By Sarah Turner

There was much discussion during a frantic week of screenings at ‘Pandaemonium’ about the significance of 1979. As well as marking Thatcher’s rise to power, it was also the year that London last hosted an international festival dedicated to avant-garde film. ‘Pandaemonium’ was an attempt to compensate for the 17-year void. This strategy was laudable (if not a little anxious) though the resulting programme, selected by Abina Manning, tended towards – well, pandaemonium or excess. With over 200 films, 35 programmes and CD-ROMs, only the 5 gallery installations could be viewed selectively. If you missed a programme in the cinema because you were in the cinematheque (if you were lucky enough to get a ticket, that is) there was no chance to view it again.

At least some things have changed.

The 1979 exhibition ‘Film As Film’ attempted to historicise the movement by defining its formal characteristics, tracing the structural film of the 70s back to its roots in early modernism. A similar exercise would be near impossible in the 90s. Postmodernism and all its attendant theories have asked us to define work in relation to a larger cultural agenda; namely context, content and audience. It should be noted here (as it wasn’t in Pandaemonium’s opening reference to ‘Film As Film’) that these concerns were acknowledged in 1979 though they occupied a significantly more marginalised position. Marginalised to the extent that objecting to the structural absence of work by women in ‘Film As Film’ the collective involved in curating Women and Formal Film structurally absented themselves and their research. They then structured their intervention by exhibiting a statement of opposition to the curatorial methodologies (particularly, such tokenistic revisionism). An admirable political gesture perhaps, but would such an impromptu strategy be repeated in the media choreographed 90s?

What else has changed?

In his introductory essay to ‘Film As Film’, Phil Drummond suggests that the cinemas of the avant-garde can be defined by their opposition to the mainstream, ‘oscillating somewhere between the historic poles of the two avant gardes within the overall trajectory of modernism’. Whilst that tendency continues, ‘Pandaemonium’ also revealed a dismissal of the conspiracy theory of mainstream cinema by the generation of channel surfers. This work self-referentially acknowledges where it is speaking from even if it hasn’t quite established who it is addressing.

In a recent essay on cinema’s 100th birthday, Susan Sontag described commercial film-making as a bloated, derivative and decadent practice, that witlessly fails its cynically targeted audience. I would suggest that the one thing that does distinguish the avant-garde is its tireless lack of cynicism. The assimilation of the avant-garde into the mainstream can be viewed positively, but the question arises as to who is benefiting. Much of the new work by young artists begs, borrows and steals from the commercial cinema in much the same way that it has pillaged the avant-garde over the years. The obvious difference, however, remains an economic one where only the commercial sector can afford legal protection from copyright abuse.

Trawling through Phil Drummond s ‘Film As Film’ essay, he also contends that experimental film might be defined by work that is produced ‘outside the dominant systems of production and exploitation’. Has this tradition continued? Well, to a certain extent, but it would be hard to find another practice where a group of people are so willingly ready to exploit themselves. The problem here is that in this too, ‘the dominant systems of production’ are now gleefully emulating the avant-garde. In one of the worst examples of our trolley-dash culture, the economic model provided by the avant-garde is now firmly entrenched within the industry: non-unionised labour, deferred payment (if any) etc.

In his catalogue introduction to ‘Pandaemonium’, David Curtis noted that since 1979, whilst dedicated avant-garde festivals emerged in mainland Europe, the British avant-garde ‘appeared to be preoccupied with building bridges across to the mainstream, a fruitful involvement in music videos and advertising, occasional interventions on BBC 2, Channel Four and MTV’. For ‘fruitful interventions’ read lucrative necessities. Today s economic reality determines that film-makers cannot exist independent of TV, aided by grants and tenured teaching positions. It’s the intervention by TV into the avant-garde that is ensuring its survival. It is also the constraints of the commercial sector that will ensure the continuation of marginal production. This was made explicit in John Maybury’s introduction to ‘Maledicta Electronica’ (Maybury being one of artists most often hailed as straddling the art and commercial sectors). Disaffected by those very constraints, Maybury struggled on a woefully inadequate budget (by his standards) to meet his deadline and ensure inclusion in the festival, completing the piece just hours before the screening. This is a symbiotic relationship too, for TV doesn’t wish to be seen as the guarantor of mediocrity.

If the 80s agenda was to pursue alternative structures for production, distribution and exhibition through organisations like Circles, the LFMC, LVA and the Channel 4-assisted workshops, we are now witnessing an unprecedented return to the gallery by an emerging generation of artists in the 90s. Seen only by a select audience and sold in limited editions, this is surely a testimony to packaging and marketing culture which has somehow transmuted into a celebration of pluralism. Such historical and cultural amnesia was starkly apparent in the programme ‘A small shifting sphere of serious culture’, curated by Gregor Muir. The relationship of individual pieces to the larger body of the artists’ work is no doubt intriguing but it is an almost contemptuous curatorial project to expect a cinema-going audience to sit through a programme consisting largely of extracts.

Despite this, there were many examples of work in ‘Pandaemonium’ by young film-makers who refuse to comply with the projected career chronology. Shu Lea Chang returns from the success of her first feature Fresh Kill to produce a funky dyke short. Meanwhile, a year after her retrospective at MOMA (at age 18) Sadie Benning emerges from her obsession with pixelvision, producing a pop promo shot on Super 8.

Aside from 1979 but not removed from it, the other discussion topic was whether there was such a thing as Britfilm. If this term is to be coined simply because current experimental practice is finally comfortable with a hybridity between mediums, genres, eras etc… then hasn’t this been happening on the margins for decades? More likely Britfilm is an expedient marketing phenomenon which says more about British or global sound-bite culture than it does about the actual exchanges of cultures and influences comprising work made in Britain. The 90s are a curious paradox of selective amnesia cloaked in nostalgia of retro chic and unreconstructed homages to Brentford nylons, of clean linen and digital dinners. Old orthodoxies masquerade as… old orthodoxies, but somehow redeem themselves by at least acknowledging the campness of it all, whilst new orthodoxies remain in denial.

‘Pandaemonium’ borrowed its title from the Humphrey Jennings book responding to the turmoil of the industrial revolution. As the digital era emerges, we are faced with the same despair and exhilaration. Saddled with the residue of post-Thatcherite Britain, there are disparate but distinct yearnings for a new Big Idea. But like New Labour, there are no new big ideas, just new presentations.

To its credit, ‘Pandaemonium’ rejected the polemical catalogue essays and opted for loose programming, suggesting the redundancy of historicising movements by categorising differences. What ‘Pandaemonium’ achieved was an energetic inclusion of more or less everything. This was less a democratising notion, than a legitimate attempt to define the current state of the sector. ‘Pandaemonium’ captured a moment and in its lack of coherence there was an energy (witness the opening night party) and an exhilarated presence reminiscent of the free festivals thrown by the GLC.

As London emerges from a long hard winter, chinks of sunlight are fracturing our carbon-monoxide-soaked skies. County Hall may have been sold to the Japanese and redeveloped into luxury apartments, but do I detect a note of collective energy picking itself up, dusting itself off and blinking into the air? This energy must be galvanised and for that we can only look to Hoxton where the new alternative media centre (which will presumably be hosting the next festival) will open next year. Make haste while the sun shines.