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Introduction

An Affinity for Labor

An Affinity for Color

Forthcoming

An Affinity for Witnessing

An Affinity for the Interval

An Affinity for Constructivism

An Affinity for Minimalism

An Affinity for the Readymade

An Affinity for Collage

Affinities, or The Weight of Cinema

Greg de Cuir Jr.

Whoever chooses blindly is struck in the eyes
By the smoke of sacrifice.

—Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, Walter Benjamin:
Selected Writings, Volume 1: 1913–1926

Subtract the weight of the ashes from the weight of the wood which is burnt, and you have the weight of the smoke.

—Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Pure Reason

This film and video screening program is a scientific experiment. The control variable is the artist Kevin Jerome Everson. Everson has made eight feature-length films and over 120 short films in an award-winning career that began in the 1990s. His works have been shown throughout the world in iconic institutions such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Toronto International Film Festival, Tate Modern in London, Berlin International Film Festival, and many more. To me, Everson is the most significant African American film artist of the 21st century, and certainly the most productive. His cinema makes visible that which is hidden; it searches for the fleeting moment when necessity meets coincidence, in the artist’s own words.

This experiment is a thorough investigation of Everson’s artistic affinities as well as a reformulation of the canonical codes that structure the art of cinema. It proposes the various aesthetic modes and themes that have influenced Everson throughout his career, it assembles an array of film and video works that act as catalysts for these modalities, and it positions these works to interact with each other and with exemplary works made by Everson. What if the weight of cinema could be measured in qualitative and quantitative terms? This program-experiment hypothesizes a calculation for doing so.

The inspiration for this experiment is derived from J. W. Goethe and his capital novel Elective Affinities, which, in a speculative fusing of the artistic and the scientific, is based on the theory that molecular forms display a natural affinity or attraction to certain others. Goethe’s is an attempt to translate this principle of molecules to human relationships. Affinities, or The Weight of Cinema is an attempt to adapt this theory to moving-image works. If humans are drawn to certain other types, then one might postulate that certain artistic forms also display affinities toward other aesthetics.

To lay the foundation for this experiment, as cocurators Kevin Jerome Everson and I have engaged in a wide-ranging series of discussions about art and then researched works of cinema along related lines of inquiry. The result is the identification of areas of interest that become fertile cultures in which to place Everson’s films in dialogue with the work of other artists past and present. These areas of interest have been labeled as Affinities. They are presented here in brief:

An affinity for witnessing. Works assembled here bear testament. The camera eye is used as an ethical meter. Visible evidence is as necessary for the experimental impulse in cinema as it is for the documentary urge. Cinema fulfills its potential when it is a method for exposing the machinations of the world.

An affinity for the interval. These works disassemble reality and build new worlds in its place. These new worlds are recognizable by their openness and their resistance to facile definition. They are complex, revolutionary spaces. Dziga Vertov defined intervals as “material” and “elements” that enable movement.[1] For Trinh T. Minh-ha the interval is “what persists between the meaning of something and its truth.”[2] 

An affinity for labor. Works assembled here evoke labor in its numerous forms. Active bodies are on display, also the results of labor. The key question commonly posed when considering labor is who benefits, and who is exploited. We might add another: what sort of labor constitutes the practice of both making and watching cinema?

An affinity for constructivism. The works represented here evoke an attempt to hammer the world into an improved form. As written by its early theorists, constructivism indissolubly unites the ideological with the formal. An aesthetic of constructivism in cinema has not often been represented accurately and is difficult to ascertain. Its significance might reside at the level of the shot, or the sequence, or intangible shifts in consciousness. For the artist Hanna Höch and her constructivist-inspired print Frühlings-Messe, made for an elite women’s club in Germany in the 1920s, it is the possibility of an internationalist assemblage that accounts for the coexistence of genders and ethnicities. Consider this path less traveled when charting the inner workings of this aesthetic.

An affinity for color. Works assembled here explore color as a visual quality, a variance of temperatures and the ideas they signify. Works assembled here also explore color as a racial construct, a lens through which to view and know the world.

An affinity for minimalism. Works used here are characterized by reduction and achieving a maximum of affect in inverse relation to the means of expression. We might rather call these works “postminimalist,” connecting more to an artistic tendency rather than a movement. As the celebrated postminimalist Eva Hesse notes in reference to her Contingent objects, first exhibited in 1969 at the Finch College Museum of Art in New York City, “they are tight and formal but very ethereal, sensitive, fragile.”[3] 

An affinity for the readymade. Works in this group are composed of existing materials that have been repurposed to serve new aims. The artisanal quality of the readymade is of concern here: how to attain form, and how to build on previous traditions. Those sources might be governmental—as in the provocative work DODDOACID by Jenny Holzer, for example, which was mined from declassified documents related to an investigation of American military abuses in the Middle East in the early 2000s. Official redaction marks in this work become readymade brushstrokes imbued with critical potential.

An affinity for collage. Works gathered here function as visual collages on multiple levels. Often formed using archival footage, the heterogeneous nature of these works gains shape through collision and multiplication. This particular affinity is closely related to the readymade and functions as a complication and extension of the former. The multidisciplinary work of the artist R.B. Kitaj is worth considering here, particularly his cover designs for books on film history such as studies of Hollywood cinema and Soviet revolutionary cinema, published in the 1960s, which seem to affix avant-garde aesthetics to the foundations of moving image art.

The art of cinema can only be experimental. If so, then the cinema theater has not often enough been conceived as a laboratory for the combustion and distillation of ideas. These Affinities, as presented and investigated here, are not the essentialist or ideal components of all cinemas everywhere, nor are they meant to be proposed as relevant foundations for all artists. They are also not mutually exclusive. They constitute postulates, models, ideals for comprehending film and video art, for relating it, for using it as an exploratory tool, a polemical tool. The value of the schematic these Affinities produce must be measured against their ability to transform the mind, the body, and the soul of the viewer. This margin, this coefficient, is what we call art.

Returning to the philosopher Kant and the profound minimalism of his introductory formula—what should we burn to calculate the weight of cinema?

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Notes

  1. Annette Michelson, ed., Kino Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov (Berkeley, 1984), 8.

  2. Trinh T. Minh-ha, “The Totalizing Quest of Meaning,” in Theorizing Documentary, ed. Michael Renov (New York, 1993), 92.

  3. Contingent. New York: Finch College Museum of Art, 1969. Reprinted in Eva Hesse, ed. Lucy Lippard (New York, 1976), 164–165. See also https://nga.gov.au/international/Catalogue/Detail.cfm?IRN=49353.