By Sandra Gibson
The following is an archival study of an experimental film: Internal Systems (1974) by
Coleen Fitzgibbon. The scope of this paper is two-fold: 1) to document the preservation of Internal Systems, and 2) to state in practical and theoretical terms what is at stake in the preservation of what we will refer to as “imageless” films.
There is indeed, an “image-free” if not an empty frame, which begins in the late
1960‟s to infiltrate advanced work in film. […] I will now indeed propose it as the
icon and the emblem of advanced film-making in this country as it has matured
into the energetic and refined exploration of the epistemology of filmic enterprise
in all its aspects and parameters. – Annette Michelson, “Paul Sharits and the 1 Critique of Illusionism: An Introduction”
It is not until the mid 70‟s that film historians and theorists begin to acknowledge what Annette Michelson refers to in the passage quoted as the iconic or emblematic nature of the empty film frame. The absence or evacuation of the image in film is not the negation of film itself, not anti-film, but a certain infiltration of philosophical rigor as an acute
2filmic concern. Michelson, in the same article, brandishes this as the “ontology of film”.
In our study we will recast this filmic adaptation of ontology in an effort to conceptualize and frame preservation strategies in and around the so-called empty frame, or imageless film.
1 Film Culture, no.65-66, 1978; 84. 2 Ibid., 86.
The ontology of film concerns not only the so-called structuralist or materialist film practices of the late 60‟s and into the 70‟s but it is becoming an essential aspect informing current debates and practices of the emerging discipline of film preservation. Thus the medium-specificity of formalist and often reductivist logic operating in structuralist/materialist discourse more than often informs the very optic through which film preservationists frame their given object. What Michelson says of “advanced film-
making” in and around an “image-free” aesthetic, can be said of “advanced film-
preservation” (if we can call it that) not as an isolated phenomenon but as a collective
3 A collectivity in and around reality: “The ontology of film is their collective concern”.
filmic ontology can indeed be encountered today in progressive preservation circles.
It is with this collectivity in mind that preserving imageless work such as Internal
Systems preserves not just another work in need of preservation but the ontological apparatus which drives our passion to preserve essential work of this and any other kind that happens to be on film. When the novice of cinema handles the materiality of the
perforated filmstrip for the first time, he or she is merely restaging the materialist encounter with the object as elaborated and ultimately celebrated (even in its creative demise) in advanced or avant-garde filmmaking. When the student of cinema learns to see the projected film as an intermittent phenomenon composed of the modulated interaction of celluloid and shuttered light, the elementary elegance of this mechanism automatically, as it were, recruits its own militia (its avant-guardians) who remain committed to its perpetual persistence (of vision).
It seemed interesting to make a film that was concerned with no more than its
own theory and mechanics as content of the film. Simultaneously, I was interested
in logical structures, what the mechanics of logic were. In a recording system
could it record its own process, expose its mechanics. A problem like trying to see
3 Ibid., 86.
the back of ones own head. – Coleen Fitzgibbon, Artist statement for Internal 4Systems in EXPRMNTL 5 catalogue.
In 1974 Coleen Fitzgibbon made FM/TRCS and described it as “a study of image
destruction and its subsequent effect on recognition and suggestion of new images.” In
this film she reworked Super-8 reversal footage into a series of reframings: blow-ups, contact printings, and extreme granular manipulation – to arrive at a 16mm film that
radically departs from the original camera footage. The film was initially shot with a Super-8 camera strapped to different parts of her body as she dressed and undressed in her studio, while living in Chicago. Her description for the film continues: “The film is a series of images and recorded sound of a woman getting dressed re-edited into short sequences and optically printed until the high contrast characteristics of the film refuses to carry the image. I attempted to combine my images with the film process carried to its extreme processes of disintegration.” The final 16mm film is the result of “processes of disintegration” which as the filmmaker states “refuses to carry the image”. What is radical, if not completely unsettling, is that Fitzgibbon‟s following film, Internal Systems,
takes a completely different approach to the idea of a film that “refuses to carry the image”. The work short-circuits the labor of refusal by dispensing with the image
altogether from the outset. It is as if the work of disintegration had already taken place, not in the interface between footage and optical printer but in the interface between the film emulsion sensitive to light, a sound-synch camera, and a film projector as a light source.
What is disintegrated into discrete units is the process of processes itself, that is the filmic
act of filming. The film unfolds with a kind of technical “scroll” which informs the viewer of the entire cast of “technicians” involved – not human agents but the technical
ensemble which comprises the totality of the production. The scrolling text is
5accompanied by the sound of the film‟s perforations – double-perforated footage that is
4 EXPRMNTL 5: Fifth International Experimental Film Competition organized in thKnokke-Heist by the Royal Film Archive of Belgium from December 25 1974 to ndJanuary 2 1975. 5 Referred in the technical manuals as “motorboating”. Student Filmmaker’s Handbook,
(New York: Eastman Kodak Company, 1997); 155.
abruptly spliced at the head and tail of the film. The following is an inventory of the equipment used for the production of Internal Systems, in the order of appearance:
DOUBLE-X NEGATIVE 7222 DOUBLE B 16MM TUNGSTEN ASA 200
KODAK. 100FT. DAYLIGHT H.S. REVERSAL 6.15 ESP3EI SINGLE B
SHORTPITCH 13573/0301 16MM ASA 160 AGFA-GEVAERT
GEVACHROME ORIG. 1600FT. CM-72A #D6-31656 BACH-AURICON
1/50SEC. 175 DEGREE SHUTTER. K-3278. 2AMP 7V EXPOSURE LAMP.
10X12A/F.12-120MM 1:2.2 # 1245719. ANGENIEUX-ZOOM. RA-31-ADZ
VARIABLE DENSITY BACH-AURICON. MODEL E-6/50 OHMS HIGH
FIDELITY FLAT FREQUENCY RESPONSE. 115V/60CYCLES/35WATTS
MODEL 1552B BELL & HOWELL. EMM 205W 25V 50HR. SYLVANIA.
24FPS SOUND SPEED. 120V/60HZ. 115/VOLTS 60CYCLES CON EDISON.
F/BRN HR/125LBS/1951/J. ELAM. F/BRN HR/135LBS/1950/C. FITZGIBBON
Disintegration of the elements is not arbitrary and random but systematic and internal to
the materials at hand. If an image is “refused” in this particular constellation it is so as to defuse it in order to redirect perception. The formal approach in this case is to ward off or suspend representation in order to allow for something else to enter the picture, so to speak. What is refused in one sense, namely the use of the medium as a carrier of an image, is an act of negation that displaces conventional uses of the medium itself, thus shifting it into (or onto) a place that it has never before occupied – a jolt in the direction
of the interior of a system which is none other than its very own reflection (of itself).
This turning-in-on-itself of the apparatus is the ontological moment of self-reflexivity. The process of processes takes its cue from post-minimalist process-based art of the 70‟s,
in particular the aesthetics of dematerialization as heralded by the conceptual title of
6 Lucy R. Lippard‟s edited book Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object.
Processes of production are clearly marked in the opening and closing titles of the film.
With this technical information there is a sense of “testing” the limits of the given media (film, camera, projector light, etc.). But the “testing” of equipment also carries over into the realm of perception. As a viewer, one struggles between an awareness of the known variables (technical schemata) and the phenomenological effects of pure light and color.
6 (New York: Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1973)
One lapses between the refusal to be reminded of the technical mastery which fashions this ecstatic experience and at the same time the desire to gain knowledge of the precise procedure used for achieving this or that effect. What is “tested” is/are the limit(s) of one‟s perception.
For the duration of 45 minutes, not including the titles which make up less than several minutes, the soft pulse of filmed light from a 16mm projector fades in and out of various hues of color saturation – from red-to-yellow – moving from light-to-dark, from dark-to-
light, and so on. To achieve this effect, a mathematical formula was worked out that functioned as the “score” for the openings and closings of the various position of the lens diaphragm (i.e., f-stops) to expose in every possible way the light-sensitive emulsion. A similar process was used to expose a variable density soundtrack with the sound-on-optical film camera. The filmstrip itself can be viewed as a document of a performance of filming the interaction of film, camera, and light. But as an autonomous object, the filmstrip is an aesthetic work that shows every possible variation of light and dark, transparency and opacity, thus exposing the total length and breadth of its emulsive resource. The systematic testing out of every possible orientation is a relentless and exhaustive procedure. Internal Systems sustains with utter force its processual integrity.
One of the major obstacles in preserving Internal Systems is that the original Agfa-
Gavaert Gevachrome stock no longer exists. Shot on reversal film, no negative exists, nor was a release print ever made. The film exists as a unique work on 16mm. We cannot even refer to it as a “print” as it is an original. Four 400‟ cans of raw stock by the Belgian company Agfa-Gavaert were awarded to Fitzgibbon by EXPRMNTL 5 in
7Knokke-Heist in conjunction with the Royal Film Archive of Belgium. FM/TRCS was
7 “Agfa-Gavaert will offer to the maker of each film chosen by the Selection Jury a quantity of unexposed 16mm colour film, equal to twice the length of the selected film.” (EXPRMNTL 5 poster with film festival regulations.)
submitted some months prior to the festival and the award arrived just in time for a
8 The four premier of Internal Systems in a non-competitive section of EXPRMNTL 5.
rolls were shot in one evening at Millennium Film Workshop in New York; the Auricon camera and Bell & Howell projector that was used to make the film were part of Millennium‟s equipment arsenal at the time. After processing the footage at Palmer Laboratories in San Francisco, the four rolls were spliced together from end-to-end, and the scrolling equipment list was added at the head and repeated at the tail of the 1600‟ film. The title was shot using Kodak 1722 color negative, double-perforated stock; the positive is at the head of the film and the negative at the tail.
Agfa-Gavaert Gevachrome 6.15 color reversal was considered a high-speed daylight film.
9In her preliminary production notebook, Fitzgibbon rates its affinity with Kodak‟s
Ektachrome 7241, also a high-speed daylight reversal film with an index exposure of 160.
10Elsewhere in the notebook, the spectral sensitivity (i.e., the color most sensitive to light)
of the Gevachrome stock is rated as red whereas the Ektachrome is cyan. The latter, according to the filmmaker, has a tendency towards brown. In Internal Systems the reds
are extremely prominent the less exposure there is, whereas with more exposure yellow becomes the dominant color (previous to its disappearance or submergence into white light). The film itself can be viewed as the ultimate vehicle to test the specific spectral sensitivity of Agfa-Gavaert Gevachrome 6.15.
The screening record for the film is extremely vague and suggests that it was rarely projected, beginning with its premier in 1974-75 at EXPRMNTL 5, followed by a one-
11person show at Anthology Film Archives, and finally recent programming of the work
8 Other films that screened with the Agfa-Gavaert/Royal Film Archive of Belgium award were: Objection (1974) by Marjorie Keller, The Struggle with Meat (1974) by Anne
Severson, and Leica Job (1974) by Diego Cortez. 9 Green facsimile notebook on Internal Systems. 10 “SPECTRAL SENSITIVITY: The relative sensitivity of a particular emulsion to
specific bands of the spectrum within the films sensitivity range.”