1926 Marcel Duchamp – Anemic Cinema

The spinning wheel[1] is fundamental to both hard-drives and to Marcel Duchamp’s 1926 film Anemic Cinema, an early example of animated text. In Anemic Cinema[2] phrases painted in spirals onto a flat disk  rotate at constant speed. The reader reads inward from the edge to the phrase’s end near the spinning centre. This process evokes algorithmic alchemists with circular charts and simultaneously anticipates the mobility and motility of digitally animated text pulled along curved paths and extruded on MTV. In Duchamp’s film the eye slips in or out along a serpentine labyrinth. Vinyl LP grooves existent in phonograph recordings (viewed when drunk) may have been the inspiration. Certainly the vortices of Hitchcock emulators and Brio Gysin’s Dream Machine are descendants. Reader flexibility is necessary: the poetic line is not flat, it is curved and on the move. Semantic impact emerges in spasms as legibility unravels like a snake.

Anemic Cinema is an engine that derives visual energy from mechanical rotation. This echoes the origin of malleable language: the clay potter’s wheel spinning so that fingers dragged from the centre to the edge form patterns. In Anemic Cinema, patterns function as visual punctuation between each of the text segments. They also provide time for the text’s complex puns and aphorisms to be digested.

The over-exposure strobes of the early film-stock date it to contemporary eyes as an antiquarian project; yet, this is a project that for its era must have required the use of technically advanced equipment combined with idiosyncratic vision. In this sense, it is close in practice to digital poets who extend software and work with new media: it leverages the edge of tech. Anemic Cinema places Duchamp[3] at the origin of animated text and visual poetry in high art and forms a useful link between ancient clay glyphs, potter’s wheels and petroglyphs, and current motion graphics and spinning digital media: disk drive, laser disk, CD-ROM, DVD.


[1] The spinning wheel is a motif that travels through technology in ways that connect to the activity of reading: from potter’s wheel, alchemists charts, phonographs, vinyl LPs, disk drives, cd-roms and dvds. Reading migrates from finger to ear to eye to laser.

[2] The title Anemic Cinema foreshadows a central credibility dilemma for visual animated poems. Seemingly lacking in the enriched healthy visual stimulus of imagery, visual poems are the anemic stunted cousins of real poems and real cinema.. Duchamp’s sardonic title diagnosed this credibility gap early.

[3] The work is signed by a pseudonym of Duchamp: Rrose Selavy

Category: 3D, conceptual, kinetic, prehistoric Comments Off

Comments are closed.