Joost Rekveld, march 2001.


Abstract film is a genre that has existed almost as long as the medium film itself. To stress its importance, one is sometimes inclined to refer to a coherent tradition, but in fact abstract film involves a collection of einzelgängers through the last century. These individuals were often indirectly aware of predecessors or kindred spirits, but were never enough in agreement to form a real school or tradition. There were never enough of them anyway. The only times when there may have been some kind of real group event was around 1930 with film makers like Viking Eggeling, Walter Ruttmann, Oskar Fischinger and Hans Richter and around 1966 with film makers such as John & James Whitney, Jordan Belson and Harry Smith.

This absence of the herding instinct and the enormous diversity of approaches within abstract film can partly be explained by the very different backgrounds of its practitioners. Many abstract film makers were originally painters (Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling, Dwinnel Grant, Jordan Belson, James Whitney, José Sistiaga) and started using the medium film to set their graphical ideas in motion. For others, making abstract films was related to making kinetic sculptures (Moholy-Nagy, Len Lye, Jud Yalkut). Several originally made experimental films and regarded purely abstract films as a continuation of their "live-action" work (Henri Chomette, Hy Hirsch, Stan Brakhage). Yet others were initially interested in developing a visual form of music and did not necessarily have an unambiguous background in other disciplines (Oskar Fischinger, Mary Ellen Bute, John Whitney, Harry Smith).

Major differences in context also contributed to the major differences in style and approach. Especially in the early period of the medium film, abstract film was embedded in the quest for a specific cinematographic language within which graphical composition, light and motion were to have a major role. Films from this period have also found their place in film history books, unlike many of their successors. In the 1960s and 1970s, the work of many abstract film makers was closely related to an ideal of progress (be it implicit or not). That same technological progress that change so many aspects of everyday life and put people on the moon was maybe also able to make people happy in a different way. With the aid of film, as well as video and computer animation that were still in their infancy, still unsuspected forms of visualisation and communication were probably possible.

abstract film in 2001

There are probably about 50 people throughout the world who are putting together an oeuvre in which abstract films or videos form the main core and who are conscious of the fact that they place themselves in some kind of tradition. This is probably more than ever before in history, but there is very little coherence and connection between these film makers. The only worldwide platform is the organisation called "iota", founded by abstract film maker Larry Cuba. This organisation has a documentation centre and a website (www.iotacenter.org) and tries to map the history of abstract film and to bring together the film/video makers who are now active.

It is of course difficult to talk objectively about the present time and to indicate the direction of abstract film today. In general I think that two large groups of abstract film makers can be distinguished: - film makers who work directly on the film material itself. These film makers usually show their work within experimental film circuits. Through their direct, painterly style of tackling the material, these films are often driven by the intuition of the maker, while focusing more on expression and less on the more formal sides of temporal composition within film (with the exception of Brakhage, for instance). - film makers who use the computer for their films. These works are shown in many different circuits, alongside the experimental film circuits they can also often also be seen at new media festivals or within the club culture. This group largely comprises artists who regard the computer and software as data tools and use existing possibilities to make abstract animations or "ambient" videos. In addition, investigation is continuing at various institutes into formal ways of shaping the interaction between image and sound. This investigation largely finds its way out in the form of software packages, such as for instance the sound program Metasynth, in which sounds can be invoked by drawing them. Another group of computer film makers, unfortunately small, uses the computer as a tool by designing their own programs that generate images (in real time or not as the case may be). These film makers are least hindered by existing software or academic baggage and as far as I'm concerned that they make work that takes the most interesting new paths.

the work of Bart Vegter

Bart Vegter is an artist who goes his own way without being disrupted by fashion or questions about relevance. He is abreast of predecessors and contemporaries who operate in the same field, but he does not follow or allow himself to be dragged along by technical developments. He fits in very well with the image of the abstract film maker sketched above: an einzelgänger who looks for his own means to communicate his fascinations on film.

When it comes down to his work, I want to look at two aspects that are primarily related to his last three films, NACHT-LICHT, SPACE-MODULATION and FOREST-VIEWS, all three made on the computer using software he wrote himself:

In the words of film maker Jim Davis ('The Only Dynamic Art', Films in Review, 1953): "My own experience and observation of the work of contemporary painters and sculptors have convinced me that traditional media of painting and sculpture are too limited for the full, or even satisfactory, depiction of the complexities of the twentieth century. I believe the artist who clings to these old tools dooms himself to the repetition of ideas better expressed in previous cultures, or to regression into the primitive, or to being so subjective he ceases to communicate with anyone but himself." In his computer programs, Bart Vegter works with principles related to natural processes. Processes that become visible in the patterns in the sand at low water or the waves caused by wind and current. Bart's films are not about natural phenomena like this in a direct illustrative way, but are themselves such natural phenomenon. In this way, his films transcend their technical aspects and examine concepts that are very topical. As far as I am concerned, Bart's films are about the way in which people are able to come to terms with the flux around them and, just as that happens in contemporary physics, in terms of chaos and non-linearity.

In the 50 years of its existence, the computer has changed enormously: from a huge super machine in university headquarters to an everyday item of furniture for surfing and typing. The same applies to the software: early programs were the personification of the body of thought of the scientific elite, now they are merchandise you are inclined to copy. The first computer artists only had very little access to their tools and were only able to work when assisted by specialists. Computer artists these days have much easier access to the hardware, but the software has changed very little. The way a computer deals with images is primarily organised by the software and the software is designed for the market. And software is like a piece of electronic equipment which you buy: there is a virtual case around it that make sure that you can't get your fingers inside. For moving images, the computer is now basically an editing machine, a 3-D animation machine or a machine on which moving graphic designs can be made. In the VJ culture, more and more artists are appearing to have the knowledge needed to exploit the computer on their own terms. There are however still relatively few people who work creatively with the computer by writing their own programs and hence are able to investigate what else is possible between and behind the menus on the screen.

Just like the work of the VJ artists I just mentioned, the work of Bart Vegter reveals correspondences with the algorithmic computer art of the early 1970s. The principles of computers then and now are the same, but the circumstances have changed drastically. The equipment is much more accessible now, the necessary knowledge more widely distributed and artists approach from many more different angles, so more interesting things happen now than they did back then. The academic pretence then has now largely disappeared, but that doesn't mean that the work of programmers/artists has become less important. If there is any sign of innovation, it is there.