Reflections on Paul Sharits frozen film frames

On the bus ride back to Boston this past Monday I kept thinking about the Images of an Infinite Film exhibition I saw at MoMA (on view through March 2, 2014). I loved how Paul Sharits’s Untitled, from his Frozen Film Frame series (c. 1971–76) brings into sharp relief the physicality of film. Each frame invites the viewer to imagine how it could unfold as part of a stream of images, but can’t, as they are encapsulated in plexiglass. This is a structural film re-contextualized as a floating frame of frames to be contemplated as a suspended object which, in spite of being frozen, can still evoke a film that we play in our private cinema of the imagination, with infinite variations. As digital imaging continues to encroach on films territory as a means of conjuring the cinematic imaginary, objects like this remind me of the stark difference of each medium, and yet, the protean nature of computational media makes its ultimate dominance inevitable, yet in this time of transition we yearn to touch not only our tools but the physical support upon which we make our inscriptions. Perhaps this longing will lead us to develop better tools to interface between our senses, gestures, and digital representations.


The problem, as I see it, is not with computational media itself. I don’t pine to return to acetate film, emulsions, flatbeds, synchronizers, split-reels, rewinders, cores, scratches, sprocket tears, splicers, tape, grease pencils, optical printers, laboratory procedures, projectors, film cans, loading magazines, etc. I embrace computational media and its possibilities, and remind myself that cinema as a tradition will transcend its silver-halide imaging technology origins and is being re-imagined in many hybrid forms.  Each generation discovers the potential of a “new” medium, starting around 1895 and through the 1960s film held a special place as the preeminent moving image technology, and then it was challenged during a brief detour into the electronics of analog video that brought with it complicated and temperamental machines with which a new generation of artists made sense of the newly-available real-time and electronic signal processing potential of the medium, and yet, for many years film and video co-existed each with its own special qualities, it’s not until recently that film has been seriously challenged.

Now, for media makers working in the new millennium, we are making sense of an entirely new matrix: computation as the “new” medium and data as the “new” material,  which takes me back to the nostalgia and ambivalence experienced as I spent time contemplating Paul Sharits’ frozen frames at MoMA, those frames did not require any device besides our own senses to read them. The beauty of film is that the material support is directly readable. But that’s also a limitation, it remains frozen once created, except for the scratches the projector contributes and the fading of the dyes. In theory, a digital representation can exist forever and is infinitely malleable, we are now challenged with making sense of the infinite synthesis and transformation of moving images inscribed in digital material and  the “Images of an Infinite Film” exhibit gave me time to contemplate this, as the frozen frames shared the gallery space with moving image works working their way through infinite loop projectors, with the clickity-klackity purr of the projectors reverberating within the space.

For more about Paul Sharits, see: