Opera Mundi (Nicolas Rey, 1999)

(14-17 February 2001,
Windsor, Ontario, Canada)

Media City is a buried treasure in the world of experimental/avant-garde film and video art festivals. Although it does not currently enjoy the reputation of festivals like Oberhausen’s International Short Film Festival, New York’s “Views of the Avant-Garde,” or Toronto’s “Images”, it deserves inclusion in this select club for its remarkable internationalism, eclecticism, and sheer excellence of programming. The 7th incarnation of Media City, a co-presentation of Artcite Inc. and House of Toast, two Windsor artist-run centres, was a 4-day festival which featured twelve strong programs of over 100 films and videos, along with a group of video and CD-ROM installations dispersed in four separate galleries and art spaces.

As a member of the awards jury, I was exposed to every offering, a task that any experienced habitué of experimental/avant-garde film and video festivals would approach with some trepidation given the uneven and taxing nature of much of this work. But almost everything selected for screening was substantial, whether formally, conceptually, and/or thematically, testifying to the exceptional efforts of the programming committee (composed of Windsor artists Christine Burchnall and Christopher McNamara, and Program Director Jeremy Rigsby). The programming committee sifted through a staggering 1400 submissions from 47 countries (doubling the number of submissions from last year, according to Rigsby), settling on about 100 from 25 countries. The wide-ranging nature of the programming, culled from such a sheer volume of submissions, makes Media City a revealing glimpse into the current state of experimental/avant-garde film and video art.

The Festival is further enriched by the presence of both established and emerging international filmmakers and video artists. Four French filmmakers, Pip Chodorov, Frédérique Devaux (Festival jury), Xavier Querel, and Nicolas Rey made the trip; Rey screening his hour-long triple-projection work Opera Mundi (16mm, France, 1999), a mixture of Guy Debord and Hollis Frampton in its concern with labour and analytical study (Rey describes it as “one of those action films, only the action would be contemplating”). Two contrasting “special non-competition programs” were presented by Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Ahtila and German super 8mm filmmakers Dagmar Brundert and Ramona Welsh (who comprise the collective FBI: Freie Berliner Ishen). Ahtila’s remarkably precise and deeply felt work Consolation Service (1999) was presented both as a 35mm film and as a DVD video installation at the magnificent new Art Gallery of Windsor, while FBI presented a funky Super 8mm cabaret along with Canadian artist Alex Mackenzie, who performed a 3-screen work on 8mm cartridge projectors. Québec City video artists Boris Firquet, Annie Baillargeon, and Simon Lacroix, along with Montréal artist Tammy Forsythe, provided a glimpse of overshadowed French-Canadian experimental work from Québec. Other Canadian filmmakers at Media City 7 included Chris Bissonnette (whose video Corridor [2001] won an award for best local work) and Chris Gehman, whose otherworldly Contrafacta (16mm, Canada, 2000 made with Roberto Ariganello) is like an enigmatic medieval illuminated manuscript brought to glorious and absurd life. Two extraordinarily beautiful lyrical 8mm films were presented by Japanese filmmakers Naruo Tada (Toki no Hahen, 1999) and Yuiko Matsuyama, whose Field (2000) was one of the most delicate and substantial works in the Festival. Several USA artists were in attendance, including Luis Recoder, TM Caldwell, Mark Hejnar, Carrie Williams, and Jim Finn. Festival jury member Marek Wasilewski from Poland, New Zealand filmmaker Summer Agnew, and Swedish installation artists Lena Mattsson and Eva Maria Ovin rounded out the international menagerie assembled for the Festival.

That Media City succeeds in attracting such strong work, and a wide assortment of international guest artists, to Windsor, a city with a minimal profile in the North American arts scene, is remarkable. However, like other small-town festivals such as Telluride, Pordonone, and Yorkton, isolation concentrates festival energy. Windsor enjoys a vibrant underground arts scene which benefits both from its proximity to shady Detroit (located just across the US/Canadian border) and its substantial distance from Toronto (the more upscale self-proclaimed capital of Canadian art and culture). The first Media City Festival took place in 1994, led by Deirdre Logue, Christopher McNamara (now Executive Director of Media City) and Dermot Wilson. Jeremy Rigsby joined the Festival three years ago. The Festival’s presenting partners are the Art Gallery of Windsor, Common Ground, House of Toast, Artsite (which also presented installations by Eija-Liisa Ahtila), the Capitol Theatre (an excellent intimate theatre which enjoyed full audiences throughout the festival), the Images Festival, and Pleasure Dome, which co-sponsored the contingent of visiting artists from France. Other Media City events took place at local bars and cafés, which provided a festive atmosphere despite the typically freezing Canadian temperatures.

In most programs, Media City presents film and video together, a decision which, far from merging the separate media, highlights both their distinctive textures and complementarities. Two of the award winning entries, Guy Maddin’s thrilling The Heart of the World (35mm, Canada, 2000) and Dan Geesin and Esther Rots’s precise The Garden (video, England/Netherlands, 1999) appeared on the first program, “‘Heroes’: Victims of the Collective Super-Ego,” and each carried the weight of their separate traditions. The Heart of the World has deservedly won numerous awards for its vertiginous condensation of b/w silent cinema avant-gardes (with nods to Aelita, Ivan the Terrible, Metropolis, Nosferatu, and traditions of American action melodrama, heroic Soviet montage, and UFA German expressionism), as its distressed grain, too-rapid pacing, and precise music conjure for its audience a film orphan rescued from some dusty vault, a ‘discovery’ which celebrates cinephilia more powerfully than perhaps any film since Godard’s Breathless (1959).

The Garden

The Garden is like a collaboration between Luis Buñuel and Martin Arnold pitched into the medium of video. A ‘perfect’ European haute bourgeois family plucked from the pages of Vanity Fair play out a melodrama of utter inconsequence observed by a vaguely ominous and watchful servant. Geesin and Rots generate a series of psycho-sexual tensions by presenting the ‘narrative’ in tableaux which oscillate between two still frames – the oscillation amplified by the video resolution lines which enhance the ‘stillness’ of each frame. While The Heart of the World is visually dazzling, The Garden quietly erupts, cueing in the viewer a series of quiet, dreadful expectations and anticipations.

As The Heart of the World and The Garden suggest, melodrama and narrative have re-emerged as viable options for experimental/avant-garde work (though they have never really disappeared). Emmanuelle Antille’s Wouldn’t it be nice (video, Switzerland, 1999) was a Festival favourite, a multi-generational family gathering whose moments of violent irruption – and tenderness – are rendered through remarkable performances and rhythmic editing, all raising the stakes of its elliptically dramatized gender conflict. Monique Moumblow’s Sleeping Car (video, Canada, 2000) was also notable for its construction of a narrative of loss solely with train images and a voiceover from an Ingmar Bergman text: a moody, textured piece which sticks to one’s memory and won’t let go.

Rocking Chair

Lyrical forms tend to dominate in experimental work, and especially in film, and the majority of short pieces in Media City 7 adopted this style. Phil Solomon’s extraordinary Twilight Psalm II: Walking Distance (16mm, USA, 1999), which won 2nd prize at the Festival, represented the stormy side of the lyrical form, a blindingly rich image-processed work which recalls an Anselm Keifer painting in motion. Solomon’s description of the film as “a cinema of ether and ore” captures its alloyed liquid and metallic textures, obscuring but also providing the ground for its barely perceptible figures struggling through a lonely purgatorial space.

Shino Kano’s Rocking Chair (16mm, Japan, 2000), meanwhile, represented the still centre of the lyrical mode, an exquisite poem of light and space, almost indescribable in its fragility and modesty. Two other personal favourites among the many lyrical films at the Festival (in addition to Toki no Hahen and Field) were Argentinean video artist Marta Ares’s m i l i m i n a l (1999), which is the closest I have yet seen video approximate the visual texture of abstract watercolour painting, and Keith Sanborn’s For the Birds (video, USA, 2000), which concluded the Festival’s final program with an appropriate fade to pure white light under an ecstatic and richly articulated concerto of bird song.

Several films and videos in the Festival qualified as genuinely “experimental” work, structural oddities in the sense that they provided what were, to my eye, wholly original forms of visual experience (though often without any larger thematic or conceptual point). Christian Hossner’s Slit Scan Movie (Germany, 1999) is a 3-D 35mm Cinemascope film whose use of extreme fish-eye lenses and camera movement to seemingly present 360-degree space on one screen offered a mind-blowing visual experience. At the other end of the scale, Michiel van Bakel’s Undertow (video, Netherlands, 1999) renders a lo-tech Matrix-like suspension effect. A program of “Optic Electronica,” presented at Milk Café accompanied by live audio performances, presented images from the interstices of video signal noise and abstract composition – favourites included ReMi’s Mobile V (video, Netherlands/Switzerland, 2000), Leslie Peters and Tasman Richardson’s analog vs digital (video, Canada, 2000), and Chris Bissonnette’s Corridor. Ichiro Sueoka’s A flick film in which there appear Liz and Franky is composed under the score of ARNULF RAINER by P. Kubelka on NTSC (video, Japan, 2000) as Sueoka says, is part of a larger project “re-interpreting minimal structural films.” Here, using the visual “score” for Kubelka’s film, he substitutes for the original’s black and white leader images from lush Hollywood films starring Elizabeth Taylor and Frank Sinatra to “recognize the cinematic clichés of both Hollywood and experimental film.” Luis Recoder’s dual 16mm projection performance Driftwork (USA, 1999) very subtly framed some extraordinary industrial found footage of anti-terrorist/sabotage training to unsettling effect, although the work was somewhat under-articulated. By contrast, Frédérique Devaux’s (W)HOLE/T(R)OUS (16mm, France, 2000) and David Matarosso’s Dellamorte Dellamorte Dellamore (16mm, France, 2000) manipulate found footage by cutting and pasting within each individual frame to create dizzyingly beautiful and evocative works.

The programmers for Media City work hard to screen works outside of the traditional centres of avant-garde/experimental film and video art in North America, Western Europe, and Japan. Several video works from Thailand, including Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Malee and the Boy (1999) and Thunska Pansittivorakul’s Private Life (2000), utilize long take and aleatory structures to create exploratory, real time, mundane adventures which press enigmatically into the viewer’s consciousness. Songpol Charnchaijak’s My Story (video, Thailand, 2000) uses less minimal techniques (multiple superimpositions of graphic text, image, and sound), but to similar effect. Rustam Khalfin and Yulia Tikhonova’s Love Races (single-channel video installation, Kazahstan, 2000) won an honourable mention for its carnal but lyrical visualization of ancient erotic Chinese texts which featured the lovemaking on horseback of self-described “Northern Barbarians.” The film alternates point-of-view shots of a man and a woman to depict, as the artists say, a “reconstruction of this ancient way of loving.” (Love Races was notable for its sexuality; with the exception of some works in the programs entitled “‘Happy Songs and Pretty Girls’: With the terms ‘happy’ and ‘girl’ rather expansively defined,” and “‘Organica’: Living, pulsing gooey things,” Media City 7 lacked the erotics and queerness which has characterized much experimental film and video work over the last decade.) Other films and videos from Columbia, Russia, Mexico, South Korea, Argentina, and Croatia took the Festival off the beaten path. But, admirably (and unlike this review) the programmers did not ghettoize this work but inserted it into the thematically organized screenings.

Last but not least, the revelation of the Festival for me was the remarkable work being done in the visual essay mode, work which effectively engaged political issues without cant or didacticism. Matt McCormick’s The Subconscious Art of Graffiti Removal (16mm, USA, 2000) tied with Heart of the World for the Festival Grand Prize. A masterfully ironic faux art lecture on how the city of Portland’s campaign to paint over graffiti creates “unconscious …. artistic achievements,” McCormick’s film functions as a remarkable mediation on American urban policy, bourgeois aesthetics, and the nature of art itself. Three other “essay films” won Honourable Mention awards, including Dave Ryan’s Haptic Nerve (video, USA, 2000), Peter Paul Mortier’s She Did See… (video, Belgium, 1999), and the Bureau of Inverse Technology’s BIT Plane (video, Australia/Germany/USA, 1999). Ryan’s piece works as both exposition and evocation of how touch – and lack of touch – is as much a cultural sense as it is physical, projecting Brakhage’s urge in Metaphors on Vision to recall the unknown “shades of green” which must be available to “the untutored eye” into the haptic realm. Its mixture of lyricism and science is echoed in Tran, T. Kim-Trang’s Alexia (video, USA, 2000), which examines the titular phenomenon of “word-blindness” through a series of allusive visual metaphors and texts. She did see… is a remarkable rumination on media images of the war in Yugoslavia, using a text by William Gibson to deconstruct (in the strict sense of the term) the possibility of representing the experience of war through media. Finally, the Bureau of Inverse Technology’s BIT Plane is a hilarious and unsettling “observation” of California’s Silicon Valley to “view the source and progress of the Information Age.” Grotty black and white video images taken from the nose of a small radio-controlled plane invading the (restricted) airspace of the Valley accompanies a voiceover which analyses, in deadpan, social-scientific language, the ironies of power inscribed in the suburban topography of the region.

This brief review merely scratches the surface of some of the exceptional films, videos, and installations on view at Media City 7. At a time when the death of cinema and art is prophesied (or already lamented), the profusion and interest of the work on display at this Festival suggests that the underground is not dead – we may just need to venture out of the centres of cultural capital to smaller urban satellites to get back in touch with it.

About The Author

Michael Zryd teaches Film Studies at the University of Western Ontario, and writes on documentary and experimental/avant-garde film.