A. L. Rees's A History of Experimental Film and Video

By Felicity Sparrow


BFI Publishing 1999, 256 pp; paperback £13.99, hardback £35.00

This historical overview traces the developments in what is now more commonly referred to as “Artists’ Film and Video”, from the beginnings of cinema to the present day. Acknowledging the symbiotic relationship between art and film since the latter’s invention, the book sites the filmic avant-garde as an autonomous and distinct cultural practice, more appropriately considered within the context of modern and post-modern art than the margins of cinema history to which it has hitherto been relegated. After a lucid introduction which summarises recent debates concerning the avant-gardes in art and film and their relation to mass culture, the book divides into two halves. The first has a more international perspective, looking at a range of experimental film practices from 1910 to the 1960s, the second focuses on British work over the last thirty years.

In considering the first film avant-garde, the links with contemporary concerns in art and to some extent literature (the writings of Joyce and Stein) are illuminating in terms of the techniques applied to film, like Cubist collage and the discontinuous narrative structure of Surrealist films. These links to new movements in art also bring together a disparate body of work whose sole unifying factor was (and is) a rejection of mainstream entertainment cinema with its mimetic codes and adherence to dramatic realism. The Futurists’ clarion call, for a new autonomous cinema for the modern age, liberated from the straight-jackets of stage and literature, but bringing together other art forms in a new poly-expressive symphony, was answered on the one hand by films like Fernand Léger’s Ballet Mécanique and René Clair’s Dada-inspired Entr’acte of 1924, and the later Surrealist collaborations of Buñuel and Dali, Artaud and Germaine Dulac, Jean Cocteau and others. On the other hand the synaesthetic impulse was taken up and developed further in the light-works of artists associated with the Bauhaus, and in the early abstract films pioneered by Viking Eggeling, Hans Richter and Oskar Fischinger, the titles of which denote their musical structure, analogous to visual symphonies. Although this first ferment of experimentation went beyond continental Europe, to Japan, the USA and even Britain in the 1930s in the hand-painted films of Len Lye and Norman McLaren, the author cites inter-war Europe as the epicentre of the avant-garde across all the arts, bringing together artists and film-makers from diverse disciplines and allegiances. The Second World War migration to America of European artists and the coincidental rise of Abstract Expressionism shifted the post-war locus of artistic creativity to the US. There the radical art movements of the ’50s and ’60s produced a much larger but equally disparate body of experimental film work influenced by both the earlier film avant-garde and by contemporary modernism in painting, music and dance: from the counter-culture aesthetics of the “underground” film movement, to abstract animation and the formal experiments by film-makers concerned with the language and material nature of the film medium.

One of the themes running through both sections of the book surfaces most tellingly here: the inter-relation of medium-specific artists, whether using film or video, and those artists like Duchamp and Man Ray, who used film as an addition to work in other artforms, whether painting, sculpture, performance or photography. The work of Maya Deren in the ’40s, and from the ’50s Stan Brakhage, marked the emergence of a new breed of “film-artist” working exclusively in the one medium but defining their work as “art”, equal in status and seriousness to work in other more traditional art-forms. At the same time, other artists were exploring film as a medium to be adopted within their wider art practice, whether minimalist or conceptual, performance or gallery-based: from those associated with the Fluxus group to the likes of Bruce Nauman and Vito Acconci. This duality of practice was of less concern within the context of the ’60s’ extravaganzas and happenings than it is today, when the divergence of practice is a key issue of debate. Interestingly the latter artists are the most influential on today’s generation, though at the time it was Andy Warhol, who influenced both camps as well as the emerging Structuralist film movement.

This history of the “canonical” avant-garde is full of insight. Neither simplistic nor strictly linear, it builds up a complex matrix with lines of reference moving forwards, backwards and sideways, sometimes at a tangent, other times intersecting. More importantly it forms not just the background for the book’s second half but a lens-like template for the reader to look through in order to assess the last thirty years or so of contemporary British practice. This latter section of the book is more tightly focused on “artists’ film and video” as a distinct area of activity, but still embracing the medium-specific work of film- and video-makers, and that of artists whose use of these media is additional or part of a tool-bag from which to choose the most suitable means of expression. Without the wider frame of post-modernism in art, this is descriptive rather than analytic, as the author charts the developments from the founding in 1966 of the London Film Makers’ Co-op (its New York counterpart having been described in the earlier section), and later London Video Arts, to the “new pluralism” of today. Taking in the various movements or schools which have dominated contemporary debate, from ’70s Structuralism, its rebels, and counter-movements like the New Romantics, to the wider discourses of feminism and issues of sexual and racial identity, it brings together a wide range of work. It also charts the different contexts (cinema, television, gallery) which have given rise to certain practices, and the current eclecticism across media, afforded by new technologies which have revolutionised not only production processes but the means of dissemination and exhibition, whether via computer terminal or video projection.

The focus on experimental film and video allows for interesting observation in terms of the work of many individuals – including artists working primarily with video installation – who do not define themselves by their chosen medium. However the discussion of content rather than physical context blurs some of the issues so pertinent right now: the different way we experience the continuously-running installation from the way we experience work of finite duration, and the different institutions and value systems which underpin and ultimately separate both. The book does not offer any critique of the installation “genre”, nor the galleries, museums and art-market which sustain it. This is a shame, because the spread of video installations has generated much hype but little informed criticism specific to the moving image; an authoritative critical analysis of the contemporary use of film and video by artists in galleries, such as Rees could provide, is certainly needed. Yet arguably the book’s strength is that it is not prescriptive. Rather it presents a history that is alive with connections, which offers the reader a means to begin that evaluation.

But here’s the rub: for the reader to make such an evaluation in practice is no easy task. Contemporary film and video installation is ubiquitous yet it is ever more difficult to see prints of film works by artists who are the forerunners of the current scene. You can walk into any art museum anywhere in the world and immediately see on public display paintings and sculptures which span the 20th century; but there is no such easy access to film/video works from the equivalent time span. It is a measure of Rees’s enthused and timely book that it makes the reader want to know and see more. And to demand: “Open up the archives, let’s see the bigger picture”.

Felicity Sparrow is an audio-visual producer and writer.