This second visit to Belgrade, Serbia’s Alternativa Film/Video festival opened up a response to the parallel film histories encountered at last year’s attendance (documented in Senses of Cinema here) through Ljubomir Šimunić, Ivan Ladislav Galeta, Davorin Marc and Slobodan Valentinčić. I rejoined by introducing parallel Australian figures such as Lynsey Martin (Leading Ladies, 1975) and Michael Lee (Contemplation of the Rose, 1977) to an international audience. This invited curated program, Sampled Oz Hysteries 2013, was a retrospective mixture of influences and my own work. Apart from this Australian historic program, outside the competition were included snapshots of Argentinian, Swiss and United States activity and a revisiting of Structuralism via sixpackfilm, the Austrian distribution company for avant garde cinema. A historic structuralist program was also shown around Belgrade works and another around Zagreb anti-film featuring the ‘60s works of Tomislav Gotovac and Mihovil Pansini. The Alternativa Film/Video Research Forum this year extended the dialogue from last year, themed around “fragmentation” while Bruce Posner also showed a sampling of Early American Avant-Garde from his Unseen Cinema Collection.
The Hysteries stood up to international scrutiny, drawing positive responses from an audience whose mix had shifted from last year to a more curatorial emphasis, away from a presence of film artists. Seeing this work outside of Australia allowed me to ponder again why and how this work has remained so invisible internationally. The retrospective offered up historic traces of Australian Alternativa film from the ‘60s to the present. As Vassily Bourikas noted, it was a very different program than the one he compiled for Thessaloniki in 2010; a productive outcome for a single screening slot. Although shot on 35mm, 16mm, 8mm and Super 8, it was presented digitally and covered four phases of Australian avant-garde or experimental practice. This program sampled a range from the re-emergence of the Australian film industry in the ‘70s when the experimental sat side by side with narrative and documentary (Fun Radio, Nigel Buesst, 1962-3), through a parallel history with an international avant-garde and the increasing marginalisation of the home product, witnessed locally through Cantrills Filmnotes (Leading Ladies, Contemplation of the Rose and my Zoomfilm, 1977), Discs (1979), through to an ‘80s re-emergence low budget super 8 artisinal production by a new generation of artists centred around communities such as the self-organised Melbourne Super 8 Film Group (Dolls [Paul Fletcher, 1980], Excerpt [Chris Knowles, 1983], Morena  by Marie Craven, EG [5 minutes, 1990] by Virginia Hilyard). This period included strategies of blowing up Super 8 to 35mm (EG), low budget home processing (Exacuate, Michael Buckley/Sue McCauley, 1984) and automatic writing (Short Lives, Neil Taylor, 1980-90). Fourthly in the more contemporary phase some of these techniques and strategies were re-assembled for distribution in digital form (my Traum A Dream  and WAP , KeepinTime Abstract  by Steven McIntyre and Time Ball  by Marcia Jane).
That some of the program could have benefited from being screened as film was re-iterated watching Argentinian Andres Denegri’s Super 8 Sobre Begrado (Over Belgrade, 2011). Shown as Super 8 on a small screen image with a projector in the room, its orange flickering light and vulnerable luminosity, performing like an aura, helped me recall what had been so special about Michael Lee’s filmic study of fragile, dying flowers. Denegri’s pixillated study of birds in flight against a shimmering sky, shot in Belgrade captured the flocks of crows that nest near the cinema every night, invoking through image and penetrating chatter the foreboding cacophony of Hitchcock’s The Birds. At night moving from Studenski grad to the cinema a raincoat was required as protection against the raining bird-shit that registered as a white polka dot sheet over the autumn leaves every morning.
This Australian program reflected my own history, influences from the early ‘70s on, responses to the marginal and invisible aesthetic and half understood political situations I found myself in, where I was corralled with others, to eke out a creative low budget, low technology trajectory in what is and was considered, unlike Serbia, a “lucky” country. Although there is a strong theme of abstraction and the materiality of film (Leading Ladies, Excerpt, Exacuate, KeepinTime Abstract) there are also works suggesting narrative’s edge (Fun Radio, Morena, EG, WAP). These are the two avant-gardes successfully reintegrated in Jane’s Time Ball and McIntyre’s vjing KeepinTime Abstract, that for Peter Wollen were split in the ‘70s, but re-integrated in the digital present. The program lists those methods of expression I had access to as a ‘50s initiated migrant in Australia, entering a dismissed landscape of aboriginal genocide with all its unprocessed guilt. What I understand now is that I was looking for ways of articulating my exclusions viscerally and it was through methods, techniques and technologies demonstrated in these films that I needed to find it. I needed to understand and express how erasure and denial was exacted on my body in daily life. This is the way that the abstract remains implicitly political for me today. I found further food for thought along these lines in work witnessed here.
Through the Albuquerque, New Mexico Experiments in Cinema Festival program named Happiness is a Warm Projector, introduced and provided by Bryan Konefsky, I got a chance to see again Jorge Lorenzo’s single frame film 1/48 (2007) and this time did not blink, seeing the film/frame, its afterimage registering on my retina for seconds. Konefsky also shared some constructive insights on how to subtly and strategically keep a marginal micro-cinema going in the forum. Deron Williams’ strong mood short 5 Windows in the Attic (2012) with its views of a Southern U.S. lawn, light and lawnmower brought me back to the space, colour and that suspended sense of time and space also encountered in suburban Australian homes in summer. Chris Enns’ compact Splice Lines (2012) assembled all the splices from Kurt Kren’s 6-64 Mama und Papa, an apt conceptual reduction given the focus on Structuralism at Belgrade and the screening of Kren’s 3/60 Baume im Herbst (1960) in the Austrian Arithmetica Naturalis compilation curated by Gerald Weber. An impressive fluid film from this Albuquerque screening was Marika Borgeson’s Eleven Forty Seven (2012) a single shot video that slowly moved out of a fog’s whiteout to reveal itself as a travelling shot over an alpine landscape. There is perceptual work to do to unravel this image until the fog lifts completely.
The statement from Konefsky’s program “for us, un-dependent film/video artists are the modern day equivalent of the travelling troubadour, sharing the news of the day in an un-mediated, first person form”, reminded me of New Zealander Martin Rumsby’s late ‘80s/’90s Invisible Cinema interventions, travelling with a backpack of 16mm films through North America, developing audiences and picking up films along the way. It also connected to anecdotes out of the ‘60s around structuralist film, relating to the American critic P. Adams Sitney, who coined the term structuralism for filmmaking, travelling through Yugoslavia by car loaded up with American 16mm films. As well as showing films at some festivals, he had a revolving door in his hotel room in which he diligently permitted 20 people at a time to watch his program.
The Belgrade Structuralist program opened with Tomislav Gotovac’s Kružnica (jutkevič-count)/ Circle (jutkevič-count) (1964). Shot atop a city building, the camera spirals inexorably outward from the tripod to the horizon line moving from close-up abstract surfaces and feet to reveal the car and city traffic below. The program ended with a digital remake Circle (Remake), by Antonio G. Lauer (Tomislav Gotovac) (2006). This film, twice the original’s length, circled both out and then in again, allowing memory to work for the viewer both inside and outside the film.
Mihovil Pansini’s antifilms similarly occupy public space. Pansini’s Scusa Signorina (1963) had him strap a camera to his back while he moved through public space, reminding me of the Situationist “derive” and the idea of automatic writing. His Dvoriste (1963) formally framed in apparent response to the street’s architecture, records the intermittent appearance of a woman, a street walker, the camera’s framing cutting her off so we only see her head, as with other passersby, and the washed-out K3 (cloudless sky) (1963) makes Peter Gidal’s later Clouds (1969) seem illusionist in comparison. These Pansini films impart formal pre-determined camera techniques onto public space, stripping out emotional content, removing the author and priming a kind of intrigued dissociative state in the viewer. What is revealed in these formalist films is a scheduled survey of public space. The method by which technology, through its camera gestures, its syntax, invades and occupies this terrain is laid bare and is its key subject. Comparing this work, it is interesting to note that it has been Gidal and Sitney’s U.K. and U.S. Structuralism that has persisted as formalism’s canon, expressions of a dialectic between form and content in its most politically benign and academically articulate form, a position denied this Yugoslav avant-garde internationally.
In discussion Slobodan Sijan noted that both Pansini’s and Ivan Galeta’s first films were more emotional and that their limited impact turned them toward their formalist trajectories. Galeta’s work, not evident this year, in its playful formalism of public sporting encounters like water polo and table tennis could also be considered productively in relation to this Yugoslav formalism, to Malcolm Le Grice’s British films and an American West Coast ‘70s avant-garde. Sijan also pointed out that none of this antifilm output ever fell foul of the political censors. I would suggest that these formal films were not seen as subversive in Tito’s Yugoslavia because they occupied technically the regime’s blind-spot, uncannily enacting its methods of surveillance that came to serve social control more pervasively in the post-modernist state.
On antifilm Pansini wrote in the ‘60s, “every form, every experiment is permitted and welcomed in the foreseen new society, free from bureaucratic statism and social constrictions. Antifilm is the ‘act of discovery and research; it is an integral part of life’; it means liberation from myths, authority, rules, laws, and terror.” (1) Today it is as if Pansini’s vision has spawned its very opposite: a surveillance machine, a security network enabled and programmed to record every street corner of any international metropolis to sing the ultimate immersive City Symphony to a state authority’s benefit, catching every daily emotional gesture in cold analytic detail and requiring a security workforce trained with perceptual strategies gleaned from the language of formalist film to unpack. A contemporary film like 12 Explosions (2008) by Johann Lurf also makes this point for me. Lurf’s Vertigo Rush (2007), shown in the Austrian program, through its perceptual play, does for the landscape what Lee does for flowers.
Films the jury of Andres Denegri and Vassily Bourikas picked as the festival competition’s “best” included the Davorin Marc short but sweet Ellen (2013), its two minutes impacting like an illuminating existential ‘tweet’ and Julia Weibenberg’s Snowstorm (2013). Snowstorm’s interest lay more in its content than its form, documenting the work of a memory specialist as she slowly surveys, contemplates, remembers and then must recall an image’s binary code; the film working as commentary against the grain on the nature of contemporary speed-up in an image dominated world. It was also good to see Mike Hoolboom’s recent Buffalo Death Mask (2013) get the nod, revisiting his extended HIV history, a communion with a body wound that continues to put avant-garde technique at the service of loss and survival. With images bled of colour, Hoolboom saunters into the greying frame, into the light, like a lone Texas Ranger and as survivor, wearing his scarred body like a badge; the work of a mature and articulate image-smith with something critical to say.
Another film anointed by Bourikas and Denegri was The Residency by Ioannis Savvidis (2012), documenting the passing of time at an artist residency in Portugal. Left alone in silence in an empty house, Savvidis performs as engagingly in this film as he did through his presence at the festival itself. The Residency has a sequence where Savvidis cuts out of paper, origami-like, the small graphic profiles of different shapes of cars, a truck, a utility, a bus and so on, to place them in a playful solitary game of surveillance over, in front of, that transport type as it winds over the nearby hills. These paper masks framing, containing and marking these moving vehicles physically re-performs that kind of manipulation that gets done on computer screens using Photoshop. His tracking mimics the array of masking filters provided by computer editing software used to mask, layer and construct imagery. Yet there are no computer graphics in this film. In watching these country roads from his balcony Savvidis mocks that security officer’s role sitting in front of banks of monitors searching for transgressions and traffic flow in our big cities.
Special thanks to Greg Decuir for his support in writing this article.
10-14 December 2013
Festival website: http://www.alternativefilmvideo.org