Rapid Transit: Dónal Ó’Céilleachair’s With Wind & White Cloud and the single-frame travelogue

By Herb Shellenberger

This is one in a small series of contributions submitted by Irish and international artists, writers and curators commissioned by MEx curator in residence 2016 Alice Butler to activate the resource by drawing attention to individual works or artists, underlying themes, evolving patterns or historical threads.

Herb Shellenberger has curated screenings at institutions such as Arnolfini (Bristol), International House Philadelphia, Izolyatsia Platform for Cultural Initiatives (Ukraine), Light Industry (Brooklyn), LUX (London) and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts (San Francisco). He is a graduate of the Central Saint Martins/LUX MRes Moving Image programme, and has previously lectured on artist film and video at the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art and Alternative Film/Video Research Forum (Belgrade). His writing has appeared in Art Agenda and The Brooklyn Rail and he has curated the series “Independent Frames: American Experimental Animation in the 70s + 80s” at Tate Modern in February 2017.

Dónal Ó’Céilleachair’s film With Wind & White Cloud (2006) was made during the artist’s travel from Istanbul to Berlin. Directly inspired by Oskar Fischinger’s Walking from Munich to Berlin (1927), Ó’Céilleachair mimics Fischinger’s staccato shooting style, interspersing single frames with footage shot at different frame rates to produce a sped-up, kinetic travelogue. The results of both experiments are poetic yet harsh, extremely potent concentrations of both an extended time period and a traversal of great distance into brief yet powerful visual symphonies. While Fischinger’s film may be the first “single-frame travelogue,” several artists including Ó’Céilleachair have also explored this style of impressionistic diary filmmaking.

There are two main aspects of the single-frame travelogue: single-frame (or variable frame rate) cinematography and documentation of the filmmaker’s journey. The single-frame travelogue uses speed and wonder to reflect the discovery and exhaustion the filmmaker experiences. An antecedent can be found in early cinema panoramas, notably Coney Island at Night (1905), in which filmmaker Edwin S. Porter pans and tilts the camera to provide breathtaking views of Dreamland, Luna Park and other Coney Island attractions which become bright beacons in the black night. Porter’s film was one of the first made with a moving camera, and filmmakers working with the single-frame travelogue accentuate their camera’s movement over great distances through greatly expressive, gestural shooting on a smaller scale, wildly snapping single-frame exposures sometimes without even looking through the viewfinder.

With Wind & White Cloud (Dónal Ó'Céilleachair, 2006)

Filmmakers and artists have made widely differing works from material shot during travel. Some filmmakers have explored extreme long-form filmmaking with works like Joris Ivens’ How Yukong Moved the Mountains (1976) and Ulrike Ottinger’s Chamisso’s Shadow (2016), both of which run for twelve hours. While these works become essayistic in form, comprising extended portraits and lengthy encounters, Fischinger’s Walking from Munich to Berlin spends several seconds or even several frames (a fraction of a second) with each person the filmmaker happened upon through his journey. This contributes to the saturated feel of the single-frame travelogue, which shows buildings, landscapes, people and objects flashing by quicker than the viewer can fully comprehend. This is certainly the case in With Wind & White Cloud: the film allows the viewer to relive the artist’s journey in a fraction of the time but still retains a representative sample of what he saw along the entire distance from Istanbul to Berlin.

When comparing the two films, With Wind & White Cloud and Walking from Munich to Berlin share many visual elements despite the eighty-year difference between them. Though Ó’Céilleachair took inspiration from Fischinger’s film, his result is a startlingly effective echo which transmutes the differences between time and place, in a sense making a case for Fischinger’s template as a style of experimental filmmaking. Both films show flashes of train tracks, people, countryside, clouds, buildings and images that become abstracted due to their speed and disconnection from successive frames. It’s worth noting that Fischinger’s film was a 35mm camera experiment never shown publicly in his lifetime. An artist well known for his experimental animation and visual music, Fischinger’s artistic dexterity and inventiveness are easy to understand when viewing the film, which may actually seem somewhat related to his endeavors in animation. In essence, the single-frame travelogue animates the visible world by means of the camera, movement and speed. The resulting film shares elements with some experimental animation: jitter and shakiness, a fast pace and a mixture of abstraction and identifiable imagery.

 

Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (Jonas Mekas, 1972)
Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (Jonas Mekas, 1972)
lost sight (arc, 2015)

Another artist who explored the single-frame travelogue was poet and underground film star Taylor Mead, whose four films (My Home Movies, 1964; Home Movies – Rome/Florence/Venice/Greece 1965; European Diaries 1967; and Home Movies – N.Y.C. to San Diego 1968) document his travels in Mexico, the United States and Europe. Using a staccato shooting style that recalls the films of his close friend Jonas Mekas—whose Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972) could be another example of the single-frame travelogue—Mead’s camera captures images that transfix him: lights, graffiti, people, mechanical dolls and knick-knacks, colourful gardens and many, many cats. Writing about one of Mead’s films in 1982, Bartlett Naylor said: “The film flickers through a millennium of culture as it would appear to a tourist. It is an intense film, yet, there is an incredible wealth of information surprisingly accessible. Aside from the exciting experience itself, the breakneck history lesson is a reminder that the mind can move in lightning steps: the plodding way information is typically presented is an insult to mental capability.” Naylor seems to characterize the single-frame travelogue as it applies to the films of Mead, Fischinger and Ó’Céilleachair.

 

palms (arc, 2011)
palms (arc, 2011)

More recently, an artist collective based in Oakland has been exploring the potential of the single-frame travelogue. arc (who stylize both their name and titles in lowercase) is a project primarily convened by tooth, the organizer of DIY space black hole cinematheque and an artist working with celluloid in single and multi-channel film and performance. arc’s palms (2011) is portrait of California through its palm trees, a non-native plant that has come to symbolize the state’s mythology. The Super 8 film shows a sequence of colored lights before turning to a furious view of shaky palm trees, shown from afar or with the camera pointing directly upwards. Frames of the trees become surrounded by black and fully-exposed white frames, creating a harsh strobe effect around these images. The camera is tilted, turned, shot upside down and the trees emerge from not just the bottom of the frame but all sides. The kinetic film lasts a little over two minutes.

arc’s lost sight (2015) is a work that points towards the possibility of incorporating single-frame travelogue into different kinds of work. The film, also made in Super 8, mixes footage shot by the filmmaker in different countries—like a red-tinted shot of water in Germany or the forest around Canyon, CA—as well as sequences from a found film made by an amateur filmmaker named Lea Rosenstock. That film, shot in the 1970s, and the footage shot by arc mix with surprising cohesion and viewers would be hard-pressed to identify which shots come from which decade. The single-frame sequences in lost sight portray motion and travel with less specificity than the films of Fischinger, Mead and Ó’Céilleachair, instead seeming to suggesting the single-frame travelogue of one among several techniques in a hybrid work.

In fact, this could be a more common way that viewers encounter the single-frame travelogue: as a sequence in another type of experimental film. For example, in the atmospheric traversals of space by Julie Murray (Fl. oz. 2002 and Orchard 2003); through the pulsating single-frame portraits of place and natural life by Rose Lowder (Bouquets 1-30 1994–2009); among the epic landscape films of Chris Welsby and William Raban (River Yar 1972); buried within Saul Levine’s tireless 8mm symphonies (On the Spot 1973); or within Takashi Ito’s nearly-impossible animated choreographies of space and time (Spacy 1981 and Wall 1987). The single-frame travelogue need not be “pure” to have relevance and the work of the aforementioned artists only strengthens the case that film has the potential to expressively represent one’s travels by means of speed, wonder and overwhelming numbers of disconnected images.

Ó’Céilleachair’s With Wind & White Cloud helps trace a line of cohesion from Fischinger’s experiment in 1927 through Mead’s jubilant film diaries of the 1960s and into the future with arc’s stroboscopic travelogues, more of which are nearing the stages of completion after being shot over multiple years and in multiple countries. There have likely been many more single-frame travelogues produced throughout history, not only by artists but also amateur filmmakers or home movie makers. The condensation of time and space into a potent, powerful film help make the argument that, through patience and imagination, the single frame travelogue can result in powerful work that can still—in the case of Fischinger, ninety years on—seem overwhelmingly current and expressive.

To view Dónal Ó’Céilleachair’s With Wind & White Cloud in full click here
To view Julie Murray’s Fl. oz in full click here


Published on: 5th December 2016
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