Stan Brakhage   

An interview with Stan Brakhage
Dom Goodman asks Stan Brakhage about the concept of 'vision'...

SB: Let me just say that vision, to me, is a word that can become so highfalutin; that people take as removed from anything thatís possible in their lives, like a property of saints or something of that sort, or artists, but I donít think thatís true. I think that vision is the capacity to see more, and to have a vision is to see something more than you ordinarily would in your everyday, workaday way. I believe – in fact my experience is – that most people have the capacity for vision – visions – and experience them usually in moments of crisis (or at least those are the moments that they remember) and in a heightened sense of the world in which theyíre living.

For one example, people in an accident, a car crash say, or something of that sort; their reception through the eyes of whatís happening to them is extremely slowed down, and usually is very brilliantly coloured. These colours are an expression of the internal nervous system reacting to the crisis, and the slowing down of what theyíre seeing is an attempt to avoid the worst aspects of whatís happening. Just a practical matter of: people see these things. But then they donít account them as visions in the ordinary or mundane sense.

In their daily life people tend to have little visions all the time. For example they see flickers around other people, and wouldnít call these auras, particularly. People that are in love begin to be very aware in the darkness of their lovemaking of a kind of a glow from otherís bodies, and theyíre so involved in everything else that they donít really take a big account of it or, you know, make much of it. But these are visions. This is the ability to see a quality of light not visible to most people, but that, with opening up to it, does become visible. My work has been involved with many kinds of visions, but is involved primarily with hypnogogic vision. In the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, under the title of Ďcrystal gazing,í no less a person than Andrew Lang wrote at some length about hypnogogic vision being the backfiring of the optic nerves, which produces a kind of spread usually seen as phosphorescent sands of many colours. Children rub their eyes to augment this, and when they do theyíre just creating a kind of crisis within the eyeball: the fireworks, as they call it of their closed eye vision. I believe the term sandman comes from what children tend to see right before theyíre going to sleep, which is hypnogogic vision. In some of the dictionaries they say that sandman refers to a kingís messenger or something; I think that is too abstract. I think really itís because itís like displays of shifting or thrown and shifting phosphorescent sands; little granules of colour that make shapes, even sometimes geometric shapes, mixed with memories, with remembrances of oneís childhood, or of yesterdays pumpkin pie. It draws on a whole repertoire of remembered images, of nameable things, but itís mixed with – if oneís alive enough to be aware if that mixture – with phosphorescent sands and shapes and so on.

Then there is another level to this which I think is more just brain activity, and I call this Ďmoving visual thinking.í There is also a streaming of unnameable shapes and colours through the mind. This I feel is our primal sight and is, I feel, available to the foetus in the womb: itís the electrical back-streaming of discharge from this whole cellular system into the optic system. I regard it as sort of the fret board, so to speak, upon which all our later visions are founded. All other visions occur in relation to this fret board, which is the basis of all our sight.

We do know that foetuses have REMs, for example, and electrical impulses that run through their brain, essentially indistinguishable from later dreams, so what could they be dreaming? Theyíre either dreaming of a previous life, if one believes in reincarnation, or they are dreaming of this moving visual thinking: shapes which are essentially ungeometric and are such a variety of colour they are essentially hard to even pinpoint. Now this is the area I work with most nowadays, and itís why I first went to hand painting. Back when I made Dog Star Man when I wanted to include every kind of seeing the Dog Star Man might have as he climbed this mountain to chop down this tree. I couldnít get a camera inside my head of course, so in order to do hypnogogic vision – which is all I knew about at that point – I painted on film. Then I did painting every now and again across the years, but the last ten years or so Iíve been painting primarily. On the one hand I regard it as a kind of visual music, music for the eyes, but on the other hand the source that Iím trying to create a corollary of is moving visual thinking. I donít try to paint exactly moving visual thinking – thereís no way I can imagine doing that – but I paint a paradigm of it, as it were, and as such I try to make an art of the sounds of the mind, or what we call the music of the spheres. The music of the spheres is the music of the head to me, and the symphony orchestra doesnít exactly reproduce that any more than Debussy exactly reproduces the noises of the sea. But thereís a kind of working with music. Itís a kind of mixture of sounds that are intrinsic to our inner being – both heard from the outside and generated from within – and so Iím trying to do something comparable in much of my work; not all of it, but much of it, for the eyes.

DG: Do you have a problem with the boundaries of film? Is it not enough for vision to exist as and where it does without feeling a need to transfer it to film?

SB: Well, I experienced this very deeply during a period when I was painting IMAX film which I had no conceivable way to ever print, and I felt very close to our ancestors who went back into the caves and painted on the walls sometimes as far as three miles back and then sealed those caves airtight shut (which is why we still have some of those paintings). I felt akin to them; in this sense I came to understand that certainly you can, or at least I can and they could, imagine or keep track of your moving visual thinking and hypnogogic vision much more completely and clearly than to paint it on a cave wall onto film. So the question was rising again and again, as I was also very sick at the time and it was very difficult for me to do anything at all: Ďso why are you compelled to paint this onto a film that can never be printed?í I felt close to these cave ancestors in the sense that I realised that when I imagined it, it was not fully in the world same sense; that in other words I began to have a sense of myself as (and, I felt, other humans as well) as being here to deal with material. And if you dealt with material, it didnít so much matter whether you could show that to an audience or not, or whether you sealed it air tight shut in a cave, as that you had an actually put something from the inside of the mind onto some corollary: some paradigm onto a material; then it was somehow in the world, almost as if, I donít knowÖI got close to thinking about Teilhard de Chardinís noosphere, you know that?

DG: No.

SB: In the sixties he was widely read: he was a catholic monk who had belief that the world shared a spiritual vision which he called the noosphere. His writings were condemned by the church at first and then finally accepted and printed. Anyway I felt that when I worked with material which is of the world – mundus, right? Mundane – that I had somehow then put it in thought, into the world – in the noosphere, as Teilhard de Chardin would have it – and that it was existent and real, whereas if I only thought it, it didnít exist in the world. So thatís why I went on painting. And then, much to my surprise, someone found a way to re-photograph the IMAX and put it into 35mm, and then make 16mm prints for release; so thatís how The Dante Quartet was made.

From that time on I have worked with many millimetres – as in fact I always did before – and Iím not worried whether they can be printed or not, and a lot of things just get thrown away. You know Iím very prolific, but that also doesnít preclude that I throw many things away that I donít realise fully, and have to toss them out. But as long as I can get it into some kind of material, at least whatever Iíve discovered, whatever corollary or paradigm, Iíve made an internal process shared in the noosphere, so to speak. Those are, anyway, my hopes and beliefs.

DG: In the opening of Metaphors On Vision you talk about the condition of vision in childhood, and I was wondering if you believe itís possible to break free of the constraints which you talk about being placed on people, be it colour or perspective?

SB: Well I realise that one part of your previous question I didnít really respond to. I am not worried about the so called limits of film. I accept that thatís the medium I have to work with, and Iím all the time pushing the envelope of it, so to speak, because of my needs to express something that hasnít been expressed in film before. But for instance I have I think only once felt the need to extend the shape, the frame, and thatís The Dante Quartet: I have widescreen and small centred images and then a sort of full screen IMAX image, but ordinarily I donít fool around with the frame much, much as a pianist would only expect to use the 88 keys of the piano. I accept those limitations, not as limits of my ability, but again as the fret board, so to speak, upon which I can extend my internal nervous system in some paradigm.

I also donít try to create an exact documentation of what Iím seeing in my mindís eye: I try to create another world in art. The reason I do this – I donít think itís a reason exactly, the naturalness with which I do this – is my comprehension of how an art operates in the world and my dedication to trying to create one with film. My sense of how an art operates is that, first of all it is a balance that leaves any viewer, hearer, reader, free; and in order to leave people free you do not present an exact documentation of whatís inside yourself but you present a corollary, and that corollary, hopefully, will inspire rather than influence any viewerís or listenerís or readerís own internal envisionment, whereas if you made some exactitude of your own, you could be starting to impose upon people your own particularities of internal envisionment. I have no wish to do that and I really shun anyone else who is trying to impose that on me. One of the reasons the arts are so terribly important to me is that they inspire rather than influence, because influence is very shallow, very constricting and very harmful in the long run, whereas art – if something can last long enough, in a form that isnít brain washing people – can begin to truly change each person according to his or her uniqueness. They have to begin with that uniqueness of being because, I feel, the appreciation of an art is as unique and individual as the making of it.

Art isnít like the pied piper leading all the children off into the mountains. Itís more like a pied piper that causes the children to respect their own individuality as they grow up, so that they begin the great dance, the great response to the culture in which they live. And this naturally produces growth, and growth of course is a change; itís growth that people are more interested in, rather than Ďlook ma no hands! Look how different I amí or whatever, which is pretty shallow. So again thatís what Iím grateful for: that arts of previous times, very ancient arts in some cases, have changed my whole life. The fact that I was a boy soprano soloist for a choir master who loved Bach, and I sung many cantatas, both with the choir and as a soloist, has really at times saved my life, and so Iím grateful and thereís a natural wish to extend something of that process to the eyes, and to whoeverís interested in it. But I have no illusions that thereíll be any particular noticeable changes within my lifetime, or certainly that there will be any lucrative response.

Iím going to have to support this basically until I die, and Iíll never know whether even all of film has achieved an art, and whether itís lasted long enough to be of lasting value. But I am at least dedicated to something like the four hundred year plan. Not the communist four year plan, but four hundred years is a time in which, if somethingís lasted that long and continued to reverberate in peopleís lives without brainwashing them, you begin to have from the uniqueness of each individual person, a compound that becomes a culture, and that culture then begins to inspire the rest of the world, all the other cultures, and thatís my hope. But I mean that very humbly because I have no idea whether film is even capable of achieving such a thing. Well, I shouldnít say I have no idea: I have more than the hope, I have some real evidence and belief that it can be an art, and as such Iím dedicated to working with it that way, and so are most of my friends.