Discovering (Abstract) Kinokaleidographs (Through the film Propos contemporains sur la femme décousue)


In 1984, my good friend Maurice Lemaître, a noted French intellectual and artist who is prominent in the Letterist movement, invited me to produce an avant-garde film to be shown in Paris at the French Cinémathèque in a program  he was coordinating. His invitation included some caveats:

(a)   It had to be ready by January 1985 for presentation with his own films and, possibly, other creations by avant-garde or experimental filmmakers.

(b)   It needed to be around the status of women.

Lemaître was well aware that I did not have any experience behind the camera and he knew that I had spent very little time in front of it. He realized, however, that I had read and written extensively about Letterist cinema, so he suggested  I make a film without using film stock and, instead, animate a show in front of an empty screen. I had admired his A projeter sur le ciel, la nuit, a film dedicated to the famous critic, Dominique Noguez. The soundtrack consists of a single sentence uttered by the filmmaker, who is sitting, anonymously, in the theater (among  filmgoers who become more and more tense because all that is being shown is a continuous projection of  empty white stock) and who suddenly gets up, points to an imaginary spot on the screen and exclaims, “What a nice speck of dust!”.

Doing that once in the history of cinema is fine. It provokes a big laugh, releases the accumulated tension and pinpoints that film (art), after all, can also be conceived as a game. But a stroke of genius cannot be repeated and should never be imitated.

So, I decided to surprise Lemaître by shooting a “real” film. I bought a Super 8 sound camera capable of handling color stock as well as black and white film. I started learning the ins and outs, wishing to do things as correctly as possible, but also wanting to add something original, even though, at the time, I did not know yet what it could be.

Then, I began interviewing all kinds of women who happened to be some of my friends and students. There was no adequate film lab in Portland, so the three- minute reels had to be sent out of town for processing . When I saw the rushes, the results were inconsistent due to low-tech equipment, to the limitations of improvised sound and light engineers and to my own lack of experience and cinematographic talent. Meanwhile, the deadline was  approaching and it was clear that I could not produce the film in time for the Festival. Mr. Lemaître sensed that I was not able to improvise as well and as quickly as he does; he was already familiar with my tendency to postpone things. So, in January 1985, I arrived in Paris, empty handed. In fact, I had various reels in my baggage that I had shot in several countries: the United States, of course, but also in Japan, Malaysia, Hong Kong etc., places where I had been in 1984. I had a lot of luggage, since I was going to spend seven months in Europe and I was also in charge of about 30 people, including students in an Overseas Study Program and my own family. One of my suitcases broke in transit; all small objects had fallen out and were lost, including two-thirds of my film reels shot in  Asia.

For five months, I was totally involved in organizing lectures and field trips, as well as in teaching, student advising, etc. So, the film project stagnated.

After that, I had three months of quasi-vacations, which I dedicated to additional filming (in Nice and Falicon, Southern France) and to pre-production. I filmed my own wife while she played one of her piano compositions of Brazilian music, as well as selections from her then-favorite composer, Domenico Zipoli, a forgotten Italian  musician of the Baroque era. Based on my camera angle, it appeared that the piano was hanging from the ceiling, which was my innocent way of doing something differently.

At that point in time, I co-opted two of my Italian friends living in my hometown of San Remo, only 40 miles  from Nice, where I had rented a spacious apartment. Giulio Costa, a fabric merchant and an amateur filmmaker (author of Super 8 and 16 mm. shorts). Since Giulio is also a painter, he not only became the editor of my film, he also enriched it with some of his own watercolors representing women. The co-editor was the late Moreno Marchi, who was mostly a writer but also a painter. We had several hours of filmed stock available and we wanted to cut it down to about 20 minutes. Moreno suggested creating a dynamic, fragmented edit, as opposed to leaving it as a straight narrative. I liked the idea, although it entailed a lot of splicing. We also needed some sort of transition between the characters and the scenes. I did not want a blank, flat image, because that meant imitating Mr. Lemaître. I wanted to avoid visuals that are black and constant , since that device already appeared in the film after an  innocent striptease  mixed with a scary connotation, an explicit homage to the Letterists who invented it (although the  experiments by their imitator, Marguerite Duras, are better known). This sequence was appropriate within  the framework of the film.

Then, a sort of epiphany happened to me. I was transported back in time to 30 years earlier to an art exhibit called “Kunst und Natur Form”, held at the Basel Museum of Art. It compared works of art by modern and contemporary painters with  reproductions of small particles that were invisible to the naked eye, such as vitamin C crystals, photographed in polarized light similar to an abstract expressionist painting. The resemblance was striking, and the strangeness of it derived from the fact that the painter, even if s/he had wanted to be inspired by existing tiny shapes of colored items, could not have copied them because the electronic microscope had not been invented yet. The purpose of the exhibit, if I  remember correctly, was to show that the artist is a prophet who can foresee forms that are still unknown and certainly invisible. Twenty years later I became interested also in the experiments using light (and, more particularly, with rays of the sun) by the Israeli artist Paul Konrad Hoenich, who I discovered through the scholarly journal Ariel in 1970 and with whom I corresponded later.

Other abstract color patterns obtained using various devices or clever techniques that may resemble what I  called my “kinokaleidographs”, whether they were invented before, during or after my creation of 1985,  are absolutely, aesthetically, intellectually and factually unrelated to my discovery.

Persons to whom I showed my results in Italy, France and the United States mentioned similarities with other experiments. One of the techniques they suggested was “micrography”. My reaction is that micrography is almost as old as the Hebrew language. This kind of Jewish art used the shape of letters of the alphabet, playing with them by changing sizes and intermingling words in all possible dimensions. Contemporary avant-garde movements, such as Letterism and Inism, have embellished micrography by adding colors and other real alphabets, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs or Arab characters, or invented sets of characters. Leon Harmon created the “photomosaic” system using photography cameras. Then,  Robert Silvers, who gained  success from his metapixel portrait Marilyn Monroe , also developed “photomosaic software”by applying Harmon theories. This technique evolved to such a point that one can use the programs on-line and create one’s own photomosaics. Later, “stereograms” appeared, defined as a “form of non-computerized virtual reality”.

In 1985, my goal was to obtain abstract images that not only serve as transitions between scenes of my film but are also pleasing to look at and contribute visually and graphically to the overall opus. I used a kaleidoscope with multicolored mini- stones of different sizes and shapes which I rotated against the lens, until I realized that the resulting combined  shapes could be monotonous. I decided, therefore, to use a series of colored filters to add some variety. When I thought that I had proven my point, I stopped and concocted other ways to create pleochroic abstract forms that would evoke paintings, without the use of canvas or acrylic paste. I used everything that was handy and that I could find in a rented apartment, such as  pieces of fabric, old ties, colored thread, gift wrap paper, cutouts and many heterogeneous objects. I cut and pasted these items. The result was satisfactory, at least to me. My two Italian friends and collaborators approved my work and we inserted fragments of this creation throughout he film.

In 1986, I was expected back in Oregon to teach for another year before taking an early retirement. For academic purposes,  I had to make the film longer again in order to accommodate the duration of a college classroom session. The resulting 45-minutes film is almost entirely in French (albeit not always  “correct” French) and therefore could substitute for an absent professor and keep the students’ attention. So I added some new interviews: Kieu-Oanh Nguyen (a Vietnamese student of mine who had been my secretary in a work-study program,  a member of my 1985 Overseas Study program to France, and  is a great friend to this day), Teresa Tamiyasu (a Japanese-American artist who was also a professional film editor and script girl with Gus van Sant), Franco Albi (a friend, now deceased, in the role of a “retired” and skeptical Latin lover) the second man in the film (the other being the Japanese painter Kamijo Seiko I had met in Tokyo, who, however, is not  talking but just showing his female nude paintings while, off camera, a voice is heard reciting a line of Henry Michaux’s poetry that evokes  youth, passion and desire). Teresa Tamiyasu became the new editor of my film and inserted the last  interviews, plus some visual art of her friend, Jan Ross.
Now we had, or thought we had, the final cut, 42 minutes long.

Meanwhile, my faithful and generous friend Maurice Lemaître announced to me that his Centre de Créativité in Paris would finance the production. I located a laboratory in Los Angeles that would print three copies, one of them for the Library of Congress (for purpose of copyright), one for Lemaître (for distribution in France) and one for myself.

The California lab (Newsfilm) had some trouble while threading the leader of the film stock through the duplicating machine, and I was asked to redo the credits that had been ruined. Paul Lambert helped me and I redid the beginning. The prints were ready just in time for me to send a copy to Washington, D.C., and take the other two with me to France. Mr. Lemaître was nice enough to meet with me in the transit area during the stopover on my way to Nice. When I handed him the copy he surprised me with more good news: he had already found a distributor, Light Cone, a venue for avant-garde and experimental films in Paris.


When in Nice, I went to a local laboratory and I had the Super 8 film transferred to VHS, in both  European systems, PAL and SECAM. That is when I realized that there were too many technical defects to allow any public viewing of the film as is. Meanwhile, Light Cone had already sent me a distribution contract  that I had signed, establishing how much I would receive for each showing. I assumed that neither Michel Bizot nor Maurice Lemaître had seen the film before adding it to the catalog. Fortunately, Super 8 projectors had become obsolete and had disappeared from film society programs and all worthy films had already been blown up to 16 mm. or tranferred to video. I had to save face and act quickly. During my next sojourn in Portland, probably in 1988, first I had to make sure that the defect was not only in the PAL and SECAM copies so I had my copy of the Super 8 film converted to NTSC VHS. Sure enough, the copy in the American standard came out as mediocre as the ones that were made in France. This absolved the laboratory in Nice from any misdeed.


My next task was to prove the Los Angeles laboratory wrong. In order to do so, I had to retrieve the master copy, all spliced, that had been deposited at the Library of Congress. That was against their policy but, after my insistence and explanation, they sent it back to me. Unfortunately, the master copy was identical to the one I had kept for myself and, obviously, to the one that was already in Paris. I then interrogated all those who had seen the rushes of the individual reels before any splicing and editing, and it became obvious that Newsfilm in Los Angeles was liable for that particular mistake: a constant engine noise from the beginning to the end. Even if all other defects were ours or mine, that particular one was and remains the most bothersome. I called the laboratory to complain, but I learned that they had ceased business activities.

I doubted this information, so I asked a friend who was living in Los Angeles to  verify the existence of Newsfilm. She  confirmed that indeed, the company had closed.


I was frustrated, so I consulted with Maurice Lemaître who, again, advised me to be patient, to restore the copy little by little using funds from Avant-Garde Publishers, Producers and Distributors (a company he had founded  when in Portland in 1976). Time went by, and I was absorbed by other projects and worries.


In December 2006, I contacted an old acquaintance of mine, Gary Lacher, who had retired from a TV job and was dedicating his time to video transfers and film restoration. He was kind enough to transfer my Super 8 copy to DVD. Finally, I could sit down and take notes about all feasible improvements to my film.


Retrospectively, in January 2007, I was fascinated not so much with the film itself but by my old invention of the art kaleidographs since their absolute originality was still fresh and striking. So I decided that something could be done with these, regardless of the film’s fate in its new DVD version. Coincidentally, my friend Lex Loeb, who wanted to complete a video interview of me that he had started in 2002 (a totally unrelated project) told me he had met a young video editor who could help us finalize the interview. I met with Andrew Weymouth and asked him if  he could help me with some other tasks while waiting for Lex and me to finish our interview (which is still pending).


As soon as Andrew accepted, I asked him to extract from my film the abstract images, which I called kinokaleidographs, a term that I coined to be self-explanatory and to define, more or less, exactly what they are. He was able to obtain about 145 different images, not all of which are satisfactory, but many of which are usable either for exhibition purposes, for a series of postcards, for illustrations to be printed separately or to create a printed volume with images.


What pleases me besides the aesthetic impact of the kinokaleidographs is also the fact that they are unique, in the sense that the kaleidoscope, the filters, and the raw materials I employed to create the images have all disappeared. All attempts, by myself or by others, to redo them, would be futile. As much as I don’t like to repeat what I do, I imagine that no respectable artist (photographer? filmmaker?) would want to repeat the experience.

The path to creation was long: invented in 1985, they were immediately seen in San Remo by the editors and a series of certification documents are contained in laboratory receipts, copyright documents, and then, slowly, their separation from the film, as unique artistic entities. The titles and captions are in process. My challenge, now, is to live long enough to make these images become, somehow,  viewable by everyone.



Pietro Ferrua writes in several languages. He is based in Portand, Oregan.