Andrew Noren: What the Light Was Like

October 21–25, 2009

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Andrew Noren (b. 1943, Santa Fe, New Mexico) has been making moving image art for over forty years, and in that time he has become one of the cinema’s master practitioners in the manipulation of light and shadow. His films combine those elements into a haunting metaphysics of luminosity and somber darkness, a visual music of delicacy and powerful kinesis, revealing and reveling in the phantasmal nature of appearances. This retrospective, comprising six works in five programs, opens with Charmed Particles, which was the closing film of Noren’s 1981 MoMA retrospective, Of Light and Texture. All films are directed by Noren and from the U.S.

Organized by Laurence Kardish, Senior Curator, Department of Film.
<i>Free To Go.</i> 2003. USA. Directed by Andrew Noren

Free To Go. 2003. USA. Directed by Andrew Noren

An Interview with Andrew Noren

Laurence Kardish: Your recent work seems drained of color, except that which the mind fabricates when it receives black-and-white information from the screen. Would you comment?

Andrew Noren: The recent digital works are in both color and black and white, and don't forget that black and white are colors also. Digital technology makes it possible to move easily back and forth from color to black and white, and I greatly enjoy the latitude this offers. For example, it's possible, within a given few seconds of screen time, to move between the two many times, and if you think of cameras and editing systems as potential instruments for visual music, which I do, then this is empowering.

For me, images in color have a way of reinforcing illusion, encouraging the famous "suspension of disbelief"; the eye/brain is invited to accept the idea of the "magic window," the idea that there is something "out there," beyond the surface of the screen. Black-and-white images tend to do the opposite, encouraging the eye to see arrangements of essentially abstract shapes on a flat surface, which is what photographic images actually are. The ability to quickly move back and forth between these two states can be very rewarding.

Color is famously subjective…no two creatures see color in the same way, and of course there is no absolute, "natural" color in the world; our sense of color is a specific evolutionary adaptation. Other animals see things quite differently. It's been demonstrated that, with humans, color is mostly created in the mind of the beholder, like every other sensory phenomena.

I greatly enjoy color, revel in it, love it as I love light, and the great thing about working in digital is that one can, given enough patience, create subtle color combinations that simply weren't possible before with any existing film stock. In Aberration of Starlight, about halfway through, there's a long time-lapse sequence, in color, of light moving through a room. This is color I created myself, almost like TechniColor.

It's followed by the same material seen in a high contrast black and white, which I also created, which completely changes the game. What was previously seen as "light" moving over "objects" in a "room" is shown to be pure black-and-white abstraction. Two very different ways of seeing. A valuable comparison.

LK: You are considered an artist whose work begins in nature (that is…nature provides the image substrata), and yet in your recent work that substrata seems to have all but disappeared, except for the amorphous and transitioning shapes. Are you positing that all that can be seen may be dematerialized?

AN: Well, the world's a swirl of particles, isn't it? Atoms, molecules temporarily vibrating and dancing to a certain frequency, which we are conditioned to perceive as solid forms, as "reality." These forms, of course, are really vectors and vortexes of energy, conjurations, "charmed particles," if you will, temporarily assuming shapes before being dispersed and dematerialized. On that level, certainly everything can and will be dematerialized, since the fate of the earth is eventual immolation by the sun, which will one day explode, dispersing everything that exists back to its original elements. The Tibetan Buddhists, the Navajo, the aborigines of Australia and many other cultures have made literal diagrams of this dispersal, which is the fate of all forms. And of course we humans are staring dematerialization in the face all the time, aren't we? We hover on the edge of it. Life is a ghost-show, after all; we're frail phantoms fluttering in the winds of time, soon to vanish.

On the level of visual representation—cinema, painting, whatever—anything is possible. In that arena, the world can change, vanish, reappear at the whim of the image maker; it is an imaginary world. But in terms of the son et lumiere that rages on in our craniums 24/7, there is some question about the materiality, the reality—you should forgive the expression—of the world itself.

Visually, light—embodied and configured by shadow—falls on the retinas, the twin screens of the great movie called "The World," and is then processed through the cranial apparatus and eventually…in a nanosecond…reaches the thalamus, that impish little organ at the back of the brain, which, having examined the evidence, decides and decrees what is real and what isn't, and conveys that judgment to the rest of the body. It acts as a kind of critic, an explainer.

So, as you see, vision is very much interpretive and imaginary, a work of imagination; we invent the world as we are seeing it. Anything can happen. There is no "real" and "solid" world out there that a serious student can apprehend; what is available to us is interpretation, possible versions of what might be "real." Struggling to see the world in terms of an objective, inherited, impartial "reality" is a fool's errand. There is no such world. There is only opinion.

From the necessity of getting food and shelter we all opt for a consensus "reality," however specious, because we must, we have no choice.

Representation versus abstraction is an old and famous arena of contention and dispute in art. I photograph the elements of the life around me and then work with that material, trying to reveal the energy and the haunting sense of vivacity and mortality that lies beneath the surface of "actual" things. My two favorite painters are J. M. W. Turner and Pierre Bonnard, both of whom understood that abstraction and representation can exist at the same time, which is something I aspire to. In any case, take the most straightforward "representational" image you can think of, whether a painting or a photographic image, and zoom in on a particular detail and then enlarge that detail; you'll find a dematerialization of the original image transformed into an abstraction of epic proportions. Interesting to note that I once had a plan to rephotograph all of my films through an electron microscope. I was defeated by the available technology of that time, but the idea still interests me.

A good example of all this is a sequence in Aberration Of Starlight. It begins with a "representational" image of curtains blowing in the wind, seemingly "real" enough at first, which then begins to "dematerialize"; this is followed by another sequence of the black shadows of that curtain, which is moving in the wind, falling on a white carpet, becoming an elaborate abstract play of light and shadow…a kind of essence of cinema.

LK: You have said many times how essential the sun and its light are to your work. But with the possibilities offered by digital imagery can you, the artist, not just as easily manufacture light by coaxing pixels, independently of natural light? And do you? And if so, does this give you a sense of either power or betrayal?

AN: It's possible to create a sort of artificial digital light, sure, but that doesn't interest me. In cinema, all projected light is artificial anyway, light generated by electricity. It's a simulacrum of the original light that created any particular photographic image. For example, an image made with "natural" sunlight is, in projection, only a trace, a ghost, of the original light that made it; that original light has long-since departed. Light patterns on photographic emulsion are artifacts, shards of light that "happened" before. Projecting electronic light through those patterns is a temporary revivification of the ghost of light past. An imitation of light, if you will. But, it's important to remember that electronic light is only another version of the solar light from which it originally came. It's a translation of that original light.

Light, in itself, is absolute mystery. It is literally invisible to us, it has no actual substance, no specific being. It cannot be said to even exist, except as a "presence." We humans can only perceive it when it comes in contact with the objects and elements of the world, which, ironically, are also invisible; we can only perceive them when they are contacted by light, when the two "invisibles" meet. So, a mysterious equivalence exists here. We flatter ourselves that we can measure and quantify it. Isaac Newton thought of it as measurable physical body…but in itself it's unquantifiable. We can describe some of the effects it has on the world, but its nature remains a mystery.

Robert Grossteste, the thirteenth-century theologian, had the idea that everything in the world is quite literally made of light. And in a sense, this is true. His idea was that from an original, infinite blackness a point of light emerged, as if by magic, and grew and continued to grow, expanding in all directions, until the universe, and our world were formed. So, all that is is light, was created by light. Perhaps so. Who knows?

Also there's the famous saying by the Sufi, Najm Razi: "If the light rises in the space of the heart and, in the pure inner man, attains the brightness of the sun, or of many suns, then his heart is nothing but light, his subtle body is light. His material covering is light, his hearing, his sight, his hand, his exterior, his interior, are nothing but light."

Light itself is a kind of mysterious intelligence. I once identified it somewhere as being the "living thought of the Sun," which it is. There is a sense in which light creates mind, creates a corresponding interior light, or "light of mind," a replica intelligence, if you will. Both Empedocles and Plato thought that vision actually originated within the eye, that a "fine inner fire" was projected outward from the eye in a kind of Euclidian cone, and that this interior light made vision possible.

The sun is a brain, after all, and that brain "thought" us into being. This earth and everything on it, including our own brains, lives, eyes, minds, and all the objects of the world. It's as though the sun's light requires an answering, corresponding light from our dark interior.

Our sun is tiny compared to others; there are suns hundreds of times larger than ours. Think of Deneb! Imagine what goes on in those precincts. We think of the sun as being benevolent, since our lives arise from it and depend on it, but it's only accidentally, provisionally benevolent. If we were a few thousand miles closer to or further away from it, no life would be possible. We inhabit a lucky accident. The heart of the sun blasts out its energy in all directions. That energy is incredibly violent and intense, the full true force of life itself. Some of it comes here and does what it does, but most of it goes elsewhere; one can only guess as to what purpose.

I've had the thought that all of the suns/stars in the universe are connected by light, in a kind of telepathic relay system stretching from star to star, from one end of the universe to the other. Light calling to light, through utter blackness. A communication of intelligence, I think. What else would it be?

In the past, I've been guilty of referring to light as divine manifestation, and this is, of course, an ancient idea. But that's far too simple. Light, whatever else it is, is a transmission from a power of unimaginable magnitude and incomprehensible vastness, unknowable to us. The great Meister Eckhart once summed up the whole thing most eloquently: "God is far, far too intelligent to exist."

Light and I go way back. Light has been my great, lifelong friend and passion. There is no particular virtue attached to this; it's just the way it is. I love it, as I do the earth and the creatures of the earth. I have a consuming interest in it.

My intent and ambition is to follow the advice of Lao Tse: "Use your own light, and return to the source of Light; this is called 'practicing Eternity.'" What might this "source of light" be? The light we know here is a product of the sun, yes, but our sun is the product of a larger sun, and that sun is the product of an even larger sun and so on, ad infinitum. Is the source of light an ultimate and absolute darkness? I don't know, but I promise to send you a postcard when I get there.

LK: Aside from accessibility and economics, what are the compelling reasons to work electronically rather than chemically?

Well, I've been saying for years that my medium of preference would be telepathy; direct brain-to-brain transmission of sight/sound/thought complexes, thereby avoiding the onerous need for machines. To be honest, I don't really even like cameras or projectors. It's true that they're marvels of human ingenuity, extraordinary artifacts and instruments of expression, but to me even the best of them seem crude and primitive compared to actual sight, and to actual thought about what is seen. Telepathy might sound somewhat fanciful, but I was reading recently that Nikola Tesla, in the last year of his life, was working on a machine that could photograph thoughts. Evidently there are drawings to document this.

With film, I always have a sense of a mechanical device at work, one frame being laboriously pulled down and being replaced by another. There's a sense of dire inevitability to it, the stigma of the Industrial Revolution. And, in a way, this is appropriate, since cinema was invented as a literal "dream machine," a mechanical device that would allow us to dream while waking. It's worth noting that the dream machine of cinema appeared just at the moment when extraordinary and unprecedented social changes were taking place that affected virtually every person on the planet. What had been, for many centuries, a pastoral, agricultural circumstance changed almost over night. Young people abandoned the farms and flocked to the cities in great numbers, working in factories, making objects instead of producing their own sustenance, which previously had linked them to the earth and to the ancient tradition of seasonal cycles and labor in ambient light. The dream machine was an antidote, allowing at least a partial reconnection to the old ways, when dream and waking were closely interwoven. I'm sure you know Murnau's Sunrise—one of my favorites. It's the classic text on this subject.

There is nothing inherently sacred or holy about film emulsion, or digital emulsion, for that matter. They are both ways of conveying information, simple as that, each with its flaws and virtues. I know some filmmakers who throw up their hands in horror at the very idea of working in the digital format…"Oh, I would never do that!," as though it were some kind of sacrilege. This seems strange to me.

Working electronically provides a kind of non-mechanical fluidity, a sense of floating, if you will, which is much more closely related to how my thought and perceptive processes actually work; one step closer to my ideal of telepathy. It allows a much more refined particularity of expression and a greater latitude for thought articulation. And above all it provides the opportunity for "play." Play is an important aspect of what I do, taking the given elements and playing with them, combining, recombining, experimenting to see what might be possible. Working digitally, you can try all manner of things without a final commitment, doing take after take until you're satisfied, very much like drawing and then erasing and then redrawing. With film, once you've shot something, it stays shot. There's no undoing it. For me, the entire digital apparatus is like a great visual piano of a wonderful sophistication.

LK: Do you believe the electronic image can give the viewer the same sense of tactility or texture that film can provide?

And do you think the mind receives electronic and analog information in the same way, even when the information received and the circumstances of projection are the same?

No, there isn't the same sense of tactility for the simple reason that for now electronic images can't provide the same amount of visual detail to the eye that film can. It's grain versus pixels. But that situation is changing so rapidly that it's sort of futile to even talk about it. Electronic technology progresses by quantum leaps. Computers right now are hundreds of times faster, smarter, cheaper than they were only ten years ago, and we're still in the Stone Age of that technology. The difference between grain and pixel will soon be obviated to the point where you won't be able to tell the difference between the two. In fact, digital manifestation will soon become the "normal" way that people perceive photographic representation. Emulsion grains will gradually seem more and more archaic. Whether this is good or bad is in dispute, but it is happening. Economics demand it, and try to argue with that.

How important is tactility? Should a photographic image seem real enough to touch, feel, take hold of? Do you really want/need to kiss an actor/actress, or caress a photographic kitten, eat a cinematic meal? Is this good mental hygiene? I don't think so. Better to know, always, that you're looking at a spectral illusion; that way it's much easier to avoid being manipulated, which is usually much to your advantage.

What the mind usually hopes for, in photographic images, is plausibility of illusion, an acceptable seeming of reality. Why do we want this? Some minds want enchantment and elevation, hoping for temporary parole from the prison of the "self" and the "ordinary"; other minds seek stupefaction: football, idiotic Hollywood movies, TV celebrity worship, etc., hoping for who-knows-what. But what is crucial in every case is plausibility; without that the illusion doesn't work.

As you may have gathered, I'm not a big fan of plausibility. Recently I've gotten very much re-interested in the cave paintings/drawings at Altamira and Lascaux. "Primitive," perhaps—whatever that means—and implausible, sure, but wonderfully, poetically suggestive. Interesting, parenthetically, that archaeologists are of at least two minds about those great works. One school thinks they were simply records of hunts and various deeds, but another, more imaginative school thinks that they were a kind of sympathetic magic used by shamans to help hunters visualize a successful outcome to hunts that had not yet happened, a kind of instruction. By visualizing, you could make the scenario depicted on the cave wall actually come to pass. I like this idea.

But what is this craving we have for illusion? Recently I've been beating up on Brunelleschi, he of the famous, and ominous, optical trick he performed on the cathedral steps in thirteenth-century Florence. He not only demonstrated that what we call "Renaissance perspective" was possible, but that it was also desirable as the equivalent of "visual truth," or how we normally see. Our natural sight is in that kind of perspective, true; it's an important survival skill—How close is this? How far away is that?—and that kind of perspective seems "normal" to us. But visual art up to that point had no such perspective rule in place. Compositionally, whatever an artist thought was thematically or symbolically important was always foregrounded into pride of place. Ref: Duccio.

Remember though, that Brunelleschi was an employee of the Church, and the powers there lost no time in recognizing how this trick could be used to further stupefy the fearful believers who sought refuge from mortality in the Church's dogmas. Now, a "magic window" was possible. One could now look at an ordinary surface, a church wall perhaps, and see "through" it, into a realm where the perspective one employs in daily life was manifest and where the Church's fairy tales could be vividly illustrated with an enhanced illusion of "reality," a kind of cinema in and of itself. Suspension of disbelief in spades, and a propaganda device yet to be equaled. The rest is Western art history.

Another miscreant was Philo T. Farnsworth, credited with the invention of television, a device which over the last sixty years or so has stupefied and infantilized virtually every person on the planet. The magic window come home to roost. Witness the profusion of "reality" TV shows. Even if you scrupulously avoid watching television, your life is inescapably affected by it. It's a tool of profound political/social control and manipulation. Therefore, I'm now proposing that both Brunelleschi and Farnsworth be posthumously put on trial for crimes against humanity. This is to say nothing of the idiocracy that is commercial cinema, or the preposterous clown show that is television news. Don't get me started or we'll be here all day.

Strange to think now that my very first interest in film was newsreels and documentaries, cinéma vérité. In my youthful innocence I actually thought at the time that a kind of cinematic or photographic truth was possible and available and desirable. I was mistaken.

LK: Is everything that there could possibly be in the universe—broadly speaking and emotions included—contained in your home and garden and the light that falls on these?

We have very little knowledge of what is "in" the Universe, or out of it, for that matter, and most of what we do know is self-serving. We think it is what we want it to be. We don't even know "where" the Universe is, do we? Got to be somewhere, right? Everything else is.

One of the oldest occult ideas is: "As above, so below." Example: the way in which the motion of particles around the nucleus of an atom mimics the motion of the planets around the sun, or the way those startling photographs of supernovae explosions resemble the iris of the human eye.

What is meant by this is that what is "out there" is also "here," a thought that is both exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.

What I've tried to do is to look carefully into the particulars of what is around me, seeking out an equivalent "here" for what's "out there." And in my present "here" I have all that I need to work with, all that I love: light in abundance; Rise, my wife of many years, who is another source of light; plants, trees, birds, water, books, music, and some degree of leisure in which to study and learn. I've spent years just trying to find an appropriate technique that would allow me to respond to and celebrate my immediate surroundings, to respond appropriately to the essential mystery of appearances. So yes, all that is "out there" is also "here," if you have the eyes for it.

LK: Apart from museum presentations, how would you like your work to be experienced by viewers?

Most of my work up to now requires the "darkened chamber," the camera obscura equivalent that movie theaters are. Those spaces replicate the interior of our own isolate skulls, in which we are both proprietors and captives, projecting our eyesight outward onto what passes for the "world"—that notorious, trembling veil of illusion—and receiving reflected light back from that unstable veil.

In the darkened chamber one is ideally free to concentrate without distraction on whatever visual spectacle is in progress, free to dream, in darkness, of the light. This is an ideal situation for the kind of visual poetics, or music, that I practice.

LK: In a general and metaphorical sense, do you think of your work as music?

Yes, all of the work, taken together, is an extended visual music, by now many hours long. Themes and variations, first stated long ago in the first parts of the work, continue on through the work as a whole. With each part these themes are refined and transmuted, gathering depth and complexity as the work goes on. They appear, disappear, echo, and reverberate from part to part, in both rhyme and disjuncture. New themes and variations are added all the time, as mind goes through life and life goes through mind, adding to the complexity. So, it is for sure a visual music. It is also a poetics of light and shadow and the "time" that they create, and a species of metaphysical enquiry into the nature of light.

I'm amazed that there is still so much resistance from viewers in thinking of the films as visual music. Seemingly everyone always wants to know what the images "mean," as though immediate verbalization were the crucial element that would provide perfect understanding. They completely ignore the inherent—and obvious—musicality of what they are seeing.

Some of my favorite music is the JS Bach Partitas, and the solo piano work of Cecil Taylor. This is soaring, profound stuff but, on hearing it, the very last thing I want is to know what it "means." It doesn't really mean anything, other than itself. The experience of hearing it is complete without verbalization. But some viewers seem to think that if you can't talk about it, it doesn't have any value. How can it be "intelligent" if you can't talk about it? I still, after forty-some years, get questions at screenings such as: "But what is this film about? What were you trying to 'say'?" This is a remnant of the literary origins of early films, which in many cases were photoplays, filmed versions of plays or novels, with all of the onerous baggage that entails. But at this stage of the game it's gotten very tedious. I simply don't answer such questions anymore. Parenthetically, I can't abide films that are allegedly "about: something; I literally cannot stand that. What I require, of my own work or that of others, is that the work not be about something, but that it be the thing itself. This is crucial.

Interesting to note that in my relative old age I've come to the point where I'm perfectly prepared to live without any "meaning: at all; I suppose this is a kind of satori. Life, though precious, doesn't mean anything; the world—the Universe!—doesn't mean anything; it just is. That is more than enough.

This is a very liberating state of mind. Thinking this way greatly improves one's appreciation of things. Photographic images by their very nature are inherently meaningless. (Read your Walter Benjamin!) We, in our delusional grandeur, assign meaning to them. Filmmakers very often go through elaborate rituals of assigning meaning to their images, building baroque cloud-castles of implied intent, suggesting hidden depths of spiritual or intellectual significance and profundity. Often this is designed to manipulate the thoughts of viewers, to convince them that they are seeing something other than what is right in front of them. I resist this; I don't like feeling that I'm being manipulated. I'll find my own meaning if I want to, thank you, or not. For me, the best work is that which, by its compositional and kinetic power, can hold intelligent interest.

LK: It seems to me that your practice involves spending most of your time/energy at a computer or digital manipulator, and not in the recording of nature. Is this so? Do you work at home or in a media studio? Do you storyboard?

I spend a great deal of time "recording" the "natural" world or, more exactly, translating a version of it onto photographic emulsion. I work almost all the time, whenever the light is good, with what is around me at a given time. Not working is generally a day wasted.

I slowly gather material over the course of weeks, months, years, and periodically I assemble this material in a roughly chronological fashion and study it to find what naturally belongs together. And then a long process of refining and re-refining begins, until I'm finally satisfied that the articulation is as strong and clear as I can make it.

A lot of what I do is done in-camera, and a wonderful feature of digital cameras is that even the least expensive of them now incorporate a great array of visual possibilities that were only previously available via optical printers. I spend a certain amount of time, in the final stages of editing, working at a studio to assure that the final "expression" of a work is as clear and vivid as possible.

Storyboarding implies a prefigured narrative sequence, and that is something I've always avoided. I improvise, moment to moment, as many musicians do. I'm not interested in stories as such, although there is a sense in which narrative is inescapable—one frame does follow another, inevitably, which makes narrative out of everything. Human dramas bore me to tears; the Greeks had all that covered thousands of years ago. Why continue rehashing the details? There are only five or six stories to tell anyway, all with the same ending.

But we do love stories, don't we? Because they make everything seem so simple and easy to deal with. However, my interest is elsewhere.

LK: A lot of your more recent work uses time-lapse photography as a technique. Why is this important to you?

Time-lapse is the great indicator, the living proof, of the movement of the planets, which, along with our heartbeats, is the somber evidence of our mortality. Also, I love the progressive alteration of the qualities of light, which constantly reconfigure the visual field, and love also the hallucinatory sense of time condensed.

In Aberration of Starlight there's a sequence in which two months of "normal" time is condensed into something like eight minutes. I find this thrilling. Our usual sense of normal time, and cinematic time as well, are part of the consensus reality agreement mentioned before. Everyone knows that any person's sense of the passage of time can vary radically, depending on the circumstances, seeming sometimes slower or faster. Time is not a fixed quantity.

LK: What is the significance or importance to you of the shadow figure that seems to haunt the later films?

That figure—"myself" disguised as shadow—is of course my Other, my anima, my secret sharer. It's also an ongoing memento mori, and in time it will be the only surviving trace of my actual physical presence. It is also an actor, employed by me, that often serves to activate and animate the pictorial space of the image. An old friend and colleague.

LK: You've been at work in the avant-garde arena for many years now. I imagine that there is very little financial reward involved in this. How do you keep going; will you keep going?

AN: Well, for me it's the only possible way to live. Quite simply, making things makes you feel more intensely alive. Also, there is the very strong feeling that for all the work I've done in the past, the best work is yet to be done, the work that will be as close to perfection as I will ever come. Working hard and studying hard, over a long, long period of time, whatever the discipline, will make you "good" at it. But good isn't good enough. There is "more."

And no, there are no rewards; I have to struggle mightily to pay for each new work, which I do by working at other things that bring in money. The problem, of course, is the time and energy wasted in doing that money work. There was a time, not too long ago, when visual artists were helped by a variety of grant-giving organizations, but those sources have all but disappeared, and there is next to nothing in the way of private patronage. This is not to even mention the disappearance of venues in which to show work that is in any way radical or advanced, and the lack of any serious critical or scholarly attention to the work.

So, discouragement on every hand, for myself and many others, but for me there is no alternative. Put very simply, I'll work until the work is finished, hoping all the while for some kind of merciful help from some quarter. That help is very much needed.