Labor of Love

Labor of Love

Length: 11:30 mins
Year of production: 2020
Exhibition Format: DCP or Quicktime file
Source Format: 16mm archival footage and HD Video

Synopsis: An expanding feeling, unfolding new inflections — forever different, forever changing.

Statement: Books often accompany and inspire my work process, and I was reading bell hooks’ All about Love and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts––I’d been wanting to make a film about love for a while. Around that same time, a dear friend and colleague, Paul Clipson, passed away. For financial reasons I couldn’t attend any of the memorial events in San Francisco from Berlin, so I held my own private “memorial” by binge watching all his films on Vimeo. It was an emotional experience to see all the work at once, he was a much loved member of the Bay Area film community I was lucky to participate in. He was someone with an unwavering, steadfast dedication to the cinematic arts, a tremendously gentle and generous spirit, and a diligent film worker with an obsessively acute attention to detail. He made a film titled Love’s Refrain in 2016, and to my mind the film perfectly encapsulates the biophysical chemistry one experiences when falling in love: the rush of dopamine that the brain releases, that intense adrenaline charge, the euphoric high that instantly feels addictive. This was initially something I was interested in representing, but I realized that Paul had already done this quite perfectly.

I resolved to try and visualize a feeling of nowness that unfolds when one is in love. In a nutshell, for me, the film is about that. That feeling where the past and futures seem to fall away, when all that matters is every single current moment that evolves into another, and when that expanded grounding in the present tense seemingly lasts without effort. I didn’t want to narrow things down to one specific experience, or literal story; and I wanted to go beyond one singular notion, or definition. But how can you visualize affective structures that open up in what feel like cascading intervals, like traveling through infinite portals within portals, each opening up new and unexpected spaces? Processes that induce inspiring conversations––creative, intrinsic, intellectual, and emotional? Processes that invite possibilities––and allow for change, generosity, and human growth? I wondered how I could translate all these thoughts into a short film.

To try and visualize these abstract ideas, in the voice-over, my metaphoric approach was to find symbolic carriers that point to a broader sense of connecting: That mirroring process one feels when one is heard, seen, and understood––and when this allows new meanings and understandings (of the self and others) to evolve.

That process of energy traveling through space––I was implicitly alluding to light energy and the many ways it is transformed from one form to another. Among many things, light energy, of course, allows us to experience films (and films can have the agency to communicate, connect, and change the fabric of one’s thinking).

That process of sound traveling through a body, not strictly in a literal sense (although that sensory experience of the physicality of sound is seductive as well) but the way in which music can create feelings of knowing: between the maker and the listener, between a community experiencing a shared identification, or between present and past (evoking memories).

What I was also really fascinated with while working on the film was various research around the “communication” of trees. Suzanne Simard is one of the scientists prominently working around this, and in a lecture she states that anthropomorphizing the processes that go on in “communities” of trees was the best way to get a non-scientific audience to imagine and understand the complexities of these symbiotic relations.

I ended up borrowing some words by the forester Peter Wohlleben for my text: that the root tips of trees have brain-like structures, and that these root tips grow together, forming closely connected and interdependent, interspecies systems.

I loved imagining other, non-human forms of connections, communities, and systems of kinship and care. While the film isn’t literally about that, it inspired some of the visual and textural components in the work. (Berlin, October 12, 2020. Sylvia Schedelbauer)

"To open our hearts more fully to love’s power and grace we must dare to acknowledge how little we know of love in both theory and practice." bell hooks, All About Love

“A day or two after my love pronouncement, now feral with vulnerability, I sent you the passage from Roland Barthes by Roland Barthes in which Barthes describes how the subject who utters the phrase 'I love you' is like 'the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.' Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase 'I love you,' its meaning must be renewed by each use, as 'the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.'" Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts

Voice over from the film

There was a time when I was attracted to the image of a pagoda. It sits on a rocky hill overlooking the ocean, it is unreal, imagined in the sunset. The pagoda doesn’t have any specific attributes that identify or localize it, perhaps it is more like a stupa, single tiered, but then strangely, open to all sides, like an arbor. But in my mind it was a pagoda, there was no doubt. I was always convinced that once I reach it, I would feel at home.

I find myself casting meaning over the pagoda. An opening, a portal to an exploration of a cosmos within. Only one of many, it carries more portals, portals within portals, each opening up new spaces, new avenues, new perspectives, uncovering hidden potential, transcending unrealized possibilities.

An intimate encounter, marked by an expansive sense of time. Desiring time to stretch, making it feel different, making it feel new. Known, unknown, discovering, activating, revealing, concealing, not here, not there. Defining, redefining, words, spoken, unspoken.

The pagoda is one of many figments to consider what this feeling looks like: It looks like lapse footage of neurons making new connections to other neurons. Where we can find the roots of our multiple connections to each other, and how those connections reverberate within and between us. When each person mirrors the other person's internal world, reflecting and refracting endlessly, producing unexpected dialogues and ideas.

It looks like the root tips of trees. They have brain like structures and there are brain like processes going on in them. And with their root tips, they can connect and the roots grow together, creating a collective network of care, fostering microclimates of support, and another kind of consciousness.

It looks like energy that travels through space. When the difference between two systems creates a conversion between the two states, from one form into another. When we channel the current of feelings and find ways to empower each other unconditionally.

It looks like sound waves that are transformed into electric signals that travel through my body, becoming part of my inner frequencies, my nervous system, my blood stream, a part of my being.

Each is an attempt to describe an expanding feeling, unfolding new inflections, forever different, forever changing. (August 2019, Sylvia Schedelbauer)

–––brazenly radical (Joshua Brunsting, CriterionCast)

–––Hypnotic, abstract, psychedelic (Ekkehard Knörer, Cargo Filmzeitschrift)

–––Love as an abstraction, and as such, a very precise concretion (Nanna Heidenreich, blogpost)

–––I don't think I've ever seen such a wondrous evocation of an expanding consciousness in cinema. (Kenji Fujishima, Letterboxd)

–––Sylvia Schedelbauer creates a visually stunning vortex of images in her latest film, Labor of Love. (Fabian Tietke, TAZ)

–––A pulsing ode to love, nature, human connection and the inevitable (and sometimes tragic) losses. (Scott Miller Berry, Letter from Oberhausen, pt 2)

–––Schedelbauer marries the techniques of her previous flicker films and films with voiceover to create a lushly symphonic and immersive personal dream cosmos. (Haden Guest, program notes, Harvard Film Archive)

–––Labor of Love pulses like the frequencies of a beat, flutters like the blink of an eye – with the pupil as the sun during a cosmic bang. [Schedelbauer] relates the color-explosive energy to the phenomenon of love, which, in addition to its poetic-romantic surging value, is also a bio-physical reaction of the brain. (Andreas Wilink, kultur.west)

–––Sylvia Schedelbauer’s Labor of Love centres on the affective space of now. By entangling viewers in the heady and intoxicating experience of love, Schedelbauer grounds the viewer in the sensory temporality of connection and kinship, drawing us into the liminal space of an existence outside flesh-based forms, perhaps a dream or bardo state. The film builds in intensity, effectively capturing cyclical valences of feeling. (Gwen Burlington, program notes, In the Long Now, aemi)

–––Stroboscopic color fields and partial images – crashing waves, cascading blood cells, firing neurons – accompany a lulling voiceover, which guides the viewer on a journey of haptic sensation. Spiraling through infinite portals within portals, a hallucinatory descent through mutating forms and exploding energies, Labor of Love offers a unique, multidimensional experience, a vertiginous sensation of proprioception that expands our sense of time and space. (Leo Goldsmith, program notes NYFF)

–––As with Schedelbauer’s previous work, this stereoscopic piece is forged on the rhythmic pulse of a flicker, one that is loaded with bio- and neurological allusions - a heartbeat, a steady breath, a firing synapse, the twitch of a central nervous system, all evoking the ‘biophysical chemistry one experiences when falling in love.’ This is a film of deep fathomless feeling, where the intellectual and rational fade under the weight of impulse and an evolving cascade of sensorial images guides us through a journey that's joyously ecstatic with love’s myriad possibilities. (Thomas Grimshaw, Program Notes, London Short Film Festival)

–––Above all, for me, it works as a psychedelic trip that clears your mind, not just symbolically. In shimmering, colorful movements, the image of a brain visually dissolves on screen, and for a brief moment, so do my thoughts. (Jonas Nestroy,

–––Schedelbauer virtually projects her abstract cinema directly onto our retinas, with her delirious Labor of Love. The so-called flicker film, an achievement from the 1960s, is far from an end of possibilities. (Daniel Kothenschulte, Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger)

–––The sea is pulse. The sight is pulse. The pulse is blood, connections, the concert of complex machinery. To imagine an impossible place is to make it come true; give life to something that does not exist; give birth to an image, labor of love. (Nico Ruiz, Letterboxd)

–––The idea of love as an abstract, amorphous concept, which can be approached from unreal, non-linear spectra, from the sound of trees, paintings and strident colors: a journey through the body, through an idea, a labor. (Demian García, Letterboxd)

–––Representational images float to the surface now and again, only to be sucked back into the eye-vacuum. A landscape, a butterfly, a woman in ecstasy. But these are like drifting flecks that rush past our heads as we go under, gasping for breath, beneath wave after wave of haptic light. (Michael Sicinski, Mubi)

–––Sylvia Schedelbauer’s Labor of Love interprets something more abstract—the slippery definition of love—with an endless variety of changing shapes, patterns, and colors. Stroboscopic flickering and ombré effects interrupt HD video and 16mm found footage, endlessly collapsing into patterns that create entirely new images. Though we may register specific objects in Labor of Love (a brain, a moth, root tips of a tree), its total result is a gentle barrage of strong sensory impressions nothing short of hypnotic. If love is here, as the filmmaker’s voiceover suggests early on, it’s an endlessly reflecting and refracting feeling—a warm familiarity that gives way to unexpected but embraceable ideas. (Tyler Wilson, Brooklyn Rail)

–––The transfusion of the perpetual past into our present – a grand osmosis peculiar to the cinema – allows her to install elaborate temporal schemes in her films. It is indicated by her usage of ageing, monochrome footage from multiple sources, but also in how she uses a system of dissolves, ellipses, manipulations to rupture continuity and cause a regime of thick time to descend upon her films. This can induce – as in literally, such as with [Remote] Intimacy and Way Fare, or figuratively, such as in Labour of Love (2018) – a demolition of the various arbitrary hierarchies induced by the industrial complex within the minds of the audience and instead unify into a smudge with a larger, invisible consciousness. (Anuj Malhotra, Senses of Cinema)

–––Where can memories take us? This constitutes one of the contentual questions that “Labor of Love” poses about the use of filmic means. Which places lie dormant and hidden within us, capable of opening up new perspectives? Assembled like a managed mediation, the depiction turns increasingly to inner states of consciousness and counterbalances the unknown with the known. The image of a human brain – the place where all the strands of our consciousness converge – sets itself apart from the colour progressions that thrust themselves across the screen in harmony with the music. From there we descend into the entangled confusion of the mind, with a moth flashing up briefly like a deja-vu, before it also disappears into a sea of colours. Just before the end, every reference to our surroundings completely dissolves, with squares flying hypnotically across the screen and every relation with reality ultimately slipping into abstraction.(Lina Louisa Krämer, online journal, Kurzfilm Magazin)

–––linking form to metaphysics, (...) Sylvia Schedelbauer’s Labor of Love renders death’s opposite as a haptic wonder. It takes words from Peter Wohlleben’s Trees of Knowledge BBC3 broadcast and plays them over colorful, kaleidoscopic images punctuated by soft fades in and out of black. The words are effective as a purely textural force — they seem to take on an affective force outside their meaning — but they also provide an entrypoint to the film’s central metaphor. Per Schedelbauer, “love opens new internal spaces, invites possibilities — and allows for change, generosity, and human growth.” Wohlleben’s work is about how trees communicate, and it reveals a communicative world that is inaccessible to outsiders. The “argument,” of Labor of Love is that love does the same, and it attempts to visualize that internal space in the same way Wohlleben attempts to explain the communication of trees. Whether this sounds either pretentious or naive on paper, the proof is in the pudding; Labor of Love is as fulfilling a sensory experience as you could hope to find. (Forrest Cardamenis, blog entry)

The Rootstocks of Our Connections
by José Emilio González Calvillo

A yellowish-brown spot rests in the upper corner of a black frame. With a vibration, the mottle expands; meanwhile, the color black compresses and becomes a circle: it is a pupil enclosed by an amber iris. Is it an eye? Or is it a dark tunnel without exit, illuminated by LED light bars? Labor of Love (2020) begins with these glimpses that establish the principle of indeterminacy or, more precisely, of multiple figurative associations that structure the ten minutes of Sylvia Schedelbauer’s last picture. The short film is a stream of permanent mutations, built by animated entities, colors, vibrations and stroboscopic lights. In the movie, a voice utters a text, which is not comprehensible at all, at least in a first watch. Perhaps, the colors black and amber were not an eye, but a group of celestial bodies seen from afar or a dandelion in extreme close-up. Or maybe they are the four possibilities I traced, all at once.


There is a moment in Labor of Love where a polychromatic butterfly overlays upon a human brain, whose texture blends with the hind wings of the insect, making a movement like a flutter. In its flight, the lepidopteran transports to a forest where the wind shakes the trees (or are they hair follicles seen through a magnifying lens?). Then, there is an instant where a bee pollinates a flower; its buzz mixes with the breathing of a woman, whose face denotes a deep sleep. All these entities are laboring. The lilac sea waves that break on the shore and the astonishing sunset with its yellow, red, and black are laboring, although they are not living beings. Films have never done anything else than animating the whole world’s matter.

Hannah Arendt differentiates between “labor” and “work”, which are words that we usually employ indistinctly. She defines the first one as “the activity which corresponds to the process of the human body, whose spontaneous growth, metabolism, and eventual decay are bound to the vital necessities produced into the life process by labor”.[1] In other words, without labor, life would be impossible and, therefore, it is something shared between every living being. Schedelbauer’s film exemplifies this in two senses. The first one is evident in the discernible labors within the stream of glimpses in the movie. Those glimpses create the sensation of a shared vital unity among entities. The second one is that, although creating a film is something in the realm of what Arendt understands as “work”, Labor of Love suggests that the act of making a film--and the experience of watching it--is an act of life preservation, just as breathing or sleeping.


The word “of” in the title opens a prepositional phrase that qualifies “labor”; as a semantic unit, it indicates a place of belonging. Labor of Love is constituted by—or at least it refers to—other sources and works. In her website, Sylvia Schedelbauer mentions that the process of making this film came from her readings of All about Love, by bel hooks, and of The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson. Besides, the text that is heard in Labor borrows words from the forester Peter Wohlleben in a conversation for the BBC that he had with the philosopher Emanuele Coccia and the photographer Marion Sidebottom. The text is complemented with ideas from the ecologist Suzanne Simard, in her talk How Trees Talk to Each Other. Two essays, a podcast, and a lecture: diverse preexistent creations that operate as roots for arising a movie. Without being explicit in the short, these sources unclose “portals, portals within portals, each opening up new spaces, new avenues, new perspectives”, as the voice over says.

From all these links between diverse artifacts, the most heartfelt and noteworthy is that to Paul Clipson’s Love’s Refrain, a film that, in the credits, Schedelbauer acknowledges as an inspiration source. In the movie’s eight minutes, Clipson fuses crystalline drops on the leave’s architecture, in close-ups, with long shots of sun glimpses in the back of a forest. His loving prayer ends in a succession between aquatic lights and oceanic trees. Clipson died in 2018 and Sylvia Schedelbauer couldn’t go to the funeral. Her mourning rite was to revisit her friend’s filmography. Therefore, her last short film is a colorful elegy of lights: a labor of love.


Is this small and beautiful altar not enough to experience love fully? Is devotion not enough to pay some sort of debt with the elements of the world, rearranging them in such a way that they induce to this emotional state? It is, but the associations are not straightforward, though they can be felt intuitively. Love in the short film is experienced physically too, as a mysterious thrill. While watching this movie, it is possible to feel the circulatory and the nervous systems. Is it because the voice over narrates that there are signals travelling through them? Can the pure sound of words, detached from their meaning, invoke the organs alluded? For doing so, the use of stroboscopic lights is a complement and not a cause. (The only flaw of the film is its lack of warning about the presence of a resource that can be a torment for some people, even if for others it can lead to experience an internal illumination). Love is a meditation that contributes to the recognition of the universe inside us; it is, as well, the knowledge of being integrated to an immense world outside. Labor of Love roots together a diversity of millenary life forms, by means of images and sounds combined in a vital and harmonical unity. Cinema is no more than this organic system.

[1] Hannah Arendt, La condición humana, Ramón Gil Novales (trad.), Barcelona, Paidós, 1998, p. 21.

From This Wonderful Country, José Emilio González' Film Writing in English.
Published originally in Spanish in Correspondencias. Cine y Pensamiento on May 25th, 2021