Peggy Gale

“The cinematic” was a vexed term at the last Congress – the International Experimental Media Congress of April 2010 in Toronto. Everyone tiptoed around the words – cinema, cinematic, cinematographic – or just “media.” The word floated, and stayed undefined but at issue.

Side-stepping the term myself, I approached the apparent subject of “experimental media” in my introduction to the publication:

Experimental is an old-fashioned term, but Media is now everywhere, a basic requirement for everyday functioning worldwide, and so taken for granted that a pre-computer, pre-internet, pre-digital environment is utterly mysterious, almost unimaginable.

Referring briefly to the previous congress of 1989, I continued:

In the intervening two decades the field has changed dramatically both formally and physically, with digital formats largely replacing celluloid. Cross-platform works are now commonplace. Video and electronic forms are no longer the upstart other, nor are cinema-theatres customary for viewing artists’ projections today. Media works and issues are no longer marginal; the arts are increasingly professionalized and welcome in academic circles, and commercial opportunities are not uncommon. “Underground” is an antique term.

We are here in Berlin with a new program – THINK:FILM – that redefines the issue again, that is seeking “new ways of thinking about film, and the types of thought that it is capable of achieving or can be used to create have become necessary.” Digital codes have brought about a fundamental shift. As noted in Arsenal’s online introduction to the Berlin congress, “Practices that used to be the strict reserve of the experimental, avant-garde and underground film genres have been seized upon thanks to these new technologies, placed in new commercial contexts and popularized. In this way, the economic history of the “avant-garde” has become of relevance above and beyond its cultural impetus.” (12 Oct 2012)

Already in the two years since meeting in Toronto, the focus has changed. “Medium specificity,” much argued then, is to be put aside here. We are to look forward, not back. Or, if looking back, we should seek fundamental issues of impetus and desire – a language of the moving image seen apart from the means of its physical or virtual delivery – to address a future (and present) that continues to evolve. To find the best path forward, prepared.

Each Congress has tried its best – formulated its aims, invited its personnel, figured out the balance between words and images, histories and futures – and then in turn been rejected or at least “improved upon” in the next meeting.

These attempts have occasioned the changes of name for the congresses, from “Experimental Film” to “Experimental Media” and now to THINK:FILM. The change to “media” in Toronto, 2010, was to avoid the conflicts of 1989 (also in Toronto) that were identified as generational, that is, between what was considered an “old” entrenched avant-garde of the 1960s, sloughed off as “dead white men.” There was an open letter published, a manifesto titled “Let’s Set the Record Straight,” rejecting that avant-garde in favour of a more politicized, post-modernist, unruly, sexualized, younger group of the 1980s. In 1989 the committee decided to focus on the Art of Cinema and the avant-garde, with three “perspective” programs on Jack Chambers, Hollis Frampton, and collage works of the 1920s. They were caught short by the manifesto and highly vocal challenges.

I was there only briefly, but still in 2010, all those issues arose again:

The place and status of women
The desire to break boundaries
To include the marginal, the “Other” historically and geographically
Along with questioning “whose voice,” “who pays,” who is involved and how . . .

In 2010 the Toronto committee was acutely conscious of opening to alternate voices and histories, with presentations by David Teh (Singapore), Shai Heredia and Ayisha Abraham (India), Hangjun Lee and Donghyun Park (Korea) Ou Ning (China) and Jorge La Ferla (Argentina) as well as Iraqi-born Wafaa Bilal (New York) Jerusalem-born Sobhi al-Zobaidi and Austrian Konrad Becker. These were in addition to Tamar Guimaràes (Brazil), Ursula Biemann (Switzerland), Wendelian van Oldenborgh (Netherlands), Birgit Hein, Hito Steyerl, Stefanie Schulte Strathaus and Henriette Huldisch (Germany), and many others from Canada and USA, including First Nations artists Steve Loft and Cheryl l’Hirondelle. Altogether there were forty-four presentations as panels and roundtables, but Shai Heredia was not incorrect in her accusation of a certain tokenism to be found in the “Field Reports” summing up whole geographical areas like India and Korea. Even trying hard – doing your best – may not be enough. In his wrap-up address, Bart Testa brought up all the old issues and dismissed the new objectors.

Some of that will reappear here, I expect. But we will do our best. THINK:FILM acknowledges – but puts aside – the issue of format or medium over which we have fugitive control in the face of market decisions, in favour of the originating impulse to expression and communication. In the publication I edited in response to the 2010 Congress, I chose thirteen of the presenters – Tom Sherman, Nicky Hamlyn, Konrad Becker, Michael Snow, Jean Gagnon, Christopher Eamon, Peter Ride, Yvonne Rainer, Shai Heredia, David Teh, Dont Rhine, Steven Loft and Vera Frenkel – to revise their words and images for PUBLIC Journal (Fall 2011), and also included new offerings by Christina Battle, Elle Flanders and Mike Hoolboom who had been inspired by events at the Congress itself. I think the book is terrific, a response to events rather than a documentation of a conference.

Perhaps all the earlier objections were merely tempests in teapots, and can be avoided this time. Are we still defending a rampart? A field? When each individual medium has become a part of media, more or less, can we get on now with IDEAS?

We are called upon here to think FILM, or to THINK, Film! To look forward, not back.