From Scratch? (Eng)

2009

Opening lecture, Xperimenta 09, Contemporary Glances at Experimental Cinema, Centro de Cultura Contemporana de Barcelona, 02-26-2009 Barcelona

FROM SCRATCH?

Describing the situation  of experimental film in Vancouver in the 1980s, Al Razutis had this to say: “There’s a lot of people who went through the process and vanished, whose work in its time was just as important as those who are remembered in the 80’s today. It’s a rear guard thinking that doesn’t account for the networks of influence as they’re played out at the time. I think a lot of stuff has gone down unsung and unknown and it’s terrible. [1]”
When creating Light Cone with Miles McKane, I was not thinking along these lines, but somehow the setting of the cooperative encompassed these issues among others, that had to do with local matters, such as the difficulty to access contemporary and historical woks on a daily basis and outside the festival scheme, in order to see the unseen.
As Keith Sanborn remarked in the late 80’s “films are born dead” and need to be reanimated through distribution and screening. When Light Cone was created it seemed particularly useful to establish a positive field for experimental cinema: to create the means to give access to new works and to works that we had only heard of through distribution and exhibition. These were our initial goals.
One important effect to this was to put experimental film back on the agenda of the museum. Even if it was already within the concerns of a museum, such as Centre Georges Pompidou, our aim was to put these films back within the context of art. At the beginning, this was not easy, but this moved slowly, somehow, to a kind of simultaneous recognition by the academy and by the art world. But was this for the best? Has it duplicated and maximized a canonical view of those films? A view, which duplicates as a parody, the world economy calling for a paternalist approach to any kind of otherness: a sort of cultural neocolonialism.
It seemed important at that time, as it is still now days, in a different way, to look for the unseen, the unknown or the underestimated, the marginalized. But Light Cone was created in the eighties, something like thirty years ago. Today it seems necessary to convey and have access to the unofficial, the underground, which means to look for “otherness,” in all possible meaning, as much as, to look-at it in a different way. One must understand that, for roughly the past 15 years, the experimental film scene has become part of art history as much as cinema history, which was not always the case. At festivals, historical exhibitions are either devoted to a theme such as abstract film, calculated films, found footage films and so on, or an aspect is investigated such as expanded cinema, sampling, performances. Simultaneously, avant-garde studies have become routine -not as developed as cultural studies- but it is on its way. For long the area has been a territory reserved for specialists: mostly the filmmakers themselves and a very few historians and critics.
Experimental film has become a genre in itself. Within the industry, if someone gives you credit for an “experimental touch” you get a positive appreciation (plus-value) and who knows, maybe a box office hit within the independent film scene. We have seen a subtle shift in how experimental film is talked about: from derogatory to complimentary, at least in France  since the late 90’s. In both cases and maybe today even more, this will to standardize, one should understand, regulates or even homogenizes things to such a degree that “experimental film” practices dissolve into an unidentified field. This turn of event evokes what has happened to the gay community: the recognition of our rights has been the best way to promote or establish as a norm a perfect right to indifference. This use of tolerance is the best way to annihilate any radical drive. As a filmmaker, and as a gay I do see a lot of similarities in these recognition practices that are promoted in order to depoliticize the “other.”

It goes without saying that in both cases what is privileged is some characteristics or singularities to the detriment of its recognition as “other.” Another talk might be given, declaring that it was about time to recognize these practices existed and therefore include them in the on-going spectacle. The more it’s included, the more it dissolves into the culture industry. Of course, it seemed outrageous that experimental filmmakers were regarded as second tier artists. Most of us have experienced this when selling prints to museums. I could speak for myself but prefer to refer to this through a letter that Paul Sharits wrote to the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Köln in 74. Already describing this phenomenon through the standard applied to artists showing their films and filmmakers. Guess who is second rate? “To begin with, I would like to know why Michael Snow is listed and treated as a “filmmaker” while Jack Smith is listed as an “artist”. It is no secret that Snow is an accomplished and respected artist in numerous media and Jack Smith is an accomplished and respected artist only in film, slide and performance…. Furthermore, I have learned that “artists showing their films are receiving gallery sale prices for prints while “filmmakers” are receiving a mere 3DM per minute rental of their works. [2]” This division (of labor) still obtains. If you have not succeeded in entering the gallery world and the art market, you can always dream. Dreams that money can buy, (here not filmed by Hans Richter) has become the way most “films by artists” are made, duplicating the Hollywood schema, but without the ability to match its standard. The common denominator being the money spent to make the work. This fascination with cost, with the latest high tech devices to make the films, shows how far away we are from the impulse of many of the underground filmmakers of the sixties and after. The impetus to resist the Hollywood standard is nowhere to be seen, what is at stake is mostly the mirage of this dream factory. This dream factory has succeed in colonizing our imaginary to such an extent that it appears there is no alternative to it. This use of film by most artists is often directed toward the black box or the white cube, but not so often the theater. This shift toward concern with filmic reception induces, not to say promotes, indifference toward projected images. If this were really the case, it would be rather interesting because it would be the mark of a “demy(s)tification of the sacred image. It would connected to the use of image by designer when using motion graphic or architect, for which processing determined or indefinite processes procedures are the main objects disqualifying our image cult. These procedures share some aspects of what was achieved with “structural cinema”, with some of the films of the Whitney brothers, or with pattern paintings.
But let’s go back to our black box and white cube, that have become the ultimate locations where one’s work can be projected or be seen. These locations transform the reception of a work through a variety of disturbances, which sometimes requires a totally immersive space, from which it is difficult to remove oneself. This immersion expands Peter Kubelka’s Invisible Cinema, but with a twist: it is not only the eyes and the ears that are required for the show. It could be much more. This box in which there appears films and dirt particles, mostly called for endless loops while the projected flow of images follows a traditional use of narrative. We are facing a displacement of reception but are not necessarily offer new means of structuring, or alternatives to dominant narratives. The box in itself explores practices where seeing and wandering within cinema take place, much as is the case with You Tube, Vimeo, DailyMotion, that are locations where cinema takes place as well. A point has to be made about works dealing precisely with Internet censorship through their use of specific filters or mode of exclusion such as in the case of youtube: flagging [3]. Chroma, a project created by Dominik Bartowski. [4], is a software that reshapes porn images in a way that used and subverted the censor filters. The software is user friendly in order to produce your own images that are part of this general recycling, recombining attitudes which have become prevalent in our everyday life.

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Not that we are seeing different films specific to each of these apparatuses, but something distinct is happening as Lev Manovich points out: “We have a revolutionary new means of content distribution, but… the content tends to remain the same: people write letters, people shoot video, people take photographs. [5].”But at the same time, one will notice that some of the things that reflected the personal cinema are becoming banal on those sites; the confessional drive, the diaries, the trick film are examples that come to mind. These small films on display in those sites follow the setting of television. We are facing a use of cinema through television, if we apprehend Cinema as the art of organizing a stream of audio-visual events in time. It is an event-stream like music [6] In this vast quantity of work, what will we looking at? What will attract our blasé glance? This incredible amount of work is a reflection of what is also going on within the film festival. Between what has been selected and what is available through the consulting library we would need weeks to look at all the work. Confronted with such incommensurability, we are left with potential regrets, frustration or contempt. Have I not missed the one film we have been waiting for. Confronted with that vast production, in which there might be some interesting works, how will I have access to the interesting ones? Does it matter any longer to have access to all the interesting works? One could consider that this wish belongs to a time when it was possible to know the history of cinema, despite the considerable amount you were able to have seen most of the work produced within this field. But first of all, this “encyclopedic” knowledge reflected a limited view of cinema, mostly western views; from it, very often, not to say systematically, other works were excluded, which were neither western, nor made according to the reigning set of optics in use. It is interesting in that respect to notice that the way we have shaped the history of experimental films duplicates the world economy. Europe, seeking to be the dominant force in the 20’s, the US from the 40’s onward engaged in a kind of self-aggrandizing cartography: to the map one had created, one would add new territory, new cinema practices according to a fascination with exoticism: an extensive colonialism or sectarianism. This issue has been dealt by filmmakers such as Trinh Minh-Ha and Lisl Ponger by focusing on ethnocentrism within travel films [7]. This project is based on tourist films; it rarely conveys the images and the sound of the others. (In déjà vu, we can hear the tale of Karim Duarte speaking about Cap Verdian Independence Day). At other times, we discover new territory and will screen, as a new trend, films coming from outside. One should remember our cyclical fascination with new territory in which we discover films only because we have been certain to have exhibited our own. This attitude is well described in the publication Cinema of Prayogain which this double movement is acknowledged: “on one part this exchange has been the movement of classic and contemporary work from the UK to packed audiences in India over the lat 5 years of the Experimental film festival” the other part being the publication which “reflects discoveries made under these circumstances and as such we believe it is a key text for beginning the process of challenging the dominant US and Euro-centric histories mainly known in the UK [8]” Among others I have been part of this trend, focusing on diverse cinematic lands according to friendships, encounters, love. It would be presumptuous to say “from scratch.

We should be aware of the fact that since the media piracy has increased and has given access to works which were not available in different countries for different reasons, censorship. As Tilman Baumgärtel put it : “While in Europe and the USA, piracy is mostly seen as an online phenomenon that takes place via peer-to-peer networks the pirate culture in Southeast Asia is informed by the fact that in many countries here people do not have acess to the internet or do not even have a computer of their own. Therefore the predominant form of piracy in the region is the sale of counterfeit DVDs and VCDs.” [9] This media piracy have increased the visibility of the international art house, experimental as well as porno films, and has transformed filmic knowledge by adding these territories. It functions as an educational tool, and can explained the eruption of new type of cinematography within such countries. Filmmaker such as Apichatpong Weerasetheakul is a good example or this interaction.

We are far from scratch.

I have always been curious of the lesser known, not to say the “unknown,” the different. This could have to do with a sexual drive but it would be a bit simplistic to reduce it to that. It seems there were always films that were referred to, but these films were never screened, or rarely, I thought it could be possible to give Light Cone and Scratch an opportunity to deal with these lost, unseen works. This explains the search for films in the 80’ such as the work of Len Lye, Laszlo Moholy Nagy, Germaine Dulac, Daniel Buren, Richard Serra, Carolee Schneeman, Anthony McCall, Jack Smith, Valie Export, and as well as for the work of lesser know individuals such as Alexandre Witkine, Eugene Deslaw, Adrian Brunel, José Rodrigo Solteiro, Nguyen Tan Haong, Wayne Yung… I could say that what was at stake was to produce and to give access to alternative paths within the history of experimental films. Not to forget the margins of the field, to dig them out in some way.

To this end, we will look at an extract from a Brazilian film made by the writer artist José Agrippino de Paula. The film is called Hitler 3° Mundo, [Hitler 3rd World], and was shot in 1969. It is the only 16mm film left by this filmmaker among a few super 8 films that he made later on, in Africa and Brazil in the 70’s. José Agrippino de Paula, is considered one of the main precursors of Tropicalism. His novels Lugar Público (1965) and PanAmérica (1967) and his play/happening: The United Nations (1968) are epic works annexing multilayered sources of icons and facts, such as pop had done in painting. Hitler 3° Mundo was mostly shot in São Paulo during the dictatorship, with the assistance of the filmmaker Jorge Bodansky as a cameraman. The film was based on a happening; Tarzan terceiro Mundo: Mustang Hibernado, made with the help of Maria Ester Stockler. One will immediately see the connections with the Living Theater, andThe Brig (filmed by Jonas Mekas) but as well with the work of Ron Rice and Jack Smith, and with that of the performers Taylor Mead and Jack Smith. What is of special interest and offers a lot to think about is to recognize how José Agrippino de Paula deals with and masters improvisation and chance, in a manner that recalls Jack Smith’s ability to work from improvisation. In both cases, these artists know how to take advantage of chance. In Hitler 3° Mundo, for example, while the man dressed as the thing is screaming from the top of a building, Zé Agrippino persuaded a group of soldiers and cops to arrest him and filmed his arrest without any authorization at a time when everyone else was trying to stay clear of the army (screening of an extract from 10’ to 15’)

hitler 3° Mundo
Cinema production has by now surpassed our ability to seize its entire scope. So we have to now find new ways of dealing with such a volume of production. The fact that production is more important doesn’t necessarily mean that the amount of strong work is also increasing; but it means that it might be more difficult to have access to it. To succeed in seeing works, we have to create a new kind of web, in order to connect to work. The film festival, a special screening presentation, might be a good opportunity to see works but it might not always be relevant. While a performance of live cinema or a site specific installation will always imply taking place directly, other filmic experience could be shared on different levels, despite the fact that we might lose, to not say dissolve the experience of the film’s grain and its unique pulse.
Mike Hoolboom said that film festivals stink of the mall: “too many shown all at once, one after another, all howling for attention like the Bargain Prices Reduced no Offer Too Low signs which greet me in the covered wagons of the shopping paradise. [10]” Indeed the festivals are one of our shopping malls, but they are not the only ones that deliver us to this mass of films. The Internet is busy covering the field. As said to Mike in response, “Avant-garde has become a programming category. But one wonders if avant-garde practices are still relevant within films today. Maybe the notion of the avant-garde and the way it has frozen a practice in a frozen genre is the main limitation to a renewal of film practices.” All the same, in the eighties and nineties, it has been important to develop visibility for works that renew the tradition of the avant-garde. And fortunately the understanding of such practices has shifted not only in regard to content strategies but mostly as regards origins. It is not the kingdom of westerners, or what westerners were fantasizing about it.
Globalization has hit culture as much as anything else, in some ways more rapidly than any other field. This is very stimulating because we don’t master what is available; we are in a wandering situation that evokes the way we walk through the mall as much as through the exhibition spaces. We are in a state of distracted attentiveness. The production being so huge, it has become more democratic. The way we were making such films belongs to different minorities such as races and gender(s). It is no longer the exclusive practice of the dominant powers: i.e. the west. The dominant power is no longer alone. Others have challenged it; different voices have erased white supremacy. In this case, the festival is no longer a place for celebration so much as a place to emphasize parallel routes. A festival becomes a collection of possibilities. It’s a network, a web. We go to festivals not so much to see films, as to meet and encounter people, in that sense the festival is like the opening within the art scene. The sheer quantity of works already implies further screening opportunities and so questions the means of any single festival. In a festival, one work follows another. This massing and the attention required to see work is (maybe) not the best at festivals. The way we have conceived of exhibition is obsolete, and we should think about new forms of giving access to the works.
Today transmission does not necessarily imply theatrical screening. It encompasses broadcasting and downloading. One has to deal with multiple channels of exhibiting a work, in order to create new space for film. We not only need to see works under proper conditions, but we need to think about what it means to make this type of work today. The amount of cinema is such that we have to create anew the conditions of reception for these works. We can’t keep on duplicating forever, the same horizon, as if cinema had reached an eternal form of display. Cinema is no longer what we have previously known. Cinema has become democratic, some will say perverted, to such an extent that it invades the city walls, the mall and any screen we have access to. Can we continue making and exhibiting the same type of works that belongs to a past epoch, to certain types of political, social and esthetic conditions? Can we sustain the same old fascination for a Work of Art as it was in a previous era? Can we still perpetuate this film form as duplication (reproduction) du Grand Œuvre according to canonical norms? Can we still display the same old history that excludes and protects more than it shares?
How much longer are we going to look at the same canonical history of film, as if there had not been any other makers, any other trends that have questioned this? The film archive category has been useful for a time, but to erect it as dogma to secure its eternity seems rather strange because it demonstrates what it was, but is not any longer. Frozen in its celebration, like any potentate, it can’t cope with differences. The inclusion of otherness reflects only a new twist to gain another chance for survival. Do we have to follow once again American history and its numerous sequels, where nationalism becomes the key word to oppose or confront domination. In order to promote another vision, we too often respond with similar strategies, therefore giving added attention to the object we are trying to critique. How are we going to proceed? Should we give cinema a chance, creating specific spaces to encounter projects, such as sites giving access to different schemas? Manifestons! Manifestons! for example is a You tube platform where we can look at works “without quality,” which no longer invests the ontology of the image with anything

manifestons youtube edson barrus

Other than its availability.

This proposal, Cecilia Cotrim [11] has rightly pointed out, resists the normative functioning of the contemporary cultural system, by focusing its effort on the creation and dissemination of daily writing. Expanding and torpedoing this notion of keeping a daily activity, focusing on one of its aspects sometimes absent from our daily life. It is the process that is asserted: the notion of dissemination and not so much the actual image. By playing the medium against itself, against the grain, the artist Edson Barrus is offering ways to think about our use and abuse of images. Similar experiences are produced when activism is geared toward political/social/aesthetic issues…
The diversity of approaches toward cinema offers the opportunity of opening new territory in which it might not be the theatrical moment, which is the most important, but a context from which, in which a work is given meaning. Some proposals of Keith Sanborn deal with these issues. Facing a proliferation of works we have to produce these moments, in which reflexivity as much as relation will give the work a dimension that a screening does not supply. We could run screenings from the web to which you subscribe, or with pod casting. It is how we can understand why so many filmmakers are now giving access to their films on different platforms, in order to emphasized this displacement. But we might well turn away from the “massification” of this culture, its spectacularization by staging anew modest forms of screenings as some of us have the habit of doing. To reshape the display of cinema by reinvestigating the private sphere to induce other behavior? We have to open the critical space, which seems to have disappeared. It seems more than necessary to invest such a critical space in which not only works are shown, but also in which works become not an end but a vector of critical studies. Does it mean that film for film sake is out of consideration? If, in 1992, it was useful to wonder about the production of new images to make films [12], one wonders today whether it is not the concept and practices of filmmaking in themselves which are still pertinent?
Experimental film and its contemporary practices are part of the cultural landscape and retain respected specific niches, expurgated of any claims to subversion, utterly sanitized. As if there were any way to politicize these practices. Searching for recognition we might have lost some of the determinant impulses within this practice that had to do with countering/opposing/subverting. Reification took place on different levels, but we can encounter the drive of such practices in other fields that have nothing to do with this fascination for ruins and with the domination of the archive of our lives.

From Scratch? Is this what we were born for?

“Films are born dead: they must be reanimated to be counted among the living. They pass most of their existences unseen, as inanimate bodies. There is something eerie in reviving them. For, in their inertness, films decay into oblivion, or by force of power they attract, become ritual objects of museological mysteries: unseen, unheard, sacred. [13]” Keith Sanborn
yann beauvais delivered on February 26th at CCCB Xperimenta 09


[1] Al Razutis Interviewed by Mike Hoolboom, in Inside The Pleasure Dome Fringe Film in Canada, Toronto, Gutter Press 1997

[2] Letter to Marlis Grüterlich 1974), in Paul Sharits, Ed yann beauvais Les presses du Réel, Dijon 2008

[3] Computing a variable used to indicate a particular property of the data in a record. Signaling. On the used of Flagging in You Tube, cf Flagging or Fagging (Self-)Censorship of Gay Content on Youtube, Minke Kampman in Video Vortex Reader, Responses to Youtube, ed by Geert Lovink and Sabine Niederer Ink reader #4, Amsterdam 2008, pdf at www.networkcultures.org/publications

[4] To have access to this project: http://online.impakt.nl and http://chromasoft.wordpress.com

[5] We Have Only Started Interview with Lev Manovich,J Hidding in The Cinematic Experience edited by Boris Debacker & Arie Altena, p 137

[6] Gene Youngblood: Cinema and the Code in Future Cinema The Cinematic Imaginary after Film p 156 Ed by Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel, MIT Press 2003

[7] On this issue, see Tim Sharp in Ailleurs 3, Centre Culturel Suisse Paris 1999 andhttp://lislponger.com

[8] Brad Butler & Karen Mirza Preface in Cinema of Prayoga Indian Experimental Film & Video 1913-2006 A no.w.here Publication, London 2006.

[9] Media Piracy and Independent Cinema in Southeast Asia, in Video Vortex Reader, Responses to Yutube ed by Geert Lovink and Sabine Niederer Ink reader #4, Amsterdam 2008, pdf atwww.networkcultures.org/publications

[10] In Showing Pictures : A conversation with yann beauvais and Mike Hoolboom, 2008http://www.mikehoolboom.com/writing/essays/Showing%20Pictures.htm

[11] Querer a multidão, Cecilia Cotrim 2008

[12] It was Peter Tscherkassy in a round table in 1992 at the Viper Film Festival who was addressing this issue. This assertion was very stimulating for me at that time.

[13] Keith Sanborn: History, Necrology, Detection in Underexposed, Artists Space 1987