PRINT September 1971

Paul Sharits: Illusion and Object

“At the risk of sounding immodest, by reexamining the basic mechanisms of motion pictures and by making these fundamentals explicitly concrete, I feel as though I am working toward a new conception of cinema. Traditionally, ‘abstract films,’ because they are extensions of the aesthetics and pictorial principles of painting or are simply demonstrations of optics, are no more cinematic than narrative-dramatic films which squeeze literature and theatre onto a two-dimensional screen.”

WHEN PAUL SHARITS SUBMITTED Ray Gun Virus and Piece Mandala/End War to the Selection Jury of the Fourth International Experimental Film Competition, Knokke-Le Zoute, in 1967, he wrote the above as part of his “Statement of Intention.” These and his subsequent works indicate his preoccupations with the nature of the film medium, its dualities and complexities. Ray Gun Virus (1966) and Piece Mandala/End War (1966) and most of his other works to date are flicker films: Word Movie/Flux Film 29 (1966), and Razor Blades,1 N:O:T:H:I:N:G and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, all completed in 1968.

While still a graduate student in design at the University of Indiana in 1966, Sharits was completing Ray Gun Virus when he picked up The Village Voice and read in Jonas Mekas’ “Film Journal” that Tony Conrad had just made The Flicker. This and Peter Kubelka’s work came as a total surprise, if not a shock to him, at that time. And it was an understandable surprise because the flicker film as a genre was then and still is relatively new.

It had its beginnings in Vienna when Peter Kubeika made Adabar in 1956 and Arnuff Rainer, begun in 1958 and completed in 1960. But as a fundamental principle, flicker is as old as, in fact older than, the camera and projector. Awareness of flicker is revealed in the use of the term “flicks” for films or movies or motion pictures. “Motion pictures” and “movies” are descriptive names for the illusion evoked from film which is actually composed of separate still frames, whereas “flick” or flicker actually characterizes the nature of the intermittent illusion more literally. It is the intermittent movement of the film through the camera in registering the image and the shutter mechanism blocking out light as the image passes down and the next image is registered, and the duplication of these operations in projecting the image, combined with the persistence of vision which creates the illusion of a constant and uninterrupted image on the screen. At any time all one need notice is the projectile of the light beam as it travels toward the screen to observe the flicker effect created by the revolving shutter. In this way, one is reminded of the composition of the film strip—of separate still frames moving at 16 or 24 f.p.s. through the projector gate.

While the occurrence of flicker on the screen had always been thought of as an unwanted distraction, the flicker genre explores this phenomenon, indigenous to the light-time medium of cinema, considering the absolutely fundamental elements of film and the mechanisms of its operations. Taking its cue from the shutter and the intermittent movement of camera and projector acting upon the strip of separate frames, the flicker film in its fashion emphasizes the nature of the separate frames, the rapid movement of the frames, and through analogy and by way of hyperbole, the flicker effect of the shutter.

The flicker film can be described phenomenologically as the short and very rapid succession of recurrent images which flutter or fluctuate in various structures throughout the work. In Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer and Tony Conrad’s The Flicker (1966) it is the structuring of black and white frames while Sharits’ Ray Gun Virus is dominated by solid chromatic frames with some black and white. Yet it need not be composed purely of solid chromatic or achromatic frames, as evidenced in Kubelka’s black and white silhouette work, Adabar, and in N:O:T:H:I:N:G and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, and Sharits’ other flicker works in which there are recurrent referential images which animate with the solid chromatic and achromatic frames. While in much of the film work of Robert Breer there are rapid successions of images with some recurrences as in Recreation (1956) and Blazes (1961), and in much of the work of Stan Brakhage there is also rapidity of movement as in Mothlight (1963) and of movement and cutting as in Dog Star Man (1961–64), these are to be distinguished from the flicker film. For the brevity of the arrangements of recurrent structures of blank frames with or without referential images creates the quick light flickering punctuations which have become the overt forming or shaping principle of the works known as flicker films.

Sharits had begun to explore the narrative film, but then left it due to his growing concern for the materials of fiIm itself, and Ray Gun Virus was his first result. In working notes, Sharits describes the film as “striving toward blue.” The chromatic structure of the film proceeds from a dominant yellow through a red center until it reaches blue. Briefly, black and white flicker formations follow the title, succeeded by very faint colors—faint to the point of barely being distinguishable from white, as if they were grasping for their existence—and then into a section dominated by yellow, flickering with other colors. The flickering red center is succeeded by fades from yellows to black and then fades from various hues to black. A random section follows, with no repetitions of color patterns in fades to white. These fades, which are at first long and smooth, become more abrupt and erratic and finally terminate in flashes. The film ends on the faint and unflickering blue.

As a further part of his “Statement of Intention” for Knokke-Le Zoute, Sharits wrote:

I wish to abandon imitation and illusion and enter directly into the high drama of: celluloid two-dimensional strips / individual rectangular frames / the three-dimensional light beam / environmental illumination / the two-dimensional reflective screen surface / the viewer’s retina screen, optic nerve and individual psycho-physical subjectivities of consciousness.

Ray Gun Virus confronts these questions head on, centering attention on the process of making and the perceiver’s relationship to the projected work. It reduces the medium to its simple components while at the same time revealing the complexities of those components. Sharits deals consciously with the strip of film as a strip of individual frames of film, each frame of which is exposed to varying degrees of color and light, each frame having its own light/color image. In purposefully relinquishing film’s traditional capacity to record the three-dimensional illusion, Ray Gun Virus projects its chromatic and achromatic frames onto a flat screen to create its own illusions and illusions of illusions. The image on the screen is in itself an illusion, once removed from the strip of film in the projector, twice removed from the original print. Just as any film is an illusion in this sense. But in confronting black, white, and colors here, the viewer becomes more conscious of the fact that he is facing an illusion, and paradoxically, at the same time, this illusion is an immediacy in time. It is one that is experienced in the present time and that does not, as with a representational illusion, refer back to a prior time and place. Malevich, in Essays on Art, II, speaks of a new realism attained through Suprematism and the other radical art forms of his time, and of the perceiver’s relationship to those works: “. . . the new arts for the most part insist on the expression of the real content of any given sensation, a reality that will always remain real for the spectator.” And, crystallizing it further: “A real picture is also a new factor which does not bear us off to anywhere but compels us to perceive and experience it on the spot.”2 Such is the case with Ray Gun Virus.

The flicker as the hyperbolic analogy of the shutter mechanism indigenous to camera and projector creates various afterimages and illusions in its interactions with the solid frames. In a note, Sharits commented that he thought he had in Ray Gun Virus “actualized a sense of Pollock,”3 here referring to the overall homogeneity of the surface, inhibiting a focal point for the viewer. Indeed, at times, the very quick pulsating flicker creates polymorphic patterns throughout the screen, but one cannot seize and focus on any of these patterns. Sometimes for longer durations of individual colors there almost appears a center point, but it too is illusive and its duration too short-lived. Quick successions of colors cause, through afterimages, the effect of a “superimposition,” a combination of two colors coexisting in the frame. One perceives, particularly with lavender and green, an overall movement of grain patterns. To add to the illusory ambiguity, there are both patterns of film grain and patterns of the paper grain from which the color footage was shot. One does not know if he is perceiving the illusion of the real grain of the film strip itself or the illusion of the filmed paper. And as if to ward off the possibility of the viewer conjuring up other more figurative kinds of virtual illusions from the patterns which appear on the screen in conjunction with his own psychophysical operations, occasional splice marks appear on the screen to remind him that they are only illusion, and indeed film illusions of the most immediate kind.

In various ways in Ray Gun Virus the perimeters of the screen become the instrument of Illusionary space. Most strikingly, Ray Gun Virus actualizes in film in analogous fashion, an idea derived from painting, Michael Fried’s notion of deductive structure. The structure is dictated by the form of the materials themselves, and here in film, by way of light, color, and flicker as they affect the screen. It is a simple psychological phenomenon whereby changes of color alter eye convergence which in turn creates the illusion of alteration in size. And for the perceiver of Ray Gun Virus, the screen does measurably change its size. While the frenetic flicker patterns which vibrate in and out from the boundaries of the screen seem to keep the screen size constant, the slower movements from one color to another cause it to seem to shrink and expand. And the ambiguity of the experience is heightened even further because no one color reacts the same way each time. For instance, at first reds and yellows might appear to extend but later they seem to shrink the screen size, depending upon the flicker rate and the preceding and following colors. So the film means—light, color, and flicker—acting upon the screen, create out of themselves a new stage for illusions.

And to carry it one step further, the fade-outs to black utterly obliterate the space of the screen. Color and light acting in time create the space of Ray Gun Virus and their absence annihilates this space altogether. The quick flashes to white serve the same function, but more elusively, because they momentarily blind one. The very negation of the screen is the negation of space, color, and light. During these moments one becomes aware of another phenomenon, alluded to in Sharits’ “Statement of Intention” above. The color and light create and transform the space between the projector and screen and most particularly between the viewer and screen, so that this space as well as that of the screen is shaped through projection of the color by the light in time. And this other space participates and becomes amalgamated into the experience, actualizing the “three-dimensional light beam.”

Ray Gun Virus’ ambiguity arises out of the structuring of its highly reductive materials and their hypersensitive reaction upon and conditioning by both the perceiver’s psychophysical state and the environment in which the work is projected. Even the film’s simple, straightforward sprockethole sound may take on illusionistic associations, contingent upon the sound equipment itself, making it, as well as the visual experience, highly ambiguous.

By way of their structural symmetry, the mandala films, Piece Mandala/End War, N:O:T:H:I:N:G, and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G contrast sharply with Ray Gun Virus which is linear but asymmetric in its structure. Each has a definite and pronounced center with the sections preceding and following the center, inversions of each other. Piece Mandala/End War and T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G are dense with referential imagery which operates within the flicker system, while N:O:T:H:I:N:G has sparse ordered flickering imagery with solid stretches of chromatic and achromatic flicker frames. This last is the longest of Sharits’ flicker works, more than twice the length of Ray Gun Virus, and bears comparisons to it in these color stretches.

A graphic light bulb makes its appearance in six short interspersed sequences in the first and again in the third sections. The cartoonlike bulb which is at first white gradually loses its radiance and becomes black; after the middle of the film the black bulb proceeds to drain out its black light to the bottom of the screen, in this way completing its inversion. In the middle of the film, a chair appears upright and falls in animated flashes. Accompanying it is a complex of telephone sounds which acts as an inversion to the chair image. As Sharits explains it in working notes: “Where the visual image is redundant, the auditory image is active and as the visual image becomes active (begins falling), the auditory becomes redundant.” Otherwise the over all silence of the film is punctuated by several discrete sounds—shattering, pouring, telephone signals and a cow’s mooing—which serve to create more reversals.

Comparing Ray Gun Virus with T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, one’s eyes feel the differences in flicker effect, and one begins to grasp the fertility of the color flicker genre. While in Ray Gun Virus there are some frenetic passages, the overall flicker in N:O:T:H:I:N:G could be described as violent and assaulting. The former film has stretches of smooth and graduated changes in color value, and while the latter has what could be described as slow rotations of color analogous to the gradual changes marked in Ray Gun Virus, it is composed largely of short bursts of color. These bursts of one to three frames each of two or three colors with simillar subsequent clusters of other hues, the film maker describes in working notes as “open eye phosphene” segments. These are simulations of oscillating fields and other visual sensations affected when one closes one’s eyes before falling off to sleep. This is one part of what Brakhage refers to as “closed eye vision.” But while Brakhage seeks to create this and other “closed eye vision” illusions by filming images which approximate his own vision, Sharits, distinct from Brakhage, works with and through the solid chromatic and achromatic film frames, allowing them to act directly upon the eye and nervous system of the viewer. Brakhage asks the perceiver to share his own personal visions while Sharits allows each viewer to create his own illusions.

N:O:T:H:I:N:G employs a greater range of dark colors in contrast to Ray Gun Virus which overall, has lighter, fainter, and gentler colors. And more black and white are used in N:O:T:H:I:N:G, with another interesting reversal: white is more frequent in the first part and black more so in the last. And both achromatics appear in many of the “open eye phosphene” segments, intensifying their frenetic qualities. Because white and black are used so heavily in this way, there are fewer and less distinct fades and the screen size remains more constant in N:O:T:H:I:N:G.

The film is a complex combination of light and color affirming itself and then canceling itself out through inversions. Elements of the unexpected and the predictable on both the audio and the visual levels operate in waves and counter each other. When one sees the bulb, one anticipates its reappearance, but one doesn’t expect the oxymoronic image of the dripping black bulb; then again, once it begins its dripping, one can anticipate the completion of that action. One doesn’t expect the pouring to follow the shattering, or the cow again at the end which, as Sharits suggested in an interview, is the source of the pouring liquid.

In the earlier mandala work, Piece Mandala/End War, its symmetrical inversion takes place through two motions of lovemaking. The two separate lines of action alternate with each other from frame to frame in flicker fashion through the first and third parts, interrupted by the center. The woman is lying down; in one action her head is on the right side of the frame as the motion begins with completion of a kiss and the man moves down her body into a cunnilingus position; in the other, where her head is on the left, lovemaking starts with cunnilingus and ends with a kiss. In this way action alternates from one side of the screen to the other. The two lines of gestures move through the film strip in time, becoming the inverse of each other from beginning to end, end to beginning, so that the opening gestures have essentially reversed places by the end of the film. While the two acts never fuse, their opposite lines of direction cause them to become, as Sharits describes it in Film Makers’ Cooperative Catalog No. 5: “. . . one lovemaking gesture which is seen simultaneously from both sides of its ‘space’ and both ‘ends’ of its time.” In the film’s center, Sharits, who is the male lovemaking figure, appears alone in an absurd suicidal posture.

An acquaintance told me that after showing Piece Mandala/End War to his students, they went immediately to the projector to examine the strip of film. Sharits’ films elicit this kind of reaction, underlining one of his concerns—the dualism of the film as projected and experienced image and the film as a strip of frames. In Piece Mandala this dualism becomes experientially hypertrophied. The fast animated montage of flickering color frames and alternating figures, cause the figures in instances to seem superimposed, at other times, to arc out from the screen into space and then circle back. Straight lines, diagonals, crisscrossed formations resuIt.

There are no actual superimpositions, although there seem to be. A wide range of color is used for the flicker, but one really perceives red, blue, green, and some yellow; absorbed by the black and white action footage, many only perceive red and green flicker. When one tries to count the number of different shots of the alternating actions, one sees four or perhaps six on the screen, when in actual count, on the strip of film there are twenty-two different shots used for these two animations. The actions on the screen become ambiguous and diffuse by way of the careful optical strategies used. The control of the individual frame, the meticulous scoring of the whole, the unity of the two actions by way of their inversions in time and space serve to emphasize the paradox of the film system as strip of frames and projected illusion.

Ambiguity operates in each of Sharits’ flicker films, whether in the perception of color and optical illusions as in Ray Gun Virus and N:O:T:H:I:N:G or in the perception of the figurative images in Piece Mandala/End War. If the ambiguity in the latter film serves to create a frenetic effect, it does this in T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G as well, and to a greater degree. Ambiguity functions here in several ways, to make T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G Sharits’ most frenetic film to date.

On the audio level it operates by way of the one-word loop, repeated without pause throughout the film, interrupted only by the silent center. On seeing T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G for the first time, one usually assumes that there are several word combinations which recur. With the single loop word, “destroy,” one hears such things as “it’s gone,” “it’s off,” “it’s cut,” “his straw,” “history,” and more. And, having been present at screenings where spectators actually did not hear “destroy” at all, but other word combinations, it does operate as Sharits once described it at Millenium Film Workshop in New York (Dec. 26, 1970) when he commented that “destroy” actually destroys itself. Altering and annihilating, itself in this way, the word correlates with the film’s visual ambiguity and frenzy.

The title, T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, written with each letter set off by a comma, signals the ordering of the film which is separated into six equal parts and a distinct middle section. If the bulb in N:O:T:H:I:N:G could be described as cartoonlike, certainly the dominance of lavenders, oranges, and yellows in the flicker system and the use of glitter create a consciously gaudy, cartoonlike effect, heightening the visual frenzy. In all but the middle, poet David Franks appears in medium close-up; and in five of these six parts he is involved in two basic actions which. occur at different stages. In one, Franks initially appears with his outstretched tongue between green glitter-covered scissors; alternating with this, he is seen with a red glitter-streaked cheek, and a woman’s long green glitter nails extending across his face from the side of the screen. As the fiIm progresses, the two actions begin to move confusedly and indecisively toward and then away from the face, neither act assuming a definite direction. The indecisiveness continues into the fifth section, though with less action directed toward the face, and it ends with both hand and scissors withdrawing. But this development away from violence and potential destruction only finally becomes unambiguous in the last section where Franks appears with open eyes and without the glitter of destruction. Once in each section, including the center, are segments of alternating close-ups of eye surgery and sexual intercourse that are not readily perceivable as such. They too look ambiguous and suggest ominousness-and violence; yet both are positive forms of touching. The incipient destruction involving Franks through touching gestures never actualizes itself on the screen and the ambiguity, while serving the visual frenetic effect, finally prevents the destruction from taking place.

In T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, a symmetrical inversion, typical of the mandala films, occurs on the sound level through the rhythm of the drumlike beat which accompanies “destroy.” The beat moves from a slow to a fast rhythm and then reverses itself after the center. Yet there is another and more important inversion, a spatial inversion, operating in an asymmetric and less pronounced fashion. It continues a developmental line which has its origin in Ray Gun Virus. The raised scissors and hand, particularly in their quick successions of alterations and variations, seem to deepen the screen space. And when scissors and hand are poised at the edges of the screen, or moving from or to these edges, they fix the frame size. But then in the last section, Franks’ image seems to extend out from the screen as the framing shapes figured in apparent superimposition flicker over his face and then vanish; finally, between frames of color, Franks’ image appears as if on a rotating wheel, popping up from deep space and out to inhabit the theater space—to extend and create new space as does the color flicker in Ray Gun Virus. So that the frame, so strongly reaffirmed earlier in T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G, also seems to destroy itself in breaking out of its space.

Sharits describes his shortest film, the 3 3/4-minute Word Movie/Flux Film 29, in Film Makers’ Cooperative Catalog No. 5: “. . . . approximately 50 words visually ‘repeated’ in varying sequential and positional relationships/spoken word sound track/structurally, each frame being a different word or word fragment. . . .” As a brief example, the letter “c” remains positionally fixed in the frame, serving as structure for each different word frame, as with:

s p l i ce
s c r e e n
s p a c e
i n c i s i o n

and so on, shifting from one letter cycle to another in this fashion throughout the film. A two color flicker system, alternating one color per frame, back and forth through a letter cycle and then changing one or both colors on the next letter cycle, correlates with the word system. The sound bears certain structural correspondences to the visuals: two voices are heard, alternating with each other, each reciting a different, unrelated text, one word at a time.

More than any of Sharits’ flicker films, Word Movie most closely literalizes the flicker effect of the shutter mechanism through its use of the separate word for each frame coupled with the single frame units of color. The word structure as a single unit becomes an analogue for the individual fiIm frame. And at the same time as serving that function, the word emphasizes the screen frame perimeters as certain words are horizontally cut off by the frame line. But the word structure serves in another fiIm analogy, one which is in contrast to the word/frame comparison. Sharits completes the above catalog description, saying:

“ . . . the individual words optically-conceptually fuse into one. 3 3/4-minute long word,” the length of the film. Later at Millenium (Dec. 26, 1970), he contrasted it to the symmetrical mandala films, saying that “Word Movie feels like a straight line going through time.”4 In this sense one can perceive it as a link to his preoccupations with the film as strip as evidenced in his most recently completed work. S:TREAM:S:S:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED (1970), although Word Movie only begins to intimate this linearity through the cycling of the fixed letters.

While the flicker form stresses the single frame and facture through control of the frame system and illuminates one of film’s dualities, another aspect, film as a strip or, as Sharits refers to it, “a line in time,” suggests a different emphasis and dichotomy. While the film is projected at 24 f.p.s., one perceives only one constant screen-frame with movement of the recorded illusion inside of it. But one does not perceive the actual passage of the film as it moves as a vertical strip or “line in time,” for the shutter mechanism and the intermittent movement of the projector combined with the persistence of vision prevent one from seeing this. S:S:S:S:S:S attempts to deal with this aspect of the film system.

Perhaps everyone who has ever seen a film has noticed or rather tried not to notice scratches in the work. A scratch is generally considered a negative factor which distracts from and eliminates the illusion by cutting away, at the emulsion base of the film itself. But in S:S:S:S:S:S, Sharits makes the scratch a positive factor in its additive and subtractive relationship to the recorded film illusion. And, at the same time, he uses the scratch to emphasize the linearity of the film material and its passage through the projector.

The film is composed of three repeated 14-minute sections of water current, each section beginning with six superimposed layers of current moving in different directions, decreasing through fades to one layer of current. Almost five minutes into the work, what Sharits describes as “scratch currents” begin, with three vertical scratches increasing in threes systematically over the length of the film until there are twenty-four scratches. Pronounced splice bars, horizontally halving the film frame, are peppered throughout, serving as film analogues to the images of rocks and boulders which appear on the screen. In conjunction with the splices, a beep is heard. Also on the sound track, a word is repeated for a section; another is added to it for a second section, equal in length to the first. This additive process continues until there are six phonetically related words which have none other than a structural correspondence to the visuals.

One usually thinks of a current, in this case a water current, as having direction, but one is not usually made aware of the vertical movement of the film through the projector. The situation is essentially reversed in S:S:S:S:S:S. The superimposed moving current layers cross over each other in pairs—horizontally, vertically, and diagonally, making it impossible, most of the time, to discern their direction; while in contrast, the film suggests its real direction through the projector by way of the scratches.

The scratch units appear in entropic fashion upon the screen, interacting with the illusions of the water images. While the scratch deals directly with the current illusions, cutting through the film emulsion itself, subtracting from the illusions, at the same time, it is another illusion, adding to the images, altering and developing them as a continuous “line in time.” As the scratches continue, they begin to accumulate the rough scraped emulsion forming dark patterns along their sides—in this way “re-creating” new illusions out of the discarded emulsion of the original filmed illusions.

Here as in Sharits’ flicker works, there is a conscious concern with space. At first the overall movement of the current seems flat, hovering on the screen, but when the first scratches appear, they seem to set the current illusion back in space. A tension is set up; as more scratches are added, there is a curious oscillation: at times the current image or its fragments extend out of the screen beyond the scratches while at other times the current or fragments move back. Gradually the white scratches with their emulsion scrapings almost overtake the water currents, though they are still present beneath. The space is transformed again, to an almost flatness. And the illusory water currents are in large part removed in time by the illusory film current. As Ray Gun Virus creates the space and illusions out out of the film materials, in a very different way, S:S:S:S:S:S modulates and transmutes its space through the illusions carved out of the strip of film itself.

When he premiered S:TREAM:SS:ECTION:S:ECTION:S:S:ECTIONED at Millenium, Sharits commented that he didn’t think that there was as yet an esthetic of the scratch and so consequently he didn’t know whether or not he had used the scratch technique well. Yet, all of Sharits’ works pose this kind of question. Ray Gun Virus was the first color flicker film made and his subsequent figurative flicker works are unique to themselves. His works ask questions and challenge the forms, and materials of film itself. At the same time, he challenges the viewer as well. All the things. which the perceiver has learned in time to take for granted, without questioning—the frame, the strip, the projector, light, space, and even his own responses—Sharits asks him now to reconsider. If art is about perception and perceiving in new ways, the importance of Paul Sharits’ work is unquestionable. He is working now on a slide piece concerned with the projection of the light beam back on itself, as well as working on at least four or five film projects. Among them is a work called Reprojection, whose title verifies the continued direction of his concerns.

Regina Cornwell



1. Razor Blades, 25 minutes, b&w/color, two-screen projection, stereo sound. Because of its two-screen projection, it was not possible to arrange viewings of the work for purposes of analysis. For this reason it has been omitted from the following discussion.

2. Kasimir s. Malevich, Essays on Art: 1928–1933, II, trans. Xenia Glowacki-Prus and Arnold McMillin, ed. Troels Andersen (Copenhagen, 1968), pp. 26 and 119 respectively.

3. In a note to P. Adams Sitney, dated August, 1969.

4. My thanks to Bob Parent for providing me with a tape of the Millennium proceedings.