Economics of the film avant-garde:
networks and strategies in the circulation of films, ideas, and people
How do experimental filmmakers survive? And not just in tough economic times, but routinely? Can they make a living from their creative work, and if so, how? If not, how do they keep going? What social networks, communities, and institutions do they make or work within to continue their art-making? What ideas do they have about their chosen profession? How do they evolve and change with changing technologies and new opportunities? These are the kind of questions that motivated me to do an ethnographic study of the avant-garde film art world. Here I want to lay out one aspect of that project.
This essay was originally written as part of a multi-sited ethnography on late 20th century experimental filmmakers in North America focusing primarily on New York and Chicago and their environs in partial completion for a Ph.D. in socio-cultural anthropology at Temple University in 2006. As such it is a snapshot of a particular period in which a number of institutions and practices were in flux. New festivals and venues for screening experimental film, such as Cinematexas and Media City among others, had sprung up and were important locales for an emerging generation of filmmakers who were rededicated to the materiality of celluloid. These venues are not mentioned here but will be included in a larger revised monograph that I am currently working on. In addition, this essay, written as it is from a particular vantage point in time and geography, is not meant to give an all-inclusive view of the entire community but a selection of those individuals whom I came into contact with as I conducted my fieldwork. What this article will do is lay a groundwork for ways to think about the economics of an artisanal (avant-garde/experimental) [open endnotes in new window]practice of filmmaking with its own rationalities that are in dialogue with but not subsumed by the economic systems of the larger art world, film industry, or university system.
I use the word artisanal with very specific intent. Artisanal foods and handicrafts are made by skilled workers by themselves or in small shops and bear the markings of their handmade-ness which both holds them apart from industrially produced products and also affects the senses and enjoyment of the person who buys or receives the artisanal product. Before the industrial revolution, artisans were the producers of goods; many people engaged in artisanal crafts as part of their daily lives. Although early avant-garde filmmakers in Europe and North America either emerged from extant art circles or hobbyist film groups (Horak 1998) and occasionally worked with or near the mainstream film industry, by and large avant-garde filmmakers have consistently pursued cinema as an art form, generally made by a single person on a miniscule budget.
Far from seeing these criteria as restrictive, filmmakers and their audiences celebrate the freedom this method provides and the impact it has on the films produced (Brakhage 2001, Deren 2005). This artisanal economic model extends to their distribution practices as well with most artists preferring to work with small artist-run cooperatives to distribute their work and to screen at small art cinemas, community centers and museums instead of multiplexes. This article traces some of that economic network and shows how, far from relying on growth of capital and success in the marketplace, the avant-garde filmmaker focuses on acquiring something called symbolic capital and manipulates this to achieve fame and success in the community.
Because I am an anthropologist and this research is part of a larger ethnography, my methodology involves formal and informal interviewing of filmmakers, curators, film historians, academics, and lab technicians. I also conduct participant observation, archival research and self-reflection. Because anthropology privileges the experience of the individual social actor, there are many long segments here taken directly from interviews. Some of these are attributed, some are not, based on whether the individual was talking on or off “the record.” Frequently the guarantee of subject anonymity is a way to help individuals feel free to vent their perspective on a particular situation.
For those unfamiliar with the concept of participant observation, it means in its most basic form, hanging out, watching (and recording) what’s happening and being a part of the situation. It requires that you put yourself and in my case, my film work, out there in the public to be discussed and to discuss. In order to be useful, participant observation requires significant self-reflection and analysis about the researcher’s own role in the processes that she is engaging in. You must always examine your own hopes, prejudices and fears as well as being as aware as possible of your own position-taking in the possible field of points of view. Finally and most importantly in the write-up of ethnographic material, the scholar must always admit that the knowledge gained, however exhaustive it might seem, is necessarily partial and fragmentary. This essay is just a small effort towards understanding the complex interworkings of the economy and networks of contemporary North American experimental film and video makers.
In my thinking about the contemporary avant-garde, I also use another term that may be contested: community. I see this group of media makers as forming one distinct, albeit geographically dispersed, community. Despite postcolonial and other turns in Western academic thinking in the last 30 years, the term “community” is frequently linked with locality by anthropologists and non-anthropologists alike. It is interpreted as territorial, bounded, and somehow original or authentic, and it is often used synonymously with ethnic or national descriptors. In contrast to this restrictive interpretation, following anthropologists Gupta and Ferguson, I take community to be both
“the recognition of cultural similarity or social contiguity [as well as] a categorical identity that is premised on various forms of exclusion and construction of otherness” (Gupta and Ferguson 2001:13).
In other words, the construction of the avant-garde film community is tied up in the ongoing formation of individual subjects and their negotiations of identity within it.
For further understanding of how experimental film and video makers might be thought of collectively, I also turn to French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote extensively on art and culture. Pierre Bourdieu conceptualizes an arena of artistic production as a “field” if it were a
“separate social universe having its own laws of functioning independent of those of politics and the economy” (Bourdieu 1993:162).
While Bourdieu concedes that the “field” is interdependent on the cultural, economic, and political milieus in which it exists, its members subscribe to the logic or belief system of the field, which is always dynamic and changing as new members join and current members negotiate their positions. For Bourdieu, the field is a
“veritable social universe where, in accordance with its particular laws, there accumulates a particular form of capital and where relations of force of a particular type are exerted” (Bourdieu 1993:164).
There are struggles that are unique to this universe alone, mainly those that concern what the borders of the field are and who is or is not a member. External forces and struggles are always translated, or as Bourdieu says, “refracted,” within the field by the logics of the field. Forces outside the avant-garde, such as the art world, film industry, and university system, do exert pressure on the field and on individual social actors within it. However, the avant-garde community remains distinct and has within it an alternative economy and social network that enables it to function (somewhat) autonomously. What follows is a discussion of that economy and networks.
Value, fame, and the film avant-garde: filmmaking, agency and symbolic capital
In a 1995 essay on avant-garde filmmakers in Chicago, sociologist Todd Bayma argues that their economic marginalization results from a “ritual disavowal” of the standard social criteria for success (power, fame and money). Such disavowal, Bayma continues, is common to every artistic avant-garde (Bayma 1995:91). My research suggests a more complex picture. Virtually every avant-garde filmmaker I interviewed was interested in fame. Many of them also sought power and a comfortable income. The difficulty they faced is that the kinds of fame available to them, and even the power which might stem from it, rarely translated into financial reward. Moreover, the receipt of money for filmmaking in this community only occasionally has led to an increase of fame.
A market-driven analysis cannot explain the economic practices of the film avant-garde. Avant-garde filmmakers, like many other artists, spend a great deal of time and energy acquiring status in their communities, or what Pierre Bourdieu, refers to as symbolic capital (Bourdieu 1979).
“Symbolic capital refers to degree of accumulated prestige, celebrity, consecration or honour and is founded on a dialectic of knowledge (connaissance) and recognition (reconnaissance)” (Johnson 1993:7).
What this means is that symbolic capital is accrued through the interplay beween the social actor's acquisition of information (kinowledge in/of/about the field) and their building of a reputation (how many people know about their work and think highly of it). Filmmakers accrue symbolic capital through the circulation of their work. Although symbolic capital can be translated into financial gain by helping artists get grants, teaching, and residency positions, it is sought primarily by filmmakers to further their fame and recognition within their core communities. Few avant-garde filmmakers see their participation in these communities as a stepping-stone to a more profitable career. For the great majority, the pursuit of financial gain is at best a supplement and at worst a hindrance to their filmmaking practice.
Money in the avant-garde film community is hard to come by, and big money is rare. Even the most prestigious and sought-after grants, such as theGuggenheim fellowship, are about equal to a junior professor’s salary for one year. In addition these are one-time, extremely competitive grants. Other granting organizations such as Creative Capital, LEF New England, New York State Council on the Arts, among many others provide partial funding for projects but rarely provide enough money to fund an entire film and certainly not enough to live on. Thus filmmakers must fund their work themselves or find other means to acquire wealth. A few inherit wealth, although this is not openly discussed, but few wealthy parents allow their children to grow up to be artists (Marcus 1992). Some find love partners with money or wealthy patrons. In contrast to the more general U.S. society, where wealth is valued and frequently seen as evidence of superiority, independent wealth is not a source of status with the experimental film community. Filmmakers who need not work for a living, however, can be very prolific, and the production of many films can enhance one’s status in the community.
As mentioned above, the receipt of grants brings prestige but is unpredictable and very dependent upon popular sentiment about what’s worth funding. The most common way that contemporary experimental filmmakers earn a living is through teaching. However, this occupation may bring little status if the person does not teach at a high profile art institution. Also, teaching can interfere with the artist’s ability to produce, and teaching jobs can lead them away from the core community of filmmakers by forcing them to live most of the year outside of urban centers that have strong experimental film communities. In communities like New York, Chicago, Toronto or San Francisco, with large avant-garde film communities, competition for teaching positions is intense. Instead of moving to a non-urban locale, many avant-garde filmmakers choose throughout their careers to piece together a living on adjunct teaching salaries so that they can stay in the big cities with strong experimental film communities.
Though remunerated, avant-garde artists who work in the dominant film industry have historically been considered as “selling out” although there appears to be less anti-industry prejudice in younger generations. In fact, some artists whose work has circulated within the avant-garde and art communities have made significant inroads in mainstream film and even been praised for it by those critics who helped establish their careers (Halter 2005). Finally, some filmmakers seek employment completely outside of art, film, and academic industries. One well-known filmmaker and curator left his New York core to attend law school, avowing that avant-garde filmmaking was not a “vocation” but an “avocation.” Although this informant has gotten out of touch in the intervening years, recent re-connecting via Facebook shows he is living two hours north of New York City in an idyllic country setting and may or may not be practicing law. He is still involved in the greater New York experimental film community.
Avant-garde filmmakers do not pursue money so much as opportunities to have their work shown, discussed, and praised. Just as they want their own work to be known, they also wish to know about other filmmakers’ work, where it screens, who likes it, and who does not. They gain status by being able to discuss the work of other filmmakers intelligently and by attending particular screenings and festivals. Filmmakers often are not present at the screenings of their own work. Yet the films represent the filmmakers’ agency in action. The films accrue status for the filmmaker as they move through circuits of distribution.
Avant-garde filmmaking is not economically rational, in the sense that screening fees rarely even earn makers back their material costs, to say nothing of remunerating labor costs (Bayma 1995). In his book Art and Agency, British social anthropologist Alfred Gell seeks to explain the artist’s motives by drawing on Nancy Munn’s (1986) discussion of the spatio-temporally-distributed person and Marilyn Strathern’s (1988) concepts of personhood and agency. Nancy Munn’s book Fame of the Gawa, examines the long-distance exchange practices of the inhabitants of a small island off the coast of Papua, New Guinea. Natives create shell necklaces (Kula) with particular markings that designate the tribe and maker’s identity and then trade them for similar objects from islands as far as a thousand miles away. Strathern’s book The Gender of the Gift deconstructs anthropological assumptions surround gender and gift exchange particularly around questions of agency. Using these two theories, Alfred Gell argues that in regards to contemporary Western art practice, “the structures of art history demonstrate an externalized and collectivized cognitive process” (1998:230) and that the artist’s inner person replicates what he or she is externally. The mind and thus the self, he writes, are not confined to particular space and time coordinates but stretch over the breadth of biographical events and memories of events. To be an artist is to be
“a dispersed category of material objects, traces, and leavings, which can be attributed to a person and which, in aggregate, testify to agency and personhood during a biographical career which may, indeed, prolong itself long after biological death” (Gell 1998:222).
In this argument, personal agency is an intervention in the “causal milieu.” Art works constitute
“all the material differences in ‘in the way things are’ from which some particular agency can be abducted” (Gell 1998:223).
The artist’s oeuvre is a “distributed object,” of which each work is an individual representation or index that retains a moment in the artist’s expression of his or her own agency. As the objects circulate, the artist, like Munn’s Kula necklace maker, becomes a kind of extended mind that circulates with them. Works of film provide particularly apt examples of this principle because their material substance is irrelevant to their significance. They cannot be held or hung on a wall in someone’s home but must be projected to be experienced. Ownership of a film print object does not bring the owner prestige in the same way that owning a painting or sculpture might. Thus few collectors of other types of modern and contemporary art collect film. Notable exceptions to this are museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and archives such as the Harvard Film Archive in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Although having one’s work purchased by a museum or archive can bring filmmakers significant one-time payments, confer status and help the individuals to establish themselves in the various canon-making exercises occasionally engaged in by various critics and programmers (e.g. Film Society 2010) within the avant-garde film community, a film’s value is realized only in circulation. Film screenings thus not only instantiate the community’s importance and vitality but are also ritual events through which artists and viewers exert agency and gain status. What brings the filmmaker status, or symbolic capital, is having her work seen, experienced and remembered—becoming part of the collective consciousness of the film avant-garde and the singular consciousness of the individual avant-garde filmmaker. This symbolic capital can translate into opportunities within the avant-garde film community and/or funding, employment, or screening prospects outside.
Bourdieu’s analysis of artists and art worlds sees works of art as produced by individuals within a specific set of social relations, which are not limited to those of “class” and which perform certain functions that must be brought into the mix of what we consider when we think about the world that impacts the artist (Bourdieu 1993:33). Although a detailed analysis is too much to go into now, there are various industries and communities surrounding and impacting the avant-garde filmmaker and film community (see Ramey 2002 & 2006, ch. 3). If the major motion picture industry changes preference in film stocks or even decides whether or not to shoot in film at all, such decisions directly impact the availability of a filmmakers production materials. Art world’s entry into political drama, such as the infamous NEA five’s work being labeled as degenerate by conservatives in Congress and used as a rationale to discontinue direct funding to individual artists in the early 1990’s (see Van Camp 2006 for an excellent overview), cut out a very important funding source for experimental filmmakers as well.
Furthermore, the most common way for experimental filmmakers to obtain financial support, teaching in the academy, can also cause difficulties in their career. Although the university system provides most of the rental income from the film-coops and distributors of experimental film (Zryd 2006), the university system and the art world each exert diverging strong forces of standardization and legitimization, on the one hand—creating canons, turning experimental film into a genre—and commoditization on the other—encouraging filmmakers to produce objects that can be sold, urging film professors to reach a larger audience. These are just some of the pressures that are exerted by the communities and systems around which avant-garde filmmakers and communities circulate or are on the periphery of. What seems to revitalize these filmmakers’ core communities the circulation of their films, themselves, and their ideas through these networks between their communities.
Successful filmmakers are often highly mobile, traveling extensively to screen their own work. In addition, they often program other filmmakers’ work that complements their own, helping the other filmmakers but also increasing their own symbolic capital as filmmakers and programmers. In the following pages I will map the circulation of three members of New York City’s avant-garde core community during the month of October 2002.
Figure 1 shows the movements of Joel Schlemowitz, a filmmaker and member of the board of the Filmmakers’ Cooperative, one of the oldest distribution collectives for experimental film in North America. At the time, Schlemowitz was a programmer and board member of the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema, a screening collective housed at the Theater for the Collective Unconscious on Ludlow Street in lower Manhattan. He was also an adjunct teacher at the New School for Social Research and occasionally other schools such as the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY. During the month of October 2002, he traveled with his work to several film festivals and venues throughout the United States. During this time the filmmaker also exchanged a collection of works from several filmmakers in his core community in New York, myself included, with that of a core in Seattle. Screenings of these works were held simultaneously in both cities with a live question-and-answer session held afterwards by teleconference.
Figure 2 illustrates the movements of Astria Supark, an event programmer who often tours with the avant-garde films she presents. She has programmed shows at large venues, such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico City, as well as at small art and community centers. She has designed programs for Anthology Film Archives and has been on the selection committee of the MIX experimental film festival in New York City. This programmer travels extensively and often meets new filmmakers whose work she includes in her programs. In Figure 5 the dark lines indicate her travels during the month of October, while the dashed lines indicate the cities and countries the work she programmed was from. Thus, while she toured predominantly in Northeast, South and Southwest of the United States that month, the films she carried were made by individuals from Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, Milwaukee, New York, France, and Germany.
Figure 3 illustrates the activities of a filmmaker who resides in New York and is a central member of the core avant-garde community there. He not only makes films, but curates at a local microcinema, works at Anthology Film Archives, and occasionally teaches at local universities. He has also served as a consultant for curtor Chrissie Isles at the Whitney Museum on avant-garde film programs. In October of 2002 he traveled with a program of his cohorts’ work to several European cities. While most of the filmmakers in this collective are based in New York, one is from Washington, D.C., and another from Tokyo, as represented by the dashed line. These screenings took place in major venues including the Centre du Georges Pompidou, as well as in local European cinemas.
These three filmmakers/programmers are not unique in terms of their travel, the time they spend promoting the work of other filmmakers, or the geographic breadth of their activity. In my own experience, I have had films shown on almost every continent. The World Wide Web, as well as the microcinema movement, has helped to extend the network of venues, festivals, and programmers even further. Although festival and other screenings rarely bring direct economic benefit, the symbolic profit that is gained from them that can elevate a maker’s fame and visibility as an artist. Through the circulation of avant-garde films, individual filmmakers and their core communities become better known. As a filmmaker’s status increases, he or she may turn fame into minor financial profit, through small filmmaking grants, paid exhibitions, and occasional lectureships. However, financial gain is not these filmmakers’ primary focus. Instead they concentrate on making their work, participating in local activities, and maintaining their transnational networks with like-minded filmmaking communities. In contradiction to Bayma’s assertions, avant-garde filmmakers do vie for status, power, and fame and they have a complex system of exchange set up to support it.
Exchange networks: United States and Europe
The film avant-garde has certain film festivals that function as community gatherings. Inclusion in these festivals connotes belonging and raises your status. But even just attending and seeing the new work of your peers and being able to say you were there is valuable. Each festival has a different reputation. Some, like “Views from the Avant-Garde,” which is part of the New York Film Festival and is held at Lincoln Center, confer incredible status on those screened even though it is almost universally acknowledged that in this particular case, the films represented are neither the best of that year’s selections or truly representative of the diversity of what is available. A common response concerning I heard about why this was so was that, well, “everybody’s there.” People travel from across the country and even overseas for this one weekend in New York in October, even if their film isn’t playing. It is an event, a place to see and be seen. The reason it is so valuable to have a film screened is not because of the value this confers upon the piece as a “good” work but because the majority of avant-garde filmmaker peers are there to see it.
Other festivals, such as the Ann Arbor Film Festival, confer status both because of their longevity (they are in their 48th year) and because they are renowned for their intensive screening and selection process. The pre-screeners watch each film in its entirety, and up until ten years ago, the festival insisted that you send a submission on 16 mm to be prescreened. Even after a program has been selected, the jury (experts in the field), who were not part of the selection process, are able to access any of the films submitted in event that they would wish to give a prize to a film that the screening committee did not select. In contrast to the Views’ reputation, the Ann Arbor Festival is famous for being egalitarian and open to new ideas and ways of making films. In addition, they give several small monetary prizes. Located in the small college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, the festival has always been a mecca for filmmakers from all over the country, but particularly those from Canada and the Midwest. Faculty from Chicago, Ithaca, and Iowa City have been known to bring groups of students, conducting late night seminars after the screenings.
There are a number of festivals abroad that also play a big part as centers of exchange of films and ideas. Rotterdam International Film Festival, the Berlin International Film Festival, and the Oberhausen International Film Festival are all popular festivals among American avant-garde filmmakers. Exhibiting at these festivals gives you an opportunity to meet with your international contemporaries and to see work that may never make it to the United States. Again, seeing this work, especially that of foreign artists, confers upon the filmmaker (who may also teach or occasionally program films or write) increased status by adding to their knowledge base films that are rare for their American contemporaries.
Of course film festivals are not all about watching films. An enormous amount of socializing and networking takes place as well. Many filmmakers bring copies of their work or copies of work that wasn’t even screened to offer to people who enjoyed their piece. At the very least, filmmakers exchange contact information and invitations to each other’s countries, towns, and homes. These are the great gatherings of the community and are invaluable for keeping the community together.
However, there are other places to see experimental film. Many film studies professors show films in their classrooms. Although filmmakers feel differently about how prestigious this is, some even shunning the academic market, these rentals bring in the major income for artist-run film coops (Zryd 2006). In addition, screening in avant-garde film history and theory courses helps individual filmmakers to gain entrance into a canon. Students who take these classes may go on to become programmers or film historians and will base their selections on what to show or write about in part on what they were shown and taught. Often universities have film societies and some of them, such as Cornell Cinema in Ithaca, devote a night or two per month to avant-garde film, sometimes even bringing in filmmakers to speak. These bookings are often based on connections formed between the filmmaker and the programmer through the festival network.
There are several venues associated with contemporary art museums across the country. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney, PS 1, and the Guggenheim have all sponsored screenings of avant-garde films as well as the Bienalle held every other year at the Whitney. The content of these screenings is often dependent on the proclivities of the curator, who usually does not specialize in avant-garde film at all but has experience as an art curator. Often these shows will be reviews of the established canon or specialty shows curated by outside people (such as Astria Suparak for the Whitney or Karen Reigel and Bradley Eros at PS1), and they are interspersed with shows with dubious selection criteria. However, none of the filmmakers I spoke with were interested in making a career curating at one of the major art museums. One informant, a programmer at a local independent venue, had this to say after interning at a major New York art museum:
“I really do feel like, I’m much happier to come in do something on my own, that I want to see happen or even just fund something that I’d like to see happen, rather that depend on the largess of somebody else to make it a possibility. I mean I just don’t trust a lot of these institutions anymore to do something valuable, especially when it comes to film, I feel like [film is] treated in a lot of ways like a third class art form and its not taken seriously, it’s not presented properly and ultimately it becomes a kind of sop. ….. To do a program of cartoons from Universal pictures, I mean, okay, some of them are sort of funny, but it’s lame and it’s boring and it’s not an interesting job to be doing it and I don’t want to be the person who has to get up there and try and defend that because it’s really not defensible on aesthetic grounds."
However, there are programmers who work hard to draw on the expertise of the avant-garde film community that surrounds them. When Chrissie Isles of the Whitney wanted to program the film portion of “This American Century,” she turned to New York filmmakers and programmers Bradley Eros and Bryan Frye for assistance. While Frye, in particular, is to be commended for introducing her to a great diversity of work from the vaults of the Filmmakers’ Cooperative, where he was interning at the time, many filmmakers complained that the programming tended to reflect the curators’ particular aesthetic and political ideals, not some sort of general overview of the entire century. And while being selected for a show at one of these venues is prestigious, and for the Whitney Biennale even more so, to many filmmakers, it is not a measure of the judgment of their peers. One New York filmmaker put it this way,
“I’d rather be in the Madcat film festival [open endnotes in new window] than at the Biennale any day. With the Madcat, your films are showing all over the country with a bunch of other great women filmmakers and they’re being seen. They’re doing the kind of work you made them to do. Being seen by the people you want to see them. Who’s really seeing your work at the Whitney anyhow? A bunch of New York filmmakers who you already know anyhow and a whole bunch of tourists and art snobs. Who needs that? “
She went on to admit, however, that having a film in the Whitney looked more prestigious to funding organizations like the New York State Council on the Arts or the Guggenheim, sponsors of two grants she was hoping to get in the future.
Another art world venue is galleries. While there has always been some screening of films in galleries, with the increasing acceptance of video art and the accessibility and quality of digital video technology, more and more galleries are becoming interested in moving-image art. The trick is making limited editions of the work yet creating an object that can be sold. Galleries are, of course, in the business of making money. For filmmakers who are already working with installations or multiple-image projection, moving into the gallery system can seem like a logical step. However, even for a filmmaker who has been successful in the gallery system, there are things she misses about the theatrical experience of film.
“I love the theatrical experience. I love that people will get sucked into it. I love the control aspect of it. That power part has always compelled me immensely. It’s like ‘you’re sitting there until this is over and if you get up I’ll see you.’ I’m interested in negotiating that and then the other side of that, which is this installation experience where people walk back and forth. That’s always been more disappointing, the audience experience of an installation for me. Because what I realized in doing this is it has made me much more attached to the theatrical setting because I do want everybody to watch and in an installation experience you can’t get everybody to do that.”
Presenting your work in a gallery takes away the power of the filmmaker to control the viewer’s experience because gallery work, like artwork, is treated like an object that can be scanned or read quickly and passed by. Filmmakers’ work is about duration and experience of that duration. Thus art world presentation of film or video is often less than satisfactory. In addition, part of what makes avant-garde filmmakers is the community of makers with whom they share their work at local screenings and other avant-garde venues. When a film is identified as an art object, viewed in a gallery or museum setting, the experience of viewing it changes temporally and experientially. It is removed from the discursive space of the avant-garde community. Finally, despite the fact that “video art” and “digital art” have been a standard in the art-world lexicon for some time, filmmakers still complain that galleries don’t really understand how to “hang” video, film, or digital work. One well known film and video artist declined an invitation at the well-respected New York City gallery, Maya Stendhal, because he had heard complaints from other artists about the gallery’s ability and willingness to meet the artist’s standards and technical requirements of showing video or film art.
There are several avant-garde film venues in New York, and by that I mean venues run and programmed by avant-garde filmmakers. The longest running is Anthology Film Archives on 2nd Avenue between 1st and 2nd Street on the Lower East Side. Anthology was begun by the New American Cinema Group, principally Jonas Mekas, and it functions not only as a screening space but as a repository for films, screening notes, writings, and other ephemera from the forty-plus years of its existence. While Mekas and the New American Cinema group may have begun with a very egalitarian vision (see New American Cinema Group 1961) it has become a bastion of a very specific kind of avant-garde filmmaking and ideology, and its programming reflects this. In the early 1970s P. Adams Sitney, avant-garde film scholar, enthusiast, and champion, and Jonas Mekas got together and compiled what they referred to as the “essential cinema.” This is a collection of what they deemed the most important work of the early and middle avant-garde. A book was published, a canon created, and Anthology still runs programs off it every month.
Anthology has two theaters offering several screenings a day every day of the week. True to their New American Cinema Group roots, they continue to be a place where one can see obscure foreign titles. Thus, while New York does have several independent theaters such as the Film Forum that program international cinema, what you will see at Anthology is often more cutting edge, more obscure, and more political. Anthology also shows other types of nonfiction besides avant-garde films. One can often see long format documentaries that are programmed nowhere else, except at some festivals or special shows catering specifically to documentary film. Anthology also serves as a venue helping to house the MIX Lesbian and Gay Experimental Film Festival and the New York Underground Film Festival, for over a decade programming work that would otherwise never be seen on the Anthology screens. Although these festival are now defunct, Anthology continues to support festivals that are an alternative to its “essential cinema,” such as the relatively new festival Migrating Forms.
Anthology provides an important service for the New York avant-garde film community. It is a repository of the group’s collective memory (albeit somewhat slanted towards a particular viewpoint or constituency). It functions as a kind of bastion for the community, a parents’ home, where the rules may not always feel comfortable but where you always know you are welcome. It is also a great and resilient punching bag. Many filmmakers complain that it is out of step with the times, does not represent what is happening in the community, etc. But ultimately Anthology is a destination for filmmakers both within and outside of New York, a kind of holy shrine that must be visited at least once in order to understand one’s birthright. It is important in another way. It has survived the exigencies of state and federal funding throughout the last 30 years. It is an important marker, perhaps the only seemingly permanent one, that avant-garde film is a vital and necessary part of U.S. culture.
Another important, historic venue that operates in New York is Millennium Film Workshop at 66 East 4th Street, also on the Lower East Side. Millennium has been around since the late 1960s . During the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, it served as a location for more cutting-edge or diverse work. Millennium also is an important pedagogical institution because it rents film equipment to its members and sponsors courses on film technology, all of which are taught by members.
In the 1980s, Millennium served as a meeting place for a new group of experimental filmmakers, many coming out of film programs at SUNY-Buffalo and SUNY-Binghamton, whose work was not being shown at Anthology. It was also a social space that brought in non-filmmakers and helped them learn the technical skills of filmmaking. Su Friedrich, one of the foremost contemporary avant-garde filmmakers, began her filmmaking career taking courses here. Millennium also has an important history of bringing individual filmmakers and hosting what are called cine-probes. These are long question-and-answer sessions where filmmakers talk about their own practice and the audience is invited to ask them questions. The cine-probes were an important tool, particularly in the 1970s and early 1980s, through which filmmakers could learn about each other across geographic divides. For the last thirty years, Millennium has also published a journal by and about avant-garde film. The journal, too, has served as a way for filmmakers around the world to know about each other’s work and ideas and has been an important venue on avant-garde film for emerging authors.
When entering Millennium’s building, one of the things that strikes a visitor is the semblance of the lobby to a gallery space. The walls and ceilings are white and there are often photos or artworks hung on the walls. These usually correspond to some show that Millennium put on or represent the work of an invited artist. The next engaging item is the “wall of filmmakers”—a wall covered with photographs of filmmakers who have had solo shows at Millennium. It is a veritable who’s who of the avant-garde filmmaking community, both historically and contemporarily. The film avant-garde does not have any museum or gallery devoted to it. Anthology is the only institution that comes close, but Anthology rarely has solo shows of an artist’s work.
A solo show at Millennium functions as a kind of career marker. It is not difficult to obtain, once a filmmaker has reached a certain level of notoriety and produced a significant body of work. It does not bring in a large amount of money, but it is very prestigious in the avant-garde filmmaking community. There is a sense of having arrived and of having reached continuity with one’s predecessors. It is a huge transitional moment in the career of most avant-garde filmmakers since it marks their transition from being a filmmaker who has made some work to being one who has an oeuvre, a body of work. However, this status marker is more important in the avant-garde community than outside it. Many informants said that their Millennium show marked an important stage in their maturity as an artist and the way in which the community saw them, but that to outside eyes, such as grant reviewers or university departments, a solo show at Millennium was less important than, say, being included in a group show at the Museum of Modern Art.
Finally, in the last ten years a significant “venue” for the exchange of ideas and even objects has been the Internet. Filmmakers have set up their own websites that list their biography, screenings, publications, distribution information, and sometimes the sites even show clips of their work. Listservs have become a vital way for filmmakers to keep in touch and engaged in the community over long distances. Thus, it is possible to know about and discuss screenings happening far away from one’s home base. The Internet has provided a forum for an ongoing and lively discussion of issues central to the avant-garde filmmaking community, such as film versus digital video technology, identity politics versus abstraction, and the politics of programming. Often they will provide a kind of instant feedback for important shows or venues. For example, after this year’s “Views from the Avant-Garde,” there was a lively discussion about what was screened and its quality. This provided knowledge of the event and films to those who were not able to make the event. In effect, listservs have provided a means for individuals to gather knowledge about films and filmmakers and participate in events without ever leaving their desk. While many filmmakers say the Internet will never replace the theatrical experience, it is a great way to enlarge the community and keep it up to date.
Is there a market for avant-garde film?
Some filmmakers, taking the view that avant-garde film should be more aligned with the art world and thus the art market, consider it only a matter of time before experimental films are viewed as art objects—collectable and valuable. As I discussed with an interviewee why there isn’t a market for avant-garde film like there is for avant-garde art, he noted:
“Now I don’t really think there has been a market developed extensively and I think that’s the other part of the equation but that’s the function of a lot of things including, as I said, the fact it’s not a very old medium.”
This informant went on to place blame for not developing a high-end art market in experimental film on the artists, critics, and reliance on a cooperative model of distribution as opposed to anything intrinsic in film as a medium.
“I think it also includes the fact that the criticism of the medium hasn’t been as developed as much as it could be and I think that’s the fault of critics and the artists themselves. I think experimental film benefits and suffers from the legacy of the 1960s and 1970s in which there was a real sort of neo-Marxist anti-capitalist backlash among a lot of people especially those working in moving-image media and I think a lot of people resisted a moment when there was a lot of market-driven interest in film and didn’t really capitalize on it at the time.”
He said that those seeking to market films needed to conceive of them like any reproducible object such as an etching or photograph, and distribute them in limited editions, and that when work was good, eventually the market would figure it out.
“Predicting markets is something that people get paid a lot of money for so I try to be as circumspect as possible when doing so. But ultimately, I think that when things are good, and important, that markets eventually figure it out. And with something as sort of self-limiting in terms of production, like films are these days, because artists don’t tend to make very many prints and those that are made are sort of de facto limited editions. I think inevitably they are going to become valuable sooner or later and I think that if you really put your mind to it you could find out what that value was pretty quickly. If you put original prints of Brakhage films on the market and, you know sixties Brakhage films and enough people knew about it, I’d be willing to bet you you’d get a pretty hefty sum.”
This filmmaker’s analysis of the marketability of experimental film as an art object can be summed up as follows:
- A market for film can be modeled on existing high-art markets for other reproducible objects by turning the film into a limited edition—a certain number of a set—and marketing it as such.
- This requires filmmakers to dismiss any ideology that would be counter to this model such as cooperative distribution.
- Artists must seek out people who would be interested in collecting their work or engage the services of an agent or gallery that would be willing and able to do so.
- Markets are difficult to predict but will eventually value that which is good. In this last instance, Brakhage, the most well known experimental filmmaker, is used as an example of work that would be valuable if put on the market.
In contrast to my informant, I would suggest that this attitude toward marketing is not unpredictable but rather indicates the complex inner workings and negotiations of a select group of people who, if they chose to take an interest in experimental film, could make it a valuable art object. I would agree that in order to develop an art market for experimental film, the work must be commoditized, rarified and established. In other words, it must be taken from the realm of that which should be experienced (a screening) and turned into a commodity. Doing this requires that film is made scarce or rare, for example, one print of two. These commodities can take a variety of forms such as a limited edition film loop and projector or an iPod with a number of the artist’s videos, on it or in the case of Sharon Lockhardt six prints of her 16mm film No for sale at $30,000 each alongside her photographic work (MacDonald 2005: 314). Someone who many consider working on the periphery of the experimental film world, artist Mathew Barney, sells the various objects used in his films as well as using them as objects to be displayed in a museum setting.
Finally, the film or film object’s pedigree as a work of (good/valuable) art must be established; and this is the responsibility of a group of curators, gallery owners, art critics, and collectors that is just now emerging. If a filmmaker’s piece were collected by this or that person, that filmmaker’s other work would become valuable as well. However, doing so, placing a work in a collection, would remove the work both physically and discursively from the avant-garde film community. It is possible that work could be made in different versions: those to show at festivals and screenings and those to show at galleries and sell to collectors. Some filmmakers I interviewed are figuring out ways to do this, but it seems as though most are still eager to exhibit films in a theatrical setting.
However, in the past ten years filmmakers have made use of the variety of platforms available for getting themselves and their work out there. Most have websites, some stream all or part of their work online, many offer DVDs of their work for sale. Some do still eschew putting out their work in this fashion. Many filmmakers have turned to “expanded” cinema or paracinema as a means to expand their presentational repertoire: offering shows that include performance, music and projection. It is doubtful that these shows bring them significantly more financial capital but that kind of exhibition increases their public visibility and help them acquire new audiences for their work.
In contrast to the art world model of distribution, many avant-garde filmmakers in the United States rely on the “co-op” model. Although an exhaustive history is too much to cover here, the two longest-running U.S. experimental film cooperatives are Canyon Cinema Cooperative and theFilmmakers’ Cooperative. While they vary slightly in structure, they are both artist-run, take a certain percentage of the screening fees for administrative overhead, and do not promote any filmmaker or work above any other. In other words, they don’t advertise. They rent primarily to an educational market, with art-world screenings at art centers and museums being second in terms of numbers. While the Filmmakers’ Cooperative continues a policy of open admission, allowing any filmmaker to add their film to the collection, Canyon has a review policy by the board that screens and selects which artists will be represented. They also rent mainly on 16mm, although they sell videos of some of their members’ work.
The co-op model has been criticized as keeping the work from reaching a wider audience because they insist on only renting 16mm films on film and because they do not actively promote filmmakers. Although I am sympathetic to the emphasis by experimental filmmakers that audiences experience the “authentic object” (film/celluloid) in the “ideal” conditions (a light-free theater with good projection), this position helps to support the belief among some filmmakers and programmers that experimental film is elitist and exclusionary as well as retrograde in the face of the supposed democracy of video distribution. In truth, the co-op model best serves those filmmakers who are good self-promoters and get their work out through other channels.
Newer generations of filmmakers and programmers have struggled with questions surrounding this film/video debate. At the beginning of my dissertation research, Ann Arbor Film Festival, the benchmark of experimental film programming in the United States, insisted on prescreening entries on film. Now they not only take entries in video but exhibit video as well. These changes could reflect the changes in the festival itself. Vicki Honeyman stepped down in the late 1990s after being director of programming for the festival for 15 years. Despite changes in festival policy concerning entry medium specificity, a special award for 16mm filmmaking was established in her honor. The following description of the award is from the Ann Arbor Film Festival website:
“During her 15 years as Festival Director, Vicki Honeyman remained devoted to 16mm film. This award honors her years of dedication and carries forward the legacy of 16mm. The award is intended for the 16mm film that best embodies the spirit of the films that rock her world: technically challenging, innovative, quirky and unique, with a strong respect and passion for film as an art form.” [Ann Arbor 2005]
Thus, despite the legacy of the festival’s being devoted to 16mm film and the memorialization of it in a specific award, policies towards film’s exclusivity have changed. Along with a change in programming director, there have also been changes in the board of directors and advisors. The real question for programmers and filmmakers alike is this: What is the social utility of refusing to show films on video? Arguments abound, especially among film purists, about the poor quality of NTSC video technology, which the move to DVD has only partially dispelled. Matt McCormick, filmmaker and founder ofPeripheral Produce, a film exhibition and distribution organization, had this to say in an email interview concerning the film/video debate and his choice to begin distributing on video:
“While I love the beauty and romance of the projected film image, I understand that if I limited the viewings of my films to only the $50 + rentals of film prints, than the total audience of my work would shrink by a whole lot. I hope that my work, and the work I distribute through Peripheral Produce, has a greater importance than that. More important than the flicker or the resolution is the message and spirit behind the work, and I think that an important responsibility of art is to extend itself and try to reach an audience that wouldn't normally have access to it. Selling tapes for $14 seems to me the best way to make the work accessible (without putting myself in the poorhouse while I'm at it).”
Although at the time McCormick has his film available for rent on 16mm through Canyon Cinema, he suggests that part of reason for his success at the time (and one can project his future success) is the accessibility and ease of distribution of video.
“I don't think my films at Canyon rent more than 15 times a year, but I have sold over 500 videos, so it's economically beneficial, but also great because those tapes get all over the place. I have been in other towns and met people in completely non-film-world situations that have seen my work, and that to me is the best thing about it.”
In the intervening years, McCormick’s distribution business has grown, carrying video collections of artists Bill Brown, Bryan Frye and Naomi Uman, among others. He has kept the collection small enough to be manageable; and he seems to have selected work by a circle of artists that he has programmed frequently at his Portland Experimental Film festival. Thus he has not overreached his “brand” and has stayed true to the small shop model he envisioned when I interviewed him in 2002.
In 2003 Bachar and Kwiatkowski, founders of Blackchair Microcinema, initially a programming organization, inaugurated DVD distribution with the “Blackchair Collection.” This collection serves as an umbrella for a DVD catalogue that includes the Blackchair label, the Blackchair Sessions, Independent Exposure DVDs, and other “micro-labels.” They are distributing “best of” and compilation DVDs, DVDs with the work or works of an individual artist, and DVDs from other distributors such as Matt McCormick’s Peripheral Cinema and Craig Baldwin’s OtherCinema. Most artists with Blackchair construct the graphics for both the packaging and internal menus of their DVDs, and Bachar and Kwiatkowski negotiate individual contracts with each artist for royalties. At this time, Bachar estimates that in general they pay artists 30% of the gross sales with no deductions for overheads such as marketing, cost of manufacture, salaries, etc. (email to author, May 1, 2003).
Bachar and Kwiatkowski see themselves as filling a niche market for short film and video compilations, working within the
“DIY or microcinema aesthetic…one of passionately providing alternatives to mainstream commercial entertainment” (Bachar and Kwiatkowski 2005).
They liken themselves to the SubPop record label, which was at the top of the wave of grunge rock’s commercial success in the 1990s, in that they are creating a brand name that will interest people in the work they distribute even if the buyer is unfamiliar with the individual artist. It remains to be seen if, like SubPop, at the peak of success they will sell controlling interest in their artists to a major label. Such a rock star model has resonated with young people and brought in diverse audience members and DVD buyers. For now, McCormick, Bachar, and Kwiatkowski are all able to support themselves, at least through their distribution companies. Whether this is a more robust distribution method helping to establish and maintain a broader market for experimental cinema remains to be seen.
In this essay I have shown how films function as a “distributed object” that serves as a representation and index for the filmmaker’s agency in action. As films circulate, whether physically with the filmmaker in attendance at screenings or not, they accrue symbolic capital for their makers by increasing the artists’ recognition and status. Films also serve to increase viewers’ status because, by viewing experimental films and knowing about them, the viewers—often filmmaker/viewers— become legitimized as members of the avant-garde film community. They acquire status through their knowledge of other filmmakers’ work and through their participation in communal screening events. Much like the Kula operators, by participating in the circulation of information and the communal ritual of the screening/gift exchange, filmmakers and viewers both increase their own status and help to sustain the exchange network and the community itself. The avant-garde is not a genre of filmmaking, an institution or simply a set of practices. It is a living, changing community, the boundaries of which are constantly being contested from both within and without. The community’s participants believe in the pursuit of their artistic practice, sometimes with a singleness of purpose and passion one would associate with an ascetic rather than an aesthete. This is perhaps the strongest belief that all artisanal filmmakers share, that making these small hand-made films is worth it.
*Corrected spelling from "Metholdology" to "Methodology"
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 License.
|Originally published in 2010 by Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media|
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010