Formless: A User’s Guide (book)

Formless: A User’s Guide by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind E Krauss. Zone Books Publishing, 1997.

It was suggested to me to read the book Formless for my dissertation next year, but when my tutor explained it, It sounded so appropriate for my current practice.

In the book, The authors both discuss and introduce new concepts and theories that further our understanding of avant garde and modernist art Practices. However, in the chapter; Pulse written by Rosalind E Krauss; She discusses Sigmund Freud’s theories of the Death Drive and Repetition compulsion and compares it to how artists use flickering neon signs; Krauss makes the point that the flickering relates to the beat of a heart. Below are some points that I highlighted in the book, that are relevant to me:

  • The flicker film was invented to stop time, to disable the afterimage’s perceptual mechanism by means of which the visual persistent of information contained in one film frame would bleed into the next, creating the illusion of an uninterrupted flow of movement This stoppage, the reasoning went would make it possible to look past the illusion and actually “see” the basic unit of film, the real support of the medium: the single frame.
  • black and image frames. can break the flow of motion, it cannot turn off the afterimage
  • projecting itself onto the visually ’empty” spaces provided by the “flicker’s” intermittencies of black leader-now has a place to exist within which it can b .. experienced as the ghostly counterpart to the passages of filmic representation
  • our own nervous systems, the rhythmic beat of the neural network’s feedback, of its “retention” and “protention,” as the nerve tissue retains and releases its impressions.
  • In beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud questioned whether repetition should be considered as the throb of eros or should instead be seen as something that lies beyond pleasure, threatening it with violence – something that must therefore be identified with death. Coming to this question after hearing the repeated dreams of trauma victims, Freud began to theorize the structure through which a patient is doomed to the compulsive repetition of an event, particularly an event which, far from being pleasurable, is an ,extreme source’ of anxiety and terror. If this is so, he reasoned, it is because the event was one that the subject both witnessed and was absent from; which is to say that it happened to a subject who was, peculiarly not there.
  • finally to prepare themselves for the event,
  • forms that the visual is daily invaded by the pulsatile: the blinking lights of neon signs; the “flip books” through which the visual inert is propelled into the suggestive obscene; the strobe effects of pinball machines and video games – and all of this under-girded by the insistent beat of rock music surging through car stereos or leaking voicelessly through portable headsets.
  • form in order to undo that order, and to de-sublimate that vision through the shock effect of the beat.

Formless Book URL:


My understanding on this will improve when I read it in full again, but I can understand why this was suggested to me. I have been making Neon signs that flicker, the words are in my current context of my fear of death. Freud is suggesting that people who are in fear do ‘repetition compulsion’; they repeat aspects or events, in order to prepare – and from this the fear is decreased. Krauss compares this to the ‘death drive’; in the drive towards death this repetition compulsion is heightened and people become obsessed with preparing for death as they fear it. Rosalind E Krauss then compares all these theories to the need to use flickering lights and how they replicate the heartbeat or a pulse – they represent being alive. In terms of my use of them, I never really considered this but maybe I did use flickering neon lights subconsciously because of this concept, but it gives my work further context. I will definitely be re-visiting this in the near future.

Video of one of my neon signs for context:

Video is my own.


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