The Movement of Phill Niblock

Not available for screening anymore

The Movement of Phill Niblock

Directed by Wouters Maurits

  • Belgium 2015; 62 min
  • Original version: English, French, Dutch
  • Genre: Documentary


The movement of Phill Niblock’ is a portrait of dronecomposer, structural filmer and NewYork sixties-icon/curator Phill Niblock.
Niblock was one of the personal photographers of Charles Mingus & Duke Ellington. Later on he worked in Judson Dance Theatre and shot film for Yvonne Rainer. On Niblock's 60th birthday Sonic youth did a performance in his loft.

Director's Statement

The final shooting session for THE MOVEMENT OF PHILL NIBLOCK’ was in New York. This choice was originally prompted by budgetary considerations. We hoped for a generous maecenas who would sponsor our trip to New York. This city was simply too expensive for young film makers such as we. Besides, we had started this portrait without any plan or financial support. There was only the desire and the urgency to capture Phill Niblock.

New York is vital in the documentary, especially downtown Manhattan. Downtown is Phill Niblock’s home base. The city swallowed him in the early 1960s and has never lost hold of him. In spite of his second home in Ghent (Belgium) and his travels around the world he has always remained a New Yorker. This is the city that orientated him artistically, first as a photographer of great jazz musicians such as Mingus and Ellington, later discovering the moving image (just like so many structural filmmakers). Thus he filmed, among others, for the Judson Dance Theater and Yvonne Rainer. Names that became iconic later on.

Looking back I realize that my urge was greater than just making a regular portrait of Niblock. Via Niblock I wanted to get to know the Zeitgeist of downtown Manhattan in the 1960s and 1970s. This period attracts me most as an art lover, even if I had to explore and discover it via textual source material: books and reference works. The fact that Niblock had remained under the radar of the regular art books made him even more interesting. Although Niblock is popular all over the world, his work does not admit a large audience. Some explanation is required to understand his work. His films and his music do not steer of the average public, which usually looks for a story or a melody. Moreover, the physical intensity of his performances remains an obstacle. Niblock prefers to perform his drone compositions at a sound level of 110db.

His intense work seems, at first sight, to push Niblock to the fringe: a self-defined curiosity within a period that is laden with artists as it is. Many of them have become canonical because they were the subject of many publications that made them understandable and readable for a large audience. Yet, the image of a marginal artist is actually incorrect. Throughout his career Niblock attracted interest, witness the fact that the Experimental Intermedia has become an iconic place within New York and also the books, the retrospective, the ‘Young person’s guide to Phill Niblock’. All these things acknowledge him as a unique artist. Still, this recognition seems to be limited to a certain public.

Until a few years back Phill Niblock was also totally unknown to me. I stem from a classical narrative film tradition and was trained in a film school where cinema was approached as a structured system. Tasks were divided into specific functions such as cameraman, sound engineer, director, assistant, producer… In my view experimental film and video art formed the other, unknown end of the spectrum.

All this changed when I discovered the work of Niblock. I saw a fragment of THE MOVEMENT OF PEOPLE WORKING. I think it was CHINA '88. THE MOVEMENT OF PEOPLE WORKING is a film series that Niblock made on his travels around the world. As the title suggests the action of manual labour is the central subject. There are no personages, because Niblock films too close to the hands. Thus Niblock makes an abstraction of the workers who become mere bodies. Bodies that work. Bodies that move in the monotony of labour. Therefore Niblock compares his THE MOVEMENT OF PEOPLE WORKING with dance. And I think this comparison is right.

Personally I was attracted in his work by the enigmatic aura of the images. The images are sustained for a long time which gives the viewer ample time to stare and become hypnotized by the monotony of labour. Sometimes the work is a paragon of human strength. Sometimes the actions are very delicate and precise. But the images always recall a certain nostalgia: they show me a skill that I do not possess anymore, these same images make me wonder if my ancestors may have done the same work. Does THE MOVEMENT OF PEOPLE WORKING show some knowledge that is slowly crumbling from generation to generation?

I do not know Niblock’s real intentions when he started filming THE MOVEMENT OF PEOPLE WORKING. Neither do I know if he was aware of the fact that this series documents that disappearing tribal past. Indeed, a document that requires an alternative reading. It is not an object of study that gives concrete information, because the workers are anonymous, the work is too monotonous, the locations and the time are not specific enough. But THE MOVEMENT OF PEOPLE WORKING does show the Zeitgeist of the period during which the series was made. We notice the medium: 16 mm film, a disappearing carrier. We see a period-related grading full of contrast (finishing the colours in post- production), the classification of the shots and the static, ceremonious camerawork that dominates our viewing experience. When I am watching THE MOVEMENT OF PEOPLE WORKING I particularly see what happened behind the camera: i.e. Phill Niblock who films at a spot that just for a moment holds on to the vanishing past.

In New York I realized that, for me, film is the medium that manages to keep a lieu de mémoire alive. Film does not only address me from an artistic practice, but also as a historic document. And its impact is stronger than any text could achieve. While filming in downtown Manhattan I thought I had finally (after 4 years) grasped Phill Niblock. I understood him better because I had experienced the town, the city that had formed Niblock but that was now transforming into a lieu de mémoire. Downtown Manhattan is no longer the bohemian paradise of yore. Places like Experimental Intermedia disappear. They leave blank spots in our collective memory. When filming Niblock in his loft I realized that my images are memories of a slowly disappearing counterculture. But they are also personalized memories, because I look through the camera and I try to give shape to my impressions via that camera. THE MOVEMENT OF PHILL NIBLOCK is therefore not only a portrait of Phill Niblock, it also represents the experience of a crumbled bohemian culture.