The Structure of Art
by Jeffrey W. Ruggles
Imagine this: what if the subject of a book, film, or theatre piece was the way in which the work was created? What if the emphasis was on its structure, its formal elements? What if a film was about film, about the technical elements of cinema? Or try and think about a theatre piece that is about how theatre works. Imagine a paragraph about "paragraphs." It is difficult. One is used to reading, seeing, hearing something with a subject far removed from how it was made or structured. When something is read, seen, or heard, how it was made is usually the furthest thing from the average viewer's mind. There are characters and plots to pay attention to and one is to "figure out" what is going on within the story. Yet, what if none of these elements existed or were simply unimportant in a film or play? In the late sixties a group of revolutionary people, mostly filmmakers and theatre artists, took these questions and began formulating ideas about what a subject could/should be. The Structuralists, as they were commonly referred to, changed the focus of the avant-garde. They took the "spotlight" off of themselves and pointed it at the materials and formal elements of their work. In the following essay, I will examine two such artists, Michael Snow and Michael Kirby, who put these structural/formal ideas to use in their various mediums. Though one is a filmmaker and the other a theatre artist, I hope to point out the similarities in their ideologies and more specifically, in two of their Structuralist works. But before one can understand Structuralism, it must be understood as being outside of the linguistic or anthropological structuralism that is most commonly known and referred to.
Structuralism vs. structuralism
An aspect that is quite important in the understanding of this essay is the differentiation between Structuralism and "structuralism." Structuralism, with a lower-case 's,' refers to the popular philosophy originated by thinkers such as Ferdinand de Saussre and Claude Levi-Strauss, while Structuralism, with a capital 's,' signifies a particular art movement in the late sixties that found a home primarily in theatre and film. The structuralism of de Saussre and Levi-Strauss is, on a very basic level, the explanation and analysis of complex human activities by breaking down a whole into smaller parts. In effect, it is a way of decoding systems and codes that make up a larger whole in order to try and explain parts of human existence (Robey 1-5). This particular ideology can be used to try and explain any number of things: mathematics, biology, physics, other sciences, and even film and theatre. Though "structuralist" thought is present in the film and theatre that will be discussed in this essay, Structuralism by and by is quite different from the philosophical ideas of de Saussre and Levi-Strauss (Cornwell 78). The main difference is how the terms apply to their various subjects. While structuralism in the sciences designates a way of thinking, a way of decoding and understanding, in film and theatre, Structuralism is a way of doing. So then the question might be raised: If Structuralism does not come primarily out of philosophical structuralist thought, where does it originate?
By the end of the 1950's, it seemed as though Modernism had run its course. Pop art was in full swing and the second generation Modernists were loosing favor with the critics. It was around this time that a new group of artists began to emerge: the Minimalists. These particular artists were striving to create an art that counteracted the ideology of Clement Greenberg, one of Modernism's biggest supporters (Arnason 589). High modernist art was an art of angst and anger, a visually complex art that often times required one to look inside the painting to figure out what it was "about" (Arnason 437). To counter this, Minimalists presented an art of "extreme visual reduction" (Arnason 590). It was spare, seemingly simple and no longer "about" something in the sense that Abstract Expressionist art was. It required no deep vision into the artists' soul to appreciate or understand it. Frank Stella, one of many to write and speak out for a minimalist art, once stated that with his paintings, "What you see is what you see" (Stiles and Selz 121). Minimalist art was often about perception. It was an art of ideas more than of emotions (Arnason 590). The object itself became the most important part of the work. In a sense, the object was the subject, much like in the Structuralist work of Michael Snow and Michael Kirby. In fact, it could be said that Structuralism brought Minimalism to film and theatre.
Structuralist Film and Michael Snow's Wavelength
In 1963 a film was made that acted as a precursor to the Structural Cinema (Sitney 349). That film was Sleep by Andy Warhol, the subject of which was just what the title stated, a man sleeping for six hours…nothing more, nothing less. What you see is what you see. It could be said that this film was the starting point for what P. Adams Sitney termed Structural film. This was "a cinema of structure in which the shape of the whole film is predetermined and simplified, and it is that shape which is the primal impression of the film" (348). Sitney goes on to say that the visual elements of the Structural film are minimal and that these elements seem to be secondary to the shape of the film (348). Like the Minimalists before them, Structural filmmakers created works not necessarily about the visual elements presented, but about the form that they took. Structuralism insisted on pared down visuals that would divorce it from the "cinematic metaphor of consciousness" that was found in films by artists such as Stan Brakhage who's work was almost like an Abstract Expressionist painting on film (Sitney 348). The Structuralist film broke away from this in the attempt to create a new cinema.
Technically, the Structural film had many faces and in his landmark book Visionary Film, P. Adams Sitney describes four characteristics that might help categorize these films. These signifiers consist of a "fixed camera position…the flicker effect, loop printing, and rephotography off the screen." Not every film must have all of these elements, but at least one must exist in order for a film to be considered Structuralist in Sitney's eyes (Sitney 348). Films such as Tony Conrad's The Flicker and Peter Kubelka's Arnulf Rainer were prime examples of flicker films. Whereas, a film like Ken Jacob's Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, in which a film is photographed and then re-edited to create another movie, would be a prime example of rephotography off the screen. But it could be said that a fixed camera position is the biggest signifier of a Structuralist work. It is this quality that really lends itself to the minimalist aesthetic inherent in these films. Time always plays a large part in these works and the single take tends to bring this to the forefront.
Wavelength, a film by Michael Snow, really characterizes all the aforementioned ideas the best out of all the films in the genre. Snow is often considered the dean of Structuralist filmmakers and it could be said that his film Wavelength is the most important of all Structural works (Sitney 352 and Cornwell 81). With making this film, Snow has said that he was "trying to make a definitive statement of pure Film space and time, a balancing of 'illusion' and 'fact,' all about seeing" (Sitney 352). Therefore, he was making a film about film, seeing as how film in a very abstract sense is about depicting space and time. The film also focuses on a formal element in film…the zoom.
The film opens in a loft. The street outside can be seen and the camera zooms slowly toward a group of windows at the far end of the loft. Nothing "happens." After a few minutes, a woman and two men enter the loft with a bookcase. They place it against a wall and exit the room. No words are spoken between them. Yet, the camera does not loom on this action. The zoom continues almost as if the camera had not even recorded the action at all. Again nothing. Then, two women enter the room. They sit at a table. Again their presence acts as a "part" of the room. Silence is kept and then music. The Beatles' "Strawberry Fields Forever" begins to play as if from a distant radio. The music plays for a while and then fades. One woman gets up and leaves the room. The other stays for a moment then gets up to leave as the first did. The zoom continues. Again the camera passes up the situation. After all it is not the point of the film. The image suddenly switches to negative, but the zoom continues toward the group of windows. It is also at this point that the previous "natural" sound is replaced by the sound of a sine wave, which starts out at 50 cycles and increases steadily to 12,000 cycles by the end of the film. The picture turns back to positive and the zoom continues. At this point the sine wave is brought down and natural sound can be heard again. A scuffle is heard off camera. Just then a man enters the frame. Groaning, he falls to the floor and dies. The camera does not stop for him though. The sound of the sine wave again comes back to the forefront. The floor and sidewalls can no longer be seen, yet it is still not apparent what the camera is zooming in on. After a little while a woman in a fur coat enters the room and finds the dead man. She calls someone on the phone, hangs up. The sound is becoming more and more shrill. The camera zooms and passes the windows. We can now see photographs on the wall. One in particular is the ocean and the camera zooms into it. The zoom does not stop until all that can be seen is the ocean. For a long time the ocean is on the screen. The sound of the sine wave is at its highest peak. Then, very slowly, the picture fades into nothingness (Youngblood 122-127).
One can see, just by the description of the film, that the "story" is not of primary importance. These episodes of the film are secondary to the zoom and its structure. The film is about the zoom and it is this content that becomes the form of the piece (Small 71). Gene Youngblood, in his pivotal book Expanded Cinema, states that "it [Wavelength] has no "meaning" in the conventional sense. We are interested more in what it does than what it is as an icon" (126). By insisting on its form, the film is able to confront pure time and space. Because of its minimal content, the film requires one to actually "see" the film. This really makes the film a study in perception, much in the way Minimalist work was (Sitney 352). By having the zoom be the focal point of the film, Snow metaphorically shows how one perceives (Sitney 354-355). Technically you go from the widest distance possible on the lens to the shortest distance possible. The same could be said about perception. One goes from a broad understanding of a thing to a particular understanding of a thing during the act of perception. The film is a priori thought pictorialized. Because of this, Wavelength, and Structural film in general, becomes a "cinema of the mind rather than the eye" (Sitney 348). At once it seems the work is about nothing. The image gives you no real insight into its point, yet by examining the zoom (a formal/structural characteristic of the film) one can understand what it is about.
Finally, as stated by Youngblood, "an understanding of Minimal Art is essential to the appreciation of Wavelength" (126). Its qualities are inherently minimalist. They are simply adapted to filmmaking and tweaked a bit to become Structuralist ideals. But this is not the only medium to explore such minimalist/structuralist aesthetics. Michael Kirby, in his play Photoanalysis, explores and appropriates many of the ideas found in Structuralist film to create a Structuralist theatre.
Structuralist Theatre and Michael Kirby's Photoanaylsis
Unlike Structuralist film, Structuralist theatre has no particular piece that acted as a springboard for its entire movement. Instead, most inspiration for the theatre of structure has been taken from formalist theatre, which has mainly dealt with style and abstraction (Kirby 109). Michael Kirby, in his book A Formalist Theatre, states that, "Historically, a formalist production used form to make its meaning or the feelings attached to that meaning more significant, clearer and more powerful" (109). It could be said that Structural theatre was born out of this ideology by working with structure in a very formal way, making the structure the most important element aesthetically (Kirby 109). In a very telling passage from his book, Kirby explains that, "this kind of formalism tends to involve time more than the present moment, the mind more than the eye" (110). This rings very reminiscent of P. Adams Sitney's description of Structuralist film and Michael Snow's Wavelength. In the same tone as Minimalism and Structuralist film, Structuralist theatre deals with the workings of the mind by paring down the visual style used in the piece. Repetition also plays a large part in the Structuralist theatre. Actions, dialog and even certain motions are repeated in order to emphasize the structure of the work (Kirby 113). This same technique can be seen in Minimalism and in Structuralist film. In the work of sculptors like Donald Judd and Walter de Maria, repetition was used to emphasize the form and shape of the work (Arnason 592-594). Even in Wavelength this can be seen. The repetition of the zoom does not allow the viewer to forget the film is about its structure and form.
In his theatre work Photoanalysis, Michael Kirby seems to put all of these previously mentioned ideas in his work much in the way Snow did with Wavelength. On the stage there are three screens that face the audience. Photos are presented on each of these screens at various times. Three will come up and as the photos appear the person in front of the slide projection begins to tell a story that explains the photo that is being shown. Placed before the middle screen is a podium and in front of the two other screens are chairs. The center screen is devoted to a lecture on the art of photoanalysis, while at the sides, two women tell separate stories about the photos being shown. The woman on the left tells a story of her husband Carl's possible "suicide." The woman on the right talks of her friend Amy, a native-born Cuban, who is involved in some sort of terrorist activity. There is also an allusion to a man named Carlos that has been assassinated. Yet, here is the curious thing. While all the stories are quite different, the photos being projected are very similar. The subjects are the same and the photos are only manipulated slightly. The audience begins questioning the stories. For example, one wonders whether the Carl from one woman's story might be the Carlos from the other woman's tale (Carroll 106-107). But this is really the tip of the iceberg in terms of deciphering what is going on in Michael Kirby's Photoanalysis.
In Theatre at the Margins, Erik MacDonald states that, "Kirby calls attention to the importance of structure in the fundamental constitution of theatrical events and brings a sense of indeterminacy to theatre" (12). This can be seen in the different interpretations of the photographs by each of the persons on stage in Photoanalysis. Their contradicting accounts cause the audience an inability to decipher exactly what is going on. So, one could ultimately make the assumption that, like Wavelength, Photoanalysis is primarily about perception and more than that, about perception in theatre as a whole. Its emphasis on the formal elements of theatre allow for this investigation into how one perceives things. Photoanalysis also has a way of simply presenting facts without inserting a lot of emotional content that is usually found in conventional theatre. Noel Carroll points out a "dead-pan" acting style, which is found in much Minimalist theatre (106). Richard Kostelanetz goes on to state that the work plays out much like the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet, which are known to be devoid of emotion in order to simply present the facts for the reader to decipher what is going on with the character (65). By taking the audiences attention off the acting, Kirby can again redirect their attention to the structure of the play, thus allowing the audience to understand a more abstract idea about the theatre as a whole. Snow does this with his zoom. He does not allow the attention of the viewer to linger on the actions of the "characters." And like Kirby he redirects the attention of the audience onto the structure of the piece, which is of ultimate importance.
Wavelength and Photoanalysis
But what is the connection, if any, between Kirby's Photoanalysis and Snow's Wavelength? As I have shown in the previous pages, there are many similarities between them. Yet, one of the most interesting similarities between the two works is what the artists speak about when they talk about their pieces. While I'm sure neither artist would admit that the others work was influential, or even that they are for the most part saying the same things, similar philosophic assertions can be found in their writings. First, both artists speak of their work as concepts (Kirby 119 and Snow 41). The images presented in their works are subsidiary to the concepts that they are trying to put forth. This can be seen in both of their emphasis on structure. Structure in itself is quite conceptual. In the same, they also both allude to the fact that their work is "a work of the mind rather than the eye" (Kirby 110 and Snow 44). Again this is based largely on their emphasis on the formal elements that they exploit. Realism is another facet to both of their works. Neither artist relies on "non-reality" to get his point across. A story/situation is being presented in Photoanalysis that could actually happen. The photographs are representational (Carroll 71). Snow states quite clearly that his work is based in realism. "My work is representational," he states (Snow 45). The room in Wavelength is noticeable as a room. It could be any room in fact. But again, this representation in imagery is secondary to the structure of the work. This brings me to one final comparison, one that Michael Kirby might refute. Kirby states that unlike Structuralist film, Structuralist theatre cannot be about the technical aspects of theatre (Kirby 142). Yet, I beg to differ. Snow's film emphasizes a technical aspect of film, the zoom, to make a comment in perception and ultimately the way in which films are viewed. Kirby in my opinion is doing the same thing with Photoanalysis. By using actors, projections (visuals) and employing an audience, he is using elements usually found in normal theatre productions. They could be called "technical" elements of theatre. And like Wavelength, Photoanalysis uses these techniques to convey the idea of perception in an abstract way. Therefore, it is clear that Michael Snow's Wavelength and Michael Kirby's Photoanalysis are ultimately trying to say and do the same thing even though each artist is using a different medium.
Structuralism changed the way in which avant-garde filmmakers saw and made films (Small 88). In the same way, Structuralist theatre brought the technical aspects of theatre into a new light. This was done largely through the two works mentioned above, Wavelength by Michael Snow and Photoanalysis by Michael Kirby. By taking a Minimalist visual style and the ideas employed by Minimalists each artist was able to make a statement about how one perceived each of their individual mediums. By doing this, Kirby and Snow strived to achieve a new way to investigate their crafts and ultimately the world in which those crafts existed. Both thought that structure was the way to get answers to the questions that they were asking. And I think that it could be said that in the end, both artists revolutionized the idea of what a work could be about.
Arnason, H.H. and Prather, Marla. History of Modern Art, Fourth Ed. Prentice Hall, Inc. 1998. Pgs.589-591.
Carroll, Noel. "The Mystery Plays of Michael Kirby: Notes on the Esthetics of Structuralist Theatre". TDR, Vol. 23, September 1979. Pgs. 103-112.
Kirby, Michael. A Formalist Theatre. University of Pennsylvania Press. 1987. Pgs. 109-122.
Kostelanetz, Richard. On Innovative Performance(s): Three Decades of Recollections on Alternative Theatre. McFarland and Company, Inc. 1994. Pg. 65.
MacDonald, Erik. Theatre at the Margins: Text and the Post-Structured Stage. The University of Michigan Press. 1996. Pgs. 12-13.
Robey, David. Structuralism: An Introduction. Clarendon Press. 1973. Pgs. 2-5.
Sitney, P. Adams. Visionary Film, Third ed. Oxford University Press. 2002. Pg. 347-360.
Small, Edward. Direct Theory: Experimental Film/Video as Major Genre. Southern Illinois University Press. 1994. Pgs. 66-71.
Snow, Michael. The Collected Writings of Michael Snow. Wilfred Laurier University Press. 1994. Pgs. 40-46.
Stiles, Kristine and Selz, Peter. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings. University of California Press. 1996.
Youngblood, Gene. Expanded Cinema. E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., New York. 1970. Pgs. 122-127.