Immersed in the Single Channel: Experimental Media from Theater to Gallery
Marks, Laura U., Millennium Film Journal
In Steve Reinke's Anal Masturbation and Object Loss (Video) (2002), we encounter the artist preparing a book for the library in the art school he plans to start. A shot of his hands busy with a glue stick pairs with a rumination on contemporary art in Reinke's unmistakable, disarming tone. He explains that video projections in galleries "function mainly as placeholders, you know - they say something like, 'Watch this space for a while until something of interest, urn, can conceivably appear They want to hold our attention without taking up any space - any physical, architectural space, you know - or any cognitive space either." The chapter of the book he's gluing together ("so you won't have to worry about reading it") will give its title to a series of artworks: the book-object on a plinth, Anal Masturbation and Object Loss (Sculpture); this video; and an installation, "maybe like a mirror installation in a corner," with a projection of a slow pan of flowers in late bloom, almost abstract : Anal Masturbation and Object Loss (Phceholder).
I will be arguing that experimental media art was doing just fine. There's still lots of wonderful experimental film and video around that is linear, or to use a video term, single-channel .. Lots of great work that deserves our attention and hence, our love - to paraphrase André Bazin. There's nothing wrong with it. However, many media artists are now making their work with the gallery in mind. The institutional venues for single-channel experimental media are shifting from the festival/distributor circuit to gallery/museum circuit, primarily for economic reasons. Thus many artists seem to feel forced to make work for "installation," whether that inclination is aesthetically necessary or not. I argue that the current artworld climate has made aesthetic concerns secondary to financial ones. Further, I disagree with notions that installation is more "material" or critical than theatrical screening; however, aesthetic issues of interest do arise with regard to attention, distraction, and what I'll call cognitive consumerism.
Before going on, let me give a definition of experimental media. It includes films and videos that experiment formally with the medium, from film formats to low-end video formats to HD to mobile and online platforms. It includes experiments, drawn from critique of cinema and TV, with sound, montage, structure, reflexivity, etc. It experiments with the relationship between fiction and documentary: presence, index, performance. Indeed some of the richest experimentation now seems to work with performativity: cinema as an event, from framing to reception. Experimentation also regards content: experimental narrative, essay films, experimental documentary, certain political work. A negative definition: it's whatever doesn't fit into standards for commercially viable fiction and documentary; it's any "short" that isn't a calling-card film.
I'll focus solely on single-channel work, not multiple-screen or interactive work.
THE FINANCIAL SITUATION
Experimental media artists are producing more work at the same time that paying venues are diminishing. Facing the decision of where their work is best placed, in the movie theater or in the gallery, they ask: Where will my work be best received? What will be the quantity and quality of audience? Will I be paid, and if so, how much?
If they take the theater route, their work will likely appear as a single projection in a darkened room, in festivals and one-off screenings. Most experimental films do not fit the commercial standards of the film festival circuit, but there are excellent festivals and series that are dedicated to experimental work, such as Ann Arbor; Images in Toronto; Views from the AvantGarde at the New York Film Festival; Rotterdam; Kino Arsenale in Berlin; Oberhausen. Many experimental festivals have closed down in recent years.1 Still, most cities have a couple of modest venues for showing artists' cinema, with small but ardent audiences. …