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  • Experimental Screens in the 1960s and 1970s:The Site of Community
  • Tess Takahashi (bio)

It is common knowledge—though often forgotten—that experimental film production in 1960s and 1970s expanded not only what constituted a screen, but where screens could be located and used. Gene Youngblood documents this multiplication of screens via experiments with mobile cinema vans, portable inflatable cinema, and screenings in artists' spaces and galleries, on public and broadcast television, on concert stages in conjunction with live music, in planetariums, in the home, in the classroom, and in enormous multiscreen environments, which utilized multiple media such as 16mm and 8mm film formats, slide projectors, and television monitors. Artists across disciplines in this period paid attention to the materiality of the screen, the spaces in which screens appeared, and the communities that congregated around them. In many cases, filmmakers themselves served as programmers, distributors, and exhibitors of experimental film. However, within the scholarship on experimental media, this proliferation of cross-screen experimentalism and new display environments tends to get passed over in favor of attention to the medium, or media, on which a work was produced. A tendency to focus on the experimental artist and his or her production process has only reinforced this emphasis. As a result, moving-image practices have been discussed in relatively siloed disciplines: experimental video art and performance in Art History; avant-garde film in Film Studies; and television and its audiences in Communication and Media Studies.

This artificial disciplinary segregation largely ignores the site and context of the screens on which experimental work was shown and [End Page 162] encountered.1 Within Art History, video art in this period is seen far too often by outsiders as hermetic and, in the oft-cited words of Rosalind Krauss, "narcissistic," with the monitor functioning as a mirror for the artist's gaze.2 Video audiences, often key to the very constitution of the art itself, are almost entirely absent. Likewise, within Film Studies, experimental work tends to be associated with formalist, medium-specific, "structural" film, which has been described as film that focuses exclusively on the specific properties of celluloid and projection. In this context, screens are usually described as flat, white, and material rather than as part of a site that includes a moment of performance and also an audience. Within Communications and Media Studies, TV gets figured as a medium for a large mainstream audience, its screen most often understood as the one-way instrument of broadcast for the insular family unit. In that context, TV is rarely seen as an experimental medium. However, audiences have seldom been segregated completely by medium. Experimental screens in all guises have often brought together multiple media and multiple constituencies: the art world, the avant-garde film world, and mainstream audiences.

In response to the critical tendencies described above, and in line with recent research on the 1960s and 1970s avant-garde, I suggest that we shift our gaze from medium-specific experimental works and the artists who made them to the screens on which the experimental work appeared. "Screens" means screening spaces. When I speak of experimental screens, then, I reference three kinds of screening sites: screenings of experimental work on physical screens that were key to the work's construction and function; screenings of experimental work in traditional theatrical space; and screenings of experimental work in nontheatrical spaces, often in nontraditional venues like clubs, fields, churches, backyards, university classrooms, and, most important, the home.3

The first category, the spectacular, formally experimental screen, tends to get all the attention, and with good reason. One thinks of the famous horizontal and multiple film screens that composed the Labyrinthe exhibit developed by Roman Kroitor, Colin Low, and Hugh O'Connor at Expo '67 in Montreal, the Eames multiscreen Glimpses of the USA venture in Moscow in 1959, Jordan Belson's Vortex projections at the San Francisco planetarium, and Stan VanDerBeek's movie-drome in upstate New York.4 Likewise, there were spectacular experimental assemblages of video screens, often in [End Page 163] combination with other media, like Nam June Paik's TV Garden (1974), as well as his smaller-scale constructions for performances by cellist Charlotte Moorman...


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