Opening Session

Stefanie Schulte Strathaus

Dear Birgit Hein, dear Prof. Rennert, dear Hans Helmut Prinzler, dear Ulrike Roesen, dear Think:Film participants and especially those who traveled to Berlin from far away, from Amman, Bangalore, Bombay, Cairo, London, Los Angeles, Murcia, New York, Paris, Rotterdam, Sao Paulo, Toronto, Vancouver, and Vienna.
I am very pleased that we are here now, that so many are joining us for this event.

This congress is following two previous congresses held first in 1989, then in 2010, both in Toronto and both in close collaboration with the Goethe Institute. The 1989 edition in turn referred to the Third International Avant-Garde Festival in London in 1979. I attended the 2010 congress where the idea came up to do the next one in Europe. Later, I read in a congress review by Tess Takahashi: “Will someone try it again within twenty years?  Actually, it’s already happening. Stefanie and some others are planning the next Congress for 2012 in Berlin. Good luck, my friend!” So obviously there was no way out, and here we are. And I would like to thank everybody in Toronto who paved the way to this event, especially those who are here now and who participated in the congresses in Toronto. Among them Peggy Gale, who published a book following the 2010 congress and who will speak to us in a bit, and filmmaker, artist, and musician Michael Snow.

In the catalogue of 1989 it is stated that in Toronto interest in experimental film had always been strong. That is true. Production, distribution, education, critical writing, funding, it was all there. Twenty years later this seems even more accurate. And it has been this wonderful context for experimental film that is why, in the past decade or so, I have been traveling to Toronto sometimes 2 or 3 times a year. A place where experimental film in all its ambiguity had a history – and a life. The congress in 2010 took place before this background. A fortunate condition, an amazing chance, yet also not an easy challenge.

The situation in Berlin is also a challenge, but in different ways.

The Goethe Institute was very involved in Toronto in 1989 and people from Germany like Birgit and Wilhelm Hein where invited, Alf Bold, Arsenal curator at that time, filmmaker Christoph Janetzko and filmmaker and scholar Christine Noll Brinckmann (who is here) and curator Karola Gramann. This was the heyday of experimental film in Germany. Apart from that it was largely marginalized. The fall of the Wall in 1989 would have made it necessary to write at least two histories, and the following changes and developments the city experienced brought a more international film and art scene, new discourses, new perspectives. However, before something like a German experimental film history could have been written, it was superimposed by the visual arts vs. cinema debate and a new media landscape. From our present perspective I suggest it will not be an option anymore to write it as a genre-based history and obviously not as a national one. Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t still many films to discover. But any writing of film histories and theories has to happen with regards to an international frame, and often this might entail retrospective correctives or a rethinking of the discourses we already have so that we can acknowledge the diversity of local practices, their specific contexts and challenges yet also the connections, and build a future theory and practice from there.

Experimental film is for the most part missing in German film history at large. Having said this, I would like to mention two people here in the room who did install experimental film faculties at two art schools, the Hochschule für Künste/School of Arts in Braunschweig and the University of the Arts in Berlin. At the same time however, they suggested  a use of the term as one that indicates an open process, and therefore can’t be institutionalized, but must be autobiographical. The first one is Birgit Hein. In 2003 we entitled a retrospective of her work “So weit, so gefährlich… Birgit Hein’s filmische Autobiographie.” – “So far, so dangerous: Birgit Hein’s cinematic autobiography.” She used film as her body, as a way to turn the personal into the political and vice versa. Many of the experimental filmmakers who entered film history like Matthias Müller, Christoph Girardet, Bjoern Melhus, or Michael Brynntrup, studied with her in Braunschweig.

The other person I would like to mention is Heinz Emigholz. Interestingly, one of our guests from Cairo, Nagy Shaker, has studied at both art schools, the HBK in Braunschweig and the UdK in Berlin long before Birgit Hein and Heinz Emigholz where there, in the early ‘60s.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank Heinz Emigholz not only for working with us on this congress over a period of 2 years, including designing the logo for it, but for almost 20 years of re-defining and re-writing film and film history and sharing this not only with the Arsenal, but with an international audience.

Heinz’s films are also autobiographical, but in an analytical way. They analyze projections, visible as writings, drawings, photography, architecture, and sculpture or, in his fiction films, audible in spoken language and readable in the body. He calls it a “reversed visual process: seeing as expression, not as impression.”

When Heinz Emigholz became professor for Experimental Filmmaking at the Universität der Künste Berlin in 1993, he began curating a film series, also called “Experimental Filmmaking” at the Arsenal. In 122 screenings and introductions over a period of 7 years, always on Tuesdays, he showed avant-garde, documentary, and fiction films that participated in the conception of a cinematic language. He was not interested in certain periods or genres, as Martin Schmitz, the editor of one of his books stated, but in the impact the films had on the brain. The very first film of this series was the found footage film SADY SKORPIONA by Oleg Kowalow from 1991, which could have easily been our opening film. He wrote about it in the Arsenal program: “What leads in the original footage to a happy ending in support of the Sowiet Union, becomes in Kowalow’s work an overall maelstrom of threat and fragmentation created by political thawing. Cause and effect orbit the growing paranoia like a comedy duo. As a result people laugh in the wrong moments.”
Heinz’s combinations of old and new films of all genres, lengths, and aesthetics, previously put into an order by film historians and now effectively re-arranged and infused with his commentaries, caused a similar confrontation, encouraging a constant questioning of any given conception.

We really appreciate the fact that he has chosen this congress as a kind of inaugural lecture for things to come after his professorship. His teaching, his filmmaking, his drawing, writing, and curating are different languages providing ways of thinking, moments of an autobiography, a series of thoughts to be continued, hopefully also at the Arsenal.

Again, here we are at the 2012 experimental cinema congress, following the 2010 experimental media congress, following the 1989 experimental film congress (so far a western thread ... ). At a symposium on preservation and restoration of experimental film organized by Filmmuseum Berlin at our cinema Arsenal this summer, Wilhelm Hein showed a super8 documentation of an experimental film gathering that took place at the old Arsenal some time in the 1970s. I asked Erika and Ulrich Gregor about the exact year, and Erika replied, didn’t it happen a couple of times back then? I looked through old programs and what I found was this: ”In recent years more and more visual artists expanded their field towards film and video making.” It sounds like something we read in every festival catalogue these days, but it was written in 1979. I would like to close with a quotation of the text-based film So Is This by Michael Snow (1982):
“Priority is energy. In some respects, this is first. Obviously this is not the first time that this has been used for the first time. This belongs to everybody! This means this, you think this, we see this, they use this, this is a universe! So what is important is not this, but how this is used.”

What is also important is to thank those who made this possible:

First of all Hans Helmut Prinzler, curator of our main funder, the Hauptstadtkulturfonds and the jury members. Prof. Rennert, president of the University of the Arts, and Ulrike Roesen, department of Film and Media Art at the Academy of the Arts. Prof. Gertrud Koch, and the collaborative research centre 626 on Aesthetic Experience and the Dissolution of Artistic Limits at the Freie Universität Berlin. The Goethe Institute in Cairo, in particular Günther Hasenkamp, the Embassador of Canada, Peter Boehm, who will speak to us at the reception tonight, the Ontario International Marketing Center, Prof. H.S. Shiva Prakash, counsellor at the Embassy of India.

I would also like to thank for their support and ideas Prof. Dr. Siegfried Zielinski, Chair of Media Theory at UdK, Thomas Arslan, co-director of the Film Institute, also UdK, my Arsenal colleagues Milena Gregor and Birgit Kohler, Doina Popescu, formerly Goethe Institute of Toronto and now Ryerson University, the organizers of the 2010 congress in Toronto, especially Chris Kennedy and Scott Miller Berry – and of course all the others.

I would especially like to thank the Think:Film team Nanna Heidenreich, Ronald Balczuweit, Isabell Spengler, and Björn Speidel, and the amazing documentation team at the UdK.
My personal thanks go to Ulrich Ziemons and Nadine Voß, who organized – everything.

Now please join me welcoming art historian, writer, and curator Peggy Gale.