searching for new directions

From: Bernard Roddy (email suppressed)
Date: Fri Jul 07 2006 - 23:57:17 PDT

A while back I met an artist who has only film to
shoot. She recently confided to me that her latest
project was coming together nicely but that she was
having trouble completing it. “This is a good piece,”
she told me. “Too bad it is in film. If only I had
shot it in video.” It was not a problem of expenses.
She had the money for lab work, and distribution in
film was not an obstacle. Moreover, she admitted, it
would have looked pretty much the same either way.
No, she was simply unhappy that she had to settle for
film, that she had to concede when asked that she had
indeed shot film.

My friend joined a community of video makers in hopes
of redeeming her work, of finding some way to attach
to it the status of video. There, she thought, she
might learn how to conceal its origins, to valorize
the bastard project, erase this stigma it bore of
having been conceived in film. But instead she was
continually being asked which was better, film or
video. Desperately she sought grounds for elevating
cinema to the level of video, but to no avail. It
wasn’t that she could not find the reasons she needed.
 It was simply that they didn’t seem to change
matters, no matter how carefully she reasoned. How
was it that video enjoyed this respectability while
film struggled along a poor imitation?

As I thought about her situation, it occurred to me
that things might have been reversed. It might have
been that film enjoyed the privilege, and that video
was always evaluated with reference to it. And as the
two media grew closer the fight would naturally
intensify. The threat posed by video would certainly
generate renewed efforts to defend the norm, the
standard, to locate some origin that could only be
claimed by film.

If things were reversed, I thought, the debate would
go something like this. Filmmakers would refuse to
see the term “film” as arbitrarily privileged. They
would insist that video enjoys equal status and that
the issue is not about which is better. But they
would also find it increasingly urgent that the
distinction be maintained. “The debate is not about
quality,” filmmakers would say. “We are not asking
whether the work is good, only whether it is in film.”
 But my friend, I think, would notice that who gets to
call their work film determines who gets to commend it
as good. The link would be so tight as to make the
two functionally equivalent. Fortunately, she lives
in a world that privileges video. It is the
filmmakers who are continually trying to call their
work “video,” when everyone knows it’s not.

But yesterday this friend told me she had a nightmare.
 She dreamt she lived in a world governed by a certain
myth, that the world began with a divine pronouncement
and certain putatively light-sensitive people were
“chosen.” Heathens would be damned to historical
obscurity. Everyone embraced the idea that light
carried unmediated communication from God, and
centuries of image-making nourished and strengthened a
reverence for a primordial, omniscient Author.
Assumptions of the mother of God and angelic
apparitions abounded. Upon its arrival photography
was said to be the divine inscription produced by this
Presence. And in this nightmare everyone seemed
obsessed with a construction of the past addressed
only to questions about film stock, lenses, and
something called “persistence of vision,” a myopic
narrative of representation and technology that seemed
impervious to the complexities of the productive
forces involved.

She awoke in a sweat. Still dazed by the nightmare
she found herself longing for widespread amnesia, a
newly unhistorical outlook, one that would result in a
massive reduction in the credibility enjoyed by
visionaries of all stripes. I reassured her that it
was only a dream and repeated an oft-quoted passage
she knew well from an essay by David Tomas, “From the
Photograph to Postphotographic Practice: Toward a
Postoptical Ecology of the Eye,” in Timothy Druckrey,
Electronic Culture: Technology and Visual
Representation (n.d., Aperture):

“Postphotographic practice thus precipitates the dusk
inaugurating the posthistorical – an era that has no
need of a point of view and its optical products,
visual facts or witnesses, and thus no need of light.”
(p. 153)

For some reason she only grew despondent. I reminded
her that she was a filmmaker herself, but this only
depressed her more. I suggested she reread again her
well-worn copy of Amy Fogel’s classic, Video as a
Subversive Art, with all its wonderfully transgressive
videos. But she was suddenly convinced there would be
a backlash against difference, against gay marriage
for example, a retrenchment of opposition to
affirmative action in education, renewed hostility to
feminist thought, concessions to corporate claims of
ownership over ideas and the natural environment,
booming gentrification and prison industries,
ever-widening definitions of pornography, and
successful efforts by communications industries to
design digital rights management capabilities into the
very technologies we bought and relied on. One fear
followed on another.

This was out of control, but things got much worse.
Each night she seemed to awake from a new variation on
the nightmare. In one she was chained in a cave
watching Nazi propaganda films while a loud voice
repeated over and over statements like “And God saw
that it was good,” “In the beginning was the Word,”
“This is who you are.” “Let there be no other gods
besides me.” In another she was trapped in a
confessional listening to a Catholic priest give a
sermon on Creationism. She dreamt of human souls
distinguishing people from other animals, genetic
differences dividing “people of color” from the small
minority of whites, theories of original sin
accounting for sexual difference, studies of brain
size to explain the criminal personality, psychiatry
to account for people who stayed single too long – the
list went on and on. Origins and exclusions were the
order of the day.

I was feeling rather perturbed by all this and tried
to remind myself that creativity and free expression
was alive and well, that subversion knew no borders.
I pulled out the Nettime publication, “READ ME”
(1998), and read from Maurizio Lazzarato:

“Free production,” “collective property,” and “free
circulation” of truth-values and of beauty-values are
conditions for the development of social forces in the
information economy.” (p. 163)

See, I love film but believe it harmful to society.
My own intellectual labor is as cheap as any Starbucks
clerk’s, and there’s no fuckin’ way I’ll be able to
finish in film again. As an odd form of consolation I
looked up Patricia Mellencamp’s essay, “An Empirical
Avant-Garde: Laleen Jayamanne and Tracey Moffatt” in
Patrice Petro’s book, Fugitive Images (1995, Indiana
University Press), where she writes:

“The ‘apparatus’ and an aesthetics of distantiation
called bliss or boredom by Barthes and paralysis or
agitation by Lyotard took over film theory. For the
romantic (male) avant-garde, identification was
denied, story defused, and affect minimalized.” (p.

Mellencamp begins her essay by setting aside a whole
array of experimental work in order to examine
Moffat’s (“Yes I am Aboriginal, but I have the right
to be avant-garde like any white artist.”). I thought
of an Isaak Julien film I saw on a loop at the MCA in
Chicago several years ago. These works are completed
in film, but they do not rely on that fact. I also
returned to a question asked by Constance Penley about
avant-garde film in her book, The Future of an
Illusion (1989, University of Minnesota Press), in
which she interrogates the ambitions of a book edited
by P. Adams Sitney in 1975:

“Can a project involving definitively establishing
‘the monuments of cinematic art’ […] a project whose
stated criteria, determined in advance, are that the
films be ‘sublime achievements,’ and exhibit
‘wholeness’ and ‘unity’ [...] be compatible with
evolving a theory of film, or even a new kind of
criticism?” (p. 32)

I like evolution. The remarks seemed to confirm my
own, admittedly idiosyncratic, distaste for a certain
kind of film. Although the doubts these women raised
are now taken seriously in every introductory college
textbook on artist film, I recalled the day when the
meaning of “experimental film” was seriously
contested. There was a time when a discussion list
could seem conceived as a consensus-builder, when
themes or politics seemed to be sacrificed to formal
considerations, which I perceived as politically
motivated. It was simply the effect of a medium for
dialogue that tended toward the old “spiral of
silence” that mass media are susceptible to. All of
single-channel projected artist work, it appeared,
were apparently to be divided into two mutually
exclusive categories, depending on whether they were
shot on film or video.

Those days are over. My filmmaker friend continues to
have nightmares, but our discussions continue without
obstruction. Here are a few of the things we have
been wondering:

1. How have changes in digital culture affected the
reception of experimental film? Given the battles
over intellectual property, are people who participate
in these cyberspace debates looking at film
differently? And do the patterns of distribution for
film now look more like the digital developments
challenging intellectual property rights so often
claimed by companies?

2. How will the kind of work put into distribution be
altered by the potential of downloads, web archives,
and widely available duplication technologies? Will
the standards set by visual connosseurship be undercut
by new consumer technologies, changing economic
conditions, and the growing number of producers making
moving images?

3. Will the replacement of film processes by digital
technologies have the kind of impact on experimental
film that the introduction of mechanical reproduction
had on fine art, namely the loss of its aura? What
battles are in store for us where these economic
shifts toward a more fluid transmission culture come
in conflict with efforts to control the availability
of experimental films?

4. How can the language of film criticism be altered
to coincide more closely with changing social issues?
Not that Deleuze and Guattari or Hardt and Negri have
to be continually cited, but surely there is some
positioning to do here. If it’s not cultural studies
or visual studies, if it’s not postmodernism,
psychoanalysis, or feminism, what is there besides the
phenomenology of perception?


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