Stefanie Schulte Strathaus
In Defence of Institutions in Experimental Film and Media
In this brief paper, I will address two fundamental questions posed by the panel abstract: “Where does institutionalization begin, or, what institutions are needed to shape this process?” In doing so, I take up Peggy Gale's invocation in the introductory session of Think:Film that we “look forward and not back.” The historian in me initially balks at this, but I agree with her that, “if we must look back,” we concentrate on what she calls the "impetus and desire" that drives what we do. With this in mind, I will start with the questions, “what impels us to organize and create institutions?” and, “What desire is at play?” I attempt to respond by sketching the range of organizations that are part of the ecology of experimental film and media, and looking at how those institutions have arisen from the felt needs, urgencies, and sometimes tactical necessities of the experimental film and media communities they serve.
The first thing I want to assert is simply the importance of institutions, especially in alternative/independent/artisanal/experimental media, where institutions function as ways for artists, audiences, and cultural workers, quite simply, to organize themselves. Institutions are so central to experimental cinema that, like fish in water, we may not notice how they permeate our multiple practices.
I feel the need to assert this importance because of the negative connotation of the term “institutionalization,” which continues to haunt discussions in the alternative arts and cultural sectors. “Institutionalization” seems to describe an ethos of establishment power and conformity that violates the preference for newness and subversion common in experimental film and media communities. Certainly, at various times in discourse around experimental film and media, complaints have surfaced about “institutionalization,” “academization,” or any “ization” that would appear to dilute antiestablishment energies. Such complaints too often paint with far too broad a brush a portrait of “The Institution” that ignores a historical understanding of how institutions have been necessary for the aesthetic, social, and political goals of the film and media community.1
Most importantly, historical understanding allows us to see the qualitatively specific features of experimental film and media institutions, for me captured best by the dizzy architect of New York’s experimental film scene, Jonas Mekas: “We must remain disorganizedly organized.”2 Few if any experimental film and media institutions are monolithic; rather they tend to be DIY (do it yourself), bottom-up structures, artist-run, and often ephemeral. The form of organization that artists and other cultural workers have applied to institutions like production and distribution cooperatives, and exhibition sites like festivals, screening series, and film societies, tend to be cooperative or at least collaborative (though often led by the energies of charismatic individuals). This is not an obvious point, especially in a practice that emphasizes autonomy or, in the US context, extreme forms of individuality. Individuals can and have been able to produce, distribute, publicize, and exhibit experimental work individually—and indeed, this is even easier now with high quality consumer grade digital production tools like cameras and computer editing, internet distribution on Vimeo or YouTube, publicity through listservs, and online blogs and magazines, and even pop-up exhibition sites like rooftops, living rooms, or any other appropriated space. Of course, even these lone wolves—whether they acknowledge it or not— work within larger economic, political, and technological contexts. Despite the fiercely independent streak in experimental film and media, there continues to be a communitarian and sometimes even a politically collectivist urge that leads individuals to come together, organize, and institutionalize their basic activities of production, distribution, and exhibition.
In Canada, there is a long tradition of what are called “artist-run organizations.” Although the term is specific to Canada, the practice is of course more widespread as it’s artists, or in some cases programmers, critics, and enthusiasts, who provide the main cultural labour in experimental media arts. The legal dictates of maintaining, for example, non-profit status or grant eligibility often necessitates that organizations have such structures as a board of directors and financial officers. But generally, it’s a matter of artists and cultural workers picking up those skills rather than MBAs staffing experimental film organizations. In this regard, there is not only a difference in organizational culture but also a difference in scale and resources between the institutions of experimental cinema and those of mainstream media. It is important to note the vital role that some individuals have played in mainstream art and media institutions, working to nurture and expand experimental film, whether programmers at MoMA, executives at the Sundance Channel, or grant officers working for state arts councils or private foundations. Institutional dynamics are often quite varied, with a greater requirement for compromise, justification, and administrative oversight.3
I should note that when they start, experimental film and media organizations are motivated by the cultural aims of independent media arts workers and—crucially—the aesthetic forms they create or celebrate; in Gales’s terms, the impetus and desire stem from internally motivated goals. Birgit Hein’s wonderful reading of the mission statement of X-Film during the conference articulated the impetus and desire of its founders to make, distribute, and show films independently of otherwise massively controlled cinematic structures.
As new institutions emerge in future, an understanding of the history of experimental film and media institutions may allow us better to understand the consequences of institutional forms. As our communities stumble forward into a highly certain and rapidly changing technological future in which cultural politics are in flux, perhaps we can learn from history.
Where do institutions begin? Below I sketch the kinds of institutions found in experimental cinema, in some cases mentioning actual institutions, but concentrating on the activities that drive institutional work, and emphasizing the dynamic nature of experimental film and media institutions. I begin with the standard categories of film industrial institutional analysis (production, distribution, and exhibition) and then consider other categories (publicity, archives, education, and policy and funding organizations). Because my research concentrates on US and Canadian institutions, my examples will skew North American and concentrate on post-1950s activity, but in many cases, commonalities can be found worldwide (despite the inevitable differences that culture and socio-political circumstances dictate).
Many of the earliest production cooperatives (New York’s Film-Makers’ Co-op [FMC], San Francisco’s Canyon Cinema, London Filmmakers Co-op [LFC]) combined many of the activities I outline below, serving as a production space, distributing films, exhibiting films at screenings, and publishing material like screening notes, catalogues and newsletters. In the United States, the two major co-ops, FMC and Canyon, quickly concentrated on distribution (inspiring the formation of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre [CFMDC]). More specialized production-oriented organizations also were established, such as Millennium Film Workshop in New York and Liaison of Independent Filmmakers in Toronto (LIFT), to provide shared equipment (e.g., cameras and editing suites), workshops and classes, and also community (often through occasional screenings). In Canada, artist-run centers, and in the United States, media arts centers, were established to encourage independent production, although the histories of these organizations vary widely in relation to the kind of work produced: in addition to artisanal experimental forms, independent documentary and small-scale narrative were made, often by students or youth as part of social activist imperatives starting in the 1970s and 1980s.
More recently, the collapse of industrial film has led to production organizations taking on more activities. As film laboratories have closed, an international network of artisanal film labs has sprung up. As manufacturers have stopped making film cameras, film editing machines, and soon film projectors, equipment rental organizations are forced to become repair and recycling operations. Finally, as the prospect that Kodak will stop making 16mm and 35mm film looms, some organizations are planning to manufacture film on an artisanal scale.
In North America and the UK, distribution of experimental film (and to some extent video) has been dominated by distribution co-ops (FMC, Canyon, CFMDC, LFC/UX) that have maintained an open distribution policy: they accept almost all films, on a nonexclusive basis, and provide a percentage of the rental in exchange for arranging the shipping and payment for rental prints. In the 1970s and 1980s, some specialized independent distributors were established with more “curated” catalogues, but only those with a strong documentary and academic market (e.g., Women Make Movies, California Newsreel) have survived. The arrival of VHS in the mid-1980s and especially the rise of digital formats like DVD, Blu-ray, and Internet streaming have gradually eroded film distribution, especially for the once-dominant academic markets that sustained most film distributors from the 1970s through the 2000s. However, many formerly film-based distributors like the CFMDC have begun to curate and market thematic DVD collections based on their film holdings.
The preference for 16mm for most experimental filmmakers since the 1960s (with some exceptions for S8mm, and 35mm in Europe)—in addition to the lack of a mainstream audience/”market”—pushed most experimental film exhibition into what are sometimes called “non-theatrical” circuits, including campus film societies, screening series in major cities (often using multiple locations), and festivals. Experimental film is often programmed as part of cinematheque and museum programs, which usually feature the most pristine screening conditions. But there is a strong tradition of DIY exhibition that sacrifices image and sound fidelity for ambiance and opportunities for community interaction, ranging from itinerant screening tours (with filmmakers screening films on their own projectors and screens), to one-off/pop-up screenings held in locations like rooftops and lofts. The form of screening desired has dictated the organization (or appropriate disorganization) of the screening space, program, audience, etc.4
Finally, there is the tradition of the open screening, a defiantly egalitarian institution that, while a radical instantiation of the aesthetic and social openness in experimental film and media, can also be maddeningly uneven, comparable to open mic events in poetry and music. One of the most influential examples of the open screening exhibition policy is the Film-Makers’ Cinematheque, set up by Jonas Mekas, according to legend, to counteract the gate-keeping of Cinema 16 (then New York’s premiere film society) after it had refused to screen Stan Brakhage’s Anticipation of the Night (1958). In the 1980s, The Collective for Living Cinema was set up as an antidote to Anthology’s Essential Cinema. These are cases where an institution was set up as a tactical response to a perceived problem: the institution as problem-solving operation.
More recently, experimental film exhibition has found two new homes, one in the art gallery (as the art world has embraced moving image and sound media) and the other on the Internet. The white box and the blank screen sometimes leave much to be desired from an image and sound quality perspective, but they have improved experimental film’s market value and accessibility respectively.
A sometimes ignored but vital activity in experimental film is publicity: informing publics about films and their makers, which has in the case of experimental film and media developed into a set of critical discursive forums for community engagement. In the mainstream industry, the publicity activity is formalized in press kits, star tours, and a PR industry so huge that publicity budgets often exceed production costs. Whereas commercial film distributors are most active on the publicity front, the opposite situation applies in the experimental film world as co-op distributors (until recently) often had aggressive anti-publicity policies in order to maintain the egalitarian ethos central to the cooperative model. For a distribution co-op to publicize a particular film or maker would be to discriminate, by definition, against the other films and artists in the catalogue. For example, FMC staff were prohibited from recommending any films in response to inquiries from clients.
The experimental film publicity function has either been self-generated by artists or programmers (through a remarkable plethora of ephemeral magazines, newsletters, one-off journals, and websites) or has been taken up by academic writers. Given the importance of the academic market (70-80% of experimental film rentals went to colleges and universities up to the 2000s), academic writing in books, journals, and magazines has been significant (sometimes controversially so) in the establishment of canonical films. However, it is important to note that academic writing has only taken on a publicity function on a de facto basis: rarely is an academic essay written to “sell” a film, although the genre of art gallery or museum catalogue, in which writers are usually paid and assigned/invited to write an essay, is more ambiguous ground. More recently, electronic media like the Frameworks listserv (and others), websites, blogs, and forms of social networking have created a vibrant and free space for critical discourse in experimental film and media.
Archival activities are relatively recent in experimental film and media, and an important part of the general renaissance of film preservation that began in earnest in the 1980/1990.
Experimental film archiving is highly precarious and under resourced. Whereas production and distribution companies have a literal investment in the survival of its products, experimental filmmakers rarely have the resources to adequately preserve negatives or prints. The rapid collapse of film labs (which often stored original elements) has led to much material simply being junked. Film and video distributors—already strained for labour and financial resources—have been forced to become archives as deposited prints outlive their makers and effectively become original preservation elements. In the case of video and other electronic media, archiving requires the preservation of magnetic tape, computer hardware and software, and eventual digital migration. In the United States, the heroic work of archivists like Bill Brand (BB Optics), Jeff Lambert (National Film Preservation Foundation), Andy Lampert (Anthology Film Archives), and Mark Toscano (Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences) has kept a sliver of experimental film history alive, often by levering the resources of larger organizations.
Perhaps the institutional sector most bound up with experimental film and media, at least in the United States and Canada, is higher learning, as college and university campuses have nurtured production, exhibition, publicity, and even limited distribution and archive activities.
Students, whether registered in a school that specializes in experimental film and media like SUNY Binghamton, or taking a one-off class as an elective, use school equipment for a range of experimental practice. More often than not, the quality of the actual films produced is insignificant compared to the benefits of the educational process. As Lisa Steele said during the Congress, hands-on experience with media is as much about experiencing the apparatus as creating a work. In this sense, the educational value of informal workshops through production co-ops, artist-run centres, and media arts centres is invaluable as they often reach alternative demographics other than college and university students.5 The teaching of experimental film in cinema and media studies classes has also had the long term effect of broadening student taste and acceptance of experimental styles.
Film schools also provide infrastructure and resources—not to mention employment—to many experimental film and media artists, some of whom collaborate with students in their production process. As mentioned above, colleges and universities were the dominant exhibition space for screenings of experimental film, and academic rentals supported experimental film distributors for decades. Meanwhile, academic film and media libraries (in cases where film has not been dequisitioned) have, like distribution co-ops, become de facto archives, and sometime distributors within educational circuits. Finally, the publishing infrastructure of higher education has provided, as mentioned above, an important discursive space for critical exchange, research, and history.
Policy And Funding Organizations
The final activity I would like to mention is the meta-organizational work of larger associations of independent film and media institutions that have sought to create alliances amongst the many small organizations listed above that engage in independent production, distribution, exhibition, publishing, archiving and education. Two organizations in North America are the US-based NAMAC (National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture) and the Canadian IMAA (Independent Media Arts Alliance). These coalitions of discrete organizations serve as advocacy groups at the governmental and foundation level; information gathering research bodies; conference organizers; and liaisons between artists and other cultural and political sectors. Closely linked to these organizations are national and regional arts councils and other funding bodies, many of which have a special brief for film or other media arts.
Finally, I want to outline two central tensions that arise in relation to experimental film and media institutions (and no doubt other small scale cultural and artistic sectors). On a concrete level, these tensions often manifest in the space between the dispersion of power sought in collective or cooperative structures, and the reality of the power of charismatic and/or dedicated individuals who made them work. In outlining these tensions, I return to my thesis, so banal that it must be true: that institutional forms have consequences. The implication of this may be less obvious: there’s no ideal form of institutional organization. The non-hierarchical collective is not always the best organizational option; however, in other contexts, charismatic leaders (e.g., the current cult of the curator) may need a smack down. The appropriateness of an institutional form is situational and depends on local conditions, which may change over time.
Experimental film and media institutions display a high degree of complexity that does not allow for a simple judgment of “good” or “bad” consequences. Each institutional form of organization brings with it a set of benefits and drawbacks.
The first tension is between autonomy from and compliance with external forces like commercial conventions or state regulations. The advantages of autonomy are significant, and for most, priceless: artistic, cultural, and political freedom and ethical integrity. The downsides are familiar. Few make a living as media artists, and many rely on employment within the better-funded institutions listed above for subsistence. Artists often have reduced resources and all institutions face austerity. At the level of popular public impact, experimental film and media are “niche” (in marketing language), although I would argue that their long-term cultural impact is more significant than immediately apparent.
The second tension shifts the balance between autonomy and compliance internally to the individual institution, i.e., the act of organizing, of finding collective or common ground, stages micro-battles between individual goals and collective goals. Institutions can allow individual members to share knowledge and resources, lend expertise and technology to others, ultimately allowing the membership to become more than the sum of their parts. Institutions can provide a healthy continuity that sustains the activities that are at the heart of the institution, whether running workshops or staging a festival of films. The downside is that individual members must demonstrate some level of responsibility to the institution, whether measured in time and resources spent for the common good, or measured in the inevitable compromises and loss of autonomy that comes with acting in a community. At their worst, an institution institutional logic can take hold that makes leaders in an organization more interested in the survival of the institution than in serving its mandate, in serving the “impetus and drive” that originally motivated the institution’s existence. In these cases, continuity does not feed a community but becomes a burden and fight for power, sure to become vicious since the stakes are so low.6
In the experimental film and media world in North America, there have been some remarkably long-lasting institutions like FMC, Canyon, Millennium, CFMDC, VTape. EAI, Video Data Bank, Image Forum (Tokyo) in addition to some institutions which have fallen and been resurrected (e.g., London Filmmakers Cooperative becoming LUX). But there have also been a remarkable number of ephemeral organizations that have come and gone. Sometimes they folded through lack of resources or lack of organization, but sometimes because the conditions that led to the institution’s founding changed or faded away. Institutions that arise organically, in bottom-up rather than topdown fashion, sometimes have a limited shelf-life; some of the best organizations have known when not to cling to life after their time has passed.
- 1. For an expanded history of experimental film’s relation to academic institutions, see my essays, "The Academy and the Avant-Garde: A Relationship of Dependence and Resistance," Cinema Journal 45, no. 2 (2006): 17-42, and "Experimental Film and the Development of Film Study in America," in Inventing Film Studies, edited by Lee Grieveson and Haidee Wasson, 182-216 (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2008).
- 2. Mekas quoted in Paul Arthur, “Routines of Emancipation: Alternative Cinema in the Ideology and Politics of the Sixties,” in David E. James, ed., To Free the Cinema: Jonas Mekas and the New York Underground (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992), 24.
- 3. Some artists have even worked within institutions (e.g., Len Lye in the GPO in the UK; Arthur Lipsett and Norman McLaren at the National Film Board of Canada).
- 4. For a useful overview of the history of alternative exhibition, see Tess Takahashi, “Experimental Screens in the 1960s and 1970s: The Site of Community,” Cinema Journal 51, no.2 (2012): 162-7. Incite Journal of Experimental Media #4 (2013) is devoted to exhibition in experimental film and media.
- 5. Film classes have also been offered at the grade and high school level, often through initiatives in media literacy.
- 6. One question I wanted to ask at the Congress is whether the situation is different outside the experimental media community in, for example, the documentary and media democracy movements that arose in North America and elsewhere. What are the micropolitics of organizations like Newsreel, women’s film co-ops, or media literacy centres? Do they rely less on charismatic leaders and emphasize more equal distributions of work and power? Does this change the impact of the institution?