Previous Brakhage Center Symposia
The Third Brakhage Center Symposium, March 17, 2007
Guest speakers for 2007 included Tom Gunning and Phil Solomon, and James Benning panelist.
Guest presenter Tom Gunning, Professor at the University of Chicago, spoke on the history and continued relevance of the “art of motion” and its variations in cinema. Several clips from rare turn of the Century films were screened in conjunction with his lecture. For the evening screening, Gunning selected the 35mm print of “Film Ist. Parts 7-12”, by Gustav Deutsch.
Guest presenter Professor Phil Solomon spoke on the film art of Stan Brakhage. Solomon discussed several of Brakhage’s later hand painted films and screening several shorts including a pristine print of “Seasons”, a collaboration between Solomon and Brakhage using optical printing techniques and hand painting.
The round table discussion on contemporary film art and the day’s events included filmmaker James Benning and video artist Daniel Boord.
The Second Brakhage Center Symposium, April 15 2006
Re-Imagining Independent Cinema
Across the nation in the last five years, the number of students enrolling as film majors has skyrocketed, yet there remains confusion as to what exactly film programs are training their students to do. Schools like the University of Colorado have neither the resources nor the desire to train students to directly enter the mainstream film and television industries, opting instead for a more humanistic model of training film artists. This symposium tackles the question of what realistic models of independent cinema can be offered to students and local filmmakers who work out of necessity with limited resources.
To help answer these questions, two distinguished scholars and champions of independent and experimental film, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Gene Youngblood, will give presentations on independent cinema. Jonathan Rosenbaum, currently chief reviewer for the Chicago Reader, brings a strong historical and institutional perspective to the debate as one of the leading scholars of such early “independent” filmmakers as Orson Welles and Erich von Stroheim, and a leading advocate for the reform of major cinematic institutions to allow American filmgoers to be exposed to a much wider array of cinema. He will be speaking on Spanish filmmaker Pere Portabella’s experimental documentary Cuadecuc, vampir (1970). Gene Youngblood is celebrated as one of the earliest advocates of video art, and continues to explore the role of new technologies on the art of the moving picture. He will be speaking on the diary films of American experimental filmmaker George Kuchar.
This one-day symposium will consist of three parts: Presentations by our special guests Jonathan Rosenbaum and Gene Youngblood, followed by responses from Professor Jennifer Peterson and local filmmaker Phil Rowe; a roundtable discussion; and an evening screening. All events are free to the public.
The Brakhage Center Symposium was sponsored by Film Studies, The Roser Foundation, and The Donner Foundation.
The First Brakhage Center Symposium, April 2005
Summary Report by Christopher Pearce
The first annual Brakhage Symposium was held on Saturday April 16th, 2005 in the Fine Arts lecture room on the CU Campus in Boulder. The day of panel discussions and screenings was introduced as a program that would pay homage to the legacy of Stan Brakhage as well as move forward to address current and future issues in experimental film and media production. A strong focus of the symposium was to build and connect with a larger community of people studying the art of film.
First Panel: Remembering Stan’s Salons
The first panel was a remembrance of Stan Brakhage’s regular screenings of experimental film both at the University of Colorado and its previous iterations at other venues and in other cities. The panel consisted of anecdotal accounts of experiences with Stan Brakhage’s weekly film screenings by regular participants of the salon. The panel was made up of C.U. film professors and experimental filmmakers: Suranjan Ganguly, Phil Solomon, Phil Rowe, and Jim Otis. Each speaker told the story of their own personal epiphany of accepting avant-garde film through their experiences at the screenings.
The regular Sunday meetings were described as being like church. More precisely, the attitude of the screenings was welcoming to any participants of the experience of experimental films. In general, the panel communicated a feeling of shared aesthetic curiosity and of belonging to a community engaged in an obscure art.
After the discussion, the panel screened videos, shot by Phil Solomon, documenting post-screening discussions at the salons. In the videos, Stan, speaking with profound authority, raised issues of the popular media’s corruption of experimental film forms. He questioned the proposal that an institution can teach individuals to be artists. He also spoke about his individual path of opening himself to the process of art making.
Overall, what emerged during the panel was an important discourse that helped fill the gaps in any understanding of experimental film history with personal and emotional history. It fleshed out the mythology of Brakhage’s legacy with a presentation of the attitudes and passion that the experimental film movement was built on.
Second Panel: Exhibition, Distribution and Production In The Digital Age
Sticking to the introductory promises of moving forward, the second panel was focused on the uses of new media by artists and professionals. It consisted of a group of artists, teachers, and media professionals who work with varied media including film as well as digital video.
Jon Stout, the director of Free Speech TV (FSTV), introduced FSTV as a political media channel rather than a forum for art film. However, he spoke briefly about visual media as part of the goal of progressive social change and the celebration of creativity and media art as being integral to the goals of the channel. Among TV broadcasting as a means for media content distribution, Jon introduced the concepts of the “videoblogosphere” and “mobilogging.” Both concepts refer to emerging communities of Internet publishers utilizing the web as a relatively open and democratic exhibition forum for many types of visual media ranging from text to video. An exciting aspect of these forums is the ease of uploading work to be exhibited. “Mobilogging” refers to the process of capturing images with a cel-phone-camera and uploading that content to the Internet with the phone itself.
Brian Delevie, a digital artist and teacher at DU spoke about his movement from photography to digital media. His current work uses video and audio installed in a gallery to create immersive environments for the audience. His direction as a digital artist is to eventually separate the work from traditional exhibition venues such as theaters and galleries. He implied that digital media would allow him to create his work using the public sphere as an exhibition space (projecting on buildings, video on buses, etc.). He raised the issue of the classification of the digital artist, and the position of digital art among what are classified as valid art forms.
Ernie Gehr, a well-known experimental filmmaker and teacher, spoke about his uses of both film and digital video. According to Gehr, the video image was unsatisfactory until the advent of digital. He screened part of a work on digital video titled “Cotton Candy,” commissioned by the Museum Of Modern Art in New York. In “Cotton Candy,” Gehr used the portable DV camera to “simply observe” the intermittent movement of the falling cards in an antique Mutoscope. By using the DV camera similarly to the way the Lumiere camera was initially historically used (to simply document), and by focusing this basic gaze on an even older form of motion picture (the Mutoscope), Gehr’s video implies a continuum of technology in the history of motion picture that includes tools ranging from the flipbook to the VCR.
Gehr raised issues of the relative youth of video as a medium in comparison to film. He also stated that it takes time for artists to find the essence of a certain medium. After the Gehr screening, an interesting controversy emerged in the discussion: a basic contradiction within the avant-garde film community.
Some historical tenants of the avant-garde have been: providing a counterpoint to typical mainstream production, the democratization of production, crossing the fine art barriers of class and privilege, and the integration of art into everyday life. The community of personal filmmakers owes part credit for its history to the industries and personalities responsible for the manufacture of consumer (democratic) means of production and the vision to use those tools with quality.
During the panel, contradictory attitudes fell along the lines of these sustaining ideals. Namely, those who pioneered the role of the artist and the quality of the film image argued against the value of new digital tools for motion picture on the basis of lowered quality. Of course, these new digital tools, and the industries that produce them are, in many ways, responsible for the highly democratic production present today. I was surprised to see what I understood as a shared vision in the community being argued as mutually exclusive and contradictory. More than ever before, a true plurality of audiences feeds from a true plurality of makers. There is room for many visions, made possible by DV and the Internet. The Internet, as an exhibition forum, is the fulfillment of an avant-garde ideal previously and repetitively frustrated by monopolies and profiteers of one-way reception (TV, radio, video rental) even if it is not ideal in terms of the image. There are time-tested forums for finer quality exhibition (theaters, film salons, etc) and no pressing fear of losing niche audiences. As experimenters on the periphery, with our tenuous hold on larger community, it is frustrating to see these ideals conflict from within. I believe the underlying sentiment in the argument of varied media was the preservation of and pioneering of a certain history. This became clearer during the third panel discussion.
Third Panel: The Importance of Archiving, Collections, and Preservation of Film in the Digital Age
This group consisted of archivists, collectors and restoration experts gathering to discuss the politics of creating film collections. What occurred immediately was a discussion of power, media, education, and the creation of history. We saw a brand new restored print of “Mothlight” in comparison to an older print, and we heard a deep explanation of the restorative process for historically important films.
Bill Spencer of the William H. Donner Foundation began by describing the process of creating the Anthology Film Archive and how it came from an appreciation of experimental film and his relationship with Stan Brakhage. From that introduction came numerous thought provoking responses to the question of “why we do preservation and archive work?”
Alex Sweetman, Photographer and Associate Professor of Fine Arts, redirected the mood and stated that although it might feel like the end of an era, our moment is actually a core that the future of art will expand from. He described an experience he had at a preservation conference in Denver noting that a certain committee member had actually said, “Throw them out” in relation to a dispersed but possibly valuable collection of photography. Erik Paddock, the person accused, was in the audience and had a chance to respond, stating what turned the conversation toward a discussion of history, “The history that we have…is a product of what we manage to save, on the one hand, and on the other hand it’s a product of what we choose to be interested in among the things that we have saved…”
Phil Solomon ran with that topic by describing the contentious decision making process while creating the category of “Essential Cinema” at Anthology Film Archive. The question moved from the creation of history to power. If the decision to privilege certain works over others is the field within which we define cinema history then, “Who gets to decide these things?” With that question of power on the table, the discussion really picked up. Phil Solomon’s experience was that individuals with the “guts” to define a category and argue their perspective own that privilege by virtue of their passion.
Alex Sweetman’s perspective mirrored that attitude when he stated, “The institution has to follow the individual in building collections.” He continued by stating that only individuals build collections, that institutions acquire them from the individual, and that it is the individual who initiates change. He also added to the general discussion of the importance of the collection by describing “visual literature” as the basis for a fine art education. He noted that the existence of strong collections in Europe made it the center of art education for centuries, and that the notion of collections of art as “visual literature” is what legitimizes these collections to our institutions.
When Robert David took the mic the feeling changed. He described his relationship to the old WesternCine film lab and his role as director of the new CinemaLab in Denver. This new lab has the focus of restoring and preserving the collection of the Anthology Film Archive currently housed in Pascal, an air-conditioned vault. He talked about the relationships between film artists and the labs they use, stating that collaborative ventures like the films made by Brakhage and Sam Bush, the optical printer at Western Cine, would never have been possible without the type of personal relationship that most laboratories are closed to.
Interestingly, he stated that, “film preservation is currently a growth industry” because of the age and importance of many older prints. The lab is working on restoring very sensitive and delicate nitrate films for Universal.
He walked us through the complex decision making process of restoring an important historical film like “Mothlight.” More controversial aspects of the process stemmed from the discovery of several different prints without a knowledge of the precise look of the original. The question of, “which one do we restore it to look like?” was a deep concern, and it took them a full year to complete the restoration. They screened both prints for a mesmerized audience, and most agreed that the restoration was an improvement.
Final thoughts were positive, and I hope they repeat the gathering in upcoming years. The Symposium closed with an amazing screening of several of Ernie Gehr’s films and digital videos. Although he describes his films as being concerned with different subjects, I find it hard not to relate his body of work. All of his films respect the intelligence of his audience and communicate, not by transmitting information that you receive, but by raising questions. His films display such a deep sensitivity to new ways of seeing and leave their interpretation wide open for your intellectual play. If films have agency, I would say that Gehr’s work begs you to engage, and in that way they transcend the screen and become real communication.
In general, a great day of genuine discussion of real issues and a strong turnout of the community of media makers and scholars.