JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

 

 

Another important, historic venue that operates in New York is Millennium Film Workshop at 66 East 4th Street, also on the Lower East Side. Millennium has been around since the late 1960s . During the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, it served as a location for more cutting-edge or diverse work. Millennium also is an important pedagogical institution because it rents film equipment to its members and sponsors courses on film technology, all of which are taught by members.

In the 1980s, Millennium served as a meeting place for a new group of experimental filmmakers, many coming out of film programs at SUNY-Buffalo and SUNY-Binghamton, whose work was not being shown at Anthology. It was also a social space that brought in non-filmmakers and helped them learn the technical skills of filmmaking. Su Friedrich, one of the foremost contemporary avant-garde filmmakers, began her filmmaking career taking courses here. Millennium also has an important history of bringing individual filmmakers and hosting what are called cine-probes. These are long question-and-answer sessions where filmmakers talk about their own practice and the audience is invited to ask them questions. The cine-probes were an important tool, particularly in the 1970s and early 1980s, through which filmmakers could learn about each other across geographic divides. For the last thirty years, Millennium has also published a journal by and about avant-garde film. The journal, too, has served as a way for filmmakers around the world to know about each other’s work and ideas and has been an important venue on avant-garde film for emerging authors.

When entering Millennium’s building, one of the things that strikes a visitor is the semblance of the lobby to a gallery space. The walls and ceilings are white and there are often photos or artworks hung on the walls. These usually correspond to some show that Millennium put on or represent the work of an invited artist. The next engaging item is the “wall of filmmakers”—a wall covered with photographs of filmmakers who have had solo shows at Millennium. It is a veritable who’s who of the avant-garde filmmaking community, both historically and contemporarily. The film avant-garde does not have any museum or gallery devoted to it. Anthology is the only institution that comes close, but Anthology rarely has solo shows of an artist’s work.

A solo show at Millennium functions as a kind of career marker. It is not difficult to obtain, once a filmmaker has reached a certain level of notoriety and produced a significant body of work. It does not bring in a large amount of money, but it is very prestigious in the avant-garde filmmaking community. There is a sense of having arrived and of having reached continuity with one’s predecessors. It is a huge transitional moment in the career of most avant-garde filmmakers since it marks their transition from being a filmmaker who has made some work to being one who has an oeuvre, a body of work. However, this status marker is more important in the avant-garde community than outside it. Many informants said that their Millennium show marked an important stage in their maturity as an artist and the way in which the community saw them, but that to outside eyes, such as grant reviewers or university departments, a solo show at Millennium was less important than, say, being included in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art.

Finally, in the last ten years a significant “venue” for the exchange of ideas and even objects has been the Internet. Filmmakers have set up their own websites that list their biography, screenings, publications, distribution information, and sometimes the sites even show clips of their work. Listservs have become a vital way for filmmakers to keep in touch and engaged in the community over long distances. Thus, it is possible to know about and discuss screenings happening far away from one’s home base. The Internet has provided a forum for an ongoing and lively discussion of issues central to the avant-garde filmmaking community, such as film versus digital video technology, identity politics versus abstraction, and the politics of programming. Often they will provide a kind of instant feedback for important shows or venues. For example, after this year’s “Views from the Avant-Garde,” there was a lively discussion about what was screened and its quality. This provided knowledge of the event and films to those who were not able to make the event. In effect, listservs have provided a means for individuals to gather knowledge about films and filmmakers and participate in events without ever leaving their desk. While many filmmakers say the Internet will never replace the theatrical experience, it is a great way to enlarge the community and keep it up to date.

Is there a market for avant-garde film?

 Some filmmakers, taking the view that avant-garde film should be more aligned with the art world and thus the art market, consider it only a matter of time before experimental films are viewed as art objects—collectable and valuable. As I discussed with an interviewee why there isn’t a market for avant-garde film like there is for avant-garde art, he noted:

“Now I don’t really think there has been a market developed extensively and I think that’s the other part of the equation but that’s the function of a lot of things including, as I said, the fact it’s not a very old medium.”

This informant went on to place blame for not developing a high-end art market in experimental film on the artists, critics, and reliance on a cooperative model of distribution as opposed to anything intrinsic in film as a medium.

“I think it also includes the fact that the criticism of the medium hasn’t been as developed as much as it could be and I think that’s the fault of critics and the artists themselves. I think experimental film benefits and suffers from the legacy of the 1960s and 1970s in which there was a real sort of neo-Marxist anti-capitalist backlash among a lot of people especially those working in moving-image media and I think a lot of people resisted a moment when there was a lot of market-driven interest in film and didn’t really capitalize on it at the time.”

He said that those seeking to market films needed to conceive of them like any reproducible object such as an etching or photograph, and distribute them in limited editions, and that when work was good, eventually the market would figure it out.

“Predicting markets is something that people get paid a lot of money for so I try to be as circumspect as possible when doing so. But ultimately, I think that when things are good, and important, that markets eventually figure it out. And with something as sort of self-limiting in terms of production, like films are these days, because artists don’t tend to make very many prints and those that are made are sort of de facto limited editions. I think inevitably they are going to become valuable sooner or later and I think that if you really put your mind to it you could find out what that value was pretty quickly. If you put original prints of Brakhage films on the market and, you know sixties Brakhage films and enough people knew about it, I’d be willing to bet you you’d get a pretty hefty sum.”

This filmmaker’s analysis of the marketability of experimental film as an art object can be summed up as follows:

  1. A market for film can be modeled on existing high-art markets for other reproducible objects by turning the film into a limited edition—a certain number of a set—and marketing it as such.
  2. This requires filmmakers to dismiss any ideology that would be counter to this model such as cooperative distribution.
  3. Artists must seek out people who would be interested in collecting their work or engage the services of an agent or gallery that would be willing and able to do so.
  4. Markets are difficult to predict but will eventually value that which is good. In this last instance, Brakhage, the most well known experimental filmmaker, is used as an example of work that would be valuable if put on the market.

In contrast to my informant, I would suggest that this attitude toward marketing is not unpredictable but rather indicates the complex inner workings and negotiations of a select group of people who, if they chose to take an interest in experimental film, could make it a valuable art object. I would agree that in order to develop an art market for experimental film, the work must be commoditized, rarified and established. In other words, it must be taken from the realm of that which should be experienced (a screening) and turned into a commodity. Doing this requires that film is made scarce or rare, for example, one print of two. These commodities can take a variety of forms such as a limited edition film loop and projector or an iPod with a number of the artist’s videos, on it or in the case of Sharon Lockhardt six prints of her 16mm film No for sale at $30,000 each alongside her photographic work (MacDonald 2005: 314).[5] Someone who many consider working on the periphery of the experimental film world, artist Mathew Barney, sells the various objects used in his films as well as using them as objects to be displayed in a museum setting.

Finally, the film or film object’s pedigree as a work of (good/valuable) art must be established; and this is the responsibility of a group of curators, gallery owners, art critics, and collectors that is just now emerging. If a filmmaker’s piece were collected by this or that person, that filmmaker’s other work would become valuable as well. However, doing so, placing a work in a collection, would remove the work both physically and discursively from the avant-garde film community. It is possible that work could be made in different versions: those to show at festivals and screenings and those to show at galleries and sell to collectors. Some filmmakers I interviewed are figuring out ways to do this, but it seems as though most are still eager to exhibit films in a theatrical setting.

However, in the past ten years filmmakers have made use of the variety of platforms available for getting themselves and their work out there. Most have websites, some stream all or part of their work online, many offer DVDs of their work for sale. Some do still eschew putting out their work in this fashion. Many filmmakers have turned to “expanded” cinema or paracinema as a means to expand their presentational repertoire: offering shows that include performance, music and projection. It is doubtful that these shows bring them significantly more financial capital but that kind of exhibition increases their public visibility and help them acquire new audiences for their work.

In contrast to the art world model of distribution, many avant-garde filmmakers in the United States rely on the “co-op” model. Although an exhaustive history is too much to cover here, the two longest-running U.S. experimental film cooperatives are Canyon Cinema Cooperative and the Filmmakers’ Cooperative. While they vary slightly in structure, they are both artist-run, take a certain percentage of the screening fees for administrative overhead, and do not promote any filmmaker or work above any other. In other words, they don’t advertise. They rent primarily to an educational market, with art-world screenings at art centers and museums being second in terms of numbers. While the Filmmakers’ Cooperative continues a policy of open admission, allowing any filmmaker to add their film to the collection, Canyon has a review policy by the board that screens and selects which artists will be represented. They also rent mainly on 16mm, although they sell videos of some of their members’ work.

The co-op model has been criticized as keeping the work from reaching a wider audience because they insist on only renting 16mm films on film and because they do not actively promote filmmakers. Although I am sympathetic to the emphasis by experimental filmmakers that audiences experience the “authentic object” (film/celluloid) in the “ideal” conditions (a light-free theater with good projection), this position helps to support the belief among some filmmakers and programmers that experimental film is elitist and exclusionary as well as retrograde in the face of the supposed democracy of video distribution. In truth, the co-op model best serves those filmmakers who are good self-promoters and get their work out through other channels.

Newer generations of filmmakers and programmers have struggled with questions surrounding this film/video debate. At the beginning of my dissertation research, Ann Arbor Film Festival, the benchmark of experimental film programming in the United States, insisted on prescreening entries on film. Now they not only take entries in video but exhibit video as well. These changes could reflect the changes in the festival itself. Vicki Honeyman stepped down in the late 1990s after being director of programming for the festival for 15 years. Despite changes in festival policy concerning entry medium specificity, a special award for 16mm filmmaking was established in her honor. The following description of the award is from the Ann Arbor Film Festival website:

“During her 15 years as Festival Director, Vicki Honeyman remained devoted to 16mm film. This award honors her years of dedication and carries forward the legacy of 16mm. The award is intended for the 16mm film that best embodies the spirit of the films that rock her world: technically challenging, innovative, quirky and unique, with a strong respect and passion for film as an art form.” [Ann Arbor 2005]

Thus, despite the legacy of the festival’s being devoted to 16mm film and the memorialization of it in a specific award, policies towards film’s exclusivity have changed. Along with a change in programming director, there have also been changes in the board of directors and advisors. The real question for programmers and filmmakers alike is this: What is the social utility of refusing to show films on video? Arguments abound, especially among film purists, about the poor quality of NTSC video technology, which the move to DVD has only partially dispelled. Matt McCormick, filmmaker and founder of Peripheral Produce, a film exhibition and distribution organization, had this to say in an email interview concerning the film/video debate and his choice to begin distributing on video:

“While I love the beauty and romance of the projected film image, I understand that if I limited the viewings of my films to only the $50 + rentals of film prints, than the total audience of my work would shrink by a whole lot. I hope that my work, and the work I distribute through Peripheral Produce, has a greater importance than that. More important than the flicker or the resolution is the message and spirit behind the work, and I think that an important responsibility of art is to extend itself and try to reach an audience that wouldn't normally have access to it. Selling tapes for $14 seems to me the best way to make the work accessible (without putting myself in the poorhouse while I'm at it).”

Although at the time McCormick has his film available for rent on 16mm through Canyon Cinema, he suggests that part of reason for his success at the time (and one can project his future success) is the accessibility and ease of distribution of video.

“I don't think my films at Canyon rent more than 15 times a year, but I have sold over 500 videos, so it's economically beneficial, but also great because those tapes get all over the place. I have been in other towns and met people in completely non-film-world situations that have seen my work, and that to me is the best thing about it.”

In the intervening years, McCormick’s distribution business has grown, carrying video collections of artists Bill Brown, Bryan Frye and Naomi Uman, among others. He has kept the collection small enough to be manageable; and he seems to have selected work by a circle of artists that he has programmed frequently at his Portland Experimental Film festival. Thus he has not overreached his “brand” and has stayed true to the small shop model he envisioned when I interviewed him in 2002.

In 2003 Bachar and Kwiatkowski, founders of Blackchair Microcinema, initially a programming organization, inaugurated DVD distribution with the “Blackchair Collection.” This collection serves as an umbrella for a DVD catalogue that includes the Blackchair label, the Blackchair Sessions, Independent Exposure DVDs, and other “micro-labels.” They are distributing “best of” and compilation DVDs, DVDs with the work or works of an individual artist, and DVDs from other distributors such as Matt McCormick’s Peripheral Cinema and Craig Baldwin’s OtherCinema. Most artists with Blackchair construct the graphics for both the packaging and internal menus of their DVDs, and Bachar and Kwiatkowski negotiate individual contracts with each artist for royalties. At this time, Bachar estimates that in general they pay artists 30% of the gross sales with no deductions for overheads such as marketing, cost of manufacture, salaries, etc. (email to author, May 1, 2003).

Bachar and Kwiatkowski see themselves as filling a niche market for short film and video compilations, working within the

“DIY or microcinema aesthetic…one of passionately providing alternatives to mainstream commercial entertainment” (Bachar and Kwiatkowski 2005).

They liken themselves to the SubPop record label, which was at the top of the wave of grunge rock’s commercial success in the 1990s, in that they are creating a brand name that will interest people in the work they distribute even if the buyer is unfamiliar with the individual artist. It remains to be seen if, like SubPop, at the peak of success they will sell controlling interest in their artists to a major label. Such a rock star model has resonated with young people and brought in diverse audience members and DVD buyers. For now, McCormick, Bachar, and Kwiatkowski are all able to support themselves, at least through their distribution companies. Whether this is a more robust distribution method helping to establish and maintain a broader market for experimental cinema remains to be seen.

In this essay I have shown how films function as a “distributed object” that serves as a representation and index for the filmmaker’s agency in action. As films circulate, whether physically with the filmmaker in attendance at screenings or not, they accrue symbolic capital for their makers by increasing the artists’ recognition and status. Films also serve to increase viewers’ status because, by viewing experimental films and knowing about them, the viewers—often filmmaker/viewers— become legitimized as members of the avant-garde film community. They acquire status through their knowledge of other filmmakers’ work and through their participation in communal screening events. Much like the Kula operators, by participating in the circulation of information and the communal ritual of the screening/gift exchange, filmmakers and viewers both increase their own status and help to sustain the exchange network and the community itself. The avant-garde is not a genre of filmmaking, an institution or simply a set of practices. It is a living, changing community, the boundaries of which are constantly being contested from both within and without. The community’s participants believe in the pursuit of their artistic practice, sometimes with a singleness of purpose and passion one would associate with an ascetic rather than an aesthete. This is perhaps the strongest belief that all artisanal filmmakers share, that making these small hand-made films is worth it.

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