Stan Brakhage, The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, 1971, 16 mm, color, silent, 32 minutes.

Stan Brakhage, The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, 1971, 16 mm, color, silent, 32 minutes.

Stan Brakhage and David Kamp

There was an Ouroboros-like quality to “The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes,” an exhibition curated by the artist Ed Atkins, pairing Stan Brakhage’s 1971 film The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes with a new work by the Berlin-based composer, sound designer, and sound artist David Kamp. Shot over the course of three or four days on a variety of different film stocks, Brakhage’s 16-mm silent film documents the activities of the coroner and staff of Pittsburgh’s Allegheny County morgue as they perform autopsies on a number of human bodies (the film’s title is derived from the etymology of Greek word autopsia). It is the final entry in a trilogy of films, all from 1971, that Brakhage called the “Pittsburgh Documents.” The other two deal with the institutions of the police (eyes) and the hospital (Deus Ex). In contrast to his earlier work, in which he sought to reproduce the intensely subjective experience of first-person perception—Annette Michelson once described “filmic poiesis,” for Brakhage, as “the visual instantiation of the imperial sovereignty of the Imagination”—the “Pittsburgh Documents” represent the filmmaker’s attempt to devise a form of nonfiction film not subject to the ideological structures of conventional documentary. Exhibiting neither that genre’s pedagogical aims and rhetorical techniques, nor the complex editing and postproduction processes that typify Brakhage’s other work, the trilogy emphasizes the indexical directness of the encounter between the filmmaker, the camera, and the world. Comprising nearly thirty-two gruesome minutes of dissection and dismemberment, The Act of Seeing is a famously difficult film to watch. Its silence only intensifies the visceral impact of the experience.

When Brakhage visited the morgue, he was, of course, seeing not simply with his own eyes, but through the viewfinder of his Bolex. At the Schinkel Pavillon, his film was projected onto a screen suspended in the center of a darkened basement gallery, clearly visible from both sides. The presentation rendered the flat but suddenly sculptural image simultaneously more corporeal and more abstract, while the lack of seating encouraged viewers to circumnavigate the work. Distinctions between front and back or left and right dissolved as bodies fragmented and became meat before the camera lens.

Upstairs, in the brightly lit octagonal main gallery, Atkins installed Kamp’s newly created Soundtrack for The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, 2019, synced precisely to the film downstairs. It is not a musical score, but a naturalistic re-creation of the sounds that Brakhage chose to omit: the squeak of gurney wheels, indistinct voices, the sounds of a bone saw in action, of squelching, all against the white noise of the morgue itself. In essence, this is a sequence of Foley effects, whose primary purpose is typically to re-create environmental sounds not captured during filming. In the exhibition pamphlet, Atkins explained that the idea of adding a fabricated soundtrack to a silent film developed out of the process of creating diegetic soundtracks for his own CGI videos, which are inherently silent. Brakhage’s film, by contrast, is silent by design, and Atkins knew better than to actually merge the two works. To do so would have compromised the film’s forensic power, robbing it of the peculiar hold it has on our attention. Instead, the show’s combination of temporal coincidence and spatial dislocation asked us to apply the same degree of attentiveness and immanence to the aural that the film compels us to pay to the visual.

In a final twist, the wall texts describing and interpreting the works on view were credited to the anonymously authored website Contemporary Art Writing Daily, which publishes short, often caustic, reviews of exhibitions on the basis of their presentation on the website Contemporary Art Daily. Their inclusion suggested a kind of vertical integration, short-circuiting the art world’s customary economy of text and image by fusing the initial framing and explication of the artist/curator/institution with the retrospective evaluation (autopsy?) of the critic.