This, That, and the Other

The digital videos of Vincent Grenier
by Michael Sicinski  posted October 22, 2010
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1. If I had to choose a single work with which to explain, to a novice or even a skeptic, the unique perceptual pleasures to be found in Vincent Grenier's experimental digital videos, I would most likely begin with one of his latest. For one thing, Grenier's work has gotten more wryly comic over the years, and choosing one of his most recent works as exemplary in some way denotes an apex, a linear progress or teleological trajectory. ("He's getting better and better.") But while Grenier's art is becoming richer and more elegant over time, owing in no small part to his increased mastery over the tools of his trade, the potentials of digital imagemaking, there is no simple linear progress and the overall trajectory of Grenier's ascent is of the jagged-arrow variety, spreading out in several directions at once while still moving forward. As such, examining ideas and concepts, rather than a straight developmental timeline, is perhaps the best way to understand Grenier's importance.

That said, Grenier's short 2009 work Coda encapsulates his wit, his visual gamesmanship, and his puckish engagement with the everyday world in a surprisingly compact way. To say this is the film Grenier has been working toward, is reductive and inaccurate. When you watch Coda, you see a crow repeatedly flying up into the frame from the bottom, failing to make it into a wooded field. The mechanical repetition provides the strange feeling that gentle forces are guiding otherwise independent entities to orchestrate themselves around Grenier's frame, looping up and fluttering down on cue, like animated approximations of a found, literal world. But when  it's over, and Grenier's somewhat dirty trick is understood, the mystery is replaced with the uncanny. Grenier has warped space, but in a not particularly unusual way. There's a mirror against a fence. Completely ordinary. There is a crow butting up against it, trying to fly into this faux-expanded space. (This sort of thing happens all the time. Birds fly into buildings. Here, it's just a phony hole in the fence that has the crow stuck in a sad little loop.)

Coda is a kind of continuation (hence the title) of Grenier's earlier Armoire (2007), in which a bird is "trapped" inside its own mirror reflection, provoking two separate forms of visual dislocation for bird and spectator. But as we watch Coda unfold, we come to identify with that sad crow trapped in the double-screen. We're just as gullible, with our classically trained spectatorship and its Renaissance-derived optics. The bird flies up and up and up, like it's caught in a badly registered frame line. Of course, there are no frame lines (it's a video), just as there is no bird. With his dual screen, Grenier is playing the roles of both Zeuxis and Parrhasius here, fooling both birds and the people who watch them. It might be more correct to suggest that Coda is the film that has been working its way towards Grenier.

2. One of the things that sets Vincent Grenier apart as a contemporary film/video artist is his deep engagement with the medium of digital cinema, its unique properties and parameters. Like most film artists of Grenier's generation (his first works appeared in the mid-'70s), he began his career working intensively with 16mm film. His works of the pre-digital period, such as While Revolved (1976), World In Focus (1976), and Interieur Interiors (To AK) (1978), all display an extreme sensitivity to the materiality of the film medium. While Revolved is axiomatic "film light," in that it consists of a rotating, out of focus light source impressing itself onto the film stock in varying intensities but at regular intervals. Much more concerned with representation but still in a similar vein, a work such as Interieur Interiors articulates celluloid graininess with the flatness of the film screen, its predominantly gray-white field of action functioning like a subtly shifting Robert Ryman or Barnett Newman canvas. Grenier inscribes mobile shadows around a closet door, and eventually large panes of blackness dominate significant portions of the screen. Despite the extremely "filmic," semi-structuralist concern with light, shadow, grain, and motion as their own isolated attractions, we can see in Interieur Interiors the perceptual humor that will remain a constant in Grenier's work. A thin vertical line down the left side of the image appears to be the edge of a wall, until a hand reaches up and yanks it, revealing it to be the pull-string on a closet light.

Even some of the best contemporary experimentalists who started out working in film and have switched to video have understood it to be a compromise medium, one to which they were driven by economic or technical circumstances, or some combination thereof (e.g., the discontinuation of particular film stocks). Reasonable though this may be, too many filmmakers have simply tried to continue their film-based practices through video. And here, I want to put particular pressure on the word "through," to emphasize an all too frequent (and seldom successful) attempt at transparency, medium neutrality, an attitude of video as vehicular support to a filmic destination. This is as true of filmmakers who came to prominence in the 1970s, when Grenier did, as it is of those who emerged on the scene well before and well after. What continually sets Grenier apart is the intensive exploration of digital aesthetics in this second phase of his work. This commitment to medium specificity is laudable. (Among his peers, I can think of only Phil Solomon and Fred Worden as having similarly rededicated themselves to the digital era, although recent work indicates that Peggy Ahwesh is headed in that direction.) But as any number of downsized factory workers will tell you, it's not easy learning a new trade when you've only known one thing.

3. Grenier's earliest digital works display a fascinating combination of experimental cinema vernacular and a familiarization with digital technique. But instead of seeming clumsy for this legible learning curve, they are significantly more elegant than a lot of the classic video art similarly dedicated to exhibiting or road-testing digital tools. Color Study (2000), one of Grenier's first works fully shot in Mini-DV, consists of a single static shot of autumnal foliage at the side of a highway in upstate New York. We hear cars and trucks zoom by. But Grenier manipulates the color temperature in post-production, blowing out reds and greens, abstracting the trees into hazy lines, turning contrast up and then down, resolving the image into different-colored fields. Each change is based upon the objective contents of the image, but pushed beyond its limits, Grenier exploiting the digital console like a jazz musician. His next work, Material Incidents (2001), explores what would become one of Grenier's major technical and aesthetic maneuvers in the digital works of the following decade, the faded superimposition. He plays multiple fixed frame camera takes against one another, articulating their internal motion to produce ambiguous spatial and kinetic phenomena. For example, in the second pair-up, the shadows and figures moving behind a flowery, translucent bedsheet hanging on a wash line are slowly blended with the streaked gray blur of asphalt as seen from a moving vehicle. Rounded shadows become jagged and staccato; the flapping sheet flattens into a Futurist zip of unidirectional action.

One of the early digital works that Grenier has shown most frequently in recent programs (and which lends its title to his program at L.A. Filmforum on October 24) is Here, from 2002. Beginning with a yellowish-green image of water floating in a child's pool, with plastic army men drifting into the frame from the top left, Here plays with the possibility of reflection and transmission. We see leaves and branches appear in the water, and as they impress themselves hesitantly upon the surface, we can only assume we're witnessing a shift in the intensity of the sunlight. Reflection, refraction, the sun: the basic elements of film optics and spatial ambiguity. But, this being the digital realm,  the filmmaker achieves this effect in somewhat different ways. Grenier is combining two distinct images, water and sky, "up" and "down." The next "shot" expands this premise, giving us a wider angle of more toys floating in the dirty pool, the second image blossoming out unmistakably from the center. That image is an abstraction, pure light refracted off unseen surfaces, perhaps through wet eyeglasses or off brakelights in the rain. The saturated but slightly off colors of a traffic light cycle through, creating spiny solidities, like anemones made of ribbon and crepe paper.

Regardless, there is no confusion. "Here" we have two separate spaces. Before the end of the shot, and into the next shot, the confusion is alleviated (these are indeed traffic lights seen through a wet windshield), but the perception remains mutable and ambiguous. Soon afterward, Here returns to the floating army men, and a pure yellow field of water that gives way to a sandbox, Grenier compressing the two into a single granulated, loping texture. When we see several army figurines buried in the sand, Grenier slowly pans over them, and we hear a young boy say, "It's on fire." The boy then drops bright red leaves (from a Euonymus "burning bush" plant) onto the felled men. Here then blends the sand image with an image of the red bush, its leaves standing in for the conflagration in the boy's imaginary world. Every bit of negative space is filled in with sliding crimson "fire." And then we move between the sandbox and the bush as single, integral images. The film concludes with a close-up of the boy's sand-covered hand showing us a button he's found.  At first this final image seems to come from nowhere. But it is a surprisingly frank moment for Grenier, a "cinema of attractions" gesture of internal display. "Look," the boy seems to say, "at this perfectly ordinary thing I found beneath the surface of things. Will you please share in its wonder?"

4. So, what, or where, is Here? In the most basic sense, it is the immediate environment, that which surrounds us and doesn't actively clamor for our attention. Grenier is presenting two programs in Los Angeles. In addition to the L.A. Filmforum show, he is at Redcat on October 25 with a program entitled "Revelations of the Everyday." It's hard to think of a more apposite description of Grenier's art. He is indeed a poet of the quotidian. Of course, there is a fine tradition within the avant-garde of film- and videomakers whose work consists of close, aesthetic attention to their everyday surroundings. To understand Grenier's unique place with respect to this lineage it is perhaps best to clarify what his videos do not do. They are not diaries or journals. A major artery of this kind of filmmaking, from Jonas Mekas on through Helga Fanderl and Ute Aurand, absorbs the quotidian and maintains a connection to its original temporal structure in the final artwork. Grenier's films, by contrast, generate completely self-contained temporalities. Likewise, Grenier's works are not absolute abstractions or phenomenological reductions in the Brakhage mode. The force of the material world, its history, and its ability to signify, never dissipate, although Grenier does tug at their elasticity. If there are contemporary filmmakers with whom Grenier seems to share a sensibility, they would be Nathaniel Dorsky, Leighton Pierce, and Ernie Gehr, although for different reasons. Dorsky and Pierce are well within the quotidian tradition. Like Dorsky, Grenier radically transforms realistic images of the world through framing, focus, and juxtaposition. Like Pierce, Grenier examines the "local"—his home, his neighborhood, his state—with an almost molecular precision, discovering expansive worlds inside his own immediate, tangible existence. And, in terms of perceptual miscues, sound/image relations, optical expectations denied, and the exploitation of customary habits of spectatorship, Grenier and Gehr share a similar sense of humor.

All this graphing on the ornithological chart is almost beside the point because it's that playful wit that sets Grenier's videos apart. These are the jokes, folks. One of Grenier's best and most complex pieces of the decade, 2006's This, and This, is a kind of investigation of the rhyming and dissonance capacities of the straight cut in video. Moving from similar to dissimilar overt shot content (sylvan lake scene to blue sky), and from horizontal action (fog rolling over the lake) to vertical orientation (a reflection of a wooden craft sticking out of the water), to left and then right diagonals (trails of skywriter's jet smoke), Grenier plays havoc with the soundtrack. The aural jump cuts into power saws (a cut!) emphasize the artificiality of the conjunctions Grenier has forged. Soon, Grenier "cuts" from the inside, with his darkened fade from horizontal lake mist into (onto?) a long, straight rain puddle on the road, bisecting a field of grainy asphalt. By the middle of its 10-and-a-half-minute running time, This, and This is cutting between multiple, sensorally incompatible modes of representing water—boys playing on a pier, fog on the lake, the rushing waters of Buttermilk Falls in Ithaca, New York—all presented as plain, unadorned material facts. Grenier eventually begins smoothing out the cuts with lateral pans that bridge the rhyming forms. Each specific image engages the properties of video in different ways (flattening haze, glinting sun), and each entails some degree of mediation or containment. Each time the street puddle is sliced and splashed by another tire on a minivan, it complicates the "raw nature" of the falls or the lake, both mediated not only by the digital but also by the associations we bring to each. By the end of This, and This, we literally don't know which way is up.

This takes an almost opposite approach from another of Grenier's best works of the period, North Southernly (2005). This six-minute digital swarm of brushstroke and cacophony is probably the closest Grenier has come to making an actual painting in time, and unlike in This, he fixes his attention on one set of visual data, exploring the situation in depth rather than across the spatial plane. Much of North Southernly consists of varying views, shades and intensities of a semi-solid, yellowish-brown field, smeared and traversed by smoky white marks. This video is all about texture and line quality, the white and gray smudges curling into implied recessed areas on a flat, Greenbergian surface. But Grenier is clearly working with photographic reality; his ongoing play with rack focus changes the position, hue, and implied depth of the matte color versus the depth-provoking marks. In post-production manipulation, Grenier alters color value and contrast, much as he did in Color Study. Here, the result is that "brushstrokes" and "negative space" thicken and thin out before our eyes. All the while, North Southernly is jostled, disrupted, enhanced, countermanded—it also varies from moment to moment—by a discordant collage soundtrack. Grenier incorporates snippets of John Cage, hip hop, what sounds like German pop, news talk radio, tango, and only nominally musical noises into an all-over texture of sonic comedy. Grenier's aural punishment is as abrasive as North Southernly's painterly surface is placid and austere on the visual track. This mismatch, as the title implies, pulls us in two directions at once. And in keeping with Grenier's droll attitude toward perceptual ambiguity, the final shots show us more clearly what exactly we've been looking at: stalks of a dead plant through a fogged window. Is it a windshield? Are we in the car scanning through radio stations? Hard to say, but one thing is clear. In "painting" these brown lifeless leaves, Grenier has taken the idea of a still life (in French, nature morte, "dead nature") and given it a jump off his battery.

5. The final-moment reveal ("What have I been looking at?") has been a common thread in several of Grenier's videos of this period. But it's never played for a silly "twist." Rather, it is a reaffirmation of the tangibility of the local, of the real objects and spaces that have asked for the additional concentration that led to the works' creation in the first place. In this regard, I suppose it could be called a pedagogical maneuver on Grenier's part (he has been a professor at Binghamton University for many years now), but not in the way that people usually use that word. If Grenier's work provides pleasures both anticipated (the formal beauty and exacting eye of a great media artist) and unanticipated (the many contradictions, misprisions, and perceptual paradoxes the works induce), his films and videos also seem to want to tell us, in very direct ways, that those pleasures are only partly of the artist's making. They are also accidental and given to chance; they are also freely available. And so in a way, I think Vincent Grenier's work, if I may call upon one of the hoary old saws of the avant-garde, aims to "teach us how to see," but in ways a bit different than how that concept has been trotted out in the past by mythopoets and structuralists alike.

One of Grenier's simplest, most minimalistic recent works is Straight Lines (2009). It consists, as the title suggests, of straight parallel lines, white on black, which undulate. As the stripes come in and out of focus and appear to move within the frame, a dark central stripe expands and contracts. This thick black swath down the middle is diagonal, not particularly straight, and all other lines seem to emerge from it. For four minutes, Grenier shows this purely abstract activity whose crux is the interaction between tight regularity and a governing force that is, at best, sloppy and unpredictable. In the end, we get the "reveal." We're watching light and shadow through an outdoor hammock. But this is only part of the point. In discovering this odd light phenomenon in his yard (or someone else's), Grenier has provided us with a clever commentary on the uneasy relationship between Abstract Expressionism and Op Art, and he's transcribed one of the many "paintings of chance" that sunlight and semi-randomly dispersed consumer goods, circa 2009, will generate in our midst. The "lesson" is just to look. 

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Coda, directed by Vincent Grenier

THE AUTHOR

Michael Sicinski is a film writer and teacher based in Houston, Texas. He is a frequent contributor to Cinema Scope, Cineaste, and GreenCine Daily.

More articles by Michael Sicinski