On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton
£25.95, ISBN 978-0-262-06276-3 http://mitpress.mit.edu
This is a handsome, hefty, bag-sized book perfect for braining would be muggers or, should mere words fail you, the more obnoxious breed of gallery pontificator. If that sounds like a misappropriation of Bruce Jenkins’ comprehensive, if not exhaustive anthology of Hollis Frampton’s writings, then it pays to remember that Frampton saw no necessary contradiction between physical acts and more cerebral process. As he points out in this book, the word cerebrum is derived from the word for ‘to beget’, and the gonad and the brain could visually, be taken for non-identical twins.
Frampton regarded language and image (with under and over tones of violence) as both co-dependent and antagonistic, constantly ‘trespassing in each other’s house’. Words ‘have spatial and plastic qualities, along with their sonorous and associative properties’, and in language, and poetry, he disparaged easy distinctions between the ‘verbal and the plastic’. When he wrote of his friend Carl Andre ‘his studio was his mind, so to speak’ he also wrote of himself.
So it is perhaps entirely proper that this book of his collected letters, scripts, interviews, essays and production notes produced between 1965 and 1983 should be both immersive and highly dangerous when dropped from a great height. Bruce Jenkins’ selections gives his subject 300 pages, concentrating mostly (as you would expect) on Frampton’s contributions to photography and film theory but including other, odder pieces that formed part of artworks or stand alone as excursions into both literary and word-based art, such as the loopy equations imbedded in ‘Mind Over Matter’, or the grammar-as art of ‘By Any Other Name’.
To those of us living in 29AB (après Barthes) where distinctions between ‘critical’ and ‘creative’ writing are increasingly blurred, Frampton can seem very current—you could say, ‘one of us’. But, as Jenkins points out in his considered and perceptive introduction, the ornate, densely allusive Frampton remains a transitional figure, freighted with Buneul’s grand pianos, dependent on Dante, Herodotus and Beckett as descriptive and conceptual frames of reference. Though refined, he can also be savage, especially on his own disciplines. The photographer is a ‘carnivorous perpetrator, slicing raw artefacts from the raw optical continuum’, while in ‘A Pentagram for Conjuring the Narrative’ his affinity with both Beckett and Rabelais combine to caricature the vacancy of many filmmakers:
By the time he reaches maturity, he is totally sedentary and reclusive, monstrously obese (from subsisting on an exclusive diet of buttered popcorn), decidedly homosexual by inclination (though masturbation is his only activity), hyperopic, pallid. He no longer speaks, except to shout “FOCUS!”
But Frampton is more than just a negative force. He puts forward concrete proposals to improve video technology and initiated a number of serious and important debates on ‘the camera arts’. If he does so in a highly Patrician tone that cares not a fig whether or not you get his classical references or understand his comparisons between sculpture and scientific taxonomies, then it pays to remember his sense of mission to develop theory that helped, rather than hindered practice. In ‘Incisions in History’ he writes: ‘The Trouble with practically everything, seen from a rigorously inquisitive point of view is this; no-one was there at the beginning to take notes on the proceedings.’
He notes elsewhere that the arena of language is ‘that of power’, a political maxim battered out on a typewriter shared in turn with Andre as they created ‘12 Dialogues’, an extended argument in time and space over the nature of art. Frampton’s writing and art run together seamlessly, a truth restored to us in this important, landmark—and dangerously thick—book.
Mitch Miller is a writer based in Glasgow