“In film, anyone can blast their way into the area if they try hard enough.” [Image courtesy of Robert Zverina.]

Still from Epic Video Memoir by homegrown artist Robert Zverina. This 50-hour film is comprised of 20,000 scenes shot from 2003-2010 with a Canon S200 pocket digital camera at 320x240 resolution. [Image courtesy of Robert Zverina.]

The egalitarian nature of the avant-garde is on display in this image from The Projector Project, a 2009 DIY screening in Seattle. [Image courtesy of Robert Zverina.]

Early on, the Aurora Picture Show was housed in a converted church, giving this microcinema a great deal of grassroots “authenticity.” [Image courtesy of the Aurora Picture Show.]

As the Aurora Picture Show developed, it became more above-ground, as indicated by its institutional affiliations and by its new civic identity ...

... as a roving entity that hosts screenings all over Houston. [Images courtesy of the Aurora Picture Show.]

The cover of Women’s Experimental Cinema (2007), edited by Robin Blaetz.

Filmmaker Marlon Riggs (1957-1994), a maker of experimental documentaries who often delved issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia.


Consider the situation of the microcinemas. The microcinema movement began in 1993 through Sherman and Barten’s Total Mobile Home Microcinema and grew over the next two decades through start-ups that were typically part of the founder’s home, like Grover’s Aurora Picture Show. By 2000, there were by some estimates over a hundred of these exhibition sites.[75] [open endnotes in new window] Self-described descendants of the early-twentieth-century film clubs and the grassroots viewing spaces of the New American Cinema, microcinemas have hosted traditional avant-garde films as well as the more interactive, multimedia experiences associated with expanded cinema. (There is also room in the microcinema world for the eclecticism of the cult nexus; see, for instance, Baldwin’s Other Cinema in San Francisco.)[76]

Though the microcinemas have maintained their anti-institutional bearing over the years,[77] they have attracted institutional funding and have encouraged fierce competition for the few but fairly prestigious theatrical screenings (as opposed to less prestigious classroom screenings), stimulating grassroots hierarchies among local artists. But microcinemas have had no option but to balance conflicting interests when selecting which artists and which works they will program. Though they range from refined affairs to strategically ad hoc ones, they are all devoted to the artists, for whom some microcinemas have even arranged funding.[78] But today microcinemas are often dependent for this kind of funding on private granting agencies such as the Warhol Foundation or on government granting agencies like the National Endowment for the Arts. As Grover has indicated, these different kinds of sponsors have different kinds of requirements that must be met as a condition of sponsorship. By no means autonomous, the microcinemas walk a fine line in their programming.[79]

A very different set of dilemmas is created when avant-gardists bring their anti-institutional sensibility to the academy, hoping to benefit from academic largesse without sacrificing subcultural authenticity in the bargain. We shouldn’t look on this issue as a one-sided moral affair, of course, for the academy has sought to exploit experimental artists, too. Especially when film-studies was coalescing in the 1960s and 1970s, film departments hired experimental filmmakers because they brought the prestige and allure of a popular new sector of film culture. According to Zryd, hiring them

“made fiscal sense as they commanded lower salaries and could usually bridge university cultures in the humanities and fine arts . . .”[80]

These trends have led to difficult professional lives. As Ramey has noted,

“Many avant-garde filmmakers are forced throughout their careers to piece together a living on adjunct teaching salaries.”[81]

Still, we should see that the exploitation is mutual and, on the avant-gardist’s side, strategic. The adjunct life allows artists to access some of the legitimacy, money, equipment, and opportunity offered by the academy while still holding this institution at arm’s length, allowing them to avoid the appearance of cooptation in their art-making subcultures—and allowing them to avoid the restrictions on creativity enacted by tenure pressures. Clearly, what is most important in this field is maintaining direct control over one’s art without any threat of institutional compromise or banalization. Though the size of adjunct pay constrains the art of those who live on it, the fact that those adjuncts keep making avant-garde art seems to confirm the authenticity of their vision, however constrained it is at the practical level. Indeed, filmmakers across experimental cinema who support themselves in similar ways, whether through construction jobs, by waiting tables, etc., in effect preserve their ability to “make virtues of necessity” when promoting their art.

But inside the academy itself, the downside of this strategic posture is that avant-gardists are in effect prevented from honing their skills as scholars. From an academic point of view, this is disappointing, for it stands to reason that avant-gardists-cum-scholars would find themselves in perfect position to explain the avant-garde critically, historically, and theoretically. But the avant-garde’s anti-institutional ethos is just one cause of this problem; another is the way that the academy often rewards avant-gardists as artists first and scholars second (if at all). Thus, as Ramey has informed me, avant-gardists in fine-art tenure-track positions often chase the most conservative forms of artistic recognition in order to satisfy their promotion committees, which in effect hinders their credibility as artists in more authentic, i.e., less institutionalized, art-making subcultures even as it stunts them as scholars.[82] At times, avant-gardists-cum-scholars have made decisive contributions despite the many obstacles in their path. This has been true in the case of Ramey and that of Arthur, who was a critic and participant in the U.S. avant-garde for over three decades. Regrettably, though, the accomplishments of these insider figures seem to be exceptions to the rule.

One of the areas in which “insider scholarship” can be most valuable is in figuring out which “neglected figures” warrant study. In avant-garde scholarship, the problem of the neglected figure is particularly daunting, for it is complicated by the fact that even well loved artists are neglected by mainstream standards. This problem is now improving under the influence of YouTube, streaming rentals, and various online archives,[83] but the fact remains that only the smallest portion of the U.S. experimental tradition is available for mainstream consumption outside the coops. When this fact is combined with the multiculturalism of the humanities, which encourages the study of individuals from historically neglected traditions, the justification problem becomes knottier. Not only are avant-gardists understudied as a group, due in part to their own anti-institutional intransigence and the realities of human scarcity, but a large number of them have also been subject to the same exclusionary dynamics that have suppressed the role of women and minorities throughout the history of U.S. cinema.

Recent studies have begun to focus squarely on the experimental cinemas made by female and black artists as well as on those who identify themselves as queer artists. To cite two but examples, Robin Blaetz has compiled a volume of essays called Women’s Experimental Cinema (2007), which supplements an earlier volume called Women and Experimental Filmmaking (2005), which was edited by Jean Petrolle and Virginia Wright Wexman. Furthermore, both Arthur’s A Line of Sight and James’s book The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (2005), among other studies, contain sections on black experimental cinema.[84] These studies provide rationales for studying female experimentalists such as Clarke, Wieland, and Barbara Hammer and black experimentalists such as Marlon Riggs, Cheryle Dunye, and Haile Gerima. But these studies do not always clearly elucidate the central problem of studying neglected minorities within avant-garde cinema: to what extent is their neglect due to institutional factors that work against people in historically disempowered groups, and to what extent is it due to the anti-institutional ethos of their field? It stands to reason that the scholars best equipped to tease apart these factors are those with insider knowledge. But because avant-gardists with dual roles in the academy have had incentives to avoid assimilating academic values and to avoid doing scholarship at all, they’ve rarely framed these questions in this way, let alone answered them credibly.

Nevertheless, some of the best analysts in this insider category, including Ramey and Arthur, have managed to isolate these questions so as to tackle them head on. For example, after noting that the “avant-garde canon has frequently been chided by feminists and postmodernists as constituting a fringe bastion of conservative, idealist discourse,” Arthur contends that, by respecting its own “identitarian impulses,” the coop avant-garde has evolved into a multicultural area with greater appeal to black experimentalists.[85] By approaching the topic rigorously, Arthur helps his readers discern why black cinema was considered separate from avant-garde cinema, how these cinemas have merged in the interim, and why black experimentalists like Riggs, Greaves, and Cheryl Dunye deserve more recognition in the context of the avant-garde tradition.

All of which is to recognize that academic attention is finite. If it is unreasonable to expect exhibitors to dole out screenings to avant-gardists in egalitarian ways, it is also unreasonable to expect academics to study all of them, or all of their minority figures, just because their field has long been neglected. Nor is it reasonable to expect academics to pay attention to particular experimentalists on the basis of their politics or aesthetics alone. Like the avant-garde, the academy is a competitive field with its own standards of truth and value. Generally, analytic claims that are authoritatively contextualized, laying out how specific experiments and specific experimentalists have managed to embody avant-garde notions of value in culturally significant ways at subculturally significant stages of the avant-garde tradition, have the greatest chance of acceptance. In my view, insiders who can internalize academic values and apply them to their insider knowledge of the coop movement have the best chance of creating authoritative academic rationales for privileging certain avant-garde figures over others.  

The U.S. coop avant-garde has had the least commercial distribution of any U.S. art cinema. As a consequence, this purist tradition has a firmer claim on the avant-garde label than other experimental art cinemas because it occupies the marginal cultural position historically designated as “avant-garde.” Furthermore, within this oddly stable cultural position, this coop cinema has generated its own institutions and cultivated its own peculiar ties to prestigious cultural institutions, like the art world and the academy. For me, it is imperative that we focus on this tradition when analyzing the avant-garde as a cinematic movement because other kinds of experimental tradition, like the Godardian tradition discussed by Wollen, lack an objective institutional reality. This is significant, for the coop avant-garde’s institutional reality is what makes it possible to understand the values that underlie the field’s prodigious creativity and heterogeneous forms—which, in turn, makes it possible to understand this avant-garde’s peculiar internal divisions and its idiosyncratic external relationships. Of course, there are many reasons for pursuing these understandings. But as scholars, we should take special note, I think, of what they tell us about the history and present constitution of film studies.  

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