Nova Paul’s Experimental Colour Film Polemic
Colour can be thought of as light’s consciousness, its self-awareness via diffraction, a liberating natal violence that Julia Kristeva calls a ‘shattering of unity’.1 Rainbows spilling from prisms and alchemical hues seeping from black coal tar both figure colour as differentiation and as return of the repressed: colour as hauntology, or, as the maverick of underground collage cinema Craig Baldwin once put it, ‘spectres of the spectrum’.2 The affective capacity of colour film to coax these shades out of hiding and into plain sight is the striking parlour trick of Māori artist Nova Paul (Ngāpuhi, Aotearoa).
Paul’s This is Not Dying (2010) is a twenty-minute film utilising three-colour separation to liberate hue from the form in which it inheres. With a soundtrack by the late Māori steel guitar legend Ben Tawhiti, Paul’s film celebrates a day in the life of her hapu or tribal sub-group in the North of the North Island of New Zealand. Under Whatitiri Mountain, near Whangarei, the cluster of houses that Māori would designate as a marae, is the site of simple communal living: card playing, swimming in the creek, fixing motorbikes and eating together. 3
Paul’s portrait challenges documentary norms via colour, embedding her politics in what Laura U Marks has called the ‘skin’ of the film, (a skin can refer to any membranous surface, but the French for celluloid, pellicule, also literally means skin). By choosing to focus on an extra-ocular sensorium, Marks recalls Félix Guattari’s ‘worldly complexion’ – a complex of senses including skin and colour, and a complex of surfaces in, on, and through which this world comes into being – in this case, the skin of the film.4
This is Not Dying revives a colour separation technique pioneered by Australian experimental film legends Arthur and Corrine Cantrill. When their favourite coloured filmstock was discontinued in the mid-70s, they undertook a revival of early technicolour processes, in which, as Thomas Pynchon put it in Gravity’s Rainbow, ‘you’re apt now and then to get a bit of lime-green in with your rose’.5 The Cantrills filmed sequences three times with red, green and blue filters, which, when superimposed, create palpable presence, since layered film is more akin to our binocular vision. It was perhaps because of this vivid sense of ‘fullness’ that early colour cinema was often billed as being ‘In Living Colour’.6 When the film lab prints their RGB exposures onto the cyan, magenta and yellow layers of dye on the print stock, the filmic stratigraphy is further complexified: sedentary objects remain ‘true’, while movement registers as untamed coloured translucency. Unlike Frantz Fanon’s searing indictment upon the gaze of the other which renders him immobile by ‘fixing’ him in the same way ‘a chemical solution is fixed by a dye’,7 for Paul, playing with dye (including its homophonic connotations with gambling and death) lets loose spectrally coloured spectres, which dance, triumphant, across the skin of the film.
Michael Taussig wrote that coloured film is an alchemical process engendering magical results, and colour is an entity with its own volition. When discussing the ‘colour walks’ of William Burroughs and Bryon Gysin, he suggests that it is colour itself that walks. Perhaps influenced by Walter Benjamin’s assertion that ‘red is a butterfly’ that alights on objects,8 Taussig declares that ‘colour is an animal’,9 and it is ‘thanks to colour’ and its pigmental peregrinations, that ‘form undoes itself’.10 Similarly, in her book about colour during British colonial rule in India, Natasha Eaton argues that colour is nomadic,11 so it follows that any examination of colour necessitates an understanding of place, movement and relation.
The Cantrills’ films of Australian landscape, and Paul’s paean to her homeland, are just such cartographic meditations. They not only capture, but create magical coloured flux, multihued ghosts, interdimensional messages, perceptual fireworks, and molecular revolutions, bringing to mind the Goethean turbidity that Éric Alliez extolls in his maddening magnum opus, The Brain-Eye: New Histories of Modern Painting. Alliez resurrects Goethe’s Farbenlehre and applies his poetic-scientific theories to the great colourists Delacroix, Monet, Seurat and Cézanne, about whom, it seemed, nothing more could be said. Except that Alliez finds new ways to read the works, as though, having only seen faded prints, one was suddenly exposed to the originals in all their emphatic, palpable glory. Goethe emphasises the turbidity of perception, a tangled weave between eye and world, and Alliez calls this weave a ‘troubled fabric, aflutter with halos, virtual images that take us by surprise as they float, emerge and expand, like so many circles forming in water’.12 The Cantrills’ and Paul’s gauzy sprites and visual viruses are also waterborne – the former in their seminal Waterfall (1984) and the latter in her delirious depiction of the Wairua river.13
While Paul’s recapitulation of the Cantrill’s technique more than thirty years after their first experiments may not constitute a formal innovation, her situated politics intensify the already empowering potential of the method. The film’s title is lifted from the Beatles’ classic ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, recorded at the dawning of the psychedelic era, which featured an exhortation to ‘Turn off your mind relax and float downstream’. At times, Paul’s film resembles the psychedelic light shows of the 1960s, inducing what Gilles Deleuze, writing about film, called a ‘gaseous’ perception,14 but This is not Dying speaks to a broader problematic than white hippie self-exploration. In 1856, New Zealand politician Dr I E Featherson expressed the then typical colonial position that Māori were doomed to die out, and that ‘Our plain duty, as good, compassionate colonists, is to smooth down their dying pillow.’15 Paul’s disavowal of death is what Linda Tuhiwai Smith would designate a restoration of spirit, bringing ‘back into existence a world fragmented and dying’.16 Not only are the people Paul films not dying, their resilient communality offers a manifest alternative to the failings of Western late capitalism. This kind of flourishing against adversity, via the revivification of modes of living which have been systematically repressed, has been given the name ‘survivance’ in Native American studies, and is a francophone term used by Derrida in relation to the Freud’s ‘return of the repressed’, not as phantoms out of the past but as a ‘triumph of life’ which ‘resists annihilation’.17
Ironically, Paul creates life through dyeing: her film is a chromatic re-worlding, since, given the right care and attention, ‘Every hue, real or imagined, bodes a world’.18 This is a documentary that does not portray, but enacts a site of cultural resistance, in a purposeful psychedelics. Extrapolating on what Timothy Leary once referred to as a politics of ecstasy,19 Arun Saldanha proposes psychedelics in the plural as a branch of knowledge, like economics or aesthetics, as an ‘active (as opposed to reactive) “spiritual politics by other means”’.20 It is perhaps no coincidence that for Māori, Uenuku is not just the rainbow god, but also a god of war.
Paul, with London-based publishers Dent-de-Leone, distilled the film into a book, Form next to Form next to Form (2012). The title alludes to the colour separation process as well as a kind of collaborative proximity that nevertheless honours difference. Paul and writer Gwynneth Porter collaborated on an essay called ‘The Virtues of Trees’ which meanders between the book’s images like the Wairua river wraps itself around rocks, creating rainbow sprays of thought. The co-written essay slips between two subjectivities – sometimes the first person belongs to Paul, sometimes to Porter, and sometimes they coalesce into a ‘we’. As Marks notes in The Skin of the Film, ‘Minority cinema makes it clear, by virtue of its critical relationship to dominant languages, that no utterance is individual.’21 Wairua means literally ‘two streams’, and all of Paul’s oeuvre models convergence, collaboration, co-operation.22
Marks coins the term ‘haptic visuality’ to describe a more-than optical visuality concerned with the representation of the senses and embodiment,23 in a world where the body is not just a source of individual, but of cultural, memory. Collective re-collection is also enacted in Tawhiti’s instrumental version of ‘Nga Puawai o Ngāpuhi’, or ‘The Flowering of Ngāpuhi’, the anthem of the largest tribal group in Aotearoa. Tawhiti’s gentle and nostalgic tones waft like a warm breeze through the jewel-like textures of the film. But those who recognise the song and understand its Māori lyrics, will also know that it commands that we listen, as Ngāpuhi rise up, blossom forth, and refuse to let go their traditional knowledge.24
By figuratively weaving together multi-hued and diverging points of view, Paul creates a contemporary update of woven artforms Māori women have practiced for generations, whether to fashion mnemonic tukutuku panels for instructive and decorative use in the wharenui (meeting house), fine cloaks for enhancing the mana of the wearer, or baskets and nets for gathering food. John Keats’ Romantic antagonism towards science mourned that its cold calculations would ‘unweave’ the rainbow, yet here Paul performs a sleight of hand, both loosening the ‘straightjacket of the spectrum’ imposed by Newtonian optics, and re-weaving a web of connections that invoke pre-Cartesian understandings of time and space.25 Alliez describes Goethe’s anti-Newtonian turbidity as ‘a weave… that comprises an infinity of possible relations between innumerable degrees of colours…’, a ‘thickening and congelation... whose iridescence… constitutes an intra-worldly depth that is neither that of the subject… nor that of the object...’26 In its marriage of Western psychedelics and Indigenous politics, This is Not Dying is both an unravelling from within and a gathering together.27 Woven baskets, ropes and snares in Māori cosmology are not simply functional daily items, but enmeshed epistemologies. They are mnemonic devices encoding wisdom about encoded wisdom, for example, the story of the three baskets of knowledge obtained for humanity by the god Tāne, or the story of how, with ropes woven from flax, Māui constructs a snare in order to capture the sun, who passed too quickly across the sky. There is a moment during This is Not Dying when a child reaches into the freezer for an ice-lolly and the camera pans past some educational fridge magnets which spell out ‘Māui Catches the Sun’. This is the crux of the film – its defiant ability to slow time – to capture fleeting light in all its nuances, not by accelerating to light speed, but by snaring light itself and slowing it down to humanly-compatible wave lengths. This attention to speeds and slownesses28 is achieved by making ‘the camera a listener’,29 following the advice of Māori film-maker and theorist the late Barry Barclay. Jacques Derrida’s portmanteau différance encourages that we differ and defer, taking our time, never quite arriving, but floating downstream towards a ‘possible that is presently impossible’, in a zone which he describes as ‘space’s becoming-temporal and time’s becoming-spatial’.30 Here, time itself ‘is expressed in terms of colour’.31 By superimposing three exposures of the same subject the flow of time’s stream is tripled, creating a temporal heterogeneity or ‘thick data’ of glorious misregistrations, as a moving, morphing, technicolour evocation of life in the present moment; a present which is layered-up with past and future in a cosmic, pregnant unity.
By loosening time and space, Paul allows for new forms to coalesce, new forms of seeing and being. Time in This is Not Dying ‘has a different texture, more embodied than measured’.32 Polychromy enables polychrony, deliberately disrupting Western linear teleological temporality. Paul’s ‘embodied’ time could equally be called disembodied, however, because its ‘moving subjects register as transparent phantoms’,33 creating a ‘floating world, one where ancestors walk about with the living...’.34 The skin of this film is inframince, an infinitesimally thin layer separating past and present, living and dead.35 But while Derrida, tongue-in-cheek, coined ‘hauntology’ to describe communism’s eternal return as a kind of living dead philosophy, the term itself is ripe for redeployment, not least by Gayatri Spivak, who uses it as a postcolonial tool to reactivate forgotten histories. Spivak recalls the ghost dance, the Native American ritual uprising which summoned an infusion of ancestral power at a time of great sorrow and hardship, and which can be invoked by Indigenous and postcolonial art practices, constituting ‘a prayer to be haunted’, by living at the seam of the past and the present’.36
In the multi-dimensional, polychronic space of This is Not Dying, if perambulating people become colour-separated ghosts, then trees, which bear the names of Paul’s ancestors, become shimmering demigods. They are alive with spirit or mauri, performing a movement which Paul and Porter liken to ‘wiri’ or the ‘trembling of hands’ in traditional Māori dance, a haptic shimmer. Eaton describes the spiritual potential of the shimmer, in its subtle, exquisite nuance, as that which ‘shivers at the borderline of thought’,37 while ecophilosopher Deborah Bird Rose eulogises ‘the brilliant shimmer of the biosphere’. Rose, who works with Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory, notes that paintings featuring rarrk or cross-hatching are described as performing a ‘shimmer’, which denotes ‘your capacity to see and experience ancestral power’.38 In This is Not Dying, such ancestral power can be seen in a peach tree dancing leafy rivulets of peacock, jade, amethyst and ruby. Watercress growing out of the river, like Goethe’s concept of the Urpflanze, or Archetypal Plant, morphs ceaselessly into the forms of other plants, or the ribs of fish, or clouds in a mackerel sunset. As Brian Massumi puts it, ‘There is a one-word synonym for differential mutual inclusion: life.’39 A marbled leg languishes beside the gushing river, like rainbow oil slicks on tarseal. Flowers in a field of grass flash, like Goethe’s famous encounter with oriental poppies at dusk which seemed to flicker and flame, an experience he went on to recreate several times so that he was able to catalogue its effects, noting that ‘peonies produce beautiful green spectral images’ while calendulas produce ‘lively blue ones’.40
While floral imagery is not explicit in This is Not Dying, the film itself can be interpreted as an inflorescence, as ‘The Flowering of Ngāpuhi’ suggests: a call for sovereignty envisaged as the unfolding of a many-petaled flower. As a popular term for the psychedelia of the 1960s, ‘Flower Power’ is mired in cliché, yet in researching the affectivity of colour, flowers kept blooming before my eyes: page-flowers, screen-flowers, mind-flowers. Goethe simply closes his eyes to imagine an ur-flower from which unfolds an infinity of flowers, ‘as regular as stonemasons’ rosettes’,41 a kaleidoscopic trip without acid. Marks likens Deleuze’s filmic ‘recollection-image’ to ‘those dry paper flowers that expand in water’, that are ‘moistened with memory’ and spring to life.42 For Guattari, ‘worlding’ is a flowering that nevertheless requires a ‘nucleus of chaosmosis’, a ‘vacuole of decompression’ which is an ‘autopoietic node’ or ‘umbilical point’.43 I cannot help but visualise this as the lotus growing out of Vishnu’s bellybutton, which ushers in a world, as he lies on the belly of the serpent Ananta, afloat on the extra-temporal, cosmic, turbid milky ocean.
Andy Warhol’s larger-than-life flower series which he printed throughout the 1960s feature candy-dandy colours which exceed the outlines of the petals, invading the stringy green of the grass, while green creeps over the edges of the blossoms, like Pynchon’s technicolour (‘a bit of lime-green in with your rose’). It is as if a rotation of the kaleidoscope had taken place, and form had not been able to keep pace with colour. In addition to the Cantrills, Paul cites as key influences the colour separations of Len Lye’s early experimental films, particularly his Rainbow Dance of 1936, as well as Warhol’s misregristration of line and colour. As David Batchelor puts it, ‘Warhol’s failure to keep colour in line – his failure to contain and corral his vivid pinks, oranges, reds, yellows and turquoises within the discipline of a contour – is one of his greatest successes.’44 In Warhol’s prints, colour as nomadic animal crosses the line, moving beyond those linear ‘boundary riders of thought’.45
The prism plays with light the same way evolution plays with life. At least, this is what the postscript to the remarkable collection of rainbow-hued essays, Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory beyond Green, suggests. A multiplicity of forms springs from seeming singularity, so the motto is no longer ‘e pluribus unum’, but ‘ex uno plura’.46 This is how Goethe would have it too, visioning a ‘Chromogenesis that associates the process of the engendering of colours with the heterogenesis of visible forms issuing from… Nature...’.47 Deleuze’s ideas around Newton’s prism privilege the participation of colours rather than their subsumption, and ‘each colour is a manifestation of the process of differentiation’.48
The worldly, patchy, speckled and freckled complexion of This is Not Dying is not so much an exercise in dissolving boundaries as of ‘folding and thickening them, diffracting and rendering them iridescent’.49 In an essay on diffraction which creates a mesmerising patternation from strands of physics and decolonial philosophies, Karen Barad asks what if ‘we were to recognize that differentiating is a material act that is not about radical separation, but on the contrary, about making connections and commitments?’50 While Paul loosens and disperses colour, inviting an agentic reimagining of communality, it is the shimmer between rootedness and nomadism, psychedelics and the reality of Indigenous survivance, that makes for such a compelling, turbid weave.
All images are authorised stills from This is Not Dying (2010), dir Nova Paul
Tessa Laird is a Lecturer in Critical and Theoretical Studies at the School of Art, Victorian College of the Arts, University of Melbourne. Originally from Auckland, she has been a noted New Zealand art critic for over twenty years. Her fictocritical book on colour, A Rainbow Reader, was published by Clouds in 2013.
1 Julia Kristeva, ‘Giotto’s Joy’, Desire in Language, Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine, and Leon S Roudiez, trans, Columbia University Press, New York, 1980, p 221
2 Craig Baldwin, Spectres of the Spectrum, Other Cinema, San Francisco, 1999
3 Paul has used the colour separation technique previously, in Pink and White Terraces (2008). Terraces was more episodic, recording random snatches of life around Auckland, and featuring a piercingly acute soundtrack by Rachael Shearer, while This is not Dying is a dedicated love song to a specific site and way of life.
4 Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis: an Ethico-aesthetic Paradigm, Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis, trans, Power Publications, Sydney, 1995, p 83
5 Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, Penguin Books, New York, 2000, p 13
6 The fact that this common term was the name of an African American comedy sketch TV series in the 1990s underlines the racial double entendres which often accompany spectral and pigmental colour, an uncomfortable but nevertheless powerful partnership which Paul is clearly aware of.
7 Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Charles Lam Markmann, trans, Paladin, London, 1970, p 77
8 Michael Taussig, What Colour is the Sacred?, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2009, p 70
9 Michael Taussig, ‘What Colour is the Sacred?’, Critical Inquiry, vol 33, no 1, Autumn 2006, p 31
10 Taussig, What Colour is the Sacred?, op cit, p 23 (italics in the original). Taussig is here talking of psychedelic posters from the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco in the 1960s, appropriate to the title of Paul’s film which is lifted from a psychedelic Beatles’ anthem.
11 Natasha Eaton, Colour, Art and Empire: Visual Culture and the Nomadism of Representation, I B Tauris, London, 2013, p 4. Eaton sets up a fascinating, troubled criss-crossing weave, between nomad colour and the sedentary tendencies of colonial British rule in India.
12 Éric Alliez, The Brain-Eye: New Histories of Modern Painting, with collaboration from Jean-Clet Martin, Robin Mackay, trans, Rowman and Littlefield International, London and New York, 2016, p 27
13 This phallocentric term is only used here because it seems appropriate to the prismatic-jismatic ever-gushing McKenzie Falls in the Grampians, Victoria, filmed with the Cantrills’ colour-separation technique and thus tripling the waterflow volume.
14 Quoted in Laura U Marks, Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses, Duke University Press, Durham, 1999, p 61
15 ‘Dr Isaac Earl Featherston’, from An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A H McLintock, originally published in 1966. Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/1966/featherston-dr-isaac-earl, accessed 11 March 2017.
16 Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonising Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, Zed Books, London, 2012, pp 29–30
17 Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: a Freudian Impression, Eric Prenowitz, trans, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1995, p 60. This specific passage was referred to by Gerald Vizenor in his essay ‘Aesthetics of Survivance’, in Gerald Vizenor, ed, Survivance: Narratives of Native Presence, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2008, p 21.
18 Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, ‘Introduction: Ecology’s Rainbow’, Prismatic Ecology: Ecotheory Beyond Green, edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2013, p xxix
19 Timothy Leary, The Politics of Ecstasy, Paladin, Suffolk, 1970
20 Arun Saldanha, Psychedelic White: Goa Trance and the Viscosity of Race, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007, pp 6, 12
21 Marks, Skin of the Film, op cit, p 62
22 ‘Two streams’ also brings to mind Heraclitus’s idea that you cannot step into the same river twice – an acknowledgement of constant flux in sympathy with the fluid relationship to time and identity evident in Paul’s film.
23 Marks, Skin of the Film, op cit, p xiii
24 Written by Piripi Cope as a protest song in 1984. http://www.folksong.org.nz/nga_puawai/index.html
25 Taussig, What Colour is the Sacred?, op cit, p 149
26 Alliez, The Brain-Eye, op cit, pp 20–21, p 23
27 Saldanha, Psychedelic White, op cit, p 12. Here Saldanha is quoting Stuart Hall.
28 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Brian Massumi, trans, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2009, p 270
29 Barry Barclay, Our own image, Longman Paul, Auckland, 1990, p 17
30 Jacques Derrida, ‘Difference’, Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, David B Allison, trans, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1973, p 129, p 136
31 Arthur Cantrill, ‘Waterfall’, Cantrill’s Filmnotes, #45/46, October 1984, p 2
32 Paul and Porter, ‘The Virtues of Trees’, Form Next to Form Next to Form, Dent-de-Leone, London, 2012, unpaginated
33 Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, ‘Two-colour separation’, Cantrill’s Filmnotes, #35/36, April 1981, pp 70–71
34 Paul and Porter, op cit, unpaginated. On watching the film, one of the local kids from the marae commented that the coloured echoes of figures peopling the frame ‘look like ghosts but they aren’t scary’, ibid.
35 Indeed, Arthur Cantrill even describes his and Corinne Cantrill’s film Waterfall as ‘ectoplasmic’. ‘Waterfall’ op cit, p 2
36 Gayatri Spivak, ‘Ghostwriting’, Diacritics, vol 25, no 2, 1995, p 78
37 Eaton, Colour, Art and Empire, op cit, p 61
38 Deborah Bird Rose, ‘Shimmer: When All You Love is Being Trashed’, at Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, Santa Cruz, California, May 8–10, 2014, Archived at: https://vimeo.com/97758080, by Aarhus University, Denmark
39 Brian Massumi, What Animals Teach Us About Politics, Duke University Press, Durham, 2014, p 34
40 Alliez, op cit, The Brain-Eye, pp 26–27
41 Ibid, p 1. Nietzsche was also wont to see flowers when he closed his eyes, but this was a malady associated both with migraines and the drugs with which he sought to mitigate them. For Nietzsche, mind-flowers were both haunting and taunting, affording no rest.
42 Marks, Skin of the Film, op cit, p 53
43 Guattari, Chaosmosis, op cit, p 80
44David Batchelor, Chromophobia, Reaktion, London, 2000, p 61
45 Taussig, ‘What Colour is the Sacred?’, Critical Inquiry, op cit, p 32
46 Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann, ‘Onward: After Green Ecologies, Prismatic Visions’, Prismatic Ecology, op cit, p 334
47 Alliez, The Brain-Eye, op cit, p 19
48 Eaton, Colour, Art and Empire, op cit, p 13
49 Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Cannibal Metaphysics: for a Post-structural Anthropology, Peter Skafish, trans, Univocal, Minneapolis, 2014, p 45. Viveiros de Castro’s notions of folding, thickening and iridescence, are in response to the quote from Deleuze and Guattari, ‘This is what we are getting at: a generalised chromaticism’, A Thousand Plateaus, op cit, p 97
50 Karen Barad, ‘Diffracting Diffraction: Cutting Together-Apart’, Parallax, vol 20, no 3, p 184. Here, Barad is quoting herself in a previous paper.