The 2010 Congress in Context
By Brett Kashmere
Brett Kashmere is a Pittsburgh-based filmmaker, curator, and Visiting Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies at Oberlin College. He is also the founding editor of INCITE Journal.
Image: Delegates sign in at the 2010 International Experimental Media Congress,
Ontario College of Art and Design. Photo: Henry Chan.
Image: Yvonne Rainer speaks with John Greyson during the Keynote Discussion of the 2010 Congress.
Photo: Henry Chan.
Image: Barbara Hammer reads from her new book HAMMER!, following a performance
of Available Space at the 2010 Congress. Photo: Henry Chan.
The 2010 International Experimental Media Congress was presented April 7-11 in Toronto, Canada. Hosted by the Images Festival, the Congress was a joint project between Images, York University, and faculty from Ryerson University, University of Toronto, and OCAD, the Ontario College of Art & Design, where most of the proceedings took place. Opening with a keynote discussion by Yvonne Rainer with John Greyson, the four-day affair convened panel discussions (sometimes described as “roundtables” or “conversations” despite identical formatting), field reports from Korea and India, a Barbara Hammer performance and book launch, show and tell opportunities and breakout sessions, and nightly open screenings. Some panel topics were supplemented by Images Festival screenings, exhibitions and live events, which were taking place conterminously at various locations throughout the city.
The last such gathering of the international experimental media community occurred more than two decades ago (May 28-June 4, 1989), at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario. Prompted, in part, by the 1987 anniversary edition of Millennium Film Journal, especially Fred Camper’s “End of the Avant-Garde Film” essay, which critiqued the institutionalization of experimental filmmaking due to its assimilation into the academy and recognition by grant-giving agencies, the first International Experimental Film Congress sought to provoke discussion about avant-garde cinema’s past, present, and future, while focusing attention on important aesthetic trends, pressing issues, and new directions. The weeklong gathering featured “practica” (sessions with veteran filmmakers demonstrating techniques or personal approaches to specific issues), “critics’ sidebars” (presentations of selected papers, culled from an open call), panel discussions, presentations on special topics, a series of curated national and thematic screenings, open screenings, and a three-part “New Horizons” program, spotlighting younger filmmakers from Europe, Canada, and America, respectively; and was bookended by retrospective tributes to Jack Chambers and Hollis Frampton. As members of its Executive Board explained,
The original idea for an international gathering of experimental filmmakers, critics, and enthusiasts came from [the German filmmaker] Christoph Janetzko after a screening at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1987. He was concerned that it was almost ten years since the Third International Avant-Garde Festival had taken place in London, England, and felt that significant activity had taken place since that time raising issues concerning avant-garde cinema that needed to be addressed. After several informal meetings the Congress became a reality in the spring of 1987 when, with the support of our various institutions, we began to pursue the idea seriously. The organization of the Congress was facilitated throughout by the goodwill and enthusiasm of all members of the avant-garde community.1
Despite its ambitious and wide-ranging program, the ‘89 Congress is likely best and most often remembered for the bitter debates that it ignited.2 Seventy-six film- and videomakers, programmers, and scholars from the U.S. and Canada circulated an open letter prior to the event titled “Let’s Set the Record Straight,” which was intensely discussed and disseminated before, during, and after the Congress.3 Chief among the complaints expressed therein were the attempted (continued) canonization of avant-garde “Masterworks,” the sidelining of minority positions, women filmmakers, and socio-political concerns, “the ceremonious embalming of lively, refractory work, the minimal attention given to new work, the organization of screenings along nationalistic lines, […] the ‘open’—read ‘unpaid’—screenings for those willing to pay $100 for the privilege” (which were held in the back of a noisy, smoke-filled bar), and the exclusion of certain, oppositional members of the Toronto film community (namely those associated with The Funnel Experimental Film Centre). The West Coast filmmaker and critic Al Razutis decried the Congress’ Toronto-centric bias, particularly with respect to the composition of its organizing committee, while Manhola Dargis, writing in the Village Voice, characterized the source of division as a “generational rift.”4 As the film scholar William C. Wees notes, “a substantial portion of the Congress highlighted past accomplishments of the avant-garde, and granted privileged status to older, established avant-garde filmmakers.”5
Looking back, it seems like some of these criticisms were perhaps unfair. For instance, Jack Chambers, one of the two “dead white male” filmmakers who were celebrated during the Congress, was largely unknown outside of Canadian art circles at the time, hardly part of the international avant-garde canon / power structure. Again, as Wees points out, “the screenings and panel discussions at the Congress were more diverse in content and more open to competing positions on the nature and state of health of avant-garde film than the letter allowed. Curated programs offered many films from the 1980s made in Canada, the United States, Latin America, the U.K., France, the Philippines, West Germany and Eastern Europe—including work by some of the filmmakers who signed the Open Letter....”6 That said, the lessons of 1989 were not lost on the organizing committee of the 2010 edition, which stressed diversity, inclusivity, and a greater degree of international representation, while shifting the emphasis from “Experimental Film” to “Experimental Media.” Although obvious, it still bears noting that the world of experimental film and video—“media arts”—was much different in 1989 than it is today. The World Wide Web, and networked discussion groups like the listserv Frameworks, did not exist; the microcinema movement had yet to take hold; specialized festivals like Tokyo’s Image Forum, 25 FPS in Zagreb, Croatia, EXiS and SeNef in Seoul, Korea, and Experimenta in Bangalore, India, were yet to be born. A truly global experimental media community was still years away.
Preparations for the next International Experimental Media Congress are currently in progress and will take place at the Akademie der Künste (Hanseatenweg) in Berlin, October 10-14, 2012. This third edition will be presented in collaboration between Arsenal - Institute for Film and Video Art and the department of Art and Media at the University of the Arts (Udk), Berlin. Although debates around the 2010 Congress were comparatively subdued the event itself was deemed far from perfect, as the following responses attest. For one thing, its structure did not enable the kind of lively dialogue and exchange of ideas that many of the attendees (delegates) had hoped for. Also, despite the organizers’ stated attempts to avoid the design of an academic conference, the primary setting, a large college auditorium, certainly made it feel like one. The lack of directly related screenings and the overall dearth of younger participants likewise contributed to an arid atmosphere. Which isn’t to say that the 2010 Congress lacked merit and successes. Its survey of the field and snapshot of current practices were significant, providing an aperture to future conversations: this is who I am, this is what I do. One hopes that the 2012 organizers, like their predecessors, learn from the past and adjust the temperature accordingly.
1.“Preface,” The International Experimental Film Congress (Toronto: The Art Gallery of Ontario, 1989), p. 7. The preface is signed by the members of the Congress’ Executive Board: Kathryn Elder, Catherine Jonasson, Doina Popescu, Barbara Sternberg, and Bart Testa.
2. For more on the context and specifics of this debate, see William C. Wees, “’Let’s Set the Record Straight’: The International Experimental Film Congress, Toronto 1989,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 9, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 101-116. As Wees points out, the “accuracy of [the open letter’s] charges against the Congress is less important today than its attempt to articulate—in aggressive, manifesto rhetoric—the ambitions, priorities and allegiances of the generation of experimental filmmakers who came into their own during the 1980s,” 102. See also, Al Razutis, “Let's set the record straight, INDEED!” (July 2002), http://www.alchemists.com/visual_alchemy/manifesto/razutisaside.html.
3. See “Open Letter to the Experimental Film Congress: Let’s Set the Record Straight,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 9, no. 1 (Spring 2000): 103-104.
4. Manhola Dargis, “The Brood,” Village Voice (June 20, 1989): 92.
5. Wees, “’Let’s Set the Record Straight,’” 105, 108. It should be noted that some of the filmmakers who signed the letter also had work included in the Congress screenings.
6. Ibid., 105.