Monday, 11 February 2008

NEW ARTICULATIONS: ICO Essentials at Tate Modern

Tate Modern, January 18th- 21st, and on tour throughout 2008

With six programmes over four days, to packed houses at Tate Modern, the ICO’s Essentials programme was a huge success. Tate Modern's film curator, Stuart Comer, responded excitedly to the large audiences by giving rapturous introductions to the six curators and by urging audiences to get out and see more of the artists' film and video currently on show in London. His enthusiasm reflected the dual aim of the programme as a whole: to provide some sense of history of artists film and video - and some sense of a structure through which that history could be organised – and to provide some seriously enjoyable selections of film that could appeal both to aficionados and to the causal audience drawn in from the busy galleries.

The programme began on Friday night with the George Clark curated “Dreams.” Clark, who was also the programmes overall organiser, followed a model that was also adopted by the other curators: one or two classic films from the early twentieth century – in this case Un Chien Andalou (1929) and Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) – alongside a range of lesser known work, mostly from the 60’s and 70’s. This highlighted the weekends historical sense. It also belied claims in the introductions for a lack of cannon to avant-garde film, as the genealogies and categories on display would have been familiar to readers of standard histories, such as A.L.Rees’ A History of Experimental Film and Video. Like all the sessions I experienced a re-viewing of films seen before, alongside some exhilarating new discoveries: in this case the psychedelic colouring and vegetable based delirium of Suzan Pitt’s Asparagus (1979). It was great to be in an audience large enough to have a collective response, gasping audibly, for example, at the eyeball slitting in Un Chien Andalou.

Saturday’s sessions began with the Michelle Cotton curated “Modernity.” This session sought a continuity and a flow between formal and political concerns, from the welding of abstract colours and the GPO in Len Lye’s Trade Tattoo (1937), which began the session, to the morphing of fashions and clothes from the 70’s to the 90’s in Mark Leckey’s Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (1999), with which it concluded. Cotton’s session perhaps outlined one way in which histories of film and video are rewritten and prevented from ossifying. Somewhere in this session there was a conventional history of film and video that begins with Leger and Murphy’s Ballet Mechanique (1924) before progressing through various generations of New American and structuralist cinema. But the programmes selection of films showed such histories were transformed by different film makers in a range of contexts and generations. So we saw Charles and Ray Eames studying the soap suds washing a schoolyard in Blacktop (1952); Mary Ellen Bute’s grandiose combinations of music and colour, intended to open for Hollywood Features, in Escape (1937) and Ferdinand Kriwet’s Apollovision (1969), a stunning study of the Apollo 11 spaceflight, made by combining newspaper, radio and TV materials of the flight itself and its cultural aftermath.

Saturday concluded with the Ian White curated “Expressions.” Downplaying another rapturous introduction, White observed that as a gay man he was often introduced, as here, as coming from a Queer Theory background but, he joked, he didn’t mind as it felt good. His selections did, indeed, raise issues of gender in a sustained way not evident before in the festival but, suggestively, also foregrounded the role of the individual: both the individual film maker working alone, and notions of individuality within a socially orientated perspective.

White boldly chose to start his session with Germaine Dulac’s 33 minute L’Invitation au Voyage (1927), in which a commitment to the portrayal of a woman’s life is powerfully intertwined with Dulac's exploration of the potentialities of cinema. Thereafter selections ranged from 1969 to 1979, each film finding a distinctive aesthetic for its largely overt political expressions. Often these forms were themselves combined and/or played with – as in Martha Rosler’s hilarious combination of stand up, demonstration, lecture and sit-com in Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975), or the re-working of the TV interview in Neil Bartlett and Stuart Marshall’s Pedagogue (1988). Both provoked much laughter, in contrast to Lis Rhodes Light Reading (1979), which soon had the man next to me shifting and complaining. I’d not seen the film before and am left now with a sense of its intensity, grace and seriousness; of a confident, authoritative narration over a black screen; flows of letters and light revealing utterance to be still generative. Powerful and elliptical, Rhodes’ film will never generate the immediate audience response of Semiotics of the Kitchen. For an event like Essentials this raised the difficult curatorial question of how to balance films that can function as jokes with those eluding accessibility at a single viewing.

The screening of Pedagogue linked to Sunday’s Protest session, curated by Otolith Group members Kodwo Eshun and Anjalika Sagar. Eshun introduced the session by stressing the importance of context, noting that many in the audience had watched Pedagogue unaware of its initial context as a response to Clause 28. Otolith’s own selection of films similarly sought an expansion of the expressions of engagement. As Eshun and Sagar themselves put it in their programme notes:

What is our image of a protest movement? Is it pictures of confrontations and marches? Is it the reflection upon the forms that a protest movement might take? Or is it the invention of what the critic Hito Steyerl calls political linkages? What Steyerl calls the new relations or articulations between individual elements? Thinking about protest in terms of articulation invites us to think through the potentials of montage, the theories and practices of the edit, the cut, the interval, the splice, the connection. In thinking about film and politics together, artists film, however defined, often appears to be excessive, surplus to the proper calculation of what gets to be formulated as the political.

One way of reading the selected films was as an exploration of varieties of tone, and how in any one piece its excess is a product of this combination of tones. Santiago Alvarez, head of the short film section of Cuba’s state funded ICAIC, made 79 Primavera (1969) at the invitation of the communist government of North Vietnam as a tribute to Ho Chi Minh. If a long sequence of newsreel footage of marching soldiers where the film itself is destroyed on screen is a fusion of experimental film technique and political statement, then elsewhere these two prerogatives are less balanced. Despite a constantly powerful musical counterpoint the film had a uniformity of tone which aligns with rather than problematises propaganda. Viewed at this historical distance for its artistic strategies the film highlights the political ambiguity of any formal solution.

This ambiguity informs the contrasting austerity of means in Straub and Huillet’s Introduction to Arnold Shoenberg’s Accompaniment to a Cinematographic Score (1973). Here a letter by Brecht connecting economics and fascism, and Kandinsky’s letter to Shoenberg refusing a Bauhaus position because of his refusal to be regarded as an “exceptional Jew, ” are read aloud by Straub and Huillet in locations including the balcony of their own flat and a recording studio. The debates of Brecht and Kandinsky are thus threaded through Straub and Huillet’s own work, home and historical period, leaving an element of uncertainty and hypothesis in the relationship they construct.

This session was the one that perhaps most obviously problematised notions of a history of film and video, as it presented a model of shifting contexts and modes of production in response to social developments, without allowing political positions to cluster around certain aesthetic viewpoint. Despite Eshun’s concern about loss of context it was interesting how much of the political punch of Pedagogue, say, remained without the context. I had the opposite problem with Henri Storck’s Histoire du Soldat (1932), which, even with Ehsun’s introduction, became a flow of images in which I found it impossible to orientate myself and distinguish positions. Less than a call for a more sharply delineated film making, this highlighted the difficulties for political film interacting with the vagaries of any individual viewing and viewer. Another time I suspect I might respond very differently.

It was somewhat appropriate, then, that Sunday should conclude with James Harding’s selection of films around the theme of Play. Here we again began on a kind of avant-garde ur-ground with Rene Clair’s Entr’acte (1924). Thereafter, playfulness was something enacted between systems of representation: John Smith’s combining of visual images with a voice-over text from Herbert H.Clark’s Word Associations and Linguistic Theory in Associations (1975); George Kuchar’s celebration and mocking of Hollywood’s Golden Age amongst the New York Underground in Hold Me While I'm Naked (1966). Martin Arnold's Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998) was a delicious manipulation of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the Andy Hardy series of musical comedies, exaggerating and isolating movements and moments of speech to transform found material into an intensely dark and very funny oedipal drama.

Ken Jacobs' Little Stabs at Happiness (1963) highlighted some of the possible tensions in avant-garde play. When I saw this film before I loved its declarations of freedom and expressivity, but this time around I found myself cussing its puerile narrow-mindedness and ridiculous self obsession. I think that tension is consciously there – certainly it’s key to a figure such as Jack Smith. It is also why this session could conclude most exuberantly with Jake and Dinos Chapman’s Sacrifical Mutilation and Death in Modern Art (1999), which performs the Smith-like act of decrustifying, of abolishing the moldy accumulating around the avant-garde, while affirming a love of trash and degradation. Balloon paint bombs with drawn on faces representing Warhol, Van Gogh, Pollock and Richard Serra’s assistant meet their bloody ends to a grungy metal-noise soundtrack.

After which, on Monday, we rose from death into the everlasting attractions of pop. At least, that was my expectation but Tanya Leighton’s POP session had other ideas. It began with William Klein’s Broadway by Light (1957), an innocent feeling document of the world created by the night time lights of Time Square. It concluded with Pipilotti Rists I’m Not The Girl Who Misses Much (1986), in which a pop sensibility seemed to have reached a point of both constituting ones identity yet also attaining a space of critique. In between clustered eight films from between 1967 and 1972, including Ron Nameths Velvet Underground: Exploding Plastic Inevitable (1966), Peter Roehr’s Film Montage I (1965-68), which loops sections of ads and footage of architectural spaces for a number of repetitions preannounced by intertitles, and Derek Boshier’s Link (1970), which pursued a rather obvious associative chain of global imagery from domes to breasts to pyramids.

Leighton’s programme notes suggested a framework of “Pop cinema” was the most elusive of categories, although also one whose elements had suffused many areas of film making, including French New Wave, Antonioni and Italian neo-realism. I had expected this session to be the most revelatory and instead I left feeling it to be the most dated, perhaps because of its own ambiguity regarding the phenomenon it chronicled and also, perhaps, its efficacy for the present was most confused and uncertain. What did emerge was unease and unknowability – the faces blurred in the blasts of colour in Exploding Plastic Inevitable; uncertain relationships of pop music and factory labour in Thom Anderson and Malcolm Brodwick’s Short Line Long Line (1966-67). Perhaps the session missed the larger historical frame of the other programmes. Rist’s film got its power partly by making that link for itself and engaging with Freudian ideas of female hysteria.

What was exciting about the Essentials festival was partly the audience. It suggested such film-making is potentially and actually public, and that it has an audience who have gone to enjoy themselves. The difference to many of the sparsely attended Tate Modern screenings I have attended was palpable, energising the hosts and giving many films a vital, current immediacy. What was less clear was whether any new strategies for understanding artists' film and video histories had been outlined, as behind the thematics the selections often followed a familiar blueprint. Artists film and video does have an established history now, contrary to some of the weekends bolder claims. What this weekend did at its best was to transform and expand the contents and chronologies of existing categories.