By Mi Stress Henry
Editor’s note: This is a follow up piece to TEoB’s previous post with Ted Serios. You can find it HERE.
Two annotations by Mi Stress Henry
I am not familiar with every single director of Hollywood’s golden age, but when Ted mentioned the name Erich von Stroheim, he sure rang a bell. I Googled the name but Wikipedia provided some rather blank information – special interest I don’t share. After another run through Ted’s list of Facebook friends, I kept wondering. It would have made more sense to me if Ted had mentioned Georges Bataille, but what – apart from the fact that he is dead – makes Erich von Stroheim special?
It took me time to remember where I had heard the name before: Erich von Stroheim is the “dirty Hun” out of Kenneth Anger’s notorious chronique scandaleuse, “Hollywood Babylon”(1). A man who was convinced that everything that is worth to be recorded by a camera had to be real – including the infamous orgies that sometimes went on for twenty hours. An attractive plot to Anger, no doubt. Also a man with an interesting concept of realism, especially if you think of it in relationship to thoughtography.
But, by mentioning Erich von Stroheim, Ted also points at Kenneth Anger. (I like to take a mental note about the method: pointing at. I do have this consistent feeling of a second level of meaning about Ted’s statements. And it is true, one thing points to another.)
It makes perfect sense for Ted to refer to Kenneth Anger. Anger has always cultivated a blend of artist and magician. This special amalgamation is very American and it fits my definition of Pop. Furthermore, much of Anger’s attraction is based on the fact that he refuses to distinguish concept from ritual. The resulting effect on the medium turns the rather passive representation into an active agent. It also makes the history of the reception of his work more entertaining.
I recently came across an article by Deborah Allison entitled, “Magick in Theory and Practice: Ritual Use of Colour in Kenneth Anger’s Invocation of My Demon Brother”(2). It is worth reading, not only for this wonderful quotation from an article by Carel Rowe: “All his [i.e. Anger’s] films have been evocations or invocations, attempting to conjure primal forces which, once visually released, are designed to have the effect of ‘casting a spell’ on the audience. The Magick in the film is related to the magickal effects of the film on the audience(3).”
The idea that an image generated with the help of a camera can cast a spell on the viewer is congruent with Ted’s concept of thoughtography.
Deborah Allison herself places the ritual in a more scientific context. Ultimately she transforms the active momentum of the spell into a “physiological response to colours”. I do not think that such a response is inevitable – and if the reaction is not an uncontrolled one, we end up with associations garnished with a bit of symbolism. I believe a “ritual use” is somehow more powerful and maybe more sophisticated.
But, let me interrupt this thread for now. I will come back to the question of color a bit later.
I do have a second annotation, and it regards the “nenshas”. During our interview, Ted thanked Tomokichi Fukurai for his support. In fact, Mr. Fukurai’s experiments with thoughtography predate Ted’s early work by some fifty years. If Wikipedia is right, he started as early as 1910.
Ted characterizes the “nenshas” as “thougtographs that have text” – but Fukurai’s nenshas don’t show western letters, most of them look like Japanese calligraphy.
I have to admit that I have thought of the camera as an instrument of cultural colonization for a long time. Reading Judith M. Gutman’s book, “Through Indian Eyes”(4), made me change my mind. The book contains pictures that make it obvious that photographic technology can be used within the context of a different visual culture. Just like the early European photography sets up on the templates created for painting and prints, the first Indian photographers picked up composition and the description of space coming from their own tradition.
As a matter of fact the British tore their hair out about the “dumb natives” – too stupid to handle a camera – and it is stunning how some of images still look “wrong” today.
“Through Indian Eyes” covers a time span from late 19th to very early 20th century. So it can be said that Tomokichi Fukurai worked around the same time and I think he did something very similar: He transferred images based in the cultural tradition of his country onto light sensitive surfaces. These texts / images can be read as the trace left by a human hand, at the same time they are pictorial symbols and they carry a linguistic content –a very complex description of the world indeed. Fukurai had to use a medium instead of a camera to turn them into photographs.
I like the idea that this makes him a new media pioneer
There is an interesting passage in Fukurai’s book where the medium, Mr. Kohichi Mita, asks whether he should picture the letters or the Castle of Ohgaki. Kawamura, the head of the local police station and one of the witnesses to the experiment, answers, “I mean the letter only! But if you are able to picture the castle itself, much better, if you please.”(5) They end up doing both and there it is, the one classical landscape in the whole book – making all the other images the result of a deliberate decision against visual language of the Western World.
When Ted talks about a “change of perspective” it becomes evident that he wants to continue the struggle. At this point I like to come back to the question of the coloring of Ted’s new thoughtographs. When you take a brush and you draw a line on a white piece of paper the color that you use sits on top of the paper. A colored line upon a white background. If you go on drawing and create a more complex “realistic” image, you will reach a point where you have to read color as “shadow” and the white of the ground as “light” in order to decode the picture. Background and foreground turn around to create an illusion of space. But even with a hyper-realistic painting there will be an interest in the question “how it was done?” – that is, you keep a sense of illusion, you can watch your perception in operation. If we compare this to the way we look at images created by a camera we find ourselves ignoring the play of perception that would indeed impair the documentary character of the technical pictures – i.e. interfere with our will to believe.
Ted’s use of cyanotypes, dyed or not, undermines that kind of trustworthiness on a technical level. There is no black, the thoughtographs appear somehow flat, up to a point where colored structures look like they float on top of the surface. Any attempt to decode the color according to a magickal system distracts from direct effect that the thoughtographs have on our awareness. We don’t need an alternative framework, like the one that a magickal system can provide. What we do need is a comprehensive science of images to replace an art history that justly retired. Until that happens we will continue to operate beneath the radar of our native culture.
Mi Stress Henry, Dec. 2012
Find Ted Serios on Facebook HERE.
1. Kenneth Anger, Hollywood Babylon, San Francisco 1975
2. Deborah Allison, Magick in Theory and Practice : Ritual Use of Color in Kenneth Anger ?s Invocation of My Demon Brother, published in Senses of Cinema, issue 34, January-March 2005
3. Carel Rowe, Illuminating Lucifer, Film Quarterly, vol. 27, no. 6, 1974 p. 26
4. Judith M. Gutman, Through Indian Eyes, Oxford University Press, USA 1982
5. Tomokichi Fukurai, Clairvoyance & Thoughtography , London 1931 p. 211 f