William Greaves’ Experiment: Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One as Performance Art
This article was originally published on The Pittsburgher’s predecessor, The Dog Door Cultural, under a pen name.
William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is a documentary about documentaries, a piece of art about art and a complete protest of form. According to Lily Ekimian, this makes it an example of excellent performance art.
If the name of William Greaves’ experimental 1968 documentary, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, intrigues you, it should. This Frankenstein’s monster of a word accurately reflects the film’s own blending of form, structure and medium to create something entirely new, entirely original and as unforgettable as its title. It is a film that makes you question what a documentary should look like, what makes art art and how the dynamic of a film crew affects a project. It is a film that challenges all other films and dares you to rethink straightforward cinema. If you haven’t seen this film, as many still unfortunately have not, you may be thinking at this point, So what the hell is it?
I think the best way to describe Greaves’ documentary is as performance art. The film is essentially thus: A film is being made about a couple in Central Park, the focus of which is sexuality; simultaneously, a film is being made about the making of that film, showing Greaves as the director (who is, indeed, playing a role); in addition to those two films, a third film is showing the first two, combined with all the other happenings in the park and the dynamic between the increasingly uncertain film crew. We see these three films on their own but most strikingly in simultaneous split-screens, showing all three cameras operating at once, allowing us to see the same event from three different angles. This is a documentary about documentaries, a piece of art about art, and this self-awareness is why it feels so much like an excellent piece of performance art.
Many people have questions about what performance art means. I still do. If you look up a quick definition, you get a lot of conflicting answers and loose requirements, and its vague existence leads many to disregard the form completely. But if you just look at some of the best performance art pieces – from Marina Abramović’s tense use of past and present in Rhythm 10 (1973), to Petr Pavlensky nailing his scrotum to Moscow’s Red Square on Russia’s Day of the Police (2013), to Joseph Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (1965) in which he does just that, to Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills (1977-80), her collection of photographs depicting herself in stereotypical female roles within what appear to be film stills of movies that do not exist – you can see how wide-ranging and self-aware they tend to be. Performance art is a protest. It is a protest of form, a protest of established art and, more often than not, a social or political protest. And what is Symbiopsychotaxiplasm if not just that?
Now, William Greaves was not a self-described performance artist. He began his career as a stage, then film, actor; though, as he had said in an interview, he felt that as a Black artist he would rather create art as opposed to simply act out someone else’s roles. After reading John Grierson’s writings on documentaries and the use of the documentary form as a social tool, he shifted from acting to filmmaking. Grierson founded Canada’s National Film Board so Greaves decided that that was where he needed to be. Upon not receiving any scholarships, he went to Canada anyway, working his way up from splicing film to chief editor over his ten years at the National Film Board. He returned to America a fully-trained filmmaker. It is this intimate knowledge of the form, from the technical to the artistic aspects, he gained during his ten years in Canada that is so evident in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm.
The New Yorker’s Richard Brody once said of the film, “What if they made a revolution and nobody saw it? That’s what happened in 1968.” How right he is, and you have to wonder what cinema would look like today if more people had seen Greaves’ film at the time. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm should have been a catalyst for experimental filmmaking and a revolution for independent film. It is so much a part of the movements of its time, specifically the wave of experimental performance art of the 1960s. But can a film be performance art? Well, isn’t Yves Klein’s 1960 photograph, Leap into the Void, performance art?
More than anything, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is an experiment in social behavior. The film crew, initially totally unaware of Greaves’ larger intention, slowly begins to question what kind of movie they’re actually making. Since the crew is told to film everything, we witness conversations in Greaves’ absence wherein they debate the purpose of Greaves’ film and their role in it; they even question if it was Greaves’ plan from the beginning for the crew to have the very conversation that they are having. Even though the twice-inner film is supposedly following a couple (played by different sets of actors) in the park, the viewer is forced to ask: Since there are two more cameras trained on everyone involved, who really are the characters? Does being on camera, even in a documentary, make you an actor? Or, at the very least, a participant in a collective performance? Everyone seems to be conscious of their role in this film in the presence of a camera, and it is that camera that elevates seemingly unrelated events (i.e. anything that is not the couple in the park) to a level of narrative importance. The camera makes you a performer.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm received two major revivals: in 1992 when it played at Sundance, catching the attention of Steve Buscemi who worked with Greaves to create a sequel, and then in 2006 when it was rereleased in theaters and on DVD, alongside the sequel. While it is painfully obvious that modern narrative films are devoid of originality, documentaries have been that way for some time now. The very concept of a documentary that breaks the established model may seem absolutely groundbreaking to movie-watchers and filmmakers alike in the 21st century. I think we are in desperate need of a renewed interest in Greaves’ experimental masterpiece. And to view the film through the lens of the artistic protest that is performance art is to loosen up one’s mind to accept how ingenious the film truly is. The beauty of the medium of film is the blending of forms, and documentaries should be no exception to that. ▲
Lily Ekimian is an independent filmmaker from Washington, D.C., now based in Pittsburgh. You can follow along with the films that she and her partner, Ahmed, are working on via their social media @dogdoorfilms!