No Show

Colin Hood surveys the connections between new media education
and the film/video exhibition fringe in Sydney.

“Those who fail to re-read are obliged to read the same story everywhere”
Roland Barthes, S/Z

I’m winding back through the preview tape of this year’s Matinaze screenings organised by the Sydney Intermedia Network (SIN), cross-checking artists’ names, recording, editing and delivery platforms, and the schizoid assortment of themes, work histories and promising futures. Something like Open Week at The Performance Space except that most of these young film and video makers – unlike their ‘performing’ counterparts – would probably not find much of an audience on the club and cabaret fringe. Perhaps I’m wrong.

The Matinaze scene at the Art Gallery of NSW could have been an end-of-year student screening or one of those big Combined Studies lectures that have become so popular within the arts and media faculties of our rapidly corroding university conglomerates. Sitting five abreast, waiting for the work of a friend to show. Rapturous applause and a lot of nudging and congratulations – self and otherwise.

My audience choice award for best work went to Fling (SVHS, 1994, 1 min 30 sec.) by Hazel Milburn and Sugarcoated (Shot on Super 8, completed on BW Highband, 1994, 6 min) by Niamh Lines. Falling outside the overused video clip or joke thematic, both these works addressed memory and desire within a carefully chosen (and obviously economic) mise-en-scène. No marks to the real winners of the audience choice award: John Curren and Jackie Farkas, for The Movie Or The Duck, and Back To The Happy Ever After by Philip Hopkins, Shane and Michael Carn. The sickly-sweet, over-crafted work of these seemingly established filmmakers gave me no pleasure at all. Their elaborate joke-work gave me no pause to think about anything.

So why did I persist with this feeling of being a teacher (rather than an experimental film and video enthusiast)? Probably because a good quarter of the audience present on those two days had probably been in film and media courses I taught in second semester of 1994.

I hesitated before striking the keys that would dismiss the whole event as ‘mostly student work’, deciding instead to talk to the people who taught them. So what are the causes and possible cures for the muddling exposure of something old, something new, something ‘enfant’, something ‘elder’ that was Matinaze 1995?

What the people who taught them have to say reveals not only the depressed state of undergraduate and postgraduate media education within the corporate cultures of some of our universities but also a history of community – and student – initiated media events which have been gradually undermined by bureaucratisation within the Australian Film Commission and various university departments. Uneven professionalisation within teaching institutions, coupled with the ‘take the money and run’ attitude of a beleaguered humanities sector, has created a stand-off between educators and administrators. Yet speaking out on these issues – trying to seriously address the micropolitics of media and arts education funding –is like not speaking at all.

In an attempt to give myself an adequate voice, I undertook a brief literature search on the subject, trawling through a CD-ROM version of the Australian Public Affairs Information Service (APAIS). The result: a mere handful of relevant articles written by respected academics over the last six years, including Stephen Knight, Anne Freadman and Simon During (whose article The Humanities and Research Funding, in a 1990 issue of Arena, still says a lot about the unspoken).

***

4-D Studies (covering film, video and new media) within the School of Art at the UNSW College of Fine Arts recently received $65,000 for ‘sight and sound’ research through an external Australia Council research grant application. Sounds great till you read the small print. The words ‘scientific visualisation’ recur with uncomfortable frequency, alerting the reader to how poorly scientific and humanities research are differentiated by the money-brokers servicing our cultural and educational institutions.

A senior lecturer in the same department receives enough AFC funding to take a year or two off; freed from the pressures of teaching to devote more time to multimedia research. All well and good until you discover how the college has arranged how these spare teaching hours will be covered. The number of students the remaining staff have to supervise increases dramatically as do the number of ‘just in time’ appointed casual staff. Second and third year undergraduate students are feeling drawn to become feature film makers one semester – experimental non-narrative mavericks the next.

At the moment there is much anxiety being expressed by contracted and tenured staff that course and departmental restructuring will further undermine the quality of face to face teaching. While professional morale plummets in a dignified silence, university administrators smile through the glow of recently obtained management awards for cost-cutting their lean teaching machine even further. Still I suspect that staff conditions, the quality of liberal, film and media education (in art colleges barricaded within the new university system) can only be improved by allowing art and media students freer (degree credit) access to the larger humanities faculty on a main campus. Why restrain the agonistic impulse (dare I call it competition) that draws someone from Anthropology to Italian, from French Literature to Philosophy, and back through the side door of an art and media education.

***

“Lest we forget – before too long – the difference between avant-garde, independent, experimental, mainstream and ART-HOUSE cinema, and those who served to program, screen (and make) the difference.”

I repeat these words from an essay-interview, The Liberator of Spaces, – RealTime 7 – on the work of Ian Hartley, with a small addition. I’ve been talking to media lecturer and filmmaker, Kate Richards, who – together with a number of students from what is now The University of Technology – programmed the first Sydney Super-8 Festival back in 1980.

The venue was the Film-Makers Co-Op, home to the 16mm experimental push of the 60s and 70s which peaked in the mid to late seventies with experimental feminist documentary pieces like Jenny Thornley’s Maidens. Resistance to the incursion of the new medium dwelt on both the form and content of works by Andrew Frost, Stephen Harrop, Kate Richards, Mark Titmarsh, Michael Hutak and Jane Stevenson. Quite a few of these filmmakers – apart from being film-literate – had been caught up in the new wave of post-Marxism, psychoanalysis and semiotics which had swept through fine arts, communications and film studies courses all over the country.

The event was a sell-out and the stage was set for four to five years of regular screenings, discussion and ambitious ‘no-frills’ funding. Reviewing the Fourth Super 8 Festival for FilmNews late in 1983, Ross Gibson was able to cast a critical eye over the diversification and development of the Super 8 phenomenon: – “The Festival also served as a reminder that the medium attracts the creative gamut, from beginners with much to learn through to aficionados and professionals with impressive theoretical and practical competence.”

By the mid-eighties, the weakness of Super-8 (as a non-reproducible recording and projection platform) started to wear on the artisanal economics – the short, inexpensive turnaround from filming to screening. The Super-8 Group became Sydney Intermedia Network and began to stage video as well as film events. Electronic Media Arts (EMA) hosted the first Australian International Video Festival in 1986 and a number of other smaller groups and events started to drag on the AFC purse-strings.

The new media/film festivals did not have quite the same integral audience-producer feedback as the so-called filmmakers’ culture that preceded it (from The National Film Theatre days to the cresting of Super-8). This created a dilemma for the AFC in its choice of sponsored players and events promoters – the result of its own inability to administer or even conceptualise the diversification of media and audiences.

Cinematheque programs continued to thrive however, with AFC-subsidised repertory cinemas screening historical retrospectives and special seasons. This seemed consistent with the assumption that industry development in the areas of film, video or new media requires balanced funding for both production of work and the education of producers.

The cinematheque culture seems vastly different from the ritualised Film Festival events which occasionally toy with ‘difficult’ cinema but end up dutiful servants to tasteful art-house and documentary styles. The single screening of A Personal Journey Through American Movies With Martin Scorsese during the 1995 Sydney Film Festival created an atmosphere of what I can only describe as cinephilic desperation in the Pitt St Centre. Doubtless this mis-managed must see!! video event will end up on the box in the not-too-distant future, hopefully in tandem with Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema which appeared – without the bellowing of trumpets and velveteen – during the 1994 cinematheque season.

*****

There was a time not so long ago where membership of the AFI (which cost between $20 and $40) automatically gave society membership to cinematheque screenings. This enabled continuous and inexpensive access for both students and enthusiasts. In and out of art school in the early 80s, my film education was cheap and easy, lounging through CAE film courses, NFT screenings and a more committed alternative section in the Sydney Film Festival.

These days, the choice of programs and venues has diminished drastically, and a user-pays philosophy makes it hard-going for cinephiles on a limited budget. Take the current crop of cinematheque offerings for example. At the refurbished Chauvel, the 1995 cinematheque season (programmed by Melbourne Cinematheque Inc.) – after a few years of much more detailed events programming – has collapsed into a mish-mash of cinema all-sorts. It looks as if someone has thrown darts at the National Film Library catalogue and chosen those films with the extra sprocket holes.

I spoke recently to a respected film historian who said he was told by the new managers that a proposed retrospective of Lumière films would not go down so well with its over-abundance of French sub-titles. Cultural or nuclear cringe? Hard to tell, really.

The Museum of Contemporary Art – which promises a proper cinematheque by the year 2000 – has made some effort to screen some interesting programs over the last few years as well as taking on part of the remainder of the 1994 cinematheque program when the Paddington complex closed for renovations. Lacking a desperately-needed government subsidy, the cost of attending all these film and video screenings for a 12-month period would probably hit the two hundred dollar mark. I’m hoping the Art Gallery of NSW will continue with a much more creative retrospective and contemporary program beyond the big cine-centenary of 1995.

***
“Film and video are more or less the
same thing
There might be a difference in the treatment of light
Like the difference between philosophy and science
Science is video philosophy is cinema.”
Jean Luc Godard

Past cinematheque screenings have generally manifested a collective will to learn (or remember) about cinema history and individual film-makers (in both narrative and experimental genres), attracting artists, writers and an array of film-making talents. Moving into a period of speculation and experimentation in multimedia formats, it is important that we maintain a culture of informed discussion and programming around innovative narrative and non-narrative forms within the celluloid medium.

In a catalogue essay for Passages of the Image (a huge anthological exhibition of video, film and installation which travelled through Europe and the US in 1991-92), Raymond Bellour put it this way: “Thus is the gradation that goes from one to two arts founded on mechanical reproduction and set beside the visual arts that preceded them, a pattern of possibilities is established, formed by the overlapping and passages that are capable of operating (technically, logically, historically) between the arts.” There is a small delirium of confluence implied here: the running together – backwards and forwards – of different media, concepts and personal poetics, an approach where the formal, technical and historical boundaries between different media become consciously interwoven.

I too would say – following on from these remarks – that for the benefit of our cinematheque and multimedia futures (which must be integrally re-connected without petty institutional and personal rivalries) that turning side-on to both of them may offer more hope for creative innovation than simply scribbling on the blank cheque of a new digital millennium.

RealTime issue #8 Aug-Sept 1995 pg. 9

© Colin Hood; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 1995