Tackling the best of the avant-garde in 2001 is a thankfully daunting task. Despite rumors of its death, a renaissance of experimental moving-image art has erupted in recent years, with New York as one of the scene’s bustling centers. Overworked aficionados found themselves shuttling between Chelsea galleries, Lower East Side storefronts, and uptown institutions to catch the right showsÑwith an inevitable pit stop at the still central Anthology Film Archives somewhere along the way.
An old-guard 16mm trioÑStan Brakhage, Robert Beavers, and Nathaniel DorskyÑswung mad props uptown with retrospectives at Lincoln Center and MOMA. The Whitney emerged as the city’s most adventurous programmer, and the only institution to fully embrace the cross-disciplinary, multimedia nature of both past and present. The museum’s mind-expanding “Into the Light,” an ongoing exhibit of film and video installations from the ’60s and ’70s, will undoubtedly affect the way new work is made and shown. Other Whitney shows included “Unseen Cinema,” a program of pre-1940 experiments, and “BitStreams,” which included moving images by new-media artists like Leah Gilliam, Jim Campbell, and Paul Pfeiffer. But downtown held its own: One-man shows by filmmakers Glen Fogel and John Smith at the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema felt just as momentous as anything screened above 16th Street.
2001 saw a spurt of feature-length work, whether as multimedia performance (Miranda July’s The Swan Tool), 16mm abstracted narratives (James Fotopoulos’s Back Against the Wall and Chris Jolly’s Curse of the Seven Jackals), or ambitious remembrances from elders (Alfred Leslie’s The Cedar Bar and Jonas Mekas’s As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty). But shorts continue as the norm for the experimental set. Although healthy amounts of Super 8 and 16mm continue to be produced, many play like retro Tinkertoy tricks, retooling now stale innovations ad infinitum; only one pick on my avant-garde short list (see sidebar), Beavers’s The Stoas, is actually projected on film. Less constricted by both budgets and history, videomakers roam a bit more freely, taking on performance and essay forms (Goss, Chang, McCormick), revisiting barely old tech with new vigor (Price), or investigating Internet media for hidden cinematics (Abate). Others create new structures that are barely classifiable: Can one medium really contain Sogo’s glitchy Iron Chef remix rhythms, Jorge’s sentimental Super-8-to-video diaries, and Thomas’s sweetly surreal Final Cut fairy tales? Let future media historians sort out the mess. While celluloid artists romp in well-trodden playgrounds, video’s electric energy is keeping the avant-garde respectfully avant.
An Avant-Garde Short List
(in no particular order)
Jacqueline Goss THE 100TH UNDONE
Patty Chang EELS
Miranda July GETTING STRONGER EVERY DAY
Seth Price INVOCATION
Bobby Abate REAL VIDEOS
Robert Beavers THE STOAS
Jennet Thomas SHARONY!
Stom Sogo SILVER PLAY
Matt McCormick THE SUBCONSCIOUS ART OF GRAFFITI REMOVAL
Adrianne Jorge SONGS OF AZORES