Program Notes: Experimental Film and the Viewing Experience


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Kirsten Strayer, Time-Based Media Project volunteer, watching Debt Begins at 20, a film by Stephanie Beroes currently on view in the Scaife Galleries at CMOA. Photograph: Kate Barbera.

For the past four months, I’ve been volunteering with the Time-Based Media Project at Carnegie Museum of Art. Primarily, I’ve been writing content that will appear online in the catalogue—working to help put the films in their larger historical and artistic context. In other words, I’ve been watching the films and videos and writing about them, something I already do for my job in Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. I’ve especially enjoyed this project because—even though my professional research concerns Mexican narrative and feature films—I’ve always been a fan of American experimental films. Since starting this project, I’ve been watching old favorites that I haven’t seen since my early years in graduate school and reading about their history for the first time.

I’ve noticed, however, that when people write about experimental film, whether in histories, magazines, or journals, it appears as though they’re writing for those already converted—viewers who already know and appreciate particular films, and are, strictly speaking, “fans” like myself. The authors address a rather small group of filmgoers: scholars, filmmakers, artists, and occasional cineastes. Whether amateur or professional, these are viewers who haven’t just seen particular films but know the historic details surrounding the films, or which filmmakers worked with other filmmakers, or stories of how so many films were made by circles of friends with little money or resources. While this idea of a small, committed viewership of experimental cinema probably has some accuracy, the archival collection of materials at CMOA suggests that there was a sizeable audience during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s—the peak years of the Film Program when audiences filled the theater to see programs of new works or the monthly (or bi-weekly) experimental film programs from the permanent collection. Of course, experimental film has never garnered the broad audience of conventional film, but the experimental film theatrical experience was diverse and sustained, showing older, favorite experimental works and promoting younger, unknown independent filmmakers, something that happens far more rarely in Pittsburgh today.

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Audience at the 1976 May Day screening program, an event that was hosted annually by the Film Section at CMOA. Image from the Department of Film and Video archive.

In looking over the CMOA Program Notes beginning in 1970, I can clearly see a pattern of showing fewer and fewer experimental films during the 1990s and beyond. Early program notes show regular visits by experimental filmmakers. For example, in 1972 the department brought eight well-known filmmakers to show their work at the museum theater. However, later years showed fewer visits by filmmakers, and those that did visit were more likely to produce independent but nevertheless more traditional, feature-length fictional narratives (for example: Robert Altman in 1983, Peter Greenaway in 1984, and Raúl Ruiz in 1990). While this shift does not negate the cultural importance of bringing significant narrative filmmakers to Pittsburgh, it raises the question of why there has been a decline in experimental exhibition in theaters toward the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st. And while the specificity of CMOA’s programming strategies speak to its own local concerns, Pittsburgh is not the only city in which theatrical venues for experimental film have waned. New York, perhaps the quintessential American city for experimental, non-narrative cinema, also experienced a similar decline in theatrical exhibition. While experimental film and videos are still significant to the American art world, as a film-going public we rarely go to the theater to screen experimental cinema.

The evidence of such a decline raises even more questions: Why don’t viewers see experimental films in the theater, why has reception changed so much, and (even) does it matter to the circulation of experimental cinema? Can we still watch these older experimental films in exhibition space and have the same experience, or is the way we watch experimental cinema integral to specific pleasures? Of course, when we watch film in the theater, we are ostensibly alone, in the dark, surrounded by strangers, and focused entirely on the screen in front of us (what Roland Barthes calls the “cocoon” of cinema). This is, of course, quite different than the idea of accessing these works in a digital catalogue or in an exhibition room. To begin to think through these questions, I researched the programming changes in the United States over the past 40 years and sat down briefly with Dr. Lucy Fischer, who was Assistant Curator at CMOA from 1978-1979 and is now Distinguished Professor of English and Film Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. And I discovered that the shift away from projection stems from changes in technology, tastes, and the experiences of art viewership more broadly.

One of the first possible reasons for the decline in theatrical exhibition is the shift to video, an issue that Kate Barbera and Emily Davis discussed in an earlier post here on the CMOA Blog. At the moment that American experimental filmmaking was at its apex, avant-garde and experimental moving-image art was already shifting to video production. Nam June Paik first exhibited manipulated television as early as 1963, and by the early 1970s video artists such as Peter Campus and John Baldessari brought video making to the forefront of media experimentation. Video was less expensive, more mobile, and more flexible, but it was also a profoundly different way of using the moving image that could highlight immediacy in a way that film could not. Because video is shown on media monitors (which have a technological and visual similarity to the television set, and thus already make media smaller and more of a domestic object), its visual pleasure is not based in the largeness of the movie screen but in the smallness and intimacy of the television monitor. While technically it was possible to project video on larger screens, many of the videos weren’t produced for such a large-scale visual presentation, and many even demanded a small-scale visual perspective. As such, experimental videos lend themselves more to museum installation than large screen projection.

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Installation shot from the CMOA exhibition Points of Departure: Origins in Video, which featured artworks from Peter Campus, Beryl Korot, Bruce Nauman, and William Wegman, and was on view at CMOA from November 1990 to January 1991. Image from the Department of Film and Video archive.

And the shift to video also helped to increase importance of the gallery space as the location for museum moving-image spectatorship. Of course, films have been shown in galleries in installation spaces during the early to mid-20th century, even before video. But the pleasures of video and televisual streaming fit well with the smaller spaces and mobile viewer. If cinema and the theater are modern, the gallery viewing experience is profoundly post-modern, allowing for the heightened self-reflexivity to comment on and reconfigure spectatorship. As Catherine Fowler notes: “Another obvious development in the gallery space is the implied activity of the visitor, who can perambulate, choose when to enter or exit, where to stand, sit or walk, and even (with multi-screen work) where to look.” The space of the gallery doesn’t insist on sitting quietly and watching. Instead, the viewer can move about, enter or leave the field of vision at any time, and choose her angle of viewing.

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Museum visitors viewing filmmaker Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magic, which was on display in CMOA’s Scaife Gallery during the Carnegie International exhibition in 2013.

The exhibition gallery is radically different from a theater that shows traditional cinematic text; a theater expects a stable subject who watches and the consistency of a darkened room. The pleasures explored in and exploited by this kind of viewing constitutes the cinematic experience, which is made up of not just the film itself but the darkened theater, the sound of the projector, the texture of the film strip, and the effects that watching film in a darkened theater produces. And while this cocoon-like atmosphere has always been part of the commercial experience, it has also played a significant role in the expectations and experience of experimental cinema. And whether films worked with the pleasures of the dark, private, and isolating milieu (the dream films of Maya Deren or Kenneth Anger for example) or actively challenge it (the cerebral films of Hollis Frampton), the theatrical experience was an active part of viewing 16mm films during the experimental film’s heyday, just as the exhibition gallery—with the particular challenges and conventions it produces—forms the installation experience in unique ways. In fact, Dr. Fischer cites the waning of the importance of the cinematic experience as one of the significant reasons for the decline of experimental theatrical exhibition:

Some of the filmmakers didn’t want to make the shift away from the theatrical exhibition and the whole experience of cinematic spectatorship, which occurs in the dark, in the theater. And it’s a different thing to view films on monitors in a museum; it takes me a lot more to be moved walking through an installation gallery, to be captured by the work… [In contrast] when you make a decision to enter a theater, there’s something about the expectation of your full concentration there. There are not the same viewing expectations in a gallery.

Although there is much lost with the decline of the theatrical experience, there is also much gained by inclusion of experimental films in different forms. DVDs, online viewing platforms, and other modes for digital reception have given rarely seen films new life. Online, I have seen little-known films never distributed in the US, clips from silent films thought lost and recently restored, and experimental films that never were distributed during the life of the filmmaker. In fact, the Internet has been the driving catalyst for the rediscovery of rare films outside of museums, archives, and collections—fans and scholars, filmmakers and cineastes alike have put up rare films untouched by contemporary distributors. And yet, popular online viewing platforms and DVD distributions have also shown the gaps that remain. For example, many films are still not available to be seen at all because they were made specifically to be played on a 16mm projector, and either artists or the estates of those artists have remained consistent in their desire to only have their films shown in this original format. In looking over this collection, I began to think about how many of these films I have never seen or never had a chance to see because they haven’t been digitized. Even as we enlarge our digitized cinema, there are films in which the experience of viewing changes profoundly with a digitized medium. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be seen digitally, or that the individual filmmakers’ desires do not remain important. Instead, newfound expansion of digital film should help to rethink how to integrate the non-digital and theatrical experience into 21st-century viewing practices. I wonder if it’s possible to use this digital revival to recover the experience of theatrical reception. As the films reach a new generation of film viewers, we may be able to illustrate why the theatrical experience is part of the reason that experimental film viewers watch—and love—these films.

Program Notes is an ongoing series that explores the preservation work being conducted as part of the Time-Based Media Project at Carnegie Museum of Art.