Experiments: My History of Films

Kao Chung-li

I. Machinic Image;[1] Imaging Machine

Regarding what I am about to share with you, I must start with Marcel Mauss’s (1872–1950) concept of “things” (choses).[2]

I usually use a few sentences to illustrate my argument, which is a bit like a language game:

Machinic image; imaging machine
A machinic image is a thing: the cinema is a thing; a text is a thing
An imaging machine is a thing: the camera, which deconstructs time, space, and movement is a thing; the projector, which restores temporality, spatiality, and movement, is a thing.

The relationship between these things [the camera and the projector] and the community, which produce, possess, consume, and abandon them, can be regarded as an imagistic culture and identity. According to Mauss, when we try to understand our relationships with identity, that is, with material culture and cultural identity, “things are in fact [our] reliable sources, as they are credible and autonomous. Therefore, in comparison with other phenomena, things can better describe a mode of civilization.” Moreover, “for other sciences, things are understood by being situated in their social context. Nonetheless, archaeology (as well as history and anthropology) must construct a social context from the things themselves. Hence, the way in which things and identity are related and understood is in itself a true representation of a cultural identity.”[3]

In this light, in a community with an imaging-machine industry and the individuals within it––in comparison with a community and its individuals without such an industry––those machinic images are understood differently and form different cultures-identities according to their different contexts and bases. The main difference is determined by the relationship between these two different communities and the imaging machines, not the machinic images (works, texts). The system of the imaging machine and the contemporary cultural identity of things and people have a branded internal connection.

Imaging machinic images are always used in various scientific fields, such as: politics, society, business, science, entertainment, documentation, broadcasting, etc., and of course in the field of art. In addition, when using “imaging machinic images” for reproduction, we constantly reflect, ask and answer ourselves: what is visual, time and frame? What is reality, reproduction? And what is the relationship between myself and the imaging machinic images? …… The “imaging machinic images” that answers to this never-ending questioning and thinking is “experimental film.” Imaging machinic images are that which create a context from the materials themselves, as opposed to the above-mentioned imaging machinic images which are placed in a context of instrumentalisation (i.e., as Mauss suggests, understood in their social context) of art, science, society, documentation, entertainment, etc.

Hence, we can try to understand that communities and individuals in Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, South Korea and other neighbouring regions, are unable or find it difficult to produce materials that can be defined as “experimental film,” the kind of machinic image with its context and history. The reason is the lack of an imaging-machine industry in these communities. Among them, mainland China is a special and unique example. Because the mainland does have its own imaging-machine industry, for example: still film camera with 120 format as the mainstream, 16mm film camera (red flag), and even 8.75mm which is a small self-contained film system (although only projectors). In theory, there would be experimental films in mainland China, but in fact there is not, is this not very contradictory? The difference lies in the fact that most of the imaging-machine industry in China in the past was not supported and developed by consumer feedback. On the contrary, the development and system of imaging-machine industry in a capitalist society, as a prerequisite and condition for experimental film, is defined by consumerisation or not, i.e., it is supported by a family-oriented and personalised market feedback system. Does it mean that a non-capitalist society that has developed imaging-machine industry will not produce experimental films? Not necessarily, for example, the “Kino-Eye” developed by Dziga Vertov (1896-1954) in the Soviet Union at the beginning of communism was at a silent moment when the language of cinema was being nurtured. As for Taiwan, which was incorporated into the capitalist system led by the U.S. after the war and developed with a dependent economy, there is only consumption of machinic image, but no imaging-machine industry as feedback.

II. Production tools determine production methods, production relationships, and the nature of things

If 1895 was the first year of film production, then it was only 45 years later (1940) that the industry proved its success with 8mm material, which was replaced in less than 45 years (1985)[4] by a signal system, a technology better suited for greater market demand.

V-8 [Video8] is the name of this new format, using the number “8” to fake metabolism and inheritance of 8mm film, so that families and individual users of original 8mm film will have the illusion of upgrading and evolving, and will be more willing to update their equipment. I am one of them. Because having no imaging-machine industry, I can only be passive and drift along the stream. I have called people in such situations the people who are buried alive.

Next, I’ll show you a video made by someone who was buried alive and survived, after 8mm hardware and software stopped being researched and developed – “The Last Gaze – That Photograph” [1984]. At that time, I had the opportunity to borrow-first and pay-later for Fuji’s camera FujicaZC1000, because 8mm film has been replaced by V-8. It was a great imaging machine that allowed me to examine the ontology of film as if I were a fish in water.

“The Last Gaze – That Photograph” was a simple remake with complex reflections. It only uses the camera to complete, a lot of on and off, constantly changing the aperture and angle …… the machine does not move, the photo does not move, what moves is the film and the built-in functional components in the camera. In its operation, some classic language in the history of cinema was combined to advance narrative techniques, from the simplest fade out and fade in to complex shooting techniques, such as strobing and twenty other kinds (fixed shot, double exposure, negative effect, dissolve, frame extraction, zoom, climb, turn, single frame, high-speed photography ……). In fact, from beginning to end it is only a 2D plane, a still photo. This movement of the original area and size of the 2D still photograph in the form of a film frame, creates the state of “reading the photograph” out of “looking at the photograph,” and thus there is a perspective of time, that is, the overlapping of reading and looking occurs in the conversion of the area size to the length of time. Finally, “The Last Gaze – That Photograph” is a short film that redeems the narrativity of films and at the same time it denies the convention of narrative film – the convention of “what happens next.” It returns to the ontology of the image, of the film – “what happened once” – what was here.

“The Last Gaze – That Photograph” was made in 1984 out of intuition. Later I learned that this short film is very conceptual, minimalist, absolute, reflexive, not pretentious, not expensive, not formalistic, and always touches the essence of film, so it is a thing that is an experimental film text. In this short film, I have exhausted the functions of the camera, the traditional and classic film narrative techniques, and the act of remaking and reproducing photos is the last cinematic possibility after exhausting all photographic aesthetics. It is also a return to the essence of photography/filming, i.e. mechanical reproduction. At the same time, it is also a condition for the development of photography to destroy itself after over-saturation – not excluding the opposition to film.

Here is another example of “remake.” In 2010, I had a budget of $2 million to plan a documentary film on Chen Yingzhen. In the end, while the original commissioning company did not explain why the project was cancelled,[4] I used $20,000 budget to execute the script with the concept of “remake,” and raise the “remake” to a higher level of aesthetics. At the same time, I use it to “oppose film”, that is, to remind myself to maintain my absolute heterogeneity and strangeness.

III. “Artists are not only concerned with the objects of art, but also with the tools of art production” – Benjamin

I would like to show you some photos by circulation, six in total. This is a live record of my 1983 solo exhibition. In the twenty-nine years that have passed since then, there has always been a central question and answer in all my solo and group exhibitions, centered around what is photography? What is cinema? What is seeing? What is movement? What is stillness? Why don’t we have our own cradle of photography, childhood, and the golden age of cinema? Why don’t we have our own visual perception, neurological discourse, and philosophical systems? Why don’t we have our own imaging-machine industry? Why have we not established our own brand of photographic equipment and consumables? Why can’t we have our own “myth of total cinema”[6]?

My stills, slides, 8mm projectors, Loop formats, and total cinema (It was shot and screened in the same reel, exhibited in Venice for 400 hours, 24,000 loops, and is currently the longest film in the world, which, if there is no identical viewing experience, then it is valid), which, because of my modified projector, are gradually allowing me to distinguish the difference between working images and working films. And I was supposed to protect the working images. But as a result, the image will disappear after 1,600 hours of 100,000 screenings, while the film will still have 70% integrity for further screenings, because it is, after all, a working film that loses its working image after 2,000 hours, so that translucent thing is not nothing. In addition, there are more than nine kinds of film objects and forms, including animation, patent players, teaching aids, bright box theaters, slideshow movies, and publications (over-the-voice-over series). In other words, I have to weave, structure, entangle, and cover the machinic image in the imaging machine, so that we can see the reality of our own image, and if we can’t do that, how can we achieve the image of [our own] reality?

IV. When Marx talks about production and consumer goods, he says that “production ...... is not only the creation of objects for subjects, but also the creation of subjects for objects” and spiritual production is also the case

In the pursuit of visual perception, photography, cinema, philosophy, machines, aesthetics, and history, here is another example of objects. I will create a context in this object that is simple, contradictory and combative. How do I put it? I have written in the past that the entire history of film in the West is a history that only tilts towards the camera (the projection side), but how can we see the machinic image without the projector? You may ask, without the camera, how to create the machinic image for the projector to play? Think about it, is this the only way to achieve the machinic image? Can’t we bypass the camera relationship to achieve the machinic image? Animation is an example, animation does not necessarily need to be shot with a camera to achieve. It can be an off-the-shelf object, appropriation of found footage (e.g. Bill Morrison’s film Decasia [2002]), not to mention current digital technology. So the camera is no longer more important than post-production software. In other words, the position and history of the camera is being shaken and rewritten. This is one of those times when the projector and the camera can be pitted against each other. The other one is the reflection copy against the transmission copy that must pass through the camera (except for the projector). It is the context that I have created with this object, and from which I derive my own identity, which is convenient in that: first, the technical threshold of the projector is low, the cost is low, and the replacement object is easy to find and assemble; second, the projector can transmit the transmission copy (film) and can also project the reflection copy; third, the reflection copy is in accordance with the characteristics of the human naked eye and nerve perception. This is because 99.9% of visible things in the world, i.e., the relationship between “everything that is endowed,” are received in the form of reflection copy; whereas nowadays, computers, cell phones and other mainstream audio-visual products are received in the form of transmission copy, mediating the relationship between human perception and the external world.

I pit the projector (receiver) against the camera (transmitter), and the reflection copy against the transmissive copy, and compare the reality of the latter, that is, the transmitter (camera, transmission), to a symbol and metaphor for the ontology of Western visuality. In this way, we can attempt to incorporate opposition to cinema as a methodological approach to our interrogation of cinema. Negative opposition to cinema, that is not to shoot, not to see, not to consume, not to think, not to become an image, this is the mechanical, Western understanding. Our opposition to cinema, on the contrary, should be more active in the development of imaging machines, and not just stay within machinic images in pursuit of our film, vision, and identity. Hence, my experimental film is very different from the Western definition of experimental film.

From the content of the exhibition documentary, the actual objects I brought with me, and the handling of the objects, I understand that these are the ways in which I ask and answer questions: These things, they are both machinic images and imaging machines, and this is the reality of image we have to face. The biggest difference between us and Guy Debord (1931-1994), Chris Marker (1921-2012), Jean-Luc Godard (1930-), Jean Rouch (1917-2004), Alexander Kluge (1932-), Wim Wenders (1945-), Stan Brakhage (1933-2003), Barbara Hammer (1939-) is that, while in being an individual and in having to be subordinated to a community, I come from a community that does not have a culture of imaging machines, so we cannot simply respond to  our confusion, melancholy, discontents, and impatience within machinic images.

V. Simulation responses to predicted questions

The derivatives of narrative films, led by Hollywood films, have more than a few strange relatives who are trying to make good films. Experimental films (if there is such a film genre), or rather the films I advocate, are not meant to be a strange relative of of Hollywood. The strange relatives of Hollywood films may be classified into the following categories: amateur films (love = amateur), cinephile films, film specialist films (auteurist and national films and film movements), compensatory films (actors-turned-directors, wanting to turn words into images but struggling to find investment), films for entering the mainstream, films for avant-garde art which are too abstract and formalistic.

If these strange relatives are machinic images made by a community with imaging machines, this is still a way and action of “cinephilia.” But if it is by someone who does not have a culture of imaging machines, then it presents an awkwardness in the relationship of “love of cinema.” This awkwardness is what Jacques Lacan (1901-1981) said about love: “Love is to give what one does not have [the imaging machine] and what the other [the West, the viewer] does not want [the machinic images made by the strange relatives].”

My position and aesthetic condition gradually became clearer as I broke with the authoritative machinic image, or the imaging machine that could not be our role model. I understand that the imaging machinic image is an ideology of consciousness. One cannot know oneself by this mirror, one can only recognise oneself. So when confronted with the mirror of the authoritative imaging machinic image, it is necessary to break it in order to know oneself (adapted from the lines of L. Althusser).

Looking at the future of the image from the so-called cloud economy, in a society of digitalised mind technologies, the conflation of all the viewed characters (internet search results) can be constantly conflated with what all the characters see (uploading). The very rapid conflation of being seen and seeing is a homogeneous, homogenised future, i.e., a future that is homogeneous with the West. In fact, this future for the West is the same as having no future. This is the future of the image. This is a=the brutal reality of the image, determined by the values transformed by the capitalist mode of production. Karl Marx (1818-1883) said: “Originally, the products of labour were objects of use without exception, but at one time, the production of a product, after exhausting human labour, was transformed into the ‘objectification’ property – the value” and “the social attributes of man’s labour was transformed, mythically, into the objective attributes of the product of labour.” The cloud economy is the virtual economic system formed after the capitalistic system of production and production relationship exhausts human labour and existence.

In the ultimate imaging machine and machinic image system of cloud economy, no one and no identity exists.



[1] The Chinese term jiqi (機器) can be translated into either mechanical or machinic. In French philosophy, the term “mechanical” refers to things, objects, and other phenomena that are related to or fabricated by physical machines. Meanwhile, the term “machinic” is used predominantly by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, which refers to formal relations and energetic flows that constitute an assemblage of organs, institutions, and mechanical components. Here, Kao’s use of the term is close to Deleuze and Guattari’s understanding. See, for example, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, L’anti-Œdipe. Capitalisme et schizophrénie 1 (1972; repr., Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 2012).
[2] Mauss’s own word for wu (物) is choses, which are customarily translated into English as things. See Marcel Mauss, Essai sur la don. Forme et raison de l’échange dans les sociétés archaïques, L’Année sociologique (1923–24): 30–186.
[3]Kao does not provide any references to these quotations. This translation is based on Kao’s own words.
[4] Kao’s original text indicates 1980. However, 45 years after 1940 should be 1985. Kodak launched the first Video8 products in 1984. Sony’s Video8 camcorder was launched in 1985.
[5] Originally Kao’s documentary on Chen Yingzhen was part of The Inspired Island: A Series of Eminent Writers from Taiwan (2011).
[6] Kao is referring to André Bazin’s “The Myth of Total Cinema” from What Is Cinema?

Translation by Timmy Chen.