R. Bruce Elder: Biography



Since 1975, R. Bruce Elder has been building two formidable bodies of work, as an artist working in the experimental tradition, and as an author of critical texts on art and cinema. His role as an author has in recent years assumed the task of charting the relationship between cinema and art movements through the twentieth century, as we see in his recent book, DADA, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect, his previous, Harmony & Dissent: Film and Avant-garde Art Movements in the Early Twentieth Century, and the forthcoming Cubism and Futurism: Spiritual Machines and the Cinematic Effect.

A prolific filmmaker, he has made over sixty hours of films, which have been screened at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Millennium Film Workshop, Berlin’s Kino Arsenal, Paris’s Centre Pompidou, the San Francisco Cinematheque, Atlanta’s High Museum, Los Angeles Film Forum, Stadtfilmmuseum München, Hamburg’s Kino Metropolis and Barcelona’s Centre de Cultura Contemporània. Retrospectives of his work have been presented by Anthology Film Archives (NY), the Art Gallery of Ontario, Cinématheque Québecoise, Il Festival Senzatitolo (Trento), Paris’s Festival des cinémas différents, and EXiS (Seoul). Jonas Mekas, founder of the New York Filmmakers Co-op and principle visionary of the American avant-garde cinema, has dubbed him “the most important North American avant-garde filmmaker to emerge during the 1980s.” Elder’s films have received a Canadian Film Award (now Canadian Screen Award) for ‘best experimental film’ and a Los Angeles Film Critics Award in the same category; he has received grants from the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, and the Department of External Affairs/DFAIT in support of his film/media work. In 2007, Elder was elected a member of the Royal Society of Canada and also received a Governor-General Award in Visual and Media Arts—the jury for the latter award described him as “highly innovative”, “influential” and “acutely intelligent,” noting the enormous span of his practice and the demanding nature of his films. That year, Cinematheque Ontario mounted a “Tribute to R. Bruce Elder,” which included a retrospective of his film work: in announcing it, the Cinematheque proclaimed, “R. Bruce Elder is not only one of Canada’s foremost experimental filmmakers, he’s one of our greatest artists, thinkers, critics, and filmmakers, period.”

Elder combines images, music and text to create works that reflect his interest in philosophy, technology, science, spirituality and the human body, themes reflected equally strongly in his equally voluminous writings. In 1994, Elder completed his first large film cycle, The Book of All the Dead, and in 1997, a screening of the entire forty-six-hour work was mounted at Images Film and Video Festival (Toronto). Since then The Book of All the Dead has been screened at Il Festival Senzatitolo (Trento), the Antechamber in Regina, and Cinematheque Ontario (Ontario). The work is now being preserved by Stephen Broomer.

Raised in Hamilton and Burlington, Ontario, Elder began his critical and creative work while an undergraduate student in philosophy at McMaster University in the late 1960s. There he learned from the celebrated political philosopher George P. Grant, who introduced Heidegger’s discourse on technology to a generation of Canadian poets and thinkers and whose thoughts on nationhood, love, and technology would inform Elder’s work as an artist and writer. He entered McMaster’s art community during its most fertile period, and it was in his capacity as a member of that community that Elder brought American poets Kenneth Rexroth and Allen Ginsberg to present their work on campus, with Ginsberg joined by Robert Creeley. As a result, Elder was able to spend one weekend talking to Rexroth, and another to Ginsberg and Creeley. Elder was at that time dedicated primarily to poetry. In 1970, he published an eponymous chapbook of poetry, a publication that speaks to an aspiration that has run through Elder’s work as a filmmaker and critic and his work was included in anthologies. It was in this time that he became interested in film, as a means to underwrite the difficult toils of the poet. His formation as a poet is still apparent: all his film work has a poetic character, and the films in his later cycle, The Book of Praise are composed around poems Elder wrote for them. A Gathering of Crystals attempts to take this feature of his film work to the limit: it defies all modernist instruction on the cinema, to make the oral reading of the poem Elder composed for the film the film’s structuring principle.

In the mid-1970s, Elder and his wife Kathryn attended a Summer Institute in Film Studies offered by a consortium of New England universities. Stan Brakhage, the preeminent American avant-garde filmmaker, was one of several filmmakers leading workshops at the institute, alongside Ed Emshwiller, Hollis Frampton, Robert Breer, Shirley Clarke, Stan Vanderbeek, and Richard Leacock. Elder’s intentions with film changed there, as he learned that his ambition as a poet might be realized through filmmaking. He had encountered the work of the New American Cinema in university, but here he felt the full effect of such a vanguard form, understanding it to be a new form of poetry. As an admirer of the epic poems of Dante and Pound, and being newly acquainted with the poetic potential of cinema, Elder conceived of a cycle of films that would occupy the next twenty years of his life, beginning with Breath/Light/Birth (1975) and ending with the epic six-part Exultations (In Light of the Great Giving) (spanning 1990-1994). This cycle would be known as The Book of All the Dead.

Throughout the 1980s, as his magnum opus was expanding, so too was his critical vision for a Canadian avant-garde cinema. In 1985, Elder confronted the so-called ‘new narrative cinema’, and its pilfering of avant-garde technique, in his essay-manifesto “The Cinema We Need,” which at the time provoked outrage and which remains controversial today. Elder developed a potent rationale for the separate aesthetic of Canadian avant-garde filmmaking in the pages of Canadian Forum and Descant. Without hindering his output as an artist, Elder developed a manuscript on the subject of Canada’s national film and philosophy, including a substantial section on the avant-garde, and delivered it to the offices of the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television. It would be published jointly soon after, by the Academy along with Wilfred Laurier Press, as Image and Identity: Reflections on Canadian Film and Culture (1989). This would mark Elder’s first book-length critical publication, and since then, he has spent two decades producing articles, monographs and books on topics such as the body in art and in film, the poetic sources of Stan Brakhage, modernist poetry, modernity and its discontents, the poetics of new media, the Toronto School of Communication Theory, theories of the avant-garde, the political theory of liberalism, aesthetics and art theory, and the work Harry Smith. His manifesto “The Cinema We Need” (1984) touched off a storm of debate; now the issues that it raised are central to the discussion of Canadian culture—it has become a basic point of reference in debates around Canadian cinema and has formed the basis of college and university courses on Canadian film. “On the Foreignness of the Intimate: The Violence and Charity of Perception,” in Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour’s Subtitles (MIT Press, 2004), the most extended statement of his aesthetic beliefs, draws on Kristeva, Heidegger and Levinas. Elder’s 2007 book, Harmony & Dissent: Film and Avant-Garde Art in the Early Twentieth Century was awarded the prestigious Robert Motherwell Book Prize for an outstanding publication on modernism in the arts, named a Choice Outstanding Academic Book, and shortlisted for the Raymond Klibansky Award (now Canada Humanities Prize). Its successor volume, Dada, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect was published in May 2013. Of it DADA expert Rudolf Kuenzli remarked, “This is that rare book that casts the early twentieth-century avant-garde in a very new light,” while John W. Locke commented, “Bruce Elder’s thinking and his book represent an original and profound new approach to an important area of film studies and art.” He has received grants from the Ontario Arts Council, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and the Aid to Scholarly Publishing Program to support his writing. He is currently completing the third volume in his series on vanguard art movements of the twentieth century, to be titled Cubism and Futurism: Spiritual Machines and the Cinematic Effect.

With the completion of The Book of All the Dead in the mid-90s, Elder assumed a new cycle, The Book of Praise. He identifies this cycle as a Protestant work, a shift away from a Catholic sensibility that had been primary to The Book of All the Dead, a shift away from wonder at the world created, toward the wonders of our interior being. Elder has written that The Book of Praise deals with the transformative properties of eros, image, history, montage, and self. It is through this theme of transformation that The Book of Praise takes on alchemistic qualities, meditating on symbol and colour to bring forth a higher self, in an echo of the alchemist’s project to transmute base metal into gold. To date, this body of work contains six completed feature-length films and one shorter work.

The films in The Book of Praise cycle also suggest Elder’s increasing infatuation with the colorist possibilities of digital video. In fact, Elder was an early user of digital image processing techniques in filmmaking and, since 1982, Elder’s films have made increasing use of digital image processing techniques. With The Book of Praise, algorithmic processes and image processing / video processing became a central focus of Elder’s interest. He became an adept at film printing and processing while making The Book of All the Dead—works like Breath/Light/Birth, Barbara is a Vision of Loveliness, Look! We Have Come Through! and 1857: Fool’s Gold show this was an early preoccupation, and it lasted right through the complex printing of the Exultations region of that cycle, that intricately combined (often using interference algorithms derived from Joseph Schillinger) A, B, C, D, E, F, G, and H rolls. Throughout the period when films were made of organic materials, the film laboratory was a place shrouded in mystery and few filmmakers aspired to become adepts. Responding to it as a realm of the unknown, it was a domain of fear and malice for most artists. For Elder, however, it was a realm of secret lore as arcane and richly suggestive as the alchemist's laboratory and, like the alchemicist's amphitheatrum sapientiae aternae, a place of transformation seeking to release an awesome light to bathe and purify the soul (and the Exultation region of The Book of All the Dead makes extensive use of imagery drawn from the history of alchemy). With The Book of Praise, however, Elder began to brood on the fact that with the rise of the electrologic paradigm, the physical and chemical processes involved in filmmaking were at the point of becoming as obsolete as the alchemicist’s hopes for chrysopoeia. So, in his work of the period 1998 to 2012, Elder has strived to make images and sequences that enable the alchemy of the older forms to co-habit with newer, electrical colour flows.

Elder’s interest in the mathematics of digital image processing (and his recognition of its arcane, Pythagorean provenance) processing led him to professional studies in applied mathematics and computer programming. He is a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers and the Association for Computing Machinery. He was awarded a Canada Council/NSERC New Media Initiatives grant (with Dr. Ling Guan, Canada Research Chair, Multimedia Engineering), a Ryerson Research Chair and a Research/Creation Grant in Fine Arts from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council to make a film applying innovative methods in image processing and machine learning. He is currently working on further developing a program that applies artificial intelligence in computer-aided composition and software for live processing of video feeds from wearable computer devices (this project is supported by a Research/Creation grant from SSHRC) and he was Co-PI on a grant application that brought a 3D virtual reality facility to his university. He has published articles on graphics programming (in AI Expert) and (with members of the university’s engineering faculty) on machine learning applications in filmmaking and on movement recognition in a virtual reality facility applied to dance training (including a co-authored piece “A Machine Intelligence Approach to Virtual Ballet Training” IEEE Multimedia 22.4)

Alchemical themes about the self, transformation, and the end of history that manifested in Elder’s earlier cycle – his confrontation with the exhaustion of ideas and the burden of history – persist in The Book of Praise. This is evident even in Elder’s process. The transformations of which Elder speaks when he describes his new cycle are simultaneously hopeful and melancholic. The transformations in contemporary art, in its market and audience, make it increasingly difficult for an artist such as Elder to pursue his modes of expression. But those transformations that occur in Elder’s own art, both in his working process and the mystical conversions within his work, aim toward such continuity, as if to brave the last gasps of art and history.

-Stephen Broomer

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Hugh McCarney

Hamilton Arts and Letters