New Fangled Old Things: Views from the Avant-Garde 2012by Felix Bernstein
At this year’s Views from the Avant-Garde section of the New York Film Festival, multiple generations of artists addressed the overlapping concerns of the essential media of moving image work, artistic control, the burden of the archival, and the seemingly endless contesting of what is old and what is new.
One of the highlighted features by a veteran maker, Jeff Preiss’s STOP, represents an epic attempt to analytically synthesize the archive’s surplus. With its extreme elision and condensation, his accomplishment makes a striking contrast to the social media approach to posting and saving everything. (The intensity with which Brakhage documented the lives of his children is rendered banal by the advent of the Facebook timeline.) Preiss’s expressive approach to editing is an even greater contrast to the work of contemporary artists, from Vanessa Place’s conceptual poetry to the aptly titled “New Aesthetic” of young Internet artists, who create a Warholian mise en abyme that reflects the archive’s excess without offering satisfactory synthesis.
“Circles of Confusion,” the first group screening, showcased different attempts to control the excess generated by sensory pleasure, the archive, and spatial chaos. In Two Couplets, Lewis Klahr ingeniously manipulated the audience’s affective relation to the imagery through the use of a sonic Kuleshov effect: the same stop-motion images are shown multiple times with different scores. One feels sweetly warm when hearing “Moon River” but downright depressed when hearing “A House is Not a Home.” Like all of his films, Two Couplets presents familiar cultural imagery, mostly culled from 1950s comics, in humorously disorienting juxtapositions. But unlike his earlier more crowd-pleasing work, exemplified by Altair (1995), Couplets incorporates many half-finished, broken, sketches to create a more heartbreakingly fragile work. Portland indie artist Matt McCormick debuted his Interstitial series of shorter-than-three-minute videos that match minimal single-shot landscapes with dramatic music. This interesting concept, created with the curator in mind to serve as buffer between longer short films, failed in its execution. Despite his reputable career as a music video director for bands like The Shins, McCormick exploits the effect of sound-image association far less fruitfully than Klahr.
In Ericka Beckman’s film Tension Building, spaces both modeled and real, filmed in stop-motion and live-action, were highly controlled and manipulated via her unfastened camera and brilliant editing, giving the comical illusion of gliding through space at inhuman rates of speed and occasionally bumping into the wall (this being marked by the sound of drum). Peggy Ahwesh’s new work, Collections, superbly tackles both the space of a museum and her own personal archives by using her own pictures of artworks in Russian museums as material for her video. Ahwesh has said she wants to treat her own archival material like found footage, which coincides with a growing need to manage the surplus of digital material held in an ever-expanding internet. Here, she compresses a load of still digital photos into a fast paced four-minute work with an intensity similar to that of Jan Svankmajer’s stop-motion romp through The Ossuary (a Roman Catholic chapel full of human bones). Ahwesh’s unfastened camera allows us to circle space at a speed our human eyes would never allow. She gives wacky animation to the dry fixity of High Russian Art and shows a universe within which “meteors, suns, comets, and planets rush endlessly” (Malevich, as quoted by Ahwesh).
This program highlighted a persistent contrast at Views between a new generation of experimental filmmakers (Michael Robinson and Matt McCormick), a slightly older one (Ahwesh, Klahr, Beckman), and the even older masters (Peter Kubelka). The current tension between young and old in avant-garde film can be traced to Fred Camper’s theory that avant-garde film died in 1966 when the masters, like Stan Brakhage, started teaching. But in 1989 Tom Gunning celebrated new avant-garde films precisely for the turn away from the masters, putting forward the Minor Cinema exemplified by filmmakers like Ahwesh and Klahr. Then in 2000, Ed Halter wrote in the New York Press that Views From the Avant-Garde paid homage only to the fading oldies, neglecting the new work appearing at microcinemas. And now, at the Whitney Biennial 2012, the micro cinema/minor cinema aesthetic has been institutionally recognized: Halter and Thomas Beard (co-heads of in the Brooklyn microcinema Light Industry) curated the film program. The new has become at least slightly older.
The latest new is best represented by Michael Robinson, a young filmmaker featured in the Biennial and Views, who closed “Circles of Confusion” with his well-funded film, Circles in the Sand, which is set “in the near future, amidst the aftermath of civil war,” and features “a band of female prisoners ambles across an otherworldly coastal exile, supervised and sorted by a group of idle soldiers.” Robinson who is well-known for his humorous, campy, and engaging works of media collage, serves him well in this lengthy narrative, allowing him to smoothly mix together highly contrasting styles: the post-apocalyptic dystopia of Leslie Thornton’s Peggy and Fred series; the sparse landscapes of Antonioni; the surrealism of Maya Deren and David Lynch; the campy antics of Jack Smith; and the hushed serenity of Kelly Reichardt.
How does a filmmaker reconcile all of these many threads of influence? How do filmmakers get to establish themselves as new, young, and hip in the jaded world of the avant-garde? Robinson proposes an answer in a poetic subtitle repeatedly shown throughout the film: “We destroy everything to start anew.” Likewise, the young women in the film rediscover old trinkets of American culture, washed up on the beach, as if they were new: CDs, People magazines, glue-on nails, and blue eye shadow all become foreign objects to be rediscovered and played with. Robinson’s destroying of knowledge is a paradoxically creative act: breaking free from the circles of control over the archive, he creates something altogether new. Or, at least, that is the sort of fiction that the avant-garde thrives on, allowing Robinson to carve his swerve onto the pattern of avant-garde revolutions. This repetitive fort/da game of claiming that a given medium (16mm filmmaking) or sensibility (avant-garde film) is dead or alive, forgotten/revivified/ substituted/replaced or transcendent/relevant/current, creates a powerful illusion of omniscient control for critics and artists alike.
Few have performed an avant-garde funeral more convincingly than Austrian avant-garde legend Peter Kubelka, who was featured in Martina Kudlácek’s documentary Fragments of Kubelka, and who ended Views with the display of his latest and final work, Monument Film (an extension of his classic 1960 flicker Arnulf Rainer) plus a speech on the death of cinema. Kubelka may very well be the last true master avant-garde filmmaker in the vein of Brakhage. His age, experience, charm, and intellect give force to his argument that digital filmmaking is sacrilegious: what cultured man would prefer Times Square to the warm fuzziness of an old film showing? (Adding insult to Kubelka’s injury: Electronic Arts Intermix actually screened tapes from their collection on a billboard in Times Square.) But Kubelka’s argument is unsuitable for those of us who take exception to his claim that our relationship to digital is more simulated and less tangible than was earlier generations’ relation to film. Paradoxically, Kubelka’s event was more than a funeral; it was also a birthday (he debuted a new film and encouraged a new set of desires). This doubleness does more than cheekily deconstruct the opposition between death and life. It illustrates a profound psychological conundrum: in his compulsive need to preserve the medium-specificity of his desire, he must entomb his object (film) in death, forever denying the polyamorous flexibility of his desire and the mutability of his object.
But if Kubelka is right and film’s hard core of realness cannot be touched, preserved, or translated, that is to say, digitized, what then will come of the void that it leaves behind? Hopefully, it will be filled by a love of old and new alike that matches the fetishistic intensity of Kubelka’s preference for film. Rather than dooming our desires to vanish with digital video, we should be excited to watch them cathect to a newly “real” thing, whether that thing is a new-fangled old thing (Jennifer Reeves, Tacita Dean, and Luther Price have all ecstatically revived film’s relevance), or a new-fangled new thing (the celebrated videos of Robinson, Ryan Trecartin, and old timer Ken Jacobs are just tips of the digital iceberg).
If the political potentialities of particular technologies are especially ripe at their dawn (digital) and their demise (film), then this point in time should be rife with Benjaminian radicalism. But instead, a critique can be leveled that contemporary media art seems to be marked by complacent efforts to valorize nostalgia for cinema’s past (film) and future (digital). This “failure” may be the result of a stifling pressure for the artist to work both with and against her technology/medium, to master it better than anyone else, and destroy it just as well. There must be an allowance made for this sort of aporia if there is to be any movement forward.
Felix Bernstein is the author of Notes on Post-Conceptual Poetry (Insert Blanc Press) and Burn Book (Nightboat, forthcoming). His writing has been featured in Bomb, the Believer, Poetry Magazine, and Hyperallergic. His performance Bieber Bathos Elegy will debut at the Whitney in January 2016. His website is felixbernstein.com.