- Experimental / Avant-Garde Moving Images and the Archive:A Virtual Roundtable
The occasion of this special issue on experimental moving images allows us to conduct an experiment of our own. As we have learned, there is a large and diverse community of scholars, makers, archivists, technicians, programmers, and enthusiasts invested in this subject. No matter how we tried to shape the issue, however, we were aware that important perspectives were being left out and that critical questions remained unanswered, sometimes even unasked. For this reason, we reached out to a group of people whose names kept coming up in our countless conversations on the topic and asked for short musings on whatever topically relevant subject they felt like opining about.
Our questions were basic: what worries you about the place this material occupies in the archive? How do we move this discussion (and our practices) into the twenty-first century? Our primary hope was to see if points of overlap and divergence, conversation and debate, might occur on their own. The following eight short responses are the result. We find the section especially fascinating and insightful. These are think pieces in every sense, and we thank this group for responding to our somewhat unorthodox call with such useful ruminations.
Experimental-avant-garde film continues to be marginalized in some of the places where it should be most deeply appreciated and supported: most obviously, in academe and in art museums. Whatever lip service is paid to this immense cinematic territory, the fact remains that the imminent demise of 16mm projection in academic institutions is an emblem of its continued marginalization—ironically, during the same moment when the literature about cinema, even to some extent about experimental- avant-garde film, has been developing. The advent of digital projection should not have meant (indeed, should not mean—many educational institutions still have 16mm equipment) the demise of 16mm exhibition, any more than the invention of the electric guitar should have meant the demise of acoustic guitars.
Much the same marginalization is true in major art museums, even those well known for their historical commitment to independent cinema (MoMA in New York, most obviously). In general, museums continue to treat even the most remarkable experimental-avant-garde films, including films clearly related to celebrated dimensions of the other visual arts, as second-class citizens. The gap between the way in which painting and cinema are dealt with in most museums is nearly as astonishing as the lack of comment about this. [End Page 87]
Clearly there are those who have done yeoman work at getting some experimental- avant-garde films preserved and archived—a crucial undertaking if these films are to have a future. But of course, the fact that some films get archived and preserved doesn't ensure that these films will continue to be available as first-rate filmgoing experiences for anyone but scholars (in many cases, unless someone intervenes to see that important films make it to the next generation, not even scholars). Archives must not become cinematic versions of the Roach Motel (I hope the reader can forgive the reference), where films go in but never come back out. In the current economic doldrums, can one be truly hopeful that many more films will continue to be available in good prints or become available as first-rate, projection-worthy DVDs without more help from those archives that house the canonical works?
There is some cause for hope, of course. The DVD versions of many important avant-garde films are excellent and, with good equipment, project well (and sound considerably better than 16mm prints). These films are becoming ongoing parts of our institutional and personal archives in a way that has never been possible before, at least for most people and many institutions.
One little-discussed dimension of this issue is, and perhaps always has been, our terminology. Avant-garde and experimental have tended, almost by definition, to assist in the marginalization of the body of work to which these terms refer. Brakhage's, Frampton's, Anger's, Rainer's, Friedrich's, Benning's, Gatten's, and Lockhart's best...