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.