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Experimental film: obits exaggerated

Jim Knox at the OtherFilm Festival, Brisbane

Jim Knox premiered cortical landlord after compost and fuckwit is a cunt (pt. 6) at OFF. In 2005 he hosted the Articulating Space concert series at his Ignifuge warehouse, Melbourne, managed screen programs for What Is Music? and Meredith Music Festivals, and produced short films by Pia Borg, Callum Cooper and Dirk De Bruyn.

Arthur Cantrill, Calligraphy Contest for the New Year Arthur Cantrill, Calligraphy Contest for the New Year
photo Nick Meadows
Brisbane’s OtherFilm Festival (OFF) is less an occasion of mourning for the death of cinema than an opportunity for the happy reanimation of its corpse (courtesy of some incandescent electrics). This revival can be attributed as much to an expedient and fruitful accommodation with digital technologies as it can to the cinema’s alchemical ménage à trois of chemistry, optics and mechanical moving parts. That accommodation might suggest an ungainly and ultimately static confusion of back and forward steps, but the reality is some considered hoofing in otherwise unlikely ellipses. Clearly the epitaphs have been somewhat premature; on the evidence of this year’s OtherFilm Festival, artists will continue to find creative solutions to the problem of cinema for a considerable time to come.

The prevailing atmosphere is one of avuncular congeniality; there is a discreet but genuine sense of community among many of the OFF attendees, nurtured in part by experimental music festivals like What Is Music?, Liquid Architecture, the NOW Now, and the Articulating Space concert series. The obvious sonic analogies are completely pertinent: the structural dynamics of the work at OFF are informed by the energy and electricity of contemporary music. This embrace of strategies of immersive spectacle and audience engagement lies at a far remove from the austerity of sober structural methodologies that came to characterise creative film several decades back. By consolidating a recent legacy of experimental synaesthesia, OFF’s curatorial agenda approaches a dedicated exploration of ‘Audio-Vision.’

OFF is further distinguished from comparable Australian surveys of moving image media by its curators’ appreciation of a rich international history of marginal media practice, and their fervidiness to interrogate a specifically Australian historical context. At this year’s OFF, these imperatives were served by the presence of the nation’s most tireless champions of experimental film, Arthur and Corinne Cantrill, in company of their son, occasional filmmaker Ivor. Long-time advocates and agitators for the cause of creative media through their self-published Cantrills Filmnotes—the longest lived experimental media journal in the world—the Cantrills’ filmwork is increasingly occluded from public audition. On the evidence of their expanded cinema performance, reprised at OFF for only the second time since its 1970 premiere at the National Gallery of Victoria, this seems both an injustice to them personally and, more widely, a considerable loss to Australian film culture.

Across some four decades, the Cantrills have been undertaking an interrogation of the celluloid muse that is, certainly within Australia, unique in its scope and rigour. The results of that research are brilliantly detailed in their ‘colour separation films’; domestic scenes shot in black and white, before grey-scale spectra are translated into different colour tones through the device of an optical printer. The effect is of some colours being both naturalistic and ravishingly variegated, while others (bright orange skin tones or deep blue shadows!) are confoundingly aberrant. For its modest ambition, this work reveals a virtuosic control of cinematic apparatus.

Even more profound was the revelation of the Cantrills’ Expanded Cinema performance. This work elaborates their purely celluloid experiments by resorting to multiple projections, live declamation, some accomplished musique concrete soundtracks by Arthur Cantrill and the same sculptural screens they employed at the work’s original NGV debut. The Cantrills’ evident on-screen interest in notional ‘place’—something approaching a psychogeography of domestic space and the Australian landscape—is here transposed into an exploration of the physical limits of theatrical exhibition, a utopian challenge to a situation which can otherwise reproduce its own normative models of audience and filmmaker behaviour.

This expansion of cinematic ideal form is, alongside the reevaluation of sound-image relationships, one of the principal concerns of the festival. Natasha Anderson back-projects her organically fluid animations of tumescent grotesquerie onto home-made latex screens, performing the live soundtrack on processed voice and contrabass recorder. As an essay in abjection, it’s a compellingly lateral use of digital imaging technology. Velvet Pesu doesn’t even resort to a conventional projector, demonstrating rather the shadowplay and trompe l’oeil effects produced by her intricately wrought kinetic sculpture. Beautiful to behold, this skeletal assemblage communicates a quality of obsessive atavism which is provoked into unearthly, cacophonous life by Pesu’s performance.

The work at OFF is typically characterised by a thoughtful ambivalence towards new technologies, subordinating their use to more elemental aesthetic criteria. This measured synthesis of digital and analogue means is evidenced by Pia Borg’s digital projections for Pride and Prejudice (in collaboration with Mark Harwood, who provides live scoring). Their performance investigates the inherent uncanniness of theatrical screening: the ambiguity of a static human form projected at life-scale and enhanced by the matte cutout protruding from the screen proper. An intelligent work that acknowledges its debt to the supernatural qualities of the primitive cinema, with Harwood’s soundtrack evoking the perfect mood of creeped-out apprehension. A different course to minatory dread is taken by performance duo Vanilla (animator Van Sowerwine on image duties accompanied by Camilla Hannan on soundtrack). Exploiting another variety of the uncanny, Sowerwine invests her doll’s house set with infantile terror through the use of articulated silhouette puppets, while Hannan makes an unsettling mix of environmental sound. If the question of narrative aspirations is an indifferent matter for some OFF participants, both these artist ensembles are elsewhere working in more conventional narrative forms and I am frankly excited at the possibility that these performances might support some renovation of Australian filmmaking practice.

Lloyd Barrett’s Mise En Scene essays more elusive narrative intentions, employing a programming metalogic to drive its lurid abstractions of character portraits. Barrett’s striking electroacoustic score discloses a close attention to the sonic environment, something he otherwise explored through the soundwalk he conducted with acoustic ecology partisan, Anthony Magen. Where Barrett and others (notably, the synaesthetic feedback produced by Botborg) employ more strictly digital means, international guests Sam Hamilton and Eve Gordon (New Zealand) and audio-vision ensemble Abject Leader (Sally Golding and Joel Stern, with guest Adam Park) are conducting their very different enquiries into the tactile properties of analogue film. This artisanal countermedia is sometimes assisted by some hilariously pataphysical instruments (eg Hamilton & Gordon’s light refractors: broken glass supported by soup cans spinning on turntables in front of the projector beam).

Australian cultural institutions can sometimes seem beholden to a naive technological determinism at the expense of a more considered understanding of artists’ interventions in moving image media. The OtherFilm Festival provides a heterogenous corrective and the curators should be congratulated both for gracefully negotiating what must have been a logistical nightmare of outlandish technical requirements and for providing such an expansive survey of contemporary artists’ cinema practice. The only prominent omission was Robin Fox, whose compositional practice has made a considerable advance since the addition of a laser to his visual arsenal.

Velvet Pesu is moving soon from her expansive studio and irregular venue for experimental music, a one-time Masonic Lodge in inner city Woolloongabba. The good news is that the Brisbane City Council is providing her a with new home—larger, at the edge of the CBD and even double-glazing the windows to forestall any neighbourhood noise complaints—for a peppercorn rent. As much as Brisbane suffers some unkind comparison to Southern circumstance, to my knowledge there’s not a municipality in Sydney or Melbourne prepared to extend this level of support to creative music.

And there’s the rub: a loose coalition of Brisbane artists have described themselves a mandate that large and amply resourced institutions outside Queensland have signally failed to address (a 10 minute drive from ACMI would put you at the Cantrills’ doorstep). The OFF curators have historical smarts, an international ambit and the kind of hands-off support that doesn’t compromise their curatorial independence. This might bode well for the success of Brisbane’s Australian Cinematheque, but it also entails a considerable challenge to legitimated screen culture south of the Tweed River.

The 2nd OtherFilm Festival, curators Sally Golding, Joel Stern, Danni Zuvela., Queensland College of Art, Griffith University; Globe Theatre, Brisbane Brisbane, March 24-27,

Further discussion of OFF and Australia’s problematic history of creative media in relation to cultural policy will appear in the next issue of the Senses Of Cinema web journal:

Jim Knox premiered cortical landlord after compost and fuckwit is a cunt (pt. 6) at OFF. In 2005 he hosted the Articulating Space concert series at his Ignifuge warehouse, Melbourne, managed screen programs for What Is Music? and Meredith Music Festivals, and produced short films by Pia Borg, Callum Cooper and Dirk De Bruyn.

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 20

© Jim Knox; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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