apropos of onion city

From: Bernard Roddy (email suppressed)
Date: Sun Jun 25 2006 - 18:08:08 PDT

Thank God for Chicago Filmmakers, Onion City, and this
list, to which I humbly submit my thoughts after
seeing several shows of the Onion City festival and
reflecting on the gender issue undertaken here.

The process of awarding films bestows a suspicious
aura on them. It’s not supposed to bear on politics,
but what are the grounds for an award? A
mapping,perhaps, taking note of themes of interest,
slating artistic strategies for possible scrutiny, but
merit? There was an exhibit at Gallery 400 at UIC a
month or two ago in which the photographer posed black
homeless men nude, a gesture that seems to relish the
racialized regime of the historically constructed
meanings surrounding black men in America. She
videotaped her shoots with the men in a motel, she
being a middle-aged, white, art professor,
demonstrating her affinity with the men as they
suppressed erections and tried to relax. And I
noticed that William Pope L. is doing a performance,
Black Factory, at the same gallery on June 27. Given
such scheduling there must be an awareness of the
problematic nature of the photography exhibit. I was
shocked and confused by it, and being also suspicious
that there was more going on than I realized, continue
to reflect on it now. I have also attended a couple
open screenings at Chicago Filmmakers over the past
year, and the last one I attended was packed. What’s
more, there was a large contingent of black spectators
who were not particularly concerned about Art World
decorum. The video I still remember was evidently
made by a black audience member in the seat next to

These thoughts inflect my reading of the computer
animation that I saw at the Onion City festival, which
showed a black youth facing a storm. It was awarded,
and rightly so. But I thought it was interesting that
the makers dedicated it to a medium-committed,
expressionist filmmaker recently reviewed in Artforum
magazine, and that it was as far as it was from the
traditional intent of experimental film (very unlike
cut-out animation using 19th century engravings, for
example, or the latest installment of “what the water
said”). And it struck me that the transition to
digital work is indeed taking place, but carefully,
lest it disrupt the focus on a certain canon and
museological vision. Such a transition must
apparently be led by the same artists, or roughly the
same group, that has upheld the purity of
optically-based cinema. This is probably rather
simplistic, but it seems that in order to break new
ground and complicate the terms of experimental film,
you have to originate from the ideological environment
that sustains what already goes by the name.

While we tend to focus on diversity in production, it
is important to think about it in reception. Who sees
these films? How does reception affect future
production? The experimental film imaginary is a
machine without language, color, or women. The very
permissibility of speech seems to be in question.
Most films are shown on video, so the expense of
optical soundtracks cannot account for this. Another
way to reflect on audience is to draw on notions from
media studies. In that context, “constructing an
audience” is what an advertising campaign does when it
sets out to produce certain consumption habits by
means of television or radio programming. Such
programs are aimed at people who are not yet organized
by their purchasing habits and are directed by
marketing strategies. Selling Coke in Thailand
requires the construction of a new kind of audience
for television programs where advertising can appear.
In this sense, experimental film must maintain its
audience. Nor should we neglect the process by which
viewers are invited to accept certain subject
positions. A Hollywood film will be addressed to a
certain kind of audience, one not necessarily defined
demographically, but rather a hypothetical, desired
ideal. Reflecting on most experimental film, I would
say there is little doubt that it constructs a subject
that is male, white and heterosexual.

This isn’t far-out theory or some minority theoretical
position. Something like this is incredibly familiar
in a host of college course materials. For many,
these are the issues that make a film or video
interesting. For others, it is not just some kind of
life-style choice or a question of how to spend one’s
leisure time. If you don’t fit, you cannot ignore
this shit.

I think it is interesting to ask ourselves just what
is at stake where the choice about what to make, show
or award presents itself. As far as I’m concerned,
experimental film in the process of exploring the
aesthetic, the apparatus of Hollywood, or the early
silent magic show, must now struggle to find the
relevance it once had prior to the socio-economic
changes experienced by the popularization of video and
the rise of the internet. What once was resistance -
the appropriation of a technology for artisanal
practices, or the pleasure taken in home movies used
for alternative ends - can no longer claim to be
avant-garde. To keep in circulation the terms of an
outmoded critique, however commendable as a
pedagogical tool, seems almost irresponsible as the
primary discourse of experimental film and video
today. It bears some significance where visual
pleasure is prohibited, when school is killing you,
for example. But otherwise the strategy of exposing
the conditions of production obscured by the spectacle
of mass media now feels like a diversion designed to
shore up market value. Evidence of this could not be
clearer than in the use of CinemScope to exhibit shots
from a Spaghetti Western shoot-out on opening night of
the festival.

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