American avant-garde filmmaker Betzy Bromberg has been making experimental 16mm films since 1976. Prior to becoming the Director of the Program in Film and Video at California Institute of the Arts in 2002, Bromberg spent many years as a camerawoman and supervisor for the production of optical effects in the Hollywood special effects industry, utilising skills honed in her astonishing kaleidoscopic experimental films. Her early work often explores women’s psychic interiors and threats to an autonomous body through performance and raw collage techniques, provocative imagery, and humour, tautly woven together by evocative soundtracks. These deeply personal films touch on repressive social structures, American landscapes, ritual and intimacy, “play[ing] on multiple levels, merging politics and poetry, and revelling in the resultant tensions” (Holly Willis). Her most recent feature-length films are formally abstract, light, and sonic explorations, which are nonetheless profoundly emotional meditations on the human condition.
In Focus: Betzy Bromberg spans five decades of filmmaking and is the first in-depth survey of the artist’s work in the UK. Elsewhere, Bromberg’s films have been exhibited extensively in museums, cultural venues and festivals including the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the San Francisco Cinematheque, the Harvard Film Archive and Centre Pompidou, Paris. Bromberg has had retrospectives at Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema (BAFICI) in 2012 and at Anthology Film Archives, New York in 2018.
Curated by Charlotte Procter (LUX), with Valentine Umansky & Carly Whitefield (Tate Film).
Co-presented by Tate Modern and Open City Documentary Festival, in collaboration with LUX, who distribute Bromberg’s films. This programme was made possible thanks to a Jonathan Ruffer Curatorial Grant from Art Fund.
In Focus: Betzy Bromberg 1
Saturday 10 September, Tate Modern, 4pm
In Focus: Betzy Bromberg 2
Saturday 10 September, Tate Modern, 6pm
In Focus: Betzy Bromberg 3
Sunday 11 September, Close-Up, 6pm
In Focus: Betzy Bromberg 4
Monday 12 September, Close-Up, 6pm
by Ara Osterweil
Betzy Bromberg began making films in the late 1970s in New York City, around the time that I was born. So I cannot say that I remember the New York one glimpses in her early punk films, or the young women whom we see navigating its thrills and pitfalls. Yet I do recognize them in their painter’s cut-offs and pink leopard print pants, pounding the pavements of the Lower East Side. For the most part, they are artists and guerrilla girls posing as ingenues, topless dancers, and waitresses—whatever it takes to avoid the domestic responsibilities of being someone’s “old lady.” Sexy, rebellious, and on the move, they’re in search of freedom and they’ll ride anything to escape confinement—whether it be the back of some Hell’s Angel’s Harley through the skyscrapers of Manhattan, or shotgun in a girlfriend’s car as it whips through more ancient canyons.
Bromberg, who often appears in her early films, has a documentarian’s attention to detail, and a rapt devotion to radiance. Somehow, she manages to keep the subterranean in tension with the sublime. The audio-tracks of her early films mix snippets of found sound—interviews, radio broadcasts, and pop songs thrumming with desire—with the stoned ramblings of the young women she records. Collaged together by this scavenger angel, they kaleidoscope the unconscious of an America longing for release as it transitioned from the shattered dreams of the 1960s to the doom of neoliberalism’s new world order.
Despite their ear for apocalyptic discourse, Bromberg’s films are less orgasmic than they are malingering. Her first 16mm film, Petit Mal (1977), offers a portrait of a young artist friend intent on preserving her autonomy despite the often-entangled demands of sex and rent. The title, which conjures Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal while dodging the predictable climax of la petite mort, seems to suggest the pathologies of coming of age within patriarchy. Yet it also refers to a type of seizure that involves a brief loss of consciousness accompanied by quasi-purposeful movements and blank stares. Understood poetically, these momentary flashes in consciousness might allow one to look anew, with wonder if not full comprehension. This potentially epiphanic state of seizure is an apt metaphor for Bromberg’s early style of filmmaking, in which glimpses of an illuminated consciousness interrupt jagged handheld camera movements that revel in the grit of urban decay. Watching these punk paeans, I am transfixed by the unfolding mysteries captured and then blinkered away by her camera—from a close-up of stiletto heels strutting like an exquisite corpse, to a snake curling luxuriously in front of a window flooded with late afternoon sun. What is the meaning of such fleeting phenomena? One cannot help but note the serpent’s warning that the world is full of perils for young women searching for knowledge. Yet despite the nascent feminism of her early work, Bromberg’s films are never didactic. Rather, in their voluptuous attention to the ways that light caresses surface—including the snake’s skin–they track the emergence of a profoundly rich, cinematic phenomenology.
Heeding the eternal siren song to “go West,” Bromberg left New York for Los Angeles to study filmmaking at CalArts with experimental filmmaker Chick Strand. Her films immediately became imbued with the rugged landscapes of the West and the misfits who drift through their greasy spoons. But she also discovered the desert, where her more mystical visions first unfold. You can sense the transformation in her 1980 film Soothing the Bruise, which Bromberg commences by choreographing headlights so that they dance in the darkness like runaway stars. By the end of the film, however, one feels the upending force of the revelatory as it struggles to break through the raunch. Bewitched by the painted hills of the desert, Bromberg spins them wildly through a fish-eye lens. Like the strippers often glimpsed in her early films, the camera is putting on a tawdry show for a distracted audience.
Somewhere along the journey to the resplendent visions that characterise her later masterpieces, Bromberg learned that to approach the sublime, you need to slow down and stop spinning. Of course, that does not mean that she ever sought to capture the world “as is.” Rather, she learned to harness her renowned technical wizardry to a more metaphysical search for illumination. Az Iz (1983), a jazz meditation on the desert, is the first of Bromberg’s films to chart this orphic course. Through experimental printing that transforms the arid landscape where three musicians play into a luminous sea of lapis, the film summons the divinity hinted at in its title. I’d bathe my soul in a slice of Bromberg’s blues.
As Bromberg’s optical imagination became captivated by the transcendent possibilities of light and landscape, her cinematic language metamorphosed into an exquisite form of painterly abstraction. She replaced the hand-held camera, collaged editing, and found sound of her youthful films with slower and more meditative explorations of visual phenomena accompanied by trance-like sound compositions. The overall effect is what Kandinsky described as visual music, in which the colour of sound and the sound of colour resonate in mystical harmony. Bromberg’s most luminous images achieve that nearly indescribable splendour for which I am forever searching. Call it the divine ravishment of the senses.
Ara Osterweil is a painter who works in the traditions of staining and gestural abstraction. She is also a writer and scholar of postwar art and cinema who teaches at McGill University in Canada.