Artists, experimental filmmakers, poets and their associates have a covert history of exploration beyond the standard arrangement of audience, beam and screen. In expanded cinema, as the late Paul Arthur noted, the commitment “is to an ethos of spontaneity” that contradicts not just the classical cinema’s normal exhibition mode, but also critically “ruptures the privatized and quietist dynamics of avant-garde presentation linking static spectators to a static screen” (1). Also noting the efflorescence of “expanded” and performance modes over the last decade, Mark Elhatten argues “makers” have brought
innovation, refinement, raw power, and original conjuration to an ever-flexible medium by referencing ancient forms of fireside storytelling and shadow play, expanded cinema approaches pioneered in the Sixties, Dada Cabaret, John Cage, benshi, classroom reveries, minimalism, maximalism, and unclassifiable visionary practice. (2)
In expanded cinema, in other words, everything expands, in all possible directions; the audience may move; projections may be multiplied, and the screen often expands from the second to the third dimension.
We at OtherFilm knew that Arthur and Corinne Cantrill had produced a series of expanded cinema works in the early 1970s upon their return from London to take up a residency at the Australian National University (ANU). We were aware that these were the genesis for the legendary Cantrills Filmnotes (1971-2000), which started as one of those great film cultural documents: film screening programme notes. We read that these were events involving projections onto or over specially tinted, printed and sculptured screens, poetry and live performance – and tried to imagine these material gestures as we watched the film prints of works like Blast (1971), Punched Film and Filed Film (both 1970). At our inaugural festival in 2004 we screened a film from the National Film and Sound Archive’s catalogue called Instant Film by 30 People, featuring the results of a handmade film workshop conducted by Arthur with ANU students in 1969. We loved and could relate to this collaborative artwork: wild bursts of hand-painted colour and unruly scratched explosions over found footage and blank leader. The participants in our own cameraless film workshop enjoyed it too. But we still wanted badly, to see the expanded cinema works for ourselves. By 2005, we could control this desire no longer; we had to experience these expanded cinema works “in the flesh” and mustered the courage to ask Arthur and Corinne, whom we’d gotten to know in the course of researching experimental cinema in Australia, if they would be interested in restaging Cantrills’ Expanded Cinema in Brisbane.
Not all our friends understood this, and some even saw the desire to go back and see what these expanded works were like as a strangely retrograde step, a kind of unnecessary meddling with the past. However, we realised that the act of restaging historic performance art – which is what the re-enactment of these expanded cinema works would be – inevitably raised important questions about the repeatability of ephemeral art and the being of performance itself. We noticed how, particularly in the 2000s, restagings of “historic” works by their original artists – like Meat Joy (originally performed in 1964) by the amazing Carolee Schneemann (3) – were critical to the high-speed evolution of the discourse of performance art in that decade, and, thusly and auspiciously for artists, its increased visibility in the gallery sphere. We were particularly encouraged by arguments such as those by the art historian Rachel Withers, who maintained that though projects involving performance re-enactment often drew criticism for “betraying” the “original” performance’s “authentic” liveness, they nonetheless issued an important challenge to monumentality. Withers points out that “if, as Peggy Phelan wrote in 1993, ‘Performance’s being… becomes itself through disappearance’ then to valorize a ‘first’ or ‘sole’ performance as a reified entity – ‘the real thing’ – would be to miss the radical point of its resistance to reproduction”. We were interested in how contemporary re-enactment could explore the interplay between performance, memory and time, and how performance’s afterlife, after Withers, could be “produced performatively”. Major shows like the A Short History of Performance series (I-III, 2002-2005), as well as the committed and creative re-enactment activity of our artist friends here in Australia, the Teaching and Learning Cinema (TLC) of Lucas Ihlein and Louise Curham, have brought performance art issues to the fore. There’s now a climate in which the re-enactment of ephemeral works – maybe unthinkable in prior eras – is increasingly normal gallery and festival practice, and for artists, provides what the TLC describe as “essential” direct access to the work of “our aesthetic precursors”, as “works become available once again for first-hand experience” (4).
Nonetheless, there is still a tension at the heart of this – performance as a constitutively disappearing, uniquely live event, which is also and at the same time a repeatable or renewable entity. Seeing the works as scores, in the manner of John Cage’s experimental musical scores, helped us. The Cantrills, to our delight, helped us even more; they agreed to the re-staging and, in March 2006, performed their historic expanded cinema works in front of a packed, sweaty and genuinely delighted house of cheering, stamping and whistling Brisbane spectators and interstate friends. The Cantrills’ re-enactments at this festival had noticeable influence on the subsequent efflorescence of multi-screen, hybrid and performance practice here in the complex creative underbelly of the Sunshine State. For us at OtherFilm, the works performed at this festival remain some of our most treasured memories as an experimental audiovisual collective.
In 2009, 40 years after they first experimented with expanding the cinema, the Cantrills again re-enacted these historic works. This time, they returned to their old stomping ground of the La Mama theatre in Carlton, a beautiful old live performance venue where they had originally presented early film-performance works such as Edges of Meaning (1977) (5). We approached The Melbourne International Film Festival, hoping they’d go for the “ruby anniversary” pitch, and they did. Before we knew it, we were hanging the delicate gauzes for Nebulae and Galaxy (both 1963), and constructing the frame for the meticulously planned sequence of prepared three-dimensional screens. While the Cantrills didn’t do exactly the same program as at the 2006 festival the films looked every bit as brilliant, and the performances were every bit as inspiring.
Corinne’s dramatic reading of a poem reworking the text from Marcel Duchamp’s seminal Anemic Cinema (1926) in Ecchymoses (1970), complete with uniquely distended projection of those familiar roto-reliefs, returned us to “our (great) grandfathers” (6). The incisions and hole-punched voids of Filed Film (1970) and Punched Film (1970), coupled with a trance-inducing raga soundtrack, seemed to prise apart the boundary separating negative and positive space. Another space trip took off with the projection of Milky Way Special (1971) over a silver disc, and then it was time again for the split-screen magic of Nine Image Film (1971), whose light-bulb slung over the screen again brought to mind English avant-garde guru Malcolm Le Grice’s Castle 1 (1966), in which a projected beam is interrupted by the flashing of a light-bulb on a cord in front the screen. Concert for Electric Jugs (1971), whose reliance on the wonderful but increasingly rare technology of the ceramic electric jug generated some technical fun and games in Brisbane in 2006, added the steam-screen to the list of the Cantrills’ achievements.
In Blast and Exercises for Grid Screen (1970), we witnessed a markedly different experience to watching the rented film prints. Both in 2006’s exuberant roving performance and 2009’s more restrained articulation of Blast, the Cantrills’ animated text-collage interacted with the collage-screen and Arthur’s fantastic shouted verse in a manner that seemed to bring the Vorticists’ aesthetic ideals into a higher synthetic realisation only possible in film-performance. We could have guessed that Exercises for Grid Screen’s animated geometrics would become an op-art extravaganza once projected onto the said grid, but the resulting synthesis had such a wonderfully hard edge, supplied in no small part by Arthur’s fantastically unrelenting oscillating soundtrack, that its sensual address remains hard to forget. Similarly, while the film Eikon (1969) is gorgeous when viewed on a regular screen, when projected over the Cantrills’ metallic screens, the image becomes suffused with an almost magical glow that’s enhanced by an angelic vocal incantation repeating over the soundtrack.
Other multi-screen presentations transformed the films we’d seen more subtly; Light Shards’ (2001) different stocks shifted our attention from the distortion of our perceptual faculties to a refinement of them as it stroked our irises with shiny, soft Super 8, and 16mm golden clarity. In The Room’s (1970) depictions of the Cantrills’ London abode, we were struck not only by soft furnishing envy, but also by how effortlessly, with the screens acting as walls, the Cantrills used the expanded mode to evoke a trompe l’oeil effect. From these warm domestic observations the register shifted again with The City’s (1971) three screens displaying a high-energy tableaux of classically Constructivist imagery: a city of spinning turbines, radiating pylons and spraying sparks. Arthur’s new sound mix underscored the sophisticated interaction of the screens, with the spectator realising there was both a network of exchange and essential modularity to the elements that for us evoked a sense of the frightening disposability of things under late global capitalism. On a more positive note (we think), at times during The City, we couldn’t help reflecting that, beset with dynamic diagonals, the screens themselves seemed less like flat panels and more like cubes; this in turn brought to mind expanded cinema’s most extensive – if politically dubious – public outing in the high tech frenzy of the late 1960s and early 1970s World Expos (7).
That the Cantrills have made exquisite landscape films is well-known, and their experiments in film colour are widely respected. However, that they have worked with figures in fantastically formal ways is also in evidence in their expanded cinema program, not just in the live poetry performances by the Cantrills themselves, but in the work Pink Metronome (1971), which features the Dutch experimental performance artist Will Spoor and his mime troop, tricked out in Carnaby St. finery, spinning and careening around a frigid London Bridge. The fascination with film colour surfaces again in Gold Fugue (1971), another work whose screens dialogically explore a theme; this time, the polyphonic process is directly drawn from and responds to the fugue from which it derives. Their lifelong curiosity about human perception, and willingness to unremittingly attack and interrogate it for new revelations (a shared obsession across all expanded cinema activity, it seems) is evident in Fragments (1971), and magnified in 4000 Frames, An Eye-Opener Film’s (1970) 24 separate images a second, multiplied by three. We aren’t very fazed by the perfectly correct arguments against the so-called “persistence of vision” theory, as when watching this film we agreed all too readily with the Cantrills’ argument that sometimes, “the eye/brain cannot clear the single frame images rapidly enough” and images can appear “superimposed by the retina/brain”; audiovisual bombardment may be the order of the day, but for us it rarely looks this good.
For the final performance, Arthur donned the black cloak again, and proceeded to daub a series of white curlicues on the black screen. Gradually, through his brushstrokes, the film was revealed: Calligraphy Contest For the New Year, the found footage handmade-film-workshop-film from 1969 (its correct title having been restored after the mistake was discovered in the preparation for the 2006 re-enactment). Wielding a scalpel, Arthur then delicately excised sections of the wet black-and-white screen, ducking around and behind the frame. Like the light that falls through film to reveal an image, Calligraphy Contest For the New Year seemed to us to stand as a kind of beautiful summary, a perfect film-performance encapsulating the simultaneously destructive and creative urges of expanded cinema and its central fascination with the qualities of light. It was an ideal conclusion to an unforgettable program: from gauze through metals, from a cone that poked rudely out at you to cutaway screen like an avant-Moorish room divider, the Cantrills took us all on a kaleidoscopic journey through the critical utopia of their Expanded Cinema.
These reflections are the result of our having experienced these works in the most intimate manner imaginable, from research, screenings and communication through planning, rehearsal, experience, documentation, recollection and discussion. Even if there is a little weirdness in trying to recapture the ephemeral in the written form here, we wanted to do it, or try to, in order to transmit some of the delight we’ve experienced with this work, and to acknowledge the Cantrills for the major artists they are. It’s our privilege and our pleasure to continue to explore and enjoy this work, and to share the wonder we experience from it with others in Australia, and around the world. As artists, our own work has benefited immensely from continued exposure to the Cantrills’ many inspiring creative endeavours. The Cantrills’ contribution to the creative community is incalculable. We are grateful to Arthur and Corinne Cantrill for the experiences and inspiration their film, performance and publishing have provided, and we look forward to our next collaboration with them.
- Paul Arthur, A Line of Sight: American Avant-Garde Film Since 1965, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2005, p.165.
- Mark Elhatten, “The Decade of Projection Performance”, Film Comment vol. 46, no. 3, May-June 2010, p.15.
- See Schneemann’s book More Than Meat Joy: Performance Works and Selected Writings, rev. ed., Documentext, Kingston, NY, 1997.
- TLC argues, “since many Expanded Cinema events were ephemeral and situated in time and place, they do not easily lend themselves to documentation and archiving. As a result the works are poorly represented in art history”. See Teaching and Learning Cinema: http://www.teachingandlearningcinema.org/expanded-cinema-re-enactments/
- See “Edges of Meaning: A Piece for Primitive Cinema and Voice by Arthur and Corinne Cantrill at La Mama, Melbourne, November 1977”, Cantrills Filmnotes no. 27/28, pp.48. 51. In Cantrills Filmnotes no. 87/88, December 1997, p. 62, the Cantrills write about their other film performances, including Fields of Vision (1978), Grain of the Voice (1980), The Practice of Filmmaking (1981) and Passage (1983), which they argue “brought the filmmakers into the foreground as protagonists, stressed the unique moment of performance, its unrepeatability. If all materials are crumbling, then what matters is ‘being there’ while it is possible, just as at a poetry reading, a concert, a theatre experience”. (p.62) It should be noted that unlike the work restaged in Brisbane in 2006 and Melbourne in 2009, these other works, which involve installed objects, performance and multiple projection, are considered to be distinct to Expanded Cinema by the Cantrills (personal correspondence with Danni Zuvela, 2006).
- See Cantrills Filmnotes no. 5, 1971, p. 9, in which they argue that, as 1970s filmmakers, they confronted the writings of their “forefathers”, and “find in them predictions of some of our own and others’ work in Expanded Cinema”.
- See Randall Packer, “The Pepsi Pavilion”, Future Cinema: The Cinematic Imaginary After Film, ed. Jeffrey Shaw and Peter Weibel, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 2003, pp.144-149.