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Moving Image Review & Art Journal · Volume 1 · Number 1

© 2012 Intellect Ltd Article. English language. doi: 10.1386/miraj.1.1.13_1

Brakhage’s sour grapes, or notes on
experimental cinema in the art world

Erika Balsom
Carleton University

This article examines the place of experimental cinema within the contemporary museum in order to challenge the commonly held assumption that it is somehow opposed to, or
at least outside, the art world. Despite possessing a degree of material truth, the perceived
separation between experimental cinema and the art world has led to an unfortunate
lack of interrogation into the alliances and antagonisms that exist between them, particularly as they have shifted over time. This article insists on the historicity of such relationships and traces how they have changed from the 1970s to a contemporary moment that
sees experimental cinema in a closer relationship to the art world than ever before. The
integration of experimental film into the museum is a key feature of the preoccupation
with all things cinematic that has marked the art of the past two decades, prompting
new questions as to the place of experimental film amongst the mediums of art practice.
This article assesses not the distance so often thought to exist, but rather the proximity
between experimental cinema and the art world in our moment.

experimental film
artists’ cinema
contemporary art

i don’t think i’m blind to the negative factors operating on the executive
levels of the art world; but i’ve been lucky enough, so far, to find some very
helpful and kind persons in that scene. […] it has been a long time coming
but more and more the art world is recognizing that i am an artist, despite
the fact that my medium is film, and i expect that my financial – & thereby
creative – future has a lot to do with that world. […] i really do believe that film
is being accepted now and that the old angers should be put aside and that we
should try to find better ways of exhibiting our work, responding positively to


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but the limited-edition model is dominant.2 Accordingly. the film-makers raise questions even more pressing now than they were then: might the art context provide some relief from the economic hardship that experimental film-makers face and open new creative possibilities? Or would participation in such a realm betray the aims of the experimental film-making community? Unsurprisingly to anyone even cursorily familiar with the figures involved. Throughout the correspondence. Certainly. He wrote to Brakhage: an egregious conflation. For an extended discussion of the distinctions between experimental cinema and artists’ cinema as modes of film practice. while that of artists’ cinema is the gallery and/or museum. While this split is perhaps less pronounced in other contexts. is a recurring topic. such as that of the United Kingdom. jonas is hassling me. Even in 1985.4 such spaces.2_Balsom_11-25. but most acknowledge their existence. not the particular differences between i have been hassled and hassled and hassled about my work in the art world. letter to Stan Brakhage dated 14 January 1974) The rental model does exist within the art world. but what’s wrong with ‘sour grapes’ if they’re the only ones free of poison? I’d rather eat. writing to Sharits: Païni believes that the term ‘spectator’ fails to capture the centrality of mobility to the experience of viewing moving images in a gallery setting. see Balsom (2009: 423–25). even an unbridgeable gulf. the argument saw Sharits finding in the gallery context possibilities both aesthetic and financial and Brakhage rejecting it as antithetical to his idea of cinema. grouping these spaces together might be Jonathan Walley has noted that there exists ‘the spectre of a split. when in fact they have changed substantially.1 The site of experimental cinema is the movie theatre. As Sharits pursued gallery-based multi-projection works such as Shutter Interface (1975). Walley’s extremely useful demarcation of these two modes of film practice finds its weakness in a lack of historical specificity. hollis is hassling me … like i’m some traitor to the ‘cinema art cause’. […] when my long time friends all seem to be inferring that i am a traitor & that my ‘little loops up on the wall’ are stupid. The differences between experimental cinema and artists’ cinema in North America may be traced out at the levels of production. the international biennial. there are important distinctions to be made between the commercial gallery. experimental cinema tends to privilege the single screen and an immobile viewer. see Walley (2008). Some work to fortify its boundaries and others attempt to tear them down. here what is at stake is the presence of experimental cinema – which has historically belonged to the movie theatre – within the spaces of art. artists’ film and video depends on private collectors and commissions. See Païni (2002: 17). Peter Kubelka […] said that he gets a great death wish every time he passes a museum or art gallery […] That maybe [sic] ‘sour grapes’ too. 3. while artists’ cinema makes use of a variable apparatus (ranging from monitor-based display to installation to multiple projection and beyond) and an ambulatory spectator-visitor. distribution and exhibition. then i get very deeply upset. The term ‘spectator-visitor’ comes from Dominique Païni. in festivals and in film-specific organizations such as Anthology Film Archives. As to the ‘art world’. For more on the differences between the rental and limited-edition models of distribution. alternative/non-commercial spaces and the museum. Experimental film-makers espouse a rental model of distribution. you mean a lot to me … and it freaked me that i was picking up more of those anti-art world vibes from you. goat turds than be one of those peoples [sic] whose success THESE days has them dining at $100-a-plate …5 14 MIRAJ_1. by which time the men discuss the issue with considerably less frequency. he would maintain his derisiveness. while artists working with film and video make use of the much more lucrative limitededition model of sale. or spit. as he suggests that the relationship between them has remained unaltered since the 1960s.Erika Balsom 1. in North America a true divide exists between the two and has for decades. Brakhage remained unpersuaded. Whereas experimental cinema has traditionally found support in the academy. between two camps of film art’. implicitly acknowledged as such. he found the experimental film-making community less than supportive. While in another context. namely experimental cinema and artists’ cinema (Walley 2008: 183). Video Data Bank in Chicago. these art world changes of heart (?). notably through organizations such as Electronic Arts Intermix in New York City and I.indd 14 12/20/11 3:01:55 PM . (Paul Sharits. the relationship between the two camps. 2.3 In the letters exchanged between Stan Brakhage and Paul Sharits in the late 1960s and early 1970s. i am at raw nerve endings over it.

But modernism is perhaps not the true issue here. offered some support to experimental film-makers in the form of grants. Despite possessing some degree of material truth. the letters point to the existence of multiple and contradictory stances towards the art context within the experimental film-making community. While the art world has by no means provided support for experimental filmmaking comparable to that of the academy. Stan Brakhage.2_Balsom_11-25. negative or ambivalent. both from private foundations (particularly in the American context) and from state-funded agencies. 6. ‘That university classrooms should be the primary economic engine for avant-garde film points to how far removed this sphere of film practice is from the economy of the art market. the perceived separation between experimental cinema and the art world – often construed as the former’s totalizing rejection of the latter – has led to an unfortunate lack of interrogation into the various relationships that exist between them. They suggest that sites of dialogue and overlap between the two realms were both numerous and fraught with tension. However. or a singular condemnation of it as a villainous other. Zryd writes. be they positive. founded in 1947 – developed at a time when film was far from an accepted artistic medium and built foundations that would support experimental film-making as something that happened by some necessity outside of the art world. Tanya Leighton (2008: 9) has suggested that. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw a palpable impulse to stake out a claim on the category of ‘experimental film-maker’ as distinct from that of ‘artist’. For rather than suggesting an ignorance of the art world. however meagerly. See Zryd (2006: 22). if it enters into the discussion at all. Precisely at a time when film and video were gaining a foothold in the gallery. however. Indeed. Michael Zryd has noted that the mythology of experimental cinema as romantic and autonomous has been maintained through a ‘widespread disavowal of the institutional and economic matrices that undergird. letter to Paul Sharits dated 17 December 1985. why have experimental cinema and artists’ cinema remained so separated in the North American context? Writing from the side of the art world. the history of American experimental cinema first published in 1974 – the same year Sharits wrote to Brakhage about the negative reception his gallery-based work was receiving from the experimental film-making community. 15 MIRAJ_1. or notes on experimental cinema in the art world The argument between Brakhage and Sharits exemplifies the two primary attitudes American experimental film-makers have historically held towards the art context: contemptuous rejection on the one hand and a quasi-suspicious embrace on the other. Given their common media and often shared formal and conceptual concerns.Brakhage’s sour grapes. experimental film-makers and their advocates positioned themselves in opposition to an established art world. high modernist allegiances of much of the experimental film world’. With its link to mass culture and its basis in mechanical reproducibility. The dialogue between the two film-makers calls out for a greater understanding of the complex alliances and antagonisms that underwrite the ‘unbridgeable gulf’ often taken to delineate experimental cinema and artists’ cinema as relatively independent entities. Though historically experimental cinema in the North American context has defined itself in a negative relation to mainstream narrative film-making. it also constituted itself in opposition 4. Leighton is right to suggest that there was a concerted rejection of the art world on the part of certain elements of the experimental film-making community. this marginal sphere of cultural activity’ (Zryd 2006: 17). Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde. All Brakhage-Sharits correspondence courtesy of Anthology Film Archives. In his thorough discussion of the interplay of ‘dependence and resistance’ that characterizes the relationship between the academy and the experimental film-making community. embracing structures of production and distribution very different than those of uptown gallery artists. Paul Sharits. The institutions that would provide vital support for experimental film – such as Cinema 16. one must assert that it was precisely the modernist allegiances of the art world that led to the exclusion of film in the first place.’ The art world has. 5. 1943–2000. ‘To a great extent the problem […] has been caused by the formalist. film by no means fits with the modernist notion of high art founded in values of originality. The insistent return to questions of the art world in the letters exchanged between Brakhage and Sharits gestures to the numerous points of intersection between the two spheres of activity. its plausible home. It suggests that debate over how the experimental film-making community might best interact with and participate in the art world had been under serious discussion for some time. even if the topic is notably absent from P.6 failing to interrogate the relationships that exist between the two risks perpetuating the disavowal and mythologization Zryd highlights.indd 15 12/20/11 3:01:56 PM . letter to Stan Brakhage dated 28 February 1974.

job: ‘Exoticism’) – vis. The LFMC – in the spirit of Deren and Brakhage as it happens – was committed to film as an independent art form’ (Rees 2002: 8. in that experimental film- I’m more live-set against Andy Warhol & Co. The films of Andy Warhol do. And yet. as Janet Bergstrom and Constance Penley (1985) have argued. – because Warhol is.8 makers there did not define themselves in opposition to the art world. letter to Paul Sharits dated mid-August 1967. it is no longer so easy to paint the broad strokes that Sitney and his cohort once did. The need now is not to deny the difference between experimental cinema and artists’ cinema. a snake in my own backyard and threats [sic] the life of my children (in the fullest sense of the word). Indeed. Robert Smithson. it now appears as something of an entr’acte. the relative autonomy of experimental film from the art world during this period appears as a biased critical construction subject to necessary revision. A. Rees asserts that experimental film derives ‘more directly from the context of modern and postmodern art than from the history of the cinema’. quoted in Walley 2008: 192). In their cases. for that matter). An augmented presence of both historical and contemporary experimental film-making within the museum and gallery has brought the two 16 MIRAJ_1. The invisibility of artistic practice in Visionary Film is by no means faithful to the historical actuality of the activities of the individuals involved. which excludes films made by gallery artists in favour of marking out the ethos of experimental cinema as a purist practice that was both romantic and anti-institutional. albeit in a tacit way. and names the gallery as one of its primary sites (Rees 1999: 2). as well as gallery-based work by individuals such as Sharits and Michael Snow. it is possible to draw a distinction between the mode of production called ‘experimental film’ and that called ‘artists’ cinema’. Moreover. accusing him of an ‘ignorance of This sentiment recurs. The case in the United Kingdom is somewhat different to the art world in general and to artists’ cinema in particular. and even film’ (Maciunas 2000: 349). Bruce Nauman. Robert Whitman or the Fluxus group. many fruitful interactions between experimental film and the gallery in the United States have been closed off due to the hegemony of Sitney’s approach. With the increased emphasis on cross-disciplinary artistic practice. As a new generation of scholars and practitioners engages the legacy of 1960s and 1970s moving-image art in the gallery and out. even within the British context.9 In his primarily British A History of Experimental Film and Video. ‘From LFMC experimentation sprang a kind of filmmaking which was related to but finally distinct from the contemporary films of Gilbert and George. even if they are particularly offensive A significant mutation has occurred in the relationship between experimental cinema and the art world of late. recent years have seen the boundary lines it draws severely compromised. However. however. Fluxus artist George Maciunas highlights Sitney’s many art-world omissions. in Visionary Film.10 Though Visionary Film remains indispensable for anyone engaged in the study or practice of experimental film (or artists’ cinema. Sitney’s dominance remains particularly egregious since.L.L. precursory monomorphic examples in other art forms. Trauffaut [sic]. the period covered in the first edition of Visionary Film (1943–78) now appears as an interregnum that stands between two eras during which experimental film-making practices have been very linked to the art world. but simply to understand the spaces of overlap and interaction between the two. etc. such as music. to be blunt. Antonioni.Erika Balsom 7. in his response to Sitney’s ‘Structural Film’. than I am against all such foreign fakery (as passes for art thru its P. events. to the degree that a firm distinction did indeed exist between ‘artist’ and ‘experimental film-maker’. which neglects to take into account film. film extended or documented their practice in other media. Stan Brakhage. Of the London Film-Makers’ Co-op. Bergman. nor recognize the same antagonism towards it as their American counterparts. 9. the collusion between Visionary Film and Anthology Film Archives’ selection of its works of ‘Essential Cinema’ has served to ‘create the consensus that an official canon of important works and film-makers has already been created’ and has had a tremendous influence on university curricula and the experimental film collections of museums around the world. Rees writes.2_Balsom_11-25. perceived crises of both experimental film and theatrical exhibition11 and the ascendance of video in both experimental cinema and the art world. Gordon Matta-Clark and Marcel Broodthaers. II. Resnais. as it still does for artists from Bruce Nauman to Tacita Dean. 8. both at the level of individual activity and at that of infrastructure: the era of the historical avant-garde of the 1920s and our own. A.indd 16 12/20/11 3:01:56 PM .and video-making by artists such as Jack Goldstein. to take a random sample of artists.7 As Brakhage wrote to Sharits in 1967.R. For in light of contemporary developments. constitute a major exception for Sitney.

such as Peggy Ahwesh. distributed. but also by some very real problems. the attention paid to artists working in film and video beginning in the 1990s has overflowed to contemporary experimental film-makers. secondly. which now appears in galleries as a component of exhibitions large and small. ‘in some ways the debate is more relevant to our own times than it was thirty years ago’ (Rees 1999: 71). he adds in parentheses. The move to a gallery setting has provided much needed financial support for experimental film-makers. originality and artistry’ (Wees 2005: 22). Just as the film-based work of artists such as Richard Serra and Robert Smithson warmed the reception of experimental film in the art world and brought it onto the pages of Artforum in the early 1970s (what Sharits called a ‘change of heart’). the contemporary relationship between the art world and experimental film is marked by an enormous potential. a renewed use of 16mm film. it has ignited a desire to excavate possible prehistories of the current proliferation of moving-image art. Even Jonas Mekas. for example. and the controversy surrounding the 1989 International Experimental Film Congress in Toronto are perhaps the greatest exemplars of this moment. While experimental films have long screened in the basement auditoria of major museums and continue to do so. a shift that makes revisiting the exchange between Brakhage and Sharits of particular relevance today. the art world is going through something of a ‘love affair’12 with the seventh art. see Dixon (2001: 356–66). Hoberman – ‘either failed to recognize or saw only as a falling off in quality. It is neither to be championed nor condemned. but instead could partake in the immateriality and giganticism proper to the cinematic apparatus. there is no alternative but a gallery …’ (MacDonald and Müller 2005: 255. resulting in its incorporation into museum and gallery exhibitions. North American experimental/ avant-garde film underwent a paradigm shift that many supporters of the old generation of avant-garde filmmakers’ – Wees cites Fred Camper and J. who have historically depended on employment as teachers and in other sectors in order to maintain their livelihood. have produced work specifically for a gallery setting. 17 MIRAJ_1. Camper’s essay. ‘The End of Avant-Garde Film’. ‘The difference between the film avant-garde and the other artists who used the medium did not especially materialise in open debate in the 1960s. while others.13 The ramifications of this development for experimental film are twofold: firstly. whether by making work specifically for this context or by participating in screenings held in art spaces. 11. As William Wees writes. As Rees notes. ‘During the 1980s. Martin Arnold and Matthias Müller. the gallery can provide opportunities for increased accessibility and exposure. such as Ben Rivers. The advent of video projection in the early 1990s meant that video art no longer had to be displayed on monitors. as well as the exploration of non-traditional apparatuses such as multi-screen projection. now regularly shows in a gallery context and sells to Brakhage. Michael Robinson and Leslie Thornton. 10. exhibited and understood historically. but rather to indicate its increasing involvement in that realm. This is by no means to suggest that the contemporary moment sees a total subsumption of experimental cinema into the art world. have shown work in the gallery that was originally made for theatrical exhibition. Thus. but such perceptions do carry weight.Brakhage’s sour grapes. Many practitioners associated with experimental film. See Camper (1986–87: 99–124. For an account of the decline of film culture in general. a tremendous number of references to the history of cinema.indd 17 12/20/11 3:01:56 PM . The integration of experimental film into the museum is a key feature of the preoccupation with all things cinematic that has marked contemporary art over the past two decades. emphasis in original). The first aspect of the increased presence of experimental film in contemporary art is familiar from the Brakhage–Sharits correspondence: individuals known as ‘experimental film-makers’ are now venturing into the gallery. Throughout that decade and continuing strongly into the present moment. While. resulting in a new enthusiasm for the canonical works of the experimental film tradition. particularly when they stem from the avant-garde’s most prominent critics. that the Centre Georges Pompidou ‘bought virtually Anthology’s entire collection as its foundation collection of experimental film’ (see Bergstrom and Penley 1985: 295–96). Bergstrom and Penley note. adding another dimension to the perceived crisis. the contemporary moment sees a new embrace of experimental cinema.2_Balsom_11-25. the increased availability of experimental film on DVD has hurt institutions such as Canyon Cinema. it has sparked an increased art-institutional interest in contemporary experimental cinema. contrary to such sentiments. but rather examined as a complex set of issues relating to how experimental film and video are to be financed.’ but. who ‘hassled’ Sharits about his work in the art world. Warhol is both discussed in Visionary Film as a progenitor of structural film and included in the Essential Cinema canon. In addition to its financial possibilities. ‘After twenty years of making “experimental films” […] I know there will never be enough profit to secure my existence. one witnesses the emergence of spectacular multi-screen installations. The crisis of avant-garde cinema is perhaps more perceived than actual. an embrace of the previously rejected modes of narrative and documentary and a large number of group exhibitions curated around the theme of cinema – in short. As the following pages will explore. As Müller has put it. many vital new film-makers have emerged. or notes on experimental cinema in the art world into an unprecedented imbrication.

In 1923. most often on film. several to a room. moving from the movie theatre to the television. Institutions have shown a marked interest in reflecting upon the phenomenon: in 2010.Erika Balsom 12. The term ‘transcoding’ comes from Lev Manovich. In the wake of digital media’s ability to transcode formerly discrete media to a shared substrate. As one wandered through the galleries of the old Dia Art Foundation space in Chelsea. Jarman’s films were distributed throughout. music. a sector of practice that has often. This ability is. painting and poetry). and until now circulated through channels quite separate from the art world – are now being appropriated by the museum structure for exhibition. The exhibition of the historical products of experimental cinema in the museum participates in the new and unprecedented transportability and malleability of moving images after digitization. ‘Into the Light: The Projected Image in American Art. curated by Chrissie Iles.indd 18 12/20/11 3:01:56 PM . See Canudo (1988: 58–65 and 291–302). they were shown as digital transfers projected at a scale considerably larger than the artisanal intimacy their original medium would allow. Whitney Museum curator Chrissie Iles has described the relationship between art and film as a ‘one-way love affair’. presented for a meandering spectator. See Manovich (2001: 45–47). Canudo believed that cinema synthesized Hegel’s five arts (architecture. III. 13. taken as its subject cinema itself. When Derek Jarman’s Super-8mm films were exhibited at X-Space in New York City in 2009. he added the sixth art of dance and cinema became the ‘seventh art’. for Manovich. so openly hostile to the art world during his lifetime.14 cinema today quickly and easily shifts formats and exhibition situations. the International Experimental Media Congress held in Toronto included panels such as ‘The Cinematic Enters the Gallery’ and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art held a three-part series of panel discussions entitled ‘Experimental Film in a Museum Context’. What is one to make of this integration of the history of experimental film into the art world. See Baker et al. a sphere of activity many experimental film-makers had for so long disdained and/or rejected? How and why does the work of someone like Stan Brakhage. (2003: 74). curated by Kerry Brougher for the Museum of Contemporary Art. At the Musée nationale d’art moderne in Paris. Such an exhibition raises questions concerning the site and medium specificity of the moving image – questions that are of particular importance in the case of experimental film. The second aspect of the recent increase in the art world’s interest in experimental film represents a relatively new development: the historical products of experimental cinema – works made for a movie theatre. 1964–1977’. 14. which had until recently remained relatively unknown and unseen within an art context. The historical products of that tradition have appeared in large-scale cinema-themed exhibitions such as ‘Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945’ (1996). avant-garde films (in the form of DVD transfers) are now regularly included in the permanent collection displays. the laptop and beyond. The old antagonism that experimental film-makers harboured for the art context is significantly weakening. For Manovich. one witnesses a new investment in the history of experimental film.2_Balsom_11-25. ‘to “transcode” something is to translate it into another format’. concentrated primarily on American artists’ film and video but bucked traditional historiography by also including canonical works of experimental cinema such as Anthony McCall’s Light Describing a Cone (1973). The Language of New Media. Along with the recent interest in artists’ film and video of the 1960s and 1970s. to greater or lesser degrees. curated by Philippe-Alain Michaud for the Centre Pompidou. ‘the most substantial consequence of the computerization of media’. and ‘Le Mouvement des images’ (2006). who specifies it to be one of the five principles of new media in his book. Los Angeles. The Whitney Museum of American Art’s 2001 exhibition. sculpture. But the embrace 18 MIRAJ_1. now appear in prominent museum exhibitions? Under what conditions are the films exhibited and what consequences does this practice have for an understanding of the past and the future of experimental film-making? medium. The museum is no stranger to decontextualizing the artefacts it displays – it has traditionally abstracted objects from their original context and inducted them into a mythic timelessness (O’Doherty 1999: 15). Its canonical works now appear in a changed exhibition space and often a changed medium. Ricciotto Canudo called cinema the ‘sixth art’ in 1911 as a part of a critical project to elevate the cultural status of the his work as limited editions.

an entity characterized by an interest in technology and spectacular intensity rather than history and aesthetic experience (Krauss 1990). they are to be shown on film. The recent mobilization of the moving image in art must be seen as an integral part of this shift. unfavourable lighting conditions and improper aspect ratios – but perhaps most importantly for some members of the experimental film-making community. displaying films as digital projections for the sake of economics and convenience. Why not? Perhaps because there is something of a double standard at work. One might make the argument that certain films – particularly those that reflexively interrogate the material basis of the medium – resist shifting formats more than others and are done a greater injustice by digital exhibition. while Rodney Graham’s Rheinmetall/Victoria 8 (2003) was displayed on 35mm. its increased mobility and availability by way of its facsimile (Benjamin 2002: 101–33). That Brakhage’s work was seen on film – as was his Window Water Baby Moving (1959) in P. while the digital transfer serves to make the work available by way of its reproduction. put differently. With regard to the question of the medium. Perhaps most representative of Le Mouvement’s attitude towards the old medium of celluloid was the display of Peter Kubelka’s Arnulf Rainer (1960) and the rayogram sequence of Man Ray’s Retour à la raison (1923) as filmstrips mounted on the wall. Elcott described it. once the technology that threatened the cult value of the work of art with its powers of mechanical reproduction. It can result in poor image quality. quite frequent in the exhibition of canonical works of experimental cinema. ‘An endlessly looping digital projection and its once-upon-a-time material substrate: the installation wall at the Pompidou seemed to divide a material past from an immaterial present’ (Elcott 2008: 8). now finds itself menaced by the new media inheritors of the very process it helped to initiate.000 dollars. poised to guarantee values of entertainment and accessibility while retaining an element of highbrow cachet. The cinema.indd 19 12/20/11 3:01:56 PM . which – despite the decontextualization involved – is understood as a mandate of safeguarding objects in their uniqueness rather than emphasizing what Walter Benjamin termed the ‘exhibition value’ of the work of art – that is. even Paul Sharits’s Piece Mandala/End War (1966) – a flicker film examining the single-frame articulation – was exhibited on video in ‘Le Mouvement des images’ at the Centre Georges Pompidou. No museum would dream of exhibiting a digital copy of a film by Tacita Dean. 19 MIRAJ_1. a commercial entity that issues her 16mm films in limited editions that sell for upwards of 100. The practice is. And yet. The monumental exhibition included many such digital transfers of celluloid works. however. This has taken place at a time that sees the traditional conception of the museum give way to what Rosalind Krauss has termed the ‘late capitalist museum’. the precious object of celluloid film is fetishized as such. it manifests a blatant disregard for the medium-specific properties of celluloid. endowed with an objecthood they never possessed as projections. or notes on experimental cinema in the art world of medium de-specification that occurs when film is exhibited digitally is in some sense a betrayal of the museum’s historical task. Or.1’s ‘Into Me/ Out of Me’ exhibition in 2006 – has much less to do with the level of institutional respect for the work’s medium specificity than it does with Marilyn Brakhage’s insistence that if her late husband’s works are to be shown in a museum. but it isn’t’ (Quandt 2006: 287). Nam June Paik’s Zen for Film (1962–64). the very material that once jeopardized it. James Quandt has described the prevailing situation with simplicity and accuracy: ‘Museums and galleries take an increasingly cavalier attitude toward celluloid. If the display of digital transfers may be understood as an exploitation of the exhibition value of the work of art.Brakhage’s sour grapes. This should be a burning issue in the art world.2_Balsom_11-25.) As Noah M. cinema made the work of art transferable to other formats only to now find itself as the medium being transferred. In other words. 15. reserving celluloid projection for a handful of artists’ films15 and the singular exception of Stan Brakhage’s Chartes Series (1994). here cult value is retroactively assigned to celluloid. Paul Sietsma’s Empire (2002) and Marijke van Warmerdam’s Skytypers (1997) were all displayed on 16mm.S. (The entirety of Ray’s film was displayed digitally elsewhere in the exhibition. an artist represented by Marian Goodman Gallery.

the two small rooms covered in grey vinyl showed Fireworks (1947) and Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954–66). which to some degree recognize a secondary status vis-à-vis theatrical exhibition. Mark Toscano. but in fact it wisely marks out a distinction between study/viewing copies not to be mistaken for ‘the real thing’ and public exhibition practice.Erika Balsom 16. presents itself as an elevation or ‘saving’ of cinema. in 2009. As more and more of the canonical works of experimental cinema become available on DVD and as universities with shrinking budgets divest of their 16mm equipment.S. fragile material. museums have functioned to allow the public to encounter works of art rather than their reproductions. ‘Film for almost everybody is not really about the object so much. archivist at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and participant in LACMA’s ‘Experimental Film in a Museum Context’ series. let’s say. of an artwork – the way they would with a painting’. In the case of the acquisition of work by a living artist. after all. they too tend to exhibit these canonical films digitally. Rather. it’s about the content. for example. which are often easily accessible elsewhere. At the back of the space. Its institutional frame accords an increased cultural capital to a medium traditionally allied with mass culture. film brings to new heights the tension between preservation and display that ceaselessly underwrites the museological mandate. Stan Douglas or Matthew Buckingham – whose work is never subject to such transpositions. foot-level screens in favour of the three large projections of Scorpio Rising (1963). high-quality DVD transfers of the film-maker’s most famous works were shown in a large room cloaked wall-to-wall in red vinyl and dimly lit with coloured bulbs hanging from the ceiling. Invocation of my Demon Brother (1969) and Lucifer Rising (1970–81) of which only one played at a time. Even Marilyn Brakhage has granted permission to the Criterion Collection to release two volumes of the By Brakhage DVD. Volume one was released in 2004. Historically. By exhibiting digital transfers of analogue works.indd 20 12/20/11 3:01:56 PM . it is certain that fewer films would make their way into the gallery space and. it is necessary to draw attention to such institutional decisions in order to point to one way in which the advent of digital reproducibility is impacting on the function of the museum and the status of the artefacts it displays. on view from 22 February to 14 September 2009.1 Center for Contemporary Art. projectors and budgets alike. Care – the quality from which the word ‘curator’ derives – is taken to display the work in a manner that will allow it to achieve its maximum aesthetic impact. 17. It is successful in demonstrating that ‘people don’t have the same appreciation of a film projection as the original. the mobilization of the history of experimental film within the gallery space inverts this tradition by admitting a secondary format into the space of the museum. a simple (perhaps too simple) analogy echoed repeatedly: ‘Would you show a photograph of a painting in a museum?’18 Even if the film-maker has authorized digital transfer and exhibition. the museum. many films may be exhibited digitally without substantial losses to their meaning or impact. and the continuous exhibition required in the museum context is hard on prints. At workshops held at the 2010 Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Los Angeles on the topics of ‘Issues in Experimental Film and Media Scholarship’ and ‘The Avant-Garde and the Archive’. For unlike both the home. New York. with its official status as a repository of ‘high culture’. as did a Blu-Ray box set of both volumes.2_Balsom_11-25. Toscano emphasizes that it also fails to consider that. a part of a more widespread transportability of cinema after the analogue age. Celluloid is a costly. The exhibition. included eight films. Puce Moment (1949). As it is exposed to the threat of damage at each showing. but neglects to take into account the very different relationships the mediums of film and painting have to the concept of the original. with the other two screens holding still title cards. This is not to suggest that such a practice should be uniformly rejected. the institution will engage in substantial documented conversations concerning how the work is to be shown and will follow these instructions even if they are difficult and/ 20 MIRAJ_1. A movie is not a piece of celluloid or It might seem too purist and too silly to complain of a museum’s choice to exhibit digital transfers of a given work. not simply the museum. Certain film-makers are in no way opposed to such a practice: at the ‘Kenneth Anger’ exhibition at the P. Eaux D’Artifice (1953) and Kustom Kar Kommandos (1964–65) were shown on small monitors. The sheer ease of digital projection is undoubtedly one of the very conditions of possibility for the increased presence of the history of experimental film within a gallery context.16 That the digital transfers shown in Kenneth Anger were also available as a part of the two-volume mass-market DVD set issued by Fantoma in 2007 points to an important fact: the digitization of the history of experimental film is happening in numerous venues. volume two appeared in 2010. Most visitors ignored these tiny. this practice is representative of a double standard whereby experimental film-makers are treated with less respect than ‘artists working in film’ – such as Tacita Dean. If curators were limited to celluloid exhibition.17 This may seem like an inconsistent position in relation to digitization. 18. has noted that the analogy is in some respects accurate but is in other respects an oversimplification. such as was the case with Anger.and classroom-viewing contexts.

20.or herself over to the time of the film. by contrast. due to its basis in mechanical reproduction and mass culture.20 In Fisher’s view. But the degree of access that running it continuously in a gallery enabled seemed to me to be worth it’ (Baker et al. 2003: 60). are made for very different viewing conditions. that is. Michaud (2006). with its narrative arc and accumulative metonymies and metaphors. The cinema spectator. unaware of the relationship between the images they were seeing and the film as a whole. 22 June 2010). I do think that coming across Line in a gallery at a random moment is qualitatively different from experiencing it from start to finish with an audience. to use Fisher’s terminology. Viewers wandered in and out. ‘Experimental Film in a Museum Context: Material’.19 But the transposition from start-to-finish viewing to a loop exhibited for mobile spectators can have less favourable consequences. The acquisition of experimental films. by contrast. Morgan Fisher. for example. See. it is sold in limited editions on the art market. has in the past manifested no such policy. and has received much long-overdue critical attention. Regarding his decision to include Line Describing a Cone in the ‘Into the Light’ exhibition as a gallery installation. it is. panel discussion held 4 May 2010 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. say. was rejected by the modernist space of the white cube. In the gallery. Frampton’s Lemon was not simply shown on DVD. Since the exhibition. was exhibited as a video loop in its galleries in 2004 – a context very different than the 16mm rentals of the Film and Video Library with which it was originally deposited. have experimented with scheduled screening times within a gallery context. Though the question of ‘analogue versus digital’ often dominates the discussion. Anthony McCall remarked. and then move on. and to watch it from beginning to end is not expected.2_Balsom_11-25. gives him. such as Jeroen de Rijke/Willem de Rooij and Steve McQueen. it is this formal difference that makes work more or less suitable for gallery exhibition. 21 MIRAJ_1. Despite the increasing interpenetration of the worlds of art and experimental film. suffered greatly from its installation at P. But recent exhibition practices have demonstrated the persistent vestiges of not considering film to be a legitimate artistic medium on a par with. or notes on experimental cinema in the art world or costly. The historical products of experimental film. In a museum setting. Though some artists. many works compete for one’s attention. by contrast. ‘Well. A film such as Hollis Frampton’s Lemon (1969). displaying the history of experimental film in a gallery context involves a very different form of spectatorship than the movie the atre. total darkness is rare. The days may be over when cinema. Line Describing a Cone fared well in the gallery. party to an implicit contract to stay for its duration.Brakhage’s sour grapes. with viewers able to move around and through the projector’s sculptural beam of light. has made a distinction between what he terms ‘teleological film’ – work that has a beginning. McCall has enjoyed something of a career renaissance.indd 21 12/20/11 3:01:56 PM . the quality of the spectatorial the DVD or the videotape or whatever. Eamon (2005). acquired by the Museum of Modern Art’s Circulating Film and Video Library in 1988. most moving-image art runs on a loop for a mobile spectator and is produced specifically for such a setting. these lasting ramifications of their differing models of distribution and acquisition continue to mark out a divide between the two realms and their treatment in the contemporary museum. a figure known primarily within the experimental film world but who has also produced moving-image work for an art context. A film such as Anger’s Fireworks (1947). Indeed. middle and end – and moving images that may be encountered at any point. and works are rarely seen in their entirety – all of which are reasons that James Benning has refused to show his duration-based films in a gallery setting despite numerous offers. painting or sculpture – unless. Walley (2003 and 2007). stopping for a few minutes.1.S. stay for a few moments. ‘non-teleological’. Even if a work is projected on celluloid. 19. it’s the thing that is contained in those carriers’ (telephone conversation with the author. it was shown on a DVD loop in a museum stairwell. A single rectangle flickering in the darkness floods one’s field of vision. anchored firmly within the art world. Morgan Fisher. If the museum is to provide a new home for these works and present itself as one of the primary venues in which they will reach their present and future publics. works made for start-to-finish viewing are most often shown on a loop for a mobile spectator who might walk by in the middle. these changes in exhibition context are perhaps even more pressing. Legg (2004).

take a central place in what constitutes no less than a rethinking of cinema’s ontology and a reconceptualization of its function throughout the twentieth century through the lens of the plastic arts. 2008: 133). describing film history as a ‘local history’ – as opposed to the general history of visual art – ‘that one must reconsider. ‘The high popularity of film in art shows today (and of “film in art” shows) stands in an inverse relation to the number of successful presentation models we see’ (Francis et al. a history in which experimental cinema plays a much more significant role than it does in orthodox film historical narratives – almost as if art history could finally accord to experimental cinema the respect it deserves but which has largely eluded it. The history of experimental film is one of the primary marginal sites that Michaud identifies to begin his reconsideration. arthouse classics from Europe and Hollywood.Erika Balsom experience it offers must be evaluated. When the exhibition ‘Hall of Mirrors: Art and Film Since 1945’ paired over fifty films with cinephilic works of art in other media.22 the present integration of experimental film into a gallery context constitutes a second such moment. 21. no longer allied to a supposedly vulgar commercialism. curator of ‘Le Mouvement des images’. Hoberman has written. While such questions of display are important. ‘Opening in December 1970. The complete list of works exhibited in ‘Hall of Mirrors’ is available in Ferguson (1996: 315–21). it will be welcome indeed. a cinema that stood apart from the cinema as traditionally conceived but yet responded to the transformations confronting the institution after the advent of digital media (Bellour 2003: 39–62). Might these films be better off staying downstairs in the museum auditoria where they have screened for decades? Alexander Horwath. the risk is very real that they will function as little more than ambient décor used to add flash to a spectacularizing museum space. head of the Austrian Film Museum. if such curatorial/critical practices lead to an understanding of film history in which experimental film escapes the ghettoization to which it is frequently subject. No longer a primarily narrative art. Avant-garde cinema left the theaters and entered the classroom’ (Hoberman 1984: 65). The display of the experimental film tradition within the gallery changes its relationship to the history of art. inclusion and exclusion will impact 22 MIRAJ_1. one must note the emergence of an other history of cinema in its wake. After encountering a barrage of moving images at the 2001 Venice Biennale. Integration has its benefits. Philippe-Alain Michaud. four major categories were visible in the selection: movies about art. Once again. but it also its price. Raymond Bellour wrote that he saw an ‘other cinema’ taking shape. it is also necessary to consider the ways in which curatorial practice is an eminently historiographic practice. It is a history that sees experimental cinema.21 The history of cinema presented here is one of modernist reflexivity. drawing heavily upon the late efflorescence of structural film. If the formation of Anthology Film Archives and its ‘Essential Cinema’ collection in 1970 constituted a major initial moment in the canonization of experimental cinema in America. starting with its margins. the Anthology reified the avant-garde tradition. cinema is reconceived as a series of mobile forms. 22. Though placing experimental films in the gallery alongside other works of art may accord them a certain amount of respect and initiate cross-disciplinary dialogue. has been a vociferous advocate against transporting the products of the movie theatre into the gallery. In addition to the emergence of this ‘other cinema’. once relegated to the margins of the film historical narrative. Is it too high? IV. a cinema of artists and of the gallery.indd 22 12/20/11 3:01:56 PM . cinema is shown to be a medium of advanced art with a strong modernist tradition. J.2_Balsom_11-25. suggesting that. movies about movies and/or other visual media. has written of the need to produce a new definition of cinema through the history of art. but also prompts questions concerning its own canon. emphasis in original). creating a fixed pantheon of filmmakers and a certified canon of masterpieces. and experimental cinema. in order to ascribe to the cinematographic experience its true breadth’ (Michaud 2006: 7.

Morgan Fisher said: I would like to assume that the word ‘experimental film’ includes films made by artists. this means that they must simply ‘get over the fact that [film] is a different medium and it doesn’t fit their normal operations and the normal paradigm of how art is displayed. Despite increased participation in the art world. as well as new scholarship from both sides of the film studies/art history divide. If experimental cinema is to truly benefit from an increased residence in the art world. Reflecting on the title of LACMA’s series of talks. New York. In examining the experimental films that have been selected for exhibition in an art context. One of the most beneficial possibilities of the integration of experimental film into an art context is increased institutional support for preservation. there remains a defensive anti-institutionalism akin to Brakhage’s ‘sour grapes’. with the major exception of the important work that Chrissie Iles has accomplished at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In Jeffrey Skoller’s description. Morgan Fisher. panel discussion held 4 May 2010 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.indd 23 12/20/11 3:01:56 PM . ‘Experimental Film in a Museum Context’. which is something of a heterodox stance within the experimental film community. 24.2_Balsom_11-25. A curatorial inquiry into overlooked areas of experimental film history might yield important re-evaluations and rediscoveries. cared for. However. I would like to think that that day is over. Even Kenneth Anger’s monographic exhibition at P. often carried out by artists themselves.Brakhage’s sour grapes. 23 MIRAJ_1. They will have to forego dilettantism and labour to change existing institutional infrastructures and make the museum a place where serious inquiry into experimental film can take place. Telephone conversation Fisher’s position here is that the day should be over. but draws heavily on the selections of the Anthology committee and in large part replays them.1 was restricted to the film-maker’s best-known films rather than exploring work less often seen and making a true contribution to understanding Anger’s oeuvre in a more complex way. a fear that incorporation into the art world will result in a dissolution or co-option of the marginal sphere of practice called ‘experimental cinema’.23 It also means acknowledging that experimental cinema has a rich history beyond its best-known films. or notes on experimental cinema in the art world on which films will be remembered and which will be forgotten. or shown’. There was a time when that distinction meant something. one sees that this second moment of canonization rejects Sitney’s historiography by insisting on the relationships between experimental film and the art world where he had ignored them. There is without a doubt a self-insulating with the author. And perhaps something is still at stake in making this distinction. experimental cinema is ‘often perceived to be made for a closed and impenetrable community of cognoscenti more interested in making and showing films to each other than joining in larger conversations’ (Skoller 2005: 168). pretexts that recur as curators often look no farther than the most readily available and familiar works for gallery exhibition. too many art institutions have demonstrated little more than a superficial engagement in the history of experimental film in their gallery-based programming. 22 June 2010. curators and institutions will have to follow the lead of Iles and the Whitney and take on the duties of acquisition. V. Internationally. Convenience and cost are the two reasons most frequently cited for exhibiting analogue films as digital transfers. ‘Experimental Film in a Museum Context: Material’. but it remains mostly invisible to art historians and mainstream curators. the important work of documenting and theorizing this work has begun.24 23. but perhaps it isn’t. valued. restoration and research projects that might remould and expand the canon as it now exists. research and restoration in an augmented capacity. In the words of Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archivist Mark Toscano.S.

Stockholm: Propexus. Movies Museum of Contemporary Art and David R. Art and the Moving Image: A Critical Reader. 16/17/18. R. Hall of Mirrors: Art S. C. Strathaus (ed. Loebenstein.. pp. in M. (ed.indd 24 12/20/11 3:01:56 PM . Film’. Ricupero (eds). (2008). J. Lewis (ed. Millennium Film Journal.Erika Balsom impulse present in this community. A. 411–27.) (2005). (2008). Krauss. ‘After the Avant-Garde’. S. 30. 24 MIRAJ_1. ‘Darkened Rooms: A October. references Eamon. French Film Theory and Criticism: A History/ Leighton. pp. (trans. Mark Toscano. (eds) (2008). 218–71. 101–33. Wallis (ed. Contemporary Art. ‘Of An Other Cinema’. Cambridge. M. Volume 1. excitement or some mixture of all of the above.. It is clear from the present situation that much work remains to be done if responsible ways of exhibiting the history of experimental cinema in a museum context are to be found. in Ferguson. anxiety. and Turvey. Catherine Elwes.2_Balsom_11-25. it remains to be seen whether the institutional interest in experimental film will persist after the art world’s infatuation with all things cinematic is over and another trend takes its place. ‘Twenty-five Reasons Why It’s MacDonald. (2002). R. ‘Round Table: Northwestern University Press. Selected Writings. 356–66. (1985). ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Francis. York: New York University Press. M. New Book: The Films and Videos of Matthias Müller. pp.. C.W.). The Memo We Know It: American Film in the Nineties. Princeton University Press. B. T. Horwath. pp.. in J. ‘A All Over’. ‘The Birth of a Sixth Art’ and Installations. (1990). (1984). Abel (ed. (ed. Jephcott and H. and yet policing its borders too zealously can foster a sectarianism that quashes cross-pollination and prevents new life from taking hold. and Müller. Benjamin. in R. Nichols (ed. S. Publisher. pp. Vienna: and H. H. A Ray to the London Film-Makers’ Co-op and Back Cinema in Ruins’. Berkeley: Godine. 287–300. Berlin: Verlag Vorwerk 8. pp. R. Film Curatorship: Archives. The End of Cinema As Conversation’.). Malm and C.W. Chicago: McCall. 71–96. Solid Light Films and Related Works. 50: 4. Acknowledgements Special thanks to Ken Eisenstein.) (1996). Black and Film Since 1945. Leighton Anthology. and Anthology Film Archives. Volume 2..). 104. ‘The End of Avant-Garde Capitalist Museum’. in Harvard University Press.). And perhaps more importantly. Zohn). M. in B. 99–124. 59–65 and 291–302. pp. pp. Art After Modernism: Rethinking Bergstrom.) (2004). (1988). problems and potentials. Iles. Legg.C.). F. E. 3–17. Coventry: Mead Gallery/University ‘Reflections on the Seventh Art’. Inc. Eiland (eds). M. Screen. The Projected Image in Contemporary Art’. Genealogy of Avant-Garde Filmstrips from Man Balsom. pp. (2005). N. and the Digital Marketplace. Arrhenius. of Warwick.. M. W.). P. C. The interstitial space that has formed between the worlds of experimental film and of art has the ability to compromise this carefully cultivated niche. 6–37.. The precariousness and vulnerability of the experimental cinema render it in some need of safeguarding. ‘A Cinema in the Gallery. London: Tate Publishing. (2003). E. J. in T. (2009). A. Again’. New York and Boston: The New Histories and Theories’. 59–74. ‘The Cultural Logic of the Late Camper. pp. and Methods: An Anthology. in. D. (1986–87). Buckingham. 54. Jennings Museums. October. pp. 1907–1939. Grey Room. H. Volume Three: SYNEMA – Gesellschaft für Film und Medien. pp. and Penley. ‘The Avant-Garde: Representation.M. (2003).S. This may inspire fear. W. Anthony McCall: The Baker. Bellour. G. (ed. pp. Elcott. Dixon. 7–40. The increased presence of experimental film in the art world is a richly ambivalent development marked by promises. ‘Introduction’. University of California Press. R. 39–62. Los Angeles: Museum of Box Illuminated. Anthony McCall: Film Canudo. Princeton: (ed. 1935–1938. and its Technological Reproducibility (Second Version)’ Usai. (2001). Foster. MA: The Belknap Press of Hoberman.

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