VITAL: Video Interactions for Teaching and Learning
VITAL - Video Interactions for Teaching and Learning The Center for New Media Teaching and Learning
AVANT-GARDE FILM (Spring 2006 COLLf2010: Section 001)

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Final Paper

by Jonah S. Bossewitch


"I'm afraid. I'm afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I'm a... fraid." HAL, on shutdown. (2001: A Space Oddyssey)

Stan Brakhage was a visionary filmmaker, visual poet, lyrical artist, and philosophical heavyweight. The influence of his pioneering films is still felt across the mainstream and the avant-garde and his legacy continues to grow. While his body of cinematic work stands on its own, his writings reveal an additional depth of meaning and intelligence which provide the basis for analytic connections which would otherwise be speculative.

In particular, this paper will examine the unexpected relationship between Brakhage’s art and the field of Artificial Intelligence, through the lenses of visual similarity, and ontological equivalence. Brakhage’s writings bridge the conceptual chasm between random scribbles of color and deep metaphysical assertions. His work can help inform the directions and emphases that scientists and technologists pursue. He can help us all understand how justice, value, and aesthetics must be primary considerations for all human endeavours.

Big Ideas

Prominent physicists in the 20th century have stated that to completely understand the nature of light, would be to understand the nature of the universe. The mysteries of light are playful and elusive, defying modern science's attempts to describe its properties. For Brakhage, reality is comprised of "experiencing (copulating) or conceiving (procreating) or very rarely balancing in that moment of living, loving, and creating, giving, and receiving." (Brakhage, 17). Reality "extends its picketing fence" the moment which "the imagined dies, is penetrated by mind and known rather than believed in" (p 18). Brakhage's mystical perspective asserts the primacy of consciousness and its fundamental role in the sustenance of "all there is." Just as light holds key to our understanding of the object universe, color may hold the key to our understanding of the subjective one.

Sitney summarizes this position and its relation to Brakhage's art. Sitney claims an "Equation between the process of making film and the search for consciousness... (and) the truth of the imagination" (Sitney, 158) Light, and its corollary color, is more than metaphor for experience - it becomes a measure and signifier of consciousness itself, and in turn, an exploration of the metaphysics of life, the universe, and everything.

The perception of color is a well studied phenomenon, whose complexity is often grossly underestimated. Color is a property that is response dependant. It is neither exclusively "out there" nor "in here", and its nature gestures at the role of the observer in constructing the world of experience.

The causes of color are varied, and not a simple property of the surface of an object. The color of an object can be the result of made light, lost light, moved light, and over 15 physical processes contribute to our perception of a particular color (See Causes of Color, and Color for Philosophers: Unweaving the Rainbow). But the colors we perceive are the result of more than just these effects - we recognize colors based on our knowledge and understanding of the world, and the laws we believe it to obey. Thus, bananas appear yellow under a variety of lightings, and shadows, and conditions.

A full examination of the connections between the phenomenology of color perception and consciousness is beyond the scope of this paper. However, even a brief survey of Brakhage’s writings suggests he may have explicitly referenced these ideas in his films. His philosophical and esoteric interests reinforce this possibility. We will return to these grand overarching issues after we examine the unexpected relationship between Brakhage’s art and the field of Artificial Intelligence.

(Un)Learning to See

"Imagine and eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective, and eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception. How many colors are there in a field of grass to the crawling baby unaware of "Green?" How many rainbows can light create for the untutored eye? How aware of variations in heat waves can that eye be? Imagine a world alive with incomprehensible objects and shimmering with an endless variety of movement and innumerable gradations of color. Imagine a world before the "beginning was the word." (Metphors on Vision)

In his writing and his films Brakhage transports the reader to their primal condition, one that every conscious being has necessarily traversed – the world before the word. To imagine this world is to fathom our humanity and the human condition. Brakhage attempts to transport us through visual metaphor – by deconstructing and portraying the act of perception itself, exposing in its detail the subjectivity implied (and forgotten) by the average observer.

Intriguingly, another discipline is hard at work imagining the converse of Brakhage’s challenge. The mission of the researchers in the field of Artificial Vision (a subfield of the discipline of Artificial Intelligence) is to train an unprejudiced “eye” (usually a camera) to understand the man-made laws of perspective and compositional logic. These untrained systems are “born” perceiving the world that Brakhage asks us to imagine. These researchers have embarked on a project whose trajectory directly crosses Brakhage’s art, from the opposite direction.

We can see the correspondence between these two seemingly disparate endeavors through the juxtaposition of Brakhage’s work with some typical examples of research in Artificial Vision.

Artificial Vision can be described as the field which aims to teach robots to see. “Robots” in this context refers to any artificial computational system, not just the anthropomorphic humanoids depicted in popular science fiction. In 2006 Darpa sponsored a race of autonomous ground vehicles which were each require to drive through a hazardous desert obstacle course, without any human intervention. The PBS series NOVA created an informative multimedia explanation for how these cars were able to “see” the terrain -- (What Robots See). This brief introduction to artificial vision captures some of the different areas of focus that this field encompasses. Important sub-topics of artificial vision include edge detection, image segmentation, motion detection, and optical flow. As we will see, representative work in each of these areas is paralleled in Brakhage’s films.

Edge Detection

Edge detection is one of the processes which allow an artificial systems to distinguish objects within a visual scene. Here are a few images representative of the work being conducted in this sub-discipline:

Here we see a sequence from a Brakhage film containing frames that could just have easily been drawn from the pages of the the AI research journals:

edge detection | start: 0:0:4 | end: 0:0:11

The outline of a man, and the graining, fuzzy images of figures in particular resemble the images generated by the edge detection systems.

Image Segmentation

Closely related to edge detection is the sub-topic of image segmentation, that of dividing a visual scene according to its constituent elements. Edge detection may be one of the techniques used as a hint to segment the image, but the system may look for other clues as well, such as composition, shading, and color density.

Brakhage’s films include images which are extremely evocative of these primitive system’s attempts at image segmentation.

These sequences of color swirls and splotches evoke the same processing that the researchers recreate.

greens | start: 00:00:27 | end: 00:00:35

reds | start: 00:00:44 | end: 00:00:54

yellows | start: 00:00:55 | end: 00:1:04

kaleidascope | start: 00:5:38 | end: 00:5:50

blacks | start: 00:1:20 | end: 00:1:35

splotches | start: 00:1:55 | end: 00:2:05

While these clips are not nearly as identical as the images juxtaposed in the earlier example, nontheless, there are frames in these sequences that strongly resemble the researcher's segmentation images, and the two domains seem to be working within the same visual vocabulary. Strong singlar hues, large blocks of color, and dark outlines.

In some respects, the work generated by these segmentation researchers is more faithful, at least in a literal sense, to Brakhage's statement of purpose than his own work. Again, researchers are literally attempting to provide these systems with the man-made rules of perspective and judgment, and their primitive results and large-scale failure to achieve realistic recognition systems is lesson to anyone studying these images from a historical perspective.

Motion Detection

Motion detection is the ability of the automated system to detect the displacement of a particular object over time. This capability depends upon the earlier techniques, as it requires the system to separately represent the discrete objects in the scene. Here we see some images published by researches studying this problem:

And more clips from Brakhage's work exploring similar themes, with similar visual styles:

splotches | start: 00:1:55 | end: 00:2:05

black swirls | start: 00:8:10 | end: 00:8:20

The researchers representations are becoming more abstract as the dimension of time needs to be captured in these static, 2-d images, but the similarities to Brakhage's work are attested to by the swaths of colors, eddies of motion, and chaotic swirls

Optical Flow

Optical flow refers to the ability of the system to maintain the continuity of the scene over time. As the camera or the objects in the scene move the system must preserve an internal representation of each objects persistence and continuity over time.

Again, some of the clips we have already seen

edge detection | start: 0:0:4 | end: 0:0:11

and the large patches of uniform color mirror the images being generated by these researchers. Indeed, we even find a clip with a similar blue and simliar composition to the one the Stanford researchers use to represent camera motion:

blues -> sky -> black | start: 00:3:00 | end: 00:3:30


Finally, Brakhage's use of letters and words in his film hint at the grander goal of Artificial Intelligence, the comprehension of language itself, and by implication, self-awareness.

Brakhage's sparse use of language imparts added significance to the occasions where he does use it. Here

I am here | start: 00:6:34 | end: 00:7:20

the importance of the self, ego, and existential themes are suggested by the prominence of 'I'.

the children | start: 00:8:50 | end: 00:9:10

Likewise, Brakhage's devotion to his family, nature, and humanity is suggested by his selection of the theme 'children'.

AI too has an elaborate history engaging these themes, although it has a long way to go before fulfilling the hubris of its architects. The recreation by man of life, consciosness, and ego is a proposition that Brakhage's work casts reflections and doubt upon. He art reminds us of our origins, our relationship with nature, and the spark of divinity within each of our souls. Can AI make the same claim?


We observe in both Brakhage’s work and the ambitions of Artificial Intelligence an engagement with the nature of consciousness and the self. However, scientists and artists often approach their work with different assumptions and priorities so the juxtaposition of their work could inform each other in substantive ways. Even if the visual and ontological similarities between Brakhage and Artificial Vision were a mere coincidence, the striking convergence could be a useful heuristic in the search for meaning. But Brakhage's writings indicate that the depth of their similarities runs deeper than coincidence. As an artist he was grappling with many of the same fundamental questions that Artificial Intelligence implies, and many cognitive scientists and philosophers of mind obsess over. All are concerned with the nature of self, the essence of consciousness, and the relationship between the subject and object.

Scientists might benefit from the recognition of this convergence. As Sitney remarks, Brakhage’s work represents a "distillation or an intense and complex interior crisis into an orchestration of sights and associations which cohere in a new formal rhetoric of camera movement and montage." (Sitney, 162). As films ranging from Stanley Kubric’s "2001: A Space Odyssey" to Steven Speilberg’s "AI" suggest, the enterprise of science would benefit greatly from an meaningful contemplation of aesthetics, value, and justice in the context of their work. The consequences of scientific research are too influential and significant to neglect considering the critical perspective that Brakhage’s art and writings suggest.

Anyone working in the field of Artificial Vision should watch his films, contend with his struggles, and challenge their own assumptions. Likewise, students of Brakhage should familiarize themselves with the research being conducted so they can see the prescient genius of Brakhage in all of its glory, which may ultimately stimulate a provocative and fruitful discourse between art and science.


Cohen, Jonathan (in Press) "Color, Variation, and the Appeal to Essences: Impasse and Resolution" Philosophical Studies, (

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Hardin, C. L. (2003) “A Spectral Reflectance Doth Not a Color Make,” The Journal of Philosophy 100:4, 191–202.

Kubric, Stanley, (1968) "2001: A Space Odyssey"

Nassau, K. (1980) “The Causes of Color,”

Scientific American 243, 124–154. Reprinted in Byrne and Hilbert (1997c), 3–29.

Tye, M. (2000) Consciousness, Color, and Content, MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts