Cultural Imperialism or Vibrant Moving Image?

By Anna Thew

Does The Lux/Pandaemonium Festival serve artists’ film?

The history of film is teeming with references to kinesis, rhythm, time, music, motion... cut! Within the frame, from frame to frame, the notion of movement is fundamental. In the 1920s Léger observes that rhythm... mobility... the close up... are the only cinematographic inventions. With the advent of new media these fundamental properties remain unchanged. Yet at the start of the millennium, there is frenzy and confusion in the art world between digital media and film; between Media and Moving Image.

broken-pieces-for-the-co-operative-anna-thew-1.jpg1. Léger’s Kiki*

Pandaemonium Biennial of Moving Images is the only festival of its kind in Britain. Founded in 1996 by film-makers Cordelia Swann and Michael Maziere, Pandaemonium evolved through film/video-makers’ (collective) efforts. The relatively lavish funding now enjoyed rests on the reputation of the films of the London Film-Makers’ Co-operative and London Electronic Arts, amalgamated as Lux. Yet in 2001 there is a sense that film has been cast out in favour of an alien agenda in which theatrical exhibition of moving image is replaced by gallery art (some of it media and not even moving). This is underpinned by the keen hierarchy of space and facilities in the ‘new’ Lux building. To date only one film projection has ever taken place in the Lux Gallery (courtesy DNet/Mark Webber). The Gallery windows have never seen projected celluloid.

The malaise with Pandaemonium 2001 at the beleaguered Lux, which hosts the festival, is symptomatic... Ciné-space is at a premium. Artists’ Film and Video at the Arts Council of England is subsumed under Visual Arts. Film and Video in Art Schools is all but eliminated. There is Gallery Art and Commercial Cinema with nothing in-between. Moving Image in all its true ramifications has gone underground.

In October 2000, Pandaemonium re-iterated its aim to showcase the best of recent international film and video work by artists in an Open Submissions Selection (and £115,000 public funding was secured). Post the submissions deadline and a hasty change of Director, the festival’s remit was revoked in a circulated document. The selectors would act “on instinct and subjectivity”. They would “not aim to be representative”. The festival would be “curated”. There would be no real selection process and no panel. The Director became grand “Curator”. Lux leapt into the back seat.

The Great Funding Heist?

Matt Collishaw (a commissioned artist) films a baby in ultraviolet light. A person buttons up the baby’s baby grow. No shit. The camera is static. The baby is practically static. There are few cuts save to a gratuitous close up of the baby’s eye. Whether this has any function cinematically is doubtful. The ultraviolet blue is very pretty and highlights the wonderfully dimmed orange chandeliers of the Shoreditch Town Hall. Ultra Violet Baby is oblivious of its theatrical location. There is little on moving image here.

broken-pieces-for-the-co-operative-anna-thew-2.jpg2. Maya Deren

Grazia Toderi, a second commissioned artist, displays on the Lux Gallery windows fronting Moving Image to the world with four absolutely static aerial images of London a slide projection. This denotes considerable expense given the helicopter flight, if the pics weren’t lifted from something existing. On these maps pretty little lights blink off and on in an unremarkable way with a few subtle or unnoticeable variations. Like fairy lights and as cute a signifier. The blinks were introduced electronically, wow. But given a bit of time (one minute?), because film has to do with time, you give up watching.

With £75,000 from the National Touring Programme towards nine individual Artists’ Commissions, the emphasis in funding has shifted the focus of the Festival. Single Screen Open Submissions, allocated a quarter of the programme, was fiercely marginalised from 2 - 6 pm. Guest programmes, now called –  vaguely, Cinema Programmes with no mention of the guest, was shown at drinking-hole time, after 10 pm. Prime time, like prime finance, was given over entirely to the Commissioned Artists. Nothing was mentioned in the (very late) publicity about any of the Open Submissions, not even the origin of the authors.

Amongst the hard to spot British component, John Smith stood alone. It glared out... only two Arts Council funded films (three from Lux/DNet) in the entire selection! Surely the circuit isn’t that big that a biennial could claim so many new unsung gems! The beauty of experimental film is that it defies assimilation by its very format, yet no split screen projection, expanded ciné work or live performance were let in.

Curating cultural imperialism, the big “names”, all three of them... white European/North American, English-speaking men; Smith, Kuchar, Henricks were flaunted in the publicity. And whilst guest Joan Jonas (US) could hardly be described as “rare”, it was unfair for any competitor, let alone kitsch Papa George Kuchar (US) to take up a tenth of the Open Submission. On the one hand they do a treble turn for the big boys (and one girl) who don’t need the coverage. On the other, they bend over backwards to show reels of untried work, which is commendable until you find it’s £6.50 to get in and sit on bum-cramp seats in Hoxton.

But when this is compared to the attention that the would-be “curators” (everyone in Hoxton is a part-time curator these days) gave to focussing on Collishaw, you wouldn’t say whoops, sycophant. Were they hoping for a job with Janis in the Sugar Lump next door? The imbalance in the film programme paled into insignificance. To mention Collishaw’s name five times on the posh invite and give him a super duper glossy one on his tod... it’s easy to see how a few thousand quid were not spent on celebrating artists’ film.

In amongst the pile of video cassettes, celluloid made up barely 15% of the Open (now Curated) Submissions programmes; 85% on video; 70% by men. Running time of women’s film (a financial indicator) was dire. Of recent celluloid there was little save from the US and Austria. James HollandsSweet with Divine David on degenerate VHS, says it all. On film nothing new “now”.

broken-pieces-for-the-co-operative-anna-thew-3.jpg3. Vertov Lens

Pandaemonium “curators” were both male. At the Lux... Distribution, Cinema, Facilities... all key (creative?) full-time posts are now held by men. Bearing out all the differentials, gallery v cinema, electronic arts v film, this retrograde hierarchy was reflected in the Festival. Involvement of Artists/Film-makers (once blithely called “the membership”) has reached point zero. Are there any practitioners left on the Lux Board? Lux’s status hinges on its promotion of artists’ film!

The ideological exclusion of a whole “constituency” of artists’ films is disturbing. Punters from abroad were perplexed at the curatorial blocking of swathes of British and International cinema. An African and a South American programme were dropped. There was no film from Australia or the Far East. Yet again public funds were used to beef up the dominant commercial gallery and dv syndicates. Yet again Lux plays lackey to the USA and Gallery Art.

What’s left is some kind of undefinable thematic issuing from narrow personal preference rather than a celebration of what is really being made internationally. As for the “expansion of cultural landscape” which the festival boasted, it is difficult to make one’s way across it when so much of it is missing.

Ultimately the funding bodies and institutions must carry the real responsibility for abandoning “Moving Images” in Cinema, which is emphatically not just Visual Art, but Synthesis; Words, Sound, Music, Performance and Projected Film. Unless there is a network and lobby for artists working in film, our distribution/exhibition base is threatened and with this our culture and our history.

Should Lux/Pandaemonium absorb almost all the funding for this fragile area of exhibition? Or should artists and film-makers have control of their own films returned, their own archive, their own cinema, their own festival and their own future?

Do we really need this kind of Pandaemonium?

Even if there is no fixed abode, there is talk of a virtual resurrection.

*Images taken from Broken Pieces for the Co-operative by Anna Thew (2000/2001) – a double screen projection. Superimposed over the half-demolished London Film-makers’ Co-operative cinema.

Anna Thew is an artist and film-maker. She has run the Experimental Film Series at Chelsea College of Art since 1985, and programmed for flux at the Minema, Milch, Lux and LFMC.