First I would like to go back to the context of the experimental as a notion. Siegfried said that what we discuss as being modern optics, is, indeed, something that started already many, many hundred years ago. So it is a kind of a revision of the History of Science to say: What we call “modern” started much earlier. New histories about the Middle Ages, I think, are something really worth discussing, and I´m not critical of this. But I would like to cut this out because this, I think, is History of Science and we don´t have to discuss it here.
I would like to bring the notion of the “experimental” back into the History of Science. There is this famous phrase that was given in those publically celebrated experiments in the 18th century from the British Royal Society of Nature. One of the scientists who organized these experiments came up with this very interesting formula that even resonates with a formula by Kant, saying that scientific experiments are done in order to cause nature to speak up. The experiment was seen as a kind of a torture device, so to speak, to force nature to speak, to declare itself. The experiment was done to get an object to unveil its secrets, its secret laws. One could take this situation of the experiment – as being this kind of torture of Nature, to force Nature to unveil its own laws – into the history of the notion until it hits aesthetics.
In philosophy itself there was this foundation of so-called Experimental Philosophy – and “Experimenatlphilosophie” did indeed deal with problems of perception and experience – so it made the turn in philosophy to discuss some more or less very similar issues that came up with psychology. And it was no coincidence that from the “Experimenatlphilosophie” there came this trend from experimental psychology where you indeed now have all these kinds of experiments of perception. It is interesting to see that from this notion – you would have a long list of psychologists discussing this, and also Freud frequently referred to those names – stems this whole vocabulary that we know from film theory as for example written by Siegfried Kracauer, who, in his Theory of Film, speaks very often – just as Freud did – about these psycho-physical correspondences, and this is indeed a very concrete term that comes from experimental psychology that had his heyday at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century. So there is already a field of experimentation about which one can say: when the experiment becomes part of what then was termed “Experimentalästhetik,” the notion of experiment finally arrived in the field of philosophical aesthetics. Also with this idea that “aesthesis” – that is to say the sensual experience, the sensualism – has to be discussed as the basis of aesthetic judgment, of aesthetic experience in itself and becomes a kind of important layer on this fabric in which art itself sought to be explained. So, when one discusses this – and I want go back to this problem of what Nature is it, that aesthetic experiment is interested in – one could say that experimental film stands partly in this tradition, in so far as it puts in its center its self-perception. So experimental films and experimental aesthetics are interested in bringing afore new perceptions and new experiences that are related to human perception. So in the aesthetic experiment the scientific experiment becomes self-reflective, as the observer of Nature now becomes the observer of himself. So it is the humans themselves that are now exploring these new modes and ways and possibilities to have experiences through perception. If one accepts this definition, then one would also see the extreme – and here I would be very old fashioned – the extreme differences between a scientific experiment and an aesthetic experiment.
The scientific experiment is based on a concept of repetition. Only if in any situation the experiment is repeatable with identical results, then for example the medication would go to the market. If it does not produce the same effects but always a little bit different, we would be a bit nervous to take the medication. So, Nature in the experiment in the sciences is still this kind of a mute Nature that we cannot bring into words. We just can do an experiment with it and on it. But it is different, then, to say: Humans are – in their psychological capacities for perception and experience – at stake in the aesthetic experiments in the experimental film sets. What we experience in watching an experimental film – and what we have seen here, I think, was quite paradigmatic in a Kuhnian sense – is all about perception. And it´s about perception that is a practice. So we perceive something and we are at the same time observing us perceive something. In so far we become, as spectators of these films, the observer and spectator in a kind of a double role. This could be described with this nice metaphor: “mirroring without reflection.” So, on some level one can say that experimental films are based on this philosophical idea of self-observation, of testing the limits of perception. How far can I change perceptional settings to come to new experiences? The emphasis – and this again would be a difference to scientific experiments – would indeed be to shape and to shift the horizon from spectator to spectator. You will never be able to generate an identical reaction in each spectator. One could thus say that experimental film is based on the assumption that perception is something that has to do with imagination. In film, it has to do with producing an illusionary effect. And we, as spectators – and I speak here not from the position of the producer or the maker but from the position of the spectator –are having a rendezvous with our own capacities by seeing experimental films. I think that is why it is so extremely interesting to see that it has these cognitive aspects at the same time. But you will never have these cognitive aspects isolated in the way you would have them if you were an observer of a scientific experiment. It goes into your own psyche. And one could even say that this whole notion of projection – I think it is a very great quote you brought from Kapp – ...
The wit in projection is that you never see the source of it. So the projection is something that goes in the world. There is this image you see, it is the world, but you will never see the source from which this image is projected. In these aesthetic experiments the source of the projection remains veiled. And that’s why it is not so easy to say: “Well, you know, we are smart, we have known about our optics for two thousand years... So it is easy to look at these films and to analyze them...” and so on. No, it is not easy! Because, indeed, the source of projection is not something what we can really see. So that is something we have to disclose through our own experience in the viewing-process. And so one can say – and it sounds cynical, but I don´t mean it like this – that experimental films are indeed experiments on the human.
When you have to write a research proposal you always have this category: “Are you doing experiments on humans?” And if you do so, you have to hold on very strict rules, ethical rules, I mean...
In humanities you always make a void. You don´t have experiments on humans. But I must say that if I were to do a study on experimental film I would have to say: “Yes, I am doing experiments on humans.” So this is perhaps comment on how one can bring back this long history of scientific research and adventures to the question: What is the difference – not what are the analogies – but what are the differences to aesthetic experiments? I would always say that aesthetic experiments are experiments on us. We experiment with ourselves. That´s why film, and also experimental film, as structuralist as it might be conceptualized, always has this kind of open horizon that makes it vital in the sense that we can see these films over and over again without always reproducing the same effects in our viewing process.
I think this tells a story that has to do with the concepts of time indeed and I share the passion for Theunissen's “Negative Theology of Time” (Negative Theologie der Zeit). He has a very complicated notion of time and at one point he links it to the question of memory. He discusses negative examples, so to say, of pathologies of time experience. What are, finally, modes of experienced time? It is very complicated because on some level time is such an abstract thing. So, how do we experience an abstract thing? For Kant time was a practical sense we cannot live without, we just have it, we know it. If you look at film and these experimental settings of coming to terms with this different ways of experiencing time, then, I think, it is always about bringing film into a kind of a melancholic mode. Because it is still a valid formula: what we see in film is always something past. So, when we see it in a film, it is already made, it is already a dead object. And so we have to reanimate the time experience of something that is already gone. So in this film we just have seen – with the tracks [TRIFTER 1] – it is all about repetition. Even the first film with the rotating image, MY WINDOW, it is all about the kind of efforts, which are without any end, to come out of the time-line, what is not possible at all. And so, I think, one could argue (with Theunissen) that film has this melancholic moment in it, as it is always something that is repeated and repeatable, but it never is really there in real time. But it is in the real time of the spectator, of course. And so I would say that film time is something that is animated time, that is a time that is a subjective “Eigenzeit,” a kind of an individual time of the spectator. This makes these films so interesting. They are all dealing with so many time notions and time frames. Just take Michael Snow's films, for example, or think about James Benning's films, where you always have this concept that the sound space is conceived by the spectator as a kind of an outside, the off. There is an off-space of the image and in this off-space the sound happens, you see the image becoming fiction. So it might be interesting to say – when we speak here about how we think in film and how film itself thinks – that basically, it is about thinking in terms of different times. If you think of Benning's or Heinz's films you see that they are producing very similar paradoxes. What might look like being a kind of sound coming from the off-screen very often is a sound that comes from the studio. So is a heterotopian sound that gives us the feeling that what we see is part of a bigger world. So it is the time that generates this kind of a broader horizon where we think, if we had enough time, we would hear more about this world. And on some level one can say that this cognitive moment, that the sound becomes the marker for the relatedness of the image to the world, of the on-screen and the off-screen and this is what forms what we could call a film image in the spectator. It is never only a frame. It is this kind of entity that builds this mental image in the spectator that we see when leave the room and say: I have seen a film. And we always speak about a film as a whole, as an entity. We do not say: I have seen an image. We haven´t. Basically what we know is that we’ve perceived thousands of images. But we have only one mental image that is for us a kind of an internal link to the projected film.
So I think what we have here, in discussing experimental films, is a kind of unfolding the layers of film with regard to spatial and temporal horizons and their limits. All films experiment with shifting these limits. And I think that what still makes experimental film a vital aesthetic field of production, is that experimental film indeed focuses on this crucial basis of experience. A film experience that is not entirely identical with the story that we can than re-narrate chronologically. One can argue that a film always has a narrative mode in it, since it is running in a temporal order. You may say that this is the nucleus of narration itself, so that also the experimental film has a kind of narration, a narrative order insofar as there is the first, the second, the third image. And I can talk about a film like: and then comes this, and then this, and so on. All these things that are combinations of temporal and spatial orders implement a narrative structure. But this would be a totally different concept. I think that this whole idea of the film narrative is definitely based on this temporal structuring and thus one cannot divide it, and one should look at how experimental film does these minimalistic attempts to redefine what the story of a film is. It may be just one gesture or a movement, but something that definitely develops in time through the differences from all frames to one another. So, maybe I'll stop here and we can open the discussion...