I’m Trying to Speak with Light”: An Interview with Peter Rose

By Kim Knowles

I first came across the work of Peter Rose some years ago at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. I don’t remember the title or theme of the screening, nor any of the other films that were shown, but towards the end of the program, appeared a film that mesmerized me and would stay in my mind for many months to come: Secondary Currents (1982). In this film, one of Peter Rose’s early language-based works, a disembodied narrator speaking a strange, imaginary dialect tells of being lost between thought and language. A series of typed subtitles appears on an otherwise empty screen, translating the narrator’s incoherent reflections into English but becoming gradually more complex until meaning is literally exploded from the inside. As the printed text descends into abstraction, resembling forms of concrete poetry, so too does the narrator’s speech, signaled first in what seems to be a struggled attempt to express the overly complex sentences, and then a series of gasps, guttural noises and a cacophony of sounds that builds toward a full-blown acoustic performance. Secondary Currents is perhaps one of the most powerful works of Rose’s prolific career as a film, video and performance artist. It expresses many of the key themes that would become central to his later films, namely the desire to explore the limits of language, and to demonstrate the inadequacy of words to effectively translate our experience of the world. By inventing new imaginary languages, Rose was able, in early works such as Secondary Currents, The Pressures of the Text (1983), Digital Speech (1984) and Babel (1987), to examine the nature of the utterance freed from the constraints of established meanings. These concerns continue in Rose’s later video works, which see him seeking out ways to return to a purely visual and sensual contact with the world, before language. I was interested to learn more about the trajectory of his films, from the structuralist aesthetics of Analogies (1977) and The Man Who Could Not See Far Enough (1981) to the fascination with light and the mysteries of vision that permeate the recent work from Omen (2003) to Studies in Transfalumination (2008) and Journey to Q’xtlan (2009).

Kim Knowles: Your work is so dense that trying to find angles from which to tackle it is quite problematic. But one of the questions I’ve always wanted to ask you is how did you become a filmmaker and how did you find a link between that and mathematics?

Peter Rose: When I was in college in 1965, my rather sophisticated parents gave me a subscription to a series of lectures by Slavko Vorkapich at the Museum of Modern Art. Vorkapich, who was originally from Yugoslavia, had been responsible for the montage sequences in many Hollywood films of the 30s and 40s, and he had formulated a rather interesting theoretical position. His argument was that film was a kinesthetic, rather than a narrative, medium, and his analysis dealt with the ways in which film was able to provoke a kinesthetic response in the viewer. I think that one could make the argument that it was kind of a version of semiotics in the sense that he had a very structural understanding of how shots work with each other to constitute a language. It was a very well-attended lecture – in retrospect I learned that quite an impressive roster of people had attended – and some of these talks were subsequently reprinted in Film Culture.

I was studying mathematics at the time and had gotten to a point where I no longer quite knew what I was proving. Algebraic topology was very abstract, and I found that I was losing touch with the tangibility of much of what I was proving – I couldn’t make much sense of it on any visual or formal level. Vorkapich talked about film as having a structural premise, and this seemed to me to suggest that it might serve as a kind of tangible mathematics, so I started thinking about various formal structures that seemed to lend themselves to potential cinematic investigation. I made a short, quasi-narrative, rather adolescent film that played with some of these ideas, left math, and went to Graduate School in Film at San Francisco State University.

Unfortunately, the school wasn’t terribly well disposed towards experimental work at that time (although Scott Bartlett was a luminous presence there then); so, I dropped out and went back to New York. I was introduced to Brakhage's work by a friend, and I came to realize that there was a whole enterprise that seemed to be to be consonant with Vorkapich's thinking and was inspired to begin my own experimentation. I first shot in regular 8mm – loading and reloading those crazy 25-ft. reels – and performed experiments with multiple superimposition and single-frame structures that we would now call ‘structural’. I made a short film called Incantation, which led, inexplicably and fortuitously, to a job teaching film in the Advertising Department at Pratt Institute where, ultimately, Regina Cornwell and Babette Mangolte also taught. Regina was an intimidatingly knowledgable scholar of Michael Snow's work, and Babette, of course, was working with Yvonne Rainer and Chantal Akerman. In that context, then, I was introduced quite thoroughly to the work of the avant-garde. So that's how I got from mathematics to experimental film.

KK: That’s interesting. I hadn’t heard that story.

PR: There are other mathematicians who have worked with film. James Benning was a mathematician. I think Nauman, too, is versed in the subject, and of course Frampton's work has, often, a very mathematical context.

KK: Absolutely. I was thinking about what you’ve said in the past about your films coming out of the structural tradition, and it’s interesting that you mention Brakhage because I read somewhere that you consider yourself as a kind of structuralist, but also with a poetic, lyrical element. So it’s almost like half way between Brakhage and some of the more rigorous filmmakers like Frampton.

PR: The first time I was ever shown publicly was at the Whitney as part of a series of films by West Coast filmmakers. They showed Incantation. I was included, I suppose, because I’d lived briefly on the West Coast, but in some ways it was appropriate because the sensibility of the film was much closer to the poetic visionary traditions one associates with the West Coast, although the film had a structural logic that tied into the East Coast methodology. I’ve always felt somewhat lost between the two cultures – maybe the work seeks some kind of synthesis. Also, I found a good bit of the purely structural work a bit dry and overly cerebral, and I suppose I was trying to find a way of investing the work with something more lyrical, more experiential.

KK: Which I think you do, and even in the text films, like Secondary Currents and Spirit Matters, there’s a kind of embodiment. There’s always an element of your personality that comes through, even though they’re among the few films where you don’t actually appear.

PR: I don’t really appear in most of my work. There’s The Pressures of the Text and Digital Speech ... both of which I think of as performance work, and there's the autobiographical section in The Man Who…, but otherwise I try to keep a low profile.

KK: I think what I was referring to was, like SpiritMatters, where you’re there, but not there, there’s a tension between absence and presence.

PR: Oh, I see what you mean. There is an evident sensibility, a personality behind the work that is not explicitly visible on the screen. You made an interesting point in one of your [unpublished] articles about embodiment. One of the things that I always found short-sighted in a lot of the semiotic, post-structural material (much of which I didn't actually read but rather inhaled, osmotically, through my cultural pores) was the way in which the body seemed to be left out of the equation. It was all very incorporeal and without sensuality or humor, all qualities that I found of importance. So Secondary Currents is very structural in intention but it’s also intended to be, so help me, funny.

KK: Of course it’s very funny!

PR: But that was very unusual at the time! Work with a sense of humor. There’s even a quote from Beckett in there. One of the great comedians....

KK: Really?!

PR: Yes, in the last section of the film, where it starts to disintegrate into typography, there’s a line which reads “given the existence as uttered forth.” That’s a quote from Lucky’s monologue in Waiting for Godot. It somehow seemed appropriate for a film about the dissolution of consciousness and language.

KK: Ah, I didn’t pick up on that.

PR: [laughs]

KK: But what was really interesting about that screening was that it was in France, and I was surrounded by French people ... and I think one of the interesting things about your films is that there’s always this idea of translation, and the idea that it’s not always possible. Obviously Secondary Currents is about that idea of translation breaking down. There’s always this point, whenever I show it to students, where they realize that their effort to find meaning is doomed to failure.

PR: That’s also true, in a different way, of The Pressures of the Text. The video is a record of a performance piece that I've presented in a number of venues, including audiences of college students who often start to take notes! I always watch to see when they realize what I am doing. When is my position of authority as speaker subverted by what I'm speaking? For some it takes considerable time to come to that realization, and I feel both saddened and alarmed by their gullibility. On the other hand audiences of musicians and poets usually pick up on it right away, …

This also brings up a point that Frampton has made, or that people have made about Frampton, that a lot of his films are about teaching you the rules of a game and seeing what can be made within the confines of those rules. Secondary Currents was quite clearly generated this way. Imagine a simultaneous double monologue by the right and left halves of the brain in which legible, cognitive meaning is offered by one, and aural meanings are carried by the other. How many things can you do with these double layers of reading and hearing? The entire film is a riff on the possibilities. The same thing is true of The Pressures of the Text: how many different ways can you work with the idea of translation? You can deal with translations of language into gesture, of language into image, of language into meaning, etc. and in that sense I think there are connections with some of Frampton’s strategies.

KK: SpiritMatters, Secondary Currents and The Pressures of the Text were made when quite a lot of other filmmakers were working with language, visual language, and the idea that text can be the image, rather than simply accompanying it. I’m thinking of Frampton’s Zorn’s Lemma and Michael Snow’s So Is This. But you’re taking it a step further; you’re exploring the visual, concrete nature of the text, which Frampton and Snow aren’t really doing. There’re looking at language, but you’re exploring the visual properties, the concrete properties of language.

PR: Yes, certainly in Secondary Currents, Siren, Babel and SpiritMatters, I'm playing with a kind of concrete poetry. But it’s also the aural, the rhythmic, and the acoustic properties of language I'm interested in, certainly in Secondary Currents. I think one of the motivating factors for a lot of this interest in language was the experience I had had with my previous, intensely visual work. I had made these very difficult twenty-five screen films about time, Study in Diachronic Motion and Analogies, and I had made The man who could not see far enough, which was all about the ecstasies of seeing – but apparently none of it was of value until somebody had talked about it, until somebody had written about it. The currency was not the work itself, but the language used to talk about the work. It gets to Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word.

I saw language itself as a kind of enemy, a reductive force. Even the most intensely visual work had to be translated into language in order for it to have any credibility. I made Secondary Currents as a way of—what’s the phrase—‘bearding the lion in its den’, of going into the territory that seemed to be the problem and seeing what havoc one could wreck with it. But then I realized that language, as is true of cinema, is a constructed medium, and that one can build things with it. All of my subsequent language work was somehow tied to the question: what can you do with this, how does it work, how do we hear it, how do we read it, what can you make out of it.

KK: But I see also what you’re doing as trying to get away from it. You’re exploring language, going headlong into it, but you’re also trying to get beyond it.

PR: Right – there is an ecstatic impulse on some level. But this is also true of the purely visual work. My early films sought to conjure up another mode of vision, to transport us into another dimension where time might be experienced as space. I think this was another form of ecstasy.

KK: If I understand the trajectory of your work correctly, one of the things you’re trying to do is get to an experience that transcends language.

PR: Yes, absolutely. It’s about using language to get beyond language and using language to refer to that which cannot be spoken. There’s that quote from Wittgenstein at the end of The Pressures of the Text: “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”

KK: And I was going to ask you about that. The beginning of Digital Speech always strikes me. You talk about the mental image, and I wondered if that comes from Wittgenstein and his notion of the mental image.

PR: I hadn’t thought of it at all in those terms. You’ve got to understand that I’m not a serious philosopher! I dabble in these things but I’m certainly not a Wittgenstein scholar!

KK: Well neither am I; so, we’re ok!

PR: [laughs] You talked [in an unpublished article] about death in SpiritMatters. I was thinking of it quite literally, not as a metaphor for the medium or anything like that. I was thinking about the idea of perpendicular time. My mother-in-law had just died, and I was wondering about where one ‘goes’, about how to make sense of death on a conceptual level. The usual model for the afterlife is that people continue on in a dimension of time that is parallel to ours. That doesn’t really make sense. It’s much more like a perpendicular departure. There’s a more tragic sense of separation if you think about it that way. They’re going vertically, and you’re going horizontally, and you move incommensurably apart as time proceeds. I was trying to come up with some way of alluding to this idea of perpendicular time, and SpiritMatters is thus very much about the inaccessibility of the actual writing on the film from the perspective of what we see in the screening space. In other words, there’s another dimension that is inaccessible to us unless we go to the projection box and read it while it’s running. So it’s very much about death in a very literal sense, and trying to come up with some metaphor for that transformation.

KK: So you’re using the physical properties of the filmstrip to allude to some of those questions.

PR: Yes.

KK: When I saw ‘perpendicularity’ in SpiritMatters, I immediately thought: “He’s talking about the film itself.”

PR: I am. It’s both. I’m talking about both – how the strip of film as a physical medium is as inaccessible to us whilst watching it on the screen as the afterlife is to us who continue on in a corporeal way. I’ve always been interested in this idea of other dimensions. It comes out of mathematics, and it's also found in much of the science fiction of the 50s, that served as a staple for me at a certain point. I was trying to come up with metaphors for other spatial/temporal dimensions in that work, and that continues to be true of my current work.

KK: I was about to say that your recent work explores new ways of seeing and experiencing. I feel like you’re trying to create another dimension. It’s actually quite frightening watching some of your films!

PR: That’s what people have said. Yes, I've gone from the comic to the horrific. It might have to do with getting older …

KK: And in The man who could not see far enough the darkness is lurking, there’s a strange atmosphere.

PR: Where do you see it in The man who ...?

KK: The eclipse.

PR: Yes, of course.

KK: I find it, obviously, very dark and threatening, and also the walk up the bridge. It’s like a film noir.

PR: How so?

KK: It’s maybe the way I interpret it, but there’s something quite eerie. You have this sense of being in someone’s body, and you see the gloved hand ... there are these film noir motifs. And the music of course. It’s threatening.

PR: It’s actually quite Wagnerian! Yes, that’s all true. And the black glove was quite deliberate, if one can be deliberate about anything while walking on a tightrope 800 ft. in the air ... But you know maybe this has much to do with the connection between beauty and terror. I mean there's Rilke's take on it – beauty being “the beginning of a terror we can still just barely endure.” I've always loved that idea, and I think it explains a good bit of what you call ‘frightening’. But it's more complex even than that. There’s a deliberate ambivalence in a lot of the work, in the sense that I will make something that’s quite dark and foreboding, and there’ll be a little moment where there’s a comic element or there’s something that counterpoints it in a completely apposite way. For example, The man who ... is a very serious film, but the prologue, if you listen to it, is actually quite funny in a very restrained way. And Secondary Currents is very comic at the outset but in the end it becomes quite dark.

KK: And you find yourself laughing, and then suddenly it switches, and you’re not laughing anymore. And you’re always questioning your own response to things. But you’re right that the current works are quite dark and foreboding.

PR: All of my recent work is about darkness, about light and darkness, about journeys into and through an underworld, about nocturnal seeing. And that's because I’ve been feeling that the visible world has been quite thoroughly colonized – by culture, by the act of naming, by history – and that you might be able find some kind of refuge in darkness, in a reduction of light.

KK: There's one moment I really love in Digital Speech. That moment where you're talking about the light not working, and you don't know what the word is for light in Turkish so you come up with ‘electric star’… “The electric star isn't working.” I love that! It made me think of the word games of the Dadas and Surrealists. It's maybe going off on a tangent, but Man Ray and Duchamp put words together, giving rise to new concepts. But then as it turns out, the word for star in the story turns out not to mean star after all. It means finger.

PR: The newest work is filled with captions that play all kinds of word games and that come close at times to a kind of Dadaist poetry. But Digital Speech is really about that old Zen parable about not mistaking the pointing finger for the moon.

KK: Right. I think I was quite interested in the way the word turns out not to mean star, and as you say that you point with your finger towards the light. So for a moment you're tricking the viewer into thinking ...

PR: It's about jumping levels.

KK: Which Digital Speech is very much about visually.

PR: Yes.

KK: Being contained in one world and then simultaneously being outside.

PR: Trying to point to what's outside the frame of reference you're pointing from.

KK: Precisely. And you're doing this thing with language, trying to get beyond language, which we probably can't ever do.

PR: Well, you can allude to what you can't allude to. Douglas Hofstadter has written a marvelous book about the structures in Bach's music and the patterns in Escher's drawing and the work of Kurt Gödel that deals with much of this. Gödel used mathematics to prove that there were things that are true that cannot be proven, that every system of axioms is incomplete. So, there is this tradition in twentieth-century mathematics of using mathematics to point to what mathematics can't prove.

KK: So, you're still interested in using mathematics as a structure for what you're doing?

PR: I have an eye on it and, indeed, some of the recent work revisits the impulse to fabricate higher dimensional experiences. Actually I've just finished reading a book about the complex concept of infinity, and about the disturbing fact that many of the people who made seminal contributions ended up losing their minds.

KK: When you work with video, is there something different about video that makes it closer to where you came from than celluloid?

PR: No, I would take it in a different direction. Video for me, at the outset, was more performative than structural, although now with digital editing I think that's changed. Insofar as video was not so grounded in single frames it didn't encourage structural thinking on my part until recently, so its appeal had nothing to do with math. I was interested then in the spontaneity of video, in its radiance and luminance, in the depth of its sound in relation to film. It had to do more with performance. Certainly The Pressures of the Text and Digital Speech are very performative, and they were my first videos. It's the spontaneity and the live aspect of video that were significant for me.

KK: Your work is always about some element of performance.

PR: I have a bit of a dance background, and that ties in Vorkapich, who was talking about kinesthesia, about the relationship between choreography and cinema. I think of my recent work as having somewhat of a choreographic, performative dimension that is used in service of vision. For example, in a few nights I'll go down to a tunnel I know about that is fairly difficult to get to. I'll bring some of my transfaluminal lights and a camera, and I'll try to find some inspired way of moving around the waterfall deep in the interior of this cave so as to make an image that appeals to me, that reveals something through the felt correlation of my movement with the space.

KK: It's a choreography of light.

PR: Yes. I'm trying to speak with light, to come up with a gestural language with light that somehow leads to seeing something in a new way. And this thing that we see is beyond language. In fact, if you look at Equestriations, the titles are all in punctuation, rather than language.

KK: Where does that come from?

PR: Because I want them to be unnameable. It's quoting from Secondary Currents a little bit, but it's using the marks of language to suggest something that can't be spoken or even read. I think one of my ambitions in the recent work has been to make images that are – I think of them as totems – these things that one is amazed by and perhaps even intimidated by, but that you can't quite name or describe …

KK: I was interested in asking you whether you’d ever consider returning to film.

PR: I don’t think so. I still have my camera, but the way I work these days is that I find interesting locations, events, observations and then I just gather material without any real sense of what I’m going to do with it. It’s a gathering process rather than a compositional process. I don’t sit down and write a script, and I no longer start with a structural premise as I did with some of my earlier work. I find things, and I stumble upon events. I happen to be in the right place at the right time, and I see something, and I have my camera, and I shoot. There’s an improvisatory quality to the way I gather material, and I wouldn't be able to work this way in film.

KK: It’s a chance process.

PR: It’s a chance process; it’s an observational process; it’s very experiential, and there’s a lot of luck involved.

KK: We were talking about structures and systems, and you said that a lot of your work has been and is still about structures …

PR: My early work, especially my multiple image films and videos, were about embedding simple images in complex, dynamic structures. I called it ‘diachronic motion’ – twenty-five images on the screen at once with temporal displacements of various proportions. The recent work starts out about finding visual structures rather than imposing them. There is an immense complexity latent in the most ordinary things if you look at them the right way. That's where transfalumination comes in. It reveals the secret algorithmic logic behind the structure of things – it's quite inspired by the work of Stephen Wolfram, actually. So one level of structure is discovered by finding things to look at a certain way. But then there's another level, which has to do with the way these images are organized. I'm currently working on a massive video project called The Indeserian Tablets. I am inventing a culture – its stories, technologies, sexual practices, social conventions, rituals, and scriptures – using my transfaluminational strategies. So I shoot these things based upon some curiosity about light and three-dimensional form and kinetic gesture and based upon a predilection for certain places, objects, and actions, and then I try to find some larger pseudo-cultural rubric in which to embed them. So each of these transfaluminally structured images end up embodying the elements of a cultural system, but it's all quite intuitive, rather than rule-based.

KK: So it’s a very instinctive process when you’re putting this work together, when you’re sitting in front of your computer and you’re piecing it together. It’s not coming from some pre-defined structure. It’s something that you work through as the process develops.

PR: Yes, for example in Secondary Currents there’s a very simple structural idea there, which is that there are two voices operating in different modalities, and we encounter all the different relationships you can find between them. Journey to Q'xtlan has no such simple structural premise underlying it. I just happened to find ways of working with images and found ways of stringing them together, and I found sounds that I thought worked with them, and it was all very intuitive. If I were to do the same piece again it would end up being totally different because there was no path that I followed that had to lead in any particular direction

KK: But there was a recent video installation, Pneumenon, that’s more structural; there’s a system.

PR: True. That has a structural premise – it's all about illusion and reality; about projective geometry; Plato's Cave; dimensional thinking, etc., but when I shot it, I had no idea of what I was going to do with it. I just was intrigued by the way these patterns of light fell on the tarp and the way the wind lofted it, exposing the landscape behind. So yes, you’re right, that’s got a simple philosophical and metaphysical premise underpinning it, and it’s got a structural premise. But the process of making it was still quite fortuitous.

KK: Odysseus in Ithaca is also structural. It reminds me of The man who …

PR: Yes, it’s like the triptych in The man who … But then so is The Geosophist's Tears. They all play with reorganizations of space and time and they are all, oddly enough, laments.

KK: There’s also an early film of yours that in a way looks ahead to what you’re doing currently: Incantation.

PR: Yes, there are many connections with current work in that it's about restructuring vision, about an ecstatic state, about single-frame shooting as a kind of performance, and about the tree as totem

KK: It’s a beautiful film. But don't you miss that feeling of holding the filmstrip in your hands?

PR: Not especially. I don't have any nostalgia for that particular form of matter. But I see my work as very nostalgic in a different way in that I’m celebrating some experience I’ve had of the physical world. It’s mediated by light and by video, but I’m committed to making work that arises from some kind of tangible, primary experience, in contradistinction to making work that arises from or is about virtuality. I think this is a nostalgic, a romantic stance, as opposed to working with media about media, which would be a very contemporary stance.

KK: Are you influenced in any way by people working with film in a materialist fashion? Or in any fashion?

PR: Well, actually the person I’ve been most impressed by recently is Ken Jacobs, and his recent performative work, the Nervous Magic Lantern series, where he’s just working with light and with mundane objects which are transformed by some alchemical projection process into pure vision. Those performances have been one of the most inspiring things I've seen – it's just light and a lens.

KK: Your own work exists at the boundary between performance and filmmaking, bringing performance together with a kind of intense visual exploration.

PR: Yes, I want there to be something experiential about the making of the work. I’ve never been very comfortable with the idea – as is the case with most narrative and feature film production – that you have to have this whole pre-planned concept and that you have to go through a budgeting stage and that the process of making work is this huge, highly articulated industrial production. I’ve always wanted the act of making the work to have some experiential valence that was satisfying unto itself, separate from the product that came out of it. For me, making work is very much a lived experience, and it’s part of how I structure my life. It’s not about long-term projects, whose realization is likely to be three years from now; it’s about going out and shooting something and having a revelatory experience, while hoping that the image that results can be sublimated into something arresting.

KK: I was also thinking that you put so much of your own experience and your own thoughts about life and representation and language into your work. Your films are almost like a trajectory, or a development, of your thought process over the years.

PR: They’re diaries, but not in any overt sense. They’re records of the stages that I’ve gone through in my encounters with the world I’m living in.

Many of the works cited in this interview are available on-line. Secondary Currents, The Pressures of the Text, SpiritMatters, Babel and all of the other language work are accessible at www.ubu.com. The more recent work is accessible at youtube under "esorp" and at vimeo under "peter rose." Rose's website is www.peterrosepicture.com.