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RUMOUR HAS IT THAT AVANT-GARDE CINEMA CONTINUES TO THRIVE AROUND THE WORLD, BUT LOCALLY ONE MIGHT SUPPOSE THAT THE MEDIUM WAS AS DEAD AS VAUDEVILLE. SO THE AUSTRALIAN INTERNATIONAL EXPERIMENTAL FILM FESTIVAL HAS THE APPEAL OF A CONSPIRACY AGAINST THE PRESENT—CONDUCTED, FOR THE SECOND YEAR IN A ROW, AT THE BACK DOOR WAREHOUSE IN DEEPEST PRESTON, OUT ON THE FABLED 86 TRAM LINE FAR BEYOND THE BOHO HANGOUTS OF HIGH STREET, NEAR THE DECAYING INDUSTRIAL PRECINCT WHERE PHILIP BROPHY SHOT HIS DYSTOPIAN NORTHERN VOID (2007; RT 78, P27).

Best to be honest: here in Australia—at least, for those of us who aren’t regularly able to scoot off to specialist events overseas—it is hard to get more than the faintest first-hand impression of the state of play in the experimental film arena. That’s one reason AIEFF deserves celebration, even if this year’s eclectic program felt more assembled than curated and even if 90% of the “films” were screened, in accordance with their makers’ wishes, on video.

While for the individual viewer this matters or doesn’t, from a strict artisanal perspective the two media remain as distinct as pottery and robotics: one lesson to be taken from the AIEFF program is that film, at this budgetary level, is still easily the superior format for artists concerned with what are imprecisely termed the “material” qualities of light and colour. This could be observed even in works as fragile and ephemeral as Irene Proebsting’s Super-8 Harmonic Ghosts—where faintly Gothic images brush against each other like dry, blown leaves—or as unabashedly decorative and “girly” as Jodie Mack’s 16mm Posthaste Perennial Pattern. It was good to see Tony Woods, the most persistent Super-8 filmmaker in Melbourne, return with Colour, Glass and Chrome, which, as ever, seeks out redemptive beauty in fragments of the mundane: in this case, the play of light on shards of glass found in a rubbish skip.

Film transmutes, it’s still tempting to suppose, whereas video only records. In fact, festival entries in both media showed alternate impulses to demystify and remystify the image, a dialectic also evident in the two prevailing approaches to sound design: on the one hand, the crunches and rustles of ‘raw’ or deliberately distorted sound, the aural equivalent to queasy, handheld camerawork; on the other, gloopy electronica akin to passing through a New Age carwash, intended to put you in a receptive trance.

Overlapping with this was the old battle between the representational and the abstract—between the moving image as a document and the screen as an open field where unforeseen forms can emerge. On the ‘abstract’ side were fireworks displays such as Simon Payne’s Vice Versa Et Cetera and Paul O’Donoghue’s Phasing Waves—both on video, the latter oddly culturally specific in its nostalgic deployment of clunky 1980s technology. At the other end of the spectrum, Erica Scourti’s Woman Nature Alone is a performance piece not a million miles removed from the hijinks of a ‘twee’ comedian like Josie Long, with Scourti herself enacting a half-hearted charade of communing with the environment: romping across parkland, hugging trees and eventually dropping off to sleep.

The aim might be to satirise outworn romantic postures, including a need to occupy the spotlight—but Scourti, like Long, does not escape the perils of studied cuteness. By contrast, Charles Fairbanks pointedly erases himself from Wrestling With My Father, a conceptual one-shot that really works. Fairbanks Snr is filmed head-on as he (apparently) watches his son fight it out in the ring; a burly fellow in a cap, he sits with his legs wide apart, drums his fingers during lulls, and shifts back and forth on the bench to follow every detail of the unseen action. Fairbanks’ equally successful The Men is a close-up essay on a related subject, with a mini-camera attached to a wrestler as he grapples with a bearded opponent; the fragmentary images are redolent of eroticism as much as combat.

Implicitly, such ventures put quotation marks around the notion of the personal, an unavoidable problem for artists without the alibi of commercial cynicism: how far are captured images to be understood as mirrors of consciousness, as opposed to raw material manipulated from a more-or-less ironic distance? AIEFF had its share of ‘diary’ works reliant on the idea of the camera operator as a semi-domesticated flaneur—gazing out an apartment window at dawn or wandering idly round the city, offering spiritual sympathy to beggars, watching trains go by. Taking a couple of steps back, an alternate option is to dedicate yourself to re-processing old home movies, with the passage of time as part of the point, as Mike Leggett does in his beautiful Bosun’s Chair. Or you can simply borrow from the communal archive: the ultimate example of this tactic, Bob Cotton’s ZeitEYE flashes across the history of modern graphics from Futurism to the Wii, with fleeting captions suggesting a media arts version of “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

Speaking to many of these issues, Steven Ball’s Personal Electronics is a study in paranoia composed of deranged clips lifted from video-sharing sites: the sources are mainly American, though the wry bemusement implied by these juxtapositions is British to the core. A figure slumped on a couch twitches violently, like an extra from Paranormal Activity (2008); a woman lectures us in voiceover on the esoteric import of a purple shaft of light which seems to emanate from a parked car. Acknowledging that some will perceive this “directed energy weapons ray” as visual noise, she instantly rejects the possibility: “These are very clearly lasers...Lens flares are not so concentrated, for one thing, they’re more diffuse.” In context, it’s a parody of hermeneutics: the artist striving to impose significance on ‘found’ material, the viewer labouring to decode that intention from the other side. Madness awaits us all, as we struggle to make meaning from what we see.


2011 Australian International Experimental Film Festival, The BAck doOR, Melbourne, April 29-May 1

RealTime issue #104 Aug-Sept 2011 pg. 35

© Jake Wilson; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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