Essay, Magazin

Flicker film and the videopoem

A ›flicker film‹, as I have made them and understand them thus far, consists not of moving image footage but of a series of still images presented at around 24 or 25 per second. It could be described as an extremely rapid slideshow. Cinema film is also, of course, still images projected at 24 frames per second, but with the intention of transforming frames into seamless movement, whereas a flicker film disrupts the seamless with disparate frames.

I first came across the technique during the digital module of my MA in Art & Space at Kingston University. I actively disliked it … too painstaking and slow as a process, and I never saw myself as a filmmaker, or had interest in video art. But I worked my way through eleven versions of my piece as I developed it, and began to enjoy the artistic potential of the technique and the challenges of using it in combination with text and sound.

The term flicker film stems from the 1966 Tony Conrad film The Flicker. Fronted by titles and a warning, the body of the film consists only of black and white frames in a planned pattern. The Flicker lasts 30 minutes and explored the hypnotic illusions created by the strobing effect of the alternating tones and how it could affect the viewer. Other key structuralist filmmakers of the time also exploited ›flicker‹ film techniques. Paul Sharits used it to explore language, using both text and the spoken word in his film Word Movie (1966). The film is described by Lux in London (who hold a copy in their archive) as: »50 words visually ›repeated‹ in varying sequential and positional relationships/spoken word soundtrack/structured, each frame being a different word or word fragment, so that the individual words optically-conceptually fuse into one 3 and three quarter minute long word.«

The technique has thus long been firmly situated within artist filmmaking and it continues to be so with contemporary artists. John Stezaker, known for his conceptual collage works, has made flicker films from photographs of racehorses in auction catalogues in Horse (2012), and from film-stills of groups of people in Blind (2013). Cornelia Parker, known for her conceptual sculptures and installations such as Cold Dark Matter: An Exploded View (1991), used the technique in her film Election Abstract that was commissioned in 2017 for the Houses of Parliament in London.

Being and being empty, colour, sound, Jane Glennie, 2018

Flicker film can also be perceived as reflective upon the broader culture of the online environment where so much time is now spent. Indeed, Parker’s film was derived from her Instagram feed. Image usage, sophistication and relevance continues to grow rapidly. In 2014, two thousand million photos were shared per day across five key social media platforms, rising to over three thousand million in 2015. Upcoming generations are expected to communicate with images even more than at present (happily videopoetry is part of this ever growing online scene). Flicker film can have instant visual impact in a short length and can capture attention in the brief, ephemeral encounters of social media. For instance, my film Being and being empty (2018) was selected for the world’s first Instagram Poetry exhibition at the National Poetry Library in London. But flicker film also offers challenges to the viewer: what can be perceived each time it is viewed? What images or messages might have entered the subconscious? If I continue to view the film – can I perceive more through practice or ›training myself‹ or do I enter a visual fatigue and ›see‹ less and less? A flicker film can be seen as a test of endurance and the brain’s ability to digest images at speed and through the subconscious. If we are to continue to consume images at ever greater volumes and pace, the flicker film begs the question – what are the limits that human cognition can take? Is there a point at which the message and/or the poetic is lost in the frenzy? I am interested in how the fleeting can be imprinted in the mind and create an overall impression through repetition, the subliminal message, and/or the blurring of the distinctions between discrete elements.

Channel Swimmer, colour, sound, Jane Glennie, 2015

Though a flicker film in itself (including the examples of Stezaker and Parker) is not necessarily a videopoem, I find it a fascinating technique that I think is well suited to videopoetry. I was originally trained as a typographic designer and so I am very attuned to the visual articulation of language and meaning and naturally looked to text as part of my work before I knew of videopoetry as a genre. Channel Swimmer used a sound montage of lines from two novels: National Velvet by Enid Bagnold and A Proper Marriage by Doris Lessing, while my second film Intellect 447: N spelled out the text from an entry in Roget’s Thesaurus. Intellect 447:N was selected for the PoetryFilm archive and shown by Zata Banks in her programme Paradox. This was my first discovery of, and exposure to, videopoetry.

Channel Swimmer, colour, sound, Jane Glennie, 2015

I began to explore videopoetry as a genre and, in turn, to think about the interplay between language and flicker film. In one minute of flicker film (if at 25 frames per second) there will be 1,500 images. Some might be repeated, but I regularly take over 1,000 photographs for a 30 second to one minute film. I wondered if the individual images of a flicker film can be likened to the grapheme or letter: sequences of which can be built into visual ›words‹ or ›phrases‹? Once we are confident readers, when we read we do not read each letter individually but see words and phrases in chunks as our eyes jump across each line in saccadic movements. In the flicker film, individual images may be registered, but it is the larger units of sequences of images that are digested. Sequences of images can have their own rhythm and can pulse at different rates whilst still passing at 25 frames per second, in the same way that a writer gives language a rhythm but the typesetter gives each letter visually even spacing (unless a format such as concrete poetry).

In experimenting with the form of the flicker film I feel that the structure and articulation of the sequence of images seems to have parallels with my experience of typesetting and the transmission of language. In typographic design tiny tweaks to a choice of font, interline space and/or many other typographic details can transform a printed work. These details can change the look and feel of a page, but also impact the meaning and articulation of the text. Fine tweaks to seemingly invisible elements of the visual have an effect upon an overall film, its visual language and meaning and how it relates to the textual language and poetic effect. The visual elements of images can include exposure, focus, predominant colour, saturation, or the degree of abstractness. The visual effect of the combination of these features is ready and waiting to be understood if looking at a still photograph or continuous moving image, but it is more subliminal and less tangible when dispersed across many rapid, discrete images. For example, I can play with the ›light‹ and ›shade‹ of image sequences by grouping certain images together or by repeating lighter or darker images with a particular rhythm. This is similar to the means by which I can play with the relative weights of typefaces to articulate a text – for instance, contrasting a light font with an extra bold for extreme emphasis or for a more restrained result with a semi-bold. Equally though, in both flicker film and typography, ›play‹ must be taken judiciously or the outcome can easily be a jumbled mess that doesn’t convey meaning or have coherence.

However, when I get a sequence right, and because there are so many images in a flicker film, and so fast, I like the fact that no single image can have too much poignancy or load. The juxtaposition of fleeting images and the use and/or rhythm of repetition (or not) carry the poetic effect from the text to the image and back again. In comparison, for me, a lingering shot in moving film or a dramatic cut can potentially feel as if it has far too much weight over and above the text. It is like the heavy handed use of a display font to try to make a visual point when a text is best served by design that is measured and gives voice to the text itself.

Or perhaps the technique, like language and poetry itself, allows for disconnected and conceptual themes to emerge? In Film as Art, Rudolf Arnheim doubts whether a montage of symbolic or conceptual connections to express an idea can ›add up to visual unity‹. He argues that in poetry and language disconnected themes can be joined because the mental images attached to words are ›much vaguer, more abstract and will therefore more readily cohere‹ and that actual pictures to represent symbolic moments or ideas can appear forced. I wonder if the visual speed of a flicker film gives its images something of the attributes of language by making them ›vaguer [and] more abstract‹ and so ready to cohere. Is it this property then that allows the flicker film to achieve the fusion of meaning between text and image that video poetry strives for?

While I have argued that flicker film technique is well suited to videopoetry, I also realise that it is not ideal for many reasons too. I would find it challenging for a very long text – for myself as creator and, I imagine, for the viewer. Long or short, I think the technique needs to be paired with the right text and it will not be suited for many. I am also trying to work out how an audience at a screening can best be prepared, or tuned in and ready, for a short burst of flicker film? The brain adapts to what it is seeing, but at first viewing it is difficult to take in. But perhaps, like all films, a flicker film simply needs to be enticing enough to want to see a second time? I am certainly finding it an enticing enough technique to continue to explore.

About the Author
Jane Glennie is an artist and typographer who works with installation and poetry film, while remaining fervent on the finer points of typesetting complex texts. Jane exhibits her work nationally and internationally, and manages and curates projects with other artists, including the Arts Council England funded event Engage with Art, and the London 2012 Olympics ›Inspire Mark‹ project Whatever Floats Your Boat with Slough Museum. Jane set up Peculiarity Press to publish A New Dictionary of Art by Robert Good and is currently artist-in-residence at Reading College.