Experimental or avant-garde film is a tricky notion. In North America, "avant-garde" is the more common term of the two because film as a practice is primarily marked by a manifestly commercial culture. Non-profit, minor, and inexpensively produced film is itself a phenomenon of the avant-garde in a climate that is strictly capitalist.1 In Europe, where hardly any feature films aimed for regular distribution are produced without public funding (that is, partly non-commercial), the oppositions between different economies of production are not as polarized.
I am, however, convinced that we have these imprecise and restricting notions of avant-garde or experimental because film as a field of study has such a short history. The emerging digital culture of the moving image that is blending formats, media and practices of exhibition will soon make the notion of "film" obsolete. Nonetheless, the dominant form, i.e., narrative feature film, has become—and has been—the metonymical figure for film as an economy (movies), social form (film) and aesthetic language (cinema). What the recent changes in formats, media, and exhibition will imply for those products and practices that David James has termed "minor cinemas"2 is that, when taken together, "minor" cinematic forms will turn out to be "major" in terms of output and availability, due to digital technology and the Internet. The change is nevertheless not radically new. In 1958, Pontus Hultén, the up-and-coming, versatile director of Stockholm's Museum of Contemporary Art (one of the leading European art museums of the 1960s), pointed this out in a catalogue for Viking Eggeling's work: [End Page 165]
In a couple of years probably no one will talk about film as they are doing now. The concept of film will disappear. Film will be used in the same way as the printed word. The simple fact that the moving image is projected by an optic-mechanical apparatus will be no more of a common denominator than that all printed letters are printed in a printing press. There will be as many kinds of film as there are novels, newspapers, brochures, secret reports, essays and poems. And every kind will be considered as something separate in itself.3
According to Holly Willis in New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image (2005), we have finally reached what Hultén predicted. Willis describes the current state of things as:
. . . a resurgence of interest in large-scale film and video installations in galleries and museums as film and video converge; an increasing use of live video sampling tools in club events; a renewed independent film movement featuring narrative experimentation, low-budget modes of production and, on occasion, a focus on overtly personal or political issues; a reinvestigation of the goals and projects of the classical avant-garde; the advent of 'digital graffiti'; and a growing media-based culture not beholden to the constraints either of the narrative form, nor even of the movie theatre.4
I have called the new situation (in another context) "the non-place of cinema," stressing the way film as a concept has changed, merging with an expansive and hybrid moving image culture.5 However, let me emphasize again that the current state is not really new. Hultén envisioned the change because of his experiences in the kinetic art scene in 1950s Paris. Tom Gunning, who has promoted the concept of "a cinema of attractions," has suggested that film was, from the beginning, a hybrid and heterogeneous form;6 and Willis carefully points out that what we are experiencing is a "reinvention." Peter Weibel, on the other hand, has stressed how the lack of knowledge of the history of experimental film among art critics has led them to "exaggerate contemporary achievements" in what is called video art today.7
Covering some forty years of this long...