Cult Beat artist Wallace Berman (1926–1976) made one film in the course of his life. Untitled (Aleph), which runs in its existing form at about eight minutes, combines recordings of Berman, his family and friends; heterogeneous images from pop culture and the Kaballah, unaltered from their original media; reproductions of his artwork, which used an early copy machine called a Verifax to re-contextualize found media. Berman charred, glued, and generally abused the filmstock. He colored both sides of the 8-mm filmstock, and ran text, in English and Hebrew, into and over the images. By the account of the artist’s son, Tosh, Berman edited the film by running the fragile, manipulated film through an equally fragile projector, sending the weakest links into flames as he re-spliced on the spot.
Berman’s film links Bruce Conner’s effervescent, collage-like early films, and Stan Brakhage’s experiments in material film-making (It is Brakhage who ntoed the importance of Aleph, and preserved it). Berman’s film-making stands at a critical juncture between figuration and abstraction, but also performance and document. Though his output is not preserved as 16-mm limited edition DVD, at the time of production the film was at the point of constant entropy, and constant manipulation by both its author, and chance. Berman stored the charred outtakes from his risky editing in a cigar box; those are now compiled and available for viewing at Anthology Film Archives.
There’s also a grand point to make about art and life, which is where Berman begins to look messianic, and where the recent resurrection of his artwork has often taken him. Berman had all the markings of a counter-culture superstar: his dress; his circulation (mostly) outside of a gallery context; his affiliation with child actors and his place on Peter Blake’s cover for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; his conflation of formal strategies and religious symbols; his death on the occasion of his 50th birthday. So it’s difficult to address the work without psychedelic-tinted glasses. Earlier this month, New York-based musician Tom Carter was commissioned by artist Meredyth Sparks to score a film as part of her screening series at the X Inititative. Carter has performed publicly since 2001, and has recently improvised in an art context, in response to visual material. He also runs a record label, Wholly Other, and has released over a dozen solo albums featuring his improvised guitar work. Carter chose to score Berman’s Aleph, a film he’d never seen before, and looped the eight-minute film three times. He alternately watched the film and the crowd, playing his electric guitar in repeated chords that grew to a slow climax, and cracked violently when the film finalluy concluded. It was a personal encounter with an artist whose stories move in contradictory directions. We ask him about the nature of that encounter.
ALEX GARTENFELD: Why did you think to score Wallace Berman’s Aleph? It’s quite difficult to approach, given that it is temporary by its nature, and has been transformed in the process of its preservation.
TOM CARTER: When Meredyth approached me to participate in the screening, I first thought of Wallace Berman. I hadn’t seen the film, although I know the rest of his work. I knew that the only movie of his was essentially a home movie.
GARTENFELD: So you’d read about the films, but had never seen them before the performance?
CARTER: Well I had been into Berman’s work for a while. I first came across a book about Wallace, Support the Revolution, by Eduardo Lipschutz-Villa, which is now and was then out of print. I came across a big stack of remainders at the bookstore I worked at, and I bought the whole stack. But to your question: I had never seen the film at all. I just knew it was out there, and that it’s recently on DVD. The performance was the first time I had ever seen it. I debated tracking down a copy and watching it before the performance, but I ultimately decided not to.
GARTENFELD: Is that typical of your practice, that you improvise by ensuring a completely spontaneous response to a film?
CARTER: No, I haven’t done that before at all. I haven’t improvised from visual material, either. Improvisation is what I usually do, and I try to tailor the improvisation to whatever limitations I’m working with, like if I know the performance has to be a certain length. A lot of times I’ll just gauge the mood of the room, and the evening.
GARTENFELD: During the course of the performance, what was it your responded to?
CARTER: Well going into it, I was of course aware of Berman’s interest in the Kabbalah—and of course his cabalistic behavior with his friends, and his unique outlook. I knew the film was about eight minutes long and I decided to loop it three times. Naturally, there were going to be three eight-minute sections. But the film was much more visceral than I had anticipated. My original thought—knowing Stan Brakhage’s feeligns for the work—were that it would be static.
GARTENFELD: But the defining characteristic of the performance ended up being a crescendo.
CARTER: It was, which I had not expected. I got swept up in a number of the elements of the film, particularly the quick cuts and the imagery as well and the static. It kept building and building. Aleph is a home movie, so I clearly expected it to be very personal. But I didn’t really expect the pervasiveness of contemporary collage elements. I was surprised when celebrities came up on the screen. And the super explicit musical reference were funny, and mor playful. Berman would use footage of his family playing around, eating berries, and it would cut so quickly to the Byrds performing. It was a really funny was to soundtrack a Bohemian family.
GARTENFELD: How would you classify that if you had to?
CARTER: I guess improvised psychedelic looping music. Although the word loop is such a dirty word for me.
I use it when I have samples that I play and lay a track on top of that. But I think as a term and as a strategy, “loops” are viewed as a crutch by a lot of people. But I try and use it in ways that are maybe a little less obvious.
GARTENFELD: Were there any qualities of appropriated imagery or pop imagery in the Wallace Berman film that you really connected to?
CARTER: I relate to all of it. I’m not old enough to have experienced that type of counter-cultural approach to pop culture directly, but I feel a great connection to that way of thinking. Of course, some of the images lose meaning and I don’t feel a connection to them. As a slice of life, or a cross section of Beatnik and post-Beatnik culture, I find it fascinating. But I don’t want to put too much emphasis on the cultural movement aspect. What I find really appealing about Berman is that he came to be more about rejecting fame and about making your artwork. He had a community instinct.
GARTENFELD: Is that something you feel nostalgic for, or for which the parameters have changed?
CARTER: I think it exists all over the place, in different cells and different parts of the country. It’s very different now, because everything is sort of fragmented and specialized. It’s kind of micro-tasks.
GARTENFELD: Working on a performance like this, you’re moving between two fairly distinct contexts, in art and music. Or do you situate yourself in one?
CARTER: If anything I’m a musician, I’m an improvising musician. I show up and play.