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Structural Films

September 9, 2012 – December 30, 2012


A series of digitized structural films will be on view in MMoCA’S New Media Gallery from September 9 through December 30. Often categorized as a minimal strain of experimental cinema, structural films are built around an underlying organizational pattern or predetermined conceptual framework. These works inspire active spectatorship: by challenging viewers to predict the repetition of sequences and identify the overall filmic formula, they activate perceptual and cognitive processes.

Central to this screening is J.J. Murphy’s Print Generation, a seminal work of structuralist filmmaking that beautifully interrogates the materiality of film form while simultaneously presenting a poetic ode to memory and time. Other works include Larry Gottheim’s Mnemosyne Mother of Muses (1987), Kurt Kren’s 15/67 TV (1967), and Bert Vegter’s Forest Views (1999).

During the late 1960s, film historian P. Adams Sitney identified a new trend in avant-garde filmmaking and coined the term “Structural” to describe it. Defined as a simplified cinema in which the shape of the whole film is predetermined, Structural films are driven by formalist explorations rather than narrative content. In other words, these works explore the material nature of film as a medium and the various phases of the production process. They employ calculated manipulations of content that suggest perceptual puzzles are at play, and thus call attention to the film-viewing process. Often, it is the audiences’ active participation in thinking about the film’s construction that constitutes the driving force behind the work itself.

Each film in this series was constructed using a predetermined system. While some structures are straightforward, like the two mirrored segments present in Larry Gottheim’s Mnemosyne Mother of Muses, others involve more complex processes that elude decipherable pattern identification; an example of the latter are the computer algorithms animating Bart Vegter’s films. Despite the algorithmic or mathematical underpinnings of these works, they are far from sterile or purely analytic. Kurt Kren, J.J. Murphy, and Larry Gottheim use personal footage that transforms the systematic structure of their films into poetic musings. And, although the films by Paul Sharits and Bart Vegter are purely abstract, the imagery is edited to create rhythmic, visual patterns that evoke a mood of awe and contemplation.

Exhibition in Detail

Kurt Kren


15/67: TV, 1967 16 mm original, 00:04:11 minutes (silent) Courtesy of sixpackfilm

Kurt Kren began making experimental films in the early 1950s. Taking everyday objects and scenes as inspiration, he repeats segments of imagery, looping sequences together according to preparatory diagrams or mathematic formulas. Kren became involved with the Vienna Aktionists from 1964 to 1967, but returned to Structural filmmaking in the late 1960s, again creating films edited according to predetermined rhythmic schemes.

15/67: TV is divided into twenty-one sequences, each composed of a different permutation of five shots. The permutations appear mathematical, challenging viewers to decode the overarching structure of the film and predict which shot will come next. Although a numerical system is at play, the film does not present a decipherable pattern and thereby undercuts the conceptual game it initiates.

J.J. Murphy


Print Generation, 1973-7416mm original, 00:50:00 minutes
Courtesy of the artist

J.J. Murphy’s acclaimed Structural film Print Generation is perfectly symmetrical. The first half of the film presents abstract patterns of flickering light that gradually cohere into a series of sixty identifiable images—diaristic one-second shots documenting Murphy’s friends and family on vacation. In the second half, the images decompose into the same abstract patterns that began the film. The soundtrack serves as a reverse analog to the visuals: as the footage becomes clearer, the crisp lapping of ocean waves steadily deteriorates into unrecognizable aural reverberations.

On one level, Print Generation explores the materiality of the filmstrip, particularly the loss of photographic quality that occurs in the process of making successive prints from prints. To create this work, Murphy started with a short film comprised of sixty discreet one-second shots. A printing lab made a contact print of the original one-minute film, and then a contact print of the second print, and so on. After fifty print generations, the loss of emulsion renders the imagery unintelligible. Murphy assembled the odd-number generations into one group (prints 1, 3, 5, etc.) and the even generations into another, joining the two groups into a symmetrical pattern of fifty one-minute cycles that begin and end with the most degraded sixty-shot series.

Print Generation also plays with the perceptual processes of identifying and remembering visual information. Viewers experience several levels of cognition as the film unfolds, the first realization being that there are a limited number of images displayed in the same order and repeated again and again. With each generation presenting clearer imagery, the audience inevitably attempts to identify the subject of each shot and predict which image will proceed. The second half of the film tests the limits of human memory: viewers try to remember and identify what each one-second clip represents as the shots revert back to abstraction.

Larry Gottheim


Mnemosyne Mother of Muses, 1986
16 mm original, 00:18:00 minutes
Courtesy of the artist

Larry Gottheim is an American filmmaker who has been creating experimental works since the 1960s. His early films, such as the groundbreaking Blues (1969) and Fog Line (1970), are meditative works composed of a single shot that explore the subtleties inherent in the unfolding of light and nature. In the early 1970s, Gottheim moved beyond his cinematic investigations of stasis and began incorporating complex editing structures into his films. The Elective Affinities cycle, a series of four feature-length films addressing the relationship of images to sound, features patterned editing with repetition and permutation of elements. More than simply formal cinematic play, however, Gottheim’s films present personal, evocative imagery, and attend to subjects such as family, identity, memory, and nature. 

Mnemosyne Mother of Muses is a film about memory. The title is a reference to Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory who, according to myth, birthed the nine Muses. The film runs both forward and backward and can be divided in two, each half a mirror of the other. By its very structure, Gottheim’s film signals his preoccupation with memory and reflection. In the first half of the film, an unintelligible soundtrack, which alternates silence with music and snippets of dialog played in reverse, accompanies a rapid succession of shaky images. In the film’s second half, the same footage flashes past in reverse; the soundtrack, though still displaying a disjunctive relationship with the imagery, plays forward, revealing its origins while eluding its meaning.

Paul Sharits


Dots 1 & 2, 1965
16 mm original, 00:00:35 seconds (silent)
Courtesy of the Estate of Paul Sharits and Christopher Sharits

Paul Sharits is known for his perceptually challenging Structural films. He was a pioneer of the flicker film, a form of Structural filmmaking that uses rapid sequences of imagery to activate physiological and psychological states. With these experimental works, Sharits endeavored to bring about an entirely new way to experience film. He viewed his flicker films as a perceptual tool to reawaken what he interpreted as audiences’ dulled capacity for feeling and cognition.

Dots 1 & 2 is a thirty-five second film during which black and white dots flash across the screen and create a strobelike, flickering effect. Because the patterns fluctuate so quickly, the audience perceives an intense rhythm of pulsing dots rather than sequences of discreet imagery.

Bart Vegter


Forest-Views, 1999
00:17:00 minutes (silent)
Courtesy of Light Cone

Bart Vegter began making abstract films at the age of 40, after attending a workshop at the Vrije Academie (Free Academy), a Dutch organization that offers self-taught artists opportunities to explore their talents and learn new skills. Drawing inspiration from the work of Dutch filmmaker Frans Zwartjes, and from films emerging from the American avant-garde scene of the 1970s, Vegter developed his own approach to filmmaking. In 1990, he began constructing his films using self-written computer programs based on principles related to natural phenomena.

Dictated by computer code, Vegter’s films are rooted in his interest in underlying structures. The imagery in Forest-Views is generated by an algorithm for a cellular automaton, a mathematic model that creates patterns. The visuals resulting from the algorithmic code demonstrate the way complex perceptual patterns can emerge from the implementation of very simple rules. Despite the strict, rule-bound system governing the film, the organic forms resulting from the programming resemble biological processes of blossoming and decay.