Only recently has the west coast of the United States, particularly California, especially southern California received the credit it deserves for the long history of abstract and experimental film work that has gone on here. The Iota Center is a non profit organization that among other things preserves, archives and provides information about that history. Among some of the more known film artists it has in it's collection are John and James Whitney, Pat O'Neil (one of my personal favorite experimental film makers), Kenneth Anger, Ernie Pintoff, Patricia Marx, Sara Petty, Chris Casady, John Adamczyk, Richard Baily and Larry Cuba to name a few.
Fellow board member of the Iota Center, Pamela Turner Chair of the Department of Kinetic Imaging at Virginia Commonwealth University, has done a lot to help Iota in its mission. Her latest endeavor was to put out a DVD on Adam Beckett, an artist who died young, at the age of 29 in 1978. She was greatly assisted by Iota staff member, Paul Shepherd, and Larry Cuba founder of Iota.
Adam Beckett worked prior to the digital revolution, a maverick who using optical printing, the animation stand and hand drawn animation left an indelible legacy. He is dearly beloved by many of his fellow classmates at CalArts and many in the film community here in Los Angeles and elsewhere. Who should go into the records of art/film history is always an interesting subject up for debate. Pamela Turner and the Iota Center with the release of a new DVD of Adam Beckett's work is making a strong case for his inclusion.
Below is my interview with Pamela Turner
What attracted you to Beckett as an artist?
Like many people, I had never heard of Adam Beckett so when two of my friends, Larry Cuba and Chris Casady, said how wonderful his work was and what a shame that it was included in the Kinetica screenings that The iotaCenter did, I was curious. Larry had a few prints of Beckett’s work and I asked to see them. I was immediately mesmerized. His animations were not like anything I had seen from that time period, the 1970s. I couldn’t figure out how they were created. I recognized a grammar of light and abstraction that referenced synthesized video imagery and computer graphics and wondered if he could have had access to those technologies that early. So, there was a technical curiosity but more so the imagery was just incredibly compelling.
What made you decide to create a DVD on his work?
Making the DVD seemed to be the logical outcome of the project. The iotaCenter, with the Academy Film Archive, had restored his primary films, thanks to a grant from the NFP, and these were then shown at the National Gallery of Art, REDCAT and a few other venues. I was constantly interviewing people who had known Adam and investigating his life and work, looking at the huge amount of his art that his family had archived. When I presented his work I would include his drawings and unreleased segments of animations to try to give an accurate picture of Adam as an artist. The response that his work received made it clear to me that his work needed to be more readily available to the public.
What do you think his major contributions have been to the world of experimental and commercial film?
There are the technical contributions of the additive animation cycle where he creates a simple cycle and draws more each time the cycle continues and the intensive, orchestration of the optical printer that he did to completely transform the image. But ultimately it is the visual energy of the work itself. He had a unique vision and an ability to innovate and marry the technical to the visual. He was committed to discovery, to create imagery that had not been seen before. I see this especially in “Heavy-Light”. It’s made from a few drawings but it is his process – his acting on the drawings – that evoke the ethereal light show that we see. He could not have known 100% what these images would look like. He experimented. So, it’s that innovative spirit, the pursuit of new, compelling, mysteriously concocted images that continues to inspire artists both in animation and visual effects.
How has he influenced other artists?
Again, I think it’s his innovative spirit and the idea of making so much from the basis of a few drawings. His commitment to abstraction in order to express a cosmic or psychedelic experience, while retaining a sense of humor, is compelling. His work is a wonderful example of what Gene Youngblood called “synaesthetic cinema” in his book “Expanded Cinema”. Adam’s work is a visualization of forces and energy, the phenomena of experiencing the kinetic journey.
What are your personal favorites of his work, and why?
My personal favorites change from week to week! For now I would say “Flesh Flows” because it’s a beautiful film and it also illustrates Adam’s diverse expertise. There is wonderful, playful drawing, and exquisite work on the optical printer. It also carries us, as Adam said in his description for this film, from the carnal to the cosmic. It really speaks to the time it was created, and has a sense of humor that moves into the ethereal. The sound is also a departure and shows Adam’s talent for creating interesting soundtracks that are not necessarily ‘musical’.
Something about your background especially as it led you to Beckett?
My academic background is in art history and in electronic media. I have a studio practice in animation media and I have the curiosity of a reporter or art historian. Adam’s work grabbed my attention because it included animation with references to video synthesis and early computer graphics. I felt there was something there to be found out. It turns out all of his work was hand drawn, but I was not surprised, although thrilled, to learn that he did have a class with Nam June Paik when he first got to CalArts. So Adam was familiar with the images from the video camera and the Paik/Abe synthesizer. His work is a marker at a crossroads of technology.
The making of the DVD…
Making the DVD was truly a labor of love that involved many people. It contains a significant amount of material beyond the six primary films. Paul Shepard, Larry Cuba and I collaborated in the actual building of the DVD. Paul did a lot of the legwork, getting permissions and working out the transfers, and getting the work to where it needed to be. I selected the work to be on the DVD and with Larry’s assistance, came up with the organization of the material. I designed the menus and wrote the text for the cover and insert and provided some of the material. Larry tirelessly checked, proof-read, and reviewed the text and disc. I hesitate to list the other many people who made this possible for fear of leaving someone out!
Mark Toscano is the archivist at the Academy Film Archive who restored the Beckett films and has always been dedicated to Adam’s work. Pat O’Neill generously did digital scans of Adam’s loops, and Rhythm and Hues digitally scanned the 35mm “Life in the Atom” and segments of “Knotte Grosse”. Wade Ivy and Elder Sun contributed an interview they filmed of Jules Engel remembering Adam. There is a touching homage to Adam by David Berry that shows Adam in the early days at CalArts, at his home, romping on the beach and at a young ILM studio.
“Every Other” by Adam Beckett and Kathy Rose is on the DVD, and is sort of an exquisite corpse collaboration that had never been animated. I found the drawings amongst Adam’s many artworks and, with Kathy’s permission, shot them on the animation stand. There were also two sequences of drawings that seem related to his unfinished “Life in the Atom” that I found and animated. Once I had animated them I realized that although they were numbered as two distinct segments, they flowed one into the other as one piece.
Another collaborative piece is “The Letter” by James Gore and Adam. Because of Gore’s influence on Adam, and many other artists, we thought it would be appropriate to include Gore’s other surviving animation, “Dream of the Sphinx”. The Academy Archive restored it and it is a delight to see!
Adam drew obsessively and his family has a large collection of his work, which I have been attempting to digitally archive. His drawings express so much about his life and his talent I decided a sampling of these belonged on the DVD too.
So, this DVD is very comprehensive and reflects the work of many people. I must say when I first held the finished shrink-wrapped product in my hand I was thrilled! Adam’s work is now available to a much wider audience, a new generation of fans.
Anything else you would like to mention?
Carl Stone made a soundtrack for "Life in the Atom", which allowed him in a way to collaborate with Adam again.
Who is Pamela Turner?
Pamela Taylor Turner is a media artist and writer whose studio work encompasses photography, video, film, and digital media. She graduated with a B.F.A. in Art History/Studio (1984) and a M.F.A. in Visual Communication/Electronic Media (1988). She is Chair of the Department of Kinetic Imaging at Virginia Commonwealth University, teaching animation and new media with an emphasis on mixing media and exploring the possibilities of expression through created moving images and sound composition.