A Vision Workshop: The Exchanges of Stan Brakhage and Sally Dixon, Part 2
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A Vision Workshop: The Exchanges of Stan Brakhage and Sally Dixon, Part 2

Stan Brakhage editing in Rollinsville, Colorado 1978. Photograph by Sally Dixon.
Stan Brakhage editing in Rollinsville, Colorado, 1978. Photo: Sally Dixon

Friends, colleagues, and champions of each other’s respective careers, artist Stan Brakhage and curator Sally Dixon had a life-long relationship. Their history of swapping letters and sharing neighborhoods, as well as the gifting of works and other ephemera, clearly demonstrated that there was many routes through which Crystal Clips — the Walker’s as-yet unidentified 16mm film believed to be a Brakhage “work in progress” — could have passed between Brakhage and Dixon’s possessions.

As I mentioned before, Crystal Clips had been found among Dixon’s gift to the Walker of Brakhage 16mm and 8mm film cans. The original film can bore a typed-up sticky label with the title, a largely anonymous piece of information without any handwritten marks, although the wear and discoloration on the tape matched that of the neighboring Brakhage containers. The 16mm film, meanwhile, had been transferred to an archive-safe can and stored in the Walker’s archive freezer so as to minimize the inevitable degradation to which all objects (celluloid or otherwise) are subject.

After Crystal Clips was pulled from the archive freezer and spent three days thawing out, I went down to the Film/Video archive, a temperature-controlled room in the Walker’s basement, to meet Caylin Smith, the Bentson archivist. While Caylin unpacked the film, she pointed out a handwritten note she’d found accompanying the film. The paper was clearly the same type Sally Dixon often used in her own notes, and the writing — a list of films, which presumably was meant to correspond to the contents of the reel — likewise matched Dixon’s hand. Also included was a yellow Post-It written in the hand of Walker Archivist Jill Vuchetich, which most likely recorded a comment made by Sally Dixon at the time of the gift’s acquisition.

Unidentified note accompanying Crystal Clips. Photo: Isla Leaver-Yap

Caylin booked a screening slot with Joe Beres, the Walker’s Film/Video projectionist, so we could see the film in the cinema. We’d have to wait for a quiet gap between the Walker’s regular print checks (when projectionists inspect the quality of the film or video material as it comes in from a distributor and prepare it for the public screening program) and the regular public screening schedule.

Caylin suggested we look at the Crystal Clips reel by hand. She carefully unspooled the film on a light-box. It clocked in at approximately 50 feet long, so it was clearly a short film, likely no longer than three minutes. Entirely black and white, and without a sound-strip to signify accompanying audio of any kind, Crystal Clips resembled the kind of compilation reel that keen cinema enthusiasts could order from public distributors such as Blackhawk Films. The contents of the films varied slightly from the accompanying blue note, and I recorded it thus from its interspersed title cards:

Dr E.J. Marey, Studied in Animal Motion, c. 1887, France

Charles Urban, The Electrolysis of Metals, 1910, Great Britain

Georges Melies, The Dreyfus Case (Clearing the court-toom), c. 1900, France

Victor Turin, Turksib, 1929, USSR

Clearly a personalized edit of a longer reel, I wondered whether it had in fact been a teaching aid of some kind, rather than artistic material put aside for a “work in progress.” This educational use seemed possible, given that Brakhage’s first engagement with Dixon was via her invitation to lecture in Pittsburgh.

Looking at Crystal Clips. Photo: Isla Leaver-Yap
Looking at Crystal Clips. Photo: Isla Leaver-Yap

I took a few reference photographs on my cell phone before the film was spooled up to pass on to the cinema and returned to the Walker’s main archive room to look through Dixon’s correspondence folders and consult publications of Brakhage’s writings and lectures held in the Walker’s library next door.

As is generally known, not to mention heavily evidenced through their correspondence, Brakhage and Dixon both regularly taught the history of cinema. Dixon taught during her role as Carnegie’s film curator, while Brakhage lectured at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and later as the distinguished professor of film studies at CU Boulder, retiring from his post only a few months before his death in 2003. (Brakhage also taught a master class when he was at Film in the Cities, while Dixon was director.)

Whether from Dixon’s curatorial position or Brakhage’s artistic one, they both contextualized their own work in the field of artists’ film within a highly individual canon: they would discuss their work and the work of Kenneth Anger, James Broughton, and Jonas Mekas, as part of a historical trajectory of artists’ film that began with the Lumière Brothers, Hans Richter, and Georges Méliès. But the significance Brakhage and Dixon both attached to teaching artists’ film came not only of a desire to share their work in context, but also to fill what they saw as a vacuum of understanding around the arts, and how the artists’ film was a key part of that under-served discussion. As Brakhage lamented in a conversation with Mekas much later in 2000,

All the arts, what we traditionally call the arts, have suffered from this breakdown of terminology, this lack of serious critique. Here is a discipline far older than any other we know of human beings, but when it’s taught in public schools, in fact in colleges, it’s taught as a playground for finger painting and for expressing yourself.

Brakhage was a skilled historian and teacher. His courses were wide ranging, and included Painting and Film, Biographical Film, Avant-Garde Cinema, Documentary Film, and Transcendental Film. He lectured extensively on early cinema, with idiosyncratic style and underscored by romantic lyricism and unabashed bias. (His presentation on D.W. Griffith, for example, begins: “They named him David: and he was to grow up to become a giant and slay himself.”) In Dixon’s personal papers, I found a copy of writer and poet Guy Davenport’s introduction to a public Brakhage lecture which beautifully describes the discursive nature of the latter’s lecturing style:

He is going to climb this mountain by wrapping it with his footprints; he will come down again when he is halfway up, climb another mountain by way of digression, and then go back up the first one. He shows us that to be interested in anything we must be interested in everything. This kind of mind is not an American tradition. We are raised to respect conviction rather than analysis, persuasion rather than interpretation. Brakhage uses up the average man’s portion of speculative thought every day.

Analysis and interpretation was arguably key to both Brakhage’s and Dixon’s teaching styles, as they sifted through, ordered, and presented what was then a nascent history of artists’ moving image and established a context for their own practices.

In the library, I read a first edition of The Brakhage Lectures (since reissued as a free pdf by Ubu Editions). Brakhage delivered these lectures at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the Fall/Winter semester of 1970–1971. As Ian Robertson’s afterword to the publication records, Brakhage screened 43 films, and it is this list of film works that were a key source in cross-referencing the films listed in the Crystal Clips reel and its accompanying note.

Dixon, meanwhile, included some of the titles of Crystal Clips at the workshops she presented at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, where she was an instructor. In “Personal Film,” a 1976 course that she evocatively described as “a vision workshop,” Dixon walked her students through her own interpretation of artists’ film, where the surrealist shorts of Salvador Dalí and Francis Picabia were followed by screenings of work by her contemporaries: Bruce Connor, Marie Menken, Jonas Mekas and, of course, Brakhage. Dixon always sought to succinctly define the operational and practical characteristics of artists’ intentions: the Lumière Brothers “specialised in actualities, views”; Edison “specialized in theatrical and staged scenes”; while Méliès was concerned with “fantasy, fiction, illusion.”

But all three, Dixon explained to her students, depicted how,

the materialist mind of the nineteenth century had their [sic] eyes open onto the world. Any interesting visual phenomenon, commonplace or exotic, was material for the early short films. They were “gathering in” a world newly opened by improved transporation, intentions and communications. They were seeing both “out” and “in.”

Dixon’s notion of “gathering in” images and knowledge via travel and communication seems to me an apt description of Brakhage’s and Dixon’s own roles as primary disseminators of a new history of artists’ moving image work. And within this scenario, Crystal Clips had significant practical uses to both the artist and the curator. Both Brakhage and Dixon referenced these particular works frequently in their lectures and personal notes.

The assigning of provenance to work is fraught with obstacles both practical and legal. While it’s not necessarily my place or responsibility to verify provenance, I can make some reasonable estimations based on the following: Dixon believed Crystal Clips to be from Brakhage when she gifted it on to the Walker; the discoloration of the can and the reel was similar to the degradation of her other Brakhage works; and Brakhage frequently donated works, books, and other ephemera that he though would be useful to her. The material on Crystal Clips itself, meanwhile, looked to be an extracted copy of a larger and more general reel that presented the history of early film. While examining the back catalogue of the Huntley Archives, another film distributor of early cinema, I found a reel with a similar composition of films. Crucially, the intertitles from Crystal Clips matched the typography of the Huntley reel, the latter of which was in general circulation for educational and reference purposes.

Emily Davis, a former Walker researcher who is now Senior Research Associate for the Time-Based Media Collection at the Carnegie Museum of Art, was in touch with Dixon following the acquisition of Dixon’s gift and archive, of which Crystal Clips was a part. Keen to get her opinion, I sent Davis some of the snapshots I’d taken of the filmstrip, and she generously fed into my research. Speculating that the film was a reversal print, she shrewdly noticed that the filmstrip showed evidence of a “printed-in” splice:

In other words, evidence that the source material has a splice. If that’s true, this would lead me to think that this is a contact print of a “working print.” Stan could have complied the “working print” or he could have simply printed this copy for Sally, another aspect to think about.

Once Joe the projectionist had found us a cinema slot, the Walker Film/Video department — Caylin, Sheryl Mousley, Dean Otto and Kate Rogers — assembled in the cinema to view Crystal Clips. Joe pointed out the traces of optical printing, while Dean noted how “dupey” the print looked — possible evidence of a small-scale reprinting, rather than something more industrial. In the cinema, it was clear that Crystal Clips was not a Stan Brakhage “work in progress” but most likely a custom-printed educational reel, shared between two friends who were also teachers.

Despite the fact that the image is now heavily deteriorated, Crystal Clips races through the invention of cinema as a new visual culture in three compelling minutes. It specifically foregrounds the intersection dramatic narrative and technology — from the breakthroughs of E.J. Marey’s sequenced photographs of animal locomotion, to the construction landscapes of the Turkestan–Siberia Railway captured in Viktor Turin’s Turksib.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UBZqjudB4Yo

As a film, Crystal Clips provides an illustrative role. Its historical contents rely on a guide, on supporting notes delivered by another voice that might unpack and describe the dense excerpts of cinematic innovation.

But as an artifact within the Bentson Collection, Crystal Clips reveals something else. The work and expertise that goes into something as simple as following up a small note like “may have been compiled by Stan Brakhage / work in progress” not only shows the collaborative endeavor of archival research, but also exposes the informal networks through which artists’ moving image circulates both then and now: through the casual passing of hands, out of a common syllabus or a mutual interest, and a desire to share and exhibit an experience beyond one’s own intimate circle of enthusiasts and specialists.

The films included on the Crystal Clips reel were critical tools that Brakhage and Dixon deployed in order to carve out the basis for what we now consider to be the development of artists’ moving image in the western world. Despite the fact that both had initially shown relentless boldness to compare their work and the work of the contemporaries with the great technologists of early cinema, their narrative is nonetheless sustained, amended, and expanded today. And, regardless of provenance or authenticity, the circulation of artists’ moving image has always relied on acts of generosity. As Brakhage himself noted:

I like to share films with people. I think I’ve behaved in the same way that a person would if they saw some precious thing drifting out to sea. You try to rescue it.

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