The Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art by Dirk de Bruyn

Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014, 233 pages

Review by Adrian Martin

Dirk de Bruyn’s book is a bold and original piece of in-depth, sustained research that brings together two areas have never been brought into relationship in this way, at this length. On the one hand, there is the lineage of experimental audiovisual work. (I personally dislike the visual-centric term ‘moving image art’ – sound has been around for a while now! – but each person chooses their own label, wisely or not.) The span here goes from avant-garde cinema beginning in the 1920s through to digital media work today. And on the other hand, we have the psychological, neurological, psychotherapeutic and psychoanalytic studies of how trauma (or more accurately, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder/PTSD) affects brain functions, memory, sense experience and the general constitution of the human person. The book (adapted from a 2011 PhD) has been around for two years now, but has yet to receive the attention and discussion it richly deserves. Thanks to a badly (and often lazily) managed academic book market, too many good film tomes fall into this same oblivion today.

The book is thorough, patiently and brilliantly argued. As the introduction indicates, it brings together the two halves of de Bruyn’s own professional practice, first in the fields of social work or counseling, and second as a renowned avant-garde artist, programmer, historian and commentator. However, it is a testament to the book’s achievement that at no point does it read as merely a self-centred memoir of one artist’s (or therapist’s) working-through of personal thoughts and issues. Although the reader can assume or intuit the profound personal significance of this material for the author, he manages to sufficiently externalise and theorise all the relevant elements of his investigation.

The book makes an important claim within cinema studies: that Peter Wollen’s famous distinction between two avant-gardes (1) – one purist, abstract and removed from social experience, the other engaged in theoretical issues and the machinery of narration/fiction/signification – is largely a myth, even an impediment to our true understanding. De Bruyn makes the utterly persuasive claim that the perceptual apparatus of the so-called abstract or purist tradition (whether Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer, or many others) in fact reflects – whether or not these artists ever knew it or claimed it explicitly – the dissociative shocks of traumatised modern experience, whether on the social-historical macrocosm or the personal-subjective microcosm (dissociation being, on many levels, the key, cohering concept). It is an insight we also find, in embryo, in the collaborative work of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari, Claire Parnet and André Scala, “The Interpretation of Utterances” from 1973, which traced the profoundly illuminating social inputs evident in children’s supposedly ‘innocent’ drawings. (2) Such an approach, as adopted and expanded by de Bruyn, literally opens up the entire history of experimental audiovisual production to a totally new interpretation and appreciation.

The book proceeds through a number of well-chosen, extensively researched and superbly explored case studies: Maya Deren, James Benning’s Landscape Suicides (1987), Peter Tscherkassky, and others. De Bruyn is sensitive to all the formal, theoretical and political issues involved in the conception, creation and later reception of these works. Each analysis provides a building block in the overall, evolving argument. The understanding and unpacking of the various interlinking psychological theories, and their clear relevance to the film work canvassed, is especially impressive.

De Bruyn’s personal specialty is decidedly not classical, mainstream, narrative cinema in its many varieties. This is not in itself a problem (an individual can only pack so much into a human lifetime!), but at moments becomes so in the book’s argumentative flow. This because a good many of the film theorists called upon (especially from the semiotic era from the 1960s through to the ‘80s) do indeed either derive their arguments primarily from this more normative type of fiction and documentary cinema (Janet Walker, E. Ann Kaplan), or flow easily between classical and avant-garde realms (Wollen, Maureen Turim). For instance – to take a key topic for de Bruyn – the flashback, the staging, signaling and performing of it, has a very different status depending on whether we are discussing the codes of narrativisation (where ‘the past’ is a story element), or the more ungrounded, free-floating spectatorial experience triggered (as de Bruyn persuasively hypothesises) by semi-abstract animation, or unfettered montage. Of course, there can be a fascinating overlap between these two practices – Raymond Bellour insists on this in his essay “The Pensive Spectator”, and Laura Mulvey takes up the idea again in her Death 24x a Second. (3)

There is something of a gap evident in de Bruyn’s theoretical working-through of his ideas. He appears not to have yet caught up with the advances made by figural film theory, which are by nature and temperament very close to experimental artistic processes like de Bruyn’s own. (4) And it would be fruitful, for instance, to bring de Bruyn’s research into a dialogue with Bellour’s more recent work on the “body of cinema” (the title of his 2009 book, translated into Spanish but yet to appear in English) and the “special memory” of the film spectator, founded as it in shocks and micro-shocks (understood through the psychological theories of Daniel Stern, which are focused on child development). (5) Bellour’s surveys, to which I’ve already alluded, include many examples from the avant-garde and video/digital media art realms.

I learnt an enormous amount from Dirk de Bruyn’s book – just as I have always done from his film and multi-media performance works. The Performance of Trauma in Moving Image Art has the potential to change the future of the film studies and digital media field internationally. I hope it will be widely referenced, distributed and debated.


(1) Peter Wollen, “The Two Avant-Gardes”, reprinted in his Readings and Writings: Semiotic Counter-Strategies (London: Verso, 1982), pp. 92-104.

(2) This text is translated in Paul Foss & Meaghan Morris (eds), Language, Sexuality and Subversion (Sydney: Working Papers, 1978), pp. 141-158.

(3) Raymond Bellour, “The Pensive Spectator” (1984), reprinted in his Between-the-Images (Paris: JRP Ringier, 2011); Laura Mulvey, Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion, 2006).

(4) See, for example, Nicole Brenez (trans. Adrian Martin), Abel Ferrara (Indiana University Press, 2007).

(5) Raymond Bellour, Le corps de cinéma. Hypnoses, émotions, animalités (Paris: P.O.L., 2009); and “The Cinema Spectator: A Special Memory” (trans. Adrian Martin), in Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg & Simon Rothöler (eds), Screen Dynamics: Mapping the Borders of Cinema (Vienna: Filmmuseum/Synema, 2012), pp. 9-21.

© Adrian Martin, November 2016