The re-appropriation of avant-garde ideas and techniques by the mainstream is an old story but the increasing number of artists choosing to work in film and video and the expansion of what is called ‘artists’ film’ have convinced the Independent Cinema Office that it is time to re-assess the influence of these ground-breaking works on the wider visual culture. To do this they asked six young curators to put together programmes of artists’ films around the themes of ‘Dreams’, ‘Modernity’, ‘Expression’, ‘Protest’, ‘Play’ and ‘Pop’. These include well-known works such as Un Chien andalou and Invocation of My Demon Brother alongside rarely screened films such as Walerian Borowczyk‘s Les Jeux des anges or Santiago Alvarez’ 79 Springs of Ho Chi Min. ‘ICO Essentials: The Secret Masterpieces of Cinema’ will be shown at a special preview weekend at Tate Modern in London from 18-21 January before opening across the UK from Friday 25 January. We talked to George Clark, one of the curators, about the selection of films and the objectives of the project.
Virginie Sélavy: The idea behind the programme of films that you’re curating is to show the influence of artistic, avant-garde films on mainstream popular culture. How do you feel that this selection of films will achieve that?
George Clark: Artists’ films have historically been put at the bottom of the pile, so it’s trying to look at it the other way, actually artists were the first people to do things that were then picked up by everyone else. With this programme we’re consciously trying to open up the debate about where artists’ film is situated and talk about artists’ film as an umbrella for avant-garde, experimental, all those different things, and take a step back from all those little niche groups and look at the bigger picture. It’s trying to re-assert the position of artists’ film and its influence on the mainstream. One of the big areas is the use of music: Kenneth Anger was the first filmmaker to use found soundtracks for his films, now that’s completely natural; and similarly the idea of music videos, you get someone like Peter Whitehead, who really pioneered that form. My programme, the ‘Dreams’ programme, which is looking at the fantastic in the last century, has all kinds of influences on figures like David Lynch, Terry Gilliam or the Quay Brothers. I’m not sure that’s necessarily the mainstream but it starts the ball rolling, which is then picked up by someone like David Lynch, which is then picked up by someone else and ends up in a car advert or on a television show.
It’s interesting that you mentioned using ‘artists’ film’ as an umbrella term because the terminology has always been problematic, you have ‘avant-garde’ in the 1920s, ‘experimental’ in the 1940s and ‘underground’ in the 1960s. Now it seems that the accepted term is ‘artists’ film’. Do you think this is a better term for this?
I don’t know, I think it’s sort of clumsy, especially the Arts Council’s favourite, which is ‘artists’ moving image’, which I think is…
It’s a bit long…
(laughs) Yeah… But I think ‘artists’ film’ defines artists’ practice and in some ways experimental film or those other terms are loaded with an agenda in terms of aesthetic criteria, and I don’t think that really relates to artists’ work with film and video now. I don’t think it can be defined in those strict rules that you had in the 60s, anti-narrative, anti-representational, etc. Now you see artists’ films which could be anything from Matthew Barney’s epic, almost musicals re-imagined with Vaseline to really pared-down, minimal sort of films like Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho. You get this whole spectrum as well as people continuing to work in traditional hand-made films, DIY films. So I think it’s better because it bridges these different periods and it represents what’s happening now, the proliferation of people working in different areas, not just in the cinema, but a broader cultural range, from artists’ film to feature films, to installations and interventions in the political environment. So in one way it describes what happens now but it also tries to find links rather than create oppositions.
How did the idea for the project come about? Why do something like this now?
It was partly based on the expansion of interest and activity around artists’ film and video, loads of things are happening, especially in the art world, there’s been a huge explosion of artists working in film and video. In some ways we felt that there was a missing link that connected what’s happening now with what was happening historically. A lot of things that were happening in the art world referred back to what was happening in the experimental film movement. We felt that there was a bit of a missing link in the fact that artists are increasingly showing works in museums and galleries and cinemas are becoming more and more restricted in the stuff that they’re showing and there’s no connection made between the two. And people know about the contemporary work but there’s a gap in awareness of the historical work.
There’s a bit of a paradox there because the films that you’re showing were made as acts of resistance or subversion specifically in opposition to mainstream culture but their stylistic innovations have been appropriated by mainstream culture and used to promote exactly what these filmmakers were opposed to in the first place. How do you feel about that?
I think culture is about this mixture and dialogue, and in some ways this appropriation and theft and misunderstanding. It’s part of how culture works and it’s one of the things that’s interesting about it. There’s definitely an argument that you should always try to remember the original context but when things are made they’re out there to be understood as well as misunderstood. And one way of approaching it is how work finds it way within culture. With a lot of these films, people have seen the films that refer back to them, so people might not have seen Maya Deren but they’ve seen Lost Highway by David Lynch that refers to that. They may not have seen Un chien andalou but they’ve seen an episode of the Simpsons that refers back to that. So that’s the other thing we’re interested in bringing back, the original referent.
Did you think of actually screening the films and the works that they’ve influenced, in comics, ads, design, along with the original films?
Yeah, it’s an interesting idea. It sort of turns the project into an essay. We felt that the work was already recognisable to other mediums today. So we were more interested to bring back those works in a way that would be accessible to a broad range of audiences and venues so those connections could be made.
Do you think that if you had screened, say, music videos, you would have attracted a younger audience that might not come otherwise?
I think it’s a balance. People quite often do that, find the hook to get people in, and you show something populist and mix it with something else maybe not so well-known. Putting the programmes together opens up the possibility for other people to make those connections and to contextualise the project by showing the films in the way they want to. But our interest was to look at where artists’ films are positioned and often when things are paired together it can happen that the real event is the feature rather than the short that goes with it. And we were interested in turning that upside down, so the real event is the artist’s film, and rather than bringing people to see music videos it’s about how actually artists’ films were happening before music videos.
Do you believe that people will make the connections?
I think making that connection is one way of approaching the project. And partly what we’re interested in is try and generate a bit of mystery around the programme, it’s part of the title, ‘The Secret Masterpieces’, it’s like the most influential films you’ve ever seen. It’s playing on that proposal; if you think you know cinema, you might know one type of cinema but this is something else.
Things can also work the other way, for instance filmmakers such as Andy Warhol, Kenneth Anger and George Kuchar have taken imagery from pop culture and re-appropriated it in their films. You are showing films by these filmmakers but they’re not grouped together so there doesn’t seem to be a specific focus on this. Why not?
We didn’t want to create battle lines between artists and pop culture, and that’s the good thing about this term ‘artists’ film’ because avant-garde film is against everything else whereas artists’ films have been intimately involved with pop culture and have had this total overlap and leakage with artists going into making feature films and feature filmmakers going into experimental work. So rather than examine that one strand, it’s part of that appropriation that happens, it’s part of a broader range, so you get things like this William Klein film that’s the first Pop Art film, it’s an homage to Broadway, street signs, Coca Cola, Pepsi, and it’s totally in love with these logos, or like George Kuchar, the head-over-heels melodrama but not in the way you’d ever see. We see that as part of what should be on offer. It’s artists’ film but it’s for and it’s against popular culture and it’s about how it intersects with it and it’s about trying to show that sort of spectrum.
The films are grouped into six different themed selections, ‘Dreams’, ‘Modernity’, ‘Expression’, ‘Protest’, ‘Play’ and ‘Pop’. Why those themes?
It’s again trying to take a step back and create a really broad theme. Each of them is curated by a different curator and the brief that they had to respond to was to deal with the idea of essential works, classics works, what could you understand as classic now and try and marry that with the theme. It was quite a challenge because people are used to doing something that is thematic and there was a lot of debate, people wanted to follow up a specific theme and actually you need to look at the broader picture. It’s tempting to look at music videos and artists’ film and get into that one area but it’s important that it’s that breadth that’s maintained. The themes emerged out of thinking of the last century and the different movements within visual culture and art history. I didn’t want to deal with this historically, I didn’t want to do realist films from the 1950s, or post-modernist videos from 1983 but instead try to connect disparate periods. With the ‘Dreams’ programme the rough brief was to look at surrealist films and psychedelia. The ‘Play’ programme was to look at Dada and post-modernism. So rather than deal with any of these on its own, it was about trying to find the connections between the two. The ‘Modernity’ programme is a kind of Bauhaus, early modernist works into appropriated culture, consumerism and the way people relate to modern society. So each of the programmes bridges two different periods and tries and brings those together and looks at different ways of approaching the last century that aren’t historical.
One of the programmes seems particularly wide: ‘Expression’ – you could have everything in there!
Partly that was thinking about Abstract Expressionism to punk or something like that but one thing that was important was that it was that open and that the curators could figure out their own response to it and what ‘expression’ really means. The title is really obvious but [curator Ian White’s] interpretation isn’t so obvious, it looks at personal films and what that means, and the starting point of that, thinking through intimate, diaristic films like Sadie Benning’s, the videos she made in her bedroom, moving back to more abstract reflections on what expression means. And in some way expression is defined by its inverse so it’s also the idea of inhibition, expression that is stopped or channelled. The first film in this programme is called Invitation au voyage, by Germaine Dulac. It’s a silent film and it all takes place in this exotic nightclub and it’s incredible, it has this strange, seductive atmosphere. Everyone has their collars buttoned up and it’s a kind of stiff silent film atmosphere but it’s really potent and evocative because of the fact that no one is expressing themselves.
Will the curators be there to introduce the screenings? Because from what you say it sounds like their interpretation of the themes is quite important.
Yes, all the curators will be there apart from Tanya Leighton who curated the programme on ‘Pop’, she’s going to be in Colombia, but everyone else is going to be there. Rather than do a history of artists’ film from one perspective I wanted each programme to have quite an individual take on what would the history of artists’ film be and what are the classical works because that’s a hugely contentious thing so it’s important that there is plurality. Each programme proposes slightly different things, it’s not really unified, some works that people chose other people hate, it’s part of the project. We really wanted to involve that room for reflection. There is a necessity in some ways to get people in to see stuff, to say these are the best works, but it’s also quite an unfashionable thing to do and a lot of people don’t like that. So it’s trying to find a balance between making that claim, that these are the greatest hits or something, and to have that reflection on what that means to assemble all this and what it means to interpret the histories that have been written which have their own emphasis on certain areas, and the way history is not objective, it’s subjective.
The ‘Protest’ programme curated by the Otolith Group in particular sounds very interesting. Why did you ask them to curate a programme?
We were really interested in getting people who were young curators, or people who have a very strong involvement with contemporary artists’ film now, so not necessarily people who’ve been programming strictly experimental films. We approached them because of their own work, we wanted to bring in the artists’ perspective and people working in a multi-disciplinary way, and also to tap into their involvement in essay film. They are artists and writers as well, and they’re a very articulate, reflective, conscious group. They did this big project around the Black Audio Collective recently, it’s an amazing project that is touring around; it’s still due to come to London. Partly because of their own work they are aware of the history of different movements, the intersection of feature films and artists’ film. It’s exciting the way they’re trying to rethink these sorts of positions now. They came up with some really great stuff.
You curated ‘Dreams’, in which you included films such as Un chien andalou and Meshes of the Afternoon, which are fairly well-known and are screened regularly. Why did you choose to include these films rather than give space to more obscure films?
Partly it’s trying to create a dialogue between different sorts of works. And also Meshes of the Afternoon does get screened a lot but you kind of take it for granted how many people have seen that. It’s probably read about or cited more than it’s seen. And part of the project is pitching into the Sunday classics that cinemas have, where they might show The Seventh Seal or A Bout de souffle, and to try and think how you could package together artists’ films to work in that way, like a repertory programme, things that should be on and should be accessible all the time. So it was really important to have certain works that really stood out and that the venues would feel comfortable with. It’s a way that you could smuggle things in that aren’t so well-known. All of the programmes balance one or two well-known works with less well-known things.
In your programme you also have Les Jeux des anges, Our Lady of the Sphere and Asparagus. They offer very different takes on the theme of ‘Dreams’. Why did you choose those films in particular, because again, with a topic like this, there’s a lot of choice…
I was interested in representing a broad spectrum of works and inserting things that came from different definitions of what an artist’s film would be, works that people might not necessarily see as artists’ films, like Borowczyk who went on to make feature films, and was discredited as an eroticist. He made some fantastic features in the 60s and a series of animations prior to that but he isn’t really classed as an artist filmmaker, despite the fact that he has all the credentials, he was a painter, but because he worked in the film industry he’s kind of left out. So we’re really interested in bringing in someone like that. Same as Švankmajer who kind of sits on the edge, and having those in parallel with Larry Jordan, who’s very much in the canon of experimental film, a contemporary of Stan Brakhage, very much involved in the Canyon Cinema Group, in the American independent film scene. He’s made feature films but people see him as an artist. And Les Jeux des anges is a film that has had an interesting relationship to experimental film. It famously won the Knokke Festival of Experimental Film in Brussels in 1958 where it beat Brakhage and Agnès Varda and it circulated a lot in student film circuits. But it’s been in this terrible, discoloured, beat-up print so it’s been a good opportunity to re-invest and bring back a film that’s been out of circulation for ages. There’s never been a 35mm print in the UK and that will stay here after the project. So we’re also looking a bit strategically at how we can make those works available, balance things that are accessible but also use the fact that we have a bit more weight and a bit more funding with this sort of project to bring in other things that might not have been in there.
And what about Asparagus?
That’s a great film. It’s similarly left out because there’s a lean to animation, and maybe that programme represents that area more than the others. Asparagus is on the border between the indie and animation circuits, and it’s one that makes a really interesting connection back to Meshes of the Afternoon. It’s that elliptical narrative, Moebius-strip style, a circular narration that goes in and out. It’s such a trippy film, it has these fantastic colours and it really acknowledges that; it ends with a scene in a cinema where the woman opens her purse and releases all these fantastic patterns. It’s like an Oskar Fischinger film, an early abstract film. I really like the idea that it’s spectacle but in a way that you never see anymore. People talk about spectacle in cinema but it’s rarely as enchanting or as magical as when artists deal with it. Asparagus really stands out, it’s not embarrassed to deal with colour and exuberance.
What kind of audience are you hoping to attract with this programme? Do you think that this will work towards expanding the audience for this kind of cinema?
We tried to pitch the programme so it can touch different bases and it fills the gap that is not really catered for, which is people who are interested in the cinema and in the visual arts who might not have access to this sort of work around the UK. You can’t get through to an audience until you get through to a venue so part of the project is to try and make an argument about why a venue should show this stuff. The project tries to open up their idea of cinema, to get them to think that actually artists’ film is part of what they do. So we’ve been quite conscious in choosing the films because cinemas are very quick to dismiss experimental films because they don’t really see it as cinema. But as soon as you have someone like Buñuel, Jean Vigo, they’re like, wait a second, that’s a feature filmmaker I know. So it’s trying to make the argument that they can show artists’ films, that it’s not something that they should be worried about, that it appeals to a broad range of audiences, rather than try to go after the experimental hardcore pound. Artists’ film is not just about the ultra-cinephiles who’ve seen every film but haven’t seen these one or two; artists’ film is if you’re interested in cinema, in visual arts, music, fashion and design, it has all of that, it relates to all those areas, and it’s much more open and broader than cinemas necessarily give it the benefit for.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy