A Future to Want
I am too young to have ever known an avant-garde with a future. The 10 years during which I have paid serious attention to experimental film have unfolded as an extended funeral procession after the death of cinema. In the 1990s, it was easy to mock the haughty proclamations of cinema’s demise as so much ungrounded abstraction. But now that the Internet is finishing the job that television started, one cannot help but feel that, as a cultural system, it is cinema itself that is the distant abstraction.
In 1989, Tom Gunning famously celebrated the advent of an aleatory, self-consciously marginal, and unheroic “minor cinema.” Following a series of vicious—and ultimately petty—squabbles over the future of the avant-garde, an undogmatic cinema of particularity seemed to offer a way forward. Gunning applied the term to the work of a small handful of young filmmakers, but today, looking back to survey the 25 years of experimental film that have unfolded since, and passing one’s eyes over the present to crane to the future, it’s hard to see anything but minor cinema stretching forwards and backwards all the way to each horizon.
Some of the advantages of this situation are obvious. Minor cinema has done away with the excesses of the dueling Romantic and Modernist impulses that structured the mid-century avant-garde, and has allowed for a lively and ecumenical context for a much broader array of styles and themes. But what Gunning located was not just a set of new impulses shared by the era’s most promising filmmakers, it was the diminished role that avant-garde film would have to accept as movies took an increasingly smaller role in our culture—and consequently in the formation of subjectivities and ideology. The “cinema of the Concept” to which Gunning opposed minor cinema stood for more than just the risible pretensions of would-be geniuses and revolutionaries. It was the necessary product of working within a cultural form whose centrality ensured that aesthetic and political choices had significant and widespread consequences.
The attenuation of these consequences is what has made for avant-garde film’s final rapprochement with the art world. Increasingly decadent and useless, film and video can be easily assimilated into a context whose stakes are made by little more than delirious financial speculation, 11th-dimensional Bourdieuvian distinction games, and shadow boxing politics. A final integration with the art world is one future for the cinematic avant-garde, the most probable one, but who contents themselves to a fate that promises nothing more than a beautiful mausoleum?
Since the turn of the millennium, many of the most exciting films and videos produced under the auspices of either the art world or the avant-garde cinema proper have been those that draw rhythms, affects, and concerns from the Internet: Ryan Trecartin, Laure Prouvost, Shana Moulton, and Michael Robinson are only the most obvious names that come to mind. For a while, this kind of work—ludic, irresponsible, and gleefully nihilistic in the manner that once typified message boards, hacker culture, and net art and which have come to inform the aesthetic of much native Internet video—offered an antidote to the dreary solemnity and willful antiquarianism of the official avant-garde’s romanticism.
Now that the attitudes and styles that once belonged to small, novel subcultures have come to define the dominant culture, not only in leisure but work as well, an aesthetic that once seemed to assume a potentially critical overidentification with technology has come to look more like the dreary affirmation of all that exists. It is now clear that networked communications represent a graver, more implacable threat than Hollywood ever did. To be worth anything at all, a moving image avant-garde must address itself to the criticism, subversion, and transcendence of the social relations and subjectivities structured by networked technology.
The other currents have defined the avant-garde cinema in the age of the Internet—the renewal of the essay film, the ascent of “slow cinema,” and the dogged persistence of the romantic sublime—will not suffice. They are reactionary developments, providing a refuge from the wider world, but suggesting no better way to live in it. The only avant-garde that deserves to survive will neither reify nor entirely disavow the temporalities and interfaces of the network, but form in dialectical opposition to them. To have a future of more than mere survival, the moving image avant-garde must begin to imagine one worth wanting.
COLIN BECKETT has contributed film reviews to the Brooklyn Rail since 2011. He lives in Los Angeles.