by Danny Birchall
From Film Quarterly Autumn 2009, Vol. 63, No. 1
The Internet may have finally delivered avant-garde filmmakers the audience they always claimed they wanted. With experimentation rejected by the moving-image industry, and moving image shunned by commercial art galleries until the 1970s, film and video artists in the twentieth century relied on film festivals, grassroots film clubs, artist-run co-operatives, and art school curricula as channels of distribution. For anyone interested in avant-garde films outside the charmed circles of distribution in academia and a few metropolitan centres, it could be hard to see anything at all.
Since broadband became a domestic reality, the proliferation of moving image online, including a substantial amount of archival material, has swelled to bewildering dimensions. Even the most enthusiastic individual now has access to more than enough historical avant-garde film and video to reward their interest. For the audience, the problem now is less how to see it than where to begin, and how to organize, or even understand, it. For archives, co-ops, and filmmakers themselves, the question is whether a vast new audience for the work comes at an unacceptable cost to the integrity of the works themselves.
Imagine that you decide to educate yourself in the history of avant-garde film and video. Armed only with your home computer and broadband Internet access, you sit down to spend an afternoon watching work that you’ve heard of but never seen. Searching YouTube, you easily find Fernand Leger’s Ballet mécanique (1924). It’s divided into two sections, but moving from part one to part two doesn’t interrupt the film for more than a couple of seconds. There’s even a fairly nuanced (for YouTube) debate in the comments section about the appropriateness of the use of George Antheil’s soundtrack. It’s been uploaded by someone called “Andyfshito,” whose other videos are a mixture of experimental films and live performances of trance music. More than 35,000 people have watched this particular upload.
Looking for more, you find the whole of Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929), split into nine parts. It looks like this has been taken from a commercial release: the rights-holders might not be too happy. You also locate Norman McLaren’s Love on the Wing (1938) on the British Film Institute’s YouTube channel. The High Definition version is recommended, and pretty good it is, too: the BFI have published this as a promotion for a compilation DVD of experimental and documentary films.
Searching further afield, you find Stefan and Franciszka Themerson’s The Eye and the Ear (1945- a key image from this film is featured in the header on this post) on Luxonline, a dedicated education resource for avant-garde film and video. Luxonline also provides plenty of biographical and background information on the artists. Back on YouTube, there is a fragment of Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963): the quality is terrible, and there’s no indication that what you’re watching isn’t the complete film. The University of Westminster has been hard at work digitizing the Arts Council of England’s collection of films, mostly documentaries on artists, but also a few experimental works. Malcolm Le Grice’s Whitchurch Down (Duration) (1971) is among them, but it’s too bad if you don’t work at a British university, because although the catalogue is public, the works themselves are only available to users in the .ac.uk domain.
Moving onto video art, UbuWeb has Bill Viola’s Anthem (1983) in its totality; the image is good, and there are some contextual notes. There’s also a compilation by Pipilotti Rist (1992–2003), but other than a list of the works, there’s nothing more about Rist. Tank.tv is a relative newcomer as an artists’ moving-image gallery, but archives all its presentations, including a good number of works by Ken Jacobs and Ian White. Getting right up to the minute, on the Animate Projects website, you find a short by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Phantoms of Nabua (2009), which is available in high quality complete with full credits, synopsis, artist’s statement, production stills and sketches.
Having watched all this, hopefully you’ll you’ve had an entertaining afternoon and learned something about the evolution of avant-garde film and video. None of what you’ve seen has been hard to find, but the quality of both the material and context has been highly variable. While by reputation you can trust Luxonline, YouTube doesn’t even tell you when a film is incomplete (though the BFI’s YouTube channel can be considered reasonably authoritative). Perhaps more importantly, you’ve been responsible for your own education, from early European experiments to recent global video works. Nobody has given you a list of required watching, and the works mentioned above are merely a tiny fraction of what you could have watched.
Though the archive remains, inevitably, an incomplete and incoherent collection of fragments, the unprecedented level of availability has reconfigured these fragments. Institutional, educational, and informal channels of distribution have been replaced by commercial, public, and personal channels. To understand the effects of this, it helps to look at the platforms and means by which it has become available: for some as a deliberate and concerted effort, for others as a side effect of the larger boom in online video.
Like the rest of the Google empire, which provides aggregating and organizing functions through which advertising can be sold, YouTube itself isn’t particularly interested in the nature of video content. Intellectual property rights have inevitably become an issue, but a combination of enthusiasm on the part of individuals, and the limited resources of filmmakers and their estates, means that at any given time there will be an unknowable amount of historical avant-garde material available on YouTube. At the same time archives like the BFI and the National Film Board of Canada have established partnerships with YouTube to deliver high-quality legitimate archival content. This both reduces the costs of networked distribution of the archive material, and attracts a larger audience than might otherwise be drawn through the organizations’ own websites.
While YouTube suits public organizations attempting to reach new audiences, the choice of the avant-garde connoisseur has always been UbuWeb. Less user-friendly than YouTube, the film section greets you with a tightly set four-column list of over 350 artists and filmmakers in alphabetical order. Here you’ll find everything from Dziga Vertov’s early Russian Kino-Eye (1924) to Jean-Luc Godard’s Dziga Vertov Group as well as Vito Acconci’s discomfitingly intimate performance videos, Anthony Balch and William Burroughs’s cut-up films, over forty short Fluxus films, Vicki Bennett’s sound-and-vision collages, and Stan VanDerBeek’s stop-motion dada funnies, accompanied by a good number of related art documentaries, audio interviews, and other sound pieces.
Concrete poet Kenneth Goldsmith began UbuWeb in 1996 as a repository for “lost” avant-garde poetic and sound works. UbuWeb’s approach, summed up in the statement “if it’s out of print, we feel it’s fair game,” has been largely welcomed for these forms. Film and video have been more problematic: the first UbuWeb film section rapidly disappeared after a slew of complaints. It reappeared, but Goldsmith and his collaborators took an aggressive approach to those who had requested removal of their work, listing them in a “hall of shame” for keeping their work out of the public domain. UbuWeb has since moderated its stance, and taken a more collaborative approach: some distributors, like Re: Voir work with UbuWeb to make clips available. Nevertheless, many traditional distributors of artists’ film continue to see UbuWeb as beyond the pale. One of the issues is what counts as “in distribution”: for UbuWeb, the absence of an affordable DVD or VHS is sufficient license to make the work available online; whereas to the film co-ops, 16mm print-distribution libraries not only maintain an opportunity to see the films as they were intended to be seen, but also offer financial support to the artists and filmmakers themselves through a direct share of rental profits, an already fragile business model that stands to suffer from making artists’ work available online.
In summer 2009 I asked some of the traditional distributors of avant-garde film what impact online video has had on their business. Dominic Angerame, director of long-standing Bay Area film co-op Canyon Cinema welcomes the Internet as the realization of the 1960s dream of a film projector in every home. What failed to happen with 16mm and even 8mm, is now a reality for digital video: the work of film artists now reaches right into the home and classroom. However, “the threat of Ubu and YouTube to Canyon becomes when teachers of cinema ask their students to view the films being taught in the classroom on these sites,” says Angerame. “It becomes a disservice to both the artist and the experimental film distributors both economically and aesthetically.” Students don’t see the work as it should be seen, and the artists fail to see any income from the screenings.
In the U.K., however, the presence of public funding has allowed another venerable film co-op to make its work available on its own terms. Heir to the London Film-makers’ Co-op (LFMC) and London Video Arts archives, LUX embarked on an ambitious digitization project funded by lottery cash. The resulting website, Luxonline, provides access to a significant amount of digitized video including, but not limited to, the LFMC archive. Many works are represented by clips, but you can also currently see complete works by the Themersons, Guy Sherwin, and one of George Barber’s Scratch Video pieces. Luxonline’s ambition has been matched by changing attitudes towards making digitized works available in their entirety. “[We] started at a time when people were much more uncertain about putting work online, and we shared that uncertainty. Now we don’t,” LUX director Ben Cook tells me.
Animate Projects makes the most of online technology to accompany the screen-based works it commissions, with production blogs and commentaries from artists illuminating the filmmaking process. An impressive back catalogue of nearly a hundred artists with an international flavor includes Young-hae Chang, Elodie Pong, and Joji Koyama. While born-digital work presents a challenge for many traditional film archives, Animate Projects treats the web as a fully-fledged channel of distribution and begins the archiving process before the work is even complete.
LUX and Animate are exceptions; for the most part, what’s online does not do justice to the source material. While the film industry’s anti-piracy messages highlight the deterioration of quality in unauthorized images, its fear of file-sharing comes from the knowledge that for most feature films a single viewing in any medium is the deal done. In contrast, artists’ film has more frequently been understood as experiential, and David Lynch’s anti-cellphone tirade that “it’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone” (watch it on YouTube—“David Lynch on iPhone”) reflects the sentiments of many filmmakers.
Nevertheless, just as the ubiquity of digital media increases the perceived value of live music and performance, so the prevalence of avant-garde moving image online returns some of the original films’ aura as artistic objects—intended to be seen in a certain way, but about which we can learn through other media. Cook suggests that an online education in avant-garde film and video would be akin to “studying art history and only looking at photos of paintings”; but a realization of the role of this kind of digital surrogate might be driving a growing liberality in artists’ and rights-holders’ approach to allowing online versions of their work to be distributed.
With such wealth to hand, what strategies can be adopted for making sense of the archive? One answer is to curate it yourself. YouTube and UbuWeb encourage the reembedding of videos in your own website, and some writers and critics are taking advantage. Professional art curator João Ribas’s Expanded Cinema blog emphasizes “an overlooked facet of the archival function of new media” in selecting individual artists’ work for re-presentation and commentary. Poet and writer Marco Milone’s Mellart blog focuses on animation, presenting experimental abstract works by James Whitney and John Latham alongside newer films. Both blogs are driven by individual sensibility rather than any kind of curriculum or program, but nevertheless offer an informed narrative or sequence to follow.
This combination of diffuse presentation and personal curation is the future of the avant-garde archive. The ease of access to the Internet as a publication platform means that where possible artists, archives, and co-ops will continue to make their work available in their own context. As well as being decentralized, the avant-garde archive will certainly also remain incomplete. Large institutional film archives contain lacunae that speak of the discernment and prejudices of the collection’s selectors; the distributed archive, having no remit or limit, will contain the holes of reluctance or simple forgetting. Artists who are unwilling to see their work digitized or presented through aggregators like UbuWeb may find themselves written out of future canons. “Those filmmakers who decide not to proceed in this way will risk the fate of not having the work viewed and possibly ignored by history,” according to Angerame.
Digital distribution and archiving are likely to be standard for funded artists. Artists whose films don’t fit this model, or who work without funding or through informal organizations, may find it harder to find a secure berth for their works. But the archive of avant-garde film and video will remain something different from its exhibition. As moving image continues to make inroads into the gallery’s white cube, the conditions of its reception remain important; even the traditional black-cube film program will retain a correspondingly necessary intensity of experience. While traditional archives and co-ops try to provide reasonable access at the same time as preserving both the works and their own organizational integrity, the online archive may come to look something more like an art library: a resource for reference rather than the works themselves.
Through portals like UbuWeb, working without programs or academic curricula, the public understanding of avant-garde film may change. The pleasures of being led give way to the pleasures of leading as we share new discoveries with each other throughout the spectrum from academic blogs to Twitter, pointing out the works we love, and feel are important. Profitable opportunities for extra-institutional curation are no longer so severely limited by lack of access to material. Beyond the gallery and the screening room, the Internet is where a popular audience for experimental filmmaking has at last been found.
Image detail: Stefan and Franciszka Themerson’s The Eye and the Ear (1945).