Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal


Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal


Article excerpt

-And what do you think of the work of people like Douglas Gordon, for example?

What you can tell from those works in the first place, is the total ignorance of the fine arts community towards avant-garde filmmaking, because what Douglas Gordon and Stan Douglas are doing really was done before, and it was done, in most of the cases, much more compelling by the avant-garde. And everybody says: "Oh! How wonderful! What a revelation!" This is simply unfair, but that's the way it is; and it's our business to point out that problem with the general discourse about recent media art.

- Interview with Austrian filmmaker Peter Tscherkassky, Balthazar No5, Spring 2002.

Artists who began to show film and video in galleries during the mid-1990s were greeted as a wholly new phenomenon, as if this was the first time that moving image projection had been shown as an art form. These excited claims continued over the next decade, only fading recently as digital video projection has become the norm rather than the exception, from small independent galleries to the blockbuster art shows of Venice and Documenta.1 As art theorist Michael Newman writes, in a collection of essays on projection art published in 2009, "In the first decade of the twenty-first century, it is practically impossible to walk round the gallery district of a major city, or visit a biennial, triennial or art fair, without seeing a large number of artworks containing images that move." 2 It is an astonishing story, validating film as an art form on a par with painting and sculpture and for some even superseding them.

Few artists and critics who have celebrated the birth of a new media art seemed aware of or interested in an earlier wave of gallery film projection that took place during the 1960s and 1970s. It is easy to blame the invisibility of such work on historical ignorance, or on the marginal status of its key practitioners within the art world, but this cannot be the whole explanation. The Fluxus movement, for example, which generated many hours of conceptual film experimentation in the 1960s, like Yoko Ono's famous 1966 Bottoms film and the first works of avant-garde filmmaker Paul Sharits, was hardly obscure in 1995-6. On the contrary, by then Fluxus was already collected, exhibited and hailed as an early example of postmodern and dematerialized art. Maybe its residual anti-market iconoclasm was too strong for a direct link to be made or felt by gallery filmmakers in the 1990s. Specifically, the hard-core of Fluxus was adamantly anti-art, however collectible its residue thirty years on. Films by Fluxus artists were a deliberately provocative collection of gags, flicker films, slow-time movies, or films made up of leader, countdown and other detritus. The affront to meaning in Fluxus cinema did not therefore lend itself as an example to ambitious video artists trying to break into, rather than to break up, the expanding gallery and museum scene just a few years short of the millennium.3

But long before Flux Art in the sixties, film and art had intersected at many times during the twentieth century in extremely diverse ways. Examples include multi-screen abstract film projections by Oskar Fischinger in the late 1920s; 'light-play' experiments at the Bauhaus; film provocations by the Lettristes and Situationists in France; film as performance in Viennese 'Action Art'; Underground light-shows in the USA and the many kinds of exuberant and spectacular 'Expanded Cinema' events that were traced by Gene Youngblood in his 1970 book of that title,4 written on the verge of the computer age which it heralds. These and many other alliances between art and screen, notably the pioneering techno-based E.A.T. events in the 1960s, led by engineer Billy Klüver and artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Bob Whitman, figured very little in the context of the 1990s. Possible exceptions to this rule were the recognition of Bill Viola and Gary Hill, the first video artists to make the break from the ghetto and reach wider gallery audiences. …

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