PRINT March 2020



Scott Bartlett, OffOn, 1968, video and 16 mm, color, sound, 10 minutes.

Expanded Cinema, by Gene Youngblood. New York: Fordham University Press, 2020. 464 pages.

WHAT IF FILM CRITICISM could be read as science fiction? The thought crossed my mind as I was revisiting Gene Youngblood’s influential 1970 survey, Expanded Cinema. Republished by Fordham University Press on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary after decades out of print, it’s a book that functions as history and augury at once. Youngblood offers, as the title suggests, an integrative approach to some of the most radical nodes of moviemaking in the 1960s, bringing together bodies of work that might otherwise be understood in contradistinction—Stan Brakhage meets Bell Labs—and elucidating them with ideas drawn from communication and design theorists such as John McHale, Marshall McLuhan, and Buckminster Fuller, who provided the introduction to Expanded Cinema’s first edition. And since the chapters are based largely on Youngblood’s columns for the Los Angeles Free Press, many sections have the feel of reportage, dispatches from the front lines of audiovisual experiment, frequently fleshed out by substantial interviews with their subjects.

The volume’s original cover was an emblematic still from Scott Bartlett’s OffOn, 1968, a psychedelic hybrid that was among the first to marry the strategies of photochemical filmmaking, such as optical printing, with the electronic manipulations of video mixing. This dissolution of traditional boundaries between previously discrete idioms, and what it implied, was of course a matter of considerable debate at the time. Annette Michelson, for instance, had just a few years earlier evinced a profound skepticism of the “emergence of new ‘intermedia,’ the revival of the old dream of synaesthesia.” Cinema, she thought, was ceding its autonomy at the very moment it had arisen victorious from a decades-long battle for self-definition. But the boundary to be broken for Youngblood was, ultimately, metaphysical. “When we say expanded cinema we actually mean expanded consciousness,” the author declares at the book’s outset. “Expanded cinema does not mean computer films, video phosphors, atomic light, or spherical projections. Expanded cinema isn’t a movie at all: like life it’s a process of becoming, man’s ongoing historical drive to manifest his consciousness outside of his mind, in front of his eyes.”

Here we encounter the sci-fi dimension of the study. Youngblood situates the reader at the dawn of the “Paleocybernetic Age,” the primitive beginning of an epochal changeover in human-machine dynamism, wherein the imperatives of art and science have become inseparable. By charting the development of what he understands as a budding sensibility, the cause of a generation gap so vast that “an increasing number of the inhabitants of this planet live virtually in another world,” he proceeds to vaticinate the creative and technological advances that will ensue as an inevitable consequence of this transcendental shift. Expanded Cinema is a future forecast by way of a vibe report, a prophecy that, seen from the vantage of the present, feels at once strikingly prescient and poignantly off the mark.

Expanded Cinema is a future forecast by way of a vibe report, a prophecy that, seen from the vantage of the present, feels at once strikingly prescient and poignantly off the mark.

Youngblood predicts, first, the withering away of conventional film style, its generic formulas and conditioned responses, its tidy ordering of reality through montage. It will be replaced, he argues, by works like Fuses, 1964–67, Carolee Schneemann’s erotically exuberant portrait of herself and her lover James Tenney, in which the artist transforms her material via elaborate superimpositions as well as physical interventions in the celluloid, its frames painted over, dipped in acid, scorched by heat. Such films will triumph over the shopworn exposition typical of their Hollywood predecessors, tapping directly into the viewer’s “inarticulate conscious.” They will persuade through their subject—the outward realization of an interior experience in all its evocative complexity—as well as their design: a continual metamorphosis characteristic of the “universal unity” engendered by the global communications network. The time will soon come when cinema will be readily available in the home, first through cartridges and eventually as cable-transmitted “demand TV”; for audiences faced with the prospect of watching a film more than once, the choice between Dog Star Man and The Ten Commandments, we’re told, will be obvious.

And the production of this incipient personal cinema will no longer be the exclusive domain of the artist but available to all, allowing each individual to record his or her life, analyze it, and, crucially, exchange the findings—to speak with one another through images. These advances of extralinguistic understanding, moreover, will be not merely person-to-person but interplanetary in scope. Youngblood consistently stresses the correspondences between outer and inner space, locating this boundless perspective—this “cosmic consciousness”—in Stanley Kubrick’s studio epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), as well as in the ethereal compositions of Jordan Belson, whose Samadhi, 1967, delineates the mind’s-eye visions resulting from intense yogic discipline through a sensorium-warping vocabulary of polychromatic plasma storms, pulsing spheres, and vaporous drifts.

James Whitney’s Lapis, 1966, another key work for Youngblood, likewise attempts to convey the perceptions born of a meditative practice but achieves its effects through a markedly divergent style—coruscating dot-pattern mandalas that shape-shift mathematically—and with an entirely different instrument: an analog computer the filmmaker devised with his brother John, a pioneering animator himself. “It is the belief of those who work in cybernetic art,” Youngblood notes, “that the computer is the tool that someday will erase the division between what we feel and what we see.” In his general assessment of this nascent enterprise, he offers early glimpses of the techniques and platforms, from motion capture to liquid-crystal displays, that have, in the meantime, proliferated dramatically across our contemporary visual environment. Significantly, Youngblood also highlights efforts that, while not themselves works of art by any standard definition, are nevertheless rich with possibility, aesthetic and otherwise. Chief among these is Peter Kamnitzer’s Cityscape, 1968, an entirely computer-generated urban scene, rendered in three dimensions and fully navigable, which was assembled with the multimillion-dollar equipment at the Guidance and Control Division of NASA's Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston. The initiative was the first of its kind and for Youngblood hinted at a fledgling ability to “simulate alternative futures,” to preexperience a brave new world before leaping into it. Today it calls to mind nothing so immediately as gaming—the industry of which originated, incidentally, around the same time Expanded Cinema was published.

Peter Kamnitzer, Cityscape, 1968, 16 mm, color, silent, 10 minutes.

Youngblood finds equally fertile ground in the landscapes of video, a technology yielding previously unknown graphic expression, and a format whose trademark simultaneity was then paradigmatic of the now. “Television,” explains Brice Howard, organizer of KQED’s experimental-video workshop, “will help us become more human. It will lead us closer to ourselves.” Here as elsewhere, cinema is positioned as a vehicle for evolution, an extension of our nervous system. Yet these chapters—gathered under the banner “Television as a Creative Medium”—are perhaps most fascinating today for their careful account of the processes by which some of the most consequential pieces of video’s first decade were made: outlining, for example, intimate collaborations with studio engineers, or the levels of variability involved in the conception of Nam June Paik’s prepared TVs. Youngblood’s unclouded view onto the technical particularities of early video art is essential, not only because the methods he recounts have, over the course of half a century, grown more opaque to the modern viewer—how many curators today could readily hold forth on de-beaming?—but also because so many artists of that era sought to uncover the aesthetic potential of their equipment by testing its mechanical limits.

Les Levine, Iris, 1968, three TV cameras, six monitors, closed-circuit system, two fluorescent tubes, console, 96 × 60".

If the technology discussed in Expanded Cinema seems remote to us now, the breathless techno-euphoria it chronicles and espouses is even more so, but there are moments that thrust us soberly, and unexpectedly, into the twenty-first century. Perhaps the most predictive of the many forward-looking projects arrayed across its four-hundred-plus pages is Les Levine’s Iris, 1968, a console containing three live cameras—recording close-ups, middle shots, and wide shots—that are routed to a suite of six monitors, presenting passersby with three images of themselves, each in two iterations. “Looking at Iris,” Levine remarked to Youngblood, “many people are greatly surprised at the way they actually look. They see themselves the way they usually see other people on television, and they have to make some kind of judgment about themselves in terms of themselves as a piece of information. That’s what Iris does most of all, it turns the viewer into information.”

How better to describe the media ecology of 2020, where the relentless incursions of surveillance capitalism register our value as little more than sets of data points to be scraped? A grim clairvoyance also pervades the gnomic line from Warhol that serves as one of the book’s epigraphs and now doubles as a succinct assessment of social media’s isolating hyperconnectivity: “Someday you’ll be able to go to a party and be the only one there.” In retrospect, Youngblood’s optimism is, like Fuller’s, misplaced precisely because his faith in technology was predicated on a rejection of politics, a belief in the inexorable progress toward a “one world human integrity” that ignores the material struggles necessary, then as now, for freedom’s efflorescence. (I was constantly reminded of Felicity D. Scott’s sharp-eyed critiques of this milieu: cold water splashed on acid visions.) Expanded Cinema is a book animated by the idea of standing at the threshold of a new society, yet the liberation movements blazing around the globe as it was penned—what Youngblood dubs “mere political revolution”—are all but elided; their absence haunts every page. Even so, its speculative imagination hits like a shot in the arm. What styles of living are still to come, and what role cinema might play in them, remains an open question. “Consciously or unconsciously,” writes Youngblood, “we invent the future.” 

Thomas Beard is a founder and director of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, and a programmer at large for film at Lincoln Center, New York.