The Underground isn’t dead—it’s just been rebranded. Under the new moniker “Migrating Forms” and screening at Anthology Film Archives this week, the event formerly known as the New York Underground Film Festival continues, newly transformed into an international experimental showcase that goes beyond the Underground label.
“We didn’t end NYUFF because we perceived an inability for it to sustain itself as a marketable concept,” says former NYUFF head and Migrating Forms co-director Kevin McGarry. “We decided to end it primarily because we felt the name of the festival was attached to a much more concrete meaning, community, and aesthetic in its earlier years”—namely, what McGarry calls “this anti-institutional-rebel-fucker-skater vibe.” (See: exploitation-pics such as Bad Girls Go to Hell and True Gore; Todd Verow and Jon Moritsugu’s DIY subcultural absurdities; and the 7th edition’s infamous raw-meat fashion show.)
“We’d been moving in the direction of a primary focus on experimental film and video for at least a decade,” says Migrating Forms co-director Nellie Killian. “I think there was a perception problem that we were all about slackers and skaters, even though that had not been true for a long time.”
Indeed, the name Migrating Forms comes from the title of a 2000 NYUFF selection directed by Chicago filmmaker James Fotopoulos, a prime example of the festival’s avant-garde roots. “It was a nice tie-in to our history and a nice parallel to the general concept of moving images,” says McGarry.
With no-budget shockers and grotesque esoterica stripped from this year’s programming, Migrating Forms is now composed of recent museum and biennial highlights (most eye-catching, Erin Cosgrove’s animated medieval-gothic-inspired fable What Manner of Person Art Thou?), art docs (notably, Austrian Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s 7915 Km, a study of peoples and places in the wake of an African car race), and the work of avant-garde luminaries (Owen Land, Barbara Hammer) and upcoming artists (Ben Rivers, U.K. Turner Prize–winner Phil Collins). Post-millennial anxieties of religion and industrialization course through the program.
“A lot of the work has been covered in the art pages, not in the film pages,” says Killian, who hopes to attract crossover audiences from both worlds. In re-situating art pieces to a film festival, with a defined start and end, instead of looping them in a museum exhibition space, McGarry is aiming for a “very different viewing experience,” citing, for example, the inclusion of Josephine Meckseper’s O% Down, a montage of testosterone-fueled car commercials scored to God & Beast’s groaning track “Total War,” which recently showed as an installation at the Prospect.1 New Orleans Biennial.
If Migrating Forms sounds less lively than the Underground, Killian says they’re still maintaining the former entity’s spunk: “We’re not showing somber, experimental film—we’re showing fun experimental film,” she says, citing Alex Perry’s Impolex, billed as a blend of World War II documentary and Abbot & Costello; Alejandro Adams’s sci-fi Silicon Valley corporate spoof Canary; and “Tube Time!” a raucous found-footage program continued from the NYUFF, in which teams face off with their best YouTube discoveries.
Will Migrating Forms ultimately survive as a new alt-cinema mainstay? Former New York Underground programming director Andrew Lampert, who consulted minimally on Migrating Forms, looks forward to a “fresh start” for the festival, acknowledging its predecessor’s lost steam (audience attendance for NYUFF peaked in the late ’90s). “In the last couple of years, it didn’t have the same foot traffic or the overall energy,” he says, noting, among possible causes, dwindling press support and the arrival of the Web as a forum for low-cost exhibition. “I think the Internet usurped festivals in a lot of ways, providing instant menus for audiences.”
Indicative of the changing economic climate for cultural events, Migrating Forms is shifting toward a nonprofit model, relying not on fiscal sponsorships but on grants, this year mainly from the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. “I doubt we’ll be able to pay ourselves anything,” admits Killian. And thus, the Underground lives on.