The mass media constitute an environment, like it or not, said filmmaker Aldo Tambellini. He had dropped by the Summer Institute on the Media Arts (SIMA), held annually on the Hampshire College campus in Amherst, Mass., to see how things were going for his former student Sonja Ellington Gillespie. She is now director of the institute, which gives a unique course in computer graphics.
"Whatever we do in society ends up in media form and we exchange it," he noted. "It has to be discussed not just as something for the masses and of low quality, but as art, which has always had an effect. Then we realize all the complexity of television. Art and science are interacting through the media."
So much for the two cultures! "I see television as a ritual," Tambellini continued. "People devote themselves to it at certain times every day." And people come to SIMA to find out what this ritual is and how it works, maybe to start a new career in it, or to provoke thought on the nature of our looking-glass world, which includes cinema, too.
Vlada Petric, a Yugoslav who holds the first PhD in film studies (from New York University), was teaching a course called "Film and Dreams." He has developed a special "analector" projector which can stop at any film frame or go back and forth, without burning up the film. With it, he can analyze a film such as Jean Cocteau's "Blood of a Poet" frame by frame just the way one can analyze a literary work line by line to see how it is put together, what devices lead to what effects, and whether they do in fact work.
As Petric projected Cocteau's film, observers here saw how the artist achieved his surrealism, his theatrical or cinematic effects, his symbolism, and where it didn't quite come off. It was like probing last night's dream and trying to figure out what it meant.
But Keiko Tsuno, a video editor from Japan who runs the Downtown Community TV Center in New York with her husband Jon Alpert, went after real-life situations. She showed her prizewinning videotape "Third Avenue: Only the Strong Survive," revealing the dream- and even nightmare-like nature of some New York reality. She learned how to use video the hard way, by disguising herself as a boy and her portapak video camera as a shopping cart to record life on the city streets. This year she shared her hard-won knowledge with students learning to edit video.
Bill Parker, a physicist-artist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, presented an evening program using the Novabeam. He had this to say: "We're allm students. The participants bring as much as anyone, and their age varies from 17 to 70." For his lecture on the physical process of vision, Parker brought along some of his own experiments in the ultimate medium, light itself. One is a globe containing several gases which, when electrified, produce colored light in moving patterns. These pasmoids look a bit like an octopus. They flash lightning together in a tank, and when you put your hand on the glass the "lightning" and the "octopus" come to your finger tips. A wizard globe!
Is that art? Juan Downey isn't so sure. A Chilean, he is now working in New York on a videotape entitled "Through the Looking Glass," in which he explores philosophical and metaphysical implications of mirrors in art. The project was sparked by his own experience of feeling himself incorporated into the space depicted in Velazquez's "Las Meninas" while he looked at it hanging in Madrid's Prado Museum. In that painting Velazquez uses a mirror as a device to attract attention to the whole idea of reflection, in both the physical and the mental sense.
"To me," Downey says of his own work as well as Velazquez's, "it is about how you deliver ideas. It is a discourse in terms of mirrors." About art in general he says, "It lifts consciousness to a higher level.
Because he feels there is resistance to accepting American contemporary life as culture. Downey put his class to work doing brief autobiographical studies (self-reflective, he calls them) to discover their own culture. One student spoke for the others, who were making videotapes for the first time, saying, "It's another dynamic than just straight learning how to run a camera. The question is there all the time: Why do it? The answer is, it's about consciousness, stimulating it, believing it can open and grow."
Downey added: "In analyzing the tapes we are constantly asking what does the shot signify? How does it signify? In that sense we are dealing with spiritual values." And for him that is what art is all about, or video, for that matter. "By looking at different cultures we are always trying to look for the underpinning behind all those," he says. "What do they all share? The fact of being human."
And that is what Russell Peters, a Mashpee Indian, and Christine Choy, a Chinese-American, were trying to get across with their documentaries on problems of minority groups in this country. "Perhaps we should redefine the cross-cultural definition of America as that we recognize each other's difference and respect each other's difference, that the histories and that cultures are able to coexist," Christine Choy suggests. "We have no longer to receive the idea, the illusion, that we are living in a melting pot or total assimilation.
Andrea West, who is confined to a wheelchair, came to SIMA on a scholarship. She was recommended by the newspaper Equal Times, because of her radio show at WMBR (Boston) on issues for handicapped people. Her aim is to release the handicapped from confinements, to open new doors for them. She was excited about the prospects of working with a portapak, which she discovered she could mount on her wheelchair. She had found a new tool that extends her till I master it," she confided.
Participants in the institute see it as a good meeting place for those in various disciplines. It provides new opportunities, new tools to use, new ways of thinking.
Jan Crocker, technical director of SIMA and director of the University Film Study Center in Cambridge, Mass., puts it succinctly. "It's important to be able to discover here the different ways you can do things. That's probably the most salient characteristic of the people here -- discovery. They find what tools get the job done best and they also find new ways of going about doing it. That's always exciting."
The institute is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Lincoln, Mass. It is accredited by the Massachusetts College of Art and Hampshire College and offers a three-week session each year. Funding comes from a National Endowment for the Arts grant, which, despite growing need and because of endowment budget cuts, was reduced this year from $10,000 to $5,000. Hampshire College provides room and board, labs, and classrooms to each student for a fee.