Note that in 2010 Toronto is hosting an International Experimental Media Congress, whereas in 1989 it was the metropolitan host to an International Experimental Film Congress. And the first panel of the first full day of the Congress—Session Number One as it is called in the programme—was indeed titled The Place of the Medium.
But, the place of what medium? We are in the 21st century, right? Film and film stock may indeed be endangered species, both as materials themselves and as exhibition formats, but debates concerning purity of materiality are at least as old as the 1989 Congress. Times have of course changed, though. Back then galleries did not particularly figure into the equations. Festivals mixing video and film were a relatively recent venture. Now so many people might shoot on film, transfer to video for editing, perhaps (or perhaps not) transfer back to film for exhibition and distribution purposes, and so on. Now video installation is not only de rigueur in galleries (although many moving image installations and projections are presented on film), video is considered by many to be a more feasible medium for exhibition (cheaper for shipping and devoid of the aura of being the original, and so on). Now many artists are composing camera-less videos and (yes) films with found materials or original graphics. And now there is YouTube and MySpace and Vimeo and the World Wide Web and copies of copies of copies of copies etcetera. How many hits has Michael Snow’s Wavelength (1967) enjoyed (or endured) on YouTube? Somewhere between five and six thousand, I believe.
Artists, curators and academics tend to agree that artists’ original intentions should be adhered to, if possible, with respect to materials. If conceived as, shot and mastered as a film, then preferably projected as a film. But, at this date, very few would lock themselves into a fixed position here. If a video transfer is more practical, then go with the flow. Panelist Pip Chodorov did take the absolutist position—that film is an essentially preferable material to video, that video duplication of a specific film is either a copy or an essentially inferior material, that film is film and video is something else. I can admire Chodorov’s commitment to his preferred medium of celluloid film, but I think he did box himself into a corner. The other panelists seemed prepared to deal with issues of materiality on a case-by-case basis. If a filmmaker insists on celluloid presentation then go for it if at all possible. If a filmmaker thinks Betacam video or DVD is an acceptable exhibition format, then get on with it. “Let’s Get It On,” in the immortal words of a famous deceased soul singer.
Resolution is crucial, everybody did agree. Film possesses a depth that video tends to lack, though many video artists are attracted by the relative flatness of the medium. But of course there are so many hybrid of hybrid of hybrid works. And what looks transferable or communicable on YouTube tends not to look so great or so deep in either a festival or gallery setting, unless the YouTube-ness of the work is part and parcel of the point. We must remember that a lot of younger artists are not terribly interested in material specificity. They might indeed be visitors to their selected materials—they might actually be “experimenting.”
Another panel, The Cinematic Enters the Gallery, did reference questions regarding the logistics of “the cinematic” within art galleries and art world hierarchies and protocols. Many filmmakers and “media artists” have found ways to occupy space within museum structures. This panel concerned museums rather than artist-run galleries, which have traditionally provided space for many “time-based arts.” New York-based curator Christopher Eamon was relatively candid as to why some media-works are gallery-friendly (this installation would make no sense in a theatre or cinema) and why some are simply not (three-hour Yvonne Rainer films are intended for a theatrical situation). However, filmmakers and other media artists with documentary and archival-centered practices have been infiltrating museum circles to considerable effect—Harun Farocki is a prominent example. Farocki’s films are not unlike assemblages often found in vitrines, and there have always been parallels between archivism, documentary, and museology.
Why might a film or video artist want (or not want) to adapt herself to the museum? Perhaps the lure of broader audiences, or greater residuals, or even sales (real estate)? Perhaps cinematic structures are disintegrating, or have never been that supportive to begin with? But do moving images necessarily imply “the cinematic?” Actually, what is “the cinematic?” Does this adjective refer to an experience formed from viewing what is considered cinema? And is “cinema” something that is actually viewed in a cinema—a movie house or whatever the synonym? How satisfactorily do “cinematic” / moving pictures translate to or oscillate between the black box and the white cube? Are theatrical and gallery audiences necessarily “seated” and “ambulatory,” respectively? I believe there are individual works that can play in either one or the other, but there is the matter of assumed attention spans. Film audiences commit to be seated for a lengthy duration; gallery viewers are reputed to look at individual works for an average of less than a minute. But surely serious viewers have been known to stare at object art on walls and floor for longer durations. I have done so myself—whether seated on a bench or walking on foot around the focused painting or sculpture or even video projection. Surely one should spend time with art, no matter what the medium or its materials? Time-based is arguably a misnomer, to put it mildly. However, I have seen enough works in galleries that have beginnings, middles, and ends (whether or not in that order) and felt that they would best be served in a theatrical viewing situation—lights down, without the noise of constant foot traffic.
Yes, galleries hold out promise to some of the panelists, especially documentarians frustrated with limitations of theatrical and television situations. Documentary is not unrelated to history, and history (herstory?) is of course the stuff of archives. What is stored and how? What is accessible and to whom under what conditions? Who gets remembered and by whom under what circumstances? Media art, if not filmic material, has always had a sense of the “now.” New technologies are “now”—they don’t tend to age well and neither does film stock. It is not just the museums that haven’t had a clue what to do with their collections. So many storage-location factors enter the picture as to why stocks and materials deteriorate—reliability of electricity, extreme temperatures, priorities of maintenance. The word that won’t go away, with respect to discussions of preservation and restoration, is “authentic.” Ross Lipman of the UCLA Film and Television Archive was particularly specific as to his processes of duplication, preservation, and restoration. (He spoke in precise detail at both the conference and at the Images Festival screening of restored films by the queer New York filmmaker Tom Chomont.) An original print or source material may no longer exist in its entirety or it may be seriously damaged. Here is where things get delicate. They might even get digital, and this raises concerns about copies of copies or moments where the colors are not quite matched (not to mention the fact that many film stocks no longer exist, and are thus difficult to replicate). Are the artists involved in the restoration process to a satisfactory degree? Are the artists around to be involved and, if they are not, then who is ultimately in charge?
Concentration upon archival issues, whether preservationist, or creative archive hacking and “appropriation,” kept colliding with a sense of death. “Death” was a word that would not die during this panel. Ellie Epp asked about the preservation, maintenance, and dissemination of works by deceased artists. Well, some make arrangements in their wills or with their estates and some don’t. Some are lucky enough to have friends who take on these commitments. But such commitments are time consuming and bank account draining. I found myself thinking about very good artists who for various reasons fall through the cracks.
Archiving of not only dead and not only historical but also present tense artists is a huge concern for film, video and media artist communities, but a low priority for many museums as socio-political structures. “Avant-garde” or “no commercial potential” are routinely dismissed as elitist and not of concern to “real people.” Some panelists and delegates advocated for a do-it-yourself, grass-roots approach— don’t wait for the state and so forth. But funds are required, and where might they come from in order to engage in serious archiving of the so many artists who deserve to be rigorously archived? Well? Does the analogue necessarily have to enter the digital realm in order to survive and be presentable? Is the degeneration of the original image(s) a necessary compromise? If the degenerating (fading) of images is unacceptable, then what is? Commitment to materials is important if applicable. And surely this decision is up to the individual artist, if practical and feasible etcetera? Yes, the individual artist.
So many of the sessions and panels at the 2010 Congress were concerned with history. Titles included: Carrying History Forward, Permanence in Flux: Archival Practices, and Raiding the Archive. These titles all imply using history to forge futures. The Canadian aboriginal curator Steven Loft warned of the dangers about setting up situations in which both individuals and collectives spent much of their time recovering the past, and good on him for saying so. But didn’t some famous sci-fi writer once opine that those who control the past control the future? Well, yes, that is a truism. And so many experimental film and media practices have been ephemeral, to relative degrees, within museum structures and the media-at-large. There was a noticeable absence of not only futurism (no capital letters here, please) but aggressive present-ism (otherwise known as modernism). So many of the works excerpted or even screened in entirety by presenting panelists deployed rescanned or re-jigged archival footage or source materials from the public realm. A delegate (actually yours truly) enquired at one point about abstractionism. I witnessed very few examples of abstractionism (what about animation?) during the conference. Abstractionism is of course associated by many with obscurantism and refusal to engage with any social realm and, well, modernism. Abstractionism is not associated with realism, even though abstract thought patterns are in fact the reality when recorded realties and thought patterns alike begin to first lock into repetitive patterns and then begin smashing those patterns. Abstractionism can be both a comfort zone and a danger zone, just like archive-raiding or media-pilfering or whatever the practice.
Linguistics was, as de rigueur, a frequently surfacing concern. Why are we still using the words “experimental” and “avant-garde?” Dont Rhine of the Los Angeles-based sound activist group Ultra-red asked what this word “media” entails. For so many in earlier years (think the sixties and seventies of the last century), media was alternative to museums. “Media” referred to a public realm outside of the private galleries and obscure artist-run networks. “Media” connoted television, and the popular press. (The late Malcolm McLaren was arguably a media artist, a practitioner of détournement.) Yet “media” is a catch-all term including not just film but video, web art and other ephemera. Media attempts to encompass the analogue, which must be preserved and proudly flaunted, as well as the digitalia, which preserves the analogue and, in many cases, proudly replaces it.
The steering committee of the 2010 International Experimental Media Congress highlighted the term “experimental.” That is also a word that has been used to describe this and then describe that—this and that either being oppositional or incompatible. It has been some time since only work existing outside of mainstream media or dominant production models can safely be labeled “experimental.” Or, what constitutes “experimentalism?” This noun for some time has been knocked off its modernist perch, by factors including pluralism and, well, postmodernism. Experimentalism is not an attitude—it can be many different attitudes or mindsets among those who choose to experiment—meaning mix this with that and so on. Montage? Bricolage? Throw in some performance, or at least something performative? Perhaps that dangling gerund or participle “experimenting” is a better word than “experimental”? “Experimenting,” like all dangling gerunds or participles, can become a useful adjective. This is an individual or collective (a lot of collectivism at the Congress and not much individualism) who or which is experimenting (an experimenting project)—with presentation formats as well as material content. Why traditional proscenium theatrical seating plans? Why position screens against white walls as in a traditional gallery floor plan? Why proclaim everything to be in cyberspace and outside of theatres, cinemas, and art galleries? What the hell does “avant-garde” now mean? Ahead of everybody? Manning (pun possibly intended) the front lines? Serious committed radicalism refusing assimilation? Some panelists wished to banish the term “avant-garde” and some held onto it. Not unlike other conferences.
The 1989 conference was of course a ghost, and ghosts would not be ghosts if they did not persist in making sneaky sporadic appearances. It was remarked that, at the 1989 conference, the presence of a feminist practitioner of social cinema such as Yvonne Rainer would have been a no-go. Well, in 2010 Yvonne Rainer was the keynote speaker. And quite the speaker she was. Yes, we are now in the 21st century.
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