Underground über Alles
To my mind, and with all due respect to the organizers, with whom I could have or should have discussed this earlier, the title of our session sounds a bit strange: "Overall Underground." It's clever and poetic, but its aims are certainly not within our reach, as if we on this panel or anyone on a panel can address an overall underground, an underground regarded as a whole or an underground considered generally. I am confident that none of us on the panel and none of the organizers think that there is an underground but rather something like specific historically determined underground scenes or films or filmmakers. And, of these scenes or films or filmmakers, we will only be addressing a small number here, primarily focusing on examples from North and South America and Western Europe.1
Looked at another way, the title might have worked well in reverse order "Underground Overall"–or even "Underground Overalls," a nice fashion idea! But, actually, as "Underground Over All," the title functions as a translation into English of "Underground über alles," like "California über alles," a punk perspective that on the surface treats the underground as the most important thing for us to consider in the context of a congress about film as an experimental mode of thought, a congress with a history tied to experimental film and the avant-garde. Of course, such a title "Underground über Alles," can't escape its reference by way of the Dead Kennedys song to a critique of a fascist celebration of the state over the individual. If we carried this allusion further, we'd have to ask what kind of menacing underground or what menacing conception of the underground is being celebrated here. Those of us who don't just want to rest in punk provocation would likely want to distinguish the term "underground" from others like "avant-garde" or "independent" or "free cinema," all terms used historically to describe periods, movements or histories of radical innovation in filmmaking.
But, in the age of flourishing underground film festivals (even the advertising agency that supplies moving images for the Berlin subway runs its own underground fest), we would do well to try to specify which meaning of underground we are privileging when we use the term. These festivals include the Chicago Underground Film Festival (entering its 20th year), the Melbourne Underground Film Festival (in its 13th year), the Calgary Underground Film Festival (in its 10 year), the Lausanne Underground Film Festival (entering its 12th year), and the Oakland Underground Film festival (in its 4th year). This is, of course, just a small sampling of the many festivals around the world that feature the word "underground" in their title. A closer look at such festivals, their programming, sponsorship, screening locations and their own self-conceptions would, I imagine, complicate our understanding of the contemporary usage of the term. Since my interest here, however, is to turn to earlier conceptions of underground film, I'm not going to go into more detail about these festivals–that could be a subject for discussion–but I would like to offer by way of example one contemporary definition of underground that I take from the Oakland Underground Festival's website: "To us underground means: unconventional, bottom-up, misfit, badass, outsider, outlaw, rebel, underdog, minority, local, urban, green, and revolutionary."
Despite conflicting and extremely subjective ideas about its meaning, the underground is obviously not an antique. It lives. But is this living underground what we mean we speak of an underground over all, an underground über alles?
There are many more "underground" festivals and screening events that might not be so named, but nevertheless seem to or intend to carry forth the spirit of that Golden Age of a historical underground, by which I mean that period in the United States between, say, 1961 with the start of a screening series of midnight movies at the Charles Theater in New York and 1966, the year of Andy Warhol's 3 ½ hour, double-screen epic The Chelsea Girls.2 The Chelsea Girls was according to then New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, the first underground film to surface in mid-town Manhattan and to have "taken over a theater with real carpets."3 (So here's another determination of the underground: such films are typically screened in theaters without real carpets.) I take this periodization of the American Underground from Juan Suárez's book, Bike Boys, Drag Queens, and Superstars.4 Others would date it differently, perhaps going back earlier to 1959, the year of both Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie's Pull My Daisy and John Cassavetes Shadows, both films that Suárez to my mind rightly relegates to the period of the New American Cinema, rather than to the underground proper. For Suárez, 1966 marks a turning point, not just because of the carpets, but also because it was the year of Tony Conrad's The Flicker, a film that signaled a shift in avant-garde filmmaking to structuralist cinema, that mode of innovation that dominated production in North America and Europe for just about the next decade. But if the New American Cinema precedes the underground and structuralist cinema, at least in this account, succeeds it: what is it actually?
Jim Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum offer a definition that is in line with Suárez's periodization and conception of the underground as a cultural formation, if a bit more limited in its scope. In their Midnight Movies, they write:
Throughout the 1960s, underground movies were synonymous with all avant-garde or experimental films….however, we have narrowed the focus of the term to concentrate on a group of filmmakers who emerged in New York City in the early '60s and whose work was distinguished from both commercial movies and the earlier avant-garde by a combination of willful primitivism, taboo-breaking sexuality, and obsessive ambivalence toward American popular culture (mainly Hollywood).5
The filmmakers they focus on include Ron Rice (The Flower Thief, 1960, and The Queen of Sheba Meets The Atom Man, 1963), Jack Smith (Flaming Creatures, 1963), Ken Jacobs (the early films with Jack Smith, Little Stabs at Happiness, 1963, Star Spangled to Death, etc.), Vern Zimmerman (To L.A. with Lust), Kenneth Anger (Scorpio Rising, 1963) and Andy Warhol. Hoberman and Rosenbaum narrow the meaning of the term to distinguish their usage from earlier writers, including Manny Farber whose 1957 essay "Underground Films: A Bit of Male Truth" referred primarily to Farber's beloved and at the time undervalued action films by Hollywood directors like Howard Hawks and Raoul Walsh. But Hoberman and Rosenbaum also wanted to specify an underground that differs from the broader and influential distinction made by filmmaker Stan Vanderbeek who, in a manifesto from 1961 "The Cinema Delimina: Films from the Underground," singled out filmmakers like Robert Frank, Shirley Clarke, Norman McClaren, Jonas Mekas, Stan Brakhage, Bruce Conner, Gregory Markopolous and many more. As Suarez points out, Vanderbeek's text furthers a tradition of American modernist writing on the alienated intelligentsia. Vanderbeek writes: "But now the most revolutionary art form of our times is in the hands of entertainment merchants, stars, manufacturers…Meanwhile, what of the artists, poets, experimenters in America, who must work as if they were secret members of the underground?"6 With overtones of guerilla warfare, Vanderbeek specifies those personal, non-commercial innovators in film language and form, not necessarily as artists who choose to work in the clandestine atmosphere of the underground, but as those who due to the economic dominance of the film and advertising industry are forced to do so.7
Obviously, my discussion and periodization of the underground thus far privileges developments in North America. Indeed, even the idea that the underground ends when structural cinema begins falls apart if we consider a European underground. As Birgit Hein notes in her seminal 1971 book Film im Underground, the origins of a West European underground can best be dated back to late 1967 and the 4th International Experimental Film Competition at Knokke-le-Zoute in Belgium.8 There were of course European filmmakers and events prior to Knokke that could be considered underground, but after Knokke there was a period of newfound cooperation, collaboration and communication among previously isolated filmmakers and groups in London, Cologne, Hamburg, Vienna, Rome, Paris, and Zürich, among other cities. There were new screening venues like XSCREEN in Cologne founded in March 1968 by W+ B Hein and others, new film coops like the Austrian Filmmakers Coop founded in May 1968 by a group of filmmakers including Kurt Kren, Valie Export, Peter Weibel, Ernst Schmidt Jr. and Hans Scheugl, and new journals like Supervisuell founded in February 1968 and coordinated by Klaus Schönherr in Zurich. All of these artist-initiated, institutional developments led to a consolidation and proliferation of experimental filmmaking efforts in Europe after Knokke so that one could reasonably mark 1967 as the beginning of a broad post-war Western European underground film scene or subculture. This is interestingly one year after the so-called death of a particular North American underground. At least in Europe, then, structural, materialist, structural-materialist, or formal film would remain the dominant strand of an underground.
But to continue with this somewhat schematic characterization of a Western European post-war underground, when did it end? In her introduction to Film im Underground, Birgit Hein writes, "The term underground has today become an advertising slogan for the commercial appraisal of subculture."9 Since, as I recently learned from Birgit Hein, her publisher Ullstein insisted–against her wishes–that the word "underground" be featured in the title of her book so as to help sales, it would seem that Hein's assessment of the underground as already commercialized was self-reflexive. Interestingly, in the same year that Birgit Hein made this self-reflexive statement, W+B Hein and their XSCREEN colleagues published XScreen: Materialien über den Undergroundfilm, a substantially illustrated, over-size book that documents their efforts over the previous four years with the important Cologne screening series and begins with a manifesto-like preface called "Underground Film: Against Commerce and the Business of Culture."10 They celebrate here a diverse underground film scene precisely for its self-consciousness as a subculture and for its defiance of the "commercial appraisal" that their very publications would seem to offer.
Is the underground that suffered death throes in 1971, the same one invoked by Wilhelm Hein almost forty-five years later in the title of his epic 2005 film and publication project, You Killed the Underground Film or the Real Meaning of Kunst bleibt…bleibt…?11 After a screening of Hein's film at the Arsenal Cinema in Berlin in late 2006, the filmmaker received the expected question from the audience about the finger pointing of his film's title, namely "who killed the underground?". After a short pause, he mumbled, "I did," before launching into a–for him–characteristic attack against the art world and academics.12 Since the "you" who killed underground film is apparently an "I" as well, Wilhelm Hein's film title was revealed to have a self-reflexive component to it. I suspect that with this revelation Hein intended to refer critically to his own tireless engagement, together with Birgit Hein, during the 1970s at advocating for institutional recognition of the artistic value of underground and avant-garde film. Throughout their period of collaboration, from approximately 1966-1989, the Heins curated museum exhibitions that incorporated film projections and installations, essayed texts arguing for the legitimacy of film as an art form, and eventually took on positions in universities and art schools to teach the history of underground film.13 If we follow Wilhelm Hein's thinking, we would conclude that what was "killed" through the Heins' important advocacy was an idea of the underground as permanently transgressive, uncompromisingly anti-institutional, and radically and eternally subcultural.
On the occasion of a recent screening of Wilhelm Hein's work and that of other underground filmmakers, Malcolm Legrice ruminated on this question of the death of the underground. I quote at length from Legrice's text:
So what was the Underground Film and who killed it? In the 1960’s I think we ‘radical’ film-makers all talked of ourselves as "Underground." That was the word then – not so much, Avant-garde or Experimental. "Underground" variously linked with: student protest against the Vietnam war; a mainly ‘youth’ revolt against capitalism, consumerism, class based dress codes and life-style; and often ran parallel to rock music. The classic Underground cinema was transgressive. Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, for example, by confronting the representation of un-repressed sexuality, was subject to censorship and police raids. Underground film attacked the explicit censorship imposed by law but also the implicit self-censorship of the film-maker….While the "Underground" opposed commercial cinema, it also opposed the idea of art as a commodity and with it the linked system of dealerships, museums and galleries. It was also strongly anti-academic. But even film-makers who wanted to work with the art world and academic institutions still found experimental film marginalised….So who killed the Underground Film? Well to some extent probably artists like me who stressed the Avant-garde, Experimental concept of film and now of video and digital cinema stepping away from the Underground’s transgressive roots. But also the transgression changed.14
In these statements (of which I have quoted but a few sections), Legrice clarifies both the politicized context in which the 1960s underground took shape and some of the artistic and academic developments that lead to its later institutionalization and eventual dissipation. The reduction of these broader institutional and economic changes to the level of the individual–as in the "you" of Wilhelm Hein's film title–doesn't seem like it moves us much further in our understanding of the shifting boundaries of underground film over the past five decades. But Hein's finger-pointing and his fondness for name calling (directed at academics, curators, film programmers, and most anyone else who shows an active interest in underground film) may themselves be some of the artist's strategies for maintaining a semblance of underground transgression in a changing world. As such, I suspect that Hein intends to fashion himself in the tradition of other transgressive underground figures such as Otto Mühl, Nick Zedd and Jack Smith, all of whom are present in one way or another in his 2005 film, the soundtrack of which, for instance, features excerpts of a Smith performance in Cologne in 1974 in which he bemoans the commercialization and "thinning" of art.
Smith, in particular, seems to have been of unique importance as a figure of underground resistance for both Birgit and Wilhelm Hein. In a publication of their letters and other documents, they write of Smith's brief stay with them in Cologne in 1974 as follows: "On the first night, we discussed the film industry and capitalism, and he proved himself to be the most intellectual of all the [New] American filmmakers we had met up to that point. He was the only one who really saw through the system.”15 Despite my previous scholarship on Jack Smith, I knew little about his experiences and influence in Germany until I became acquainted with the Heins and some of the other German artists Smith encountered throughout the 1970s and early '80s. I have since begun focussing my Smith research on the artist's three visits to Germany: to Cologne in 1974 to participate in the exhibition Project '74; again to Cologne in 1977 to participate in the Art Fair; and to Hamburg in 1983 to present his performance Death of a Penguin in a performance festival. I'm hopeful that this research will not only provide some insight into the artist's lesser known later work, but will also interrupt genealogies of the North American underground by opening them up to such unexpected transatlantic detours. Some of my initial findings about Smith in Germany were presented in the context of LIVE FILM! JACK SMITH! Five Flaming Days in a Rented World, the two-part film, performance and art festival that Susanne Sachsse, Stefanie Schulte Strathaus and I organized for the Arsenal and Hebbel am Ufer Theater (HAU) in Berlin in 2009.16
Juan Suárez's presentation at LIVE FILM! interrupted existing narratives of the North American underground in a quite different way. Suárez presented an argument about the confluence of tropicalism and localism that marks Smith's work and links it with that of Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica.17 Oiticica became familiar with Smith's work during his period of exile in New York in the early 1970s and this encounter, particularly with Smith's use of projected slide images in performances, exerted great influence on Oiticica's later artistic projects, most immediately evident in his own slide-show environments that he called "Cosmococas."18 Suárez's interest in the two artists is less a question of influence–it's quite clear from Oiticica's own statements how important Smith was for his work, but there's no evidence of Smith being particularly interested in or knowledgeable about Oiticica's work–than of the uses of the tropical in two extremely different contexts, Brazil during the dictatorship and New York at the end of the 1960s. By creating a dialogue between these two artists, Suárez not only tells us a great deal about each of them, but in the process–and this is what interests me here–deterritorializes the North American underground.
Concurrently with Suárez's research, Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz, in a number of writing projects and lectures, has investigated Oiticica's work through the lens of his eight-year stay in New York.19 Hinderer Cruz's writing on the encounter between Oiticica and Smith both attends to the local specificity of each artist's work and attempts to excavate a larger critical and political position shared by these very different figures. Following Oiticica's lead, Hinderer Cruz names this critical position "tropicamp" and gestures thereby to an internationalist (and queer) alliance and critique of the commercialization of the underground. "Tropicamp" is a neologism coined by Oiticica in a brief text called "Mario Montez, Tropicamp" originally published in a Brazilian underground journal in 1971.20 In the text Oiticica posits an alliance between the tropicália cultural movement in Brazil and the queer underground scene around Smith and embodied by Mario Montez. As Hinderer Cruz puts it, tropicamp "characterizes a resistant element in the gradual commercialization of queer aesthetics at the time."21 For Oiticica, the particular brand of camp practiced by Montez and Smith stood as a critique of the commercialization of underground culture, a commercialization best figured in Warhol's move at the beginning of the 1970s from the business of art to the art of business and his corresponding move away from the lively characters, like Montez, who populated his 1960s films.
By concluding this introductory discussion of the underground with these brief references to Suárez and Hinderer Cruz's analyses of what we might consider an internationalist alliance among underground cultural movements, I hope to leave us with an underground that is hardly dead and gone, but on the contrary is in emergence elsewhere–not overall, but overseas perhaps–in previously unexpected encounters.22
- 1. Through his independent curatorial work and his all too brief tenure as director of the Experimental Forum section of the Thessaloniki Film Festival, Vassilis Bourikas has done exemplary work in excavating a history of underground film in Eastern Europe. I'm thinking in particular of the great programs he organized on the Kino Club movement in former Yugoslavia, the Béla Balász Studio in Hungary, and on specific filmmakers like Karpo Godina, Ivan Ladislav Galeta and Ljubomir Simunic.
- 2. The emergence of cooperative 16mm film labs in Paris, Berlin, Athens and Cairo over the past decade is an example of developments within contemporary international film culture that stand in the tradition of a classical underground. These labs have forged a thriving network of international cooperation in matters of 16mm film production, development and exhibition seemingly in defiance of the larger cultural and industrial trend towards the digital.
- 3. Qtd. In Douglas Crimp, "Our Kind of Movie": The Films of Andy Warhol (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012), 103.
- 4. Juan A. Suárez, Bike Boys, Drag Queens, and Superstars: Avant-Garde, Mass Culture, and Gay Identities in the 1960s Underground Cinema (Bloomington and Indianapolis: University of Illinois Press, 1997), 55.
- 5. J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, Midnight Movies (New York: Da Capo, 1983), 40.
- 6. Qtd. in Suárez, Bike Boys, 83.
- 7. Of course, when the film and advertising industries respond to the challenges of the underground and a broader counterculture–as they did in the 1960s–the determinants of an underground will necessarily have to change as well. In this respect, see Thomas Frank, The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counter Culture and the Rise of Hip Consumerism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). I thank Michael Zyrd for this insight and reference.
- 8. Birgit Hein, Film im Underground (Frankfurt/M.: Ullstein, 1971), in particular 136-147.
- 9. Hein, Film im Underground, 7 (my translation).
- 10. W+B Hein, Christian Michelis, Rolf Wiest, Hg., XSCREEN: Materialien über den Undergroundfilm (Köln: Phaidon Verlag, 1971), 5-7.
- 11. For more on Hein's project see Hein, You Killed the Underground Film or the Real Meaning of Kunst bleibt...bleibt... (Köln: Passenger Verlag, 2007) and the companion publication of Hein's ten-volume diary of the same name, which was available in its entirety online for about five years at: http://www.wilhelmhein.de/website/list.html. As far as I know the website is no longer active.
- 12. This screening took place in the context of an extensive film series that I curated for the Arsenal and the Forum and Forum Expanded sections of the Berlinale called "Underground, Overseas: From Jack Smith and Andy Warhol to Zanzibar." The series of over twenty-five programs, which ran from December 2006 to February 2007, explored aesthetic, political and historical connections among transatlantic underground scenes in the 1960s and '70s.
- 13. For more on the Hein's collaborative work, see my essay "Reproducing W+B Hein's Material Films," in the DVD booklet accompanying W+B Hein: Materialfilme 54 (Munich: Edition Filmmuseum, 2012).
- 14. Malcolm Legrice, "You Killed the Underground Film or the Real Meaning of Kunst bleibt...bleibt...", http://slypropotter.org/wilhelm-hein/le-grice March 2, 2012 (last accessed February 3, 2014).
- 15. Christiane Habich, ed. W+B Hein. Dokumente 1967-1985, Fotos, Briefe, Texte. (Frankfurt a/M: Deutsches Filmmuseum, 1985), 62, my translation.
- 16. Alongside Birgit and Wilhelm Hein, German artists Klaus Mettig, Michael Krebber, Ulrike Ottinger, Justus Köhnke, Beatrice Cordua, and Petra Korink each presented work at the festival that they made either in collaboration with Jack Smith or in dialogue with him. In this context, I also organized and moderated a panel discussion with Birgit Hein, Mettig, Krebber and Korink that focusssed specifically on Smith's visits to Germany.
- 17. Suárez's text will appear as "Jack Smith, Hélio Oiticica, Tropicalism" in Criticism 56.2 (Special Issue on Jack Smith, edited by Marc Siegel), forthcoming.
- 18. For more on the Cosmococcas and this link between Oiticica and Smith, see Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz, "TROPICAMP: Some Notes on Hélio Oiticica's 1971 Text" in Afterall 28 (2011): 5-15; and Sabeth Buchmann and Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz , Hélio Oiticica and Neville D'Almeida: Block-Experiments in Cosmococa–Program in Progress (London: Afterall, 2013).
- 19. See, in particular, Hinderer Cruz, "TROPICAMP."
- 20. Hélio Oiticica, "Mario Montez, Tropicamp," Trans. Max Jorge Hinderer Cruz Afterall 28 (2011): 17-21.
- 21. Hinderer Cruz, "TROPICAMP," 5.
- 22. By bringing together scholars, filmmakers, curators, and artists from vastly different cultural and political localities–from India, the Middle East and Eastern Europe to Western Europe and North America–and with diverging perspectives on art- and imagemaking, and on distribution and exhibition, the THINK:FILM congress itself remains a wonderful example of a moment of emergence of new understandings of such terms as underground, avant-garde and experimental.