage left by both war and technological progress punctuate Very Nice, Very Nice, giving the film an enduring punch.

A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE --- 1965, 16mm, b&w, 12 min 
A surrealist time capsule combining fifty years of newsreel footage, A Trip Down Memory Lane was Lipsett's first pure collage film, composed exclusively from stock image and sound from the NFB bins. Continuing his process of excavation, mediation and transformation, the film constitutes a brief audiovisual tour of the post-war technocracy. “Another incisive look at human might, majesty, and mayhem,” reads the NFB catalogue description. “The filmmaker calls this a time capsule, but his arrangement of pictures makes it almost explosive. There are hundreds of items, once front-page stuff, but all wryly grotesque when seen in this reshuffle of the past.”

21-87 --- 1964, 16mm, b&w, 10 min
Described as “A wry commentary on machine-dominated man” and as “fragments of a prophesy,” 21–87 is filled with dystopian symbolism. The film conveys Lipsett's concern for an increasingly de-humanized civilization, foreshadowing his embryonic agoraphobia and subsequent withdrawal from public life. 21-87 concludes with “a good-hearted friendly voice” repeating a line from earlier in the film, which encapsulates Lipsett’s view of social conformity: “Somebody walks up and you say, ‘Your number is 21-87, isn't it?’ Boy does that person really smile.” One of his most successful pieces, 21-87 received Second Prize at the 1964 Palo Alto Film-Makers Festival in California, where Kenneth Anger's Scorpio Rising (1962) and Bruce Conner's Cosmic Ray (1963) finished first and third respectively; the title, 21-87 later served as Princess Leia’s cell number in Star Wars (1977).

FREE FALL --- 1964, 16mm, b&w, 9 min 
Free Fall features dazzling pixilation, in-camera superimpositions, percussive tribal music, syncopated rhythms and ironic juxtapositions. Using a brisk “single-framing” technique, Lipsett attempts to create a synesthesic experience through the intensification of image and sound. Citing the film theorist Sigfreud Kracauer, Lipsett writes, “Throughout this psychophysical reality, inner and outer events intermingle and fuse with each other – 'I cannot tell whether I am seeing or hearing – I feel taste, and smell sound – it's all one – I myself am the tone.'” Incidentally, Free Fall was intended as a collaboration with the American composer John Cage, modeled on his system of chance operations. However, Cage subsequently withdrew his participation fearing Lipsett would attempt to control and thereby undermine the aleatory organization of audio and visuals.

FLUXES --- 1968, 16mm, b&w, 24 min
Completed during a period of declining institutional support and increased psychological stress, Fluxes is notably longer and more diffuse than Lipsett’s previous films. Writing on Fluxes, Andrew Munger observes that “the military motif, religious rhetoric and newsreel footage of the trial of 'final solution' architect Adolf Eichmann, accompanied by dialogue from a trashy 1950s science fiction film, collides history and popular culture into… 'a phantasmagoria of nothing.'” The film is Lipsett's most scathing, pessimistic work, and represents a metaphorical emptying out of the NFB trim bin.


Total running time: 65 minutes, prints courtesy National Film Board of Canada 


Program II
Strange Codes: Canadian Collage Film & Video After Lipsett


Arthur Lipsett was working at a time when independent avant-garde filmmaking did not exist in Canada, with a few isolated exceptions – Jack Chambers in London, Ontario; David Rimmer and Al Razutis in Vancouver; Joyce Wieland and Michael Snow, who jointly relocated from Toronto to New York in 1963. In the absence of tradition, Lipsett blazed a new trail. His pioneering collage films imparted exciting possibilities for handmade, cameraless and found footage filmmaking, both in his time and in the present day. Extending upon his applications of vertical montage (the moment-to-moment juxtaposition of picture and sound), the Canadian collage film and video that follows Lipsett is marked by greater formal manipulation and layering, combined with, in some cases, autobiographical, poetic, and emotional subject matter. 

ROSE --- Rick Hancox, 1968, 16mm, color, 3 min
“An experiment in film collage made without the use of a camera. It utilizes food dye and handscratched animation directly on the film surface, intercut with live action found footage starring Hayley Mills. Hacked-up footage from an amateur monster movie is parallel-cut throughout, creating the appearance of a narrative.” - CFMDC catalogue

HANDTINTING --- Joyce Wieland, 1967, 16mm, color, silent, 6 min 
Handtinting is the apt title of a film made from outtakes from a Job Corps documentary which features hand-tinted sections. The film is full of small movements and actions, gestures begun and never completed. Repeated images, sometimes in colour, sometimes not. A beautifully realized type of chamber-music film whose sum-total feeling is ritualistic.” - Robert Cowan, Take One

HYSTERIA --- Christina Battle, 2006, 35mm, b&w, 3.5 min
“In hysteria, Christina Battle refers obliquely to the contemporary political climate using schoolbook illustrations of the Salem witch trials. She works the surface of the film in distinctive ways, lifting the emulsion to add new wrinkles to the image one frame at a time.” - Chris Gehman and Andréa Picard, Toronto International Film Festival

THE BABBLE ON PALMS --- Steven Woloshen, 2001, 35mm, color/b&w, 4 min 
The Babble on Palms is a lush and vibrant cameraless animation, combining found footage, scratch and inking techniques with the universal language of music. Individuality, censorship, shared experiences, and unseen auras are just some of the topics examined in this short experimental animation. Perhaps, when our ears cease to listen, the "babble on" palms, speak. Made on September 12th, 2001 in response to the previous day’s event.” - CFMDC catalogue

C: WON EYED JAIL --- Kelly Egan, 2005, 35mm, color, 5 min
C: won eyed jail is a 35mm film project consisting of two parts: a quilt patterned out of 35mm still negatives and 35mm found motion picture, and a traditional film print of the quilt that is screened through a 35mm motion picture projector. I consider this quilt/film homage to Joyce Wieland, whose artwork called into question the binary oppositions concerning issues of art and craft, personal and public space, content and form, narrative and experimental, as well as commenting on the sociopolitical environment in which we live.” - CFMDC catalogue

GIRL FROM MOUSH --- Garine Torossian, 1993, 16mm, color, 6 min 
Girl from Moush is a poetic montage of the artist’s journey through her subconscious Armenia. It is not an Armenia based in a reality, but one which appears, like the mythical city of Shangra La, when one closes one’s eyes. Rooted in what Jung may call a ‘communal consciousness,’ her Armenia appears on film as a collage of myth, legend, experience and immigration.” - CFMDC catalogue

FUGITIVE L(I)GHT --- Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof, 2005, 16mm, color, 8.5 min
“This film explores the morph-like quality of the Serpentine Dance and its intricate play on the visible and the invisible, which extends to the larger context and legacy of its originator, the American born Loïe Fuller. Fugitive l(i)ght is composed of elaborately reworked found footage, originally captured by Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers, of various renditions and imitations of Fuller's Serpentine performances, where glimmers of her presence slip into the film by means of the artist's absence; both Fuller's and my momentary suspensions through my use of chance operation. These found films are woven into intricately reworked sequences using several computer programs and following the poetic interpretations of several artists who experienced Fuller’s performances in person: texts of Mallarmé, lithographs of Toulouse-Lautrec, sketches of Whistler, and a futurist manifesto on dance by Marinetti.” - CFMDC catalogue

LE BOMBARDEMENT LE PORT DES PERLES --- Richard Kerr, 2005, 35mm to Mini DV, color, 9 min
“A reworking of the trailer for the movie Pearl Harbor, using both handmade and digital techniques. Formally, Le Bombardement explores collage and found sound as voice-over.” - CFMDC catalogue

READY TO COPE --- Aleesa Cohene, 2006, Mini DV, color, 6.5 min, from VTape 
“When denial is a national crisis, the psychological implications of security issues become paramount. In resistance to Canada's recent Anti-Terrorism Act, Ready to Cope comments on the ways in which society's chronic obsession for safety and security has become both a private and public crutch. Edited from clips from horror and science fiction films, thrillers, self-help guides and motivational instruction videos, Ready to Cope is an impassioned record of collective anxiety.” - Vtape catalogue

ICON --- Alissa Firth-Eagland, 2003, Mini DV, color, 1.5 min, from VTape
“While I have a great appreciation for the trigger-edit style that some artists use to produce video, I find it to be used most commonly with imagery that drips with machismo - porn, explosions, horror flicks - to create a highly offensive fast-paced barrage of media. This video is [an] experiment, to see if I could create a work using classic Hollywood shots of women in the same way to deconstruct the iconic stature of the starlet in western cinema.” - Vtape catalogue

I STOLE THE SOUL OF ROCK N ROLL --- Tasman Richardson, 2005, Mini DV, color, 6 min, from VTape
“Through the miracle of video, space and time are collapsed to merge the performances of ice cube, zeppelin, public enemy, the who, and many more, while Charlton Heston chimes in with a little gansta rap. Folded and manipulated into perfect synchronicity in true mega mash post-everything style.” - Vtape catalogue


Total running time: 65 minutes, from Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre, unless indicated otherwise


Program III
Heavy Magic is Coming: Lipsett's Final Films


Celebrated for a handful of remarkable films that circled the globe throughout the 1960s, Arthur Lipsett also authored two works that have seldom screened anywhere. Recalling the Beat ethos of previous decades, N-Zone (1970) and Strange Codes (1974) have more in common with the rambling dramaturgy of the American underground cinema of Adolfas Mekas, Ron Rice, Taylor Mead, Ken Jacobs and Jack Smith, than the acerbic collage style for which Lipsett was famous. Languid, theatrical, self-conscious, and semi-autobiographical, these last films were crafted during a time of declining institutional support and advancing mental illness. “Heavy Magic is Coming” culls its title from the fragmentary notes and diagrams for Strange Codes, evincing Lipsett’s late-career, debilitating paranoia, and an urgent faith in magic.

N-ZONE --- 1970, 16mm, b&w, 43 min
N-Zone is Lipsett's most personal film and a departure from his associative montage style. The film balances a measured use of found footage with scenes of Lipsett and his friends alone and in casual conversation. These “characters” enact an unspoken confrontation between unbridled individuality and social conformity. His usual mixed-bag of pompous politicians, circus stunts, advertising slogans, and atomic bombs is replaced by a thinned-out audiovisual inventory of bells, chanting, celestial imagery, tea ceremonies, candles, crucifixes, statues and other religious symbols. Whereas Very Nice, Very Nice shaped the dull remains of documentary outtakes into a razor-sharp satire of Cold War suspicion, repression and nuclear escalation, N-Zone documents a private quest for spiritual transcendence. 

STRANGE CODES --- 1974, 16mm, b&w, 23 min
In Strange Codes the artist’s apartment becomes the stage for a disjunctive, live-action self-portrait. Operating at the edge of impenetrability, Lipsett’s last completed project is both a riddle and, in the words of Christopher Nutter, “an index to his other films.” Like N-ZoneStrange Codes was made with the assistance of Lipsett’s friend and collaborator Henry Zemel. It features an active camera; recycled science-film audio from Lipsett’s earlier Trip Down Memory Lane (1965), which is inter-cut with Eastern music; and numerous costume changes, masks, and constructed props and sets. The result is a looping concoction of serious play and light mysticism. Produced with the financial aid of the Canada Council for the Arts.


Total running time: 70 minutes, prints courtesy National Film Board of Canada and La Cinémathèque québécoise.


Biographies
 

Arthur Lipsett (1936-1986) was one of Canadian cinema’s most original artists and a key figure in the development of experimental cinema. Lipsett’s charismatic presence and tough avant-garde films lit up Canadian and international festivals in the 1960s. His perfectly judged film cuts, masterful control of sound collage and acerbic wit brought him worldwide interest when his first NFB film, Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Live Action Short. His later films are increasingly metaphysical and filled with elusive, even opaque cinematic poetry, and demonstrate a transcendental quality rare in Canadian cinema.  

Christina Battle holds a B.Sc. in Environmental Biology from the University of Alberta and an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. She lives in Toronto, where she is an active member of its experimental film community. Her work has been screened internationally in galleries and festivals including VideoEx Experimental Film & Video Festival, Antimatter Underground Film Festival, the London Film Festival, The Images Festival, White Box, and the 2006 Whitney Biennial.

Aleesa Cohene is an experimental video artist and picture editor based in Toronto. Her work reedits found media to build an emotional language through which to explore contemporary political problems. Her videos have shown in festival and gallery settings internationally including screenings at the Rotterdam International Film Festival, the Oberhausen Short Film Festival, MIX Brasil, Impakt, and The Images Festival. Cohene is In-House Editor at Charles Street Video, a media arts centre in Toronto, and teaches courses and workshops on video editing theory in diverse local educational settings.

Kelly Egan holds a BA (Honours) from Carleton University, a MA from York/Ryerson University, and a MFA in Film/Video from Bard College. Her films have been screened at major festivals across North America, including the Toronto International Film Festival and New York Film Festival. She is currently working towards a PhD degree at York/Ryerson University in Toronto. In her spare time she enjoys standing at the intersection of visual and musical culture, and listening to the lights change colour.

Artist-curator Alissa Firth-Eagland graduated from the Ontario College of Art and Design in 2003 where her studies focused on curatorial practice, critical writing, performance art, and conceptual video art production. Committed to critical analysis and discussion, she focuses on the exhibition and creation of experimental art practices such as performance, multimedia, installation, and film and video works. Firth-Eagland is currently the Director/Curator of Media Art at Western Front in Vancouver.

Rick Hancox teaches film in in the Communications Department of Concordia University in Montréal, and studied film and photography at NYU and Ohio University, where he earned his MFA. He is known as an artistic innovator of experimental and personal documentary films, including Moose Jaw (There's a Future in Our Past), LANDFALL, and Waterworx (A Clear Day and No Memories), which are in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. He taught for twelve years at Sheridan College near Toronto, where he influenced some of Canada's foremost experimental filmmakers, including Mike Hoolboom, Richard Kerr, and Philip Hoffman.

Richard Kerr is an artist-filmmaker known for his wide-ranging body of work, which has explored a multiplicity of subjects in various genres since the early seventies. Kerr expanded his practice in the mid-nineties to encompass installation work and object making. He is currently a Professor of Film Production in the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema at Concordia University in Montréal.

Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof was born in Poland. At the age of twelve she immigrated with her parents to Toronto, where she currently resides. Pruska-Oldenhof is a graduate of Ryerson University (Bachelor of Applied Arts), and York University (Master of Arts). Her films and videos have been recognized and awarded for their artistic merit by various film festivals and arts organizations. Pruska-Oldenhof is also a founding member of the interdisciplinary Loop Collective. She is currently working towards her PhD degree at York University.

Tasman Richardson is a videomaker, electronic composer, and graphic designer based in Toronto. To date he has had screenings and installations both nationally and internationally in Austria, Switzerland, Holland, Argentina, Egypt, Poland, England, the United States and Canada. He is also the founder of the Jawa collective (champions of aggressive machine gun sex and death video style), media label / curatorial collective FAMEFAME, and co-founder of the Canadian Video Alliance.

Gariné Torossian was born in Beirut, Lebanon of Armenian origin. She moved to Canada in 1979. She is primarily a self-taught filmmaker and photographer. Torossian’s award-winning films have traveled around the world, and retrospectives of her work have taken place in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, Armenia's Cinematheque, Berlin Arsenal and the Telluride Film Festival. 

Joyce Wieland (1931-1998) is regarded as Canada’s foremost female artist. She produced an acclaimed body of work in a great variety of media, from painting and drawing to quilts and film. She gained a unique respect for incorporating strong personal statements in her work about issues of feminism, nationalism and ecology long before it had become fashionable to do so. Her retrospective at the Art Gallery of Ontario was the first-ever afforded a living Canadian woman artist.

Steven Woloshen was born in Montréal in 1960. His first exposure to film was in 1972. A local community program encouraged young people to make films without the aid of camera or raw stock of any kind. In 1980 he was admitted to Concordia University in Montréal and specialized in 16mm independent film techniques. Woloshen currently lives in Québec and has been a member of the Directors’ Guild of Canada since 1991.