Center for Visual Music / Jordan Belson

By Edwin Rostron

Center for Visual Music is an archive dedicated to visual music and abstract cinema, which preserves and promotes films by Oskar Fischinger, Jordan Belson, Charles Dockum, Mary Ellen Bute, Jules Engel, The Whitney Brothers and others of the visual music tradition, together with artwork and historical documentation. CVM also curates contemporary work, organizes museum exhibitions, and distributes DVD compilations.

Image from Spirals by Oskar Fischinger (1926) © Center for Visual Music

CVM is based in Los Angeles but its reach is far wider. Their fantastic reconstruction of Oskar Fischinger’s 1920s ‘Raumlichtkunst’ was installed at Tate Modern from June 2012 to March 2013 to great acclaim, and this month they bring a range of programmes to Bristol and London. The first is at Bristol’s Arnolfini Centre for Contemporary Arts, where an illustrated lecture on the pioneers of kinetic art and visual music will be followed by a retrospective of the films of Jordan Belson, the legendary filmmaker who passed away in 2011, and who in the words of film historian William Moritz, was ‘one of the greatest artists of visual music’.

Belson’s work also features at Tate Modern, in Found: new restorations and discoveries from Center for Visual Music, a programme of work ranging from absolute film to psychedelia. Also featuring films by Oskar Fischinger and John Cage, this promises to be a revelatory evening of lost, legendary and rare treasures from the CVM archives. In addition to these screenings, three of Belson’s films are included in the upcoming Raven Row exhibition Reflections from Damaged Life. An exhibition on psychedelia, alongside work by Pierre Huyghe, The Otolith Group, Sigmar Polke, and an eclectic range of other artists.

CVM’s commitment to preserving and exhibiting work by Belson, Fischinger and many other artists working with experimental animation and visual music is only one aspect of the work they do. Their website is an incredible resource for anyone interested in this area, with much detailed information on filmmakers and their work, links to a huge range of articles and online resources, and a shop featuring a great range of books and dvds.

Excerpt from Music of the Spheres (1977/2002) by Jordan Belson (1926-2011)

It is particularly exciting to have the chance to see the work of Jordan Belson. He withdrew his work from distribution decades ago due to the poor condition of the prints in circulation, and as a result it has been difficult to see anything by him for some time. CVM’s ongoing restoration project brings us the opportunity to see important works by this major artist that many will be unfamiliar with, films which explore ‘consciousness, transcendence, and the nature of light itself’ (Cindy Keefer). Belson was reluctant to discuss his films or his methods, preferring the viewer to make their own minds up. He said, “the films are not meant to be explained, analyzed, or understood. They are more experiential, more like listening to music.” (1992–94 interview with Scott MacDonald in A Critical Cinema 3).

Archivist, curator and Director of CVM Cindy Keefer told me more about Belson and CVM via email.

EoF: How did Center for Visual Music begin?

CK: CVM was founded in 2003, it’s our 10 year anniversary. Our founders included William Moritz, Barbara Fischinger, Jules Engel, John Whitney, Jr. and myself, with the additional support of Richard Baily, Jordan Belson, John Canemaker and others.

EoF: The work of many artists in the area of abstract film and visual music has often been somewhat overlooked and misunderstood. What do you feel are the main reasons for this?

CK: There are a variety of factors; some work just isn’t widely accessible, others only in very poor copies on youtube which often leads viewers to dismiss the work when indeed they haven’t seen and experienced it properly. Many historical films languish in archives and private collections which simply don’t have adequate access programs, or a mission to screen the avant-garde. Some artists mistakenly think that by placing their films with a large archive, that this archive will help screen and distribute them, which is usually not the case at all. They often get lost among the more commercial holdings. There are exceptions, of course.

Image from Allures by Jordan Belson (1961) © Center for Visual Music

EoF: What have been the main challenges in preserving Jordan Belson’s work?

CK: Funding, funding and funding. That’s always the hurdle, before the work can be preserved, digitized and made more accessible. It’s a critical juncture now, as more funding is needed to preserve the 16mm originals and digitize these films, before it’s no longer possible to work from the 16mm originals. And most must be restored first before any digitization is possible.  Thus we’re always fundraising for this essential work.

EoF: Why did Belson want to remove the prints of his work from distribution?

CK: He did remove them from distribution, decades ago. Belson was very concerned with proper presentation conditions. He didn’t want people seeing the work unless it was properly shown – and scratched, faded, pink prints do not represent his work or his intent. Many venues show prints whether or not they are in good condition, and he was not interested in this at all.

Removing from distribution also avoids future problems as prints fade. Unfortunately there are a few very badly faded older prints still in existence, and it was painful to him when these were brought out and shown. For this reason, we never sold any prints of his films, even the restored prints; you can’t predict how faded or scratched they might be in 20 years and if the future owner is responsible, or will show them anyway no matter the condition. Also regarding proper presentation, online clips today do not represent his work; he did not want his films on youtube, for example. He was very happy with our Belson Retrospective, knowing that we’d keep standards very high with good prints. This Retrospective with restored 16mm prints screens at Arnolfini, Bristol on Sept 21.

EoF: Do you think Belson was satisfied with the reception of his work?

CK: Belson did not make his work for others, and did not necessarily care about others’ reactions. He worked for his own fulfilment. He also did not give interviews, and claimed he’d said everything in his interview with Scott MacDonald (in A Critical Cinema 3). He didn’t want to discuss the same question always, “how do you do it (and/or) how do you make those effects”.

EoF: The upcoming Tate screening “explores lost, legendary and rare treasures found in the archives of Center for Visual Music”. Could you give a sense of how much material there is in those archives, and how much of an undertaking it is to maintain and preserve it?

CK: Our archive has a good amount of unseen films by Belson, Fischinger, Dockum and others, many awaiting funding to preserve and /or digitize. We also have many dozens of rarely-seen films, which remain to be digitized. We don’t receive state funding for the arts in the US, so it’s a very slow process. We also have works by contemporary artists that are not broadly distributed. Additionally, our archive has many hundreds of unshot animation drawings by Fischinger; plus original animation artwork by many artists. If we had support, we could easily tour a new program every year of rare, unseen and newly found work. We’ve just completed restoration of some newly discovered animation tests by Fischinger, short fragments made in Hollywood in the 1940s, which we restored from the original nitrate. And there’s a wealth of Belson material that’s just never been screened; only a few examples are in the upcoming program at Tate Modern. These include the premiere of our restoration of Belson’s legendary film, ‘LSD’ and one of his presentation reels used in the Vortex Concerts (1957-59).

Image from Séance by Jordan Belson (1959) © Center for Visual Music

EoF: CVM seems very active right now, and it is great to be able to see these works here in the UK. Are you optimistic about the future of CVM? Do you feel there is a growing audience for this work?

CK: Yes, there is a growing audience for abstract animation, many of whom are introduced through their discovery of “visual music,” an increasingly popular artform. CVM will continue (as funding allows) to digitize and promote these films, release DVD compilations, distribute our curated programs of preserved film, and organize museum exhibitions. We’ll continue to have events and screenings in the UK, Europe, New York and even Australia, as most of our activities are not in Los Angeles. There’s a much greater appreciation for film as art elsewhere. We’re so pleased to find such appreciative audiences for this work in the UK.

Please visit CVM’s fascinating website, and consider joining CVM as a member to help support and preserve this work.

For more information on Jordan Belson, visit CVM’s Belson research pages

Details of upcoming screenings and events:

Center for Visual Music Presents
Arnolfini Centre for Contemporary Arts, Bristol UK
Saturday 21 September 2013, 18:30 to 21:30
6.30pm – Pioneers of Pre-Digital Cinema and Kinetic Art: The Archives of Center for Visual Music (Illustrated lecture by Cindy Keefer)
8.00pm – Jordan Belson Retrospective: Films Sacred and Profane
Part of Animated Encounters

Found: new restorations and discoveries from Center for Visual Music
Tate Modern, London UK
Thursday 26 September 2013, 19.00 to 21.00

Reflections from Damaged Life. An exhibition on psychedelia
Raven Row, London UK
26 September to 15 December 2013
Includes Belson’s films Séance, World and Chakra (digital display).


© Edwin Rostron 2013