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Pre-digital new media art

Lucas Ihlein


Guy Sherwin, Film performance with mirrored screen, 1976/2003 Guy Sherwin, Film performance with mirrored screen, 1976/2003
For artists like myself born in the 1970s, the activities of that decade can seem elusive, utopian and fascinating. Seemingly uncompromised by the pull of the art market, 1970s projects were remarkable for their clarity of intention and simplicity of execution. Concepts travel across time and space to the present, carried only by rudimentary texts and a few grainy black and white photos. The remnants of the processes of artists like Vito Acconci, Valie Export and Stephen Willats continue to inspire current generations who utilise and plunder their work as models for political, aesthetic and social action. But how much do we actually know about what went on? Can we trust the documents left behind?

My own particular interest in the 1970s has recently revolved around a ‘movement’ called Expanded Cinema. I use the term ‘movement’ loosely because, like minimalism or conceptual art, Expanded Cinema describes plenty of different activities in many different countries, and was not always a term used by the artists themselves. However, it is relatively safe to say that Expanded Cinema refers to that field of art in which artists and filmmakers sought to ‘expand’ the terms and conditions of what film could be. In addition, many artists were concerned with making transparent the components of the cinematic apparatus, and creating a live experience with the viewing audience, rather than merely replaying pre-edited footage. In that sense it sits quite comfortably in the company of much avant garde art of the 1960s and 70s which was redefining its own limits: paintings became sculptural and vice versa, and each of these began to incorporate performance, and the merging of art and life. Expanded Cinema, for its part, utilised multiple simultaneous projections, the incorporation of the ambient space (installation) and live performance elements. Thus, Expanded Cinema is a legitimate, although (in this country) little known, precursor to today’s ‘new media’ art.

Many artists who embraced Expanded Cinema, including Anthony McCall, William Raban, Malcolm Le Grice and Valie Export have said that they came to the form as a response to the comparatively stable nature of the Hollywood-run film industry. Le Grice, in a lecture accompanying a recent Export retrospective exhibition in London, referred to the film industry of the 1920s as having "contracted" cinema’s potential. The Expanded Cinema artists saw themselves as restoring the dynamism and experimentation cinema had possessed prior to being standardised in a feature-length narrative form.

The experiments they carried out often involved fragile and ephemeral situations: light bulbs that flashed in front of the screen, puffs of smoke which illuminated the cone of light from the projector, and performances involving ‘mini-cinemas’ utilising the sense of touch rather than sight. Like other manifestations of performance art from the 1960s and 70s, some of these were so specific to time and place that it is impossible to experience them ever again. Many, however, contained certain ingredients–prepared film material and a set of loose instructions–which might enable a re-enactment. It is partly this potential for reproduction which first drew me to Expanded Cinema. Like many Fluxus events, which borrowed from music the concept of the score, I figured it might be possible to re-experience the actual work by carefully following the recipe.

In late 2003 I visited London to meet some UK Expanded Cinema artists and delve into the rather extensive archives kept by David Curtis at the Central St Martins College of Art. I found myself in good company; there has been, in the past 5 years, a growing interest in the idea of re-enactment. Fortunately, many artists associated with the former London Filmmakers Co-op (LFMC), like Raban, Le Grice, Gill Eatherly and Annabel Nicolson, are still very much alive and kicking, and more than willing to participate in the re-presentation of their pieces. In Whitechapel Gallery’s 2000 survey of British art from 1965-75 entitled Live in Your Head, these 4 artists recreated 28 of their Expanded Cinema works from the period (www.whitechapel.org/content382.html). These were documented on digital video and are now in the St Martins archive. For myself, and my collaborator Louise Curham (see p22), these ‘digitally enhanced recipes’ are essential for enhancing our concept of the originals, given that for geographical reasons we were not physically present at the events.

Some exquisite works, sadly, will go to the grave with the artist, and cannot be re-enacted by other artists or archivists. For me, one of the more poignant works in this category is Man with Mirror by Guy Sherwin. In this piece the artist, standing in the beam of a Super 8 projector, holds and tilts a square mirror painted white on the reverse. The mirror/screen reflects back into the room, or catches and reveals the Super 8 footage shot in 1976 showing Sherwin tilting an identical mirror/screen outdoors. As the film is projected, the live performer attempts to ‘mirror’ his own earlier movements, with confounding results. Which is the real Guy Sherwin, which is the projected image? Each time Sherwin attempts to re-enact his own movements from 1976 the passage of time is further marked by his ageing body. As he has written, the work’s "subsequent enactments...have now become a sharply focussed document of transience." Video Documentation of Man with Mirror is available at www.luxonline.org.uk/work/id/603536/index.html.

Fortunately for us, other pieces can be presented in the absence of the artist. In 2002, film curator Mark Webber hosted a night of English Expanded Cinema at the Melbourne and Brisbane film festivals as part of his Shoot Shoot Shoot program (www.luxonline.org.uk/tours/Mark_Webber/mark10.html; RT51, p33). Webber presented pieces such as Raban’s Take Measure (1973) in which the filmstrip snakes its way through the audience en route to the projector; Anthony McCall’s Line Describing a Cone (1973), a ‘sculptural’ film which draws attention to the projector’s cone of light through the use of smoke; and Castle 1 (1966) by Le Grice which is interrupted/illuminated by a naked light bulb flashing right in front of the cinema screen.

For our part, Louise Curham and I have been experimenting with unauthorised re-enactments of various pieces of Expanded Cinema, including works by Australian artists such as David Perry, at recent Sydney Moving Image Coalition events. Although inevitably peppered with errors and misinterpretations resulting from our geographical/temporal distance from the points of origin, Curham and I believe our re-enactments have (at the very least) educational value, and we have attempted to be true to the spirit of the original works, even where some of the technologies used (16mm film for instance) are no longer convenient or accessible. As Malcolm Le Grice has said, "I have always been interested in technology, but it is the idea of ‘present experience’ which appeals to me more."


Lucas Ihlein is a member of the Sydney Moving Image Coalition. For details of future SMIC events go to: www.innersense.com.au/mic/sydney.html

RealTime issue #66 April-May 2005 pg. 26

© Lucas Ihlein; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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