Menken at work: the artist introduces her hand in Go!Go!Go!
A machinic viewpoint emerges: stop-motion reveals the repetitive patterns of the Alhambra in Arabesque for Kenneth Anger.
Menkenís camera transforms the Manhattan inhabitants into strangely gliding ghosts.
Going beyond natural optics, the mechanical backbone of our surroundings is exposed.
Viewing the world at full speed as the handheld camera journeys into the city.
New thoughts emerge from aboard a speeding train.
Through fast motion, the expanse of Warhol’s (art)work comes into view.
The Menken (super) express reveals the repetitive nature of Warholís mechanically reproduced Jackies.
Lines and repetition make up the raw material for construction.
The human ant farm emerges from a birdís-eye view.
Reworking the surroundings: camera as bulldozer.
Close-up on Warhol’s hands through Menken’s handheld camera: artist-worker meets artist-worker.
An unglamorous look at a day in the life of Warhol’s Factory workers.
Menken takes us to the real source of Warhol’s value and the backstage construction at the Factory.
Up close and personal, Menken moves and works alongside the busy Manhattanites.
A look at Willard Maas busy at work, showing that no creativity comes without labor.
by Caroline Guo
“I just liked the twitters of the machine”—such was Marie Menken’s explanation of her draw towards filmmaking. [open notes in new window] And thus it follows, upon discovering the kinetic potentials of the medium, so began her transition from paint to film, celebrating cinema’s capacities to observe, capture, and impose movement. Menken’s concerns with motion both within the frame and with regard to her own camera movement have since been likened to
However, while her films undoubtedly display a free-swinging and free-flowing visual melody, I also see a certain staccato punching the tune—a pronounced, machinic viewpoint cast onto her surroundings, denaturalizing the environment through her frequent use of stop-motion. Consequently, I come back to Menken’s original, seemingly innocent statement to rethink her work along the line of these “twitters,” this “machine,” and the implications of this statement—or the mechanics behind the camera as an apparatus and filmmaking as a practice.
That is to say, through her films’ kineticism, Menken goes beyond just exercising a certain freedom of expression to reveal and revel in a mechanical reworking of her surroundings. Melissa Ragona also recognizes the comparison of Menken’s work to poetry as potentially reductive, instead examining Menken’s manipulation of the medium in relation to a larger exploration of film form and aesthetics. Yet, going past the aesthetic surface of the images, this manipulation proves striking not only for its visual dimensions but also because Menken makes no attempts to hide this degree of reworking. In other words, she makes no attempt to render illusory the amount of work put into her camera(work). For instance, both at the beginning and end of Go!Go!Go! (1962-1964), which she called her “major work” and the focus of this essay, she waves her arm in front of the camera and in the mirror. In between, she releases an onslaught of frenetic images of the city of Manhattan and its inhabitants, transforming them into robots, ghosts—anything but simply human. Thus, nothing appears to come naturally—not the manner in which these metropolitan individuals carry on their routines, and certainly not the creation of these images themselves, made possible only through the exertion of her own hand in the process.
As a result, I argue that Menken’s use of the mechanical capacities of film actually serves to reveal the underlying—or overarching, rather—fabric of labor necessary in carrying out daily life and artistic creation, which is a structure that, in the words of Walter Benjamin, normally lies “beyond natural optics.” Effectively, the techniques employed in her work venture beyond the limits of natural perception in order to render visible the normally intangible, oft-concealed details and systems that make up our surroundings—in particular, the universality of labor in defining the material world and human condition. Thus, her handling of the camera and film medium can be viewed in relationship to Benjamin’s 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” According to Benjamin, film, as a medium based in mechanical reproduction, is capable of uncovering the invisible structures and processes of mechanical reproduction that lie at the heart of modern society. In Menken’s case, though, it is less of a reproduction of the sights around her, but a representation. Through her handheld camera, she ultimately offers a vision of the world that brings forth a meditation on not only the mechanical form of film, but also the mechanical form of being—an exposure of the backbone of labor that proves an intrinsic part of modern existence as well as her own art, or work, of filmmaking.
A journey across the Brooklyn Bridge, taken aboard a moving vehicle: up goes Menken’s camera, catching a glimpse of the cables dividing the sky above; out to the side it turns, looking at the buildings lining the cityscape. Immediately following her waving hand in Go!Go!Go!, these shots announce the imminent arrival into Manhattan. And yet, this is anything but a typical day trip: the excursion is an accelerated one, viewed through the window of the vehicle in motion and the rapid speed of the stop-motion film. Thus, from the very beginning, Menken conveys a mechanically manipulated manner of perceiving the city and, eventually, its inhabitants.
Concerning the potential behind such a moving, vehicular viewpoint, Ralph Waldo Emerson exclaims in his essay “Nature”:
Trees could be rendered as lines; hills as paintstrokes—the world, when viewed through the screen of the train window and motion of the locomotive, begins to take on previously unseen dimensions. Indicating the significance of such a perspective, Menken inserts a second shot later in the film also taken aboard a moving vehicle, and this time clearly on a train. Offering a blurred view of the landscape, the particularity of this window seat lies in its ability to leave us with more of an impression—an idea—of the environment rather than a single clear image of it. Consequently, we have the opportunity not only to perceive our surroundings in different terms but also to rethink the structures of this world unfolding before us at full speed.
Of course, Emerson’s exclamation came much earlier (in 1836), when such motion was a novelty. However, Menken also registers more than just a perspective taken through a moving locomotive. Her view is a fast-forwarded one—a motion on top of a motion, or a speeding up of a speeding up, lending itself to as ort of hyper-kineticism. That is, within a given amount of time, we are subjected to several times the amount of stimuli than we would be had the images been rendered in real-time. Likewise for her film Andy Warhol (1965), which uses the same process of single-frame photography, Menken described it as “[a] long day in the life of Pop artist Andy Warhol shortened into minutes.” Indeed, when faced with such a stream of images, we are able (and forced) to gather a larger sense of the filmed subject in a shorter amount of time—in a brief ride aboard the Menken (super) express, where movement, space, and time are all emphatically denaturalized.
In fact, such compression, intensification, and ultimate reanimation—reworking—of Manhattan through this stop-motion technique bring the place and its people to obey a new order of time and space that both condenses and reveals the overarching patterns of an entire day in just under twelve minutes. Menken’s use of an overtly processed viewpoint and purposeful venturing outside the limits of natural perception come to divulge the usually imperceptible qualities of concrete phenomena, echoing Benjamin’s description of the revolutionary aspects of film. Specifically, he declares:
While Menken uses the opposite of slow-motion, her fast-motion’s revelatory potential reflects Benjamin’s argument that such changes in speed do not simply make the subject’s already visible details more visible but actually expose what is usually illusory. As a matter of fact, acceleration is a process that can prove equally revealing. Although it renders minute differences and details indistinct, this erasure of individual faces and creation of smooth masses of “strangely gliding” bodies brings forth notions of uniformity as well as, in Ragona’s words, “the aggressive serial repetition that Menken achieves through pixilation.” Effectively, such repetition is a running pattern throughout her works, produced by her manipulation of the medium. In Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1961), Menken directs our gaze to and speeds up the view of the repeating lines structuring the Alhambra; in Andy Warhol, the artist’s mass-produced Brillo boxes are seen in rapid succession, indistinguishable from one another. While this serial repetition is deliberately and mechanically achieved, Menken also brings to light that such a pattern is already part of the environment, its structures, and, most significantly, its people. Her stop-motion just renders it more perceptible.
Thus, repetition is there and perhaps everywhere: it just needs to be actively looked for and exposed. Moreover, it becomes evident that above all (or underneath it all), this serves as a principal structuring device of not only architecture and concrete objects, but also the implementation of human actions and specifically their work. Twice in Go!Go!Go! Menken films underway constructions sites, stationing herself at a distance. Now that these individuals who are busy laboring away have been rendered in miniature, rapidly moving form, repetition becomes the most discernible aspect of their movement as they resemble a human ant farm of sorts, scurrying forth with their seemingly pre-prescribed roles and endless amounts of tasks. By viewing the construction from such a perspective and pace, we can get the bigger picture of the amount of effort involved in transforming these sites as well as the impression of a uniform, laboring body maintaining the city.
At the same time, Menken often foregoes her distant window seat in order to throw herself directly into the crowds, caught amidst the flow of their repetitive currents. Instead of just observing the bustling bodies through a static camera and intervelometer-driven recording, which would provide a similarly sped-up view yet only a single perspective of such action, Menken’s handheld camera and moving use of single-frame photography demonstrate both the mobility of her perspective as well as her own movement and involvement in this environment. Frequently in quite close proximity to these anonymous strangers, she is moving as they are moving, which appears to render the surrounding activity more accessible and, in a way tactile. That is to say, she is not only seeing this hyper-kinetic movement up close but also experiencing it firsthand—and in turn giving us as spectators a chance to experience this pace too.
In addition, Sitney claims,
In other words, by placing herself in the middle of the city’s movement, she is not only moving as they are moving but also working as they are working. She seems to acknowledge her own place alongside these individuals and consequently her own act of filming as being busy at work as well. Her participation also forces her filming into a more frenetic, unstable pace, demonstrating the extent to which she is both shaped by the surrounding movement and simultaneously striving to reshape this movement, caught in a constant give-and-take between filmmaker and city—worker and world. Just like the laborers, in order to attain her desired image of the city, she also has to work for it, reordering it bit by bit or frame by frame. In lieu of cranes and bulldozers, though, the handheld camera becomes the main (re)construction tool.
All in a day’s work
Package, tape, repeat: in Andy Warhol, the beginning of the artist’s workday is rendered in stop-motion, making these his main, discernible actions and reinforcing the relentless cycle he is engaged in. The visualization of his day as well as inclusion of fellow Factory workers is reminiscent of Menken’s representation of the teams of construction workers in Go!Go!Go!, who are also involved in such regularity of action. Furthermore, when describing the making of this film, Menken stated how “some of the sequences took over an hour to shoot, and last perhaps a minute on the screen.” Thus, in order to achieve the smooth, accelerated effect, the unavoidable task of taking single images must come first. There is no short cut, only and always just work to be done.
Ultimately then, no matter the status—whether the celebrity Warhol or the unidentifiable laborers, and whether in front of or behind the camera—one common factor emerges: we all have to work. Matthew Tinkcom, in emphasizing the omniscience of this system, claims that
Consequently, by going beyond the glamour of Warhol’s star persona and completed products, Menken plunges into the construction sites that usually remain concealed from public view whilst exposing the structure of labor governing the artist’s day-to-day circumstances. Here is where he gets his worth from—his immense capacities to continually carry out such labor form the real foundation of his success.
It becomes necessary here to point out a distinction between work and labor. Tinkcom describes labor as the continuous, repetitive process involved in carrying out daily life in the modern world, while work implies a more subjective act or an act that humans create for themselves. At the same time, I find that this distinction reinforces the notion that labor and work are mostly inseparable, as it is often impossible to achieve this subjective act of work without the structure of labor as support. For instance, while we can consider the overall craft of filmmaking as work, the process needed to carry out this subjective act could very much be defined as labor due to its continuous, repetitive nature that potentially determine both the making-of and the artist’s lifestyle. In Go!Go!Go! Menken films her husband, underground filmmaker and poet Willard Maas in front of his typewriter. Clutching his head in his hands, refilling the paper, standing up to contemplate, repeat—his creative frustration is displayed as largely laborious, and the placement of his scene in the middle of the film contains him within the daily grind instead of outside of it. Therefore, despite—or because of—these singular efforts to work as an artist, he is still inevitably engrained in the overall structure of labor that defines the running of the urban jungle.
Similar to the manner in which Maas is represented, Warhol also puts on display the labor behind the aesthetic surface and becomes a representation of Menken’s offscreen presence. Ragona writes:
As Warhol is occupied with packaging the boxes, Menken, too, is occupied, with the task of filming him in single frames—not only is artistic creation carried out on both ends of the camera, but also, plainly, work. In addition, with her handheld camera, she literally incorporates her body into the images, leaving behind traces of the physical labor required. Although her exertion cannot necessarily be equated to that put forth by the construction workers in the city, the bodily input and physical involvement in both cases suggests that Menken’s task of reorganizing the environment at hand can be viewed as akin to the laborers’ undertaking in reconfiguring a particular area. Both are, in fact, different means to achieve the same goal, which is demonstrating one’s capacity to labor on the material world.