Distant Touch: José Val Del Omar: A Retrospective

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José Val del Omar has often been considered an essential figure of Spanish experimental cinema. However, we see Val del Omar as an essential figure of experimental cinema tout court. This is not a minor point. Displacing Val del Omar from a narrow national narrative is a chance to relocate him within an international constellation of referents. He is part of a global history of images, sounds, utopias, and inventions. This expansive perspective may be a way to eschew recurring questions—was Val del Omar ahead of his time? Was he an anachronistic remnant of the past?—and look instead for the striking dialogues connecting his works with some key episodes of the history of cinema.

Let us start with a “Valdelomarian” idea: vision is a distant touch.

Beyond rhetoric, this refers to a scientific fact: photons reflected from objects travel a distance until they reach the eye and impress the retina. Thus, there is a timespan between the object’s reflection and its vision. One could think of Val del Omar’s films as pieces that also require a temporal distance between their production and the conditions to view them.

To travel this distance, we could set out on an imaginary journey. Our first stop could be 1921, when Val del Omar was in Paris. He was greatly impressed by the milieu of the Parisian avant-garde, where cinema was discussed as a sensory experience. Ricciotto Canudo talked of cinema as the seventh art, “a total synthesis, a marvelous newborn of the machine and the emotion.” Jean Epstein promised that cinema would bring “a new poetry and philosophy”, that everything was yet to be done, and that the camera allowed access to unknown truths.

This will not be the only cinematic utopia Val del Omar would get involved in. In the 1930s he was back in Spain, working as a cinematographer, projectionist, and photographer for the “Pedagogical Missions” sponsored by the liberal Spanish Second Republic. As a distant echo of Aleksandr Medvedkin’s ciné-trains, this State project aimed to bring culture, and particularly cinema and photography, to rural areas. Val del Omar’s works within the Missions (included in the first session) already saw his first technical inventions, as the zoom.

Val del Omar’s persistent exploration of the sensory potential of cinema could also bring us, as if fast-forwarding, to the American experimental avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s. He probably never met Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Peter Kubelka, Gregory Markopoulos, Marie Menken or Harry Smith. Their works, though, are linked by the common referent of the French pioneers of the 1930s and by the attempt to understand cinema as a sensory experiment. In this sense, in Val del Omar’s Elementary Tryptic of Spain (included in the second session) we will find the use of black and white negative reversal (Kubelka), or an ecstatic oscillation of light and darkness, of presence and absence (Tony Conrad, Paul Sharits).

In a radically experimental approach to the cinematic image, Val del Omar also attempted to intervene in the scale of time, to reach “non-human temporalities.” Something similar to this altered temporality guides our call to travel through Val del Omar’s filmography. We want to change Val del Omar’s marginal and reductive place in film history (as an unclassifiable, isolated Spanish filmmaker) proposing instead to see his works through an international lens. We invite you to a journey where different scenes from the history of cinema reflect, like lights, on his works—making them visible anew.

March 16 at 7:30 PM
March 19 at 8:30 PM
José Val Del Omar, Programme 1: The Misiones Pedagógicas Of The Spanish Second Republic
During the 1930s, Val del Omar worked as a cinematographer, photographer and projectionist for the Misiones Pedagógicas, the Spanish Second Republic’s program charged with bringing literature, theater, and cinema to rural populations. Val del Omar understood film as an ideal instrument for the modern pedagogical trends inspiring the Misiones, notably its emphasis on bringing together instinct and consciousness, brain and heart, learning through aesthetic experience. Val del Omar shot more than fifty documentaries during the Misiones but just a few are preserved: Scenes 1932 (1932) and Christian Feasts-Secular Feasts (1934-35). Most of these documentary films were shot using a camera lens of his invention, a sort of zoom avant la lettre. This experimental zoom lens was the first of a long list of technical innovations that accompanied Val del Omar’s aesthetic and technological endeavors, reaching his highest point in his masterpiece: ELEMENTARY TRIPTYCH OF SPAIN (TRÍPTICO ELEMENTAL DE ESPAÑA).

March 16: Presented by Luis Pérez-Oramas
March 19: Presented by Jordana Mendelson

- Scenes 1932 / Estampas 1932 (1932, 13 min, 35mm-to-digital)
- Christian Feasts-Secular Feasts / Fiestas Cristianas-Fiestas Paganas (1935, 51 min, 16mm-to-digital)
- Land Without Bread / Las Hurdes: Tierra Sin Pan (Luis Buñuel, 1933, 27 min, 16mm, b&w)

March 17 at 7:30 PM
March 18 at 8:30 PM
José Val Del Omar, Programme 2: Elementary Triptych Of Spain
Vibration Of Granada marks a turning point towards poetic documentary in the Valdelomarian trajectory. This lyric portrait of the Alhambra announces many of the features of his complex ELEMENTARY TRIPTYCH, which he started almost two decades later and is generally considered Val del Omar’s masterpiece. Composed of three films, each related to a natural element (soil, fire, and water), it describes a symbolic geography of Spain, from Finisterre to Granada. Val del Omar contemplated different possible sequential arrangements, settling on an order that inverses the chronology of the productions. Each piece was carefully designed to highlight Val del Omar’s various technological and expressive innovations, all of which strove to explode the limits of the screen and explore the potential of an expanded cinema. Water-Mirror Of Granada utilized the Diaphonic System (Sistema Diafónico) that Val del Omar created in 1944, an electro-acoustic sound system that transcended the conventional stereophonic method, anticipating the structure of surround sound. Another of his experiments was the Tactile Vision (Vision Táctil), which he put into practice in the second part of his triptych, Fire In Castille. The third and final part of the TRIPTYCH, Galician Caress (Of Clay) was shot in 1961-62, but Val del Omar postponed the editing, and it was left unfinished at his death in 1982.

March 17: Presented by Lur Olaizola
March 18: Presented by Ruth Somalo

- Vibration Of Granada / Vibración De Granada (1935, 20 min, 16mm-to-digital)
- Galician Caress (Of Clay) / Acariño Galaico (De Barro) (1961/1995, 23 min, 35mm)
- Fire In Castille / Fuego En Castilla (1958-60, 17 min, 35mm)
- Water-Mirror Of Granada / Aguaespejo Granadino (1953-55, 21 min, 35mm)

March 18 at 6:00 PM
March 19 at 6:00 PM
José Val Del Omar, Programme 3: Never Ending
Water-Mirror Of Granada and Fire In Castille feature a characteristic end title that illustrates Val del Omar’s continuous research and inexhaustible creativity: instead of “The End,” we read “Never Ending.” Indeed, he never stopped creating. In the late 1970s he set up a laboratory named PLAT (Picto – Luminic – Audio – Tactile) in Madrid, and continued experimenting with video and multimedia equipment. Variations On A Pomegranate is the only preserved piece from this period.

Val del Omar’s “Never Ending” film philosophy found a relevant continuity in the many contemporary artists, musicians, and filmmakers who produced works under his creative influence. For example Eugeni Bonet, an important visual artist, theorist, and curator, met Val del Omar in 1980 and years later made the film THROW YOUR WATCH TO THE WATER (2004), a creative reinterpretation of Val del Omar’s filmic materials. He would also organize the first retrospective of his work at the Pompidou Museum (Paris) in 1982, as well as the first exhibition entirely devoted to his trajectory in the Reina Sofia Museum (Madrid) in 2010.

March 18: Presented by Mónica Savirón
March 19: Presented by Lur Olaizola

- Variations On A Pomegranate / Variaciones Sobre Una Granada (1975, 3 min, 35mm-to-digital)
- Throw Your Watch Into The Water / Tira Tu Reloj Al Agua (Eugeni Bonet, 2004, 88 min, digital)

Curated by Lur Olaizola Lizarralde, and presented with generous support from the Cultural Department of the Consulate General of Spain: member of the network SPAIN arts & culture. Special thanks to Juan José Herrera de la Muela & Leire Leguina (Consulate General of Spain in New York); Piluca Baquero; and Gonzalo Sáenz de Buruaga (Archivo Val del Omar).

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Dates: 

Thursday, March 16, 2017 (All day) to Sunday, March 19, 2017 (All day)
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