Kyle Whitehead Strange Meetings
by Stephen Broomer
Out of the international underground film movement of the 1960s, an alchemical avant-garde slowly formed. It formed in the home darkrooms and studios of artists who imagined a new cinema, an altogether handmade thing, wherein the conventional processes of the photochemical lab could be reshaped, the recipes refigured, to transmute the film strip’s latent image into something nobler than an image merely processed. In Canada, artists such as Carl Brown and Villem Teder, among others, troubled the image with corrosive chemistry and toner in widely varied combinations. They did so in order to transform the image, to cast doubt on photographic representations, to invoke the revelations that come through abstraction at its most violent. For some, the process itself became metaphoric: the damage wrought to the image became a willful expression of the tortured soul. For others, it was simply a process of clinical, self-reflexive treatments, to unveil the complex dimensions of an image or to allow its clear base to show through, as if the emulsion were just gold paint on lead bricks. This alchemical vanguard looked to the perfect alienation, a window into a void, a womb, another world in which the viewer could do little to recognize or situate themselves.
Such acts persist in the films and film performances of Kyle Whitehead. From his home in Calgary, Alberta, Whitehead has been making films, moving image installations, and projection performances that trade in material self-consciousness, the artist’s labours, and elastic treatments of space and light. These works are marked by analog technology—that of celluloid filmmaking and expanded cinema—but they often join this technology to the tools of electronic art, employing customized circuitry in their execution into a true hybrid. Since 2011, when he first began his touring, modular performance, Circles of Confusion, Whitehead’s works have achieved a fine absence, their dissonant sounds, colour tinting and dusty textures united under the umbrella of chance. His photographic and photochemical approach tends to strip his images of context and suppresses naturalism, denying easy recognition. He embraces a dull pastel colour palette, frequently interrupting it with scintillating, psychedelic tones. As a result, the films hold only wisps and traces of an intangible, distant experience.
In 2009, Whitehead made two films that announced certain material fascinations that would remain consistent in his later films, such as light trails, chemical grit, and dramatic, unnatural colour-casts. In Maverick, described by the artist as “an affirmation of the power of film flicker,” a lone filmmaker, professionalized in a suit and tie, makes his way to a recording studio with 8mm camera in hand to read a defiant manifesto on filmmaking and the collectivity of filmmakers. In Four Vignettes, four compositions play out. Primarily environmental studies, each deals with an unremarkable, decidedly everyday subject: a trailer home, a walk at night, an airplane crossing the sky, a park bench. The subjects are made exceptional by Whitehead’s methods. The trailer home is eclipsed by the crackling details of its exterior, studied in minutiae; the walk at night is done with a slow shutter leaving trails of shimmering light; the plane flies backwards, reversing its incline; and the park bench is pixilated, host to rapidly changing, ghostly presences as well as the shadow of a tree that crosses it with the revolutions of the sun. Whitehead’s early films demonstrate his commitment to defying naturalistic expectation, and to the image of the artist, as a figure of such defiance—through whom light can streak and suspend in vision, and by whose orders time can be set to move in reverse.
Whitehead’s first major performance work, Circles of Confusion, 2011, was composed for two cartridge-based film projectors. Whitehead has replaced the contents of each film cartridge with his own hand-processed film, which repeats itself until it deteriorates. The images are, therefore, regularly changed through the course of touring the piece, making the work modular, ever-changing. The soundtrack is generated by the light of the two images, which, shining into two attached sensors, synthesize a sine-wave. The work is built around themes of improvisation and transformation, with the image becoming something new (sound)even as its root-form (light) vanishes over time. It is improvised around a minimal counterpoint, the two projections and the two generated sounds merging into an unpredictable dialogue.
While Circles of Confusion is an improvisatory work of chance aesthetics, in Whitehead’s filmmaking such aesthetics are not an exception, but the rule: he has embraced chance in all of his work. Rarely is this quality more explicit than in his “Interstices,” an ongoing series of collaborations that he has developed since 2014, beginning with a residency at Struts Gallery & Faucet Media Arts Centre in Sackville, New Brunswick. In these films, Whitehead shoots a roll of super 8 film and rewinds it so that it can be exposed a second time, giving it to another artist to make the second layer of image. The other artist has no knowledge of what has been shot on the roll, and in this way, the “Interstices” surrender entirely to chance. From this strange meeting comes unpredictable, simultaneous films, often guided by opposing impulses, forced into sympathy by their shared quarters.
This chance approach coincides with Whitehead’s material processes, and his single-screen films have matured along this path. For example, in Semper Porro (Ever Forward), 2012, the organic textures of hand-processed film are met on the soundtrack with electronic tones, as tinted images of flora and fauna are cast unfamiliar by the flickering developer. A constant stream of scratches and other markings as well as flashing and changing colours that oscillate between brown and blue, counter the film’s sustained compositions, which dwell on the pistils and stamens of wildflowers. This is the present direction of the alchemical vanguard, to transform the everyday into a subject of dispersed, hard-won contemplation, the beauty of its subject bleeding through the rhythms of scratches and thick clouds of tint and tone.
Whitehead has further refined and focused his confrontation with these themes of film materiality in recent years. Vapor, 2016, which Whitehead describes as “an insubstantial film,” was made using a pinhole camera and processed by hand. By these methods, Vapor balances a chemist’s grit with faint traces of image, cutting between colours of strong yellow, blue, green, pink, and purple. It is substantial in the sense that it bears signs of all stages of its making—the scratches and dirt of its processing, the necessary softness and skipping frames of the pinhole—but willfully insubstantial by its dedication to the intangible, semi-formed, fugitive subject. Whitehead treats with skillful restraint such chance as comes natural to both pinhole and hand-processing, and the resulting film is one of machined precision
As Semper Porro established the dusty, cloudy vision that Whitehead’s filmmaking is moving toward, and Vapor cemented his experimentation with photo-taking technology, Membrana Mortis (Dead Film), 2016, returns to the dying and reviving films of Circles of Confusion. In it, a damaged roll of film is subject to rephotography and chemical manipulation to allow its images a second life. In this, Whitehead is enacting the historical trajectory of cinema itself, which for every completed film leaves so many strips as refuse in its wake, each aging reel a tomb of vanishing labours.
Whitehead has continued to pursue the projection performance and installation. Circles of Confusion served its purpose in announcing a modular approach, to force his improvisatory cinema to take shape by chance collision and aleatoric processes, such that the work could continuously evolve in new directions with each new performance
Whitehead has followed this with Strange Loop, 2016, a projection installation using unslit 8mm film, a frame of 16mm dimensions with four quadrants, each quadrant an 8mm film frame. The film is mounted on a 16mm projector, with a twist in its strip to form a Mobius loop, allowing the image to experience a horizontal shift though the course of projection. The four images are presented as two vertical pairings, divided by the unslit centre of the film strip, a thick black stripe that separates left and right. The Mobius loop’s horizontal shift is emphasized by the differences of left and right quadrants: the film’s central photographic composition, of waves crashing on rocks, becomes an abstract pattern, as Whitehead exploits the pliability of the projector’s pressure plate to create varied degrees of “skip” in the image. As one vertical pairing bleeds together into a single rectangle, the other has a slighter manifestation of the same effect. Whitehead has drawn parallels to M.C. Escher in describing the work. Escher’s Relativity, 1953, exemplifies such shifting planes, with its defiance of gravity, its endless stairs. This parallel sets Strange Loop as a work of perpetuation itself, and ultimately, as a comment upon its carriage system. Like the works that came before it, Strange Loop is formed by deliberated chance, but in this case, Whitehead has ceded more control to the instrument itself. He allows the projection instrument, with its naturally destructive film-path, to improvise in his stead. The instrument follows its orders, assembling an endless, ever-changing stairway of light.
Stephen Broomer is a filmmaker, film historian and preservationist based in Toronto,Ontario.
This article was originally featured in BlackFlash issue 34.2.