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Banner images L to R: Image is Virus, courtesy Dalibor Martinis; Checkmate and Painted in the Air, both courtesy NFD

The Square (Kwadrat)
Zbigniew Rybczyński, Poland, 1972, 35 mm, 3 minutes 30 seconds


Still courtesy Filmoteka Muzeum

While a student at the Łódź Film School, Zbigniew Rybczyński was also a member of the Workshop of the Film Form, and he made The Square in 1972 as a contribution to the workshop.[1] The film uses 35 mm technology but uncannily prefigures the coming of the digital age. “It was a mix of photography and animation and it took up my whole vacation - sixteen hours a day,” Rybczyński recalls. In that time, he “analysed, through a film camera, a loop of thirty-six squarish black-and-white photographs representing a [man] moving in a circle.” He photographed the loop on film and repeated it thirty-six times, with each new repetition dividing the film window into an increasing number of subdivisions and making the photograph appear “pixilated” using squares of black and white paper. Later in the film, Rybczyński also added color filters and combined different-colored iterations of the images.

The Square thus plays with the basic building blocks of digital imaging, much in the way that Grzegorz Zgraja’s Transformation would reflect on the raster scanning used in video by likening it to the halftone printing process. Both Zgraja and Rybczyński were interested in exploring the basic principles of image reproduction that allow the eye to reconstruct a familiar whole out of abstracted parts. “What is most important about [The Square],” Rybczinski says, “is that not being aware of computer imaging—it was 1970, in Poland—I manufactured my own ‘digital’ processing on film."[2] — Ksenya Gurshtein

With thanks to Weronika Czołnowska and the Państwowa Wyższa Szkoła Filmowa, TV i Teatralna im. L. Schillera w Łodzi (The Polish National Film, Television and Theatre School in Łódź) for their help in making a screening of this film possible in Washington.

Zbigniew Rybczyński, Poland, 1980, 35 mm, 1 minute 36 seconds


Still courtesy Filmoteka Muzeum

As with The Square (Kwadrat), Media is preoccupied with the formal elements of motion picture technology, in this case with the apparent divide between analog film and the (then) new medium of video. A hefty, immobile 35 mm editing table is centered in a room, its small color monitor showing the image of a man smoking. He appears to juggle a cord-tethered TV monitor with a back-and-white video image of a balloon on it, a statement about the filmmaker as causal agent. The visual pun is that the monitor takes on the qualities of its transmission, appearing agile, buoyant, and even reckless as the fixed image of the man at the film-editing table tosses it “overhead” from hand to hand. His head, arms, and hands appear now in the video feed, now as an image on film stock shown on the editing table screen—back and forth until the color tip of the cigarette pops the black-and-white balloon and the monitor crashes to the editing table. Media was made at the famous Se-Ma-For animation studio in Łódź, a production hub since the 1960s where many young filmmakers learned to experiment with film, video, and later with digital technologies. Rybczyński’s commentary on the complex integration of production media that can be seen within Media led him to even more advanced explorations into the development of motion picture and computer languages, which he is still exploring today. After emigrating from Poland in 1982, Rybczinski worked as a director, cinematographer, and teacher, making pioneering contributions to the fields of high-definition video and later digital cinematography and special effects.  — Joanna Raczynska

With thanks to Helena Dametka and the Filmoteka Narodowa (National Film Archive), Warsaw, for their help in making a screening of this film possible in Washington.

Dóra Maurer and Zoltán Jeney, Hungary, 1980, 35 mm transferred to Beta SP, 12 minutes


Still courtesy MaNDA

Made in 1981 by the artist Dóra Maurer (b. 1937) and composer Zoltán Jeney (b. 1943), Kalah derives its name from a counting game with ancient roots that is played by two people with “seeds” on a special board. At the beginning of the game, each player has six “pits” in which 36 “seeds” are evenly distributed. The players then proceed to redistribute the seeds according to set rules, with each player aiming to accumulate the most seeds. The game is strictly mathematical and allows no room for chance, but the number of possible outcomes is vast and depends on the players’ moves. The game thus remains exciting from round to round and retains its sense of unpredictability.

This quality of a system with a large number of possible states appealed to Maurer and Jeney, both of whom experimented in visual art and in music, respectively, with serial procedures that are set in motion and allowed to run their course. Maurer, who trained as a graphic artists and painter and had been influenced by Anton Webern’s writings on serial music, became engaged in the avant-garde art circles in Hungary in the early 1970s, making conceptual and minimalist work rooted in the exploration of human perception and its responses to processes and permutations within complex systems.[3] According to curator Anna Bálványos, Maurer’s “artistic method frequently involves setting up a model situation and then permitting the players (materials and forms) to work on each other. Sometimes, she performs a transformation on the outcome and lets the process run again.” Similarly, Zoltán Jeney, who in 1970 cofounded the Budapest New Music Studio, was, according to Bálint András Varga, “perhaps the most cerebral [of its members] in his approach to composition."[4] In Jeney’s music, “processes [are] carried through to their logical ending before another process is allowed to get under way.” Both Maurer and Jeney, moreover, are notable for their use of unconventional media. Maurer has worked in film, video, and performance in addition to painting, while Jeney explains his interest in electronically synthesized sounds by saying, “I am interested in any kind of research into making sounds that have not existed in the past."[5]

In Kalah, according to the film’s opening titles, Maurer and Jeney each contributed an element of the abstract film after playing a game of kalah to a draw and wanting to represent it. Taking the number of “seeds” in the game as their starting point, Jeney wrote the electronic score consisting of 72 sounds while Maurer made the 72 colored panels, each of which is a combination of shape and color that corresponds to the volume and pitch of notes on a chromatic scale. As the sounds are played in rapid succession, the color panels flash on the screen in a pattern predetermined by a notated diagram. According to David Crowley, “Maurer . . . shot [the panels] on film in the Pannonia Film Studios in Budapest over three days. She then spent a further three weeks carefully editing the celluloid to correspond accurately with the rapid pulses of Jeney’s electronic music."[6] This fact highlights the commitment and patience that was required in the analog age to imagine the future possibilities of a digital one. (An excerpt of Kalah can be seen as part of a lecture given by Crowley at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.) 
— Ksenya Gurshtein

With thanks to Sebestyén Kodolányi at the Balázs Béla Stúdió Archive and Dorottya Szörényi at the Hungarian National Digital Archive and Film Institute (Magyar Nemzeti Digitális Archívum és Filmintézet [MaNDA]) for their assistance with research and help in making a screening of this film possible in Washington.


1. Łukasz Ronduda, Polish Art of the 70s (Warsaw, 2009), 295. (back to top)

2. Zbigniew Rybczynski, “Looking to the Future—Imagining the Truth,” in eds., Cinema and Architecture: From Historical to Digital, ed. Francois Penz and Maureen Thomas (London: British Film Institute, 1997), also reproduced here. (back to top)

3. Maurer Dóra, exh. cat. (Budapest, 2008), 66, 217.  (back to top)

4. Bálint András Varga, Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers (Rochester, NY, 2011), 115. (back to top)

5. Bálint András Varga, Three Questions for Sixty-Five Composers (Rochester, NY, 2011), 118. (back to top)

6. David Crowley and Daniel Muzyczuk, Sounding the Body Electric, exh. cat. (Łódź, 2012), 188. (back to top)