Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 25, 2021
Gregory Zinman Making Images Move: Handmade Cinema and the Other Arts Oakland: University of California Press, 2020. 392 pp.; 100 color ills. Paper $45.00 (9780520302730)

Halfway through Making Images Move: Handmade Cinema and the Other Arts, Gregory Zinman offers an engaging discussion of Thomas Wilfred’s Clavilux, a visual apparatus that premiered on January 10, 1922, at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse. The Clavilux projected abstract compositions of colored light through a keyboard that controlled an ingenious mechanical ballet of color filters and lenses. This sculpting of light signaled the beginning of what Wilfred described as the “eighth art of electric light.” Following a rhetoric of mediatic obsolescence, Wilfred argued that what he termed Lumia, a strictly visual and silent art form, had superseded painting and sculpture through movement and proved electric light to be the only viable visual medium for the twentieth century. Nonetheless, as Zinman rightly explains, this new art form was described by its inventor with numerous musical analogies, conceptualized through borrowings from contemporary painting, and developed in parallel to early abstract cinema. Wilfred’s art thus reveals for Zinman “a shared desire among artists working across decades and in a variety of media to create, modify, or rethink technology in an effort to produce art” (167). Of the many artists discussed throughout the eight chapters of this book, Wilfred is one of the main representatives of what Zinman calls “handmade cinema.” This concept encompasses a wide range of techniques—not only cameraless ones but also the construction of kinetic and light devices, as well as video synthesizers—during a period roughly spanning the bulk of modernity. This variety of techniques and media is held together by Zinman’s adoption of a methodology explicitly borrowed from Dick Higgins and Gene Youngblood’s 1960s theories of “intermedia.”

More than just “the use of hands,” the handmade is defined by Zinman as a “working method . . . shaped in large part by the discourse put forth by the artist him- or herself” (7). The scope of the concept narrows down as Zinman adds abstraction into the equation. Understood as a mode of embodied perception—a “recalibration” of the senses—abstraction shares a common ambition with artisanal techniques for creating moving images. Handmade cinema artists favor abstraction as a way to avoid the power that media derive from their capacity to accumulate data related to “capital, and social control” (16). The handmade thus takes on for Zinman an overtly contemporary signification, one that points to craft as a locus and sign of “authenticity” and that is further described as an attempt to “reinscribe the human within a field of machines,” conveying a “set of anxieties about—and at times direct protest against—the perceived artificiality of digital imagery” (6).

Zinman designates proto-cinematic devices and the cultural phenomena of synesthesia and “visual music” as sources of the handmade tradition. These tropes, conventionally used to account for the beginnings of abstract cinema, become in Zinman’s study a sign of the intermedial nature and material hybridity of pioneering moving-image experiments. Zinman then identifies cameraless photography as an instance of handmade cinema and analyzes works by major experimental filmmakers with the same spirit, considering the intermedial nature of their views on film through the interrogations they shared with abstract painting. Among the many instances of handmade cinema explored, the ferocious attacks on filmic materiality by French Lettrists are perhaps the most convincing case study, as they inaugurate a tradition of the alteration of celluloid. Zinman’s analysis of works by both major postwar figures and more contemporary filmmakers is informed by a threefold classification of historical and interpretative value: alteration with the intent to “document the interiority” of the artist; “corporeal film,” or the use of hair, skin, or bodily fluids to produce “personal meaning”; and “ecological processes” subjecting celluloid to elemental and organic decay to convey environmental concerns as well as considerations of the deep materiality of film.

The book’s second part ventures beyond film to explore a little-known history of moving image dispositifs usually discussed in art historical studies of light, kinetic, and video art. Wilfred and László Moholy-Nagy are the central figures of this survey. In the concluding chapters, Zinman offers an extensive study of 1960s psychedelic light shows, tracing the early instances of this practice and connecting them with earlier handmade experiments. Zinman applies a similar methodology to an analysis of works by video pioneers Nam June Paik and Stephen Beck in an attempt to chart a path running from prewar light art to video synthesizers.

This consideration of video art as handmade cinema is characteristic of the provocative spirit of Zinman’s theoretical move, the ambition of which is “a conceptual, material, and rhetorical intervention into the standard expectations . . . about how moving images are made and how they are understood” (7). Zinman’s suggestion raises many questions, the first one being the value of handmade cinema in relation to the historical categories of “direct animation,” “absolute cinema,” “expanded cinema,” and what scholars Jonathan Walley and Pavle Levi have called “paracinema” and “cinema by other means.” If these concepts also extend to media practices beyond film as film, Zinman claims that none of the terms are capacious enough to include such diverse dispositifs as kinetic sculptures, light organs, or video synthesizers. The concept of the handmade thus implies for Zinman a reformulation of the classical essentialist question “What is cinema?” into “What is a moving image?”

Zinman’s handmade cinema, however, is not free from a certain technological determinism, albeit one that reverses the logic of essentialist film doctrines, a point made evident in his refusal to include animation within the scope of the study on account of its frame-by-frame photographic process. By calling forth intermedia theories and suggesting at the same time that the moving image should be discussed at the crossroad of abstraction and craft, Zinman answers “What is a moving image?” in a manner that subscribes somewhat confusingly to a boundless, inclusive theory of media while at the same time defending a restrictive one, whose limitation to handmade and nonobjective works raises another set of questions. One can first wonder what kind of moving image is not either handmade or abstract, in view of abstraction’s being defined as a recalibration of the senses. The problem is largely a matter of terminology. Provided that the term “moving image” designates a field of study that has overcome the restrictive consequences of medium essentialists’ discourses, Zinman’s interrogation seems mostly rhetorical and calls for a rather tautological answer: a moving image is nothing but an image that moves.

What ultimately binds together the variety of objects studied in the book and solves the terminological challenge between moving image and cinema is Zinman’s definition of the handmade as a mostly discursive practice. This claim raises another question on the historical value of the concept of handmade cinema: one wonders if the contemporary rhetoric of craft can serve as a common denominator for the artists and works analyzed throughout the book. Zinman favors an ahistorical idea of an artisanal and slowly made cinema that is, to a large extent, foreign to early modernist discourses on film and even absent from the pictorialist (and thus by nature intermedia) theories defended in the 1920s by Elie Faure and Ricciotto Canudo, which largely insist on the medium’s industrial essence and give an account of cinematic authoriality in which craft is absent, if not deemed suspicious, regardless of the material or self-produced nature of the moving image. The same kinds of interrogations can be raised regarding Zinman’s reading of postwar discourses of handmade cinema. In his recent “cinecentric” account of expanded cinema, Jonathan Walley proposes a reading of some of the same artists studied by Zinman but restricts the concept of intermedia—as a broadening of artistic categories synonymous with expanded film practices—to a precise moment in history. Past the late-1960s spirit of media fluidity, Walley recounts an attempt to reclaim the autonomy of cinema within discourses of expanded practices that seems at odds with the modes of discursivity discussed by Zinman (Cinema Expanded: Avant-Garde Film in the Age of Intermedia, Oxford University Press, 2020).

Outside the realm of film, attributing an artisanal, let alone cinematic, dimension to the discourses of color music, light, kinetic, and video art offers an ideological linearity that tends to simplify a historical complexity of creation and technology and is often at odds with the rhetorics of mediatic antagonism toward cinema adopted by artists working with projected light, color, and cathode rays. In the case of “visual organs,” Zinman perhaps puts aside too quickly the alternative subdivision of the arts that accompanies the construction of such devices as the Clavilux or Mary Hallock-Greenewalt’s Sarabet, as well as the metaphysically inspired discourses of their inventors, in which considerations of “expressivity” and the definition of light art as the “eighth" or “sixth” art (per Hallock-Greenewalt) seem to offer an archaeology of interactivity rather than one of a more handmade form of cinema.

These discursive incongruities should be considered alongside Zinman’s adoption of a deflationist approach to medium specificity—“the issue of medium, or at least an acknowledgment of the materials being used, is crucial to limning the relations among various film practices” (20)—and his claim for adopting a historical approach, presented as one conscious of “different historical contexts, methods of production, and critical intent” (25). This asserted historicism is to some extent discordant with the chronological and discursive leaps resulting from Zinman’s ambition to excavate a linear discourse on artisanal and self-produced moving images. Regardless of the value of Zinman’s theoretical proposition of the use of the handmade as a heuristic tool to study the material history of the moving image—a suggestion that incites debate—the scholarly merit of his impressive exploration at the margins of cinema and art history is unquestionable and of tremendous value for both fields.

Pierre-Jacques Pernuit
PhD Candidate, Department of Art History, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne