Screen Dream: The Audio-Visual Journeys of Glen Fogel

Ed Halter

Printed in MFJ No. 45/46 (Fall 2006) Hybrids

...can there exist a visual analogy of that quality found in a complex aural tone, the mixture of a fundamental tone with its overtones? One can think of paintings which by various means—resonation between color-shapes, echoing forms, etc.—create such a sense...a series of single frames of different colors, which creates 'flicker', can, depending upon the order and frequency of the tones, suggest such a quality; but, it can only suggest, because to truly simulate the sense of overtones one must have several visual elements existing within the same space.

— Paul Sharits, "Hearing:Seeing" (1975)

Rich, seductive compositions of color, sound, and rhythm whose representations quiver on the verge of deliquescing into pools of luminous abstraction, Glen Fogel's audio-visual works stand as some of the most deftly executed expressions of contemporary experimental cinema. Freely mixing and transforming diverse formats of video and film, Fogel creates unforgettable song-length experiences of transporting immersion that retain the imprint of his complex, subtle craftsmanship even as they draw the viewer into miniature realms of enrapturing mirage, each discrete dreamworld precisely suspended in a pulsating sonic bath and layered depth-illusion. Quite unlike movies or video art in any traditional sense, Fogel's delicate hallucinations are home-made from well-known technologies of image production and exhibition, but retooled and defamiliarized by the artist into systems for summoning intensely personal apparitions of desire.

Born in 1977, Fogel is part of a younger generation of American artists who carry on the numerous traditions evolved from of the visionary American avant-garde cinema of the 60s. Though diverse in practice, a number of his contemporaries have adhered to a more purist, Brakhagean ideal, and explore the intricate beauties of Super 8 and 16mm film with a self-consciously antique celluloid-centrism. Striving for a more radically immaterial esthetic, Fogel has nevertheless incorporated these small-gauge techniques into his own ideals of trans-media synthesis. His process involves the melding of film and video through rephotography, superimposed projections and live manipulation of image. Fogel needs to be present to perform many of his works. Self-curated in a meticulous emotional arc, his one-person screenings play out as carefully articulated performances.

His best-known piece, Endless Obsession (2000), is one of his "fixed" works projected as typical films. In this case, Fogel's transformative processes are buried within Endless Obsession's production: the finished work presents deep layers of media transference. The final format is a 16mm blowup from an original Super 8 film, comprised of sequences shot off of a television monitor, which in turn played a videotape of a 35mm film, Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom.  The images Fogel kidnapped are those of several young men, some nude, seemingly alone together in a small, ancient-looking bedchamber. The differences in frame-rate between camera and monitor cause black horizontal bands to strobe languidly up and down the screen; the five layers of media transmission have washed out the original colors into an electric blue-gray. The men's faces begin in close-up, like the faces of silent-era movie stars. Slowly, a lithe, naked ephebe arises from a cot to the thumping sounds of slowed-down music track. The film ends with shots of ecstatic, unvoiced laughter and a stellar constellation of prismatic bubbles, formed from the Super-8 film's hand-processing. The total effect is one of deep, erotic longing. It presents the metaphor of cinema as an eternally youthful, luminously beautiful 20-year-old boy, who is nevertheless slipping away, through layers of time, into a tantalizingly unreachable distance.

Airport Architecture (2001) shot on video, then rephotographed from projections onto Super 8 and hand-processed, was created from fewer media transformations. Nevertheless, Fogel pushes these pictures of escalators and suitcase-toting travelers deeply into lyrical, Rorschach-symmetrical abstraction. In the course of moving from video to film, the images become flattened into painterly icons and patterns; their contrast has been increased, and the colors shifted into gemlike purples, greens and blues. Edited with a primal shape-based rhythm, Airport Architecture was created for a live musical accompaniment by Greta Cohn and James Hoff.

Like music, experimental cinema frequently works to depict, enact and engender experiences of mental states which are not easily articulated through speech or writing. To this end, the dark-lined, pixelly-grainy look achieved through the rephotography of video onto film is one that has been practiced independently by a small number of young experimental filmmakers working in the United State, who, along with Fogel, include most notably Stom Sogo, James Fotopoulos and Jennifer Reeves. While each of these individuals employs a distinctly unique emotional register and formal style, it is notable that for all four artists the blending of video and film is used in the service of expressing a complex vision of inner life. The act of blending these different media, and thereby adding layers of depth to the image, leaves a complex, concrete testament of each artist's creative process, much like thick brushstrokes left by a painter. It adds yet another axis of time (often melancholy) perpendicular to the forward motion of the movie. One can also think of this added depth as a form of the cinematic "overtones" which filmmaker Paul Sharits sought to achieve (and yet another example of how experimental cinema, freed from narrative, takes its cues from the experience of music.)

This is not to say, however, that these processes are readily obvious to the viewer. The extent to which Fogel has dissolved video and film into one another becomes more apparent when his works are compared to the earliest instances of video re-filming seen in avant-garde film, like George Landow's Fleming Faloon (1964) or Andy Warhol's Outer and Inner Space (1965). In both these examples, the full frame of the monitor is placed within the film's frame, indexing the television screen as an object discreet from the cinematic image, yet contained within it.

The transmedia fusions achieved by Fogel, Sogo, Fotopoulos and Reeves come closer to the works of so-called psychedelic filmmakers of the late 60s and early 70s, such as Jud Yalkut (who collaborated on "videofilms" with Nam June Paik) and Scott Bartlett. Bartlett's Moon 69 (1969), Offon (1968) and Lovemaking (1971), while formally quite dissimilar from Fogel's, nonetheless share in a joining of the erotic and the metaphysical. When Yalkut created 16mm films of Paik's warped video monitors, or when Bartlett ran live television footage through video processors then transferred the results to film, they sought to link new and old media in a spiritual circuit—linking the work of artists to a global whole. Conversely, the works of Fogel and his contemporaries feel more neo-modernist than anything else, creating discreet, private, even esoteric experiences for the viewer. While both the 60s psychedelicists and today's neo-modernists encourage a loss of self (one both pleasurable and terrifying), Fogel expresses a more earthly, embodied sublime—less an esthetics of LSD than, say, MDMA.

Control Sequences (2001) privileges the tactile. Super 8 images of a cellophane-covered male body floating in water are blown up into two separate movies—one video, the other 16mm—which screen simultaneously as superimpositions upon one another, further altered through colored gels placed in front of the projectors. The overlapped projections create an uncanny 3D effect, while the claustrophobic shots of the man's open mouth attempting to breath through clinging cellophane and roiling water, and the film's respiratory soundtrack, unveils a thanatos within its eros. The film ends with a release into abstraction, provided by some borrowed shots from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969): the trippy slit-scan sequence, which was, in fact, designed by Bartlett (a hidden experimental genealogy apparently unknown to Fogel.)

Release System (2003) continues the depth-illusion practice of double overlapped projection. For this work, Fogel and his lover were videotaped (in close-up) having sex underneath two alternating strobelights. Fogel then took this video and removed its frames of black. When shown, a single channel of the video is transmitted through two projectors; the images are laid atop one another, and gelled. The result is a stuttering record of lovemaking, both pleasurable and disturbing. Through Fogel's editing, the original soundtrack of gasps and moans is micro-sliced into a post-human, pitch-shifted crescendo. Reduced to digitally disruptive frames of increasingly frenetic activity, their pairing becomes both animalistic and robotic; the two men's bodies are merged into a mutated, biomorphic landscape. Yet at the same time, the flashing glimpses of naked bodies—always partial, never revealed in full—create a furtive sense of voyeuristic thrill.

The body-landscape explorations of Release System continue in Fogel's photographic series Traces (2004). For this set of large-scale photographs, he restaged the events of Release System and shot images with a digital still camera. This time, however, only a single man's body was photographed then doubled, creating the illusion of two from one. Now frozen in time for the viewer, movements stuck in a Futurist blur, the resulting images suggest a many-limbed monster, reminiscent of Plato's parable of prelapsarian humanity (four-armed, four-legged beings who later would split into two halves, forever seeking one another out), but also the uncomfortable protosexed child-freaks of the Chapman brothers.

A differently ecstatic experience is portrayed in Ascension (2001). Here, edited footage from the long-running American TV game show The Price is Right has been slowed down, and reshot onto 16mm. This projection is set within the larger, soft-edged frame created by a super-8 projector, running without film, covered with a red gel. Fogel has selected moments when female contestants have been told that they have won prizes. The soundtrack is slowed down but otherwise unaltered; the dinging of the show's buzzers becomes a slow ominous beat, and the contestant's open-mouthed cries of delight are morphed into monstrous, disquietingly orgasmic groans of pleasure and pain. The characters here are quite distinct from the supple, sexualized boy-men of Fogel's other works. Middle-aged, frumpy, and asexually maternal, the plump bodies of these woman are portrayed in an abject frenzy of capitalist consumption.

A brief Super 8 film used by Fogel as the final presentation in his screenings, Coming Home (1999) is his most minimal work. Within a field of black, rows of colored pinpoint lights fly towards the screen and whiz past each side, evoking any number of scenarios: an airport's landing strip, streetlamps passing by on a nighttime drive, a science-fiction jaunt through hyperspace, or the hallucinations of a mushroom trip. These luminous atoms serve as the ultimate reduction of Fogel's artmaking: the creation of hypnotic realms of light, which seduce and enrapture viewers, leading them elsewhere, and within.