“Expanded cinema” as a term is invitingly grandiose, connoting expansion, breadth, inclusivity, even possibility. Something bigger. Something better. Something, indeed, cinematic. The term resonates powerfully now, too, as the parameters of the cinematic, from how films are made, shared, and seen, to their role within contemporary culture, expand and contract, shift and morph. Expanded cinema at once acknowledges an eclipse as it celebrates a return. Given this mobility and even mutability, we might indeed wonder what sort of concept, apparatus, or artform merits such attention, sustenance, and reimagining. Why must cinema expand at all, and why are we so concerned with the blurring and sharpening of its boundaries?
For film scholars, the term has a more specific set of references, one of which is Gene Youngblood’s notorious Expanded Cinema, first published in 1970 and subsequently re-published in a fiftieth anniversary edition by Fordham University in March of 2020. In this effervescent and richly-illustrated text, Youngblood aligns expanded cinema with expanded consciousness, writing, “Expanded cinema isn’t a movie at all: like life it’s a process of becoming, man’s ongoing historical drive to manifest his consciousness outside of his mind, in front of his eyes.”1 Youngblood writes enthusiastically about the proliferation of artworks across film, video, television, and performance in the 1960s, and argues that those burgeoning image-making practices contributed to what he dubs a cosmic consciousness; as he describes various forms of this consciousness, his book also catalogues a long list of media artworks from a particular moment in time, and as such, makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of avant-garde film and video. Was it a rigorous parsing of cinema as a medium in transition? Not exactly. For Youngblood, “expanded cinema” was a capacious term, and dozens of artworks with radically varied intentions were welcome.
Other authors and editors have sustained a similarly interdisciplinary opening up of the concept of expanded cinema for several decades. In their 2007 collection of essays, Fluid Screens, Expanded Cinema, for example, co-editors Janine Marchessault and Susan Lord describe their attention to “the shift from traditional cinematic spectacles to works probing the frontiers of interactive, performative, and networked media,”2 and their contributors draw on diverse disciplines, including film theory, communication studies, theories of new media and cultural studies, with a focus specifically on the transformative impact of digital video on visual culture. Their expanded cinema is indeed centrifugal. Similarly, Expanded Cinema: Art Performance Film (2011), edited by A. L. Rees, David Curtis, Duncan White, and Steven Ball, covers a very broad terrain, focusing primarily on filmmaking in the UK, and combining historical examples of the form from the 1960s and ’70s with more contemporary work and, again, creating a large umbrella under which to gather diverse ideas and practices. Screen Dynamics: Mapping the Borders of Cinema (2012), edited by Gertrud Koch, Volker Pantenburg, and Simon Rothöhler also explores new directions with a sense of expansiveness, while Raymond Bellour, in his book Between-the-Images, goes one step further to celebrate the “confusion” and “impurity” that results from the melding of disparate media forms, including film; Bellour has long been a champion of artists working across the modes and materials of cinema, video, television, language and painting. Rather than isolating the specificities that delimit media forms, Bellour is intrigued by the connections, and he explains that the greatest attribute of video has been its ability to open passageways, and to encourage incorporation and transformation.
In many ways, I appreciate the openness represented in these approaches, as well as the invitation to interdisciplinarity, and even the cross pollination as one medium refracts, absorbs, and perhaps reimagines itself in relation to another. However, all of this expansion outward can contribute to murkiness, not simply ontologically – what is cinema in this confusion of materialities; of modes of production, distribution, and exhibition; of dispositifs, or “arrangements” of the cinematic? – but also in regard to scholarship. How to theorise and historicise when you are examining not simply apples and oranges, but bananas, too?
Jonathan Walley’s new book Cinema Expanded: Avant-Garde Film in the Age of Intermedia, published in July 2020, responds to this issue with a title which pointedly reverses that of Youngblood’s iconic text. More than a clever gesture, the inversion returns attention to the word “cinema”, underscoring Walley’s objective, namely to taxonomise the sprawling array of practices typically associated with the term “expanded cinema”, which, depending on one’s perspective, may include everything from VJ sets at clubs and projection artworks in museums to physical objects made out of the strips of 35mm film. Walley writes that his reversal of terms works toward “privileging the ‘cinema’ as much as the ‘expanded’” and he will argue that a through line of the cinematic sustains the artistic identity of filmmakers in this category of work even though they may have engaged performance, sculpture, music, and painting in their filmmaking activities (p. 16). He states, “I intend to show that, even as they did so, they did not intend their works as intermedia but as cinema, just expanded” (p. 16). Through a careful delineation of various modes of practice, Walley guides us away from the seemingly irreducible heterogeneity of this category of filmmaking, and in the process, offers to “revise ‘expanded cinema’ as a concept, reclaiming it for a more narrowly and thus clearly defined group of works” (p. 17).
To perform this revision and reclamation, Walley attends to cinema’s specificity on three levels, starting first with what he calls, after Rosalind Krauss, the physical aggregate of the cinematic, by which he means the collection of specific elements that compose “cinema” as practice and experience. His second level is that of the cinematic concept, by which he means those elements that make films films, including lighting, framing, and the organisation of time. His third level borrows the phrase “modes of film practice” from David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson to refer to how these projects are made, which is often by filmmakers working alone rather than with a film crew. Walley spends a good amount of time acknowledging the imbrication of the physical and conceptual in any artform, and retains a firm stand in regard to his desire to attend to the specificity of film within this dialectic.
Walley also identifies what he considers to be the prominent traits of the avant-garde: it is artisanal, acollaborative, preoccupied with the concept of cinematic specificity, and the filmmaker is responsible for the totality of the work. In terms of distribution and exhibition in Walley’s characterisation, avant-garde film culture does not consider the film print to be an art object; its screening venues differ from those of commercial cinema and are often microcinemas; and the audience members who attend these screenings have very different expectations than those visiting the local multiplex. He then goes on to identify a specific historical trajectory for expanded cinema, with an initial phase that resembles the flourishing of intermedia and hybridity outlined by Youngblood; a second phase as filmmakers returned to an exploration of the cinema as a medium; and a third wave in the mid-1990s that resists the rise of digital video, new media, and talk of media convergence.
And that’s just the introduction! Walley takes extra care with this delineation at the start in order to situate his intervention as clearly as possible in a crowded field. His next chapter continues to narrow in focus, showing how early expanded film did indeed move outward as it rejected the classical Hollywood feature film and all that it represented. Walley writes, “The first wave of expanded cinema, heralded by Youngblood, VanDerBeek, and others appeared to be anathema to the notion of cinematic tradition, occurring as it did during what Mekas has recently called a ‘nervous breakdown’ experienced by all the arts at the time. But the subsequent work of expanded cinema’s second wave was decidedly more cine-centric” (p. 99). Walley’s next five chapters explore this fascination shared by filmmakers about the specificities of their medium.
In chapter two, “Expanded Cinema Revis(it)ed,” Walley focuses on cinema performance, identifying the desire among many filmmakers to distinguish their practice from theatre, long seen as both precursor and rival to film as an artform, while also demonstrating how, although it relied on mechanical reproduction, film could escape this automaticity through live performance. What follows is a fascinating discussion of a terrific list of projects that each interrogate the specificity of cinema while pushing its boundaries. As Walley argues, these projects are an expansion in presenting a live experience, but they also reflect on the borders and boundaries of the medium, returning us to its unique qualities and characteristics in compelling ways. As an example, the varied projects of filmmaker Guy Sherwin examine the edges of the screen, the profundity of the notion of the screen itself, the merging of filmic and profilmic temporalities, as well as salient concepts of identity, memory, and even mortality. This is live cinema, with the filmmaker interacting with the image, but it centers directly on the parameters of the cinematic, thus making it part of the category Walley is delimiting.
The next two chapters in Cinema Expanded focus on cinema when it is instantiated as an object for reflection, centering first on the film strip itself, before moving on to explorations of the various permutations of cinema more broadly. Walley begins “Cinema as Object I” with Stan Brakhage’s Mothlight (1963), a film that has been referenced repeatedly due to the ways in which the filmmaker’s application of moth wings to the surface of the film strip not only prompts a curious, perhaps marvelous viewing experience but also invites viewers to examine the physicality of the film strip. Normally invisible to the cinema spectator as it courses through the projector, the film strip as it has been physically manipulated by the artist invites scrutiny, a fact that seems increasingly pertinent as younger generations lack exposure to film as a physical material.
This is an intriguing chapter, as Walley describes the ways in which filmmakers such as Peter Kubelka and Paul Sharits have displayed their films as objects on walls. He also chronicles the work of Tony Conrad, whose projects may prompt a smile – Deep Fried 4-X Negative (1973) was sizzled in cooking oil – and recognition of anger – 4-X Attack (1973) was made by pounding on footage with a hammer so that it splintered into tiny pieces; these were flash exposed, reassembled, and printed. Walley notes that Conrad was a “house husband” in the early 1970s, tasked with childcare and that his “cameraless films thus interrogated this traditionally feminine social position as much as they explored the nature of the film medium, which is to say that his craft’s algorithm linked filmmaking to an exploration of the political ramifications of gender roles, reconciling radical artistic practice and the constraints of domesticity in a manner that paralleled contemporaneous work by Annabel Nicholson, Gil Eatherly, and Lis Rhodes in the United Kingdom.” (p. 282) It is difficult not to wonder about the many housewives similarly tasked with domestic duties and prevented from this activity, and indeed, Walley does not interrogate the political implications of the work he presents, nor the uncritically gendered premises he accepts in framing it.
The chapter goes on to offer an excellent overview of the work of Luis Recoder and Sandra Gibson, known both for their live projection performances and an extensive body of work featuring various re-imaginings of cinema’s materials, including projectors, strips of film, film rewinds, and more, all of it restructured to invite new ways of seeing and experiencing the multiple pleasures and provocations of the cinematic through its object-ness. In Melt Film (2012), for example, Recoder and Gibson have restructured a projector such that strips of film rest in the gate immobile, slowly burning away until the film is advanced once more, and another frame slowly begins to burn. The project exemplifies Walley’s notion of cinema expanded: this is an expansion of the cinematic, but it is also a return; we are invited to think about the projector, its bulb, its motion as well as its stasis, and by extension, time, mortality, art, and perhaps even the odor of a melting film strip.
Walley’s sixth chapter is “Cinema as Idea” and examines paracinema, a term used by Ken Jacobs and Hollis Frampton and defined by Walley as “works identified by their makers as cinematic, and legible as such within the avant-garde film world, that are not made in film.” (p. 441) These include the iconic work by Anthony McCall, Line Describing a Cone (1973), which is sometimes understood to be a sculptural work – perhaps because most of us experience it as a still image documentation. However, the project is very much a moving image artwork that once again extends outward, appearing in museums and galleries, but which ultimately redirects our attention back to the fundamental components of the cinematic.
Walley also presents the elegant works made in the 1970s by Takahiko Iimura, who reduced his set of materials primarily to black and white leader which he explored through a series of diverse projection arrangements and museum installations. Walley points out that this work was a rejection of the visual spectacle of the expanded cinema works celebrated by Youngblood and instead were “meditations on film rather than sculpture or any other art form.” (p. 335). He goes on to explore works by Paul Sharits and several other artists and to examine the implications of these artworks as they enter the museum.
As I began to read Cinema Expanded, I found myself marveling that a scholar would once again discuss the work of a familiar group of white male filmmakers and a well-known canon of artworks with little attention to the ideological implications of this focus. Having finished the book, these reservations remain. And yet, I thoroughly appreciate Walley’s desire to more carefully delimit and define a decidedly unruly set of practices that have so often been carelessly grouped together. Further, the descriptions of so many artworks – especially those that are performance-based or otherwise difficult for many of us to see – carefully chronicled and assessed is powerful and welcome. Indeed, Walley’s conclusion is nothing short of thrilling, with its description of dual-projection artwork by Richard Tuohy and Dianna Barrie titled Cyclone Tracery (2018). The project involves bi-packing two projectors with a single film print such that the film strip moves through the first projector in two layers, then around and through the second projector in two layers; there are thus four loops that create four images layered together. To help all of this take place in a frame-accurate manner, one of the artists must stand between the two projectors and help the film negotiate this pathway by hand, literally becoming part of the projection apparatus. Walley writes, “Cyclone Tracery, like so much of the expanded work in this book, is precisely about this relationship between filmmaker, medium, and moment,” and adds a bit further on, “Theirs is not a medium specificity or a reflexivity of the usual materialist sort – of filmic objects like framelines and emulsion grain – but of forces, energies, processes, and relations discovered in Tuohy and Barrie’s tireless plumbing of the depths of their medium.” (p. 533) Walley goes on to write as eloquently about Esperanza Collado’s We Only Guarantee the Dinosaurs (2014-2015), another performance-based expanded cinema project that integrates the filmmaker’s own body, as well as the work of live cinema artist Sally Golding, who also has made major contributions to live cinema but remains critically neglected. Here, at the end of a 561-page book, I found myself wanting a bit more, wondering about the ideological implications of an expanded cinema in which the “forces, energies, processes, and relations” that Walley describes play a role. In 2021, in a world of digital forces, algorithmic energies, late capitalist processes, and neoliberal relations, what does the insertion of the human body into the machine of cinema mean?
With this said, in his selection of final projects, Walley is able to underscore that he is not arguing that expanded cinema circles back to itself hermetically; instead, in his definition, expanded cinema can in fact be excessive as well as inclusive of other artforms, as long as it sustains a kind of tension with cinema. These works, then, loop through expansion and contraction; they move through other artforms and return; they recall their own legacies within the avant-garde tradition and acknowledge a handmade sensibility; they expand and contract. And expand once again.
Jonathan Walley, Cinema Expanded: Avant-Garde Film in the Age of Intermedia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020)