James Whitney 

(1921-1982) younger brother of John Whitney, Sr., was a filmmaker regarded as one of the great masters of abstract cinema. Several of his films are classics in the genre of Visual Music.

James Whitney was born December 27, 1921, in Pasadena, California, and lived all his life in the Los Angeles area. He studied painting, and traveled in England before the outbreak of World War II. In 1940, he returned to Pasadena.

James completed a number of short films over four decades, two of which required at least five years of work. James collaborated with his brother John Whitney, Sr. for some of his early film work. The first of the brothers' films was Twenty-Four Variations on an Original Theme. Its structure was influenced by Schoenberg's serial principles. James spent 3 years working on Variations on a Circle (1942), which lasts some 20 minutes, and was made with 8mm film. James and John created their series of Five Film Exercises (John #1 and #5; James #2, #3 and #4) between 1943 and 1944, for which the brothers won a prize for best sound at the 1949 Brussels Experimental Film Competition. In 1946, the brothers travelled to San Francisco Museum of Art to show their films at the first of ten annual Art in Cinema festivals.

Following this period, James became more involved in spiritual interests such as Jungian psychology, alchemy, yoga, Tao, and Jiddu Krishnamurti. These interests heavily influenced his later work. James was a potter and ceramicist, interested in raku ware, and examples of his pottery still exist today.

Between 1950 and 1955, James laboured to construct a truly astounding masterpiece, Yantra. The film was produced entirely by hand. By punching grid patterns in 5" by 7" cards with a pin, James was able to paint through these pinholes onto other 5" x 7" cards, to create images of rich complexity and give the finished work a very dynamic and flowing motion, but the film was not completed yet. It was first released as a silent film.
A very short, manipulated fragment from an early version of Yantra was shown at one of the historic Vortex Concerts in San Francisco's Morrison planetarium in early 1959. Soon after Vortex, the film acquired its soundtrack, when Jordan Belson synchronized it to an excerpt from Henk Badings’ Cain and Abel. This did not occur at the Morrison Planetarium Vortex Concerts, contrary to popular belief (Keefer, 2008).

Analogue computer equipment developed by brother John, allowed James to complete Lapis (1966) in two years, when it might have taken seven years otherwise. James drew dot patterns again for this film, but the camera was positioned using computer control, allowing each image to be overlaid from multiple angles. In this piece, smaller circles oscillate in and out in an array of colors resembling a kaleidoscope while being accompanied by Indian sitar music. The patterns become hypnotic and trance inducing.

Dwija (1973), meaning twice-born or soul in Sanskrit, is completely solarized, and much of the imagery is re-photographed by rear-projection to create a constant flow of hardly definable transformations of color and form. Wu Ming (1977), meaning no name in Chinese, repeats a single action over and over - a particle disappears into infinity, and returns as a wave. James described the particle-to-wave action in Wu Ming as being "like throwing a pebble into water and seeing the ripples spread out". His two final films, intended to form a quartet with Dwija and Wu Ming, were Kang Jing Xiang and Li, which were left incomplete when James died April 8, 1982, after a brief and unexpected illness. Kang was completed post-humously according to James' instructions. His short test for Li is believed to be lost.

Several of James' films were preserved by Center for Visual Music (CVM) in Los Angeles; HD transfers from their preservation project have been seen in major museum exhibitions including Visual Music at MOCA and The Hirshhorn Museum (2005), Sons et Lumieres at Centre Pompidou (2004-05), The Third Mind at The Guggenheim Museum, and other shows. Scholars may view high quality copies of Yantra and Lapis at CVM. CVM also provided prints from this preservation to Centre Pompidou, Paris, which provided support for this project.


Source: Wikipedia



John had encountered 12-tone music theory through René Leibowitz in Paris, and the first of these 8mm films, Twenty-Four Variations on an Original Theme, was visually constructed by analogy to Schoenberg's serial principles, with a given optical "tone-row" (a "P" shaped configuration formed by an overlapping circle and rectangle) submitted to various inversions, clustering, retrogressions, counterpoints, etc. The films proved not only aesthetically gratifying to the young artists, but also a sensation to the necessarily small audiences that saw it. The silent images performed a cogent dynamic all their own, and the intimate format of the film gave the feel of exquisite chamber music. (...)


James was attracted to the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi, an Indian sage who stresses practical self-realization and the integrity of one's whole life. Ramana taught that one must strive to be fully aware of one's total involvement with all things, for no creature - fern, flea or flagstone - is intrinsically less worthy or possessed of less personality. Over the years, Whitney found these ideas mirrored in the talks of Krishnamurti, the paradoxes and flowing of Taoism, the ambiguities and endless toil of alchemy, the theories of nuclear physics, and the mythic psychology of Jung. The abstract language of his art became non-objective in the special sense of its refusal to view things coldly as objects. Continually cultivating this conscious awareness of all things involved rigorous discipline. He ate well (largely vegetarian) and worked hard in order to keep himself in healthy preparedness. He rechanneled the energy of his passionate nature into inspiration for his films. (…)

Ultimately, James' life itself became an exquisite artwork. He learned to live alone, and not be lonely; he learned to be silent, and not yearn for words. He could sit still for hours contemplating the subtle changes in afternoon light, or observing the social struggles of blue-jays and mockingbirds. If others could not actually share the serenity of his natural life-flow, it nonetheless formed the basis of his brilliant artworks. Asian artists are expected to prepare themselves, spiritually and physically, for a sudden moment of creation. The artist must perform quickly with sure, swift strokes: Readiness and proficiency are crucial, since a trace of ink on rice paper cannot be erased, and hesitation of the brush means a blotch. James brought the distilled energy and vision of his daily being to bear on his films, ceramics, and paintings.
(William Moritz: "Enlightenment", originally published in First Light, Robert Haller, Ed., New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1998. Article courtesy: Center for Visual Music)


Source: Center for Visual Music



James Whitney, 2nd generation, software, mystic


Digital Harmony (1980): On the Complementarity of Music and Visual Art – John Whitney, Sr. wanted to create a dialog between "the voices of light and tone." All of his early experiments in film and the development of sound techniques lead toward this end. He felt that music was an integral part of the visual experience; the combination had a long history in man's primitive development and was part of the essence of life. His theories On the complementarity of Music and Visual Art were explained in his book, Digital Harmony, published by McGraw-Hill in 1980. (Paradise 2012)



Combustion (2011) by Montreal-based designer Renaud Hallee plunges the viewer, from each image and note to the next, closer and closer to its materials as they catch fire and culminate in an explosion of colours and sounds. Carried along by a scorching musical score, Combustion is a brisk and novel look at fire, a source of fascination for everyone everywhere since the beginning of time. (SXSW)

Telefante is formed by Luis Negrón van Grieken and Juan Carlos Orozco Velásquez. They put all kinds of media, new, old, forgotten, obsolete, overused, commercial, useless, all over the table, as if we were making a transversal cut through history. Simply it is about tell stories (new and old) through several media (new and old), with the aim to forget this unproductive dialectic and be able to capture the most difficult: the present. (Telefante)

Visual Sound Design (2010) by Reza Ali is a little app he made to help him understand microsounds, oscillators, timing, frequency, low frequency oscillators, polymorphism, sequencing, filtering, time domain effects, such as reverb, chorusing, etc, and distortion effects, such as clipping and more... in real-time in a visual manner, which is how he learns best. (Reza Ali on Vimeo)

Brian O'Reilly is the creator of various works for moving images, electronic/noise music, mixed media collage, installation, and is a contrabassist, focusing on the integration of electronic treatments and extended playing techniques. (Brian O'Reilly on Vimeo)

‘vE-”jA: Art + Technology of Live Audio-Video (2006) by Xarene Eskander is a global snapshot of an exploding genre of tech-art performance: VJing and live audio-video. The book covers 40 international artists with 400+ colour images and 50+ movies and clips on an accompanying DVD and web downloads. (VJ Book)