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James Cagle: Excavation

February 9, 2020 – May 24, 2020

James Cagle, Excavation, 1974. 16mm color film (digitized), with sound, 5:00 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and the New York Filmmakers' Cooperative.
James Cagle, Excavation, 1974. 16mm color film (digitized), with sound, 5:00 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and the New York Filmmakers’ Cooperative.


Excavation demonstrates James Cagle’s engagement with structural filmmaking, an avant-garde movement that emerged in the 1960s and emphasized the physical properties of film, rather than film as a narrative tool. More specifically, Excavation is an example of a “flicker film,” a specific type of structural filmmaking where rapid sequences of imagery flash across the screen to create a strobe-like, flickering effect. Mainstream cinema, in fostering the illusion of continuous, seamless movement, has historically diminished the viewer’s ability to see the most basic unit of the filmic medium: the single frame. Experimental artists, like James Cagle, sought to challenge this convention by accentuating the separation between each individual frame on a filmstrip. In doing so, they called attention to the fragmentation of imagery that is central to the form and structure of filmmaking. By breaking down the fundamental mechanisms of motion pictures, structural filmmakers aimed at nothing less than redefining cinema and ushering in a new consciousness of seeing.  

Composed of both still photographs and live footage, Excavation employs extremely short-shot juxtapositions to create disorienting collisions of imagery. To create this piece, Cagle undertook a painstaking and time-intensive editing process, alternating between exposing one frame of film and blacking out the next. Through staccato bursts of light, we are shown a flashing collage of seascapes and gravel roads, a woman’s face and the naked female form, pointing fingers and pulsating shapes. For Cagle, this film symbolized a personal exploration of, in his words, “techniques and ideas that have accumulated over the years, but had been without expression for one reason or another.” A dynamic visualization of his thoughts, it “excavates” both the private workings of his inner world, and also the material components of filmmaking. 



Generous support for Imprint Gallery programming has been provided by Willy Haeberli in memory of Gabriele Haberland.