Free Radicals

Still from Free Radicals (1958, revised 1979) by Len Lye
Courtesy Len Lye Foundation

Born in New Zealand, Len Lye drew inspiration from indigenous cultures around the world. This influence is found in his film Free Radicals, which was completed in 1958 but revised (shortened) in 1979. The film was made by scratching black film stock with a range of tools. The result is a black background on which various white forms move about, accompanied by drum music and singing credited to the Bagirmi tribe of Africa. Although the images are abstract, they suggest various things, including the swaying movement of bodies engaged in ritual dance and the movement of Lye’s own kinetic sculptures, which he began exhibiting in the early 1960s. The unified combination of flickering light, chanting, and especially rhythmic percussion is highly engaging, seemingly appealing to the old brain—a concept that Lye developed throughout his career, and similar to Carl Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious. Lye believed that the mind harbors links to the earliest days of humanity, and he sought to tap into elements of this primitive experience in his work.

Drumming accompanies the primarily horizontal jagged lines that begin the film, images rotating slowly, then abruptly shifting on the loudest beats. In contrast, a straight vertical line glides across the frame, with drumming continuing as scratched film titles appear. After the titles, chant-like singing begins, and the vertical lines multiply and continue graceful glides across the frame. As the film progresses, only the drum beat remains, and images do not synchronize with it tightly, except in the final moments of the film. However, the strong repetitive rhythm of the percussion combined with the visual attraction of flickering images on-screen is captivating and has a physiological effect, appealing to both mind and body.


  • original Title: Free Radicals
  • Date: 1958 – 1979
  • Duration: 4 min

16mm, black & white