When I received an invitation from Ralf Sausmikat and EMAF to do a film - video retrospective in Osnabruck, Germany, I pondered the implications: Do I focus on the ‘old’? Do I present installations of work in progress and the ‘new’? How do I fund the assembly of my archives and media? What about holography and web works? Who is the audience and what do they want? Am I ready for a retrospective or is there ‘too much work to still complete’?
And then there was the September 11th blues still agitating me. I had seen it TV-live on September 11th, and there wasn't much question where I stood on this issue. Terrorism was real, but my middle-aged 'leftist' friends in Canada were now agitating (again) against the US, with their tired anti-global slogans and their 'pro-Taliban rights' bullshit. Oh yes, 'stop the bombing' 'give peace a chance' 'no more racist wars' blah blah blah. And I was in my home in Baja, Mexico, living life, not words or memories.
I decided to go for it. The organizers were sincere. The timing was workable. My enemies were asleep.
A retrospective is a view in the rear mirror; typically, it valorizes past achievements, makes 'connections' to the present, draws thematic lines and delivers a ‘verdict’ (by the audience - jury) on how we got to where we are ‘now’. The argument is presented by curators, the defendant is the artist, the witnesses are the works (and circumstances), the hostile witnesses are the detractors (and their published articles, always circulating in the background), and there is little time to get into all the ‘details’ of what happened when, where, and who was doing ‘what and to whom’.
I am defensive about the past works. Too much shit has gone down, careers made and others ruined. Good works abandoned through poverty or neglect or simply abandoned when the detractors ‘take over’ the curating / distribution / exhibition scene in experimental film or video. (Here in Canada, the detractors are typically academic critics running a nationalist-chauvinist agenda, as in the case of Bruce Elder and Bart Testa (doing the Toronto-as-cultural-capitol-of-WASP-Canada shtick ), still alive and kicking in publications, no doubt emboldened by ongoing web defamations against me by Chuck Kleinhans (lurking in Frameworks to take another bite from the past). These people don’t ‘go away’, and time doesn’t ‘heal’ anything. They are toilet fixtures in an entrenched scene that simply won’t ‘retire’ and the nexus of their influence depends on those new-generation curators who read their historical fiction as fact. (The internet is also a repository of dislocated, expired correspondences, fueled by search engines and repetitions.)
As a (American first, Canadian later) underground filmmaker from ‘the 60's’, who didn’t like ‘art galleries’, whose optically printed innovations involved un-orthodoxies and film-video hybrids (moving from one to the other and back), who created video art, synthesizer and bio-feedback art, holographic art, performance-interventions, 3D video, virtual reality, web creations, who was against ‘national’ boundaries (schools) of avant-garde art (hence excommunicated constantly from the Kanadian and Amerikan schools - detention camps), as a ‘problem’ in more ways than one, I thought it time to restart the contemplation of overlooked histories in ‘how it got to now’ in media arts. I expected to present a body of works that traced a migration of 'motion picture' art from analog to digital, from 2D to 3D, from linear to non-linear, and of course I would include the dirt and the politics. But I don’t like traveling across time zones anymore. It’s hard work, underpaid (I can’t get travel grants from Canadians anymore) and I wonder where my ‘day job’ will come from when the trip is over. With those intersections of themes, technologies and interests, I knew that a retrospective projection - exhibition would inevitably ‘tend towards the linear’ (chronological), and I decided to show a number of intersecting instances and let the audience figure out the ‘connections’.
And what of ‘political art’ (typically referring to ‘leftist art’)? I fully expected to engage with the post 9/11 anti-American anti-Global 'leftism' that was rearing it's ugly masked heads in the herds of demonstrating activists that were content with their un-analyzed sympathies for Arab terrorists and Muslim fundamentalists hell-bent on fucking over a planet and confiscating every ‘infidel’ cultural artifact, cassette player, vcr, Barbie doll, TV, washing machine, house, car that they could lay their hands on in the name of their holy land. I was prepared to assert that as a 'leftist-anarchist' I was disgusted by the rhetoric and destructiveness of the demonstrating anti-WTO anti-global anti-NAFTA anti-American mobs who were 'impersonating' and ultimately discrediting 'the left' by their imbecile violent behaviors and utterances and slogans (like as if it was ‘Bush’s War’ and not the eradication of socio-pathic assholes!). I was, however, unprepared to see (as I would in some programs at the EMAF) the docile and cowardly ‘leftism’ emanating from American film-makers (Rosenblatt, Zahedi, Soe) who still were ‘not sure’ what to make of this ‘terrorism’ except to offer psycho-babble (‘the Bush and Bin Laden in each of us’ - Zahedi) or offer a glossy paralysis of the left argument (‘I don’t know what to say’ - Soe) in compiled program presentations like ‘Underground Zero’ (a really offensive bit of ‘who wants to submit a short’ US compilation by Rosenblatt / Zahedi), but there would never be, in any of the screenings I attended, any righteous debate about any world issues and their relationship to the works presented during the entire week at EMAF.
But I was primarily invited to present works, not make speeches, and my politics was well-known to anyone who had read Canadian, American or web articles, interviews, or my web postings concerning 'where I stood', so I knew that only a certain live audience would be present at this retrospective and people would try to be polite in what they perceived was a formal occasion.
I was shocked, upon arriving at EMAF and looking at their catalog, to see some extracts from my political writings - manifestos prominently re-printed (with a rarely seen competence in editing) in the EMAF catalog:
Click to view EMAF Retrospective Catalog (Complete - 745 K - .PDF file)
'Three Decades of Rage' - source interview
(by Mike Hoolboom - from 'Fringe Film in Canada' , Coach House Books. 1997)
text only - 225K download .DOC file
This media migration from film to video to digital was a pain in the ass for us who dared to challenge the orthodox views that ‘film was film’ and ‘video was video’ and ‘never the two shall meet.’ The 70’s - 80’s were decades of experimentation and hybrid (film - video - digital) media creations and there were a lot of denunciations by filmmakers of video art, and video artists of film art, to make the task nearly unbearable and certainly unprofitable in the curated exhibition scenes (dominated in Canada by the purists - read, media fundamentalists). Without the Canada Council media funding of the 70’s - 80’s, little hybrid art would have taken place, but by the 90’s the Council’s priorities changed and the old histories were largely forgotten.
This migration from film to digital began in the 60’s, long before digital video, and was set into motion by both group (EAT, Intermedia, etc.) and individual (film - video makers) efforts. The history of this migration is largely ignored in the US and Canada; it is ‘taken for granted’ by many current film and video artists (most under the age of 30) whose relationship to the ‘old school’ is basically one of ‘what can I grab from that past’ and use it in my own effects ‘demo reel’. As in the history of '60's rock', the 'old school' (underground, experimental, independent) film/video is typically understood in terms of a few (usually canonized) works which are rarely exhibited (in classrooms or festivals) and historicized in a few ‘authoritative’ books on a subject that is full of sentimental(ized) anecdotes of heroic struggles. EMAF, unknown to me until later, had actually had a history of presenting retrospectives of film - video makers (eg. Vanderbeek, Whitney, Warhol, Paik, LeGrice, Baillie, and others) that traced the many routes of the evolution from film to ‘expended cinema’ , to video, to digital.
So, I assumed that my works were invited to fill some of the other gaps, and also include the 'politics' of the expired 80's avant-garde in Canada with which I did battle back then. My writings and works will testify, even on this web site, that I have been an advocate and practitioner of the shift from film to video to digital, and that my other media works (eg. holography, installation, intervention-performance) have influenced this shift. But this advocacy has come at a price: I have assembled a number of powerful enemies in media art and academia (they are discussed below) and the result has been a ex-communication from both Canadian and American exhibitions, histories, and grants-awards. That is a very real price to pay, and it, obviously, delivers one to another ‘displaced persons camp’ (the exiled but international avant-garde) where even the simple act of ‘preserving’ or ‘duplicating’ works is nearly impossible.
I have a overriding contempt for the academic manipulators of culture: especially those (Silverman, Testa, Elder) that write prescriptive texts on what ‘should be made’ and by ‘whom’, what is an ‘important’ undertaking (prescribing ‘what theory is appropriate’ for the analysis) and getting fat with their cronies and tenured in the process. Typically these authors come from another discipline (for example: Kaja Silverman’s background was in Renaissance literature, Bart Testa was a Theology student and English lecturer) but that didn’t prevent them from pontificating about ‘feminist psychoanalytic semiotics’ , the ‘avant-garde and new narrative’, manipulating conference agendas, stacking curriculum, engaging in cronyisms, etc. These are not ‘creators’ of culture, but pretentious ‘commentators’ whose role (as well-paid and well-supported teachers in educational institutions) has been one of censorship (of that which they object to) and promotion of those individuals and works that they are in collusion with. (Every prescription needs a ‘test’ result, hence the collusion between the ‘theorist’ that prescribes and the ‘filmmaker’ whose works are a ‘example’ of the prescription. No kidding.)
I was born in Bamberg, Germany in 1946; my few memories of my childhood there (we left for the US on a Red Cross ship in 1949, bound for New York and Ellis Island as displaced persons immigrating to a new land) were of bombed out buildings and an orphanage. It was time to update those memories.
I also brought along a folder of letters - correspondence between Mike Hoolboom and I in the 80’s, all dealing with the politics of art, avant-garde, Kanadian film art and manifestos which I thought might prepare me for more political discussion.
My EMAF catalog interview (from 1990) with Hoolboom portrayed me as a media gangster ("Before a shocked crowd, he wipped out a spray can and scrawled 'The Avant-Garde spits in the face of institutional art’ on the brand new screen, ruining it forever") and I presumed that this would color any film exhibition. I had promised a performance. But ten years later I felt less of a gangster and more and more as a 'displaced person' again. I didn't speak Germa, hadn't received government suport from Canada (though I was billed as a 'Canadian' artist), and didn't share the current (anti-U.S., anti-Israel, anti-global pan-capitalism, anti-military response to 9/11) 'fashion' of the left’ nor wore it on my sleeve, and felt particularly isolated.
However, Germany was, in a phrase, a pleasant surprise.
As in France and elsewhere in Europe, the EMAF organizers celebrate film and video and digital media as avant-garde art, host yearly retrospectives of 'forgotten' US and Canadian Filmmakers (Van der Beek, Whitney, Warhol, Baillie, Rimmer, and many others) and engage in the analysis and discrouse of film-video from a living, not academically sanitized, culture point of view. Contrary to popular belief, German exhibitions organizations (EMAF, Kinematheque Karlsruhe, Kino Freiberg) do not get large subsidies from the federal government: the major support comes at the municipal level. Compared to the 'rich' coops (per capita funding) in Canada, whose accomplishments pale in comparison to the Germans, whose distribution - exhibition networks are guarantors of poverty for the film - video producers (I have withdrawn everything), the German scene was engagingly fresh and productive. (And just think, these activities in a rebuilding post-war Europe are largely done in spite of the continuing hegemony of Hollywood and the US-based 'canon' of the underground/experimental/avant-garde film and video culture.)
Europeans, and Germans in particular, have a respect (but not veneration) for the past that integrates quite effectively into the politicized media present, experimental media, philosophical speculations concerning the future. It’s a place where ideas lead, and debate is respected.
It’s also a place where your hosts are generous, in time and effort, where technical support is abundant, where streets are friendly and where cities and landscapes are surprising and inspiring.
I arrived after an 18-hour coast to coast, over the Atlantic, transfer in London, another transfer in Amsterdam, train to Osnabruck, day, changed into a ‘suit’ and appeared briefly at the EMAF opening party, then slept. The next day I got a chance to read the catalog shortly before starting with my work from ‘the 60’s’ in the first of five presentation screenings. The festival was spread out over multiple locations - venues, installation works, parallel screening, and lousy weather typified a week with a lot to digest in so little time. My hosts were gracious, efficient, and passionate about media culture. I wondered what ‘happened in the US or Canada’ and why Europe seemed to be more ‘with it’ than my home turf.
I checked out the catalog. There were 35 pages in the center dedicated to the retrospective, and the texts (interview by Hoolboom, manifestos and extracts from my writings, images from the web) and their selection surprised me. I was grateful that Ralf and his colleagues had extracted meaningful portions from volumes of web materials and grateful that the work was being honored, not trashed (as in Testa’s Canadiana, or Kleinhans’ web clique), and I was humbled by the efforts of the EMAF people to celebrate this work in a manner that it had not been celebrated before.
My Program One (‘Short Films’) was a bit of a shock to me. I had not screened some of the prints (e.g. ‘1967-1969’, ‘Sircus’ ‘AAEON’) for over fifteen years and when I viewed them in the darkened cave of the EMAF theater I was slightly embarrassed by the naïve quality of some of the content from the 60's, early 70's. Oh well, that’s how it began, and hell, I was in my early 20’s, and that was then, and however naïve it seemed, there were the foundations, take it or leave it.
(I am ‘impressed’ by my own obsessions to ‘do everything’ (shoot, edit, time the prints for the lab, optical printing, sound, titles, the works) and wondered where the energy came from, and then remembered what ALL of us did as 'filmmakers'.)
Some of the prints had faded, the blacks were turning ‘red’, they were hard to focus, the emulsion was swelling, and the fact that the films were older than the under-thirty year olds in the audience was an irony lost on no one.
I could see that my obsessions with detail, synthesis of form (first the optical printer, then the synthesizer), alchemy, technology, and dreamworks (creating works that were influenced by dreams) was part of the foundation that would continue throughout the rest of the decades. And the ‘anti-establishment’, anti-commerce, anti-military-capitalism sentiments of my 60’s works would continue to revisit the works of the 70’s and 80’s. Too late to re-edit.
The audience didn't say much. Some left during the screening (there are other screenings to visit). No questions afterwards. Everyone was very polite. I expected some kick-ass interventions. It wasn't going to be.
Program Two (Video and Splice) featured a program of videos (Ghosts in the Machine, VR A Movie, Why Don’t You Just Leave?) and a film (On the Problem of....Splice) in a theme of provocations, denunciations, interventions - appropriations, and excommunication. I'm thinking: 'It’s a heavy show, and heavy for me. I wonder what the women in the audience think of VR A Movie’s Hollywood cyber violence and misogyny', but no one said anything afterwards. I wondered what people think of me defacing a movie theater, denouncing the Canadian film avant-garde, but no one said anything afterwards.
Program Three (3D Video, Performance, and VR) was a tough act. Initially, I intended to present a new manifesto, changed my mind, then put together a improvised performance script, got a actress-assistant and props, took a rest, worked on the tech (with a bunch of wonderful tech guys) and did the 3D video show and performance in a wheel-chair with the wanna-be gamer console VR graphics and me ranting about the psychiatric ‘institution’ which I ‘find myself in’.
Program Four (AMERIKA - 3 screens) was not really suited for the cave theater, but with Ralf’s crew, we pulled it off, sort of (the sound mix featured drop outs). But the film, it’s three side by side screens, it’s wall of images and noise, it’s linked and hyper-linked structure was delivered to a full audience. I talked about it being denounced in Canada by Testa and Elder as being ‘Un-Kanadian’, I talked about my exclusions from Avant-Garde conferences (London 79 and Toronto 89), I talked of censorship, of non-linearity and interactive cinema, of V-Jay strategies (like this one), I talked of provocation. The audience was polite and there were no questions afterwards.
Program Five (Visual Essays) was the last show, last day, taking place on my birthday, and a little anti-climactic. It’s a poetic multi-part film, rigorous in it's structual formalism, with the politics being confined to Eisenstein’s works, and after the previous works, a little ‘after the fact’. It’s fun, it’s tiring, I’m tired.
Week's end. Time to say goodbye, take a train to Bamberg, see where I was born, and see the Germany that I’ve read about. I’m going to Bavaria (Bayern) and from there to Karlsruhe. And I don’t speak German and hope that I’ll meet a lot of students (who speak English) along the way.
KINEMATEK KARLSRUHE IN THE SHADOW OF ZKM:
Alfred Meyer and his colleagues at Kinematek Karlsruhe are a brave and underpaid bunch. While their city is another tourist gem, and their home is near the downtown core, the Kinematek’s commitment to alternative, experimental and sometimes avant-garde cinema is sure to keep it on the economic fringe (commercial cinema, being what it is worldwide). Alfred was magnanimous in his organizing of the show (an audience that would be small) and being the host of my visit. The Kinematek Karlsruhe is both an exhibition house and archive of past writings and exhibition catalogs. It is a remarkable island in an otherwise indifferent city. It exists in the shadows of ZKM (Center for Art and Media) - a vast and well-funded complex of offices, meeting rooms, exhibition halls, production facilities, two art museums, and lots of electrical and plumbing. The fact that ZKM occupies such prominence (and enjoys a worldwide reputation in media arts studies) should be the occasion for some kind of collaboration, but as Alfred Meyer pointed out, ZKM operates as it’s own island, and has little demonstrated interested in supporting the Kinematek and it’s activities. (An exception is noted: Susan Ackers , who was also kind enough to discuss with me while I visited ZKM many interesting new-media topics that are contemporary in Europe.)
Visual Essays, Splice and a brief (somewhat disjointed) program of web media was shown to a very small audience on a rainy evening. The hosts did all they could but the context and circumstance was very modest. And that’s fine, because my retrospective works were there for those who cared. The ones that are all wrapped up in ‘new media’ (the digital domain) were either too busy with their tech or generally uninterested in the past. I hope that the Kinematek archives are preserved, that Alfred and his colleagues get a ‘better deal’ from those who fund culture.
One thing that this visit rekindled in me was the admiration that I have for European cultural activists (like Sausmikat and Meyer) in their ongoing efforts to preserve and celebrate avant-garde film culture even though it has fallen from ‘grace’ in it’s own country (Canada or US). How bizarre it is to travel across the world to show works which are relatively ignored in one’s own backyard!
FREIBURG AND THE RESTAURANT-BAR AT THE TRAIN STATION:
At the edge of the Black Forest there is Freiburg, with it’s medieval looking old town center, tourists, and the Kino theater - offices in a converted train station. Wolfgang Lahmann organized my brief visit and exhibition to this unique place in the south of Germany. I presented a program featuring ‘Visual Essays: Origins of Film’ (film) and ‘Why Don’t You Just Leave?’ (videotape ) in their film theater, and added a program of stereoscopic 3D video works (running simultaneously with the films) for the patrons of the restaurant-bar to view at their leisure. I liked the energy, dedication, and knowledge of the organizers and audience, and in one of the few instances of dialogue and discussion, I had a chance to converse with the audience on a number of issues after the show.
I left the following morning for Osnabruck (to retrieve my other films), then stops in Amsterdam, London-Heathrow, and back to L.A. and the parking lot known as ‘Southern California’.
TIME TO PAY THE MAN:
Money runs Hollywood, along with leased luxury cars, cel phones, and lots of hype. Lack of money runs the avant-garde, into non-existence. Try to ‘make a living’ as a avant-garde film and video artist, or a non-commercial web and digital media artist, in LA, or North America. Just try it, without some ‘day job’. It’s almost impossible.
Coming home just in time to read the bills. Update the website. Rock and rant.
Europe is recommended for those who want to meet a intelligent, active, experimental cultural scene, free from the hype of American or Canadian ‘cultural industries’ and their funny money, lease cars, stolen ideas, cel phone quack quack. I'm sick of Hollywood.
Time to engage with a future that keeps shape-shifting.
Now, how do I pay the bills?
XAl Razutis, May-June 2002