copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
Resources: studying the media avant-garde
by Chuck Kleinhans
The technological fact of digital copies and the ease of circulating such copies on the internet and DVDs drastically changes our potential understanding of and study of experimental film and video. In a survey article on books about avant-garde film that I wrote in 1975, I remarked:
“Living in Chicago last summer, I could read about the avant-garde a lot more easily than I could see avant-garde films. This says something: that few people on this continent except in Manhattan, and perhaps the San Francisco Bay area, have access to avant-garde films (or, if you prefer: underground, experimental, personal, lyrical, or specificities like New American Cinema, or structural film, or names from Deren to Wieland). Except for a few little pockets of aficionados who screen experimental films—often short lived groups—hardly anyone can readily or really see such films, study them, appreciate them.”
["Reading and Thinking about the Avant-garde," Jump Cut no. 6 (Mar.-Apr. 1975), pp. 21-25.]
Thus, I attributed the steady production of writing about the experimental media world as a compensation for being deprived of the loved object. At that time, both in classrooms and in self-education, few people who were interested in avant-garde media could regularly see any of it, and certainly almost no one had the chance to actually study individual films. Although the post war New American Cinema movement of independent artisan filmmaking achieved a certain status in the art world and in film academic study by the late 1960s, only those in large urban areas in the United States could experience experimental work on a weekly or even monthly basis. The establishment of a canon of significant work by major figures gradually took place with successive issues of Film Culture, attention to new work in annual festivals, the establishment of distribution coops such as Canyon Cinema and the New York Filmmakers Coop, and recognition of film as a valid art form in art schools and universities. This gave a tangible presence to experimental work in film, and then in its shadow, video.
However because film prints were rare and expensive (even if technically reproducible) artists and enthusiasts depended on attending screenings to see work, and then only seeing these formally complex and innovative works once. A few schools purchased a few prints of “classic” works that could be viewed more than once, but even then careful frame-by-frame analysis was a rare experience. This produced some anomalous situations. Those who had seen a lot automatically had the “cultural capital” to push their views and agendas. And the field was still small enough by 1975 or so, finite enough, that some people in key places (geographically such as New York City and San Francisco; programmers, reviewers, teachers, filmmakers, and other tastemakers and gatekeepers) could actually and honestly claim to have seen almost everything worth seeing. This also led to inadvertent, calculated, and deliberate exclusion. A boy’s club atmosphere often ignored women’s creative work. New York was often blind to filmmaking from the West Coast, the Midwest, and the South. Work from abroad was only recognized when the makers actually spent time residing in the United States or frequently visiting New York, in particular. And films were often erratically available, even for those who had cosmopolitan access. Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or existed in the United States as a print in the 1960s, but it was a single print owned by a collector who would show it only when paid not only for the rental but for him to travel with the print. Filmmakers could remove their prints from circulation (which Jack Smith did several times), or a print could be accidentally damaged beyond sensible repair and the maker could be strapped for funds to have another print struck. Since 16mm was the norm, regular 8mm and Super 8mm were dismissed by and large. And video was often ignored or overlooked or scorned as aesthetically, formally and technically inferior to film.
Often a filmmaker had only one print to circulate, and submission to festivals (important for gaining national recognition) meant sending that one print to a festival months in advance, during which time it was tied up. Then on to another festival. (It is only in the past few years that many film festivals have finally accepted the idea of pre-screening work sent in digital format.) The circulation of new work even among a coterie, except for the big name superstar makers, took several years. Even if a maker had a print they could travel with, they had to go from place to place as a visiting artist, trying to set up bookings in advance and typically getting a small fee. Crash pad accommodations were the norm, and travel was definitely not a way to make money, as essential as it was for building one’s reputation. On the other hand, this also fostered a bohemian camaraderie and chance to be the exotic visitor to small town college communities.
The change to digital copies and their wide circulation has forever changed the game. While it would be peculiar to claim this is as significant as the Gutenberg revolution, the parallels are significant. Just as the change from one-off manuscript copies to mass reproduced print materials allowed for the wide circulation of written materials, especially in book form, the possibility of video copies changed who had access to experimental media and how they could see it and study it. For students, aspiring media makers in particular, this opened vast possibilities. One could actually see, and repeatedly witness, the editing techniques of a Maya Deren or Stan Brakhage film. Details and textures, contrasts and repetitions became recognizable. Nuance and suggestion stood revealed under close study. You didn’t have to live in a cosmopolitan center to experience the range of experimental work and its history. This was a powerful addition to an artist’s knowledge and also democratically expanded access to the experimental world.
Of course there was resistance. Film purists (especially those who had already acquired their cultural capital) scorned video copies as technically vastly inferior and affirmed that only projected film was aesthetically valid. Even when people pointed out that the often color faded, damaged and distressed prints circulated by the co-ops, or ones well worn from years of classroom projection, were noticeably flawed compared to a nice video copy, the purists held to their positions. Even when Brakhage released some copies of his films on VHS, most purists ignored that. Other odd results of the format change included attempts in the co-ops to police video distribution, and curiosities such as Carolee Schneeman’s silent film Fuses being released on VHS video with a soundtrack (ocean waves) because “you can’t have silent video or people think their TV is broken.”
In the past decade we’ve seen a surge in the availability of “classic” avant-garde works as well as much more availability of individual artist’s works. One source is carefully made DVDs with a high technical standard (some examples follow below). Another is online distribution either by streaming (a relatively new and still developing practice) and web accessible videos. While online delivery is often deeply compromised in terms of quality, it does give some access to people around the world who would otherwise never have seen many works. And even if considered just a “sketch” or “reminder” or “promise” of what the actual theatrical filmic or HD video projection experience would be, it vastly expands the possibilities for understanding and appreciating the media avant-garde.
It is now possible to get a good self-education in avant-garde media by using DVD and internet resources, along with some useful survey books. I’d suggest starting with some of these books, and viewing the films as you read about them.
A full bibliography isn’t possible here, but the above titles will get anyone started. In a subsequent piece I will try to do justice to the experimental and artist’s video tradition.
Avant-garde on DVD
The relatively high quality image and sound of DVDs compared to VHS consumer format video was a game changer for the broader and more democratic distribution and exhibition of avant-garde films. In the United States, at least, right now anyone can get a good basic education in the history of the US avant-garde by watching DVDs which are often available by commercial sources such as Netflix and Blockbuster, or public and college library collections.
Kino Video (http://www.kino.com/video/index.php) offers three anthologies of experimental work. Avant-Garde: Experimental Cinema of the 1920s and 30s, a two disk set, includes European silent era classics such as Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema, Leger and Murphy’s Ballet Méchanique, and Hans Richter’s Ghosts Before Breakfast, as well as work by US makers such as Strand and Sheeler’s Manhatta, Watson and Weber’s Lot in Sodom, and Man Ray’s Return to Reason.
Volume Two ranges from Maas, Geography of the Body, Menken’s Visual Variations on Noguchi, and Brakhage’s The Way to the Shadow Garden to a rare French work by the Lettrist leader Isou, inspiration for the Situationists, the feature length Venom and Eternity.
The third volume in the anthology series collects some newly restored films from George Eastman House such as the Bute-Nemeth Tarantella and Murphy’s Danse Macabre as well as Peterson’s The Lead Shoes and Maas’s early gay themed Image in the Snow.
Other essentials in the Kino series are Bunuel’s L’Age d’or and Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera.
Anthology Film Archives (http://www.anthologyfilmarchives.org/) helped sponsor a major touring retrospective of Unseen Cinema: Early American Avant-Garde Film 1894-1941 which was subsequently released on DVDs. Some purists criticized the massively inclusive collection for gaining quantity (19 hours, 155 films), at the expense of quality, but the expansiveness is justified by the need to actually gain a broad view of the territory. The collection ranges from Leyda’s A Bronx Morning (1931) to Vorkapich montage sequences from Hollywood films, and includes Mary Ellen Bute’s light abstractions, Cornell’s appropriated footage films, and left wing experiments from the 1930s.
The National Film Preservation Foundation has collected an anthology of restored works in its box set Treasures IV: American Avant Garde Film, 1947-1986. Included are animation by Harry Smith and Robert Breer, Chick Strand’s Fake Fruit Factory, Frampton’s (nostalgia) and Maclaine’s The End.
The zenith of DVD experimental anthologies, Criterion Collection’s By Brakhage vol. 1 and vol. 2 gathers most of the key works by the prolific master of experimental film. The result is absolutely essential to knowing what shaped the field. And it is beautifully produced with DVD extras and notes that add immense value to the films themselves.
Some individual artists have supervised the transfer of their films to DVD, and these are often available with some searching around. For example, Canyon Cinema sells two collections of work by Bruce Baillie both to institutions and to individuals (at a lower rate for private viewing). Includes these classics (Quixote, Castro Street, Mass, Valentine de las Sierras, All My Life). It is sometimes possible to deal directly with film artists to see if they have DVD copies of their work to sell. Typically rates for institutions are much higher than for individuals. And some makers interpret all such inquiries as opportunities to sell to collectors, as the mainstream fine art world does, with corresponding high prices.
The French distributor Re-voir (http://re-voir.com/) sells a wide range of DVDs of European and North American filmmakers. Sales are in Euros, and the DVDs are in PAL format, requiring a multi-format DVD player.
Today a fairly generous amount of experimental work appears online in vastly uneven formats. On the one hand amateur enthusiasts place some materials up in streaming formats, which disappear quickly because of copyright or content problems (often sexual censorship). They can be found relatively easily with keyword searches on Google Video or YouTube and other sites by the name of the artist. These are often the most likely to be exceptionally poor versions of the original: blurry, out of focus, partial, etc. Some examples: a version of Michael Snow’s famous Wavelength, which starts at about the halfway point of the 45 min film and is badly out of focus, can’t give you any good feel for the original. However, if you’ve never seen it as a theatrically exhibited print, it might be useful as a kind of “note” to get some sense of what critics are talking about. Similarly, Ernie Gehr’s Serene Velocity is (sometimes) available in a truncated version that is atrociously bad. The effect of the original depends on seeing it as a high-resolution image.
On the other hand, some artists have chosen to put their work up in some form online, and one of the best sites is UbuWeb, which respects the intentions of the artists and makes available the best possible versions in online form (which the Ubu folks admit is of limited quality). In contrast, YouTube and similar outfits, often have posted items which are partial, mislabelled, fragmentary, and erroneously attributed. So, viewer beware: try to check the authenticity of what you find there.
What to do? First, try to ascertain if what you are seeing is close to the original artist’s intentions for the work, and what limits the online format has for viewing. As much as we might be moving to a time when many people see no difference between a 70mm theatrical presentation of the original Star Wars, say, and having a scene on their iPhone, the original makers certainly did think that the aesthetic and material characteristics of film were essential to what effect the final work would have in screening. Second, don’t make any definitive statements, judgments, or evaluations, about the work you’ve seen online until you can see the original (or at least a quality DVD version of it).
http://www.ubu.com/film/ also http://ubu.com/
“UbuWeb is pleased to present dozens of avant-garde films & videos for your viewing pleasure. However, it is important to us that you realize that what you will see is in no way comparable to the experience of seeing these gems as they were intended to be seen: in a dark room, on a large screen, with a good sound system and, most importantly, with a roomful of warm, like-minded bodies.”
With that caveat, UbuWeb hosts an astonishing number and variety of experimental films and videos.” The Ubu home page reveals the site is also a major source for information on experimental writing, music, ethnopoetics, outsider art, etc.
1. Early experimental film on UbuWeb: a sampler
Diagonale Symphonie, 1924, 7 min. Early pure animation; the screen as a canvas in motion.
Works from the 1920s by the US photographer living in Paris.
Un Chien andalou, 1929. Landmark surrealist film, made with Salvador Dali.
Anemic Cinema, 1926, 7 min.
Lightplay (excerpt). Film of a light sculpture that foreshadows later film and digital experiments.
The Seashell and the Clergyman, 1926. A remarkable French surrealist work by Dulac based on Antonin Artaud’s scenario. Artaud denounced the film as misrepresenting his intentions. Feminists have come to the rescue, showing the qualities and integrity of Dulac’s work.
Richter, like Maholy-Nagy, worked in both abstract forms and socially oriented work in Weimar Germany. When the Nazis came to power, Richter had to flee; his films were destroyed by the Nazis as “decadent.”
Rain and The Bridge. Ivens is best known as a documentary filmmaker, these two lyrical pieces are from the 1920s.
Rose Hobart, 1936. Master of collage film, Cornell shows his personal bent in appropriation.
Kino-Eye and Three Songs of Lenin. The Soviet documentary filmmaker in full experimental form.
2. Mid 20th century US avant-garde
The best known and pioneering artist filmmaker of her generation.
The Lead Shoes (1949). Whacky and spontaneous film expression.
Menken’s mastery of the handheld camera and in-camra editing inspired a generation, especially Brackhage. Visual Variations on Noguchi (1945), Glimpse of the Garden(1957), Arabesque for Kenneth Anger (1958-61), Go! Go! Go! (1962-1964).
Storm De Hirsch
Peyote Queen (1965) recently restored and made available establishes De Hirsch’s creative genius.
Come Closer, 1952 (animation). Hirsch was the cameraman on Peterson’s The Cage; only recently has his work been available again.
Early Abstractions (film) also related videos in the series. Smith showed these works with different (non-synch) soundtracks, including to “Meet the Beatles.” The latter was withdrawn due to copyright, but you could always watch the film while playing the album.
3. The Beats
Alfred Leslie and Robert Frank
Pull My Daisy. Allan Ginsberg and friends in a Jack Kerouac scripted film.
The Last Clean Shirt (by Leslie).
Photos: Google image search.
On Youtube: Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Friends in NY.
On Youtube—various excerpts from his Rolling Stones film, Cocksucker Blues.
William S. Burroughs
The novelist did some work in film in collaboration with Anthony Balch and Brion Grysin.
4. New American Cinema (60s-70s)
Shorts (1953-1982). A survey of short films by US independent filmmaker Shirley Clarke (1919-1997).
Films include, "A Dance in the Sun" (1954), a portrait of dancer Daniel Nagrin; "A Moment in Love" (1957); "Bridges Go-Round" (1959) with two alternative soundtracks, one electronic music by Louis and Bebe Barron, the other jazz by Teo Macero; "A Scary Time" (1960) produced by UNICEF with a soundtrack by Peggy Glanville-Hicks; "Savage / Love" and "Tongues" (1981-82), a collaboration with Sam Shepard and Joseph Chaiken.
Mekas distributes his best known work on DVDs via Re-voir.com, but his website has lots of items to share.
Fuses (in 10 min parts). YouTube.
The Movies are a Revolution (1963). The famous actor/poet comments on his roles.
Absurd Movies. Rice comments on his films.
The Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man, 1963, 110 minutes, black & white.
Blonde Cobra and Little Stabs of Happiness.
37 short Fluxus Films. Fluxus was more inspired by European Dada intentions than the New American Cinema line of development, and it encompassed objects and events as well as films.
Fly and several of her Fluxus films.
George Landow (aka Owen Land)
Remedial Reading Comprehension, 1970
Film in Which There Appear Edge Lettering, Sprocket Holes, Dirt Particles Etc., 1965-66
Landow was associated with Fluxus.
5. Structural film
Zorns Lemma, 1970, 59 min. A classic structural film.
Extremely witty and accomplished structural work.
The Whitneys and Jordan Belson pioneered early (analog) computer graphic animation. Very little of their work is available online.
Various works of this pioneer of artistic animation are available online in uneven forms and titles. Recent DVDs are a better choice
Sunstone and Thanatopsis. Emschwiller pioneered digital computer animation.
7. More recent U.S. avant-garde
Child’s intense work combines found footage with original dramatic work.
8. Post-WW2 European avant-garde
In his well-known essay on the “Two Avant Gardes” of the 60s and 70s, Peter Wollen identified a US trend which was more personal (and less political) and a European trend which was more political. See the reconsideration in this issue of Jump Cut by David Andrews.
Dziga Vertov Group (collective of Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, and others)
Following the May ’68 political uprising in France, for a while Godard worked collectively in extremely militant films combining avant garde techniques and heavy duty political content. For a useful intro to Wind From the East, Julia Lesage’s article:
Society of the Spectacle, 1973. Debord headed a group called The Situationists who advanced a radical critique of modern society and culture which influenced many thinkers and artists. They were preceeded by the Lettrists, who are also represented on UbuWeb (see Isou in particular)
Inextinguishable Fire, 1969. German director Farocki has long made politically motivated films that critique how images are used by the dominant culture.
Ice, 1969. A US maker who was better known in Europe than at home, Kramer represents one strain of the US New Left of the 60s. In this dramatic fiction, he anticipates a near-future where urban guerillas fight the system by forcing middle class people to watch “revolutionary” films at gunpoint. (I’m not kidding.)
Les Maitres fous, 1955. French maker of over 100 documentary films, Rouch is recognized as a pioneer in creating new approaches to film.
Nouvelle Societe no. 7, 1969. Following the May 68 events in France, a collective made this and other activist propaganda films. Left filmmaker Chris Marker was the leading light in the group.
A famous short section of his film Letter From Siberia in which different voice-overs and music give completely different interpretations of the same footage.
Jean-Luc Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville
France/tour/détour/deux/enfants, color, sound. Godard and Miéville made several highly politicized and highly experimental works for French television. The avant-garde “film essay” at its high point.
9. Queer experimental cinema
Various works by Kenneth Anger can be found with a Google or Yahoo Video search. If you’re really hardy, you can try a download at
Un Chant d’Amour 1950, 25 min. The available prints in the US are deterioriated, so this is actually a better viewing choice.
Smith and his estate have been in extreme contention by rival groups and interests since his death, which is doubtless just what this ornery iconoclast wanted.
Ecce Homo, 1989, 7 min. A gay film, based in part on Genet’s film cut against contemporary commercial gay porn
10. Some Latin American work
Now. Cuba’s major documentary maker in one of his most famous experimental pieces, a reflection on race in the United States.
Hanoi, Martes 13. Visually poetic film celebrating the North Vietnam side of the Indochina war.
Tire Die. One of the founding films of the New Latin American cinema, this social protest piece shows Argentine poor children who risk their lives to beg train passengers to toss them some coins.
Online writings on the avant-garde
Gene Youngblood’s classic book, Expanded Cinema (400+ pages!)
Stan Brakhage — two essays by Paul Arthur
Fred Camper — this extremely productive critic has many key essays online. Reading them all is a terrific education in thinking about experimental media.
Other online resources on the avant-garde
Center for Visual Music
A rich and deep site dedicated to visual music, experimental animation and avant-garde media. Many links to artist’s pages, articles, etc.
A site dedicated to British film/video artists with streaming clips, writings, etc. There’s a useful history of international avant-garde film up to about 1970. After that only Britain is really considered. Among the better known makers who have clips here: Liz Rhodes, Vivienne Dick, Malcolm Legrice, Issac Julien, Chris Welsby, Peter Gidal, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, Anthony McCall.
An online art gallery. In the archive are clips and some whole works from Ken Jacobs, and others.
Gives material from the current show.
San Francisco based Canyon is a pioneer cooperative for 3500+ independent films, storing and renting them (and saving individual filmmakers the effort to distribute rental work). In addition to renting 16mm films, they sell videotapes and DVDs of avant-garde cinema. Their online catalogue is especially useful since they often have short descriptions of the films (prepared by the makers). Scholar Scott MacDonald has just published his history of Canyon.
New York Filmmakers Coop
Like Canyon, this is a co-op created in 1962 to distribute avant-garde film, with over 5000+ titles. At the moment, they are struggling to stay in their space or find an alternative, a genuine problem of urban real estate and conflicting art groups’ agendas. Again, the catalogue is invaluable.
Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre
Canada's major non-commercial distributor and resource for independently produced film, representing approximately 550 filmmakers worldwide and 2600 films. In addition to the catalogue, there are lots of useful links to artists, including streaming video. Includes useful Study Guides for compilations of short works issued on DVD.
Video Data Bank
A nonprofit distributor, this one at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago pioneered collecting, preserving and distributing independent video starting in 1976. They have some clips online to show work they carry, and descriptions of the various tapes/DVDs. They also have a series of taped interviews with visual and performance artists. Among the projects they’ve developed is a 16-hour survey of early video art (60s-70s) which is on DVD.
Electronic Arts Intermix
EAI is a nonprofit center for experimental artist’s video based in NYC. Again, the catalogue is useful, and there are resources listed that provide a historical overview of the institution and video art.
The Canadian counterpart for video art (in Canada and elsewhere). In addition to the catalogue, the site includes a searchable video art database that can refer you to print materials, by keyword and artist name.
Early Video Project Web Site
The purpose of the site is to support the community of people interested in early video with information about early video and early video art, and current activities connected with that topic. Erratic but fascinating, lots of little gems here: poke around.
An online “journal” from Toronto devoted to experimental film/video/new media. Includes interesting links to written and online streaming stuff, such as: under links (staff picks)--9 short music videos; data diaries; ladies with water; YouTube video with Deion Sanders; Spirit Surfers. However there’s only one “issue” and that from 2008.
Portland publisher and bookstore featuring punk, zines, anarchism, militant bicycling, etc. Good prices on alternative culture DVDs such as Craig Baldwin’s Specters of the Spectrum, and Sonic Outlaws.
Holds and distributes experimental and historical silent film classic works for classroom screening (institutional pricing); strong assortment of Danish silent and Austrian avant-garde. Note: they distribute in PAL format, which requires a PAL or multiplatform DVD player.
A collection of Canadian artist’s sites, each unique and creatively expressive of the artist.
Oregon Department of Kick Ass
Website for filmmaker Vanessa Renwick; great links to explore as well.
Distribution label for experimental film and video. New and notable: anthology of the late Helen Hill’s work.
Other Cinema Digital
Home distribution outlet for collage and mash-up work in particular. Most notably, Craig Baldwin’s work.
DVDs, zines, books, stickers, etc.
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