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Joshua Bonnetta - American Colour

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Artist: Joshua Bonnetta

Album: American Colour

Label: Senufo Editions

Review date: Aug. 31, 2012

American Colour is many things. It is a 25-minute film with two intertwined parts. One part is a documentation in 16 mm-footage Bonnetta shot in 2010 as he travelled from upstate New York to Kansas in order to have one of the very last rolls of Kodachrome film developed. The other is a study of the iconic film’s saturated color palette. Blocks of solid hue in varying patterns are interspersed among the images of muted middle America in November.

American Colour is also an album (on vinyl only) that features Bonnetta’s soundtrack to his film as well as a later piece with a related mood and set-up. On the soundtrack, Bonnetta uses violin, tape loops and shortwave radio, and it’s cast as a sort of homage to the inventors of Kodachrome, who were also violinists. Bonnetta uses the instrument more for its grain and textural possibilities, mostly as a way to add thickness to the pulsing, swelling bands of misted, extended tones. Along with a DVD of the film and the LP, this release contains a monograph by Andréa Picard. In a few thousand words, she unpacks some of the historical, philosophical and aesthetic implications of Bonnetta’s work.

Take each of these separately, or take one away, and American Colour, as a take-home artifact/experience, would be less. The flickering color patterns in the film are hypnotic and the images are captivating in their humble solitude and emptiness (hardly a single person shows up in any of the frames). But, take away the color study or the documentary images, or take away Bonnetta’s immersive soundtrack, and the film is less illuminating. Same with the sonics — without the images or the concept, the long, cyclical tones would have some of their essence drained.

But what might seem a classic case of the sum being greater the parts, is really a poignant statement on how memory works. Knowing Kodachrome’s status as the film of nostalgia, Bonnetta has avoided images that place themselves easily in time, or lend themselves to easy narratives. His focus has been on texture, light and color and how we perceive them in context. And it is this juxtaposition that moves American Colour beyond being simply a study in aesthetic principles.

The most powerful moment of the synthesis at the heart of American Colour comes about 20 minutes into the film. Bonnetta allows footage of a lightpost on a snowy night to play longer than he has other images previously. You stare at the blurry white orb of light, transfixed as the snow passes in front of it. And then, when the blocks of color resume, a dark hole appears at their center, as if that light has burned a hole through them, right onto your eye.

Because what is memory if not this kind of burning through, from the past into the present? Memories typically don’t happen on their own. They are provoked by a passing experience: a song, a phrase, a smell, a photo. We need the stimulus, as it both inspires and transforms. Each time we remember something, we experience it anew, we have a chance to learn again. Our experience and memories bleed into each other, become layers of identity. They are who we were, and who we want to be.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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