Glows on you: Animal Charm's "Slow Gin Soul Stallion" gives cinema new life. (Photo courtesy Thomas Beard)

Thomas Beard exposes "Live Cinema"

Michael Fox April 7, 2008

For decades, experimental filmmakers have actively rejected the conventions of story-driven cinema for a poetic, experiential aesthetic. It seems inevitable, in retrospect, that a few avant-garde visionaries would eventually challenge the codified, calcified nature of the moviegoing experience itself, where audiences passively sit through an identical fixed presentation from Tampa to Tucson, Tehachapi to Tonapah. Their goal is to turn each screening into an act of creation, with its attendant unpredictability and excitement. Some artists, like Zoe Beloff, bring rickety, old-fashioned projectors into the room to resurrect film’s mechanical and tactile characteristics. Animal Charm does a live mix of found footage. This exciting genre of experimental filmmaking is the focus of San Francisco Cinematheque’s brand-new collection of essays and artifacts, “Cinematograph 7—Live Cinema: A Contemporary Reader.” Edited by New York programmer and critic Thomas Beard, the book launches with a party and screening this Thursday, April 10, at Artists’ Television Access, 992 Valencia (at 21st St.) featuring the aforementioned Animal Charm, SUE.C and Refraction. We caught up with Beard, whose latest venture is the weekly Brooklyn-based experimental film series Light Industry, via email.

SF360: What constitutes live cinema? How would you define it?

Thomas Beard: That’s an interesting question, and the curator Ian White, at a certain point in his piece for the book, offers one of the broadest definitions. For him, artists’ film and video, even if it doesn’t involve an explicitly performative element, is a kind of live art, since that sort of cinema is, by design, very much event-based, the context not unlike other kinds of performance. And for my purposes, as an editor, that phrase has meant many things. It means the manipulations of multiple small-gauge projectors by artists like Guy Sherwin or silt or Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder, the image processing of LoVid on their custom-made hardware video equipment, or even intrepid uses of moving images in musical performances, like Text of Light, who situate silent experimental films as a sort of additional member in a broader improvisation.

SF360: Is live cinema the future of moviegoing? Is it the future of avant-garde film? Or is it a subgenre?

Beard: This is moviegoing’s past, present and future, which is to say that liveness and performance has, and always will be, part of a certain kind of experience in the cinema. Magic lantern shows, phantasmagorias, camera obscuras, these are all important instances of moving images shifting or being manipulated in real-time, all of them pre-dating film. And many of the artists today are working in traditions of expanded cinema, projector performance and other live cinematic efforts that began decades earlier (that list, including Tony Conrad and Joan Jonas and Malcolm Le Grice and Carolee Schneemann, among many, many others, is a long one). And I’m confident that a new generation will continue performing and exist in some kind of dialogue with what’s come before it, whether that means picking up a torch or burning a bridge to the past.

SF360: What was your objective with the book? Is it about defining a movement, or furthering and encouraging it?

Beard: An incredibly rich and varied body of work has emerged in the past decade from artists working at intersections of performance, film and electronic art, though, perhaps because of its ephemeral nature, thoughtful writings about it are somewhat few and far between. So it’s my hope that this collection will remedy that situation in some way. And though I certainly wouldn’t describe contemporary live cinema practice as something cohesive enough to be a movement, it is fascinating to me that, say, artists like Bruce McClure or Wynne Greenwood, whose respective projects couldn’t be more different, kind of emerged out of similar moments and occasionally shared the same audiences.

SF360: How did you select the contributors?

Beard: I suppose it began with simple listmaking, notes about the contemporary work that fell under this broad rubric of live cinema that I felt to be especially significant. Then I worked from there, contacting colleagues—curators and critics who had supported this work in the past—to see if they might like to contribute something. That said, the anthology is very much a cross-section of writings about and interviews with particular artists, but it also features a wide range of ephemera (posters, program notes, sketches and studies for projections, etc.) from the artists themselves. The question of how does one go about capturing or evoking this live experience in a book was really important to me, and I attempted to do that through a combination of essays, conversations and materials that, in different ways, somehow related to the performances themselves.

SF360: Notwithstanding the alternative endings and directors’ cuts that are prevalent on DVDs, which have raised the notion that there isn’t a definitive version of anything, what are the repercussions or possibilities of a live cinema in which every performance of a work is different?

Beard: There are quite a few. On the one hand, it can be very exciting, allowing the performance to be potentially full of surprises for artist and audience alike as different variables are tended to each time. On the other hand, of course, it can make the work difficult to pin down: how can it be remembered, studied, even preserved? Andrew Lampert, the archivist at Anthology Film Archives here in New York, has a piece in the collection that addresses precisely this, the challenges faced when trying to preserve something that never had one, fixed existence.

SF360: Zoe Beloff’s piece in ‘Cinematograph’ (and her work) are in part about taking the transparent (the actual projection equipment) and making it part of the show. In the digital age, what does it mean to remind viewers about machines?

Beard: When Zoe uses stereoscopic images or Paul Slocum plays hacked Amigas, they definitely call attention to a history of media that can be somewhat invisible to many. There’s probably even a novelty in just seeing a 16mm projector these days. Most crucially, though, whether it’s small-gauge or 8-bit or overhead transparencies, so many of the artists featured here are highlighting the continued aesthetic potential of things that have been for the most part cast off because of their supposed obsolescence.

SF360: A few questions about avant-garde cinema in general: For some time, experimental film has been on the fringes of our culture. Who is the audience now? What is the future?

Beard: Wow…you could a write another book in response to that question! I think we’re in an interesting moment now because the work is shown and the audience develops in a number of different settings. I mean, you’ve got venerable institutions like San Francisco Cinematheque or Anthology here in the States continuing to do great work, as well as a smattering of festivals, screening series and other alternative venues dedicated to cultivating audiences of their own. Then there’s the complex relationship that film and video has had, recently and in the past, with the art world. You can see Paul Sharits in Chelsea now, and part of me thinks, ‘That’s great! A larger audience for a major artist,’ but unfortunately it’s not quite that simple. And I think incredible resources like UbuWeb should be mentioned here as well. A teenage kid in South Carolina can now watch Yvonne Rainer in his bedroom, and if you’re talking about what will affect the development of future audiences for this kind of work, it’s certainly worth noting.

SF360: Writing about experimental film is one of the most difficult things for a critic, since it entails describing an experience rather than describing the plot, acting and themes. What’s your goal when you write about experimental film? How should the typical moviegoer who is not an academic or a semiotics major read such criticism? Finally, what function does film criticism provide to filmmakers?

Beard: Parker Tyler has been a definitive influence, and I always strive toward what he achieved in his writing about film, experimental or otherwise. The prose is always lively and inventive, the insights keen and penetrating, conjuring up incredibly poetic metaphors for the experience of watching these movies, a far cry from most of what one comes across in academic film studies. At its best I think film criticism can also provide a window into broader histories of culture and politics—J. Hoberman [recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award from the S.F. International Film Festival on April 27] is the paragon example here—and I think filmmakers, like anyone interested in film, are drawn to smart, serious writing about the art they love.