From the Abstract to the Real

“The experiences which led up to the production of this film, and the experiences making it, totally convinced me that the soul is an actual physical entity, not a vague abstraction or symbol.” – Jordan Belson

Jordan Belson: “Samadhi”. Courtesy of Center for Visual Music, L.A.

Jordan Belson was the quintessential San Francisco artist: part of the generation that made the City a mecca for transmedial experiments in sight, sound, and spiritualism. In the late 1950s, Belson was involved with the Vortex concerts at the Morrison Planetarium in Golden Gate Park, where pre-hippies tripped out on pioneering light show experiments that pre-dated the 1960s psychedelic events at the Fillmore and Winterland. Vortex was also the forerunner of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, where many of the early intermedia experiments were emerged during the 1960s.

Reading about Jordan Belson in Gene Youngblood’s Expanded Cinema is a reminder of what it means to be an artist. Those heady San Francisco drug-induced investigations were not just about abstracted, otherworldly experience: in the case of Jordan, it was a scientific journey into the psychology and mechanisms of the spirit. Belson wanted to understand the nature of the soul – its operation, its form – not as some romantically constructed abstract notion, but as something hard and tangible and physical and real.

Through film, he made this “alchemical” transformation come to life. While working on Samadhi in 1967, Belson secluded himself from friends, family and the exterior world at large. He worked incessantly at his optical printer until the images he searched for began to reveal something akin to a mirror of the inner state. But because he believed and practiced the transformational properties of the audio-visual experience, he found the means to render the abstract as real: a lens that could probe his psychic condition as though it were an actual photograph of the human soul.

Jordan Belson: “Samadhi”. Courtesy of Center for Visual Music, L.A.

A practicing Buddhist, Belson found that film could operate as a medium through which he could view his internal spiritual system. You could say that this laboratory experiment was akin to abstract expressionism, the leading edge of his generation, but with a new twist. The abstract painters had viewed their work as a symbolic representations of the psyche, while Belson – according to Youngblood – used film to invoke an experience of the real. Samadhi includes Belson’s own breathing, as though injecting the image with actual physical life force. As the central sphere undergoes its permutations it also resembles the sun, “spewing off white-hot rings of light.”

Youngblood concludes: “It is obvious that contact has been made with some vast new reality.” Perhaps that is the essence of the work of the multimedia artist, to conjoin the elemental forces of the medium to produce real experience – not an abstraction, not representation – but a sensorial reconstruction of the actual.