Exchange networks: United States and Europe

The film avant-garde has certain film festivals that function as community gatherings. Inclusion in these festivals connotes belonging and raises your status. But even just attending and seeing the new work of your peers and being able to say you were there is valuable. Each festival has a different reputation. Some, like “Views from the Avant-Garde,” which is part of the New York Film Festival and is held at Lincoln Center, confer incredible status on those screened even though it is almost universally acknowledged that in this particular case, the films represented are neither the best of that year’s selections or truly representative of the diversity of what is available. A common response concerning I heard aboutnwhy this was so was that, well, “everybody’s there.” People travel from across the country and even overseas for this one weekend in New York in October, even if their film isn’t playing. It is an event, a place to see and be seen. The reason it is so valuable to have a film screened is not because of the value this confers upon the piece as a “good” work but because the majority of avant-garde filmmaker peers are there to see it.

Other festivals, such as the Ann Arbor Film Festival, confer status both because of their longevity (they are in their 48th year) and because they are renowned for their intensive screening and selection process. The pre-screeners watch each film in its entirety, and up until ten years ago, the festival insisted that you send a submission on 16 mm to be prescreened. Even after a program has been selected, the jury (experts in the field), who were not part of the selection process, are able to access any of the films submitted in event that they would wish to give a prize to a film that the screening committee did not select. In contrast to the Views’ reputation, the Ann Arbor Festival is famous for being egalitarian and open to new ideas and ways of making films. In addition, they give several small monetary prizes. Located in the small college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, the festival has always been a mecca for filmmakers from all over the country, but particularly those from Canada and the Midwest. Faculty from Chicago, Ithaca, and Iowa City have been known to bring groups of students, conducting late night seminars after the screenings.

There are a number of festivals abroad that also play a big part as centers of exchange of films and ideas. Rotterdam International Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the Oberhausen International Film Festival are all popular festivals among American avant-garde filmmakers. Exhibiting at these festivals gives you an opportunity to meet with your international contemporaries and to see work that may never make it to the United States. Again, seeing this work, especially that of foreign artists, confers upon the filmmaker (who may also teach or occasionally program films or write) increased status by adding to their knowledge base films that are rare for their American contemporaries.

Of course film festivals are not all about watching films. An enormous amount of socializing and networking takes place as well. Many filmmakers bring copies of their work or copies of work that wasn’t even screened to offer to people who enjoyed their piece. At the very least, filmmakers exchange contact information and invitations to each other’s countries, towns, and homes. These are the great gatherings of the community and are invaluable for keeping the community together.

However, there are other places to see experimental film. Many film studies professors show films in their classrooms. Although filmmakers feel differently about how prestigious this is, some even shunning the academic market, these rentals bring in the major income for artist-run film coops (Zryd 2006). In addition, screening in avant-garde film history and theory courses helps individual filmmakers to gain entrance into a canon. Students who take these classes may go on to become programmers or film historians and will base their selections on what to show or write about in part on what they were shown and taught. Often universities have film societies and some of them, such as Cornell Cinema in Ithaca, devote a night or two per month to avant-garde film, sometimes even bringing in filmmakers to speak. These bookings are often based on connections formed between the filmmaker and the programmer through the festival network.

There are several venues associated with contemporary art museums across the country. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, PS 1, and the Guggenheim have all sponsored screenings of avant-garde films as well as the Bienalle held every other year at the Whitney. The content of these screenings is often dependent on the proclivities of the curator, who usually does not specialize in avant-garde film at all but has experience as an art curator. Often these shows will be reviews of the established canon or specialty shows curated by outside people (such as Astria Suparak for the Whitney or Karen Reigel and Bradley Eros at PS1), and they are interspersed with shows with dubious selection criteria. However, none of the filmmakers I spoke with were interested in making a career curating at one of the major art museums. One informant, a programmer at a local independent venue, had this to say after interning at a major New York art museum:

“I really do feel like, I’m much happier to come in do something on my own, that I want to see happen or even just fund something that I’d like to see happen, rather that depend on the largess of somebody else to make it a possibility. I mean I just don’t trust a lot of these institutions anymore to do something valuable, especially when it comes to film, I feel like [film is] treated in a lot of ways like a third class art form and its not taken seriously, it’s not presented properly and ultimately it becomes a kind of sop. ….. To do a program of cartoons from Universal pictures, I mean, okay, some of them are sort of funny, but it’s lame and it’s boring and it’s not an interesting job to be doing it and I don’t want to be the person who has to get up there and try and defend that because it’s really not defensible on aesthetic grounds."

However, there are programmers who work hard to draw on the expertise of the avant-garde film community that surrounds them. When Chrissie Isles of the Whitney wanted to program the film portion of “This American Century,” she turned to New York filmmakers and programmers Bradley Eros and Bryan Frye for assistance. While Frye, in particular, is to be commended for introducing her to a great diversity of work from the vaults of the Filmmakers’ Cooperative, where he was interning at the time, many filmmakers complained that the programming tended to reflect the curators’ particular aesthetic and political ideals, not some sort of general overview of the entire century. And while being selected for a show at one of these venues is prestigious, and for the Whitney Biennale even more so, to many filmmakers, it is not a measure of the judgment of their peers. One New York filmmaker put it this way,

“I’d rather be in the Madcat film festival[3] [open endnotes in new window] than at the Biennale any day. With the Madcat, your films are showing all over the country with a bunch of other great women filmmakers and they’re being seen. They’re doing the kind of work you made them to do. Being seen by the people you want to see them. Who’s really seeing your work at the Whitney anyhow? A bunch of New York filmmakers who you already know anyhow and a whole bunch of tourists and art snobs. Who needs that? “

She went on to admit, however, that having a film in the Whitney looked more prestigious to funding organizations like the New York State Council on the Arts or the Guggenheim, sponsors of two grants she was hoping to get in the future.

Another art world venue is galleries. While there has always been some screening of films in galleries, with the increasing acceptance of video art and the accessibility and quality of digital video technology, more and more galleries are becoming interested in moving-image art. The trick is making limited editions of the work yet creating an object that can be sold. Galleries are, of course, in the business of making money. For filmmakers who are already working with installations or multiple-image projection, moving into the gallery system can seem like a logical step. However, even for a filmmaker who has been successful in the gallery system, there are things she misses about the theatrical experience of film.

“I love the theatrical experience. I love that people will get sucked into it. I love the control aspect of it. That power part has always compelled me immensely. It’s like ‘you’re sitting there until this is over and if you get up I’ll see you.’ I’m interested in negotiating that and then the other side of that, which is this installation experience where people walk back and forth. That’s always been more disappointing, the audience experience of an installation for me. Because what I realized in doing this is it has made me much more attached to the theatrical setting because I do want everybody to watch and in an installation experience you can’t get everybody to do that.”

Presenting your work in a gallery takes away the power of the filmmaker to control the viewer’s experience because gallery work, like artwork, is treated like an object that can be scanned or read quickly and passed by. Filmmakers’ work is about duration and experience of that duration. Thus art world presentation of film or video is often less than satisfactory. In addition, part of what makes avant-garde filmmakers is the community of makers with whom they share their work at local screenings and other avant-garde venues. When a film is identified as an art object, viewed in a gallery or museum setting, the experience of viewing it changes temporally and experientially. It is removed from the discursive space of the avant-garde community. Finally, despite the fact that “video art” and “digital art” have been a standard in the art-world lexicon for some time, filmmakers still complain that galleries don’t really understand how to “hang” video, film, or digital work. One well known film and video artist declined an invitation at the well-respected New York City gallery, Maya Stendhal, because he had heard complaints from other artists about the gallery’s ability and willingness to meet the artist’s standards and technical requirements of showing video or film art.[4]

There are several avant-garde film venues in New York, and by that I mean venues run and programmed by avant-garde filmmakers. The longest running is Anthology Film Archives on 2nd Avenue between 1st and 2nd Street on the Lower East Side. Anthology was begun by the New American Cinema Group, principally Jonas Mekas, and it functions not only as a screening space but as a repository for films, screening notes, writings, and other ephemera from the forty-plus years of its existence. While Mekas and the New American Cinema group may have begun with a very egalitarian vision (see New American Cinema Group 1961) it has become a bastion of a very specific kind of avant-garde filmmaking and ideology, and its programming reflects this. In the early 1970s P. Adams Sitney, avant-garde film scholar, enthusiast, and champion, and Jonas Mekas got together and compiled what they referred to as the “essential cinema.” This is a collection of what they deemed the most important work of the early and middle avant-garde. A book was published, a canon created, and Anthology still runs programs off it every month.

Anthology has two theaters offering several screenings a day every day of the week. True to their New American Cinema Group roots, they continue to be a place where one can see obscure foreign titles. Thus, while New York does have several independent theaters such as the Film Forum that program international cinema, what you will see at Anthology is often more cutting edge, more obscure, and more political. Anthology also shows other types of nonfiction besides avant-garde films. One can often see long format documentaries that are programmed nowhere else, except at some festivals or special shows catering specifically to documentary film. Anthology also serves as a venue helping to house the MIX Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival and the New York Underground Film Festival, for over a decade programming work that would otherwise never be seen on the Anthology screens. Although these festival are now defunct, Anthology continues to support festivals that are an alternative to its “essential cinema,” such as the relatively new festival Migrating Forms.

Anthology provides an important service for the New York avant-garde film community. It is a repository of the group’s collective memory (albeit somewhat slanted towards a particular viewpoint or constituency). It functions as a kind of bastion for the community, a parents’ home, where the rules may not always feel comfortable but where you always know you are welcome. It is also a great and resilient punching bag. Many filmmakers complain that it is out of step with the times, does not represent what is happening in the community, etc. But ultimately Anthology is a destination for filmmakers both within and outside of New York, a kind of holy shrine that must be visited at least once in order to understand one’s birthright. It is important in another way. It has survived the exigencies of state and federal funding throughout the last 30 years. It is an important marker, perhaps the only seemingly permanent one, that avant-garde film is a vital and necessary part of U.S. culture.

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