Zoom Out, Pan Around

Radical Light and the expanding frame of avant-garde cinema criticism
by Tom McCormack  posted January 10, 2011
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In "Rendering Outside the Frame: Film Performance and Installation Art," Scott Stark remembers the San Francisco Art Institute in the 1980s as a time when:

The film department paid attention to film history and film aesthetics, but it was rare for a film teacher to talk about filmmaking in relation to art history, painting, sculpture, and performance art.... Thus film students tended to think of themselves as filmmakers—people who made films—rather than artists—people who were interested in the unique properties of film, light, sound, and projected space as tools for their artistic explorations.

Stark's essay appears in the recently published collection Radical Light: Alternative Film & Video in the San Francisco Bay Area, 1945-2000 (University of California Press), and the book testifies, among other things, to the way that the history of film art or artists' film or experimental or avant-garde cinema is coming to be seen as incontrovertibly threaded with the history of video art and computer art and, more broadly, the histories of the other arts in the later 20th century. That this can be seen as a new development could surprise some people; isn't the very definition of artists' film that it's made by artists and thus naturally viewed in the context of the other arts? Perhaps, but a-g film has frequently been ghettoized, and the reasons for its ghettoization are complex. While many famous artists in the frantically intermixing '60s and '70s were quick to take up user-friendly video, film has always required technical know-how, and experimental film, which frequently uses labor-intensive processes to alter the image or the physical celluloid, often involves rituals that can seem to demand near-Masonic dedication. So while established artists used their credibility to usher the black box into the gallery space, and into the critical discourse, film remained a specialty. Related to this, as video entered the gallery space, installations became common—looped works that many saw but maybe didn't sit through—while film artists insisted on the cinema experience—start to finish—which is far more forbidding.

All of the above takes place in the context of experimental film's relationship to Hollywood filmmaking, a relationship that constantly makes experimental film appear to some people as either adolescently rebellious or parasitic. And then there's the complicated nature of P. Adams Sitney's Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde 1943-2000, which did more than any other single book to win for a-g film a place in academia, while at the same time, some would argue, circumscribing the kind of dialogue that took place around a-g film. A guiding meta-argument of Sitney's book, implied but not quite stated, says that the age of heroic Modernism never ended, it just fed directly into experimental cinema, where it thrived. And Sitney is, in a way, eager to dissociate the films he talks about from a lot of other contemporary artistic activity. The term postmodernism appeared not at all in the first edition of Visionary Film, which covered the period from 1943 to 1974, when the term was pretty fresh. And it appears only four times in the updated edition, twice in scare quotes, to make his apprehensiveness plain.

But it's not Sitney's discomfort with a much debated term that helped cordon off a-g film, it's his refusal to mention any of postmodern art's affiliates: conceptual art, performance art, intermedia, appropriation; he only even gestures toward late modernist movements like minimalism. Sitney is very concerned with a-g film's relationship to the other arts; just not much art after Abstract Expressionism. Which notably was the last culturally legitimized major art movement to have a vocal critic—Clement Greenberg—who both saw a clear line of development from antiquity to now and who presented artists as isolated geniuses breaking off from the tainted mainstream culture to single-mindedly solve the problems of artistic form, two ideas that proved massively appealing to Sitney (in fact, Sitney's Stan Brakhage has the same relationship to Greenberg's Jackson Pollock that Austen's Lizzy Bennet has to Shakespeare's Rosalind). The result is a book that, for all its brilliance—and it's totally brilliant—presents a-g film as curiously self-enclosed; an engine driving itself, or drawing its inspiration from previous generations, unaffected by the social and political circumstances surrounding it.1 So, the very things that helped Sitney legitimize a-g film within the academy possibly had the effect of turning other contemporary art critics, who were then getting interested in trying to destroy the very concepts undergirding Sitney, off a-g film.

Which is all to say, many contemporary books on experimental cinema labor in the shadow of all this, and it's not surprising that they frequently attempt to be broad and inclusive—embracing both a heterogeneous group of work and a diverse range of critical approaches—and, perhaps in reaction to the commanding power of Sitney's singular voice, to be multivocal2. Three of the major recent contributions to avant-garde film history have actually been collections: To Free the Cinema, edited by David E. James; Women's Experimental Cinema; edited by Robin Blaetz; and now Radical Light, edited by Steve Anker, Kathy Geritz, and Steve Seid. Of these, Radical Light is in some ways the most inclusive, making room for filmed performance, many different genres of video art, and new media; while welcoming memoirs, capsule reviews, and essays that embrace a staggering variety of critical approaches.

In the two introductions to Radical Light, Anker and Seid, respectively, can't help drawing connections between the physical layout of the Bay Area and the unruly cinema it's created. "San Francisco is a landscape of vibrant qualities and challenging extremes," writes Anker, dean of the School of Film/Video at CalArts and former director of the San Francisco Cinematheque, "a geographic region given to unpredictability and flux." In the same vein, Seid, Video Curator at the Berkeley Art Museum and the PFA, says, "San Francisco's topography—and by extension, that of the greater Bay Area—lends itself to certain rumination about verdant folds and gusty vales, about dusty undulations and rock-tumbled shores. These countless permutations of soil and stone are known no better than by the fog that commingles intimately with each crevice, niche, and drizzly dell....This unspoiled diversity seems to nurture and promote the arts like no other region." Before going on to talk about manifest destiny and the myth of the West, Seid has, with the phrase "unspoiled diversity," put a paradoxically modern spin on these things.

After touching on early experimental photographer and pre-cinematographer Eadweard Muybridge and early television pioneer Philo T. Farnsworth, the book finds its foundation myth in the Art in Cinema series at the San Francisco Museum of Art in the late '40s, after which Radical Light pleasingly spirals outward. Artist and curator Craig Baldwin has one of the most ambitious early pieces, which seeks to tell the story of Bay Area bricoleurs, starting with the funk artists of the '50s and '60s and moving through contemporary video artists like Bryan Boyce. Baldwin's writing, which switches from slang to technical film language to theory-speak to French colloquialisms, resembles the grab-bag aesthetic of his movies. In a telling passage, he writes, regarding early appropriation work that physically altered the filmstrip:

Cinéma concrète techniques such as these could be called "structural," sure, though they were in use long before the seventies, when that term came into parlance. And anyway, I'd argue that the Bay Area is not nearly as driven by formal concerns as, say, the Buffalo of Hollis Frampton and Paul Sharits (though we still pour a bit of beer on the ground for them, RIP). Our "soft structuralism" has it both ways: Instead of absolute refusal, or deconstruction to null-point, much of our work might be understood as a playful semiotic engagement with the "original" authors.

A standard insult says that West Coast filmmakers are formally flabby, as opposed to their more rigorous East Coast colleagues, so Baldwin's recasting of this distinction is interesting. Partly, it comes at a time when engaging with appropriated material in a more content-directed way is in many circles more popular than purely formal exploration. Similarly, Baldwin's affinity for political activism also shades the passage. The implied East-West distinction has a long history in a-g film, and this isn't the only time it rears its head in the book.

Reprinted about halfway through, somewhat confusingly as facsimiles and not as texts, are two documents on the matter; an article by East Coaster Sitney on West Coast filmmaking, from a 1968 issue of the Village Voice, and an outraged response from West Coast filmmaker Lenny Lipton. Sitney's piece takes the form of a travelogue through the West Coast scene, dwelling on Jordan Belson, Lawrence Jordan, and Michael Stewart. It's actually a little difficult to tell what made Lipton so very angry about Sitney's article; he clearly doesn't like Sitney's tone, but there are undoubtedly deep cultural resentments stirring in the exchange, ones regarding New York, and ones that still linger in other cities throughout the States. Lipton's article begins, "I have several things to tell you," and ends, "I have nothing else to say to you," without necessarily saying so much in between. Lipton insists that:

It is the East Bay-SF scene that is flourishing, not the New York scene as far as I am able to determine. It may well be that my fellow filmmakers and I are not aware of what is going on with young filmmakers in New York, but we were able to come up with a list of only half a dozen filmmakers of any stature residing in New York, and a third of them will be moving here by the spring.

BAM! At the beginning of one paragraph, he says, "If you should have occasion in the future to be tempted to list me or any of my films, please think twice. I would prefer to be ignored." And then he ends the same paragraph, "I am a genius, and prefer not to be ignored." One wishes Sitney had responded, or that his response were printed in the book.

The East-West divide also comes up in Michael Sicinski's "The Bay Area as Cinematic Space in Twenty-five Stops or Less," when he is describing Chip Lord's "Bi-Coastal," which cuts between San Fran and New York, "two of the major centers of experimental media in the United States." Sicinski says. "Wisely inverting a potentially volatile situation, nearly fifteen years before Biggie and Tupac, Lord declares a draw. Why choose?" Sicinski's piece, which offers an impressionistic view of how Bay Area landscapes have appeared in experimental cinema, covering a period from 1905 to 2004, is an impressive piece of writing, consisting of 25 miniature reviews that each punch the films into focus.

Other writers also make impressive showings, and big names come out to play. Sitney, J. Hoberman, and Tom Gunning all offer capsule reviews of fave Bay Area movies. Deirdre Boyle writes about portapaktivism in the Bay Area in the '70s. Tony Reveaux gives a history of expanded cinema and psychedelic light shows, showing how the world of experimental art was brought into contact with broader hippie gatherings.

Artists' recollections are sprinkled throughout. Yvonne Rainer offers remembrances of a bohemian youth spent in San Francisco, simultaneously making it seem like she had the most jealousy-inducing, culturally rich late adolescence anyone could imagine and drawing attention to the way women are relegated to second-class roles. Dale Hoyt gives a rambunctious account of the early days of video art ("As I remember it, the aesthetic of the time could best be summed up in one word: ‘Wheeeeeeee'"). There's also the pleasure of reading artists on other artists. In one of the best capsules in the book, Peggy Ahwesh describes Leslie Singer's Hot Dog Fat as a synthesis of Warhol and Iggy Pop, and comments more generally on consumer and television culture. "These media technologies," she writes, "function more subtly today and, for better or worse, are less fun to mock." Artist and former Rhizome editor Marisa S. Olson canonizes Terry Fox's The Children's Tapes, observing that they were "early pacesetters in a discussion about the evolution of televisual media."

Filmmaker and curator (and lawyer) Brian Frye gives an account of recent Bay Area filmmaking. Frye's piece has a lived-in feel, coming from someone who clearly was attending a mass of DIY screenings and not just reading about the biggest names after they'd gotten critical accolades; he talks about a dizzying variety of both famous and less famous artists. Frye also editorializes, celebrating what he sees as a return, in the 1990s, to a primacy granted the visual, a turn away from the radical politics of the '70s and '80s. "Once again filmmakers explored the plastic qualities of motion picture film," he writes, "but this time they didn't feel obliged to make believe that doing so constituted ideological subversion."3 Frye also points out that the history of alternative cinema inevitably contains a history of alternative institutions, something that Radical Light as a whole showcases nicely.

Anker, in "Radicalizing Vision: Film and Video in the Schools," traces experimental media as it existed at the San Francisco Art Institute and San Francisco State University. Canyon Cinema rears its head throughout the book. A fascinating article by Steve Polta, "Emergency Cinema," recounts an event at the San Francisco Cinematheque in 1981, wherein a group of young filmmakers orchestrated a guerrilla takeover of a show of old-guard artists, substituting their own films. The incident resulted in the establishment of No Nothing Cinema, a more anarchistic and wide-ranging showcase of experimental cinema, as well as a re-tooling of the Cinematheque.

The last essay in the collection, by Kathy Geritz, Film Curator at the Berkeley Art Museum and the PFA, is a history of avant-garde cinema as its existed at the Cinematheque and the Pacific Film Archive. It begins with an epigraph from Sheldon Renan, founder of the PFA, which reads, "People who did well in life were people who found ways to institutionalize their obsessions." Institutions—from home-brewed screening series to academic enclaves tucked away in departments with strange names to legitimate art world forces—have certainly helped keep the fringes of cinema alive over the decades, and Radical Light, which was born out of the Cinematheque and the PFA and the Berkeley Art Museum, attests to the ways that these institutions continue to do so.

1. For the most part. When he does get around to dealing with the massively disruptive forces of that stormed art in the 70s and 80s, he seems to have a desire to be rid of the whole business. Representative passages read, p. 409: "All during that time many of the strongest filmmakers of the forties, fifties, and sixties continued to produce major films, unaffected by the tides of ideological debate." On the influence of critical theory and identity politics, p. 410: "The consequences of these developments can still be felt, but in the long run, the avant-garde cinema was less profoundly affected than many other domains."

2. And I would say not just the omnibus collections are multivocal, either. One great virtue of Scott MacDonald's recent Adventures in Perception was the way he seemingly pulled out a different critical perspective for every essay, running the gamut from close aesthetic analysis to racial and gender politics. Another great critic who switches with ease between registers, but who hasn't yet published a book specifically on experimental cinema, is Ed Halter, whose absence from Radical Light, along with that of my other big a-g film writer crush, Melissa Ragona, was one of the book's only big downsides.

3. Frye is here undoubtedly taking a swipe at Peter Gidal and Malcolm LeGrice and the materialist film gestalt that arose in Britain in the '70s and insisted on direct connections between Marxist materialism and Greenbergian materiality. Indeed, this line of argument can be unconvincing, but I question Frye's implication that abstract art's most natural state is apolitical. Imagine showing Dog Star Man in a fascist country where the citizens have an identity largely subsumed by community and a limited concept of individual freedom, or for that matter, imagine showing some of Frye's own minimal interventions with found footage in a culture that worships the self and is made wholly uncomfortable by the kind of tango of self-erasure implicit in the act of refusing to forefront the artist's mark-making. Or just think of showing slow and sensuous films in a culture that worships quick and dirty barrages of infotainment and wonder if maybe there's a connection between people who can't or won't pay attention to any object remotely challenging or demanding and people who routinely turn a blind eye to the challenging and demanding when it presents itself in politics or the social world.  


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September 17, 2010–April 30, 2011 Radical Light: Alternative Film and Video in the San Francisco Bay Area


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Tom McCormack is a critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Rhizome, The L Magazine, and other publications. He is a regular contributor to Moving Image Source, an editor at Alt Screen, and the film and electronic art editor of Idiom.

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