Call & Response


  In the 1980s, some of the most ardent, persistent, and perspicacious champions of the American avant-garde - P. Adams Sitney, Fred Camper, Noel Carroll, J. Hoberman - made declarations to the effect that the movement was in a state of profound crisis.*  Supposed causes of the predicament were many and varied: skyrocketing costs of 16mm production; cutbacks in government and private foundation funding; a paucity of fresh styles or ideas in the rising generation of filmmakers; a corporately staged obsolescence of key equipment and film stocks; economic and aesthetic challenges posed by video; the negative impact of academic film theory.  Debate on the dire state of avant-garde film culminated in 1989 in a large, well-funded, and suitably contentious ''International Experimental Film Congress," held in Toronto, whose extensive screenings, panels, and informal events carried an unmistakably elegiac tone.

 A decade later the stream of grim assessments had evaporated, dismissed by some as stodgily alarmist and rebutted by the achievements of a vibrant cadre of younger artists and their return to the sort of vagrant, artisanal, trickle-up energies that had characterized the movement during prior moments of heightened creativity.  From a current perspective, there are several possible, not necessarily exclusive, reasons for the perception of "crisis" and its rapid reversal. Established critics and programmers might have been momentarily out of touch with grassroots, geographically dispersed factions at the forefront of change. Or perhaps avant-garde film is in perpetual crisis and pronouncements about its death form part of a self-validating ritual. A third option is that there was in fact a weakening of commitment but, phoenix like, the movement revived itself in response to what, especially, younger makers saw as a cycle of overconsolidation and complacency-rather than slippage-from which they gleaned opportunities for localized intervention. Whatever the case, this intramural profile does not take into account additional factors such as the broader state of visual culture, including mass culture, and various pressures exerted by feminist, queer, and minority political initiative. 

*...I participated in the chorus of naysaying by descrying the impact of narrative feature filmmaking on established avant-garde practices...

(Paul Arthur  A Line of Sight...)


from The Postmodern Moment


from Art after Modernism: Rethinking Representation


from American Film July-August 1985


from A Line of Sight...


Keith Sanborn's 1988 manifesto Modern, all too Modern


Let's set the record straight.

We challenge the official History promoted by the International Experimental Film Congress to be held in Toronto this Spring. The time is long overdue to unwrite the Institutional Canon of Master Works of the Avant-Garde. It is time to shift focus from the History of Film to the position of film within the construction of history. The narratives which take up this new task must respect the complexity of relations among the many competing and overlapping histories which make up the activity within the field.

We are concerned by the tone which pervades the announcements for the Congress. The recognition belatedly accorded to "the founding women of the avant-garde," the ceremonious embalming of lively, refractory work, the minimal attention given new work, the organization of screenings along nationalistic lines, and the "open" -- read "unpaid" -- screenings for those willing to pay $100 for the privilege, all betray a tokenism blind to any activities outside the officially sanctioned margins. And if our analytic concerns seem to prejudge the event, they are borne out with desolate clarity by the record of the Congress organizers in attempting to suppress dissent within their own community. Their efforts in Toronto against the Funnel Experimental Film Centre and against feminist film theory speak for themselves.

And while the putatively timeless Internationalism of the Congress should make it all things to all people, the overwhelming majority of the announced participants consists of representatives of the 60's Avant-Garde and its decaying power base. Only one or two younger filmmakers have been made part of the official program, though some of us will at least be discussed in our absence. Workshops are dominated by technological values and are lead exclusively by older men. In this context, the organization of screenings along nationalistic lines promises a replay of the results with which we have become all too familiar over the past decade: a government- subsidized inventory of products suitable for export. Work is chosen to minimize linguistic, sexual, and cultural difference, typically to conform to the model of the "universal language of form" so dear to institutional esperantists. Difference is recognized only where it can be recuperated and diluted to a tepid pluralism.

The "open screenings" at best provide an image of damage control. These screenings, as the de facto venue for new and unrecognized work, have been scheduled mostly for late in the evening at the end of full days of featured panels, workshops and screenings. Even without average festival delays, this scheduling usually bodes poorly for attendance. The priorities of the Congress organizers are clear: those without established institutional credentials are to be marginalized within the consolidation of the official margins, to be presented as Film Historical leftovers.

There is a spirit of mind which continues to challenge the hegemony of industry, of government, of bureaucracy. The revolutionary frame of mind pervading activity in film in the Teens and Twenties and again in the Fifties and Sixties -- which seemed to die in the Seventies -- continues to thrive, but only where it has shifted and migrated according to changing historical conditions. The issues which galvanized the Cinema Avant-Gardes of earlier decades arose from different conditions than those which confront us today. An event which promotes itself as of major importance to Experimental Film and fails to reflect the vitality and breadth, the vulnerability and urgency of current oppositional practice in the media renders nothing but obeisance to a moribund officialdom. It risks nothing but its own historical relevance.

The Avant-Garde is dead; long live the avant-garde.


Signed by 76 film-makers (U.S. and Canada):

Caroline Avery
Peggy Ahwesh
Timothy S. Allen
Craig Baldwin
Susan Banas
Jay Blankenship
Emily Breer
Don Brennan
Barbara Broughel
Edmund Cardoni
Abigail Child
Romy Charlesworth
Tom Chomon
Catherine Clarke
Bill Daniel
Moyra Davie
R. Dickie
Paul Dickinson
Jesse Drew
Barry Ellsworth
Steve Fagin
Bruce Fiene
Mary Filippo
Nina Fonoroff
Su Friedrich
John J. Gallagher
David Gerstein
Joe Gibbons
Annie Goldson
Barbara Hammer
Peter M. Hargrove
Todd Haynes
Eve Heller
Peter Herwitz
Robert Hilferty
Chris Hill
Kent Howie
Jim Hubbard
Barbara Lattanzi
I. Lempert
Lewis Klahr
Mark LaPore
Marck McElhatten
Ross McLaren
Deborah Meehan
Andy Moses
Allen Mukamal
Linda Peckham
John Porter
Yvonne Rainer
Berenice Reynaud
Tom Rhoads
Fabio Roberti
D. Rogers
Ron Rogers
Lynne Sachs
Keith Sanborn
Lincoln Schlensky
Sarah Schulman
M. M. Serra
Esther Shatavsky
Joe Shepard
Jeffrey Skoller
Karl Soehnlein
Philip S. Solomon
Carty Talkington
Christine Tamblyn
Leslile Thornton
Christine Vachon
Luis E. Vera
Susanna Virtamen
Jack Walsh
Dan Walsworth
Andreas Wildfang
Sarah E. Wright
Tom Zummer

(via Al Razutis)


my thanks to David Phelps for his assistance