What was the inspiration behind The Flicker?
There are really three roots to the answer. I suppose that the first inkling of any sort was through the fact that while I was in college I took an elective course that was called... Um, can't remember the name of it. It was a course in neurophysiology, and neuroanatomy, and one of the parameters of the course was studies that dealt with CFF, Flicker Fusion Frequency or Critical Flicker Frequency. This was, I guess, around 1959, and so this was an area of experimental psychology that was active. The course included things like intra -cranial self stimulation and Critical Fusion Frequency as parameters for the investigation of central nervous system events and activity. So, at the time, for me as a college student, this was largely an abstraction.
Then a couple of years later, in a context that was as different from that as any that can be imagined, I was living at New York in an apartment which at the time I shared with Jack Smith, the filmmaker of Flaming Creatures, which was a film that I worked on, and Jack had cultivated a coterie of superstars, in quotes with a capital S. In fact, he was the person who invented the idea of an underground superstar and brought it to Andy Warhol who later made the whole notion part of his panorama of film concepts and so-forth. But, in this environment of Superstardom, ah, among the Superstars a couple of them dropped by regularly, or lived nearby, and in particular Mario Montez, who lived one flight down in the slum, in a fantastically, elaborately, a self-designer appointed aqua and blue and gold apartment (laughter)... Yeah, Mario came over one evening and was in drag and Jack became overstimulated and dimmed the lights and put on some funky, or should I say moldy, records, and in a frantic and desperate effort to put Mario on the silver screen, grabbed an antiquated projector, a 16 mm projector which he had found somewhere and pointed the pathetic instrument at Mario, to glimmer in the lamp of the machine. At this point I have to add that the projector I'm talking about was non-functional. It was a silent film projector, it had no lens, and about all it did have was variable speed. And it turned out it flickered and flashed. I thought to myself, I wonder if this flickering light could be anything like I studied in school, and turned the control for the frame rate down to as low as it would go, and to everyone's astonishment, Mario's sequins began to glimmer and shake in the shimmering light, and every highlight of the lipstick and makeup began to become unreal, and everything glowed with an unearthly ambiance. This particular event and moment happened to be recorded because at the time I was taping a lot of these evenings, and is in fact released on a tape of such recordings that I assembled and put out through Table of the Elements on my Audio ArtKive label about two years ago. The cut, I think is called Rene and the flickering jewel.
This moment was taped, and on the recording we hear Jack Smith gasping in pleasure. So this was indeed interesting and astonishing, to find the tools of cinema brought the experience of flicker within reach of some kind of practice. It was pretty natural at that point for me, and I guess conceivably for Jack, to think how wonderful it would be to find that it might be possible to incorporate this kind of visual experience into a later film of some kind.
I began to wonder at that point also what kind of relationship there might be between the sort of subjective psychological, let's say even phenomenological conditions of flicker, which as I understood it had something to do with alterations of the actual functioning of the brain on the one hand. Then on the other hand understandings of narrative, storytelling, linguistic and visual, more complex linguistic and visual activity, speaking in a subjective framework. Basically what sort of things might happen if one were to combine images and flicker in one place. This seemed like a very novel approach to me. I found this extremely interesting to ponder, and the more I thought about it the more I realized it might be a good idea to generalize the whole technology by construction a set of film masks that could be used with other material to cause it to flicker. Basically the idea would be to turn off frames in some regular, organized sequence, so that only some of the frames would be projected. In order to do that, it should be possible to basically make a film out of the sequences of film out of the sequences of frames that one would select to do that, and then use that film as a mask or bipack element as it would be technically called, in order to alter the frame's narrative context, within some kind of subjective phenomenological 'altered state.'
This was probably the earliest form of inspiration for heading into the project. However, it happened that also at this time I was involved with a music performance group which was exploring a kind of sound production which generated the kind of music that we now call minimal music, very early in terms of that sort of thing. Which is to say that the more well-known sounds of Phil Glass and Steve Reich really emerged a little later, and this was really more of a continuous sound environment that actually is somewhat closer to the sort of interest in minimal sound of the late 90s and the last few years, than the work of Glass or Reich. So this was an influential situation, although at the time we were just getting started with it. The key to the practices in this group, which included me, John Cale, La Monte Young, Marian Zezeela, and Angus MacLise , for the most part . The key to it turned out to be an understanding of musical pitch in terms of frequency ratios, and the whole idea of harmonic structure in music, which goes directly back to the time of Pythagoras, and is thus one of the most enduring principles of the entire western cultural panorama, is somewhat problematic in that this number relationship that obtains between pitch and consonance , doesn't seem to pop up in other fields of experience. It seems that it's possible to structure music according to some kind of arithmetical principles. If you look for a comparable way of understanding experience in visual terms, or in terms of touch, taste or other modalities, you just have a lot of trouble locating anything that makes sense. I was spending a lot of time on this and it occurred to me along the way that flickering light was one of the very few frequency - dependent modalities in the whole human sensorium, and the question occurred to me was whether there might be harmonic structures that would obtain within a range of experiences which are afforded by flickering light.
Well, it's central to the way in which harmonic structures function in sound that the band of frequencies that one can hear extends over the range of several octaves. In fact, people can hear pitches over about 10 octaves, a range of about 10 octaves.... So the chances of there being any kind of harmonic expression in flicker seemed to me pretty slim, because flicker really ranges from, well possibly as low as four flashes per second, if you really stretch it, up to forty, let's say. So that is about a range of 10 to one, not a thousand to one, and ten to one is more like a three octave range, so since you need at the very, very minimum two octaves in order to produce coherent harmonic interactions, it seemed just vaguely possible that one might find some sort of harmonic experience in a frequency spectrum that would be up to three octaves wide. At the time, of course, there was no video, which is a
Maybe I would really blow people's brains right out the back of their head. I didn't know. I was concerned, lest there be some kind of untoward outcome. Consequently I consulted with Beverly's mentor, Sandor Rado, who was a very prominent psychoanalyst, who was president of the Manhattan State Hospital, and president at one time of the American Psychiatric Association, who had been a student of Freud, and who was responsible for spiriting some of Freud's papers out of Europe during the Nazi era. Quite a remarkable guy, extremely smart and widely informed. Speaking with Sandor was very helpful, because as it turned out he recalled having actually used flicker himself in the treatment of what was called shell shock during the First World War, when he did some battlefield medical, psychological treatment to soldiers who had I guess what we would now call post traumatic stress syndrome, and he treated some of these people with flicker, successfully, and he was able to attest to the breadth of application and effectiveness of this tool. In part, through his recommendation , I contacted the American Epilepsy Association, and was referred to a doctor who was the chief at the time in New York, I forget at which hospital now. Anyway, I spoke to this doctor, and he had clinical experience with flicker-induced seizures. I told him that I was concerned about this and thought that perhaps I should put a warning or notice at the beginning of my film to alert people who had epilepsy, photogenic epilepsy, that there might be trouble ahead. He was able to fill me in on the statistics, and let me know that the danger would be greatest for the one in 15,000 people who actually suffered from photogenic epilepsy, although he also mentioned that it was maybe five times more common among children, and then he mentioned that in his clinical experience there were at least as many, or perhaps more people who showed up wishing to have epilepsy than actually did have clinical cases, and that this was something that happened because epilepsy has always been perceived since the time of Caesar , or seizure as we call him, as a rather romantic and somewhat harmless but quaintly disabling disease, a romantic disorder of some sort . And he suggested that it might be a good idea not to use the disclaimer or warning because I would probably get more seizures from having the warning, than from anything else. I toyed with the idea of just making a film out of the warning, to see if I could get anybody to have seizures. But to tell you the truth, I never did have people complain about epileptic seizures without cause, and in the whole life of the film to date, I've only heard of one case where someone did have a seizure. I don't remember the circumstances and never heard who it was. But it was reported to me at one time that there had been a screening where someone did suffer a seizure.
On the other hand , the first public screening took place at the Filmmakers Cinematheque , an underground film, alternative cinema that at the time was located on 41 st Street in Manhattan, in 1966. I was back at the theatre some days later, and the guy who ran the theatre told me he had had a horrible horrible headache after seeing my film that had persisted for days, and that he had then consulted a doctor and it had been determined that he had a condition called photogenic migraine, which astonished me, and gave me some reason for concern. And in fact, photogenic migraine has turned out to be the main problem with the film, if you can speak of such a thing, in that perhaps, oh, as many as half a dozen people, have had the experience of a photogenic migraine after seeing the film.
This gave me some reason to question my responsibility and possible exposure, but thinking about it, I realized that for people who perhaps had latent photogenic disorders, that might be brought to the surface by their experience of watching The Flicker, it could be that this would be a valuable diagnostic situation for them. It might be far better for them to discover this condition in the context of the safe experience of a movie theatre, than to discover the problem while they are driving past a row of trees, or while swimming, or otherwise, where there might actually be even a life threatening situation that could develop.
That's the hell, right? Huxley said there is a heaven but there is also a hell, but of the people who experienced it would there not have been a larger proportion who would have had positive effects from The Flicker?
During the first year that the film came out it drew quite a bit of attention, for two reasons I think. One because it was a heck of a good movie, which was the reason that I had finally felt that I had wanted to make it. I had felt that my own experience with flicker was a transporting experience in the way that movies affect the imagination at their best by sweeping one away from reality into a completely different psychic environment. Especially when I was younger, as a teenager, my experience with movies was extraordinarily rich in the way that they transported me to some other place and time. I remember coming blinking out of the theatre into the sun and awakening from the trance, of the film, a kind of narrativity trance, which can be very strong, and which as a kind of altered reality has an immense attractiveness as people sometimes find drugs do. So there is a relationship there that is problematically involved with escape and all which that entails. My youthful interest in science fiction was always somewhat compromised by the way that science fiction books seemed to back off from the most extreme phenomenological problems and by and large to focus on standard narrative conventions like fighting and shooting, or murders or love, or some kind of human interaction, so that often the science fiction escape setting resolved itself into a very pedestrian everyday kind of story that was simply disguised by the stage trappings, and I did think of The Flicker as a kind of science fiction movie at its best in which one experienced the full impact of narrative transport, but rather than being transported to some sort of planet that in the end really just looked like Earth, with The Flicker you did become transported to a different planet which was entirely abstract, a parallel universe that was structured in a way uncannily different from everything else. This idea of The Flicker as a movie, rather than a formal art piece, was very important to me, and the fact that it sustained in that way, in other words that one went to this as a film and saw things that were weird and became transported to some other space, this gratified me tremendously, and attested to the fact that the film would really function as a film. And, because of course, in this particular respect, it didn't entail any kind of period trappings, like it didn't have actors who looked like they were sixties people, it could survive. So it had a kind of timelessness about it, in that respect.
Now there was another way in which, of course, it was time-bound, and that was the way in which it was interpreted as an extremely effective high modernist art work, and so, since other filmmakers were making films at the time that dealt with structure as a foregrounded principle, and this seemed to be built around mathematical principles, it was adopted as a kind of flagship film for the structural film movement, where it dealt with abstract light-organizing ideas. I felt a little awkward about that, because first of all the film, although it was arithmetically conceived in its relation to harmonic structure, it wasn't a mathematical film. Although it had a simple sort of structural design, I saw this as sort of like a way of leading in and out of the trance space of the narrative, rather than being a structural feature. This was a part of the narrative design of the scenes in the film.
One other thing about this sort of reception of the film that I think is worth mentioning was the fact that after I was done, of course, Sandor Rado came to the film, and I talked to him about what it was like for him, and he said for him the most notable thing was what happened to the audience, that in his perception that the space around him, and the people in the audience became uncannily frozen. He brought my attention to this. It was something that I immediately confirmed for myself. The next time I watched the film I watched the audience. What it did to the audience was in fact extremely interesting and curious, and is nothing that I can properly describe to you, because of the way that it had some relation to the phenomenological flicker situation, that kind of bizarre visual quality, and then also had simultaneously to do with the fact that the audience that I viewed and myself both were projected into a trance-like situation. People were frozen, looked frozen, and looked uncanny all in one sweep. The space, the look of the screen and all of these things become very, very strange with the film.
Were there specific hallucinatory images that were reported to you by viewers?
During the first year, the film got some pretty wide attention, and I was approached by a student at NYU, Jetta Bernier, who was interested in psychology and was working in film, and it was her idea to actually take the film, to use the film in an experimental context. She got NYU to actually buy a print from me, and we took the titles off, and she used it in a test situation, where she got viewers to come in and watch the film and then fill in a whole questionnaire about what happened. She then wrote this whole thing up as a kind of study. I think she was an undergraduate at that time, but it was pretty competently done in some ways. Her results were formulated in terms of how correlations emerged among the different perceptual anomalies that she discerned in her viewership. There were parameters that she was interested in, such as whether people saw colours or shapes or objects, and if so what they were. How many they saw. And what their feelings were about the film, and about the experience of watching the film, how comfortable they were, whether they felt anxious. She also made notes of age, and so forth.
Was that published?
Not published to my knowledge. Some of her findings were anecdotal , and some of her findings were correlative among the different parameters. She found for example that younger people tended to be more relaxed, they tended to see more stuff and have a better experience. The older people tended to be more uptight, which was part, of course, of the sixties vernacular, and people who were anxious or intimidated by the situation or unprepared to relax in the context of the showing, reported seeing less in the way of colours and objects and so forth, and had a less positive or even negative experience. The more colours people reported having seen , the more positive their experience. The top correlative that she had was with the numbers of colours that people saw. As far as the things that they saw, or hallucinated, she reported that probably the most common were numbers and letters and then single objects or beings like insects, that sort of thing. A lot of people reported seeing spinning circles of colour, patterns, abstract patterns, often in motion or rotating. A few people saw more complex things than simple objects. One or two even reported having seen complex scenes, wagons and western scenes, a whole action sequence.
Were you aware of the work that Grey Walter had done?
I can't remember if my readings in that course were from Grey Walter's book, The Living Brain, I think maybe that was a part of the readings for that course.
Where was the course at?
Harvard. There was a Dr. Pierce that taught that. It was a young guy who I remember as being very energetic from the boring old farts that I usually had up there at that miserable haunted house, haunted by veritas.
How old were you when the film came out?
Well I guess I would have been 26.
Were you familiar with Brion Gysin?
When I was playing around with this whole thing, even early when I was toying around with the lensless projector, somebody who came by mentioned that there was this fellow named Brion Gysin who had made this Dream Machine, and so forth, but I never had contact with him or it and never knew very much about it. He was a little older and inhabited a slightly different scene at the time.
Have you ever seen a Dream Machine?
People told me it was based on a kind of phonograph, turntable situation, which I thought sounded just great because I very much like the way that the whole technology had a kind of daunting aura yet at the same time arose from the simplest and most easily constructed materials and mechanisms. I did have contact with the epilepsy association and as I learned children who are epileptic, because the seizures can be fun, they sometimes will go outdoors and look up at the sun and then just wave their hand in front of their eyes and this will take them into a trance. It's that simple.
Interview conducted 28 February, 2002 with Tony Conrad, by telephone from New York State University at Buffalo.