Response to the 2010 Congress
By Benj Gerdes
Considering how little media was actually shown during the panel sessions of the 2010 International Experimental Media Congress, was this, in fact, an “experimental” congress? The emphasis on room-wide discussion over talks by or between panelists led me to view the form of the whole event as experimental. If so, however, it did not go far enough. The dialogue improved over the five days, but given the number of participants and their correspondingly disparate formal, regional, and personal agendas, the difficultly of reaching a conversation-in-common, despite the organizing committee’s efforts to facilitate otherwise, led to the feeling that, by the end, too little ground had been covered.
While it would be easy to fault the format or organizers for whatever frustrations I encountered while in attendance, the Congress’ limitations were the result of larger problems. For instance, the failure of many participants to treat the Congress as anything more than an opportunity to deliver a standard artist talk or academic paper was disappointing. At the same time, while it was easy to see this event as what it was not — not an academic conference, not a museum or art world event — the particular strengths of the Congress were harder to pin down, especially given that (as many pointed out) the panel topics would have been at home in either of the previously mentioned structures. Some attention to working together, rather than focusing primarily on specific topics or shifts in the field, might have brought us closer to understanding and expanding the event. For example, what to make of the adoption of a form associated with political representation — a congress — when the investment of a significant portion of the representatives lies not in addressing the present contours of the social or the political, but rather in form itself (specifically, a preservation of Avant-garde film’s historical notions of form-as-politics)?
To raise these questions may take the language framing the Congress too seriously, but even on a playful level the difficulty of an “experimental” congress as a proposition might be the extent to which it calls for something to be at stake beyond individualized self-expression and territorialized professional activity. If this event drew on and responded to a prior Experimental Film Congress of 1989, the differences over two decades are illuminating. The well-articulated objections to that Congress focused on a contested history — who or what had been written out of it, and to what extent must new and different ways of working emerge to respond to the present. At the most recent Congress, the questions of medium and context were actually ones of professionalism, self-preservation, and belonging, and were attached to competing narratives of decline and loss, or emergence and possibility. The tensions that were played out — cinema vs. art institution, film vs. video vs. new media — elided the role of higher educational institutions in supporting experimental film and video production, a support structure mirrored in the labor and finances used to organize this Congress. The expansion and support of experimental film and video through teaching positions and an academic rental market — opportunities still, but perhaps not what they once were — was barely discussed.
Certainly the anxiety about new media (how long can it remain new?) seemed to be that programming and networked practices have diverted the academy’s attention from an earlier moment when film and video departments were aligned with an expanding future (and funded more generously in general). In the U.S., the “experimental film community” gives the impression of consisting largely of late-middle-aged white faculty and the students who emulate them. This seems like a fairly impoverished concept of community, doubly so when one asks what particular institutions these students pass through and at what level of accumulated debt or class/race/gender privilege they acquire entry into this “community.”
The Congress, to its credit, sought to address this state of stagnation by invoking other contexts and communities of practice. Unfortunately, this played out to be more about representing different contexts than using the event and those assembled to catalyze new ways of working across regional (as well as structural) differences. The level of funded travel and scope of the five days remain impressive to me, as does the Congress’ effort to expand the scope and stakes of experimental media beyond an often hermetic and self-congratulatory set of practices. Events such as this Congress, risking failure through their ambition, produce an intensity of experience and desire that, if shared, can call into being new configurations of work and/or working together. As we, the delegates, dispersed and moved on to the next festival/exhibition/conference, it is likely the potential of this call was duly noted but not enthusiastically pursued.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Benj Gerdes is an artist and organizer working in film, video, and a number of other public formats. He frequently works in collaboration with other artists, activists, and theorists, including as a member of 16 Beaver Group. He currently serves on the video faculty at the Cooper Union School of Art.