Though everyday moviegoers wouldn't have noticed, several avant-garde filmmakers stormed feature-film barricades this year, with theatrical releases by James Fotopoulos (Back Against the Wall), Chris Marker (A Grin Without a Cat), and Alexander Sokurov (Russian Ark). The creators of Far From Heaven and Jackass the Movie both sprang from underground roots, and one of the year's schlockiest movies, The Ring, imagined a bootlegged experimental film whose Joel-Peter Witkin-esque motifs creep off the screen and kill viewers. So far, there are no reports of similar murders at Anthology, but 2002 did feature many notable instances of avant-garde cinema otherwise moving outside normal movie-house borders.
Now that small-gauge film has become an obscurist rarity, artists are fetishizing film's formerly hidden apparatus, turning projectors into live performance-machines. At both the Whitney Biennial and the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema, Bruce McClure presented optically altered films whose fat paint spots swarm like feverish biomasses. Luis Recoder enacted a visual symphony of celluloid colorfields for his spectacular "Liminal Lumen" event at Anthology, and Zoe Beloff conjured cine-séances with silent films and 3-D slides. For the biennial, California collective Silt transformed one Whitney chamber into a rotating forest-phantasm, complete with light spilling through actual foliage.
Others engulfed the audience inside moving-image installations. Pit-stopping on a nationwide tour, ex-Texan Bill Daniel refashioned the Robert Beck into a Wild West hobo camp, with video-projected moon and flickering image-fire created from train-hopping documentary footage. The New Museum counterposed two floors of otherworldly environments from opposite ends of the emotional spectrum: Brazilian Hélio Oiticaca's participatory funk-pop Quasi-Cinemas, and Leah Gilliam's techno-chilly, anti-interactive Martian head trip, Agenda for a Landscape.
A few artists double-timed cinematheque situations with gallery setups. It-nerds Forcefield rocked the aforementioned biennial with a video-enhanced installation of their trademark Herculoid getups, and screened their single-channel stoner freak-out compilation at various sit-down venues. Jem Cohen premiered Chain, his three-screen world-spanning feature, at Eyebeam's "Beta Launch" in Chelsea, but kept it real with a one-screen version at Anthology's "Illegal Art" series. Finnish Documenta darling Eija-Liisa Ahtila hit New York with an installation at Gasser & Grunert and a retrospective at MOMA's new Gramercy digs.
But as always, some of the finest new stuff was scattered through multiple festivals and shows. There's no way to truly compare work as varied as John Goras's dirtass animation, Naomi Uman's handmade motion paintings, and Kelly Reichardt's Super-8 forbidden love story, so this experimental short list isn't a top 10. Rather, think of these lucky 13 as the basis for a surefire 2002 video mix tapeone that certainly won't kill you to watch.