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thumbnail graphic white noise Screening Room Program
Historical Film

Drawn from the ACMI collection, this program of historical film traces some of the earliest experiments in abstract filmmaking through the idea of 'visual music'. German film artists such as Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter and Walter Ruttman were responsible for some of the earliest abstract animation in the 1920s. Their attempts to 'choreograph' moving image abstraction are continued in the work of László Moholy-Nargy, Len Lye and John Whitney - the intersection between abstraction and the moving image depending on rhythm, kinesis and musical composition.

image from lichtspiel schwarz-weiss-grau Lichtspiel Schwarz-Weiss-Grau

László Moholy-Nagy

Lichtspiel Schwarz-Weiss-Grau
(Lightplay: Black, White and Grey)
Germany/Soviet Union, B&W, silent, 6 mins, 1930

In 1930, László Moholy-Nagy created the Light Space Modulator, a kinetic sculpture of rotating glass, spirals and perforated metal sheets illuminated by 140 different light sources. Lightplay is a dynamic cinematic abstraction of the light and movement generated by the Light Space Modulator. The film begins as a series of abstract images of geometric shapes and shadows formed by the kinetic movement of the Light Space Modulator. The circular movements of the sculpture and camera in combination provide a document of the sculpture and an elegant visual dance of shape-shifting forms and transformed light.

image from free radicals
Free Radicals

Len Lye
Free Radicals
United States, B&W, mono
4:03 mins, 1958 (revised 1979)

In Free Radicals, Len Lye put aside his characteristic interest in colour. Instead, he employs a stark, black and white use of the direct method - film made without a camera - by scratching onto the black leader.
The title refers to modern physics and particles of energy, capturing Lye's lifelong concern with movement. Free Radicals celebrates energy and movement in the eruption of free
-form lines and angles that pulsate to the percussive rhythms of Africa's Bagirmi tribe.

Viking Eggeling
Symphonie Diagonale
Germany, B&W, silent
7:39 mins, 1921-1924

Viking Eggeling was renowned for transferring hieratic writing and intertwining figures onto large scrolls of paper. Symphonie Diagonale relates to his scroll paintings and Eggeling's attempt to use abstract symbols as the basis for a new, universal language.
Not only is this film Eggeling's search for a precise, visual language of motion, it is also considered to be the 'first' true abstraction in animation: the movement of white abstract figures on a black background.

John Whitney
United States, colour, mono, 7 mins, 1966

An early example of computer generated animation; several hundred dots move about the screen according to a set of instructions in a graphics program, input into an IBM computer and coloured by an optical printer.
'Action sequences, proceeding from order to disorder and back to ordered patterning, suggest a parallel to harmonic phenomena of the musical scale ... The effect is to subtly generate and resolve tension - which is similar to the primary emotional power of music composition' (John Whitney).

Walther Ruttman
Opus IV
Germany, colour, silent
4 mins, 1925
Walther Ruttman is well known for the symphonic organisation of his films, particularly Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927). The early, hand-tinted Opus films reveal a similar interest in music. Their Berlin premiere featured a live, synchronous musical score by Swedish composer Max Butting. Ruttman matches abstract forms with a highly developed musical sensibility in which sequences repeat themselves, like melodic units. In Opus IV, bold, horizontal stripes move in relationship to one another and the film's frenetic pace is achieved through geometry in motion.

Hans Richter
Rhythmus 21
Germany, B&W, silent, 3:30 mins, 1921

An active member of the Dadaist movement in Zurich, Hans Richter collaborated with Viking Eggeling on abstract sketches, scrolls and films. In Rhythmus 21, his first film, he creates families of lines, squares and rectangles in horizontal and vertical alignment. Using the simplicity of the square and the rectangle (the shape of the screen) as his means of expression, Richter concentrates upon the orchestration of movement and time rather than form.

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