2011 – Attention: Light!

The film of Paul Sharits, completed by Josef Robakowski and Wieslaw Michalak

Filmmaker Paul Sharits (1943-1993) was one of the media artists and scholars who helped bring the Center for Media Study at the State University of New York, Buffalo, to a position of international prominence during the latter part of the 20th century. The first department of media art ever to be established at a university, the Center grew to include Sharits as well as Hollis Frampton, Woody and Steina Vasulka, Tony Conrad, Peter Weibel and James Blue on its faculty. These individuals, their visual work and the approaches to media education that were developed at Buffalo have had a lasting influence on media programs in North America, and there are striking parallels between the original Center at Buffalo and the Centre national des arts contemporains which has been created here at Le Fresnoy.

A pioneer of structuralist filmmaking, Sharits created an extended body of film and film-based work during his lifetime; he also left a number of projects unfinished at the time of his death. Among these was a brief handwritten outline for a project visualizing Chopin’s final piano composition, the Mazurka in f minor, Op. 68 #4, as an abstract film, to which he gave the title Attention:Light!

The film proved impossible to execute during Sharits’ working life; however, Sharits shared the proposal with the Polish filmmaker Josef Robakowski, with whom he enjoyed a friendship that spanned many years and included visits and screenings in both London and Lodz, Poland.

Robakowski was also unable to carry out Sharits’ instructions but eventually contacted his colleague Wieslaw Michalak, a photographer and digital artist now teaching at Ryerson University. Michalak developed a series of computer algorithms to make Sharits’ film design realizable, and he programmed and completed the film in collaboration with Robakowski in 2004.

In the years since, Attention: Light! has been shown in England, Germany, Poland, Canada and the United States, most recently at several events associated with the 2010 Chopin Bicentennial. Today marks the first screening of the work in France; I would like to thank the conference organizers for the opportunity to present it, and also to express appreciation to the French Consulate in Toronto and to Ryerson University for their assistance.

Sharits and Film

Sharits became a filmmaker almost by accident, with no anticipation it would become his life work. He was nearly blinded at birth by careless surgery, and he spoke of his high school years in Colorado as a time of rebellion in an environment which provided little contact with culture – in fact, he dropped out of high school to pursue the dream of driving a truck, hoping to find work ferrying construction explosives over the dangerous roads of the Rocky Mountains.

Growing up in a family that was half Italian, he was exposed to music from an early age, and one of his several uncles possessed an 8 mm camera which was used to produce what Sharits would later describe as “hundreds of hours of home movies”, which would be screened after family dinners.

Pressured to return to high school, Sharits negotiated for himself a curriculum that consisted primarily of art courses, believing this to be a homework-free path to finishing the education he had found so stifling and unproductive. To his surprise, making art was not easy, and his art teachers took him seriously. He told the story to Hollis Frampton:

There were several old ladies teaching art at the high school… [and] I thought, “I’ll shake them” – because I was lashing out at society. And so I started doing some very violent procedures that I thought were very radical. One of [the teachers] knew enough about art to point out Jackson Pollock’s work to me, and I was quite amazed.

Actually, the art thing was not just a simple thing to do — [but] these old women were quite nice to me. They didn’t like my attitude and some of my images, but they encouraged me, to the extent that I got completely caught up in painting.

Within a short time Sharits also started making films, at first somewhat casually, with a friend who owned an 8 mm camera. He soon encountered the films and ideas of Stan Brakhage, Jean Cocteau, Sergei Eisenstein and Kenneth Anger; Brakhage in particular was a deep influence.

While Sharits realized right away that it would make no sense for him to attempt to work using Brakhage’s methods, his own search to expand the possibilities of film would eventually become a quest just relentless as Brakhage’s.

Beginning in the 1960’s, Sharits embarked on a path towards ever more elaborate formal structures, utilizing an expressive modality that forced a confrontation with the physical nature of film itself. His early films hint at the barely-controlled tension between raw emotion and intellectual order that figures so prominently in all his later work.

The Analytical Studies projects of the 1970’s, including film loops and installations, led to more expanded forms; among them was the four-projector Shutter Interface, from 1975. (An excerpt from this work, recently reconstructed, can be seen on YouTube.)

Bad Burns and 3rd Degree, from the early 1980s, show Sharits moving more towards autobiographical themes and expressionist imagery; in the last years of his career he explored video and began a return to drawing, painting and other two-dimensional forms. His continuing attempts to reconcile his structural interests with the forces restlessly driving his psyche are everywhere evident in these works.

Buffalo and Lodz

Sharits remained as ill at ease in academic settings as a teacher as he had been as a high-school student, and his time at Buffalo was marked by periods of quarrelsomeness and difficulty; nonetheless, he had extremely specific ideas about what film was, how it should be taught, what a proper film curriculum was, and what the theoretical underpinnings of a valid academic enterprise should be.

He articulated these ideas fearlessly during the same years in which he made the works referred to above. In an essay from 1974 — Notes on Films / 1966-1968 — he turned to the issue of how his own films should be understood:

A good deal of my art does not, in fact, “contain itself.” The films… are structured so as to demand more of the viewers than attention and appreciation…

I am working towards a completely new conception of cinema. Traditionally, “abstract films”, because they are extensions of the pictorial principles of painting or are simply demonstrations of optics, are no more cinematic than narrative-dramatic films which squeeze literature and theatre onto a two-dimensional screen.

I wish to abandon imitation and illusion and enter directly into the higher drama of celluloid, two-dimensional strips, individual rectangular frames; the nature of sprockets and emulsion; projector operations; three-dimensional light beam; environmental illumination; the two-dimensional reflective screen surface; the retinal screen; optic nerve and individual subjectivities of consciousness.

In this cinematic drama, light is energy, rather than a tool for the representation of non-filmic objects; light, as energy, is released to create its own objects, shapes and textures.

While my films have thematic structures, they are not at all stories. I think of my present work as being occasions for meditational-visionary experience.


It is interesting to compare this language with an excerpt from the Manifesto from Robakowski’s Workshop of The Film Form, published the following year:

1). Entering the sphere of the mechanical means of transmission and registration, we reject all efforts which annex any part of this sphere for word-based culture. Precisely speaking, we reject the literary cinema.

2). We also reject all other utilitarian functions deriving from outside the essence of cinema, that is: politicizing, moralizing, aestheticizing and amusing the spectator.

3). We reject all that impairs the dismantling of tradition… thus, we reject film language. We assign special attention to technical equipment as a clean channel not blurred by outside accretions. 

4). Recognizing that reality is perceived on the basis of transmission, we undertake the examination thereof through analysis of the means that serve communicative functions. Having no ambition to construct a representation of the world… we seek out what is to be constructed through the phenomenon of film technique; we seek its unique spheres and boundaries that lie beyond the possibilities of verbal expression.

Given the shared ideas these texts articulate, it seems inevitable that Sharits and Robakowski would not only meet but become friends and colleagues. The filmmakers first encountered each other in 1977 in Kassel, Germany, during documenta 6. Two years later, in London, they met again, on the occasion of a Film as Film discussion that took place at the Hayward Gallery. In 1981, Sharits traveled to Poland and joined Robakowski in Lodz, where the Construction in Process film symposium was being held.

Sharits was recovering from a serious accident and Robakowski took him in; he also managed to produce a screening of Sharits’ films the next year in the Exchange Gallery, which was essentially Robakowski’s living quarters. The visit furthered their friendship, and led to the first sketches for Attention: Light!

Attention: Light!

Despite his claim that film should operate at a remove from the world of events, Sharits was an artist with strong political beliefs. He had been horrified and frightened by the 1968 race riots in Buffalo, and never lost his awareness of the forces of racism or of political oppression, which he saw on full display during the period of martial law in Poland. He and Robakowski shared a love of Chopin’s music, the nationalistic undercurrents of which were clear to both men; and during the 1981 visit Sharits conceived the idea for a film that would be an homage to Chopin and to Polish nationalism. He jotted it down on a single sheet of paper, apparently during the course of a nearly sleepless night.

The film was originally to have included footage of Chopin’s villa and his piano, but Sharits discarded the idea of representation in favor of a visualized abstraction. Excerpts from his stream-of-consciousness notes to himself and Robakowski illuminate his thinking. At first, Sharits writes in political terms:

For Chopin / for Solidarity

            Shot in Lodz, Poland, with the aid of the Film Academy in Lodz, Oct 1981

He includes a quotation:

“Were the powerful tyrant from the north (Czar Nicholas I) to realize how hostile to him are Chopin’s compositions, his simple mazurkas, he would forbid their performance: there are cannons hidden under the flowers.”  – Robert Schumann

 And he goes on to imagine details such as panning across Chopin’s piano, which he imagines as “ecstatic camera melodic movements across the actual keyboard Fred learned on…”. (In addition to calling him “Fred”, Sharits also refers here to “punk” elements in Chopin’s music.)

But by later the same night, his thought process has moved towards a different reaction to this composition — a response to its formal elements alone — and a new idea for the film:

All regular pace (silent now & again)

Intersection of pure color every other several frames “of” same piece of


but color “line” is following the “score” forwards

(you know, most of his “Etudes” are formally symmetric, almost palindromic, page by page and in overall structure – such mad flamboyance “standing out of” seemingly tight geometric score structures.

Heavily ironic!

In the margin, there is a comment:

… The film to be a lot more complex than how I’m trying to explain it here.

In subsequent letters to Robakowski, Sharits elaborated on the technical requirements of the film. These were beyond the capacity of any then-extant film or video technology: clear separation of simultaneous and overlapping color values was simply not possible.

It was not until 2004 that the film took on a visible form. Wieslaw Michalak described the process of working from Sharits’ instructions:

The film should have equal length to Chopin’s composition… Only pure colors were to be used, and each color, starting from a pure blue, was to be linked in a sequence to a specific pitch… the intensity of the color changes [was increased] by linking the dynamics of the volume to the color contrast. In all there were four variables controlling the image – hue, contrast, velocity and tone.

First, the score was analyzed in terms of pitch and velocity… Second, timecode was used to create algorithms linking color changes [back to] the musical score. Two variables – hue and contrast – were controlled using this design. Finally, several decisions had to be made… determining the ‘look and feel’ of the finished film, [so that it would be] true to the spirit of Paul Sharits’ work.

In the end, this is not simply a structuralist film, nor a fusion of late works by two romantic artists with profound affinities to structure, nor even a form of artistic homage to an unrealized creative idea – although it has elements of each. Rather, it stands a personal collaboration by like-minded artists with shared convictions about art, similar political perspectives, and many life experiences in common, including those of isolation or exile.

For Sharits, it would have expressed deep personal feeling via the purest possible means, in the most elegant possible structure. For Robakowski, it would be a representation of artistic fellowship and an expression of a fundamental belief, that “all art is energy” and light is a metaphor for its transmission. And for Michalak, it would be not just a work of collaboration and programming, but a work about light itself, the key element of order in all creation.

Presented at Le Fresnoy, Studio national des arts contemporains, Tourcoing (Lille) France, February 2011.