Steering the Congress:
Up Shit Creek Without a Paddle

By Tess Takahashi

This is a personal account of the 2010 International Experimental Media Congress—reflections on its motivation, successes, and inevitable failures. Mike Zryd said at one point during the Congress, the steering committee wanted the program to be “symptomatic.” By this he meant that we wanted to reflect the concerns of the community rather than impose an agenda on the field. We hoped the Congress would be symptomatic of concerns and questions that come up over and over in the various corners of experimental media production today. We also wanted to think about what had changed since the last Congress in 1989.

First we came up with a questionnaire, a very simple one distributed widely online for anyone to fill out. What are the “five burning questions” in experimental media today? This was a fairly random sampling of about several hundred people, but the trends were fairly obvious.

In no particular order, there were more than five:

  1. How have digital media changed things?
  2. What do we make of the cinematic entering the gallery/museum complex?
  3. How do we preserve, archive, and show work on often obsolete formats?
  4. What about the increasing internationalization of the experimental media world?
  5. How do we talk authorship vis-à-vis the rise of collectives?
  6. What’s the status of the medium in relation to intermediality?
  7. Why so much interest in and explosion of documentary forms?

These things the steering committee could agree on. Most of these were things we had been thinking about ourselves. While the steering committee was comprised of a lot of people, most of whom showed up to at least one meeting, there was a core, those of us who were there almost all the time—me, Scott Berry, Mina Buzio, Richard Fung, Eli Horwatt, Louis Kaye, Janine Marchessault, Pablo de Ocampo, Doina Popescu, Lisa Steele, Kim Tomczak, Mike Zryd.

As time drew on, Chris Kennedy was hired as Coordinator and directed what Mike called “a steering committee desperately in need of steering.” We had tons of ideas; we had our burning questions; but no one to do the dirty work of calling people, booking flights, and organizing food. What we got from Chris, a long-time Toronto-based filmmaker and programmer now back from an MFA in San Francisco, was much more—help not only in conceptualizing and thinking about the big picture but in making it real.

We knew we needed money to do it. Images Festival had pulled in a couple of big grants that we could draw on, but it wouldn’t be enough. SSHRC had a couple of grants we could apply for, one for aid to workshops, which were closed, invitation-only affairs for smallish groups of scholars, and one for big conferences, which would have to have an open call and a lot of lead time. They also had requirements for Canadian participation. If 50% of participants had to be Canadian, what would happen to the “international” perspective we all wanted to have? This requirement provided some interesting challenges later on.

We went into planning sessions anticipating the criticism to come. The last Experimental Film Congress in 1989 was so volatile and had drawn so much criticism that no one had planned another one in over 20 years. 

We would hold a town hall. We would hold it way ahead of time so that people in Toronto could air their gripes and wishes. The very moderate and diplomatic Chris Gehman would moderate it. We would write everything down and pay attention. It would inoculate us from future criticism!

The last Congress in 1989 was huge, ten days of multiple and back-to-back panels and screenings. Ours would be modest. Four days. Only one panel at a time, with “lots of time” in between panels for informal discussion (in reality, like fifteen minutes). No extra screenings as an official part of the Congress. Instead we would leave evenings free so people could have dinner and attend the Images Festival, which was going on at the same time.

The Congress would not be an academic “conference.” Rather, it would be a congregation of people. We would congregate. The congress would have a variety of formats and there would be a lot of time for discussion. We would keep time ruthlessly!  Speakers would be held to seven minutes! There would be soapboxes for people to air their gripes! We kept time, sometimes ruthlessly, sometimes lackadaisically—and regretted most every decision to cut someone off or let them run on.

The more difficult part was determining who was going to come and who would talk about what. Whatever the truth of the matter was, there had been criticisms of not enough women, racial diversity, or presence of the younger generation of filmmakers “represented” at the last Congress. We would not make that mistake—although in practice, it turned out that some of the younger artists we invited didn’t have the historical perspective that we hoped they would have. 

Now we also had the question of international “representation.”  However, our biggest issue had to do with Canadian representation.  We were holding the congress in Toronto.  There were lots of smart, thoughtful people who would expect to be invited to speak because of their stature in the community.

Despite our best efforts, there was plenty of criticism during the Congress. Why had no one from Ryerson been invited to speak? Why was there no one from a Canadian Artist Run Centre on the collectives panel? Why were there so few people dealing specifically with sound?

I also found that this was true of my experience on the steering committee. Women made up a little less than half of the most consistently active members. However, during one programming meeting I found myself in a moment that seemed straight out of the 1980s. I surprised myself by noting that I was the only woman at that meeting and that the lists of potential participants we had up for the various panels were looking very light on women, which seemed silly given how very many women are active in the experimental media arts. Indeed, there were a number of us on the steering committee for whom the identity politics of the 1980s and early-90s still seemed fresh, and discussions often turned to whether the Congress would have adequate representation of Canadian voices, and first nations peoples, as well as of women. At the same time, the language didn’t seem quite right. The question really was who did we want to put in dialogue with whom, and about what issues? It quickly became clear that so many of the people we wished to invite could have been on any number of panels as a curator, academic, filmmaker, preservationist, member of a collective, etc.

The steering committee’s process of curating the Congress was plagued by the problem of “too many” or “not enough”— a scarcity model of representation. While this issue came to a head at various times during the Congress, at one point, Dont Rhine of the experimental sound collective Ultra-red, expressed a well-founded concern about the lack of perspectives on sound. In response to this, I stood up during the open mike to talk about the impossibilities of adequately representing anything or anyone within the structure of a four-day Congress, despite its aspiration to be “International” and talk about the big wide world of experimental “Media.”

I recalled the corrective language from our planning meetings: Not enough sound. Not enough new media. Not enough film. Not enough documentary. Not enough about archives. Not enough about the art world. Not enough about politics. Not enough women. Not enough people from the last Congress. Not enough panels. Too many panels.  Not enough time for discussion. Too much time for discussion. Not enough Internationals. Not enough Internationals from outside of Europe. Not enough Torontonians. Too many Torontonians. Not enough Canadians in general. Too many Canadians. Not enough Canadians from west of Toronto. Not enough attention to non-urban centers. Not enough First Nations. Not enough academics (for the grant). Too many academics, for many.

Basically, no one on the steering committee really got the Congress they wanted. But then who ever does? Maybe there’s a problem with the structure of any conference. Is it even possible to represent the range of conversations and anxieties circulating within the experimental media arts today in four days? Probably not. Will someone try it again within twenty years? Actually, it’s already happening. Stephanie Schulte Strathaus and others are planning the next Congress for 2012 in Berlin. Good luck, my friend!




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Tess Takahashi is an Assistant Professor of Film Studies at York University in Toronto. Her research focuses on the historical and discursive construction of technologies of the image including photography, celluloid film, television, video, animation, and digital media.



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