Lioudmila Voropai

Experimental Film as a Non-Experimental Institution

First of all I would like to thank the previous speaker, Michael Zyrd, for his overview of the institutional structures, which today play an essential role in the production, distribution, and public presentation of experimental films. Taking this overview as a point of departure I would like to talk about the importance of an institutional framework for the establishment of Experimental Film as an academic subject and as an institutionally differentiated field of artistic practice. Also I shall briefly analyse those social and economical mechanisms that turned Experimental Film into an institution itself.

The impact of art institutions on artistic practice has been intensively discussed in the contemporary art context throughout the past fifty years. Multifaceted artistic and theoretical reflection on this impact gave rise to Institutional Critique, one of the most intellectually seductive approaches in contemporary art. Already in the 1960s, artists like Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, and Daniel Buren explicitly problematized in their works the significance of an institutional context for representing art. In the 1970s and later in the 1980s and 1990s, artists like Hans Haacke and Andrea Fraser took a more complex approach to institutional issues by analysing political and micro-political aspects of art institutions, investigating the biographies and political convictions of private collectors and museum trustees, and revealing the history and political roots of institutions themselves, such as, for example, the Venice Biennale.

For reasons which I shall analyse little bit later in my talk, one can hardly imagine this kind of approach within the tradition of Experimental Film or in the field of so-called “non-mainstream” film production in general. However, it seems to be extremely important in the context of this congress at least to try to scrutinize the importance of the institutional framework for the current state of art in experimental filmmaking and also for its future perspectives. Taking the title of this event almost literally, let us try to think of Experimental Film as both an institutional product and an institutional construct.

I would like to refer here to the opening speech given by Heinz Emigholz, in which he talked about the necessity of bringing Experimental Film back to reality, of (re-) connecting it to the social and political context in which experimental films are produced and consumed, and thus, of differentiating them from what he ironically called a "macramé" – a sort of a harmless self-engaging activity, functionally similar to any other kind of hobby.
It is precisely the presence of an institutional environment that turns experimental filmmaking into a professional activity in the strict sense, distinguishing it from a hobby-like "macramé" production mode. Here the analogy with "macramé" doesn’t involve any kind of axiology, i.e. it doesn’t imply any statement on the artistic, filmic, conceptual, etc. qualities of the works created within this ‘mode of production’. It simply refers to a very basic sociological understanding of a professional activity as an occupation that enables a person to make his/her living at it, versus a hobby as an activity that by definition is not aimed at this.

In this sense professional experimental filmmakers, even if some might balk at this expression, are those, who can at least partly make their living by selling their works through galleries, teaching experimental film and related subjects at film and art schools, receiving grants and stipends for experimental film projects, getting honoraria for screenings and presentations of their works and so on and so forth. All this implies a broad network of functionally differentiated institutions such as festivals, foundation programs, art schools, film archives etc., which build up a system for producing, distributing, and presenting experimental films; that is, the system that forms the institution of ‘Experimental Film’.

Institutional critique and practices of self-institutionalisation

In the discourse of institutional critique, an understanding of the entire system of contemporary art as an institution long ago became commonplace. The idea of German literary critic Peter Bürger, author of the well-received Theory of the Avant-Garde, that art is an institution in itself,1 provided the theoretical background for several key texts by Andrea Fraser, which have extended the traditional vision of the role of institutions in art practice. I would like just very briefly to summarize some of Andrea Fraser’s crucial arguments, which are also essential for understanding the institutional context of experimental filmmaking.

According to Fraser, the internalization of the institution of art by members of the artistic community means that their behaviour and aims are largely determined by institutional logic:

the institution of art is not only “institutionalized” in organisations like museums and objectified in art object. It is also internalized, embodied, and performed by people. It is internalized in the competencies, conceptual models, and modes of perception that allow us to produce, write about, and understand art, or simply to recognize art as art, whether as artists, critics, curators, art historians, dealers, collectors, or museum visitors.2

The expansion of institutional modes of thinking and “relations of production” into the domain of artistic practice is a result of a social condition that Fraser, referring to Adorno’s famous notion of the “verwaltete Gesellschaft”, calls a “totally administered society”. As a consequence of internalizing institutional logic in such a manner, any attempt by its members to leave the institution of art automatically leads to the expansion of its boundaries:

With each attempt to evade the limits of institutional determination, to embrace an outside, to redefine art or to reintegrate it into everyday life, to reach “everyday” people and work in the “real” world, we expand our frame and bring more of the world into it. But we never escape it.3

Fraser’s position, which is often accused of defeatism, is in fact a sober reflection on the state of affairs in the “totally administered” contemporary art field. It challenges the romantic and complacent idea of the artist as a revolutionary fighter against oppressive and conservative art institutions.

This idea was and remains an essential constituent of both the historical and contemporary self-positioning of Experimental Film. The birth of Experimental Film in the 1960s as a particular ‘genre’ or, better, as a particular ‘identity’ indeed had a lot to do with the initial revolutionary and anti-institutional pathos of its pioneers. But this grassroots movement and anti-institutional impetus inevitably resulted in an existential need for institutionalisation or even self-institutionalisation. In this respect the fate of Experimental Film was by no means unique. It followed the same path of development as all other fields of restricted cultural production (using the good old terminology of Pierre Bourdieu) in the second half of the twentieth century, especially the field of contemporary art. Strictly speaking, Experimental Film was to a large extent part of this field. To understand this development better one perhaps needs to examine it from a classical political economy perspective.

Initially revolutionary and emancipatory artistic practices and tendencies of the 1960s restructured and modernized the entire system of artistic production. This completed the process of integrating the arts into the institutional matrix of the late capitalist post-industrial society. Distributing authorities, such as museums and galleries that function as ‘interface’ in the process of communication between the artist-producer and the public-consumer, started playing a pivotal role in the contemporary art system. In contemporary art, as in other spheres of post-industrial society, the process of distribution, which in this case implies first of all (re-)presentation of works of art, acquired a priority in relation to the process of production of an artwork itself. It even replaced that process in many respects. Distributing authorities became the real producers of meaning and criteria for the evaluation of art objects. As a matter of fact, the artist’s participation was basically reduced to the act of material production of an art object; a significant amount of “nonmaterial” production was delegated to art institutions. As a result, during the final decades of the last century, art institutions became the key elements in organizing and determining artistic activity.

Since the 1960s we have been faced with a situation, which Adorno described in the following terms: “Whoever speaks of culture speaks of administration as well, whether this is his intention or not.”4 The only crucial shift from the practices of cultural administration in the 1960s to those of today is the increasing role of self-administration techniques. Governmental practices analysed by Michel Foucault in his late works and the neoliberal spirit of so-called New Capitalism have made the need for self-administration and self-management indispensable for the contemporary individual’s economic survival. The notorious “total economisation” of social relations and of the entire social sphere has turned art into “business as usual”. Any cultural producer – visual artist, filmmaker, writer, etc. – has to function within his professional field as a kind of ‘one-man-enterprise’, i.e. as a small incorporated business-company, which has to follow some universal rules of the market. It doesn’t really matter if you, as an artist or independent filmmaker, work for the so-called ‘free market’ of private collectors and galleries or for the ‘market’ that encompasses publicly financed cultural institutions. In both cases, you deal with the same mechanisms of market demand and with the same homogeneous logic and principles of functioning. In addition, these two markets intertwine to a large extent and co-exist in a complex interdependence. It is hardly possible to avoid this old-fashion Marxist terminology when you analyse those processes, since nothing has essentially changed since the Frankfurt School’s heyday.

It is obvious that Experimental Film as a field of activity could not elude the fate of institutionalisation and self-institutionalisation. It is also obvious that in the contemporary system of cultural funding you have a better chance of getting a production grant or some other type of financial support if you apply as an institutional body and not as an individual artist or artistic group. Even if you officially function within this system as an individual, you are expected to act in accordance with the underlying institutional logic.

Self-organised collectives of art and film activists that produce radical revolutionary works and manifestos are essential to the art system. They are responsible for its continuous update and for preventing it from stagnation, refreshing the official canon and curricula of universities and art/film schools. At the same moment, within the art or film system they turn into new institutions. Independent art and film groups and grassroots movements are becoming institutionalised, both from the outside and, if they survive long enough, also from the inside, since ‘survival’ within the system implies the necessity of following the rules of “institutional isomorphism” that we know from sociology.5 The existing system of funding and the related networks require some recognisable ‘identity’ from its actors. Collective and individual actors are expected to demonstrate certain conceptual and aesthetic continuity, i.e. to act as identifiable ‘brands’ on the institutional market.

Museumification of Experimental Film and demand of institutional market

Through this inevitable process of institutionalisation and self-institutionalisation, the notion of “experimental film” in the present-day institutional context is predominantly associated with the particular art and film practices of the 1960s and 1970s. One can even observe a certain museumification, if not ‘mummification’, of the understanding of “experimental film” in relation to those practices and movements. This understanding surely differs depending on the “experimental film” tradition in a particular country and geographic region. This notion is also quite heavily influenced by certain generation-specific experiences and idiosyncrasies. Nevertheless one can easily distinguish some kind of ‘hegemonic’ understanding of this term in the international institutional context.

On the one hand, such a ‘hegemonic’ understanding demands from current experimental film production certain recognisable (and, in fact, easily deducible back to certain key protagonists) ‘experimental film aesthetic’ and conceptual approaches. On the other hand, the institutional system of experimental filmmaking operates with the same scope of thematic ‘expectations’ that we encounter in contemporary art and other fields of cultural production. These thematic ‘expectations’ are, in turn, largely determined by the current thematic trends in state cultural policy in general.

We regularly confront a continuously updated unwritten list of topics that represent some likewise unwritten but easily anticipated ‘demand’ on the part of the ‘institutional market’. These topics are considered (sometimes very superficially) to be ‘socially relevant’, ‘socially critical’, ‘political’, etc., and they enjoy an obvious priority in the context of film festivals, biennales, art exhibitions, foundations, and other cultural institutions. This situation basically reflects the need of publicly financed cultural institutions to demonstrate their social legitimacy by supporting and presenting this kind of allegedly ‘socially useful’ art.

Current art and film production is to a large extent generated not by the hypothetical ‘free will’ of some no less hypothetical ‘creative minds’, but rather precisely by those thematic, aesthetic, and conceptual ‘demands’ and ‘expectations’ of the institutional field. These ‘demands’ and ‘expectations’, however, do not simply result from the need of cultural institutions for social legitimacy. They also derive from an intellectual and artistic socialisation of institutional decision-makers, as well as from the aesthetic and conceptual preferences and compatibility of these preferences with current discursive trends. To give an obvious example, let’s think about that happy marriage of cultural studies and contemporary art, which we observe in the ‘mainstream biennale-art’ of the last two decades. Many artworks in today’s context of international biennales do indeed look like a kind of audio-visual illustration and medial extension of certain research and approaches in the field of gender, postcolonial, subaltern, etc., studies and some neighbouring disciplines in the humanities.

This is not to be misunderstood. I am not trying to undermine the importance of these studies and approaches or to question a genuine interest for these subjects. However, it is also important not to ignore the fact that these approaches and subjects became a kind of hegemonic institutional paradigm and that this has a lot to do with a complex interdependence of art practice and art theory nowadays. Certain contemporary art trends and practices a priori correspond to the possibilities of their conceptualisation within particular theoretical frameworks, because they are to a large extent initiated by these possibilities and not simply conceptualised a posteriori.

The determining role of the institutional system for contemporary art is largely criticised in the discourse of Institutional Critique, but even this type of discourse is not really able to offer an alternative model to the present institutional status quo. In the “administered society”, where all anti-institutional activity ultimately results in its institutionalization, Institutional Critique has long become an institutionalized artistic practice with a limited but stable demand on the part of both the art market and art-institutions themselves. In its intellectual dimension Institutional Critique has turned into a realm of Nietzschean ressentiment and ritualised exercise in what Walter Benjamin once called “left-wing melancholy” (linke Melancholie). Benjamin’s notion was recently revitalised by Jacques Rancière, who noted that today’s “left-wing melancholy” has found its expression in tireless laments about the omnipotence of the system and the “capitalist beast.”6

Can Institution ‘Experimental Film’ be experimental?

Coming to the final part of my talk I’d like to formulate two crucial questions regarding the relationship between Experiment and Institution in the context of this panel. First: How does Experimental Film as an Institution deal today with artistic and film experiments? Second: Can Institution ‘Experimental Film’ be experimental?

Answering the first question I can only try to differentiate one particular tendency. This approach is of course always in danger of generalising and not taking into account some exceptions and singular examples. However, epistemologically it is sometimes quite helpful to make a generalisation. Therefore, responding to this question in terms of tendencies, one needs to admit that the present-day Institution ‘Experimental Film’ is relatively conservative regarding its understanding of ‘experimental’.

As I already mentioned before, the established institutional notion of experimental film is pretty limited by particular art and film practices of the 1960s and 1970s from North America and Western Europe. As a result, this notion is basically reduced to a certain canon that consists of several key protagonists. Ironically, these protagonists are usually much more open in their understanding of ‘experimental film’ than those institutional representatives (such as curators and members of festival selection committees), who function as ‘gatekeepers’ by deciding what is to be let into the system and what is not. The pioneers of Experimental Film are as a rule quite bored of being repeatedly (consciously and unconsciously) copied by new generations of art and film students, whereas institutional ‘gatekeepers’ tend rather to preserve an established aesthetic and conceptual paradigm of Experimental Film.

This raises the second question, namely, if the Institution ‘Experimental Film’ can be experimental? Or, to extend this subject: Can any institution be experimental? An example that is taken from a neighbouring and largely overlapping field of contemporary art could perhaps be very useful in this regard. In the early 2000s, various alternatives to the neoliberal development of art institutions were intensively discussed within the art community. “New institutionalism” (not to be confused with sociological and economic “neo-institutionalism”) was proclaimed to be an alternative approach, which was aimed at creating new “progressive”, “critical” art institutions with “open” and “democratic” working principles. A number of curators and art critics have interpreted the activities of institutions like the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona (MACBA), the Rooseum Center for Contemporary Art in Malmo, Kunsthall in Bergen and some others as an emerging movement, which they called “new institutionalism”7.

In several programmatic texts, the “new institutionalism” was presented as a strategy of “taking over” institutional machinery and using the existing infrastructure to realize “innovative” and “experimental” artistic and curatorial projects. The “new institutionalism” was theoretically largely inspired by Antonio Gramsci's idea of “cultural hegemony”. In his main work The Prison Noteooks, Gramsci compared the system of social institutions with the system of trenches on the battlefields of the World War I. If we consider institutions from this perspective, they are nothing but a certain pure form, an empty construction, which can be filled with any content. Taking over the administrative apparatus is thus a crucial move in a fight for the cultural hegemony.

However, the “new institutionalism” has basically ignored the logic of functioning of contemporary institutions, which is essentially determined by their form and structure, as well as the social context. Even programmatically “critical,” “progressive,” “experimental,” etc. institutions must either become organizationally “isomorphic” (in the terminology of the sociological neo-institutionalism) with the surrounding social world, or they will cease to exist. In the present-day matrix of the internalised gouvernementalité, institutional actors, regardless of what kind of art institutions they represent – new “progressive” and “critical, traditional enlightenment-driven and bourgeois, or profit-oriented neoliberal ones – are forced to follow the universal rules of self-management while building their institutional careers. Experimental Film as an Institution is actually not very much different in this regard, to end on an ‘optimistic’ note.

  • 1. See P. Bürger, Theorie der Avantgarde, Frankfurt 1974.
  • 2. A. Fraser, “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique” in: J. Welchman (Ed.), Institutional Critique and After (SoCCAS Symposia vol. 2), Zürich 2006, p. 130.
  • 3. Ibid., p. 131.
  • 4. T. Adorno, “Culture and Administration” in: The Culture Industry,, London: Routledge, 1991, p. 107.
  • 5. See P. DiMaggio, W. Powell, "The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields" in: American Sociological Review 48:147-60, 1983.
  • 6. J. Rancière, “The Misadventures of Universality” in: Thinking Worlds: The Moscow Conference on Philosophy, Politics, and Art, Berlin 2008, p. 74.
  • 7. See J. Ekeberg (Ed.), New Institutionalism, Versted#1, Office of Contemporary Art, Norwegen, Oslo 2003; also N. Möntmann (Ed.): “Art and its Institutions – Current Conflicts, Critique and Collaborations”, London 2006.