DISTANT TOUCH: JOSÉ VAL DEL OMAR: A RETROSPECTIVE
March 16 – March 19
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.
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).