Filmmakers have long sought to rewire the grammar and symbolism of classical cinema, interrogated the material of the film strip, and entered and dismantled the mechanisms of the apparatus itself. But, for almost as long, such gestures have been incorporated into commercial moving-image styles, and the trend continues with ever more speed and efficiency. The process has been particularly acute since the advent of video: the fluid, multiplanar collage and rapid editing of early video synthesis folds neatly into the standard format of music videos and television news; the neo-materialist radicalism of the glitch can now be outsourced to any number of datamoshing apps, which automate the process with no hacker sensibility required. For the critic, this poses a very familiar problem of how to evaluate the new when it is always already bleeding into corporate image-making. For many critics, the most radical gesture lies—once again—in an embrace or careful scrutiny of commercial cinema: a diagnosis of the failings of late capitalist ephemera, digitalization and acceleration, or the crowdfunded poetics of meme communities and gestalt networks.
Many scholars and critics have noted the gallery film’s obsession with cinema’s past, starting in at least the early 1990s. As anyone who has installed moving-image works can tell you, a film projector (or reel-to-reel tape recorder, or even a tube television) in the space of a gallery or museum inevitably becomes the locus of the gallerygoer’s nostalgia for moving-image media past—as much or more attention is paid to the projector, its patina of 20th-century industry and family life and their steady incorporation, as to the work it’s there to project. Indeed, artists working with these objects make them part of their work: readymades from the lost world of dead media.
And yet the black box of the theater, with its images (ideally) floating disembodied and dematerialized above eye-level, may well be an inappropriate space, a naïve space, for the image-consumers of the future. Multiple sites and modes of image consumption demand diversification—but the content-carriers themselves must be materialized, emphasized, made visible, tangible, and available for purchase. As with the advent of CinemaScope in the face of television, the idea is not to force you to pick sides in a war between formats and media, but to get you to buy all of them. And inevitably, in the essays that follow, you will often see lists: lists of file-types and film gauges, lists of brand names and devices and resolutions. What is perhaps most striking about such lists is how interchangeable these categories become, how difficult it is to distinguish a file-type from a corporate entity, even as the formats themselves become increasingly incompatible, new enclosures to counter the transience of moving images.
This month’s Critics Page is dedicated to the question of the status and position of moving image art today as it floats between—and beyond—the contexts of experimental and artists’ cinema, the film festival, and the gallery. There are a number of reasons why we think that right now is a good time to solicit ideas around this issue, and that this is as good a venue as any. As the film editors of the Brooklyn Rail, we have a somewhat tacit agenda to cover the more marginal and independent work shown around the city and beyond, and of late in following that agenda, we increasingly commission pieces on work that could easily be placed in the art pages. In keeping with the experimental spirit of Jonas Mekas, the film section’s founding editor, we have also long focused on keeping alive criticism of avant-garde and experimental work. At the same time, we’re less and less sure what these terms mean in a time in which, despite the ubiquity of moving images, the notion of cinema itself is in a state of flux or even decay.
Even in acknowledgement that this is the kind of statement that critics and artists make frequently about all sorts of artistic media—and that “fluxness” has always to some degree been the condition of film— many aspects of this contemporary moment make the observation especially worth investigating. One, put simply, is the coming end of the production of celluloid; One, put simply, is the coming end of the popular use of celluloid; another is the marked increase over the past decade of experimental filmmakers migrating into the gallery venue and art, cough, world. And yet another is the absolute ubiquity of moving images and time-based media in everyday life. Swirling through all these points is the material fact that cinema audiences (across genres) are rapidly diminishing, and at the same time all attempts to commodify the moving image artwork on a consumer level have been all but abandoned. Where that commodification may be starting to succeed is in the art market, but that’s an issue perhaps deserving of a feature in itself.
To address the relationship between contemporary contexts of art and cinema, we asked 17 artists, curators, programmers, and critics to respond to a simple question: what and where is artists’ cinema today, and what and where is its future? Our selection of these contributors was inevitably idiosyncratic, but we particularly sought out voices that had not been heard in these pages before. These responses varied widely: from personal experiences installing and screening work in different contexts, to evocations and epistolary essays, to discourses on the politics and polemics of creating such categorization in the first place.