of things past
The hum of super 8mm and 16mm projectors, the bodies and places that populate
their images have become ghosts of a nostalgic past, a paradise lost,
associated with the birth of photography, photograms and the flickering
light burning through last century's celluloid. The baby in the Lumiere
Brothers' Le Petit Gout de Bebe was the blueprint for all
our home movie memories to follow and the leaves rustling in the wind
behind the baby which so fascinated Melies would fascinate all potential
Super 8mm and 16mm have for some time been released of their function,
reduced in the broadcast media and advertising world to a marketable and
usable style quality where scratches and dust are acceptable as long as
they are artificially created and suitably sanitised. Video has now replaced
super 8mm in the creation of home movies and popular travelogues. Kodak
has now brought onto the market super 8mm negative, not for the reason
of making several copies from a master negative - the super 8mm enthusiasts
dream - but in order to transfer direct onto video for home editing
on the computer.
Super 8mm home movies are now in the public domain, their time honoured
function is up and they now are material for artists, TV and music companies
to exploit. The developments in video, new media and digital technology
now liberate traditional forms from their functionality and industry-orientated
For many of us super 8mm was the first step in representing the moving
image, its versatility and simplicity captured the imagination of many
art students, experimental and independent filmmakers and film groups.
With the advent of television and mass media in the 1960s and 70s artists
discovered anew (after the experimentation of the 20s and 30s) the plasticity
and possibilities of film. Then in the 80s, 16mm film was relieved of
its educational and 'light industrial' function, helping it
achieve its fully 'liberated position' as a creative art form.
But now the post-production processes are disappearing, 16mm editing tables
gather dust in workshops, television studios and schools and 16mm labs
are closing down. The creation and post-production process that began
with the birth of cinema itself, marking the beginning of experimental
film history in the 20s and 30s has been undergoing a gradual change.
Cutting of film is rapidly becoming a thing of the past as celluloid is
now transcribed and digitised, becoming numbered data interchangeable
with sound and text that ultimately influences the editing process. 16mm
film is a dinosaur in its last death throws, on the verge of extinction
and obsolescence, the specificity of its medium threatened.
So why is there so much film work present in galleries and museums?
Those who continue with super 8 and 16mm film will be the experimental
and independent filmmakers who see themselves within a specific historical
lineage and artists who are always re-inventing new ways of seeing. Abel
Gance brought us multi-screen projection too early, too ahead of its time.
Out of the birth of cinema grew an experimental form of cinema. The birth
of video also temporarily gave us new forms of experimentation with the
medium. It is these high points of experimentation which are being rediscovered
and reconsidered today. Those who choose to work with 16mm film will persist
with Steenbecks at home: self-sufficient filmmakers who retain control
over their material, those who want to continue to work with the tactile
nature of film and with those who want to continue to sculpt in time.
Filmmaking that exists on the margins retains a kind of constant marginality,
a stability on the edge. It finds itself a position of opposition and
learns how to operate from this position of survival. This nucleus of
activity sometimes moves closer to and sometimes farther away from the
activity of its parallel universe and at times the paths of players from
each side cross over into the other camp. The border-line between what
constitutes art and what constitutes film is being broken down partly
due to the prevalence of video/moving image present in gallery spaces.
With these thoughts in mind I would like to discuss four exhibitions I
have seen this year. The first: an exhibition where an artist working
with film has made inroads into the gallery system and art world. The
other three are filmmakers associated with more marginal and experimental
practices showing their work in gallery spaces.
In spring of this year Tacita Dean presented seven film installations
in her solo exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London. All of the them
had their own sound-proofed spaces and all worked with a straight forward,
classical frontal projection. In six of the spaces a loop system was set
up for continuous viewing. Dean's installations are minimal in the
way they intervene with the space. The film is projected onto a wall,
at times filling the full wall, at times occupying a centre space. The
spectator can either stand or sit according to whether a bench is available.
The arrangement of these varying viewing spaces where one can pass from
one film into another make the spectator the interactive component in
a medium that does not normally lend itself to interruption, repetition
or spectator control. As well as making us aware of the gallery context,
this passing from one space into another helps us relate one film to another,
giving us an enhanced understanding of the artist's approach. Dean's
images are well composed and considered, with their own sense of pace
and rhythm. Her images and subject matter paired down to a minimum giving
the work clarity and simplicity. Her approach is akin to that of documentary
in the treatment and research into her subject matter but unlike most
documentaries is devoid of commentary, voice-over or text. The images
speak for themselves.
The documentary genre is becoming increasingly popular as it crosses over
into fine art territory with artists producing experimental documentaries
and approaching documentary in unconventional ways. Galleries and museums
appear to be willing to accommodate such work because it deals with recognisable
subject matter that is accessible and understandable for the viewer while
still retaining a bold artist's signature.
Matthias Müller is a well-known filmmaker on the independent/experimental
film scene. His work is toured internationally by the Goethe Institute.
Müller's former work borrowed from, analyses and deconstructs
Hollywood narrative structures. It is beautifully shot and well constructed.
In Home Stories, an early film work, Müller, sampled scenes from
typical melodramas. Varying scenes from films showing women entering and
leaving rooms, switching on and off lamps, anxiety, fear and apprehension
on their faces were edited together, exposing and in so doing, deconstructing
the repetitive formula of Hollywood narrative structures.
Müller's most recent film Vacancy was shown at an exhibition
at the Royal College of Art in London playing amongst the ruins,
organised by the students of the RCA curating course. Vacany was filmed
in Brasilia, Oscar Niemeyer & Lucio Costa's utopian city built
from scratch in 1961, the year of Müller's birth. Mixing his
own images of the city with found footage and archive material, he unearths
a strong poetic portrait of the hopes and subsequent demise of a utopian
dream and the ruination and degradation of a modern utopia. Historical
images of the pristine city dissolve into shots of a crumbling contemporary
Brasilia. Present day footage is treated in such a way that the distinction
between what is archive footage from the 60s and what is contemporary
footage is totally blurred. A voice over accompanies us through these
strange and beautifully composed cityscapes with texts from Italo Calvino,
Samuel Beckett, David Wojnarowicz and Müller himself. The film moves
into documentary territory then pulls out as Müller's subjective
poetic vision begins to refer not only to the past and present of a utopian
city but to his own life.
This is the first time I have seen Müller's work in a gallery.
This film would seem to have been chosen for its suitability to the theme
of the exhibition, (other works in this show included Martha Rosler's
How do we know what home looks like shot in Le Corbusier's
L'Unité d'Habitation at Firminy-Vert and Sarah
Morris' film Midtown shot in New York). But Vacancy works
well in a gallery space and it is easy to imagine these images in other
larger spaces where the spectator can physically engage with the projected
images of Brasilia past and present. The spectators' physical presence
becomes an architectural component and human reference in Müller's
filmic representation of this modern city.
Yann Beauvais has been making experimental films since the 1970s. He is
co-founder of Lightcone Distribution Co-operative in Paris (distribution
and archive of experimental film) and programmer of Scratch Projection,
a weekly screening of experimental cinema in Paris. At C.R.E.D.A.C. Centre
d'Art contemporain d'Ivry just outside Paris. Beauvais presented
a complex and compelling film installation titled 'Des Rives'.
Typically French in its play on words, des rives meaning river
banks and dérives meaning to wander in the city with no particular
aim or reason.
Des Rives comprised of two screens set at a 120° angle making the
spectator the third point in a three dimensional virtual space. Like a
large fan opened out, moving images of New York passed horizontally across
vertical strips creating a surface pattern like windscreen wipers moving
back and forward across the screen. The panoramic scenes and tracking
shots of New York, the layering of images and the slow-moving zoom kept
the viewers gaze in motion and unstable, constantly shifting between construction,
analysis and collapse. At times our eyes would focus upon one cut-up New
York urban landscape before shifting to another urban scene, the foreground
becoming the background and vice versa. The image has no centre, no sides,
we are neither guided by a linear narrative or chronological editing.
As the films repeat themselves through the use of a loop system we begin
to recognise and familiarise ourselves with a taxi, a street scene, a
corner but never enough to fully identify with it.
The sound accompanying the installation created by Thomas Köner is
not intended to make the images more realistic but to make the space more
real. Köner states that it is impossible for sound and image to interact
totally because they assume different dimensions. This collaboration created
a merging of two different audiences, the experimental film one and the
electronic music one. Historically these two fields have much-in-common
and it was inspiring to witness their coming together and fusing on equal
terms. Beauvais' film installation in a gallery context brought together
in a positive way the three different strands of film, art and music and
the intertwining of their past histories and present developments.
At the Centre National de la Photographie in Paris were the filmmakers
Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, a formidable couple working
with 35mm. They have been active since the 60's and were part of
the initial energy and vibrancy of the Nouvelle Vague. Refusing to participate
in the Algerian war, Straub was treated as a deserter and facing imprisonment
in France left for Germany. Current debate in the French press on the
use of torture during the Algerian war has revealed Jean-Marie Straub's
political position at that time, which was to have a negative effect on
his cinema career in France.
The films of Straub and Huillet are rigorous and their continuing vision
is exceptional. They fit into no camp, their work is difficult and unique,
it demands time, attention, patience and a new way of thinking of cinema,
their work is totally unconventional. They challenge and upset cinema,
their engagement with it is artistic and political. There is an economy
in the organisation of audio and visual space, each scene is rigorously
constructed and articulated, each event leaves the spectator free to interpret,
to make his/her own decisions. Their films never leave you indifferent.
For this very reason, Straub & Huillet are often at their screenings
to discuss their work afterwards. Showing their films at the CNP was problematic
for two reasons. Ink jet prints of film stills, texts and diagrams occupying
the gallery spaces were a superfluous and unnecessary attempt to justify
their presence. No justification was needed. Secondly their films, although
shown in a cinema-like space with adequate projection and seating facilities
lacked the collective cinema experience of being in an audience where
the possibility of dialogue afterwards would add to that experience. (This
situation did take place over a weekend where screenings were programmed).
Art galleries diffuse collective experience emphasising instead our individual
Yann Beauvais and Straub & Huillet's work is a cinema of resistance,
a political engagement, a combat. The question of film and cinema is for
them an integral part of the work itself. Tacita Dean's uses film
as a painter uses paint and Matthias Müller's recent work is
fittingly elegiac in spirit.
As we rush headlong into the techno-scientific world of industrial and
post-industrial capitalism with its meticulous programming and fabrication
of beautiful images perhaps there is a need to re-position ourselves before
we take the giant leap forward.