Introduction to Issue #1: Manifest
Where Are We Now?

By Brett Kashmere



Where are we–the Underground?
- Jonas Mekas

In the 60s they said it was underground but it wasn’t. Now nobody says anything and it really is.
- Stan Brakhage


When Jonas Mekas posed his question at the June 1966 commencement exercises of the Philadelphia College of Art[1] the American avant-garde cinema was approaching the end of its halcyon era. Though the next twenty years would shepherd the expansion of structural film practice; the explosive emergence of feminist counter-cinemas; the development of avant-gardes in Canada, Britain, Poland and so on; as well as the surfacing of minority cinemas; the flowering of gender and identity politics; and the introduction of video art and projected installation; subsequent decades are often perceived as a period of declining returns. As Paul Arthur points out, by the mid-1980s experimental film was considered to be “in a state of profound crisis.”[2] Many prominent critics, including P. Adams Sitney, Noël Carroll, Fred Camper, and J. Hoberman came out with declarations to that effect. “The dominant movements of the last two decades appear to have either exhausted themselves or ground to a halt,” wrote Carroll in 1985.[3] In his consciously polemical salvo, “The End of the Avant-Garde,” published in 1987, Camper affirmed, “It is no longer a revolutionary act to scratch on film or use asynchronous sound.”[4] Arthur attributed the demise of vitality to the power of television. The crisis reached its tipping point during the 1989 International Experimental Film Congress, held in Toronto. Angered by what they perceived to be a hijacking of official history, an institutionalization of the avant-garde canon, a dominance of technological values, and ignorance of linguistic, sexual, and cultural difference, 76 film and videomakers from across Canada and the U.S. signed a manifesto condemning the Congress. “Let’s set the record straight,” as it was titled, ends with a customary formulation: “The Avant-Garde is dead; long live the avant-garde.”[5]

Without the pretense of a comprehensive overview, and acknowledging the shifts, overlaps, and complexities of history, from this perspective it seems that avant-garde cinema/ alternative media has reached another transitional moment. Stan Brakhage’s death in February 2003 is the clearest symbol of this generational changeover.[6] Still, there are deep continuities in the realms of production, exhibition, and distribution that link the movement’s past and current incarnations. In the words of Paul Valery, “Everything changes except the avant-garde.” True to form, the past decade has witnessed an amazing resurgence in alternative film and video activity. A new generation of media artists born in the 1970s and 80s, including Jeremy Bailey, Daniel Barrow, Christina Battle, Aleesa Cohene, Glen Fogel, Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder, hooliganship, Xander Marro, Shana Moulton, Paper Rad, Seth Price, Izabella Pruska-Oldenhof, Tasman Richardson, Michael Robinson, Ben Russell, among many others, has begun to receive public recognition and acclaim. Operating within and around a framework of artist collectives, microcinemas, community supports, and independent distribution channels, and striving to integrate experimental film and video with other art forms like performance, sculpture, music, and drawing, these independent twenty- and thirty-somethings are making a significant contribution to the diversity and growth of experimental media in North America.

However, in a recent interview with Scott MacDonald, the pioneering avant-garde historian P. Adams Sitney questions why “none of the young people associated with this phenomenon seem to want to write about it,” underlining that “all this work exists in what seems to be a vacuum.”[7] While many of today’s new generation of film and videomakers screen regularly in traditional experimental venues such as Anthology Film Archives, San Francisco Cinematheque, the New York Film Festival’s Views from the Avant-Garde, Cinemathque Ontario, the Whitney Museum of American Art, The Images Festival, and the Los Angeles Filmforum, these artists are seldom written about in the pages of our art and film journals, where still active veterans and projected image gallerists garner the lion’s share of the press. The lack of critical attention afforded this rising wave, combined with a confluence of new publications on avant-garde histories, have brought Sitney’s point into sharper focus.[8] Those daring spirits who continue to make it new in the artisanal, non-commercial traditions of experimental film and video have been left with fewer instruments of publicity and analysis.

The purpose of this journal is to explore divergent approaches (academic, curatorial, journalistic, critical, creative) to writing on experimental cinema and media art in all its current forms. In attempting to address the contemporary scene and its historical antecedents, we have collected manifestos, articles, films, videos, documentation, drawing, personal essays, ephemera, and interviews, which, separately and together, manifest a/many beginning/s. Besides providing a forum for formal and informal scholarship on contemporary experimental media and radical aesthetics, our intention is to reflect upon the development of North America’s film and video vanguards, acknowledging the contributions of many prescient, though still under-appreciated, practitioners. And, to extend a bridge between that history and the current moment, bringing to light the revolutionary innovations of film and video makers at the cutting edge of artistic activity today. Our primary ambition throughout the following pages–and future issues–is to establish continuity (and contingency) between the initial emergence of an underground cinema and its current evolution, by situating the present and the past in dialogue with one another. Following the American poet Charles Olson, we believe that there is no actuality as the past, that history exists only as one invokes it in the present.

Now, then…



NOTES

1. Jonas Mekas, “Where Are We Now–The Underground?,” in The New American Cinema: A Critical Anthology, ed. Gregory Battcock (New York: Dutton, 1967), p. 18

2. Paul Arthur, A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film Since 1965 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005), p. 151. The final chapter of Arthur’s book, titled “‘I Just Pass My Hands over the Surface of Things’: On and off the Screen, circa 2003,” has been an inspiration for this introduction, and for the founding of this journal.

3. Noel Carroll, “Film,” in The Postmodern Moment, ed. Stanley Trachtenberg (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1985), p. 127.

4. Fred Camper, “The End of the Avant-Garde,” Millennium Film Journal 16/17/18 (Fall/Winter 1986-87): 121.

5. Caroline Avery et al, “Let’s set the record straight” (1989), http://xalrazutis.org/alchemists/visual_alchemy/manifesto/congress.html

6. As I write this, I am saddened by the news of Bruce Conner’s passing (on July 7, 2008). Among other things, Conner was a key contributor to development of avant-garde film practice, the postwar counter-culture, and the founding of Canyon Cinema as a film distributor.

7. P. Adams Sitney quoted in Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 4: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 35.

8. See, for instance, Scott MacDonald’s Cinema 16: Documents Toward a History of the Film Society (2002) and Canyon Cinema: The Life and Times of an Independent Film Distributor (2008); Paul Arthur’s A Line of Sight: The American Avant-Garde Since 1965 (2004); David James’ The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (2004); Sitney’s updated edition of Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 1943-2000 (2002); Duncan Reekie’s Subversion: The Definitive History of Underground Cinema (2007); and so on. Together, these publications (unwittingly) construct the movement as a closed field.




ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Brett Kashmere is a Pittsburgh-based filmmaker, curator, and writer. He is also the founding editor and publisher of INCITE.


 

 

INCITE Journal of Experimental Media
Issue Number One (Fall 2008-Spring 2009)


 

 

 

 

 


 

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