In December 2006, a four day event, organised by Mark Webber at the Württembergischer Kunstverein, Stuttgart, examined European and American avant-garde cinema history from the 1960s to the present day. Recent and classic works by American structural filmmakers Michael Snow, Robert Morris and Tony Conrad were set alongside expanded cinema works first performed at the London Film-makers’ Co-op (LFMC) by mavericks such as Malcolm LeGrice, Gill Eatherley, Sally Potter, Lis Rhodes and William Raban. Viewed through the eyes of an artist who witnessed the rise of Glasgow’s neo-conceptual video art in the 1990s, this report gives an outsider’s view of the cultural legacy left by expanded cinema.
Expanded cinema can be seen as a live performance branch of the structuralist film movement of the 1960s. Structural film draws attention to the material of film and the mechanical features of the camera through the investigative use of zooms, pans, time lapse,stop motion animation, optical sound as well as in-camera editing.P Adams Sitney suggests the following characteristics to define American structuralist films—fixed camera positions, flicker effect,loop printing and re-photography. Expanded cinema added the film projector as a further resource to explore, ‘an unfixed mode of film presentation, encompassing multiple projection, live performance and film environments’. Expanded cinema then aimed to close the gaps between production and performance, audience and artist, thus firmly opposing the ‘narrative’ traits and illusions of commercial cinema. In this way, the expanded cinema movement, which still lives on, can be seen as a forerunner to the multi-screen video installations of the 1990s, but with its own distinct material concerns.
Malcolm LeGrice was a stalwart of the LFMC and one of the early pioneers of expanded cinema; his ‘Castle One’, 1966, is a fore runner to much contemporary video art, being comprised entirely of found footage. Culled from the bins outside Soho labs, political events are juxtaposed with a motivational mantra to successful enterprise (which could be a metaphor for the film making process)and images of industrial production, all drifting out of sync from their soundtracks. The expanded element in the work is the bare light bulb that hangs both physically in front of the screen and on celluloid. The light is switched on then off during the film, rupturing cinema’s spell. The foreign object brings about an awareness of the audience and our surroundings, perhaps in an early attempt to connect film to the external world.
Gill Eatherley’s triple screen projection ‘Pan Film’,1972,initially seems pretty mundane. Each screen shows the same looped sequence of a constant pan around a fairly unremarkable room. Eatherley then uses hands-on film processing techniques such as mirroring, inversion and re-printing to make something subtly disarming. At times, it seems like the pans are melting into each other, creating the illusion that the projection frames are physically converging. ‘Pan Film’, in common with Michael Snow’s classic ‘Wavelength’ and Butler and Mirza’s recent ‘Where A Straight Line Meets A Curve’, 2003, are all examples of the ‘room film’. Room films reflect the structuralist filmmaker’s interest in the recording of space, light and process over traditional cinema’s interest in location, character and plot. What’s important isn’t always what you put in front of the camera but the approach you take to shooting.Technique becomes substance.
‘I always felt like a loner, an outsider’, says Sally Potter, who filmed ‘Play’ in 1971. ‘I was probably more eclectic in my tastes than many of the English structural filmmakers, who took an absolute prescriptive position on film. Most of them had gone to Oxford and Cambridge and were terribly theoretical. I left school at 15’. (From an interview with Scott MacDonald, A Critical Cinema 3, 1988). Potter, in a similar trajectory to Peter Greenaway, began her career making experimental, structuralist films.
Potter’s film records six children, three pairs of twins, playing outside her window. Using two 16mm cameras and choreographic editing, she shoots one window in black and white, the other in colour. The film is then projected in the same way it was filmed with the demarcating space between the window/film frames, acting as a fascinating cinematic device.
Filmed three years earlier, and in glorious Kodachrome colour, Robert Morris’s double 16mm projection records the daily dealings that take place at a ‘Gas Station’, 1969. Beginning with a shot of a normal transaction between the pump attendant and a couple in a car, the left screen shows a wide shot of the station while the right shows the same events in close up. This camera slowly begins to deviate from this fixed configuration, freely scanning the scene for sites of human activity and everyday sculptural details. Morris plays with the audience’s expectation of plot and character development, but ultimately leaves it unfulfilled.
There is a natural distinction between American and British models of structuralist film. American filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Hollis Frampton and Owen Land often used structure to deal with personal and emotional themes, whilst others such as Tony Conrad and Paul Shartis created‘flicker films’ to explore altered states of consciousness through perceptual games. Meanwhile, the British structural/materialists, as re-defined by filmmaker and theorist Peter Gidal, have more in common with their European counterparts’ rigorously theoretical works in that they resist representation and crack open the cinematic illusion.
William Raban, an important figure in the LFMC in the 1970s, states: ‘There was a real sense that the films themselves were articulating questions in a theoretical way so the practice to begin with was the theory. There were quite a number of specifically named “Structural Film” programmes and symposia around the theme’, (from an e-mail sent to Luke Fowler in December 2006). By 1974 Raban felt the theory was beginning to overtake production, with the level of debate becoming ‘wearisome and fruitless’. Instead of discussing the individual merits of each work, films were held up to the structural/materialist yardstick to see how they ‘conformed’. At worst, this led to an environment of self-censorship.
‘The Future of Expanded Cinema’ discussion, a key event at the Stuttgart symposium, unexpectedly gathered momentum on the day, calling for action to bring together a committee of responsible persons to undertake the task of correctly documenting, archiving and preserving expanded cinema for future generations. The inherent contradiction built into this task is that expanded cinema is a live, dynamic and improvisatory art form, which often requires the presence of the artist to present the work.
This leaves several points to be resolved. Who decides what should be considered expanded cinema—artists’ credo, time period, use of multiple screens? What should be preserved? What can be done if the artist desires the work to die with him/her? Through curating this event and many others, Mark Webber, LUX (who distribute and build on the LFMC’s archive) and the new no.w.here artists’ film lab in London (inspired by the LFMC’s DIY ethos and dedicated to creating new experimental works with film) are already addressing these issues, promoting and making these films available for generations to come. Scotland is sadly lacking in creative facilities: GMAC (formerly Glasgow Film and Video Workshop) now seems firmly dedicated to commercial short films, and there are currently no equivalent facilities equipped to handle artists’ experiments with film.
Preservation is a subject that Tony Conrad has been dwelling on recently as this public revamping of his ‘production activity’,‘Pickled Film’, 1974, testifies. Taking an irreverent approach to film conservation, Conrad uses a recipe for pickling from his mother’s favourite Fanny Farmer’s Cookbook, substituting onions for a lovely bleached pale, film. After chopping the ingredients, boiling up the vinegar and brine (thus stinking out the Kunstverein), and twisting the films strips into double helixes, he’s ready to conserve the film.
Bruce McClure’s recent film and sound performances are reminiscent of Tony Conrad’s hypnotically minimal ‘The Flicker’,1966, that notoriously provoked illness in some audience members. McClure’s predominantly monochrome, trance-like performances, though difficult to watch, reward viewers with a wonderfully disorientating experience in which colours and shapes appear phantom-like before your eyes. McClure is known for modifying his projectors to provide multiple options when improvising these flicker routines. He also (perhaps influenced by Oskar Fischinger, Tony Conrad and Lis Rhodes) overprints the film onto the optical sound strip to create a loud, synchronised pulsing noise. These primitive rhythms are then fed through ‘off the shelf’ guitar FX pedals to create complex and distorted polyrhythms.
Another pioneer, William Raban, became known as a key practitioner at the London Film-makers’ Co-op and for his ‘avant-garde landscape’ studies. The films shown in Stuttgart share a concern to seek ‘ways in which the audience could be active participants in the production of meaning—not mere passive consumers’. ‘Surface Tension’, 1976, achieves this by generating an individual and communal mental space for the audience. It is produced by filming a projector light and then printing the film many times over to create a rich black and white meditation on parallelograms.
With ‘Angles of Incidence’, 1973, Raban describes his aims to bring ‘a cubist perspective to film’ (from an interview featured on The Films of William Raban, DVD, BFI, 2003). Using a domestic window frame around which to structure the film, Raban shoots and then inverts the image to produce a mirror of the window in double projection. These images are then animated in camera, flitting between time lapse and normal speed to great effect, until eventually, descending into night, the window appears to be played like an accordion’s bellows. 1977’s ‘Wave Formations’, which for this occasion has been re-arranged to include two strobe lights at the work’s climax, is an incredible five-screen formal colour experiment. Two looping, 16mm projection beams meet in a cross, while static white noise fades in and out. Underneath this cross are three projections loaded with pure red, blue and green films, which overlap and play out a series of sequences, building slowly into a mesmerising, live experience of colour fields.
Expanded cinema continues to remain an imaginative and fertile area of exploration for both artists and viewers. It is the physical quality of film and its material constraints which perpetuates its use. Although dissolved in 1999, the LFMC still provides an inspirational model to artists who want complete control over the means of production, presentation and distribution and in its time, provided a theoretical and practical workshop for artists to share, experiment and exchange ideas. As William Raban points out, you could pick up and research experiments where other artists left off. Dissolving the boundaries of competition and intellectual copyright opened spaces for collective research and creativity to flourish.
Luke Fowler is an artist based in Glasgow