OtherFilm Festival

March 24–27, 2006
Globe Theatre & Queensland College of Art/Griffith University, Brisbane

Though still a relatively recent activity, working with the moving image in the digital age has a history. This record resides in an evolving cultural process of looking [that Bacon identifies above]. It can also be referenced back to that non-narrative tradition of the moving image that runs through experimental film and video production. Although that is a practice that has become problematic in Australian conditions, an experimental / “avant-garde” tradition of film and video art continues internationally to offer critical ways of articulating the human condition, especially at those margins at which such an oppositional practice itself tends to be situated… (1)

At a time when the nation’s advocacy institutions for creative media have largely abandoned screen-based practice – a week ago the Director of ANAT defined “new media” in exclusive opposition to “the cinema” – Brisbane’s OtherFilm Festival speaks to the continuing advances made by artists engaging with moving image media. (2) And why not? Animation for mobile phones is one thing, but the pre-eminent vehicle for the cultural values of international capitalism is still screen-based media. Far from advocating some form of “new traditionalist” luddism, the most exciting contemporary works at OFF were often those that achieved a synthesis of both new digital, and more familiar analogue means. I suspect that rather than replacing old media platforms, the new media simply extend and elaborate on a historical practice. The oppositions of Cartesian logic are what’s really obsolete – not the production of experimental media for cinema projection.

As proof of this later contention, I advance the audience figures for the second OFF: strong, at roughly 100 people each night. Brisbane is bucking international trends – the venue for Friday and Saturday’s OFF events is a recently opened repertory cinema. The presence at the opening night of Anne Demy-Geroe, Artistic Director of the Brisbane International Film Festival, provides one elliptical explanation for this puzzling surfeit of avid screen media enthusiasts. Locally, Demy-Geroe has done more than anybody to nurture this particular creative community; an artist like Jo Musgrave (Botborg) speaks of the revelatory import of past BIFF programs, like Mark Webber’s SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT survey of the London Filmmaker’s Coop. But some years prior even to BIFF’s inauguration, Demy-Geroe and Bruce Hodgson curated the “Qld Images” survey, which placed early work by experimental filmmakers, Arthur and Corrine Cantrill in the context of other local short- and long-form filmmaking. If the audiences now are not extravagantly huge, ultimately the more important criteria is that the assembled crowd engaged so sympathetically with the works being screened and performed.

Brisbane enjoys a long and secret history of this filmmaking practice; indeed, the Cantrills began their career here more than four decades back. Another significant but misremembered artist, the catalytic Janelle Hirst, co-founded a string of artist-run exhibition and performance spaces, magazines, and other interventions through the 1980s (I projected some of her home-developed super8 films at the first screening I curated in Brisbane for the IMA; she provided an elliptical catalogue note, then turned up on the night with a battered suitcase of unruly celluloid spaghetti. Hirst’s legacy is particularly worthy of revisit; a number of local artists who work in film cite her as inspiration or mentor).

OFF is helmed by the curatorial trio of Sally Golding, Joel Stern and Danny Zuvela, themselves accomplished mediaworkers. Their program gathers work by veteran artists like Dirk De Bruyn, and the duo of Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, and places it within a survey of contemporary Australian moving image practice. International guests this year were The Rejuvenation Loops (Sam Parks and Eve Hamilton) from New Zealand. The scope of the Festival is extensive – justifiably so – but not exhaustive; many absent artists, like Robin Fox, or David Haines and Joyce Hinterding, would have found natural peers among those who did present work at OFF. But, to the curators’ tremendous credit, the quality of the work screened and presented this year was of a near-uniform high calibre – a rare thing in any art festival, let alone one dedicated to experiments in moving image.

One of the OFF’s most important functions within Australian screen culture is its engagement with the secret history of this country’s creative media practice. This is a mission which absolutely mandates dedicated institutional support: existing institutions of national screen culture have performed very poorly in this respect. That failure is arguably due to some bitterly internecine (and from my remove, what frankly seem to be fairly infantile) squabbles over conflicting career and corporate agendas. Even now, at a time when most of the principal protagonists in those disputes have left the field, this history is a delicate matter – but it will speak to the maturity of our national culture when some reckoning is finally made with it.

Through the early ‘90s it seemed very much that federal funding bodies were directing, by fiat, a shift towards digital media. In a real sense this simply reflected material realities (e.g. the then-contemporary apocrypha of a Tokyo Canon warehouse, full of Super8 cameras and projectors; apparently management excavated the vacant lot next door, then bulldozed all the film equipment into the hole, before restocking the warehouse shelves with new video gear). Unfortunately this tabula rasa renovation of creative media culture has often promoted sub-MTV digital graphics over any engagement with a rich legacy of artist’s filmmaking and experimental cinema.

This revision of funding imperatives was accompanied by a shift from screen exhibition of creative media, towards exhibition and installation in gallery spaces. Those shifts aren’t neutral; they were worthy of contestation, and in some quarters led to some fairly acrimonious infighting. But the ultimate and regrettable outcome was the near-complete occlusion of traditions of artist’s intervention in moving image media, and some aesthetically impoverished work in newer media. Dirk De Bruyn addressed precisely this “Terra Nullius” approach to digital media at last year’s Vital Signs conference, and it goes some way to explaining the Australia Council’s decision to compound earlier policy mistakes by dismantling the New Media Arts Board.

Expanded Cinema performance

To be honest, the Cantrills are preceded by an indifferent reputation – which is perhaps a product of their engagement in precisely those fractious internecine conflicts. But that’s as maybe to those of us at OFF – if we know the Cantrills at all, it’s as the editors and publishers of the world’s longest lived journal on experimental film, Cantrill’s Filmnotes. Given that the Cantrills were on the losing side of those policy debates, it’s significant that their work should now provide the most profound revelation of the festival. The reprise of their Expanded Cinema performance, originally produced for the National Gallery of Victoria in 1970, is simply the most accomplished Australian experimental cinema I’ve ever seen. For the vast majority of this work’s audience at OFF, most of whom I would guess to be some 40 or 50 years younger than the Cantrills, this work disclosed all the excitement and utopian possibility of a now largely forgotten era in Australian filmmaking – a time when the physical limits of the cinema exhibition experience were being tested just as much as those of the celluloid filmstrip. On the evidence of this work, the Cantrills deserve a stature in Australian arts and letters somewhere near to our adopted son, Percy Grainger. This claim will surprise some readers, and to be honest I would not have made it before seeing this work, but if you haven’t seen it then you simply don’t have any idea of how rich a film history this nation possesses.

The Expanded Cinema performance utilised both single and multiple projectors, a succession of coloured, textured, and sculptural 3-D screens, accompanied by both electroacoustic music, field recordings, and some spirited declamation: all of it highly choreographed. The 16 films the Cantrills projected, most of no more than a few minutes, run a gamut from optical abstraction and flash-frame edits to direct animation. Across less than 90 minutes, the work describes the possibilities of cinema in the most compelling possible fashion. The Cantrills’ figurative visual concerns reinforce the formal qualities of this work: closely investigating landscape and environment, an autumnal “New Albion” pastoralism of 1960s Britain and an eidetic barrage of grey-scale urban Melbourne.

Of course, reprising a work like this – which is both a function of its time, and a response to the social context of that earlier era – involves a kind of danger. That danger is compounded by a prevailing tendency in some contemporary experimental cinema; an “inauthentic” nostalgia that seeks to recover illusionist and materialist practice of the past, without making any reckoning with concrete material realities of then or now. OFF provides a possibility of placing works within an historical schema, but might still be prone to the long-standing reductivist predisposition of Australian creative media culture, avoiding any explicit engagement with the political sphere; something that I suspect distinguishes Australian media arts even now, and probably alone among Western national cultures.

Memorium

Another veteran film artist, Dirk de Bruyn, provided his expanded cinema epiphany several years back in company of composer Warren Burt, for Eamon Sprod’s Difficult Listening series at the Melbourne Musician’s Union. De Bruyn was represented at the second OFF by Memorium (previously shown under the title Amygdala, 2005); originally commissioned for screening at the Meredith Music Festival with live accompaniment from a duo of Rod Cooper and Sean Baxter, now scored by Brisbane’s Lost Domain. Lost Domain, a long-standing Brisbane institution that once essayed a brut variety of restoration-era fife-and-drum band under the name The Invisible Empire (with “non-sexist organ”), provided a motoric rock improvisation that, at its best, perfectly matched the visual rhythms of de Bruyn’s frenetic re-filmed footage, optical printing, and scratch animation. The last part of Memorium’s quaternary structure explicates the title: its de Bruyn’s interrogation of one kind of personal, familial history. The work visibly profits by being informed both by the filmmaker’s other career, as a social worker, and theories of self-empowerment and direct action, which de Bruyn seems to poetically dramatise in so many of his works. Like the Cantrills, de Bruyn has produced a formidable catalogue of works, but all too rarely screened for popular audiences. These artists are merely the most prominent elevations of a still-submerged media archaeology – a tremendous amount of local work remains to be recovered for public audition.

This kind of collusion in creative activities in both sound and image highlights the elective affinities that have long existed between moving image-makers and experimental musicians. By now it should be apparent that the audience for “new music” and the audience for experimental media is often the same. The same kinds of para-linguistic structural models seem to be worked through in both these areas of sensate investigation, something Stan Brakhage was acutely sensitive to some decades back (we await the Chomsky who can authoritatively refine this idea, to account for human neurological structure). This goes some way to explaining why the nation’s flagship experimental music festivals – What Is Music?, Liquid Architecture, the Now Now, Articulating Space – have all successfully accommodated creative screen activities as a matter of course. This is the recent legacy of experimental synaesthesia upon which OFF is elaborating, but in its privileging of visual media it also harkens back to the kinds of immersive environments – involving experimental film, lightshows, and live music – created by the Ubu group and others in the 1960s and ‘70s.

This kind of practice is also important for describing a new model of creative media, as a collaborative activity which extends the same importance to sonic as to visual information – and in this respect, digital media are significant for having placed a more sophisticated production apparatus at the disposal of small audio-vision ensembles. The wealth of information provided to the auditor in these works exemplifies what Australian Composer, and co-Curator of the Articulating Space concert series and Festival, Anthony Pateras, has identified as “maximalism”. Internationally, an example might be Un Deux Trois Crepuscule (Felix Dufour-Laperrière, Canada, 2006) – as very fine as the visuals are, it seems arbitrary to accord them any more importance than the sound in the final immersive substance of the work. Locally, the Cantrills have already described another kind of precedent for this mode of practice; problematising the whole notion of sole author attribution upon which Western art has historically resided.

Other examples at this year’s OFF included “performed cinema” works by audio-vision ensembles Abject Leader, Pride and Prejudice, Vanilla, Botborg, and The Rejuvenation Loops; a kind of apotheosis is achieved in the collective cacophony which accompanies the audience’s hand-processed footage on the final night. This last project resulted from the workshop overseen by Sydney filmmaker, Louise Curham, in company of OFF curator, Sally Golding. Curham’s work is virtually unique among contemporary abstract filmmaking due to its foregrounding of the fragility of the medium: the delicate poetry of her celluloid effacements has a discretion that is rare among artists exploring this variety of terminal cinema.

Completely at variance with this approach is the work of Brisbane duo, Botborg (Musgrave and Scott Sinclair). Botborg generate and modify feedback on a linked array of audio and video mixers, producing a barrage of kaleidoscopic geometric abstraction and squalling square waves that some auditors found frankly assaultive. While the coruscating intensity of the work is certainly demanding of its audience, it perfectly visualises one variety of “extreme noise” composition, and is beautifully contextualised among the other work at OFF.

Strange Hysteria

I have written elsewhere on several of the other works in the Festival, but one point seems worthy of restatement. Among the ensembles, Pride and Prejudice (Pia Borg and Mark Harwood), Vanilla (Van Sowerwine and Camilla Hannan) and Abject Leader are all explicating links to the primitive cinema, which might speak to formal possibilities which have always existed, but long been denied by those cinematic conventions which are serviced by the norms of commercial media. Borg’s work, in particular, I enjoy for its considered engagement with ideas on the levels of both metaphysics and material economy, both in her collaboration with Harwood, and her own filmmaking practice. On this occasion, Pride and Prejudice’s exploration of the uncanny found parallels to the recent work of sculptor, Patricia Piccinini, in its static life-size cut-out “protagonist”, but the action is in the matte projections by which that figure is framed. The dialectic is clearly articulated: the audience is reduced to a narcotic state, while the real life that occupies their attentions is a deathly simulacrum. Sally Golding (working with Joel Stern as Abject Leader; joined for their OFF performance by Adam Parks) has just completed her new film, A Strange Hysteria (Australia, 2006) – a stunning piece of work which makes confident application of all the experiments she’s explored in her performance activities to a more “conventionally” projected screenwork. This film, and the others that will follow, are the fruition of some of the multiple possibilities for contemporary cinema that the OtherFilm Festival has illuminated.

The OFF was fortunate to enjoy the use of the foyer and twin cinemas of the Globe Theatre, which hosted the Festival on each of the Friday and Saturday nights. The Globe exemplifies an early ‘70s trend for subterranean cinemas in the brutalist architectural style; renovations have been stylishly executed, with aquaria and plush red carpet. The foyer hosts works like Tara Cook’s Stuttering Equivalence, with its the telescoping examination of human form. Both nights the festival alternated between Cinema Two, with arrayed seating, as the site for the more conventionally projected works, and the open space of Cinema One, the open space of which advantaged “expanded” and more performative works, with the audience reclining comfortably on the carpet. Installation works are a little marginalised in the foyer, but also provided with the possibility of more concentrated audience attentions.

The work at OFF proceeds from a considered engagement with an international history of creative media. Most of the participants are working with a combine of analogue and digital technologies – choices that are governed by a simple aesthetic expedience that recognises the relative strengths and deficiencies of both celluloid and digital platforms. Obsolete technologies can seem to be the repose of eldritch uncanniness just as much as the new, but their particular unfamiliarity carries with it a displaced nostalgic charm. Ultimately, it seems fair to say that the OtherFilm Festival promotes a sensitivity to the possibilities of cinema as an art, as opposed to those industrial crafts that have always determined the normative forms of commercial filmmaking. The trend is international; in continental Europe it is long-standing, but the UK’s secret cinema e-mail list confirms the scope of activity around artist’s media in that country. The success of this year’s OtherFilm Festival demonstrates the intelligence and dedication with which such work is being undertaken on either side of the Tasman Sea.

The success of OFF also speaks to the thwarted possibilities of a previous era – precisely the period documented by experimental filmmaker Albie Thoms, in his “Polemics For a New Cinema”. (3) At that time when the Australian federal government was seriously considering the issue of state support for a national media culture, Thoms was among those both lobbying for a decentralised approach in aid of experimental media, and actively demonstrating the possibility of its economic viability through the activities of the Ubu film group and the Sydney Filmmakers’ Coop. Ultimately, the government chose a quite different course to what Thoms was suggesting, though by failing to adequately address the Vincent Report (on monopoly and foreign interests in the Australian cinema industry) they maintained the historical barrier to a sustainable commercial film industry. Thoms makes a fairly compelling case that a policy of government support for low-budget, creative filmmaking would be both economically sustainable, and provide us a unique national screen culture. Instead, successive governments have applied a model of state subsidy that crudely reproduced the prevailing chauvinism of the commercial film industry. The result is both a creative media culture that rarely aspires to more ambitious works, and a commercial industry that suffers the preclusion of formal experiment. Several decades on, I wonder if these same misplaced hierarchical assumptions aren’t also the misconceptions that inform statements like those of Dr Rackham.

I have one reservation – as much about Australian creative media culture generally, as about the OFF – and it is a substantial one. The 2nd OFF took place at a time when Australia is engaged in a foreign war which is condemned by a consensus of international and national opinion. The digital technologies, which are used by all of us at the festival, from mobile phones to laptops and data projectors, are implicitly contingent on a proxy imperial rapine of Central Africa (implicit, only because no-one has yet raised the issue of columbite-tantalite in our creative communities). In the 150th anniversary year of Australia first instituting the 8 hour day, the notion of “worker’s rights” is being radically dismantled by our federal government, in its pursuit of labour market flexibility. All these potential concerns were visibly absent from the works at OFF, as they typically are in all other aspects of contemporary Australian creativity. (4) This is a culture of immaturity, prone to aversion and denial. And this use of technology – whether of analogue or “new media” varieties – embodies a metaphysics that is ultimately apocalyptic in its conflation of the immanence and transcendence that it essays; sometimes it seems like nihilism packaged as hedonistic play.

(I had hoped that this piece might begin to account for an institutional history of creative media practice in Australia; some of it would certainly be “old news”, but as with films themselves, a reckoning with the past might support a better engagement with future possibilities. But, beyond what appears here, it just has to wait; the scale of that piece is potentially quite large, and probably deserving of a more dedicated investigation.)

Endnotes

  1. Dirk De Bruyn, “Old Tom, New Tom” [online] in Lyndal Jones, Pauline Anastasiou, Rhonda Smithies and Karen Trist (eds), Vital Signs: Creative Practice & New Media Now, RMIT Publishing, Melbourne, 2005, p. [14]. Availability: http://search.informit.com.au/documentSummary;dn=040712449412332;res=E-LIBRARY ISBN: 1921166118. [cited 07 Jul 06].
  2. Melinda Rackham, “Media Arts, an introduction”, presentation delivered at “[new] media art: viewing, exhibiting, touring” seminar, NETS Victoria/NGV 23 June 2006. This is arguably a rather naive and ill-informed statement that reveals a reductive understanding of both new media, and the cinema – for example, the precedent of Raduz Cincera’s Kino Automat for a whole range of interactive works – and fails to consider the considerable consonance between the primitive cinema and a range of more recent technologically-specific works.
  3. Albie Thoms, Polemics For A New Cinema, Wild & Wooley, Glebe, 1978.
  4. An exception might have been the performance by Dada Meinhof, which recapitulates familiar vérité footage (Twin Towers, petro-industry) via projections onto a stack of cardboard boxes. Approaching the political from a merely symbolic level, the imagery in this work was deprived of the substantive analysis it’s received in more documentary contexts; in the absence of allusively poetic resonance, to this viewer it seemed like a reflexive sophomore gesture. Ultimately, what I find disturbing is that the dedication and ingenuity which were so typically applied to elemental formal concerns at OFF were less often reflected in an engagement with anything approaching a consideration of immediate human experience. But perhaps this simply reflects a failure to advance beyond experimental film’s historical concern for phenomenological enquiry?

About The Author

Jim Knox has just quit his bread-job and promises to live by his wits (expect his standard of living to plummet accordingly). He freelances for ABC Radio National and writes liner notes for the Omni Recording Corporation CD label. He is Co-Curator of the Focus on Jim Henson (ACMI, September 2008) and, since 2003, manager of the Outlands Ecoplex cinema for the Meredith Music Festival and Golden Plains Festival. His most recent commission from the BFI is an essay on Jack Ellitt for a DVD-box of work by the GPO Film Unit. He is currently finishing his MA in media arts at RMIT University and the new animation is proceeding slowly...