Film festivals are increasingly viable platforms for film and video artists to show their work, and much attention has been drawn recently to the developing trends of both visual artists working in film and filmmakers exhibiting and selling work in galleries. If the negotiation between these two worlds needs careful brokering to assure mutually beneficial symbiosis, then the interests of experimental film will find no better representation than that offered by the 2016 Oberhausen Short Film Festival.
The festival’s 62nd edition, held May 5 through 10, presented the institution’s first exhibition of non-moving image work in a gallery environment, offering an experimental platform where the meeting of these worlds could be further examined.
Of course, there’s always been crossover between art and film—indeed, the results have been seen in short films and programming at Oberhausen in the past—but what sort of work would the festival’s first white cube exhibition feature? Would the inclusion of a gallery environment operate as a Trojan horse sent from the art world, affecting the way work is chosen and presented at future festivals?
Alarmists need not have worried. The festival did not cede territory to gallery culture or the art world. Nor was the exhibition a referendum on, or interrogation of, the position of the fine arts within film—or vice versa. Rather, curated by the artists themselves, the exhibition functioned as a productive medium that acknowledged the fluid, creative spaces art and film practitioners operate within today. The artworks were not simply still images, plucked from a film to be sold as discrete objects—another item for the gallery to monetize. Instead, the presentation revealed process—filmic and otherwise—showing how object and material-based film practices can be, and opened onto the fundamental questions about narrative structures, aura, remixing, and even what a completed or “finished” artwork is or can be.
The exhibition was located in Zentrum Altenberg, an industrial site that had been developed into a cultural center some years ago. The vast, airy space was occupied by two visual artist filmmakers, Josef Dabernig and Sun Xun, who were featured in the festival’s Profiles sector—a special programming sector that includes screenings of multiple works, and in the case of Dabernig and Sun, a presentation of still artwork.
Sun Xun, Magician Party and Dead Crow, 2013. Courtesy: 62nd International Short Film Festival Oberhausen
Sun Xun: Bringing the gallery into the film
Sun Xun describes himself as visual artist rather than an animator or filmmaker and this wasn’t the first work where he’s explored the incorporation of gallery work into film—or film work into a gallery.
The film Magician Party and Dead Crow (2013), shown at Oberhausen, is partly a document of a multimedia event in ShanghArt Gallery's Beijing space. The exhibition space was totally filled with props and overrun with giant puppet-like sculptures animated and brought to life by his team; the film creates the impression of his animated films expanding into installation.
"Myself and my team lived inside the space for six months" he said of the ShanghArt experience, "and changed the white box into the theatre."
His work for the Oberhausen exhibition was also created in-situ, referring directly to its environment. One huge painted image depicts a turbine that sits rusting just outside the post-industrial space. Local newspapers were crushed into balls that fill a whole corner of the gallery. This appears to be an ongoing process for Sun: he creates material—woodcut work and 3D elements are recent developments—that feed into film, then returns the filmic into the installation. At a festival Q&A he said, “the job of animation is very boring—you need to keep changing things or you’ll become a slave.”
The exhibition demonstrated Sun’s approach and offered an opportunity to step inside his process. If he believes the magician, a reoccurring character in his work, is a liar then there appears to be much effort on his part to lay open his own process. Indeed, distinguishing the relics of his process from any resulting final object proves difficult.
Everything is a sketch for something yet to come; Sun’s practice is less linear than traditional paradigms of art or film production. Origins become lost and, it seems intentionally, clear histories and provenances become subverted. “It's like the famous game,” he said, “stories go from the beginning to the end and become totally, totally changed—history is also like this. It's his-story, not the truth.”
Xun Sun, Installation view of Josef Dabernig & Sun Xun, exhibition at Zentrum Altenberg, Oberhausen, 2016, 62nd International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. Photo: the author. Courtesy of the artist
Also striking about Sun’s exhibition, perhaps more then any critique of gallery-based convention, is the impact it may have on the way his screened films were viewed and experienced. The pathway of the short filmmaker can be solitary, that of the animator is deeply isolationist. Sun’s practice of making the gallery space his animation studio, as seen in Magician Party and Dead Crow and at Oberhausen, opens up that process not just in a sort of open-studio day sense but as something akin to the live feedback of video used by early video artists. It offered the chance for visitors to step into the creative loop and to view it from inside.
The impact of this may be more radical than it seems. The material of the white cube becomes also the material of film. The production of the art object is demystified as it is incorporated into a continuous happening without start or end.
Josef Dabernig: The remix and the aura
Austrian filmmaker Josef Dabernig has been making films since 1994. For the exhibition he installed series of still photographic prints shot as preparatory images in preproduction for films, some of which were featured in his Profiles film program. They accurately depict much of the mise-en-scène of the corresponding films, but on the gallery wall, their structure and narrative were reinterpreted, perhaps even deviating from their original intended meaning.
His foregoing of the original narrative and opening up of the material is more daring than first meets the eye; this isn’t so much a “director’s cut”as a potential undermining of the original work’s integrity—by the artist himself. It suggests that thefinished piece is still open to negotiation.
Dabernig described his series of images as “a quasi-text. A text [free] of semantic, however, referring to the structural implications of the filmic form.” This repurposing of filmic artifacts within a new context raises an interesting question underlying any crossover from film to gallery object: what to bring and what to leave behind? Formally, his simulation of the filmstrip could be interpreted as a somewhat on-the-nose, visual reference to “filmic form” that might not have needed reiteration. Yet they seem like remnants generated while transferring material between two positions. The iconography of the filmic process leaves an indelible mark on the material. It might be interesting to view these works alongside other artists’ attempts to express film in the gallery space, such as Fiona Banner's Apocolypse Now (1997) or Douglas Gordon's 24 Hour Psycho (1993), works that question what is essential to the filmic form.
Josef Dabernig, Jogging, 2000, 35mm, Farbe, 11 min. Courtesy of the artist
Josef Dabernig, Panorama (jogging), 1999 Courtesy of the artist, Galerie Andreas Huber, Vienna and Wilfried Lentz, Rotterdam. © VBK, Vienna 2013. Via.
For Dabernig we see a part of his process of planning and structure. When I asked him why he still used 16mm film and a professional cinematographer/camera operator he said he could afford to because of his process. He described a system where every shot was planned in advance to the extent that the shooting becomes methodical and doesn't run the risk of overshooting or exceeding budget. Some of the still images faithfully represent compositions and camera angles in the final film, but were not actually filmed until a year later. For Jogging (2000) Dabernig took 35mm photographs of stray dogs living around the San Nicola-Stadium in Bari, Italy, one of which he later decided would be the onscreen representation of himself, a sort of selected familiar. It was a year before he returned with his cameraman. "I was a worried he might not be there anymore," Dabernig said, but luckily stray dogs seem as much creatures of habit as filmmakers. They found the mutt sat in exactly the same spot as he had a year previously.
Like the stray dogs of Bari, or Sun's description of history, works such as these wander the garden along forked paths. They break away as sketches, spin-offs, remixes, but find their own momentum, sometimes travelling in lockstep with their source, sometimes overtaking, diverting, superceding.
Within mainstream film, and now, quite notably, television, disparities between preconceived values— the movie adaptation of the novel, novelizations and video game versions of movies, movie versions of video games—continue to break down. What might have been considered derivative or inferior is now often awarded the same value as that which preceded it.
Remixing does occur to an extent in artists’ film and video. Grahame Weinbrun and Roberta Friedman's Post Future Past Perfect (1978/2004) was shot on 16mm film and reinterpreted via digital transfer and interaction some 26 years later. John Smith's Regression (1999) was a remaking of a film also first made in 1978. But these works are about time and process, and reflect development of the original concept, rather than an opening up to reinterpretation.
For a medium born out of the age of mechanical reproducibility, artists’ film and video could be said to remain somewhat precious, protective of its own authenticity and integrity. The cut negative or the video master, traditionally never see the light of day, remaining in the archive experiencing only the gloved hands of the technician, the electric light of the printer or scanner.
It is hard to imagine that the gallery space has anything to truly offer or teach film in this area and yet the exhibiton at Oberhausen does seem to expand the works and offer new and interesting interpretations of screened films.
Josef Dabernig, Installation view of Josef Dabernig & Sun Xun, exhibition at Zentrum Altenberg, Oberhausen, 2016, 62nd International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. Photo: the author. Courtesy of the artist
Sun and Dabernig’s images are at once autonomous artworks, preparatory works, and remnant artifacts, represented in cinematographic terms, both pre- and post-production. Is this work a sort of ectoplasmic residue left on the wall when the flickering magic has ended and lights have been switched back on? Within mainstream cinema, items associated with celebrated productions are considered to have a near auratic value drawing not on the item’s producer or handler but seemingly just evidence of something that has made transition from the world captured on the recording media into the physical. A quick look at movie prop websites reveal an airline ticket prop made for Fight Club (1999) listed at five hundred dollars, a filthy looking stretcher used in Fury (2014) for roughly the same money. These are examples of star-driven productions, that involve another source of aura, but there is also a sense of authenticity, a qualitative value awarded because they are items that exist in two separate worlds. Of course, collecting, fandom, and memorabilia are aspects of another culture, but there are some parallels and similarities.
In creating an exhibition that explores material that passes into, through, and out of the film gate—the screen—the artists have raised questions about where the process begins or ends: at which point is any sense of the finished work located?
A Curator-Free Zone
The exhibition had no curator, perhaps not just because that somehow weather-proofed it against the any perceived osmosis of art world culture, but also because it was equally about establishing a connection between working processes and the films shown as it was about the objects on display. If the art world came to Oberhausen as a Trojan horse, the stable boys would remain behind. The artist-filmmakers selected and assembled their own work, displayed it and then directly presented it, often in person, to the visitors. It suggested the possibility that in the merging of art and film practices there remained the potential for film to state its own terms, to find what’s best for itself rather than every film simply defaulting to being just another saleable art object.
Oberhausen Director Lars Henrik Gass told me that “there is no curatorial logic between the artists or works presented. There is, if you like, curatorial logic in how they refer to the film programs we have dedicated to them.” The absence of wall texts or titles, accompanying texts or documents, save a rudimentary layout diagram of Dabernig’s stills, makes one wonder if there isn’t reason to think this was a case of film subverting the art world rather than vice versa.
Short film may not necessarily require curators, when the film-programmers have managed that task for so long, but it continues to require support and care. Gass told me, “it is important to have places not previously defined, in a role, in a specific social system, where names, rankings, and values are already established in either the film business or the art world. A place in which you can see and experience things, works, art—in different way.”
(Image at top: Xun Sun, Installation view of Josef Dabernig & Sun Xun, exhibition at Zentrum Altenberg, Oberhausen, 2016, 62nd International Short Film Festival Oberhausen. Photo: the author. Courtesy of the artist)
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