Economics of the film
avant-garde: networks and strategies in the circulation of
films, ideas, and people

by Kathryn Ramey

How do experimental filmmakers survive? And not just in tough economic times, but routinely? Can they make a living from their creative work, and if so, how? If not, how do they keep going? What social networks, communities, and institutions do they make or work within to continue their art-making? What ideas do they have about their chosen profession? How do they evolve and change with changing technologies and new opportunities? These are the kind of questions that motivated me to do an ethnographic study of the avant-garde film art world. Here I want to lay out one aspect of that project.


This essay was originally written as part of a multi-sited ethnography on late 20th century experimental filmmakers in North America focusing primarily on New York and Chicago and their environs in partial completion for a Ph.D. in socio-cultural anthropology at Temple University in 2006. As such it is a snapshot of a particular period in which a number of institutions and practices were in flux. New festivals and venues for screening experimental film, such as Cinematexas and Media City among others, had sprung up and were important locales for an emerging generation of filmmakers who were rededicated to the materiality of celluloid. These venues are not mentioned here but will be included in a larger revised monograph that I am currently working on. In addition, this essay, written as it is from a particular vantage point in time and geography, is not meant to give an all-inclusive view of the entire community but a selection of those individuals whom I came into contact with as I conducted my fieldwork. What this article will do is lay a groundwork for ways to think about the economics of an artisanal (avant-garde/experimental)[1] [open endnotes in new window]practice of filmmaking with its own rationalities that are in dialogue with but not subsumed by the economic systems of the larger art world,[2] film industry, or university system.

I use the word artisanal with very specific intent. Artisanal foods and handicrafts are made by skilled workers by themselves or in small shops and bear the markings of their handmade-ness which both holds them apart from industrially produced products and also affects the senses and enjoyment of the person who buys or receives the artisanal product. Before the industrial revolution, artisans were the producers of goods; many people engaged in artisanal crafts as part of their daily lives. Although early avant-garde filmmakers in Europe and North America either emerged from extant art circles or hobbyist film groups (Horak 1998) and occasionally worked with or near the mainstream film industry, by and large avant-garde filmmakers have consistently pursued cinema as an art form, generally made by a single person on a miniscule budget.

Far from seeing these criteria as restrictive, filmmakers and their audiences celebrate the freedom this method provides and the impact it has on the films produced (Brakhage 2001, Deren 2005). This artisanal economic model extends to their distribution practices as well with most artists preferring to work with small artist-run cooperatives to distribute their work and to screen at small art cinemas, community centers and museums instead of multiplexes. This article traces some of that economic network and shows how, far from relying on growth of capital and success in the marketplace, the avant-garde filmmaker focuses on acquiring something called symbolic capital and manipulates this to achieve fame and success in the community.

Because I am an anthropologist and this research is part of a larger ethnography, my methodology involves formal and informal interviewing of filmmakers, curators, film historians, academics, and lab technicians. I also conduct participant observation, archival research and self-reflection. Because anthropology privileges the experience of the individual social actor, there are many long segments here taken directly from interviews. Some of these are attributed, some are not, based on whether the individual was talking on or off “the record.” Frequently the guarantee of subject anonymity is a way to help individuals feel free to vent their perspective on a particular situation.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of participant observation, it means in its most basic form, hanging out, watching (and recording) what’s happening and being a part of the situation. It requires that you put yourself and in my case, my film work, out there in the public to be discussed and to discuss. In order to be useful, participant observation requires significant self-reflection and analysis about the researcher’s own role in the processes that she is engaging in. You must always examine your own hopes, prejudices and fears as well as being as aware as possible of your own position-taking in the possible field of points of view. Finally and most importantly in the write-up of ethnographic material, the scholar must always admit that the knowledge gained, however exhaustive it might seem, is necessarily partial and fragmentary. This essay is just a small effort towards understanding the complex interworkings of the economy and networks of contemporary North American experimental film and video makers.

In my thinking about the contemporary avant-garde, I also use another term that may be contested: community. I see this group of media makers as forming one distinct, albeit geographically dispersed, community. Despite postcolonial and other turns in Western academic thinking in the last 30 years, the term “community” is frequently linked with locality by anthropologists and non-anthropologists alike. It is interpreted as territorial, bounded, and somehow original or authentic, and it is often used synonymously with ethnic or national descriptors. In contrast to this restrictive interpretation, following anthropologists Gupta and Ferguson, I take community to be both

“the recognition of cultural similarity or social contiguity [as well as] a categorical identity that is premised on various forms of exclusion and construction of otherness” (Gupta and Ferguson 2001:13).

In other words, the construction of the avant-garde film community is tied up in the ongoing formation of individual subjects and their negotiations of identity within it.

For further understanding of how experimental film and video makers might be thought of collectively, I also turn to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote extensively on art and culture. Pierre Bourdieu conceptualizes an arena of artistic production as a “field” if it were a

“separate social universe having its own laws of functioning independent of those of politics and the economy” (Bourdieu 1993:162).

While Bourdieu concedes that the “field” is interdependent on the cultural, economic, and political milieus in which it exists, its members subscribe to the logic or belief system of the field, which is always dynamic and changing as new members join and current members negotiate their positions. For Bourdieu, the field is a

“veritable social universe where, in accordance with its particular laws, there accumulates a particular form of capital and where relations of force of a particular type are exerted” (Bourdieu 1993:164).

There are struggles that are unique to this universe alone, mainly those that concern what the borders of the field are and who is or is not a member. External forces and struggles are always translated, or as Bourdieu says, “refracted,” within the field by the logics of the field. Forces outside the avant-garde, such as the art world, film industry, and university system, do exert pressure on the field and on individual social actors within it. However, the avant-garde community remains distinct and has within it an alternative economy and social network that enables it to function (somewhat) autonomously. What follows is a discussion of that economy and networks.

 Value, fame, and the film avant-garde: filmmaking, agency and symbolic capital

 In a 1995 essay on avant-garde filmmakers in Chicago, sociologist Todd Bayma argues that their economic marginalization results from a “ritual disavowal” of the standard social criteria for success (power, fame and money). Such disavowal, Bayma continues, is common to every artistic avant-garde (Bayma 1995:91). My research suggests a more complex picture. Virtually every avant-garde filmmaker I interviewed was interested in fame. Many of them also sought power and a comfortable income. The difficulty they faced is that the kinds of fame available to them, and even the power which might stem from it, rarely translated into financial reward. Moreover, the receipt of money for filmmaking in this community only occasionally has led to an increase of fame.

A market-driven analysis cannot explain the economic practices of the film avant-garde. Avant-garde filmmakers, like many other artists, spend a great deal of time and energy acquiring status in their communities, or what Pierre Bourdieu, refers to as symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1979).

Symbolic capital refers to degree of accumulated prestige, celebrity, consecration or honour and is founded on a dialectic of knowledge (connaissance) and recognition (reconnaissance)” (Johnson 1993:7).

What this means is that symbolic capital is accrued through the interplay beween the social actor's acquisition of information (kinowledge in/of/about the field) and their building of a reputation (how many people know about their work and think highly of it). Filmmakers accrue symbolic capital through the circulation of their work. Although symbolic capital can be translated into financial gain by helping artists get grants, teaching, and residency positions, it is sought primarily by filmmakers to further their fame and recognition within their core communities. Few avant-garde filmmakers see their participation in these communities as a stepping-stone to a more profitable career. For the great majority, the pursuit of financial gain is at best a supplement and at worst a hindrance to their filmmaking practice.

Money in the avant-garde film community is hard to come by, and big money is rare. Even the most prestigious and sought-after grants, such as the Guggenheim fellowship, are about equal to a junior professor’s salary for one year. In addition these are one-time, extremely competitive grants. Other granting organizations such as Creative Capital, LEF New England, New York State Council on the Arts, among many others provide partial funding for projects but rarely provide enough money to fund an entire film and certainly not enough to live on. Thus filmmakers must fund their work themselves or find other means to acquire wealth. A few inherit wealth, although this is not openly discussed, but few wealthy parents allow their children to grow up to be artists (Marcus 1992). Some find love partners with money or wealthy patrons. In contrast to the more general U.S. society, where wealth is valued and frequently seen as evidence of superiority, independent wealth is not a source of status with the experimental film community. Filmmakers who need not work for a living, however, can be very prolific, and the production of many films can enhance one’s status in the community.

As mentioned above, the receipt of grants brings prestige but is unpredictable and very dependent upon popular sentiment about what’s worth funding. The most common way that contemporary experimental filmmakers earn a living is through teaching. However, this occupation may bring little status if the person does not teach at a high profile art institution. Also, teaching can interfere with the artist’s ability to produce, and teaching jobs can lead them away from the core community of filmmakers by forcing them to live most of the year outside of urban centers that have strong experimental film communities. In communities like New York, Chicago, Toronto or San Francisco, with large avant-garde film communities, competition for teaching positions is intense. Instead of moving to a non-urban locale, many avant-garde filmmakers choose throughout their careers to piece together a living on adjunct teaching salaries so that they can stay in the big cities with strong experimental film communities.

Though remunerated, avant-garde artists who work in the dominant film industry have historically been considered as “selling out” although there appears to be less anti-industry prejudice in younger generations. In fact, some artists whose work has circulated within the avant-garde and art communities have made significant inroads in mainstream film and even been praised for it by those critics who helped establish their careers (Halter 2005). Finally, some filmmakers seek employment completely outside of art, film, and academic industries. One well-known filmmaker and curator left his New York core to attend law school, avowing that avant-garde filmmaking was not a “vocation” but an “avocation.” Although this informant has gotten out of touch in the intervening years, recent re-connecting via Facebook shows he is living two hours north of New York City in an idyllic country setting and may or may not be practicing law. He is still involved in the greater New York experimental film community.

Avant-garde filmmakers do not pursue money so much as opportunities to have their work shown, discussed, and praised. Just as they want their own work to be known, they also wish to know about other filmmakers’ work, where it screens, who likes it, and who does not. They gain status by being able to discuss the work of other filmmakers intelligently and by attending particular screenings and festivals. Filmmakers often are not present at the screenings of their own work. Yet the films represent the filmmakers’ agency in action. The films accrue status for the filmmaker as they move through circuits of distribution.

Avant-garde filmmaking is not economically rational, in the sense that screening fees rarely even earn makers back their material costs, to say nothing of remunerating labor costs (Bayma 1995). In his book Art and Agency, British social anthropologist Alfred Gell seeks to explain the artist’s motives by drawing on Nancy Munn’s (1986) discussion of the spatio-temporally-distributed person and Marilyn Strathern’s (1988) concepts of personhood and agency. Nancy Munn’s book Fame of the Gawa, examines the long-distance exchange practices of the inhabitants of a small island off the coast of Papua, New Guinea. Natives create shell necklaces (Kula) with particular markings that designate the tribe and maker’s identity and then trade them for similar objects from islands as far as a thousand miles away. Strathern’s book The Gender of the Gift deconstructs anthropological assumptions surround gender and gift exchange particularly around questions of agency. Using these two theories, Alfred Gell argues that in regards to contemporary Western art practice, “the structures of art history demonstrate an externalized and collectivized cognitive process” (1998:230) and that the artist’s inner person replicates what he or she is externally. The mind and thus the self, he writes, are not confined to particular space and time coordinates but stretch over the breadth of biographical events and memories of events. To be an artist is to be

“a dispersed category of material objects, traces, and leavings, which can be attributed to a person and which, in aggregate, testify to agency and personhood during a biographical career which may, indeed, prolong itself long after biological death” (Gell 1998:222).

In this argument, personal agency is an intervention in the “causal milieu.” Art works constitute

“all the material differences in ‘in the way things are’ from which some particular agency can be abducted” (Gell 1998:223).

The artist’s oeuvre is a “distributed object,” of which each work is an individual representation or index that retains a moment in the artist’s expression of his or her own agency. As the objects circulate, the artist, like Munn’s Kula necklace maker, becomes a kind of extended mind that circulates with them. Works of film provide particularly apt examples of this principle because their material substance is irrelevant to their significance. They cannot be held or hung on a wall in someone’s home but must be projected to be experienced. Ownership of a film print object does not bring the owner prestige in the same way that owning a painting or sculpture might. Thus few collectors of other types of modern and contemporary art collect film. Notable exceptions to this are museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and archives such as the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Although having one’s work purchased by a museum or archive can bring filmmakers significant one-time payments, confer status and help the individuals to establish themselves in the various canon-making exercises occasionally engaged in by various critics and programmers (e.g. Film Society 2010) within the avant-garde film community, a film’s value is realized only in circulation. Film screenings thus not only instantiate the community’s importance and vitality but are also ritual events through which artists and viewers exert agency and gain status. What brings the filmmaker status, or symbolic capital, is having her work seen, experienced and remembered—becoming part of the collective consciousness of the film avant-garde and the singular consciousness of the individual avant-garde filmmaker. This symbolic capital can translate into opportunities within the avant-garde film community and/or funding, employment, or screening prospects outside.

Bourdieu’s analysis of artists and art worlds sees works of art as produced by individuals within a specific set of social relations, which are not limited to those of “class” and which perform certain functions that must be brought into the mix of what we consider when we think about the world that impacts the artist (Bourdieu 1993:33). Although a detailed analysis is too much to go into now, there are various industries and communities surrounding and impacting the avant-garde filmmaker and film community (see Ramey 2002 & 2006, ch. 3). If the major motion picture industry changes preference in film stocks or even decides whether or not to shoot in film at all, such decisions directly impact the availability of a filmmakers production materials. Art world’s entry into political drama, such as the infamous NEA five’s work being labeled as degenerate by conservatives in Congress and used as a rationale to discontinue direct funding to individual artists in the early 1990’s (see Van Camp 2006 for an excellent overview), cut out a very important funding source for experimental filmmakers as well.

Furthermore, the most common way for experimental filmmakers to obtain financial support, teaching in the academy, can also cause difficulties in their career. Although the university system provides most of the rental income from the film-coops and distributors of experimental film (Zryd 2006), the university system and the art world each exert diverging strong forces of standardization and legitimization, on the one hand—creating canons, turning experimental film into a genre—and commoditization on the other—encouraging filmmakers to produce objects that can be sold, urging film professors to reach a larger audience. These are just some of the pressures that are exerted by the communities and systems around which avant-garde filmmakers and communities circulate or are on the periphery of. What seems to revitalize these filmmakers’ core communities the circulation of their films, themselves, and their ideas through these networks between their communities.

Successful filmmakers are often highly mobile, traveling extensively to screen their own work. In addition, they often program other filmmakers’ work that complements their own, helping the other filmmakers but also increasing their own symbolic capital as filmmakers and programmers. In the following pages I will map the circulation of three members of New York City’s avant-garde core community during the month of October 2002.

Figure 1 shows the movements of Joel Schlemowitz, a filmmaker and member of the board of the Filmmakers’ Cooperative, one of the oldest distribution collectives for experimental film in North America. At the time, Schlemowitz was a programmer and board member of the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema, a screening collective housed at the Theater for the Collective Unconscious on Ludlow Street in lower Manhattan. He was also an adjunct teacher at the New School for Social Research and occasionally other schools such as the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY. During the month of October 2002, he traveled with his work to several film festivals and venues throughout the United States. During this time the filmmaker also exchanged a collection of works from several filmmakers in his core community in New York, myself included, with that of a core in Seattle. Screenings of these works were held simultaneously in both cities with a live question-and-answer session held afterwards by teleconference.

Figure 2 illustrates the movements of Astria Supark, an event programmer who often tours with the avant-garde films she presents. She has programmed shows at large venues, such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City, as well as at small art and community centers. She has designed programs for Anthology Film Archives and has been on the selection committee of the MIX experimental film festival in New York City. This programmer travels extensively and often meets new filmmakers whose work she includes in her programs. In Figure 5 the dark lines indicate her travels during the month of October, while the dashed lines indicate the cities and countries the work she programmed was from. Thus, while she toured predominantly in Northeast, South and Southwest of the United States that month, the films she carried were made by individuals from Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, Milwaukee, New York, France, and Germany.

Figure 3 illustrates the activities of a filmmaker who resides in New York and is a central member of the core avant-garde community there. He not only makes films, but curates at a local microcinema, works at Anthology Film Archives, and occasionally teaches at local universities. He has also served as a consultant for curtor Chrissie Isles at the Whitney Museum on avant-garde film programs. In October of 2002 he traveled with a program of his cohorts’ work to several European cities. While most of the filmmakers in this collective are based in New York, one is from Washington, D.C., and another from Tokyo, as represented by the dashed line. These screenings took place in major venues including the Centre du Georges Pompidou, as well as in local European cinemas.

These three filmmakers/programmers are not unique in terms of their travel, the time they spend promoting the work of other filmmakers, or the geographic breadth of their activity. In my own experience, I have had films shown on almost every continent. The World Wide Web, as well as the microcinema movement, has helped to extend the network of venues, festivals, and programmers even further. Although festival and other screenings rarely bring direct economic benefit, the symbolic profit that is gained from them that can elevate a maker’s fame and visibility as an artist. Through the circulation of avant-garde films, individual filmmakers and their core communities become better known. As a filmmaker’s status increases, he or she may turn fame into minor financial profit, through small filmmaking grants, paid exhibitions, and occasional lectureships. However, financial gain is not these filmmakers’ primary focus. Instead they concentrate on making their work, participating in local activities, and maintaining their transnational networks with like-minded filmmaking communities. In contradiction to Bayma’s assertions, avant-garde filmmakers do vie for status, power, and fame and they have a complex system of exchange set up to support it.

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