Make Visible The Ghosts (For Paul Clipson) Aki Onda shares a beautiful memorial essay on late filmmaker Paul Clipson ahead of new collaborative release

On September 20, audioMER. is releasing a new collaborative project by New York-based composer/artist/curator Aki Onda and the late San Francisco filmmaker Paul Clipson. Titled Make Visible The Ghosts, the four-track release features Onda’s soundtrack to Clipson’s large-size collage artwork, developed together over the course of two years and completed just a few months before Clipson passed away in 2018.

Ahead of Make Visible The Ghosts’s release — which arrives on limited-edition vinyl with a six-panel foldout poster — Onda has shared with us a beautiful memorial essay on Clipson.

In 2009, I met Paul Clipson at the taxi stand outside the Amsterdam Schiphol Airport and shared a ride to the International Film Festival Rotterdam. That evening, we showed our works in the same bill—Paul’s Super 8 films with music improvised by the Belgian band R.O.T. and my Cinemage project, slide projections of my still photographs, with the French guitarist Noël Akchoté. Our image-making methodologies, though carried out in different media, share proximity—starting from a personal recording of snapshots from daily life, materials are edited with unconventional techniques and transformed into a particular and peculiar form of moving images. We showed our images with improvised live music, balancing the visual and aural, avoiding either side becoming an accompaniment of the other. I saw Paul’s films for the first time that night and was reminded of Stan Brakhage’s visual intensity and physicality of camera movements. In particular Dog Star Man (1961–64) came to my mind, though something was rather different, which I couldn’t figure out at that time. Paul immediately saw a deep connection to Chris Marker’s La jetée (1962) in my Cinemage project.

We loved each other’s work, and our friendship lasted for the next nine years until Paul’s tragic sudden death in February 2018. We would hang out when he visited New York for his screenings, often over morning coffee at a café in Brooklyn, or we would dine at my place in Greenpoint. When I was staying at the Headlands residency near San Francisco, we met at his favorite café and his apartment, where Paul’s wife, Lena (Yelena Soboleva), cooked a delicious lunch and dessert for me and my wife, Makiko. Paul also visited my studio at the residency a few times.

Recalling this past, I wonder how our first meeting as “visual makers” might have affected our relationship. Paul always teamed up with musicians for his screenings, and I’m a musician who often works with filmmakers. Despite this fact, I don’t recall ever speaking about the possibility of collaborating together, though it unexpectedly happened a few times. We just loved talking about film, music, life, and whatever came to our minds. Something resonated deeply in our minds. It’s not surprising, since we both explore a highly personal approach to old-fashioned analogue technology such as Super 8, 16mm, portable cassette recorder, and radio, and our works deal with memory, time, space, and their reflections. We had a lot to share. Perhaps it was our strong desire to cross into the context of the other—Paul was passionate about music and I had a penchant for avant-garde film. Or that we tended to search for a transcendent level of reality for our works, emotionally and spiritually. Paul often said, “I don’t see myself as an experimental filmmaker,” which is to say he didn’t want to be caught up in the dogmatism of the genre, in order to be true to his vision; I feel the same way when considering my position as a musician in the field of experimental music. Paul was a film enthusiast and considered narrative film as his influence—works by Welles, Antonioni, Buñuel, and Godard. I remember we once discussed how both of us were mesmerized by Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012), with its complexity of abstracted and absurd narratives and idiosyncratic visual sensations. We agreed that we don’t need to understand everything and that it’s crucial, and even vital, to have a sense of mystery. We felt strongly for some of Bruce Conners’ works. What makes his mystic piece White Rose (1967) so remarkable? We both admired Nathaniel Dorsky’s cinematic poems and his exploration of film as a medium and its relationship to religion, which Dorsky described in his book Devotional Cinema. I recall that discussing this book deepened my understanding of Paul’s work. Dorsky notes: “The works I found most interesting were those that were discovering a language unique to film… I begin to notice that moments of revelation or aliveness come to me from the way a filmmaker used film itself. Shifts of light from shot to shot, for instance, could be very visceral and affective. I observed that there was a concordance between film and our human metabolism, and that this concordance was fertile ground for expression, a basis for exploring a language intrinsic to film. In fact, film’s physical properties seemed so attuned to our metabolism that I begin to experience film as a direct and intimate metaphor or model for our being, a model which had the potential to be transformative, to be evocative of spirit, and become a form of devotion.”

As for Paul’s case, what fascinated him through his camera—moving through space, often with a macro lens and the rack focus, the focus is shifting non-stop as his gaze moves along—his perception of the world itself became the subject of his film. I watched Paul’s footage he left with me again—starting from the close up of pink petals and stamens, the reflections of sunlight on the surface of water, a spider web, water running on the ground, sunlight through a window, sky, sunlight in a puddle, sunset at a beach, a tall building, a woman standing in red light (Yelena’s daughter, Anya Kamenskaya, who often appeared in his films), her hand, the reflection of lights, the close up of her eye, the dilation of the pupil, geometrical pattern of lights, and so on—the same subjects appear and disappear again and again, often shot with double exposure and presented as a series of short bursts no more than a few seconds at a time. Everything in his films has an equal presence; it is an animistic world. The nature of his reality is nothing but flux, and everything flows in the space. It is not a dream but the hyper-reality of his gaze and mind dissolving boundaries between the internal and external.

Let me explain how this album Make Visible The Ghost was made. In 2012, I was an artist-in-residence at ISSUE Project Room and was supposed to present three projects. Somehow, one of those went up in smoke. Paul and I had our usual café meeting around that time and one of us suggested we perform together as a substitute. We had a few months to prepare, and Paul suggested we each compose a 70-minute piece without seeing what the other was making. It would be something of a blind date, though we already knew each other’s work quite well. As I remember, Paul gave me the preview file of his final edit three days before the performance. Watching the preview, I realized that his images do not work with silence—they require sound to complete the form (unlike Dorsky’s films, which entail silence). As soon as I juxtaposed my sounds with Paul’s footage, the images blossomed—the shapes and lights started moving faster and the colors saturated. It’s quite an interesting phenomenon. One element is the intrinsic rhythmic pulses of his images—generated by his combination of in-camera editing, montage, and superimposition—which grow to accommodate friction and tension when paired with musical elements. I assume this is a rare and unique technique he developed over the years of collaborating with many musicians (notably Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Liz Harris aka Grouper). I also noticed that Paul’s editing carries both roughness and looseness, giving space for the sounds to float. Some parts were meticulously edited, only to be disrupted by a mix of rowdy snapshots. Those sudden changes in scene, texture, and color give accents to the flow of the images, but somehow don’t affect the flow of music. Paul mentioned to me: “Those are sort of rushes and can be partly different or the same at each screening.” This open-ended structure allows sound to co-exist with the visual with ease. Perhaps it doesn’t work for making a masterpiece in a classical sense, but it surely helps in establishing an original style or language.

Paul Clipson collage from a 2013 performance with Onda at ISSUE Project Room.

At that time ISSUE Project Room was nomadic (temporarily closing down their venue because of an architectural problem), so our performance took place at Light Industry at 155 Freeman in Brooklyn in February of 2013. The space had neither a projection room nor a screen, which was Light Industry’s style and preference, so the images were projected directly on the wall. Paul positioned his 16 mm projector on one side of the room and I placed a big table for my gear next to it. Naturally, my ears started catching the sound of the spinning film reels, which I decided to amplify with a piezo microphone. (On this album, you hear the sound at the beginning of the first track and periodically again until the end.) It boosted his presence in the room. This additional layer of the amplified rhythmic pulse became a sort of tonal center for my sounds as well as his images and a part of the polyrhythmic tapestry woven by both the visual and aural. It also led me to another quick decision to adopt the frequency noises of the radio (you hear this from the beginning to the end, almost non-stop), since those random and irregular radio waves made strong contrast and built tension with the constant rhythmic pulse of the spinning reels. I recently found one hour’s worth of a recorded conversation Paul and I had that same year, which was originally taped for a requested magazine feature but never materialized. Here I quote a short excerpt from that…

Onda: I play a sound that matches the image and also play a sound that doesn’t match with the image, and both make tension.

Clipson: The tension is the most important, and that’s what the audience is feeling. It’s not about the sound and image resolving. It’s about the ambiguity between them and suddenly this feeling of coalescence, then also disparity and dissonance. I found it very exciting during the show that there were periods where it was suspenseful without any purpose, just because this interaction or relationship is changing.

Onda: The visual and sound are just two media. But their relationship can be so complex and so fluid.

Clipson: Yes, it can be relating and not relating. It’s about coincidence. They are in the shared space, and it creates all kinds of interactions that begin multiplying.

After the performance, Paul and I started discussing how its documentation could be transformed to fit publication, but it took more than a few years to find the desirable format. First, BOMB Magazine asked us if they could post an excerpt of the performance on their website, so we made an eight-minute video. We briefly thought about producing a DVD of the entire show, although both of us weren’t sure what would be best. In 2015, the Belgian label audioMER. released an album of my Cinemage project as a combination of vinyl LP and a large-size collage artwork poster. Both Paul and I realized the same format would work for our collaboration, and we jumped on the idea immediately. Since we didn’t have a clear deadline, I took time to edit and mix from nearly three hours of the multi-track recording (the entirety of the two sets we performed and the rehearsal). Paul’s idea for the collage artwork changed multiple times until he fixed the final layout of still-frame images from the footage (there were rather different variations along the way). Equally, track names and the title of the album changed as well. I made a long list of possible titles and Paul eventually selected from them for the album and each track. According to our email correspondence, we finished the production around the end of 2017, and it was ready to go.

Then, a few months later, out of the blue, I heard the shocking news of his departure from this world, at the age of 52. I was wrapped in sorrow and found it hard to face reality. Paul was a beautiful person and talented filmmaker who developed an intensely personal approach to the moving image and its presentation. I wondered how this could happen at the moment his artistic form became so solid and his career was flourishing? He vanished mysteriously. A void opened up in my mind and our collective consciousness. What’s left is his work, although his presence at screenings has gone. I am watching his images again to see if I can find an answer or even a clue—a kaleidoscope of superimpositions, neon lights passing through the frame and coming back, deep red light, a wide-open eye and an eyelash, all scenes are connected, and energy circulates in the universe… It is his vision of the world. It surely suggests more, but I’m not able to explain. A mystery remains.

Aki Onda (Photo: Bozzo)

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