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Visions of Light

Philadelphia's Peter Rose Remaps Urban Topography in His Experimental Films

Jeff Fusco

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 9/3/2008

In a few weeks, the Philadelphia-based filmmaker Peter Rose will come to Baltimore. Guided by local improviser and High Zero co-organizer John Berndt, Rose will visit several desolate landscapes in the city and take video of them using a process he calls "transfalumination."

"I've just been studying the way light works, and trying to find ways of seeing things in some altered fashion," Rose says by phone. "I've been studying what happens when you project a sheet of light into space. It's an interesting way of deconstructing three-dimensional objects."

Making his first appearance at High Zero, Rose is the only filmmaker on this year's program. Although Rose began his work as a filmmaker, he has also produced video art, installation art, and more recently has worked with musicians to produce soundtracks for his films.

He started making films in 1965, an era when experimental filmmakers sought to escape the confines of narrative and expectations of aesthetic beauty through making work that returned ceaselessly to the basic questions of the medium. In his 1982 "Secondary Currents," which is described in the film's title credits as a "film noir," Rose pushes the sound and image concerns of structuralist filmmakers by creating a work that is "imageless": on a black screen, white subtitles translate the gibberish of the unreliable narrator in the voice-over.

Although Rose's film fit squarely in the structuralist tradition, he says that he tried to expand the concerns of experimental film in order to envelop larger issues. "I always thought about how to take those structural questions and integrate them into something that was more lyrical or poetic," he says. "[More recently], the structural has been subsumed to larger questions about perception. The questions of the medium are the starting point, but I don't see that as the end point."

Like many experimental filmmakers, from Ken Jacobs to Ernie Gehr, Rose's investigations into film as a material object with aesthetic uses led him away from cinema proper in order to explore new ways of seeing. In his most recent transfalumination work, he uses specialized lighting techniques in order to explore the "interstices of urban geography." Although Rose's work will not be entirely improvisational, as is much of the music at High Zero, he says that he thinks of this work as performative.

"I consider the way I'm producing these images improvisatory," he says. "It's not scripted or any way rehearsed. I'm going to structure these things as little performances taking place on the screen."

In his "Studies in Transfalumination," which is available on YouTube, Rose turns warehouse buildings, leafy trees, and fields of grass into otherworldly chiaroscuro-like images, stripped down and segmented by his light device. The effect combines the hyperrealism of contemporary photography with the abstract imagery of Stan Brakhage's hand-painted films.

Rose's High Zero videos will be accompanied by the Baltimore-based improvisational orchestra Second Nature. Rose, who says he uses musical concepts to structure his pieces, feels that the orchestra will see the work with fresh eyes. "The idea is for them to know very little about what's going to be on the screen," he says. "It will be a loose configuration of sound and image."

Experimental filmmakers have long had difficulty finding an audience for their work, which Rose, like other filmmakers, argues is due to problems with distribution, not lack of interest. He has joined experimental film luminaries such as Jacobs and Jonas Mekas in putting much of his work online on a range of sites, from YouTube to the avant-garde online depository Ubu. Rose says that putting his work online allows him to reach audiences he might not otherwise.

"Putting the work up on the web and making it accessible functions as a beautiful end run around the curatorial system that I've always had problems with," he says. "You do find, if you're lucky, an audience of a more distributive sort. It's still an underground thing, but it's a little more transparently accessible."

While Rose's High Zero performance will not be entirely improvisational, he says that he hopes that the speed at which he will make and edit his light videos in Baltimore, and the rapid response of Second Nature to those images, will pay off. "We've got these two groups of people that are working blind, and hoping that when something is put together something miraculous will happen," he says. "I'm looking forward to that night. It's going to be a surprise."

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