Valie Export

This is an edited version of a lecture delivered by Valie Export at “The Essential Frame – Austrian Independent Film 1955–2003”, a two-day program of screenings and talks on Austrian independent filmmaking curated by Mark Webber and held in London, May 31–June 1 2003.

“Expanded cinema”, i.e. the expansion of the commonplace form of film on the open stage or within a space, through which the commercial-conventional sequence of filmmaking – shooting, editing (montage), and projection – is broken up, was the art-form that I chose in the mid-1960s when I realised that the course of my life would lead me through the history of art. During this period I had already completed a course of study in painting, and it was clear to me that I would turn towards the image, but this linage would be the living, expanded one. I had been particularly impressed during my student years by cubism, constructivism, and futurism, and thus with the form and extension of artistic expression in(to) space, and the related element, time; the interconnection between light and movement, processes that irritated my educated way of seeing; and above all the image, and an “actionist” method for dealing with the image. Later I made feature films, to the extent that the situation – and by this I mean the financial situation – allowed it, but in all of my films there occur elements of the film medium that I have won through my own experiences with, and deliberations on, expanded cinema. I always see film as a sculpture that, for me, has varying levels of ways of observing it.

I have found a way to continue expanded cinema in my physical performances in which I, as the centrepoint for the performance, position the human body as a sign, as a code for social and artistic expression.

Today, expanded cinema is the electronic, digital cinema, the simulation of space and time, the simulation of reality. The expanded cinema of the 1960s, as part of the alternative or independent cinema, was an analysis carried out in order to discover and realise new forms of communication, the deconstruction of a dominant reality. Expanded Cinema must also be seen within the context of the development of the political situation in the ’50s and ’60s – on the one hand, in the revolts of the student movement that waged an attack against dominant oppressive state power, and, on the other, in the artistic developments of this period that sought a new definition of the concept of art. Its aesthetic was aimed at making people aware of refinements and shifts of sensibility, the structures and conditions of visual and emotional communication, so as to render our amputated sense of perception capable of perception again. It was a matter of abolishing old, outdated aesthetic values.

The bankruptcy of European culture in 1945, the attempt to jump over the graves of 25 years of political darkness and to find a connection with the avant-garde movements of the 1920s and the avant-garde that had been exiled left their imprint on the efforts of the artistic groups of the postwar period. While the majority of the European population turned blithely toward a purely economic project of restoration, groups of artists and intellectuals attempted to uncover the foundations of European crisis and culture, and to find new constellations by connecting with oppressed and forgotten movements in art and thought, from Dada to Surrealism, from linguistic philosophy to constructivism. This mood also redefined concepts of cinema and film.

In 1916, Marinetti, Analdo Ginna, Giacomo Balla, Bruno Corra, Emilio Settimelli, and Remo Chiti wrote, in the manifesto “Futurist Cinema”, that

cinema is an autonomous art, one must face the cinema as an expressive medium in order to make it the ideal instrument of a new art, immensely vaster and lighter than all existing arts. It must become deforming, impressionistic, synthetic, dynamic, free-thinking. We are convinced that only in this way can one reach the poly-expressiveness toward which all the most modern artistic research is moving.

The rediscovery and incorporation of modern linguistic philosophy, psychoanalysis, modern music, etc, served as nourishment for (re)building a culture that had been destroyed. The period of the 1950s and 1960s was a segment of history marked by artistic innovation and political provocation. Young artists ransacked antique shops and archives to find spiritual nourishment beyond the groundwork that had been laid waste. The purpose of these innovations and provocations was to break out of traditional artistic representations, the inclusion of reality as a means of expression and to overstep the limits of individual artistic categories vis-à-vis one another such as language, painting, film, and theatre. Art is brought radically into question so as to bring artistic thought and intention to new forms for communication. In 1966, Stan Vanderbeek wrote in Film Culture‘s “Expanded Arts” edition: “Everything expands, in all directions, there is a interconnection between all of the arts, literally between them all, and this is what it is about. I mean, let’s say that art and life really should be one, and let’s see what happens if we really make them one.”

Expanded cinema is, as Birgit Hein writes, “not a stylistic concept, but rather a general indicator for all works that go beyond the individual film projection.” It means multiple projections, mixed media, film projects, and action films, including the utopia of “pill” films and cloud films. “Expanded cinema” also refers to any attempts that activate, in addition to sight and hearing, the senses of smell, taste, and touch. Nicolaus Beaudin spoke in 1921 of a poly-level poetry which transmits the poetic synchronism of thoughts and sensations as a kind of film with images, smells, and sounds.” In the mid-1920s, Moholy-Nagy had suggested rippling screens in the form of landscapes of hills and valleys, movable projectors, apparatuses that made it possible “to project illuminated visions into the air, to simultaneously create light sculptures on fog or clouds of gas or on giant screens.”

The concept of “expanded cinema” was established in Europe in the mid-1960s within the context of the far-reaching movement of Expanded Arts and is a part of the structural film inquiry which grappled above all with the foundations of the medium.

In Expanded Cinema, the film phenomenon is initially split up into its formal components, and then put back together again in a new way. The operations of the collective union which is film, such as the screen, the cinema theatre, the projector, light and celluloid, are partially replaced by reality in order to install new signs of the real. The cinematic image is freed from its traditional image character through the exchangeability and simulation of its signifiers. The filmic artwork was no longer understood only in its symbolic expression, but replaced by signs of the real; the media-technical separation of image and sound was transformed into reality. Sound was no longer a trace applied to the image material, but originated in the gasps in front of the microphone. The figures were not created on celluloid, but through holes in the celluloid; the breasts were no longer a sign on the screen, but were themselves the screen. The mission of the Futurists was fulfilled in the multimedia, intermedia activities of Expanded Cinema under the motto of the expanded concept of art. It made it possible to engage individually in every element of the collective form “cinema” to re-form and re-interpret context in such a way that not only the apparative art is liberated from the confining mechanism; rather, it also frees image-connected thought from its constraints. The Expanded Cinema, which can also be referred to as the liberated cinema, is part of the tradition of liberated sound whose project was initiated at the turn of the century. Expanded cinema is a collage expanded around time and several spatial and medial layers, which, as a formation in time and space, breaks free from the two-dimensionality of the surface.

The intermedia techniques, the destruction and abstraction of the material, as well as the film projection and participation of the audience, were among the prerequisites of the expanded cinema.

Valie Export and Peter Weibel

In 1967, Peter Weibel and I developed our “Expanded Cinema” in Vienna. We examined the relationship between reality and the apparatus that registered it. The media of expression and representation were themselves brought into this discourse. The expansion of our film work proceeded initially from the material concept; thus the “illusion” film was transformed into the material film, and in this way the foundations of the film medium were reflected. Film was brought back once again to its value as a medium, liberated from any linguistic character which it had taken on in the course of its development. The formal arrangement of the elements of film, whereby elements are exchanged or replaced by others – for example, electric light by fire, celluloid by reality, a beam of light by rockets – had an effect which was artistically liberating and yielded a wealth of new possibilities, such as film installations and the film-environment. In the production of the film medium, celluloid is only one aspect that could (also) be deleted. Instead of the projected image, the film strip itself can become a site for expanding the medium and, consequently, if the celluloid becomes a filmic image as material rather than through projection, a transparent PVC-foil, held before one’s eyes, can supply the desired image, since if the user projects his own image of the world onto the foil, he sees the world in accordance with his-own image. This was the “Instant Film” that I invented together with Peter Weibel. We wrote the following about it in 1968:

“Instant Film” is a meta-film that reflects the system of film and reality. After the development of instant coffee and instant milk, we have finally succeeded in inventing the “instant film”, which is screen, projector, and camera in one. Assembling them is a matter for the viewer. He can hang the foil at home on his own four walls, on four screens, or on different coloured backgrounds, he can place the foil in front of an object and in such a way design his own collage. A foil which has been prepared with scissors, cigarettes, etc., supplies at any given moment “vistas” or “insights”, “views” directed inwards or outwards.

In any case, the axiom that “film requires celluloid” was destroyed, just as the axiom, “film is dependent on the screen” was repudiated, since the represented object – such as furniture, a field, an animal or man – can itself become a projection surface, which is perceived by the subject, and the environment centered by the camera is projected onto the subject itself. The film itself can be completed by the life action of the filmmaker.

In my 1968 film, Auf+Ab+An+Zu, not only was the celluloid painted on, but so was the screen. The materials used were a paper screen, drawing utensils, and the pattern film. Instead of technical reproduction into infinity and through celluloid, there was a shift in production to a new sense of time. Only portions of the projected image were visible on the screen; the remainder was painted over in black on the celluloid and was supplemented with drawings on the screen. In a circular movement, the inked-over part of the celluloid wanders over the screen; the portion which is thereby freed is again supplemented by the actor. The initial starting point is finally reached again, where the completed drawing could now be seen as image. This film is a learning film, an excursion into painting, a rejection of painting; it is an echo of the cubist desertion of painting. Space is conceptualised as a moment of time. In that the camera circles around the reflected image and transfixes all sides of a body into one and the same place – namely, the screen – an overlapping of static images results. The emancipated viewer, who must take part in the production of the film in order for the film to be realised at all, uses the drawing pencil to supplement what has been painted over on the celluloid. The simultaneity of the projection and the montage which takes place on the screen rather than on the celluloid shows that montage is drawing. After the film is shot, montage; after the montage, the projection: so goes the rule. Any attack on this rule, on the continuity of the phases of production, robs the production companies of their conventional success. Here montage and projection take place simultaneously. The film is painted over, not glued together; in the end the strokes and lines of the reproduced reproduction remain within the projected square. Editing in film is the equivalent of painting; metric film editing that tries to capture time as music is an echo of painting.

The site of film is not the layer of emulsion on the celluloid, the screen, or the cinema screening room, but the system of signs.

Peter Weibel reinforced this point through his theoretical statement: “The ontological difference between the representation and the object becomes the point of departure and at the same time the identificatory transfer occurs again: the reflection and the object overlap one another in a newly arranged process – oriented presentation of the filmic media.” He demonstrated the identity of the representation and the object as the identity of the site in a performance in Vienna in 1967 in which he projected a film onto his own body. He said:

Whenever the site of the film is not the screen, houses can be projected again onto houses or bodies onto bodies, the representation and the object overlap one another, the representation and the celluloid become superfluous. Technical reproducibility is replaced by immediacy, and with this the objective character of the film is transcended; state-reality is not reproduced, but rather the subject and its experience predominate. The “world” is no longer simulated; rather, the possibility of producing “world” is demonstrated.

My/our works were/are always intended to be seen within the context of a social struggle, as an attack on state reality so as to destroy the limits of state reality and the traditional concept of art, for expanded cinema also means expanded reality. Transformed media produce a transformed world, and a world pressing toward transformation presses toward transformed media. Expanded cinema was not only an expansion of the scale of the optic phenomenon, but also was intended, in this phase, to do away with reality and with the language that construes it.

In my film Ping Pong (1968), a feature-length “Spielfilm” or film to be played, points appear on the screen in an alternating rhythm; the actor who stands before the screen must hit these points with a ping-pong paddle and ball. I wrote the following about it in 1968:

Independently of semantics, the relationship between the viewer and the screen is clear: stimulus and response. The aesthetic of the conventional film is a physiology of behavior, its means of communicating a phenomenon of perception. Ping Pong makes explicit the dominant relationships between the producer/director/screen and the consumer/viewer. What the eye tells the brain in this case is a release of motor reflexes and reactions. Ping Pong renders visible ideological relationships of domination. The viewer and the screen are partners in a game whose rules are dictated by the director, whose demand is that of making screen and viewer into a single unit of trade. To this extent, the consumer reacts actively. Nothing illustrates the dominant character of the screen more clearly as a medium to be manipulated by the director than this; no matter how much the viewer also enters into the game and plays with the screen, his status as a consumer is altered very little. The screen only appears to be a partner of equal value; the one who reacts is only the viewer, not the screen. The emancipation of the screen, which emancipates the viewer to become a producer, has not yet occurred; the viewer deals with the screen, and yet it does not react.

Here a film projection developed out of the function of the screen; the apparatus shifts between the image of reality and the experience of reality. Without the action of the viewer, the film remains incomplete. The intention is not that of achieving a psychic condition, but rather a direct experience of codification.

If the material itself is the experience, one also arrives at the thesis that “film without film”, i.e., without celluloid,” also originates an image in the examination of the film medium, its laws, its prerequisites. In accepting this thesis, the Viennese filmmaker Hans Scheugl made his film, ZZZ Hamburg Special, in 1968. The “film” consists of a strand of thread, which is run through the projector instead of celluloid, the shadow of which wanders back and forth on the screen in the form of dark stripes on the white-beamed screen by the projectionist. Scheugl wrote: “In this way the viewer is forced to think about whether the thread is really on film or whether it is really running through the projector. Thus an important requirement of intermedia is fulfilled: the creative input of the projectionist.”

Abstract Film No. 1

A year earlier, in 1967, I created the image on the screen through simultaneous real procedures in Abstract Film No. 1. The materials for this expanded movie were a mirror, water, thick and thin liquids, flashlights, and the screen. I wrote this about it in 1968:

Here abstract patterns are created by concrete materials; there is no differentiation between nature and sign. Technological effects are achieved using simple means. A flashlight shines on a mirror, over which the various liquids are poured. This phenomenon is projected onto the screen through the reflection of the projector light; abstract moving patterns are created. The image on the screen is the result of the traveling of the light, for we only see what the light transports. This is of course true of every film. The recourse to natural means such as water, light, and mirroring, the reduction to elements, and the departure from technology creates above all unexpected and yet fundamentally illuminating connections with minimal art, land art, art povera. The same phenomenon can also take place in nature; the projection surfaces here are nature’s screens.

After this came The Magic Eye, also made in 1969 together with Peter Weibel. The Magic Eye is an auto-generative screen that, through selenium cells, converts light and non-light into sound. The sound usually originates in the projector. In the light/sound process invented by Vogt and Engel between 1920 and 1930 – their optical sound film process, photographed sound – the sound frequency is transformed into corresponding light frequencies, which on their part influence the light – sensitive layer of a film strip that is run at a constant speed. When it is replayed, a beam of light is modulated by the frequencies of brightness indicated on the edge of the filmstrip. A photographic cell accepts the light frequencies, which, after having been appropriately amplified, control the loudspeakers. In The Magic Eye, the sound develops on the screen, since it is prepared with photo cells, relays, etc, so that the light creates the sound. As film, a film with abstract patterns is used; if it is dark, the sound is deep, if it is bright, the sound is high-pitched. Since, however, the gauging of the light value is not the composite of the entire surface, but rather an individual impulse of the diverse cells modified depending on the light that falls upon them, an intense sound collage develops. It is not the sound trace which supplies the fluctuations of brightness; rather, the projected film or the public itself or the lighting in the room, etc., create it themselves. To each film at each moment its own sound.

Emancipation from the industry is also possible through the subjectification of film, through the abandonment of the industrial standard of presentation. The human body becomes a skin screen. The modification of the projection surface tends to eradicate as much as possible the difference between the object and the sign, and to emphasise the reality of the medial character of the film vis-à-vis the reality outside the movie theatre. It shows us a way of undertaking contextual changes and expansions through the subject of the artist himself and thus also of the concept of the sign.

Tapp und Tast Kino

In Tapp und Tast Kino (Touch Cinema), which I made in 1968, I examined the breasts as a central theme within the film industry. The Tapp und Tast film is a street film, a mobile film and the first real women’s film. The performance takes place as usual, in the dark. Only the movie theatre has become somewhat smaller, there is room in it only for two hands. In order, to see the film, which means in this case to sense and feel it, the “viewer” must put both hands through the entranceway to the theatre. Thus the curtains which previously had been drawn up only for the eyes is also finally raised for the hands.

Tactile reception counteracts the fraud of voyeurism. In state-sanctioned cinema, they sit in the dark and see how two people make it with each other, and they themselves are not seen. In Tapp und Tast Kino, social prescriptions are no longer obeyed; the intimate sphere of what the state permits is forced open into public space. Since the consumer can be anyone – child, man, woman – – it is an unveiled intrusion into the taboo of homosexuality; the morality of state prescriptions, the state, family, property, is exploded. For as long as the citizen remains satisfied with a reproduced copy of sexual freedom, the state will be spared a sexual revolution.

As Metz writes, for classical film theory, “film is the product of photography and the phonograph, i.e., of both of the modern technologies of mechanical doubling.” In the conventional debates on film, the concept of similarity, of analogy, is defined not so much through sensuous experience, i.e., through an individual category, but much more through abstract identification, through re-recognition as a necessary condition of communication – i.e., through a social category. If one consciousness wants to communicate with another, and this communication is filmically coded; if reference is made to a process of analogy, an analogy is required that does not produce the subjective experience that would be one of freedom and fantasy, but rather through a process that constitutes social communication: identification. Identification means that, through the construction of a conceptual system that everyone can relate to equally, the reactions of the users of this system are predictable and controllable.

Identification is a process of the adaptation of consciousness to a concept that can be a concept for everyone. Sociological models are reinforced in the cinema. Yet film, photography and the phonograph are not mechanical replications, but extensions and expansions of our structures of time and space, of our experiential structures, of our interpersonal communication – they are expansions of our reality and our independent consciousness. Voices address different places at different times, the past is made visible, space and time can be transported, spaces and times, hierarchies and values disappear. In a total art, the boundaries between artificial and natural reality, between actual and possible reality, between the products and the producers, between man and object are transcended. Gene Youngblood writes in his book on Expanded Cinema: “Today when one speaks of cinema, one implies a metamorphosis in human perception. Just as the term “man” is coming to mean man/plant/machine, so the definition of cinema must be expanded to include videotronics, computer science, and atomic light.” This was written in 1970.

The forms of strategy in the ’60s and ’70s that were internationally and nationally dominant continued into the 1980s in multi-media performances, by expanding and adapting the electronic media. The electronic cinema bids farewell to the commercial fairy tale of film as mimesis, for in the electronic film, the image has no place: it occupies space.

About The Author

Austrian-born Valie Export is an artist, independent filmmaker, and theoretician who has created works in a variety of media, including documentary and narrative film, video, performance, photography, installation, sculpture, and drawing.