Towards a Post Materialist Practice in Expanded Cinema
In his seminal publication Structural Film Anthology (1976) Peter Gidal established the idea that structural/ materialist films are aiming to be non-illusionist and anti-narrative. Moreover, Gidal connects this non-illusionist stance to a political orientation aiming at the dissolution of hierarchical relationships. Gidal speaks of 'the mediation of a repressive ideological structure' which he recognizes in any type of narrative cinema, and calls for a true form of dialectics in cinema. An analogy can be made to the Marxist concept of dialectical materialism, a line of thought which was popular with artists and filmmakers at the time. Many seminal expanded cinema works have clear relationships with Gidal's theory, for example: Castle Two (1968) by Malcolm Le Grice, with its deconstruction of the industrial-military complex while simultaneously deconstructing the film's projection by using repetition, a-synchronicity of sound and image, and a light bulb that is flashing on and off in front of the screen. Other clear examples are 2'45'' (1972) by William Raban, with its initially blank screen and the subsequent incorporation of the audience in the production of the work, and Anthony McCall's Line Describing a Cone (1973), a projection event in real time that encourages the audience to move around and through the projection beam. The timing of these works in relation to Gidal's publication demonstrates that theory emerged after practice, which is confirmed by Gidal in the chapter "Matter's Time - Time for Material", in the anthology Experimental Film and Video: 'My first point is that in England, theory always came after practice. Whilst we didn't decide this consciously, it automatically resulted from our working methods...' (Gidal, 2006: 19).
The London Filmmakers Co-op has been instrumental in the emergence of this work, with its horizontal organisation, the shared resources and facilities and the flexible exhibition space that was offered to artists. A reminder of the Co-op's creative energy can be found in William Raban's article "A Creative Laboratory" (Raban, 2016: 81): 'It was a creative laboratory where ideas were shared through the production and screening of new works.' With the disappearance of the Co-op, also much of the coherence between artist-filmmakers seems to have disappeared. While structural/ materialist film has remained a defining theory, its underlying political inspirations might have been watered down in the same fashion as 'New Labour' has watered down the ideological agenda of 'Labour' in the mid nineties. Although several expanded cinema artists have continued working with similar methodologies, they have rarely committed themselves openly to an ideological agenda.
I will argue that a more ideologically motivated film-making practice is re-emerging. This is certainly not exclusively limited to expanded cinema, but other (single screen) examples are beyond the scope of this article. It is not exclusively Marxism that underlies this return to ideology, but an array of social and environmental considerations. Simultaneously, the non-illusionism of structural/ materialist film is used to other aims as intended by Gidal, bringing back narrative in a radically different form. To demonstrate both this ideological and narrative shift, several recent expanded cinema works will be described and discussed. Moreover, the return of expanded cinema performances has coincided with the emergence of several new artist run venues and organisations, such as 'Apiary Studios', 'Lo&Behold', 'Bristol Experimental and Expanded Film' (BEEF), and 'Cinestar'. This topic will be briefly returned to later, after a description and discussion of four recent notable expanded cinema works. The works in question are Primal (2016) by Vicky Smith, Pending (2016) by Bea Haut, Body Scan: [A]live Screening by Karolina Raczynski and Anita Konarska (2016) and Hair in the Gate (2013) by James Holcombe.
1. Vicky Smith is an experienced animator who has been involved with the London Filmmakers Co-op in the nineties, running the workshop programme and making her own films. Recently her practice has developed towards expanded cinema, for example 33 Frames per Foot (2013) and Bicycle Tyre Track (2014). Smith interacts intensely with the filmstrip, using both her bicycle and her own body to inscribe images on the emulsion. The projected works are unique and often produced on the spot. No duplicates are made, giving the projection an intense and 'live' character. She reflects on her own work in her article "The Animator's Body in Expanded Cinema": 'The importance of contact filmmaking as a live event is that it brings into visibility the particular body of its maker who urges us to witness ways in which the choreography of working physically with materials is effortful.' In her latest work Primal (2016) she makes marks on the filmstrip by scratching the emulsion with her fingernails and additionally rubbing parts of the filmstrip with sandpaper. To soften the emulsion beforehand Smith has first applied her own saliva to unexposed 16mm colour negative. As a result of this procedure, a glowing golden colour appears where marks are made. The finished animation, reminiscent of Len Lye's work, is accompanied by a live soundtrack. The piece starts with a small gap in the middle of the frame, permitting a golden coloured and dancing light to shine on the screen. The gap widens and starts to take shape, producing an illusion of an organically formed space. Upon leaving this space the image becomes chaotic, and the wild dance of light on the screen appears as the exploration of an outside world. The piece ends more introspectively, while the pictorial elements disappear and we are drawn back into the material abstraction of the filmstrip itself. The soundtrack follows a similar dramatic development, underlining the films structure. Both title and form seems to refer to the birth of conscious life, and the struggle awaiting once that life form has emerged in the outside world. The mentioned space appears to reference a birth canal, celebrating the female body and its life giving qualities.
2. Bea Haut is an artist who was involved in the expanded cinema group 'Loophole Cinema' in the nineties, and more recently has produced a series of black&white 16mm films, film installations and performances which are widely screened and exhibited in the United Kingdom and abroad. Her performance Pending (2016) relies heavily on the participation of the audience. The performance starts with Haut explaining the rules of engagement to the audience, asking them to pass her filmloop from hand to hand, rolling it off the feed reel, and guiding the film once it is passed to the next member of the audience. The filmstrip travels to the front row, where it is reversed and returned in the direction of the projector. This procedure is repeated until the full 100 foot of film is released from the reel, and Haut receives the head of the reel. Once this action is completed the film can be projected, while the entire film is carried by the audience. The film will take several twists and turns, and the audience will have to be cautious to guide the filmstrip to prevent it from getting entangled or strained. The projected image on the screen shows Haut holding a wooden step ladder above her head. We can see the physical strain this causes, the ladder swaying lightly, and the muscles in her back correcting the precarious movements. The on screen activity is reflected in the audiences' performance, holding up the filmstrip while preventing it from breaking. The artists' effort is mirrored in the audiences' effort. Only by working together the performance can be completed. The lack of a classic dramatic development in both image and performance is replaced by an element of suspense, leaving the audience in doubt about their own role and ability to guide the film, while empathizing with the artist precarious effort on screen. The image of Haut holding the ladder is reminiscent of the seminal image of Atlas holding up the world, questioning the assumption that such an effort would be typically fulfilled by a man.
|3. The expanded cinema performance Body Scan: [A]live Screening (2016) is a collaboration between artist and filmmaker Karolina Raczynski and movement artist Anita Konarska. Raczynski is one of the core members of collective-iz, a collective working with film, video and expanded media. Raczynski is interested in the projection as an event or physical experience. Body Scan: [A]live Screening starts in complete darkness, while Konarska is seated in front of a projector loaded with a loop of 16mm black film with no image. The audience is left in the dark, hearing Konarska's voice, guiding the audience like a teacher in a yoga class, advising them to concentrate on their bodies and their breathing. The projector is switched on, at first only some light is spilled through the cracks of the mechanism, while the black leader only admits a hardly visible amount of light through the opaque filmstrip. Konarska's monologue suddenly changes subject and now focuses on a real or imagined experience of emerging breast cancer. Simultaneously Raczynski treats the black leader with a peroxide solution, dissolving the black emulsion. Slowly her collaborator can be seen more clearly, her naked torso functioning as a screen. While the emulsion seems to boil, the light gathers strength and Konarska's monologue reveals a passionate struggle to recover from the disease aided by a strict diet and intense meditation. The chemical reaction of the peroxide solution and the film’s emulsion produces a pungent smell, filling the auditorium. Experienced together these elements produce a complex mix of messages, the initial comfort of Konarska's account shifting towards discomfort, the exposure of her body complicated by the projection of boiling and withering emulsion, and the clash between the described alternative health practice and the direct experience of an unpleasant and potentially toxic smell. The end of the performance is inconclusive, leaving the audience with various questions and conflicting emotions.|
4. James Holcombe is a filmmaker with a deep material engagement with photochemical film. He is workshop manager at 'no.w.here', an artist run organisation focused on critical dialogue and contemporary image making. His expanded cinema performance Hair in the Gate (2013) combines similar elements as in the described Body Scan: [A]live Screening, but to a different end. Instead of black leader, Holcombe loads the projector with clear leader and starts projecting a white frame onto a wall or screen. The artist leans over the projector and starts cutting small samples of hair, which are dropped into the gate of the projector. Fluffs of hair starts to appear on the screen, gathering within the projector's gate. After a short while, the hair starts to burn due to the heat of the projector lamp, spreading a familiar but unpleasant smell. Intermittently Holcombe cleans the gate by using canned air, an activity which normally will only partially succeed. In a subsequent phase, Holcombe collects saliva from his mouth with his fingers and applies this to the clear film. The moisture catches the remaining hairs from the gate, while the saliva also becomes visible on screen as small bubbles. Meanwhile the soundhead of the projector has been switched on, and produces plops and glitches when hair is passing and more constant rumbling sounds as a result of the saliva. Holcombe's performance is based on the well-known practice used by projectionists to remove unwanted hair from a projector gate by putting a small amount of saliva onto the film strip. By placing this unwanted incident central, the artist satirizes cinema projection and emphasizes his physical presence. This accentuation of physicality explores the undesirable, not only making the audience aware of a widely used cleaning practice, but also of body solids and fluids involved in the process. What is normally unwanted and hidden, is now magnified and celebrated.
These four examples show striking similarities in methods and materials, and arguably have a similar conceptual basis as well. The use of embodied actions and bodily residue is present in each of the four performances in different guises. Holcombe's performance is most graphic in its appearance of the body on screen, literally displaying hair and saliva and amplifying its passing through the sound system. Smith is less revealing, her use of saliva is not directly visible. The active and visible bodies in her performance are the musician(s) (several different versions have been performed). Additionally, her animated images are the result of the physical action of scratching the emulsion with her fingernails, and the animation could be understood as a journey outwards through a birth canal, into a chaotic world. In contrast, Raczinsky and Konarska are using a chemical solution to rework the filmstrip live, biting away the emulsion. This process slowly reveals Konarska's naked torso, producing an illusion of a fluid body. Haut's work is a different subset again, she does not use any bodily fluids, maybe with the exception of the sweat produced by anxious audience members. Nontheless, she does place a representation of her own body central on the screen. Also, the spectators’ bodies are highlighted by the required action of suspending the film loop during projection. In each of the four cases, the projectionist participates in the screening, most modest in Smith's her case, but still decisive as the projected film is a unique original. Secondly, a hunkered down Raczinsky applies chemicals to the black leader, and although she is not really visible, her action does produce the expanding lightbeam, connecting her with her collaborators body. Holcombe's physical appearance is more pedagogical, demonstrating the (mal)functioning of the apparatus and its human operator, turning his body inside out and enlarging it on screen. Finally, Haut also instructs her audience, urging them to act in unison, as a collective body. The representation of her own body as subject of the film, balances between strength and commitment, and as such can be seen as a powerful rejection of gender stereotypes.
Closely related to the centrality of the body, embodiment and performativity, a second similarity between these works is their focus on the materiality of film and their rejection of the film and media industry. The use of clear leader in Holcombe's Hair in the Gate, black leader in Raczinsky and Konarska's Body Scan: [A]live Screening and handmade animation in Smith's Primal are clear examples of a renewed interest in the materiality of film. These three works are made using unexposed (recycled) filmstock, and the images are made without a camera. In two cases the images appear while treating the leader during the live performance. In contrast, the film loop used in Pending has been filmed using a camera and a lens, still the postproduction is done without the aid of an industrial film laboratory. Not only does Haut perform in her own film, she also processes and prints the film in an artist run laboratory managed by her and aiming to keep black & white 16mm film available as a medium for artists ('Film in Process'). The handmade quality of the image forms an intrinsic part of her piece. In a further extension of this self-handling of the material, the audience is asked to touch and guide the film, getting in the closest possible contact with the material, and being made responsible for its smooth transportation through the projector. Moreover, Haut organises a yearly collective screening event ('Analogue Recurring') at the artists run gallery Lo&Behold. The event is now in its fifth year, and has become increasingly popular with filmmakers and audience alike. Its focus on analogue film and open structure in both curation and organisation is reminiscent of the early days of the Filmmakers Co-op as described in the quote by William Raban above. Similarly, Analogue Recurring encourages artists to produce and screen new work, which is shared and discussed during the events. Parallel to Haut's initiative, BEEF organises similar events, and a diverse array of events focused on analogue film and expanded cinema, often in combination with sound-art or improvised music, have been hosted by the artist run Apiary Studios. This increased collective activity and the underlying grassroots type of organisations, signifies a need and willingness of artists working in this field to cooperate. This can be seen as an act of defiance, in an increasingly commercialised art world, focused on individual achievement and commodity value.
Returning back to the actual work, the first legitimate question in relation to the renewed focus on the materiality of photochemical film must be: why film? Analogue film is in general regarded as an outmoded, redundant material, and artists working with this medium are often portrait as nostalgic and fetishistic, both negative qualifications. However, the use of film in the described cases seems to be related to a different set of reasons. Film material and film projection equipment offer certain unique possibilities for working with the body, embodiment and bodily residue. Film emulsion, particularly the gelatin component, is reactive with other organic materials (itself being an animal substrate) making it possible to alter its appearance through a variety of processes, beyond traditional photochemistry. Not only in the described performances, but in numerous recent experimental films, artists have worked with such (natural) processes to inscribe images on film emulsion. In "After the Death of Film: Writing the Natural in the Digital Age", Tess Takahashi comments on this practice:
I would argue that the artists in question desire to contribute to what Takahashi calls 'the cultural revaluing of film as an image making technology'. The connection with the body and organic process also appears to relate to an engagement with environmental issues, and a desire for a more 'natural' form of media art as opposed to presumably 'synthetic' or 'artificial' aesthetics. A critical note within this discourse is offered by Silke Panse in her chapter Ten Skies, 13 Lakes, 15 Pools - Structure, Immanence and Eco-aesthetics in the anthology Screening Nature: Cinema beyond the Human (2013):
The filmmakers in question try to navigate within this narrow terrain by choosing to use recycled material and their own bodies and bodily residue. Moreover, they try to minimize their environmental 'footprint' by embracing scarcity and sharing resources. Besides the film material also the projection equipment should be regarded within a similar set of considerations. Portable film projection equipment is ergonomic, and designed for interaction with the human body. The technology is 'open source' and can easily be altered and used in ways beyond its original design. Holcombe, Raczinsky and Haut all use this equipment specificity in their performances. Technology is approached as an extension of the human body instead of an (improved) replacement. The aim is rather to make the machine appear more human than robotizing the human being.
Notably, Hair in the Gate is the most pronounced example of a direct interaction between body (projectionist) and projector. Interestingly, the focus is on residual parts of the body, cuts of hair and saliva. This seems to fit within the earlier mentioned positive re evaluation of redundancy and recycling. What is normally seen as garbage or unwanted produce is dragged into the centre of attention and magnified in front of the audience. But not all the artists have chosen such a radical approach, obliterating the photographic image altogether. In Haut's Pending, the images were made by exposing fresh film with a camera mechanism and a lens, a fairly traditional method. But the postproduction was done in an artist run laboratory, using recuperated equipment and a fully fledged DIY approach. The artist deliberately chooses for a minimal use of resources and maximum control over the means of production. This practice has strong similarities with the set-up of the London Filmmakers Co-op, but pushed to a further extreme, further removed from today's industry standard compared to the time that the Co-op was operational. While Haut is using more classical methods to expose and process her film, her projection method is unusual. The filmstrip, normally safely stored on a reel, only to be seen briefly by the projectionist during the screening, enters the auditorium and travels through the hands of the collected audience members, who share it for a brief moment. This sharing has little to do with ownership, but can be seen as a shared responsibility, or stewardship. The possible failure of the projection or damage of the film works rather as a stimulus for the audience to take their task seriously. The artwork is not a commodity here, but a document that circulates and changes within its brief moments of public appearance.
The question still remains if these works are simple reiterations with the same set of preoccupations as Gidal's structural/ materialism, or alternatively, reiterations without much meaning or concept. I would argue, that the non-illusionism advocated by Gidal CS cannot be upheld in relation to the described works. The animation in Smith's Primal, although abstract, has a dramatic structure, and is evocative of a real space and a movement through that space. Raczinsky's projection on Konarska's torso creates an illusion as well, especially in combination with Konarska's account which suggests a real relation to the body we are looking at. The projection of boiling emulsion on her skin produces an illusion of transparency of the body, as if we can look inside and see cancer cells growing. Also Haut's projection is illusionistic, showing us a representation of herself while carrying a ladder. This image does produce a relationship to the actual events in the auditorium, the carrying and guiding of the filmstrip. However real that second act is, it cannot erase the fact that what is shown on the screen is an illusion, an image filmed in the past, reproduced in front of us. Holcombe's performance is the exception here, as his projection of hair and saliva in movement, does not produce an illusion, but is only here and now during the projection event.
Gidal's 'mediation of a repressive ideological structure' (Gidal, 1976) was aimed against narrative cinema, in a bid to break down the prevailing cinematic language. The artists working at the London Filmmakers Co-op often saw their work in relationship to the cinema, presenting their work in cinema spaces, aiming to be subversive within a cinematic context. Nowadays, the domination of the cinema has been exceeded by the omnipresence of the internet. Cinema's are embedded within a much larger media landscape, including platforms like youtube and facebook. Content reaches audiences through multiple channels, both at home and through mobile devices. The repressive ideological structure that Gidal is talking about has not disappeared, but is even more enmeshed in quotidian life. The artists discussed in this article, do not make defined political arguments along similar lines as Gidal. As such no clarity is given, and the works might be seen as a-political or lacking definition in ideological terms. But before jumping to such a conclusion, it might be useful to summarize the key characteristics again in order to find out how these could be read in ideological terms.
In his article "Materiality and Meaning in Recent Projection Performance" (2012) Jonathan Walley comments on the relationship between the use of film material and ideology:
Along these lines, I would argue that the methods and materials at stake are intertwined with what Walley calls 'artistic values'. These can be summarized as following: the re-use of redundant technology and the use of recycled materials, a focus on the body, embodiment and bodily residue, a questioning of gender stereotypes, a stimulation of audience participation and shared responsibility, and an endorsement of simplicity and authenticity. When looking at this list, possible relationships to contemporary ideological lines of thought emerge, most prominently voiced by Felix Guattari in The Three Ecologies (1989), Donna Haraway in Simians, Cyborgs and Women (1991) and Jane Bennett in Vibrant Matter (2010). Guattari departs from his background as a psychotherapist, and links mental health to environmental health. From his perspective, capitalist mass media (including the media in so called communist countries) have a profound negative effect on the mental health of human beings, polluting their creativity and resilience. He sees this as intrinsically connected to the pollution and decline of the environment, and argues that both are caused by the same set of repressive structures. Secondly, Haraway departs from her background as a biologist, more specifically primatology. She argues that research in biology and primatology is not free from gender bias, and that an overarching narrative has been constructed in the sciences, primarily departing from a masculine perspective. She sees this narrative reflected in technology and the way it is used, and advocates for a feminist revaluation of both biology and technology. Thirdly, Bennett departs from her background as an environmental scientist. She explores the possible agency of materials, starting from (un)wanted narratives that come back to us through waste, and subsequently scrutinizing research towards effects of food on the mind, the structure of metal, the complexity of the energy grid and politics surrounding stem cells. From her point of view, materials are not merely passive elements, waiting to be dominated by human beings. She argues that material can have its own agency, expressed through effects that are often explained as chance by scientists or divine by clerics. This material agency is translated by Bennett into a political argument advocating a less exploitative relationship with our environment, which she coins vital materialism.
In relation to these ideological viewpoints, a number of choices made by the artists discussed in this article can be reiterated. They deliberately place themselves outside mass media by using redundant technology. Their use of materials is focused on a minimal use of resources and a profound interest in the material itself and what that material 'does' in a variety of circumstances. The human body, either the body of the artist or the body of the audience, is taking part in their performances, while merging with the technology and the artwork itself. Femininity and masculinity become fluid, and references are made to feminism. Health and disease, either mental or physical, are explored and exposed alongside a sensitivity for the environmental impact of the produced works. This environmental focus is commented on by curator and art historian Kim Knowles in her article "The aesthetics and politics of obsolescence: Hand-made film in the era of the digital" (Knowles, 2013: 63): '...in the wake of the rapid development and replacement of new media’s tools and implements, as evocations of an endangered technology, the scarred tissue of celluloid films may be read as a metaphor for our equally scarred and fragile planet.'
The combination of the before mentioned choices differentiates the work from earlier structural/ materialist practice. The proposed 'post materialist practice' from the title of this article can be supported and explained in three ways. First, the term post materialism simply defines a time frame, defining a period after structural/ materialism. Secondly, being a post materialist also means the rejection of a materialist life style, with less emphasis on the accumulation of goods and possession, aiming towards a life style based on immaterial value, experience and cooperation. A life style that the involved filmmakers apparently subscribe to, in regard of their practice of recycling material, minimal use of resources and grassroots organisation. Thirdly, the re-emergence of narrativity is important here, in contrast to forthright examples of structural/ materialist filmmaking, which are anti-narrative, underscored by Gidal's ideological theory. However, in post materialism, the photographic emulsion of motion picture film and the artists bodily residue tell their own story, a practice that can be seen as a demonstration of Bennett's vital materialism. The stories that these materials narrate are embraced by the artists, in their respective journeys in search for expression within conditions not managed and controlled by markets and media. As such, post materialism is not opposed to structural/ materialism but seeks to extend and update a compelling practice and theory.