Frooty Loops

When I feel the need for inspiration (more accurately the need to avoid working on my projects) I turn to the handful of artbooks I own. More often than not I end up feeling rewarded for taking myself so far afield of what I “ought” to be writing and studying, as this reading tends to detonate new thoughts that help unlock whatever I’ve been stuck on.

In that sense I need to single out the work of Alex Potts. His writing offers a compelling understanding of modern art that takes us away from common narratives of an easy realism vs. modernism polarization. His book The Sculptural Imagination strongly argues that while modernist sculpture deflated the old ideal of the “whole” work, its own petty-bourgeois libetarian illusions of autonomy were brought into question by the Minimalist sculpture trend. And it’s this movement in particular that Potts helped me to appreciate, in particular this passage about loops and looping.

At issue here is also the rhythmic inflection, or lack of it, in the kind of viewing invited by Minimalist work. When Fried describes the sense of ‘duration’ involved as ‘something endless the way a road might be: if it were circular, for example’, he is drawing attention to a sense of looping central to the conception of Minimalist sculpture. Any viewing of a three-dimensional work involves some form of repetitive looping—as one moves right round a work back to the position where one was first standing, or moves in closer and gets absorbed by various local effects of surface shaping and texture and shadowing and then steps back again. The rhythm of such viewing has something of the sense of passing through repeated circuits, which may be more or less regular, more or less expansive, more or less open or closed. A Minimalist work tends to foreground the sense of looping because there are not many variegated incidents in the circuits one traverses, and because the work’s relatively simple spatial configuration invites a similarly simple structuring of one’s pattern of viewing.

Potts’s argument makes a great point later on that, yes, the loops of Minimalism can become boring, but maximalism (like in a Pynchon meganovel) can lead to its own kind of boredom. The “arbitrarily rich variety of incident” actually achieves monotony as all the patterns get flattened into a homogenous flow of sensations. 

Looping is located in the temporal dimension of communing with a work of art. Imagine walking around one of Andre’s heavy metal grids, noticing how the specks reflected in the gallery’s spotlight change in the square units on the floor as your angle of sight gradually shifts. The horizontality of these sheets is quite radical compared to the traditional Venus on a pedestal, but the reduction helps you to appreciate these teeny-tiny variegated incidents, produced by metal units that simply exist as material, without pretending to be anything else. Eventually you may imagine yourself as the artist who laid down these tiles into an array—does the work still exist as such when it is disassembled and in storage?

These circuits that are fundamental to sculpture & 3D art must be present in other media as well.

Minimalist music is an obvious candidate, both the Steve Reich style of overlapping looped phrases that incrementally phase into a new arrangement, as well as the “Holy” minimalism of Arvo Pärt, like the famous Spiegel im Spiegel whose sparse composition for piano and a string musician demands absolute perfection (and traditionally no vibrato for the violin, but perhaps on the cello it can’t be avoided). The “heartbeats” of the piano’s outlined major triads paired with the “long breaths” of the bowing may constitute units of loops.

Erik Satie’s La Socrate premiered the same year as Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, and it also apparently caused a riot. The piece is an experimental recitative with a soprano singing continuously over a series of riffs from either a piano or an orchestra. People didn’t even want to consider it music at the time! (I’ll link to the third movement only because it’s my personal favorite and I think it the best showcase.)

Even with the drone tones of ambient electronica or doom metal, it’s as if my ears could periodize their stretched out notes with the peaks and valleys of the long oscillations of the various filter effects.

What about film? Looking back on MEMORIA, there is a sequence late in the narrative that is so decisively dead in terms of on-screen action or narrative incident (a character “dies,” or decides to be temporarily dead), sending the audience into a kind of sympathetic collective rigor mortis. We were entranced, yet aware that every second was irrevocably passing by. I seemed to turn my attention back to my own breathing as I sat in the theater. And yet, that scene still cuts between a few views of the scene and ambient sound effects played throughout. 

Bela Tarr’s movies often keep the camera position fixed while the landscape empties itself of any agent, and I’ve noticed that in this situation I like to make “loops” with my eyeballs, and trace clockwise circuits around the inside of the frame, since there are no pretty actor faces to direct my gaze. SATANTANGO has an engaging plot, almost like a crime caper, especially at the beginning, but it is also at the frontier between narrative cinema and video art—some of these moments of dead time and dead space could be clipped and shown in a gallery on continuous loop.

Finally, there is one cultural area where the operation of loops is obvious and crucial. Let’s turn away from high culture and dive into kitschy paperback horror.

I contend that slashers, creature features, and horror stories of the FINAL DESTINATION type are based on loops, specifically, the string of kills. In Michael McDowell’s THE AMULET, the titular piece of jewelry ends up switching hands (sometimes via comical rube-goldbergian mechanics) and people who find themselves wearing it become emotionally dysregulated and at the slightest provocation go on a killing spree, usually by weaponizing a household item. This pattern repeats itself until a whole Alabama small town gets leveled. Similar is Graham Masterton’s GHOST VIRUS, though the mechanics are a little more elaborate: a haunted article of clothing can take over the personality of the victim who wears it, and the victim takes on the ghost’s resentments and antipathies—and acquires a hunger for flesh. You can guess there’s plenty of room for variegated effects in all of these steps and elements.

Quite a productive understanding of art, thanks to Potts.

Once more to the cinema // March viewing wrap-up

Getting (re-)indoctrinated into cognitive and historical poetics as a way to think about reading and understanding literature has thrown up some questions about how we perceive, categorize and move about the objective world we find ourselves in, in terms of the definition and location of shapes. That is, books, paintings, and films use their respective media to present shapes distinguished from each other via edges, literal edges like in the composition of a shot, but also conceptual edges between different lines of dialog, or types of ground.

This fixation has fed back into movie-watching. People talk about binge watching as a problem but in fact I struggle to take a break from reading (professionally, vocationally, and non-productively) and do something else to relax. Some people just keep working to cope. It’s awful.

But at least I can leverage my privilege as a coastal elite to see analog 70 and 35mm prints of old movies in NYC.

Obviously movies are replete with edges, and it was nice to attend to them with a renewed interest. Moreover, analog film is excellent! Projected film improves every cinematic experience, even DEATH ON THE NILE.


The organization Subway Cinema has been collecting and exhibiting vintage prints of great Hong Kong action movies that used to play in movie houses throughout Chinatown and Times Square. I had the pleasure to see DYNAMITE FIGHTERS, the first leading role for Michelle Yeoh (whose victory lap performance in EVERYTHING EVERYWHERE ALL AT ONCE blew out my expectations), shot on location in Manchuria—and the film grain made the setting so alive!

Another treat was Jet Li starring in FIST OF LEGEND. This remake of FIST OF FURY is more lighthearted and more complicated in plot. Once again high level production design for a period piece. What a joy to see the Golden Harvest logo on the big screen, jittery, strobey, scratched to hell and with the optical soundtrack not yet working. The host noted we were watching an English dub of mysterious origin. It was different from the one you can find on YouTube, thankfully.


After viewings on a portable DVD player from the early aughts and on YouTube, a full scale analog screening of Eisenstein’s great film convinced me it was the best movie ever made.

Soon as it began the realization hit me that this was a nearly 100-year-old piece of film stock (maybe younger, it was a MoMA export print). The picture looked fantastic. There was no soundtrack whatsoever, and it wasn’t missed. I was looking forward to seeing the red flag raised on the battleship, but apparently the tint faded away over time.

Many shots were absolutely epic: the revolting sailors diving into the water to rescue their fallen leader trapped in the rigging; the massive crowd shots in Odessa, naturally. The editing goes without saying: the sailor dashing the plate to the floor like a discus thrower, the stone lions “awakening” along with the masses under the cannons of tsarism. And I remember a shot that “doesn’t really work” in terms of standard compositional practice: we see workers coming up a gangplank onto a jetty I think, but they’re thrown to the right edge of the frame while the camera is mainly looking at a wall, so that the main attraction is the shadows they cast on it.

Something the projectionists did at the Anthology theater that I had never really seen before was allowing the tail ends of each reel of the film to go on screen (I snapped a picture of the very last bit of the last reel above). This must be the avant-garde alternative to both the changeover system and platter towers.


I caught this Weerasethakul short from 2018 at the BAM. There was a woman struggling to sleep, lying in a bed outdoors, the bars of the bedframe lined in shadow above her head, her blue fleece blanket outlined against the dim backdrop. We also see two painted backdrops, of a path by the sea at sunset, to a view of perhaps the same path leading to a temple or pavilion. A scrolling mechanism transitions from one to the other. It seems to stall for a moment. Back to the insomniac woman, a dim orange flare grows in her chest, as if expressing a nightmare. The flare soon becomes a campfire, and its crackling comes onto the soundtrack along with the insect drone. The fire grows and starts throwing light on the ground—it’s clear that the fire is reflected in a glass pane, so that it superimposes itself on the sleeper. Then the film opens up to more varied and wider angles: there is a real fire, and a pane of glass between it and the backdrop. Is the scrolling automatic or human-operated? The stand of a tall overhead lamp lives conspicuously in the foreground along with some plant props. The woman’s bed is out in the open with a white outline drawn around it on the ground. Sometimes she is falling asleep, at other moments she gazes with her eyes wide open. These automated yet handycraftish optics and scenery, plus a spectator-sleeper, partly dreaming and partly perceiving, present for us the whole apparatus of cinema, but there’s another surprise: a shot through the glass pane to the scenery makes the flame appear over the ruby red sunset, a small but unexpected mix of the given elements, and the touch that deepens the whole thing beyond a pat allegory.


The short was a DCP projection, but the main attraction was in glorious 35mm. UNCLE BOONMEE is one of my very favorite films in the last decade, and watching it loud and big was genuinely refreshing. It’s a cliche but I felt I had seen it for the first time, probably because I’ve only ever watched it on Netflix.

For being only twelve years old, the film stock was absolutely scuffed, especially compared to the MoMA print of POTEMKIN. Giant green and white vertical scratch lines, the thickest of such artifacts I’d ever seen, cut into the frame every now and then, which looked terrific. The greenery of the jungle had a blue tint behind it that I’d never appreciated before. And the monkey ghosts with their red laser dot eyes oozed into the backdrop. Cuts that on home video seemed arbitrary or at least abrupt became shocks to the system, like a blue underwater frame full of bubbles and foam smash cutting to the pure photographic blackness of night at Boonmee’s country estate. The narrative is simple yet the filmmaking choices have the landscape enveloping the characters in these pastoral and transporting ways. BOONMEE has a few distinctive sequences, including a folk tale-like interlude with catfish cunnilingus and a vision of the future presented in still photographs. The film itself is part of a larger multi-media project called PRIMITIVE. Yet viewing it in a theater for the first time, the work felt wholly unitary and un-episodic.