The Oberhausen Short Film Festival, which hosted its 61st edition from April 30–May 5 this year, promotes the moving image's most essential and investigational format since its beginnings—and it feels like there’s never been a better time for the short film.
Without polemics or soap-boxing, but with much food for thought, a sense of what is happening in the world of short film today was woven into diverse screenings, talks, and special programs. Whether the festival’s works or thematic concerns were new or old, retrospective or cutting edge, the context and thinking in the overall curating was entirely seated in 2015. From avant-gardism in 70s London to 3D art films, artist-run film labs to Finnish video humor, here are the 2015 artist highlights and most interesting questions raised at Oberhausen.
Profiles: William Raban
Still from William Raban's 72-82 (2014) showing artist Jock McFadyen in his Acme house in the 1970s. Via Acme Studios
Screened as part as a profile of the UK filmmaker William Raban, 72-82 (2014) presents a collected chronicle of the all but lost history of avant-gardism in an entirely disappeared London.
Rather than an attempt at a definitive history this is an assemblage of spoken recollections and recovered ephemera from a selection of artists who, under the auspices of Acme Studios, were probing new ground in performance, sculpture, film and intervention in 1970s London. Through cooperation with sympathetic local councils they were given the chance to occupy large properties marked for future demolition. Participating artists provide voice over commentary run along side imagery of flyers, photos, and rare footage of actions and artworks filmed by Raban, who was a member of the collective.
From these fragments and memories the filmmaker very cleverly plots historical narratives, versions of events that focus on contemporary issues: housing, availability of property, artists and galleries interaction with wider communities, consumerism and broader attitudes to emerging art practice are issues are explored through the memories of the artists involved with Acme during the period—as are the veracity of their memories themselves.
Without heavy handedness, resisting for instance temptation to juxtapose the 1970s images of dilapidated, terrace rows of housing, clad in corrugated iron with before-and-after, present day images of their current state of gentrification, this is a historic appraisal of a bygone era entirely pertinent to today and now.
The film offers a view of a time in London when studios suitable for large works and sculptural projects were not only available but in such abundance and open to reinterpretation that they could be cut up, like chunks of sculptors alabaster. Works like Kerry Trengrove's Eight Day Passage (1977) explored a journey through the fabric of the buildings themselves, digging a 20-foot tunnel through the ground to escape a cell created in his studio. This was around the same time as Gordon Matta-Clark was doing the same in New York and Paris. There are, in fact, many parallels between the New York artists’ movement centered around Soho and the community centered around Acme in London.
Today digging down into the soil might be the only possibility of finding an inner city space to live and work for most artists. Raban's film holds back on the rose-tinted nostalgia but hulks of wrecked and leaking, slumland never looked so much like utopia.
For any seed-bomb flinging Hipster who thought Guerilla Gardening was something new, there are accounts of how the artists discovered and followed a community of people living in this highly run down area who were keeping livestock and growing vegetables in their back gardens, removing the fencing between them to create larger communal areas. The Acme area artists were interested in an art that engaged with neighbors and local communities, that critiqued consumerism at a time when it was less destructive and all encompassing than it is today.
With this type of practice now all but impossible in cities like London and New York this could be merely a nostalgic lament on the loss of a more open city. But ultimately that isn't the true nature of the story here. The coda is more optimistic: despite everything else, the type work the more progressive Acme artists championed—conceptual, performance, mixed media—has in subsequent decades been accepted as legitimate art practice. Their story is, if only in this regard, one of victory.
Theme: The Third Image—3D Cinema as Experiment
Chris Lavis/Maciek Szczerbowski, (Canada), Cochemare, 2013. Courtesy of 61st International Short Film Festival Oberhausen
Another prominent feature at Oberhausen this year was the series of talks and screenings presenting the emerging movement of artists working in 3D, seeking to redefine and populate the space between viewer and screen the way the sensational Hollywood mainstream has done so for years.
Due to monocular vision impairment, I’m not able to see 3D—but it's not everyday one witnesses the declaration of a new avant-garde even with one eye closed. The strength and potential of material was questioned as was the rigor of any declaration of intention or sense of a collective manifesto across participating artists.
Experimental 3D allows a re-evaluation of approaches that have been the backbone of avant-garde film and video, historically producing its canon of film and video makers. The technology that is driving this is—like film in the early 20th century or video in the 60s and early 70s—still at an early stage of it's development. The 3D work produced now may prove equally valuable as a gateway into further work bound to appear in Virtual and Augmented Reality, etc., not necessarily with the objective to further suspend disbelief but rather as a new means for exploring and interacting with the visual image.
That fact that there is no widely accepted language of Artists’ 3D available to create discourses around the work can be seen as frustrating—members of the discussion audience pressed for clearer explanations from the filmmakers. There seemed a general questioning of the caliber of some of the work; were they truly involving 3D in a methodology divergent from that employed by the mainstream? The suggestion was that Hollywood has never quite managed to capitalize on 3D and now technology has allowed the avant-garde to pick up the torch and unlock its potential—but has this really happened yet?
The answer looks unclear, a kind of simultaneous yes/no/don't know. But isn't that how a fledgling avant-garde should look? Wouldn't too many answers suggest a territory already well trodden?
I think the frustrations and rifts caused by the 3D program at Oberhausen are completely in keeping with an emergent avant-garde and, as such, they should be embraced. If it could be explained to a comfortably seated film critic in a sentence, would it be bona-fide avant-gardism? However long it takes to become part of an officially recognized avant-garde tradition, what is certain is that it isn't going away anytime soon. I think the program will be looked back on as a great success and an important step towards integrating a new medium even if it has yet to manifest anything like itself as a cohesive movement or entirely convince audiences of its potential.
Podium: Artist-run Film Labs—Old Ties or New Concepts?
Esther Urlus, Konrad and Kurfürst (2013-2014), Screened by Lightcone
As with the 3D program some of the most interesting ideas and vivid impressions of Oberhausen 61 came from the post-screening discussions and a series of podium events that looked at topics relevant to short and experimental film and video today.
A panel discussion on the practice and function of artist-run film labs, chaired by Vassily Bourikas, considered questions of contemporary requirements for film stock and what part artist-run labs can play in meeting them. Just what does a post-film, filmmaker environment look like today?
The imagery thrown out in the discussion was rich, varied, and not entirely pessimistic. The post-film film world is a terrain where industrial film equipment lays on the street, cast out by film labs for appropriation just as found footage and occasional short ends were 20 years ago. Now the experimenters are invited to take the lot—anything missing can be self-built using online how-to's. This is a time when a preference for the use of film is questioned as a fetish, as pandering to a fad, when the act of providing and running a 16mm film projector is considered a performance, when the archivists and arts curators keep the films of the old masters safe while technicians who maintained the equipment they were filmed and printed on disappear penniless into retirement, taking their knowledge and skills with them.
And then of course the stock... the precious stock. Think of a 1980s straight to video post-apocalyptic movie where petrol, water, or munitions have become worth a hundredfold their weight in gold. In our imagined world raw film stock has run out and filmmakers battle for that final roll of 8mm Tri-X lost under the rubble of post-analogue wasteland.
An archivist on the panel confesses that Anthology Film Archives has 60,000 feet of Kodak print film cryogenically frozen in a vault somewhere under NYC and somebody in the audience boasts of owning the last K40 Super 8 cartridges known to humanity. It begins to feel reminiscent of a YouTube survivalist prepper’s how-to video.
One of the panel, the remarkable Ester Urlus, has been home brewing film emulsion and rolling out her own film stock. Her advice is simple yet inspirational: get or make a film coating machine and start making your own. Her Konrad and Kurfürst (2013-2014) was in evidence at the festival as part of distributor Lightcone's screening and it demonstrates how, by reviving the approaches of film's pioneers, its future is returning to the hands of its true innovators.
Apparently increasing numbers of projects are being made and submitted to festivals on film. Is this a true revival or, as suggested, a form of fetishization? Might film’s imminent extinction provide the attraction: a sense of one last chance to shoot on film before the stuff runs out and the cameras stop whirring? Just as the art dealer assigns value to the dead artist, do artists have a penchant for dead-media?
Still referred to as Celluloid, a material not used in cinematic film since the mid 20th century, perhaps there has always been a bit of nostalgia inherent in film, and yet the strongest ideas to come from the discussion are entirely progressive. Rather than resurrecting analog vs. digital dichotomies, collaboration and sharing resources are essential. The future of artists film lies in its embracing of various digital media, utilizing them to help keep film around and keep it contemporary.
Profile: Erkka Nissinen
Erkka Nissinen (Finland/Netherlands), Vantaa, 2008. Courtesy 61st International Short Film Festival Oberhausen
In an environment of such doubtful certainty what could be more reassuring than the world of total and absolute uncertainty—a place where philosophical theory and psychoanalysis play ping-pong with a wonderful world of daftness? Welcome to the lurid empire of Erkka Nissinen, an enigma from central Finland. If you're looking for a man capable of bravery and sacrifice for his art, who refuses to have his optimism cured, forget about Herzog throwing himself onto cacti or Chris Burden being shot in the arm! Nissinen demonstrates his commitment by hobbling around on his knees screaming for yogurt in Vantaa (2008), coming onto a panda in Night School (2007), or in Rigid Regime (2012) boldly running the risk of offending countless double (or triple) amputees.
His films play with themselves, so to speak. Self reflexively, they question framing, editing, and sound with structural approaches and tropes, constantly reminding the audience of their own artifice.
And then there is the humor. In the UK, where no artist or performer is handed the title of creative genius more freely than the comedian, it is said that great comedic talent always comes with a good dose of insanity. I don't think Nissinen is insane (I met him, he seems okay) but he does understand how to utilize completely bonkers humor to strip away at cozy concepts like normality, reality, and the self. Beneath them we discover mad staring men with bad glue-on beards and wigs lecturing monotonously in otherwise empty rooms.
At one of the late screenings I was the only one watching the International premiere of Paul Sharits’ 3D-Movie (1975) without wearing anaglyphic glasses. I enjoyed Sharits’ vibrant color swarms and accumulated resolution but envied the crowd as they gasped at the exhilaration of plunging into the filmic third dimension, silently cursing the impotence of my right eyeball. But then, a thought: is mine a unique perspective here? Does this qualify me as being a leading practitioner in a new sub-cultural trend: artists’ 3D film viewed in 2D? Non-stereoscopic readings of 3D art films? After four days at Oberhausen, anything seems possible.
(Image at top: Santiago Caicedo, (France), Come Coco, 2006, Courtesy 61st International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Theme: The Third Image—3D Cinema as Experiment)