Digital Divide

Tony Pipolo on new digital films by Ernie Gehr

Ernie Gehr, Autumn, 2017, HD video, color, sound, 32 minutes.

HOWEVER GRUDGINGLY film-lovers have accepted the hegemony of digital, there is no denying that avant-garde artists have spun gold from newer media. The indomitable, self-taught Ernie Gehr, whose film career began in the late 1960s and whose thirty-odd ventures in 16-mm include such gems as Still (1969–71), Serene Velocity (1970), Eureka! (1974), and Side/Walk Shuttle (1991), has more than doubled that output with digital works, the latest of which will be shown Monday at Redcat in Los Angeles.

A master interrogator of space and gravity-defying cinema, Gehr has plumbed the possibilities of digital since Cotton Candy (2001), discovering—and at times stumbling upon—unexpectedly creative ways to stimulate the eye and challenge cognition beyond what film can do. Sensations of Light #7 (2016), one in a series of purely digitally generated works that nonetheless resonate within film history, takes the flicker films of Tony Conrad and Peter Kubelka to new extremes while recalling such earlier graphic-minded film ventures as Viking Eggeling’s Symphonie Diagonale (1924) and Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1923).

But while a shot seized from one of those works might give a sense of the whole, the power of Sensations of Light #7 can only be experienced when projected. Freezing one frame discloses one or two colors or geometric shapes, none of which hints at the conflation and optical illusions induced by the faster alternation of frames allowed by digital: Red, green, yellow, violet, blue, black, and white rectangles flicker before us within the larger different-colored rectangles of the full frame, their displacements and illusory superimpositions, as well as the impression of advancing and receding movements, entirely a result of projection’s unwritten bond with the habits and limitations of vision. A similar illusion of movement occurs in Serene Velocity, though it is produced by editing in rapid succession different exposures of the camera at various distances. SOL, here an abbreviation of Sensations of Light, is the Latin word for sun—not an inapt allusion, since the effects of this series are akin to the intense, vertigo-inducing feeling one has when looking into that body’s flares, when we also “see” many colors surrounded by a halo of others. It’s no surprise that Gehr has decided that only one work in this series should be seen at any one screening.

While Sensations of Light #7 could not be less like Gehr’s dazzling new Autumn (2017), the optical aftereffects induced by the former, along with those of the quivering lines of Brooklyn Series (2013), the second work to be screened, linger over and heighten our perceptions of color and light in Autumn. Brooklyn Series could even pass as a paradigm for what digital images can do: Horizontal bars fill the screen top to bottom, shimmering ceaselessly, most likely as indices of a hidden reality compressed into strips of color and light. If we’re tempted to read the blurred streams as rapidly passing vehicles shot at close range, this is largely thanks to the moving traffic heard on the sound track, but also because cars and trucks have a privileged place in Gehr’s work, often—and this is also true of Autumn—because they introduce a rainbow of colors, brightening and enlivening each frame as they articulate the space as they pass through.

How Gehr configured the squeezed horizontal bars in Brooklyn Series remains a mystery, even to him—or perhaps it’s one of his professional secrets. Nevertheless, as a potential technical feature of the system, it follows that everything digital can be reduced to that condition—which is to say that the human figures, construction sites, busy streets, moving vehicles, storefronts, and objects of Autumn are simply expanses of shimmering color and light, slowed down to a natural speed to resume their original corporeal form.

Ernie Gehr, Transport, 2015, HD video, color, sound, 22 minutes.

Autumn reminds us of that other Gehr—the phenomenologist as sociologist. Ten years hence, we might think of it as an elegy for a neighborhood—a few blocks around Delancey Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side—whose identity is undergoing vast structural and demographic changes, a reality Gehr registers without sentimentality or judgment. Nor could overheard dialogue leaning toward those sentiments match Autumn’s final image—a long shot of a boarded-up building at the corner of Broome and Ludlow Streets, awaiting demolition. Seen today, however, it is the “nowness” that resonates—whether in the looming presence of steel-and-glass high-rises and the bright red cranes that reach into the sky, or in the two- and three-story tenements, storefronts, and teeming humanity below. A sleek new structure flanked by two weathered apartment buildings grounds the moment while foreshadowing the future.

In the work’s most complex and telltale shots, bodies, human and otherwise, technically on-screen and off, bleed into and fuse with one another, willingly or not, as the initial frame, doubled or tripled by windows and reflecting surfaces, yields multiple planes of action, layered images, and spatial disorientations. Every reflection is also a projection: A young man retrieving his bicycle parked outside a fast-food restaurant, technically offscreen, is dangerously close to colliding with the woman eating a hefty sandwich inside, thus falling into an on-screen space as dense as it is porous. In another shot, no sooner do we think we’ve seen all there is than a white truck passing from left to right serves as a fleeting backdrop against which two figures, mere shadows seconds earlier, suddenly come into focus. A pair of men sitting in a café, eclipsed throughout by the street life beyond, suddenly looms in the center of that same frame, where they’ve been all along. No change of focus, exposure, angle, or depth of field creates these successive apperceptions any more than materials in a painting or a shift in viewing conditions affect our gradual, accumulative recognition of details in the work.

The analogy is not insignificant. The social and historical resonances of Gehr’s work are palpable in the density of his living compositions, in the sense that people, however decentered or marginalized, define space––not the other way around. This is clear in shots of individual figures and actions, the equivalent of the singular details of those who populate large canvases. Here, they merge with the greater world, there they stand apart from it, now grounded, now floating as ghostlike doubles shadowing their neighbors—each shift a beat composing the very pulse that defines life in a great city. Autumn strikes me as Gehr’s best work in years, as startling to the eye as it is stimulating to the brain and inexplicably soothing to the heart.

If it leaves us with the conviction that soon the very basis of its iconography will be a thing of the past, such awareness of the eventual erasure of history and a people is all too evident in Transport (2015). Shot in Berlin, Gehr pits indoor images of old train compartments, luggage, and a cattle car marked by its days of carrying Jews to the camps—all taken inside the Museum of Technology—against the ruins of earlier bridges and structures and the sleek look of the city’s present commuter stations. It’s a sobering document, suffused with a mournful air at odds with Autumn’s life-giving exuberance.

“Phantoms of Light and Darkness: New Digital Films by Ernie Gehr” will play Monday, April 24, at the Redcat Theater in Los Angeles.