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Working the Screen 1999

Erasing the line between film culture and new media

Janet Merewether reports from Impakt, Utrecht, Netherlands and the EMAF Festival, Osnabrück, Germany

Janet Merewether attended these festivals with her short film Cheap Blonde

It seems that one of the few ways to see new international film and video work these days is to step offshore from time to time. The artificial and unnecessary separation between film culture and ‘new media’ culture which has occurred in Australia in recent years (due largely to funding policy) has meant that festival events are determined along media lines, which means that little experimental film has been reaching our shores for quite some time. As somebody who admits to being promiscuous (ie working across film, video and digital media) and who enjoys playing with the differences as well as the points of intersection between these media formats, I’m relieved to find some international festivals which strongly support cross-media programming styles.

A few major European festivals with film origins seem to have transcended these boundaries and are providing audiences with strong and varied film and video programming. In particular, I’m referring to Impakt in Utrecht, Netherlands, which also includes an impressive music component, and the European Media Arts festival in Osnabrück, Germany.

The 1999 Impakt featured many works which were creatively exploring the points of intersection between ‘old’ and ‘new’ media, rather than rejecting one for the other. Kodwo Eshun (who also recently spoke at the Cinesonic conference in Melbourne—see RealTime 33, October-November) referred to McLuhan’s “realization that obsolete tech becomes the artform for the present.” This may be true, but many artists working with digital sampling technology are retaining a strong interest in the live performance, the screening event, and the live audience.

Likewise, I doubt that the cinema as a screening site for film and video will ever really become obsolete, since humans enjoy the act of seeing and hearing and communicating in public zones. What is the place of web-based art in this equation? A recent ‘opening’ in Sydney of work attracted a mere handful of visitors. However, at both EMAF (European Media Arts Festival) and Impakt, installation, web-art and CD-ROM managed to happily co-exist with the screening programs, with EMAF also hosting a VRML art exhibition.

Some of the themes regarding technology and degradation evident in the excellent music programming at Impakt (see our website for Merewether’s account of this. Eds) were also reflected in the films presented at both EMAF and Impakt. In Matthias Müller’s Vacancy (Germany), a meditation on Brasilia, the “city of hope”, or “ultimate utopia of the 20th century” (Eco), the filmmaker matches images from 60s feature films with identically framed shots in the present, highlighting the processes of transformation from utopia to dystopia, of the failed modernist social experiment. At Impakt, Gerhard Holthuis’s Hong Kong—HKG used stunning black and white cinematography to explore the bizarre incongruities of scale and context which occur as jumbo jets land at Hong Kong’s (now closed) Kai Tak airport. The planes are both overwhelming and ‘as light as angels’, a threatening presence as they cruise in through the rows of high rise apartment blocks.

David Gatten’s What the Water Said nos 1-3 (USA) was created by placing raw film stock into crab baskets and allowing the sea’s wave action to act upon the surface of the celluloid to create both image and soundtrack. Likewise, Jürgen Reble’s Zillertal (Germany) was created by exposing an old 16mm trailer to the weather and to chemicals, exploring the processes of disintegration and reformation of the image. Jeff Scher’s Yours (USA) also utilised a piece of found footage, a 1950s music clip, to create a stunningly vibrant film overlaid with pop iconography, wallpaper textures and painted surfaces from the period. These are all examples of process-driven filmmaking, deeply tied to the materiality of celluloid, and so much richer than the trend towards digital scratch and dust effects ‘applied’ to video footage to give it the ‘appearance’ of film.

A work which seemed to put pressure on the medium to the point of breaking, was Sam Easterson’s A Sheep in Wolf’s Clothing (USA). Intriguing in its presentation of a sheep’s-view of life from within a flock, this work is one of many produced by his Animal Vegetable Video organisation, which aims to capture video footage taken from the perspective of every living plant and animal on earth (ambitious!). Other than the unusual point of view, the most interesting aesthetic quality of this work emerges from the fact that the video and audio apparatus cannot cope with the jerky running motion of the sheep ‘host’, thus when the sheep runs with the flock, violent blackouts and interruptions to the soundtrack occur. The randomness of these digital blackouts and intersected ‘baa’ sounds, caused by violent camera shake, led to an amusing level of absurdity.

Bob Arnold’s Morphology of Desire (USA), also shown at Impakt, and winner of the Best Experimental short at the Uppsala festival in Sweden last year, combined digital and film processes in its morphed imagery derived from romance novel cover art. The complex relationship between the reader (viewer), and the poster-painted romantic heroine, is wittily explored. Arnold’s use of sparse sound effects, breaking the rhythm of the pulsating heartbeat which drives the morphed transitions between images, is, as ever, curiously engaging. The finished work, with its digitally morphed transitions, was filmed as an animation, frame by frame with a Bolex camera, for the final translation back to 16mm.

A special program in Impakt, The Experience, was dedicated specifically to stimulating the body into perceiving unusual physical experiences and mental sensations, for example in Mark Bain’s Transient Vehicle, a shipping container fitted out with various oscillators, into which the audience was locked and vibrated. On another occasion, Klaar van der Lippe led groups of participants on a blindfolded tour though the city of Utrecht. Cyrus Frisch, a Dutch video artist whose work pushes the boundaries between himself as ‘director’ and his subjects, mostly disabled drug addicts, allowed himself to be hypnotised in public to exorcise some of his demons. Joe Gibbons (USA), in his 1979 8mm film Spying, forced the viewer to reconsider his/her collusion with the filmmaker, whilst participating with him in secretly spying on ordinary people in the act of, amongst other things, lovemaking or sunbathing. These varied events successfully extended the range of activities a contemporary festival can offer audiences.

Oddly enough, the most common enquiry I had from curators from the USA and Europe was “Where have all the Australian film and video artists gone?” Obviously, our funding climate, which heavily favours interactive formats, is adversely affecting the balance of local production, and has meant that filmmakers such as Paul Winkler are almost the sole representatives from Australia in these festivals. At the Ann Arbor Experimental Festival in the USA recently, Sydney films took out three of the awards, and all were self-funded by the filmmakers (Winkler’s Rotation, Greg Godhard’s Mind’s Eye and my own Cheap Blonde).

At events such as Impakt, it seems that the integration of film, video, digital media and sound/music events in the one festival encourages debate, and acknowledges the processes of cross fertilisation between formats, a dialogue, which, in Australia, does not seem to be occurring very frequently. The separation of ‘film festivals’ from ‘new media’ events is unfortunate, as digital art screenings are looking more like showcases of visual effects rather than explorations of ideas, and local filmmaking suffers from a paucity of visual ideas. In the meantime, I’ll happily continue to be suspended in the crossover zone, enjoying the best of both worlds.

Impakt, Utrecht, Netherlands, 11 - 16 May; EMAF Festival, Osnabrück, Germany, 5 - 9, May.

Janet Merewether attended these festivals with her short film Cheap Blonde

RealTime issue #32 Aug-Sept 1999 pg. 13

© Janet Merewether; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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