For some decades there has been two-way traffic between the avant-garde film worlds of Australia and the UK. Australian artists arrive from a local scene that continues to resonate with the influences of an avant-garde historically centred in and driven from Western Europe and the United States. The experimental film and video practices that are discussed here encompass a range of critical concerns around form, structure, reflexivity, specificity, material and so on, which have their roots, if not their current philosophical concerns, in the modernist avant-garde. Addressing these practices as ‘post-colonial phenomena’ relates them to a broader constellation of historical cultural concerns. A more inclusive survey of contemporary Australian artists’ moving image would accommodate a larger number of artists who have made significant works explicitly addressing the deeply complex political and cultural conditions of post-colonialism, significantly and in particular as it relates to Indigenous Australia (For example, contemporary artists and filmmakers such as Tracey Moffatt, Vernon Ah Kee, Shaun Gladwell, Destiny Deacon, the late Gordon Bennett, among many others).
Many Australian artists and writers have made the UK their home, most commonly London, making what has for some been a kind of rite of passage back to ‘the old country’, as temporary or more permanent residents. As inhabitants of the former colony they may inevitably be descended from British roots, but they tend to have treated Britain not so much as a place of ancestral pilgrimage, but more as a centre of international culture of the kind unimaginable in the apparently Antipodean remoteness of their home country.
In the 1960s Australian experimental filmmakers would make the same journey of cultural migration as the writers associated with the left-wing intelligentsia of the Sydney Push (such as Germaine Greer, Robert Hughes, Clive James and Richard Neville). Arthur and Corinne Cantrill spent a number of years living and working in London, making documentaries and experimental films, working for the animators Halas and Batchelor and the BBC, honing their practice before returning to Melbourne to establish themselves and their magazine Cantrills Filmnotes as experimental filmmaking forces to be reckoned with. In the early to mid 1970s filmmaker Albie Thoms was a frequent visitor, writing a number of articles about avant-garde film for Australian publications, later collected in Polemics for a New Cinema. 1 Thoms’ fellow Ubu Films founder David Perry lived in London in the early ’70s, where he taught at Hornsey College of Art, and made significant early video works such as Utopian Memory Banks Present Fragments from the Past (1973). 2
The two-way traffic occasionally manifests itself in the work. The film Thread of Voice (1993) by performance poetry group Arf Arf (Marcus Bergner, Michael Buckley, Frank Lovece and Marisa Stirpe) is part homage, the film opening with footage of British poet Bob Cobbing and his group Koncrete Canticle performing in a pub in London. Like many, Arf Arf made the journey across the hemispheres, returning home from London to Melbourne carrying various influences, including the work of Cobbing and his collaborators which would be incorporated in their work, extended and transformed into particularly local Australian adaptations. As a group working with performed voice and language, Arf Arf proved adept at adapting European avant-garde practices to post-colonial Australian vernacular, noticeably audible in the song Bronson and particularly in the Italian language that runs through Thread of Voice, echoing the multicultural make-up of the group, mirroring Australian migrant culture.
More recently two Australian artists based in London have produced particularly distinctive bodies of experimental work. sue.k. became known for her uncompromising video work, which uses rigorous processes to mine the paradox of digital media through an obsessive attention to the detail, structuring discrete sequences of fields and frames as though they are physical material, to exploit their immaterial mutability. The results are often startling, visceral and relentless – using processes which, once set in train, pay no heed to the tolerance of the viewer for rapid, iterative shifts in sound and image, for extended algorithmically determined durations. sue.k. also became very involved in the cogcollective organisation of monthly no budget screenings of artists’ work.
Since arriving in London Sally Golding has been extraordinarily active, both as an artist and as curator of Unconscious Archives with James Holcombe. These events present performance and expanded cinema alongside experimental and electronic music. This format of exhibition in the UK is typified by larger events such as Lumen (Leeds), Kill Your Timid Notion (Dundee) and the Supernormal festival (Oxfordshire). What distinguishes Unconscious Archives is the intimacy born of a close local community of practitioners with frequent international visitors. In the early 2000s, alongside Joel Stern and Danni Zuvela, Golding was involved in establishing OtherFilm in Brisbane, where the group forged something of a small renaissance of experimental film in Australia. Golding’s own practice is expanded cinema performance involving 16mm film projection, loops, filters, refracting prisms, rotating mattes and various forms of occasionally cacophonous noise-makers. Using images redolent of Victorian photography she often appears as some ghostly revenant in the work as a human screen for her projections; her performances resemble a nineteenth century séance, careering between elegance and precarious awkwardness as noisy awe-inspiring spectacle.
Writing about Golding’s work, Jonathan Walley 3 places it alongside that of artists from the UK and USA, without reference to the country of origin of any of the artists; perhaps such details are irrelevant. This certainly reflects the international stage that now exists for expanded cinema, with regular festivals across Asia, Europe, and North America. The form has gone global, and the fact of any artist’s national cultural origin has become insignificant in terms of the qualities exhibited in the work they make. If they are particularly identifiably ‘Australian’, they are no longer perceived as some exotic provincial cultural import.
The ease of this two-way traffic belies a complex historical colonial and post-colonial relationship between the avant-garde in the UK and Australia, as well as to Australian culture and its international position. This partly extends from the way experimental moving image media practices from the ‘cultural centres’ of Europe and the USA were foundational to Australian practice during the 1960s and ’70s, taking on another life in the ‘new country’, influencing the traffic of artists back to the ‘old country’ perceived as origin and centre.
In 1974 Terry Smith wrote ‘The Provincialism Problem’, exploring the international position of Australian art, reflecting on the fact that at that time New York, which was the centre of the international art world, provided the cues for global practice. He begins by observing that until the 1950s “like its political history, the development of Australian art is typified by variations on the theme of dependence” 4. Dependence falls mostly on British Art, though he observes that styles are not adopted wholesale and distortions introduced by time, distance and the reliance on reproduction, which often render local versions markedly different. Smith asserts that by the 1970s avant-gardism had become a pillar of the New York art world, where its critics and markets dominated and determined the terms of modern art; the provincial artist could, at best, only ever imitate styles of art determined in the metropolitan centre. Following this logic he is unable to identify any Australian art as ‘avant-garde’. Giving the example of painter Sidney Nolan, Smith states that “Nolan’s greatness is of a different order from [Jackson] Pollock’s. Nolan is admired as a great Australian artist, while Pollock is taken to be a great artist – his Americanness accepted as a secondary aspect of his achievement qua artist … The most to which the provincial artist can aspire is to be considered second-rate.” 5 Smith goes on to describe how the provincial artist can indeed travel to the metropolitan centre, and bring home the avant-garde, but only as an adopted style. The provincial can never be considered an originator of “seminal impulses”, and in this regard “the individual artist is not himself the agent of significant change. Larger forces control the shape of his development as an artist.” 6 Smith implies that the provincial artist can do nothing about their fate. He stops short of suggesting that they shouldn’t worry about it, and attend to the work of privileging the local over the centre, but he does curiously suggest that the leaders at the centre have a responsibility to be aware of the way their work effects those on the periphery.
What Smith describes reverberates through the Australian avant-garde film scene of the time. Surveying the condition of avant-garde film in various countries from London in 1975, Stephen Dwoskin pronounced that in Australian avant-garde film there “seems to be a time lag and a degree of isolation” in part caused by “the country’s rather insular and conservative Establishment, which has tried to maintain a cross between a Christian ethos and a Victorian British ethic.” 7 Dwoskin was writing at a time when Australia was actually going through some of its most fundamental progressive cultural changes, apparently ushering in a new post-colonial era under the Prime Ministership of Gough Whitlam – perhaps the time lag went both ways.
It is instructive to look to Albie Thoms’s writing in Polemics for a New Cinema and Cantrills Filmnotes, for a view of how the Australian avant-garde reflected upon itself. Thoms attended many screenings and events outside of Australia, reporting back via local magazines and papers on an international scene in which he and others were eager to forge a local chapter. There is clearly a sense that the Australian cultural mainstream was ill-equipped and resistant to accommodating the avant-garde. Thoms reported that unlike in Australia, overseas cinematheques and museums had at last begun to reappraise avant-garde film. 8 He found it hard though to discover an avant-garde ‘tradition’ in Australia. What there was (he cites Gil Brealey’s Experimental Film Group at Melbourne University around 1952) could only be considered avant-garde “in terms of the film vacuum in Australia”, so that only “very few [examples] of the avant-garde film tradition could be seen here.” 9 In an earlier article they mount another set of complaints against the prospects for avant-garde film in Australia and in particular single out the piecemeal approach of the National Library’s collection policy. 10 The Cantrills proved themselves to be formidable advocates for experimental film and video work for the nearly thirty years (1971 – 2000) that they published their magazine. In spite of being recipients of funding at various times for the magazine, their relationship with arts funders was often fractious and they continued to use the magazine to voice their dissatisfaction at the state of official recognition and support, and the unenlightened state of the establishment with regard to experimental arts.
The cultural cringe is a familiar phenomenon in Australia, articulated as long ago as the late nineteenth century by Henry Lawson. 11 It decrees that local culture is only ever considered to be inferior to that of other countries. In a provincial culture such as Australia in the 1970s it might have been suggested that every form, genre, style, tendency and turn had been imported from elsewhere: culture as cargo. And the double-bind for avant-garde film was that it was subjected to a conservative Australian mainstream cultural prejudice as well as to global marginalisation. Paradoxically, therefore, any appeal to promote the development of a local avant-garde cinema could be perceived as promoting a ‘style’ imported from elsewhere.
The double-bind of the cultural cringe risked stifling the flowering of the local off-shoots of their movement, but not for the Cantrills and Thoms is Terry Smith’s problem of the marginalised artist’s inferiority. What we do clearly see is that local Australian experimental film practice considered itself to be part of an international avant-garde movement, one that they were local representatives of and advocates for. Avant-garde film represented a modernity predicated on principles of being an advance guard, an inherent progressive ethos that ‘official’ national culture was having a hard time catching up with. In the 1970s, before the Internet, the ‘tyranny of distance’ was a very real factor in preventing work and ideas reaching the ‘province’. For an avant-garde cultural practice predicating itself as representing the latest and the most advanced, distance and therefore time was not on its side. Even Thoms sometimes despaired of the local scene. In the context of a report on the 1973 International Avant-garde Film Festival at the National Film Theatre in London, his assessment was that Australian work seemed to be “derriere garde”. 12 There is the whiff here of a ‘colonial’ conception that distance from the centre renders the province backward, lagging behind.
Colonialism is an aspect of modernity which has brought with it conventions of thinking about development in linear temporal terms. Geographer Doreen Massey describes it thus:
“Not only under modernity was space conceived as divided into bounded places but that system of differentiation was also organised in a particular way. In brief, spatial difference was convened into temporal sequence. Different ‘places’ were interpreted as different stages in a single temporal development. All the stories of unilinear progress, modernisation, development, the sequence of modes of production … perform this operation. Western Europe is ‘advanced’, other parts of the world ‘some way behind’, yet others are ‘backwards’.” 13
Stephen Dwoskin in 1975 certainly considered Australia to have a “time-lag” in its avant-garde film practices, so progressivist thinking is clearly not alien to experimental film and video. It is not difficult to see how advocates for the Australian avant-garde may have unconsciously internalised the rationale of modernity, the logic of colonialism, a belief in linear temporal progress. Their distance from the centre could, by that logic, equate to their being less developed, but paradoxically, almost schizophrenically, as we have seen in the Cantrill’s statement above, proponents of an Australian avant-garde have argued that it should be promoted and protected from the pernicious erosion of an advanced culture that was imported.
Massey goes on to suggest that the temporal convening of space reworks the nature of difference, but that, citing Sakai, history is “not only temporal or chronological but also spatial and relational.” Modernity itself had “not as yet thematized a relation to other histories, other coexisting temporalities” 14. It had refused to recognise what Fabian, in anthropological terms, calls a ‘coevalness’, which counters observations based on a singular notion of society at different stages of development, to look at the different societies facing each other at the same time. Coevalness, “concerns a stance of recognition and respect in situations of mutual implication … an imaginative space of engagement: it speaks of an attitude” 15 In terms of the relationship between the avant-gardes at the centre and in the provinces, in the UK and in Australia, we could proceed by figuring the provincial not as less advanced, but as having developed coevally.
By 1993 Adrian Martin, writing on the state of experimental film in Australia, argued that “experimental film is not in the first and last place always devoted to the creation of the new and the shocking; rather it forms a tradition, a history of explorations and experiments that can always be revitalised, approached from new angles in both practice and critical theory.” 16 Experimental film as a cultural form may have been imported from elsewhere initially, but its development in Australia has been coeval to that of the global centres, with its own particular resonance and relevance.
Perhaps the Australian avant-garde, by taking root so far from the centre that seeded it, had already taken on other forms, and was always already post-modern, which is also to say post-colonial. Now, beyond the cringe and the self-othering, self-loathing of the 1970s, contemporary Australian experimental moving image practitioners, in coming to London, bring back to the old centre a practice that is both familiar and fresh. Sally Golding and sue.k., as beneficiaries of coevalness, bring with them a new approach to a familiar form, speaking the same language, albeit with a different accent.
The relation between the avant-garde practices of Australia and Britain described thus far has been in terms of forms of influence and forms of mimesis. Michael Taussig suggests that “the wonder of mimesis lies in the copy drawing on the character and power of the original, to the point whereby the representation may even assume that character and power.” 17 Australian avant-garde film displays common generic concerns: with materiality, structure and reflexivity, as evinced in the practices of the Cantrills, Dirk de Bruyn, Marcia Jane, Richard Tuohy and Paul Winkler, among many others. Mimicry and mimesis are means by which cultures learn to speak to each other. While we may no longer consider the contemporary avant-garde as convening temporally, with remote provinces always playing catch up, the question of the mimetic in terms of stylistic influence continues a temporal aesthetic progression embedded deep in practice and culture, becoming tradition as Adrian Martin observed. What, however, might a contemporary Australian practice be that visits the avant-garde of the ‘old country’ head on, not temporally, as mimetic descendent, but spatially as coevally related? This would primarily be a spatial practice, its consciousness of its own relationship to an earlier avant-garde an explicit and integral contingent component of the work. Perhaps something like the performance practice of Louise Curham and Lucas Ihlein’s Teaching and Learning Cinema (TLC) project.
Since 2003, the Sydney-based TLC has been engaging in the re-enactment, or re-performance, of what might be considered ‘classic’ works of British expanded cinema, most significantly Guy Sherwin’s Man with Mirror (1976) – in their case effectively reconfigured as a new work for two performers, one of them female, as (Wo)man with Mirror – and Malcolm Le Grice’s Horror Film 1 (1972). It would not be an over-statement to describe the original performance works as the most well-known of British Expanded Cinema pieces. They both involve performing bodies as well as film projection and they both demand an exacting degree of precision in both timing and spatial relationships with regard to projection. Curham and Ihlein have gone to a great deal of meticulous research to make the performances, which didn’t necessarily have anything as useful as a script to allow anybody but the original performer to construct the work. The question of the author as being integral to the performed work has become redundant in this practice, instead they consider themselves to be custodians, tending the work, extending it, not simply through what their performance might add to it, but also in passing the knowledge of it to younger generations. This is in part an archival project; as well as being a film artist, Curham also works as an archivist and is well aware of the ephemerality of both film material and the precariousness of digital storage. Both are reliant on physical media and both therefore liable to eventual decay. In their performance of these works the knowledge, the embodied experience of the performance of the work, can be communicated and passed on. The ‘work’ is no longer a fixed entity, it becomes a verb, an active continuous process, an activity that they refer to as “tending the archive”. 18
In engaging with the physical terms and conditions of the works, TLC are enacting a kind of transformative mimesis, whereby questions about the anxiety of influence (the cultural cringe) become irrelevant. This coeval, spatial, relational approach to the British film avant-garde brooks no question of them being Australian artists whose practice lives in awe of their colonial forebears, nor of reinventing forms over time. It removes the necessity of a comparison of the province with the centre, just as it removes the necessity to think of avant-garde film as being bound by medium-specificity. In attempting to perform William Raban’s 2’45” (1972), for example, they used digital video rather than the original 16mm film. Jonathan Walley explains that their “reasoning was that, in 2007, digital video was the equivalent of 16mm in terms of ready availability and relative ease of use, and that using film might lend a ‘nostalgic feel’ that was not present in the original work” and that since “there was no longer a motivated relationship between medium and duration in the re-enactment, Ihlein and Curham extended the length to six minutes, thereby giving audiences more time to experience the piece.” 19 While there is clearly respect and reverence towards the original as conceptual object, Ihlein and Curham do not see material-specificity or durational parameters as restrictions in creating an ‘authentic’ experience of the work.
When asked about why they re-perform these particular works, Ihlein reveals an integral spatial aspect. 20 Distance still plays a role, the originating work is usually received in Australia in reproduction, second-hand as it were (or through documentation) and the fact of there being little available information about a work determines what is known about it, and therefore what TLC can use. The issue of a work’s visibility, which is a precondition of its relevance, is more selective and therefore magnified. In Australia’s less crowded field of expanded cinema, those works that are most visible stand out. Ihlein describes their experience of performing (Wo)man with Mirror in London as quite different to performing it in Australia, where they are not suffocated by the conditions, which are not just a symptom of geography, but also of psychic space.
Whether the province is moving towards or away from the centre, old outmoded attitudes can persist. Australian mainstream politics has in recent years been reverting to a form of colonialism in all but name, one which echoes, down the years, Dwoskin’s perception of Australia in 1975. It is also currently impacting negatively upon artistic and cultural life as observed recently by Eleanor Ivory Weber: “The decolonizing processes initiated by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam’s Labor government in the 1970s – that included Aboriginal Land Rights, replacement of the British honours system with the Order of Australia, and the creation of the Australia Council for the Arts – have since been progressively eroded. The right-wing government of the recently deposed Prime Minister Tony Abbott reintroduced knighthoods and cut federal funding for services to Indigenous communities, handing this responsibility over to the states and territories.” 21 While some of the old colonial conditions of distance have their influence, in TLC’s practice this is no longer approached as evidence of backwardness. It is a simple contingent fact of distance, rather than a tyranny. Distance is incorporated not as condition of backwardness, but rather as a way to work spatially and relationally with the work; not in its service, not lagging behind, but on equal terms.
I have asked Curham and Ihlein whether they have experienced any criticism of their practice on the grounds that it is so brazenly revisiting work from the one-time colonial motherland, and ignoring the local Australian equivalent. The reply is that indeed they have, however they consider that most historical Australian work relies heavily on the apparatus of cinema, without the kind of physical embodiment that they find interesting as a vehicle to carry the work on as performance. When pressed on the question of the lack of Australianness of the material they select, they are defiant, reiterating that they are interested in qualities of work in terms of what it offers them as performers, and they see no reason why they should become curators of their country’s culture. TLC doesn’t pay attention to local history. They’re not attached to national boundaries. The practice is situated relationally and spatially, neither in deference nor in opposition. Beyond the cringe, they represent nothing less than a fundamental post-colonial realignment of the terms of engagement of Australian practitioners with the British film avant-garde.
- Albie Thoms, Polemics for a New Cinema (Wild and Woolley: Sydney, 1978. ↩
- https://vimeo.com/67261370 ↩
- Jonathan Walley, “Not an Image of the Death of Film: Contemporary Expanded Cinema and Experimental Film” in Expanded Cinema: Art, Performance, Film. Steven Ball, David Curtis, A.L Rees and Duncan White, eds. (London: Tate Publishing, 2011), pp. 214-251. ↩
- Terry Smith, “The Provincialism Problem,” Artforum, vol XIII, no 1, (September 1974) pp. 54-9 ↩
- ibid. ↩
- ibid. ↩
- Stephen Dwoskin Film Is… (London: Peter Owen, 1975), p100. ↩
- Albie Thoms, “The Australian Avant Garde (1972)” in Polemics for a New Cinema (Wild and Woolley: Sydney, 1978), p76. ↩
- ibid. p.77-78) In 1972 he considered that only the films made by the Ubu Films group (David Perry, Aggy Reid, and Thoms himself) in Sydney, and Arthur and Corinne Cantrill in Melbourne, could be considered genuinely and consciously avant-garde.
By 1979 Arthur and Corinne Cantrill were still able to suggest that Australia was something of a “cultural vacant lot” in a Cantrills Filmnotes editorial bemoaning the state of arts funding to nurture local experimental film, both in terms of supporting local production and providing access to international work. They sardonically suggest that the “continuing Australian cultural cringe in the face of overseas artists raises the question of whether we should have a moratorium on foreign contact until we learn to accept ourselves.” [10. “Australia – Cultural Vacant Lot?” editorial, Cantrills Filmnotes, nos. 31, 32 (November 1979), p.6. ↩
- “Independent/Experimental/Avant-garde/Personal/Serious Filmmaking in Australia… 1978 Prospect” editorial, Cantrills Filmnotes, nos. 27, 28 (March 1978), p.6. ↩
- Colin Rodrick, ed., Henry Lawson, Autobiographical and Other Writings 1887–1922 (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1972) pp.108–109. ↩
- Albie Thoms, “The International Avant-Garde Film Festival 1973”, in Polemics for a New Cinema (Wild and Woolley: Sydney, 1978), p. 216. ↩
- Doreen Massey For Space (London: Sage Publications, 2005), p. 68 ↩
- ibid. p.69 ↩
- ibid. p.69-70 ↩
- Adrian Martin, “Hold Back the Dawn: Notes on the Position of Experimental Film in Australia 1993”, Electronic Arts in Australia, Continuum, vol 8, no 1, (1994), p.297. ↩
- Michael Taussig Mimesis and Alterity, A Particular History of the Senses (London: Routledge, 1993) ↩
- Louise Curham and Lucas Ihlein, ‘Reaching Through to the Object’, Performance Matters 1.1-2, (2015). ↩
- Jonathan Walley, ‘Re-Creating Expanded Cinema’, Incite Journal of Experimental Media, issue 4, 2013 ↩
- Steven Ball conversation with Louise Curham and Lucas Ihlein, 26th August 2015 ↩
- Eleanor Ivory Weber “Postcard from Melbourne,” frieze (October 2nd, 2015) http://blog.frieze.com/postcard-from-melbourne/ ↩