Sound Projectors as Art

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Continuing our occasional forays into avant-garde film, may we thoroughly recommend this new DVD box set of the works of Guy Sherwin. Optical Sound Films 1971-2007 (LUX) contains a good run (maybe his entire ouevre) of the “classic” 1970s films, plus later reworkings of same films into ‘more complex projections’. There’s also an excellent well-illustrated book included in the set where Mr Sherwin provides clear and simple notes on how each film came to be, and a handy explanation of how optical sound actually works in film projectors. (This is a process which has always fascinated this writer, and is also manifested in the work of Lis Rhodes). Plus there’s a visionary essay in the back by Sebastiane Hegarty where the nature of seeing what we hear is explored in all its fascinating aspects. Using sound projectors as artistic machines seems almost archaic now; it is a mechanical, Newtonian process which has probably all but vanished in the 21st century, where the image format of choice is all digital and depends heavily on an ever-updating scheme of codecs.

Around 1981 I was little short of obsessed with UK structural-materialist film. I thought about it too much and it didn’t do me any good. It was a very unhappy time. I knew Pete Woodin at art college, and I think he had been ‘mentored’ by Guy Sherwin in some small way. He was certainly in favour of Sherwin’s pared-down, basic approach to cinema. The early films you will see here are compacted, ingenious examples of projected abstract art, for the most part using only black and white shapes – or rather perhaps we should say making the most of projected light and celluloid. Harry Smith‘s similar abstractions (dancing squares and other geometric shapes) come across as positively romantic in comparison to this restrained, severe work.

The Lux Cinema was to some extent the successor body to the London Film-Makers Co-Operative, an organisation founded almost at the same time as the London Musicians’ Collective. At one stage they even shared premises in North London. Now both are defunct, a testament to the way that marginal art practitioners have a very precarious existence in this country, regardless of the political climate. Said climate is currently not exactly favourable to improvised music or structural film. The Lux used to have a cinema in Hoxton Square, but that’s also disappeared. Fortunately Luxonline now exists as an ‘Artists’ Moving Image web resource’. The site is worth visiting, not only to order this DVD, but to see streaming clips of experimental film and video.