Avant-garde and experimental cinema: from film to digital

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A very different approach

“Art can be anything, and that’s what produced the “avant-garde”. (...) I just improvised, as I do in... I give chance a chance, as I do in painting, as I do in film. That was the main credo of Dada: the discovery of chance as a possibility of expression.” Hans Ritcher, 28

The Lumière brothers demonstrated the “cinématographe” and their first films in Paris and London between 1895-96. In the late nineteenth century realist painting and drama dominated art form. “Films quickly passed through a primitive state where they were single-shot and very short, made by entertainers and showmen for fairgrounds and musichalls.

Around 1903 to 1905, by capital investment and dramatic invention, films became longer, more elaborate and were shown in purpose-built cinemas”.29 Twenty years after the Lumière’s experiments, fiction film had aims of large magnitude, narrative cinema smoothed the traces of change in shot, angle of vision and introduced “invisible editing” to construct continuity without trace, markedly in D. W. Griffith’s film Intolerance (1916). At the same time, cinema started to be experienced from an artistic perspective. Throughout Abstract Film, animated abstract forms influenced by painting and motivated by representing music in a pictorial form, allowed a new purpose of exploiting colour, light and shape, creating paintings in time. In this chapter we are going to answer “what is the relationship between painting and avant-garde and experimental cinema?”, by introducing a brief historical review and examining the principal avant-garde movements and artists in cinema. 

We will start by introducing the Modernism movements such as Abstract Film and how it evolved into Abstract Expressionism and Action cinema. Moving on to the Postmodernism attitude, Underground and Structural film movements. Followed by Electronic and Video art as a research of new ways of paintings. At last answering to the question “what is the situation for avant-garde and experimental cinema in the digital media age?”, by understanding the influences of experimental cinema in the appearance of the digital medium and its manifestation as avant-garde in the contemporary circumstances by presenting the Structural digital video and Handmande digital cinema practices that are bringing radical approach to the avant-garde and experimental cinema by crossing mediums and digital media exploitation.

1.1. Modernism: Cubism, Futurism, Dadaism and Surrealism

The rise of Cubism (1908-12) brought new theories of time, space and perception in art, breaking with the analogy between picture and perception, decomposing forms, presenting changing viewpoints and angles and showing brush marks to emphasis the flat surface of canvas. These theories “led artists to try to put painting in motion through the film medium”.30 The Futurists were influenced by the theories of Bergson, representing movement and the velocity of subjects. The Italian Futurists turned directly to action, redefining the concept of art, creating a dynamic and radical action with their provocative manifestos. In the Painting Manifesto31 the Futurists call for the representation of movement and dynamism in the canvas, and in the manifesto of Futurist Cinema32 they declare that cinema should become impressionistic, synthetic, dynamic and free. At the same time, editing techniques and narrative commercial cinema was growing and evolving. The avant-garde cinema in Europe was anti-Hollywood, in style, form and production, attempting to create a model for film outside the categories of entertainment and fiction, against the USA industry. Dadaism, inspired by Futurism, was a much more contesting movement. Invented in 1916, it appealed to the nonsense and chance in art. The Dada films33 were opposed to visual pleasure and anti-retina, requesting the viewer’s participation. Le Retour a la Raison (1923) by Man Ray, Ballet Mechanique (1924) by Fernand Léger and Dudley Murphey, and Anémic Cinéma (1926) by Marcel Duchamp, create an exploitation of optical illusion and visual reaction. Surrealism like Futurism was founded by a group of artists that “dominated the modern art between the two world wars, evoking Dadaist anti-aesthetic during the 1920s”34.

They rejected imposing order and musical structure in an attempt to provoke contradiction, discontinuity and  dissonant montage. The surrealist films make complex connections between images — meaning and sense are questioned. The purpose of discontinuity is to shift against the continuity of narrative film, exactly when narrative codes were reaching perfection. The temporal discontinuity concept and photographic illusion are used to demonstrate the state of dreams, for example in Un Chien Andalou (1929) by Salvador Dali and Luis Buñuel, and L'Etoile de mer (1928) by Man Ray. Usually surrealist cinema is understood as “a search for the excessive and spectacular image, what the group were in fact trying to find was the wonderful in the banal, they rarely used special effects and high-grade illusions with what Surrealism is always associated with”.35 Surrealism became the most popular movement in modern art still influencing the mainstream, advertising and cinema industry.36 The Futurists were the first artists to make films by themselves. Between 1909-20 artists started to experiment with the new medium. Avant-garde film went in two directions. The narrative avant-garde or art cinema, cine-poem, is represented in movements such as French Impressionism37, the Soviet school38 and German Expressionism. During the 1920s, the French Impressionist artists tried to move cinema to an artistic practice independent from literature and theatre by creating the genre — narrative avant-garde film. These artists had special interested into exploring the illusion of movement and the photogénie39 concept. The other direction was a non-narrative approach in film form, the filmstrip treated like a painting canvas, the approach to painting, handmade films, Abstract Film, pure, absolute and visual, the direction that we will follow in this paper.

1.2. Abstract Film

“They are not merely representations of paintings, but rather are new kinds of painting that expand the parameters of field, providing us with new ways to think about, present, and experience painting. In so doing, they push us to redefine our conceptions of artistic practice, both in terms of painting and cinema.” Gregory Zinman, 40 Abstract Films provokes questions about what we are looking at, challenging our perception. “Abstraction always means something. By abstraction the artist creates a new world or reveals one that has been previously hidden: “choice + chance” is the equation at the heart of the proof of handmade cinema.”41 The abstract handmade film is a fusion of its formal characteristics such as colour, shape, form, depth, movement, rhythm, filmstrip intervention and its physical and synesthetic abilities. 

Painting in time “is dynamic, alive, in the process of becoming a composition that can only be understood as the entirety of the film, not the end product or last image we see on screen.”42 It offers a new dimension and an innovative way to represent, understand and perceive painting. Abstract filmmakers have always attempted to achieve a universal form of communication. The Futurist artists Arnaldo Ginna and Bruno Corra made the first experiments of hand painting raw film between 1910-12. In 1914, Léopold Survage wrote about his project Le Rythme Colore43 an abstract film relating visual shapes, rhythm and colour. The first experiments from 1910-20s are confused: artists had limitations of equipment and technology, they learned by trial and error. 

Unfortunately the first films are lost or were never finished. These first experiments gained further interest in the 1920s from German artists. From 1919-25 the Abstract Film (or absolute film) was mainly German avant-garde. Through animation, artists such Oskar Fischinger, Walter Ruttmann, Hirschfeld-Mack, and the Dadaist artists Viking Eggeling and Hans Richter, achieved the movement of abstract forms. Adding the musical aspiration and rhythms of pure forms, they created a new kind of “cinema, without narrative or documental aspects attempting to provoke feelings in the spectator. The Abstract Film does not necessarily produce an analogy between musical rhythm and the rhythm of shapes and colours (transforming abstract forms). Eggeling made their first attempts using a scroll-drawing technique by animating forms through long papers, “cinema was a natural extension of painting relating the granular structure of film and projection with the painting canvas”44. In Diagonal Symphony (1921), Viking Eggeling abstracts forms from the landscape, reducing them to lines. Rhythmus 21 (1923) by Hans Richter plays with the screen space and surfaces using cut-out squares and rectangles to explore the visual dynamic of film, experiencing speed, accelerated editing, black & white and negative-positive, repetition of the same shot, continuous motion and quick insertions of geometric shapes. These two films represent an illusionism of film space in relation to forms and not a direct analogy with musical rhythm. Walter Ruttmann in Opus I (1921) experiments with the rhythm and harmony of curved forms contrasting edged triangles and rectangles. He uses the techniques of scroll paper and painting on glass. Ruttmann’s works attempt to reach a synthesis between painting and music. Throughout, the musical aspect is revealed in the film titles.

By the 1930s, Len Lye started to work for the British General Post Office making advertisements, painting animations directly on to transparent film with the function of economic saving. Lye, influenced by Oskar Fischinger, was responsible for the development of handmade film, painting directly in the filmstrip and also explored the complex processes of print techniques such as Gasparcolor, creating image layers. He creates a unique identity, making the handmade film a genre that influenced the next generations. “Lye’s direct films reside between celluloid and canvas, and are works that both document the act of painting and yet can exist only as moving images”45. For the film A Colour Box (1935) abstract patterns are painted directly on film relating the materiality of film and surface marks. In Trade Tattoo (1937) there is a mixture of hand painting techniques, photography editing and contrasting colour, which results in a composition of colour. Len Lye created a range of films, from complex hand painted works to the simple scratched white lines over black film. In Free Radicals (1958-1979), Lye scratches oscillations in every image to create a nervous movement frame-by-frame with synchronized sound. Around the same time as Lye, emerges the artist Norman McLaren, one of the pioneers of painting and scratching on film, as well as creating synthetic soundtracks46 along with Oskar Fischinger and Barry Spinello, who utilized the process of drawing directly on the optical soundtrack.47 The Abstract Film works as an extension of the visual arts, artists were important as filmmakers, painters or sculptors. Mostly these filmmakers were painters concerned with modern art movements and geometric abstraction that found in cinema a new way to expand painting.

The innovations introduced by absolute cinema are referred to by the next generations of film and video artists working within the experimental genres of video art as well as the commercial video clips. The ideas of absolute cinema had also a strong influence on development of computer art in each case when the artists were in search for new forms of expression and creative combination of image and sound. Piotr Krajewski, 48

1.3. Abstract Expressionism: Cinema action49

“Brakhage, Deren, Sharits, Frampton and others implied that it was possible to be an artist-film-maker as such, rather than their using film to break down old barriers between art forms or to expand traditional notions of what constituted painting and sculpture.” A. L. Rees, 50

During the earlier 1940s, a number of European artists moved to North America — Duchamp, Fernand Léger, Richter, Fischinger, Lye, McLaren, in attempt to escape from the rise of the Second World War. Other artists died – Eggeling (1925), Ruttmann (1941), Eisenstein (1948).51 “Abstract expressionism was an American post–World War II art movement. It was the first specifically American movement to achieve worldwide influence and put New York City at the center of the western art world, a role formerly filled by Paris”.52 As with the previous movements in Europe, a radical advance happened in art; Pollock redefined painting with his Action Painting, a radical practice of emphasizing the moment of create a painting. The “new waves of experimental film-makers began to explore film as an art form — growing directly from an engagement with the plastic material of film and light projection”.53 It was no longer an extension of their artistic work; artists were dedicated exclusively to filmmaking. The American artists were divided into two groups. In one group, the filmmakers that recovered the avant-garde narrative film, created the genre “psychodrama” or “trancefilm”54. They had strong influences from Surrealism, but gave a different style from the European narrative avant-garde. Psychodrama films “deal with the self by using mythical themes and images, and the film-maker as narrative protagonist.”55 James Broughton, Kenneth Anger, Maya Deren, Willard Maas and Marie Menken, Gregory Markopoulous and Sidney Peterson, shared the ideal of personal cinema moving filmmaking into an art form itself. The second group were artists influenced by the German Abstract filmmakers (Ritcher, Ruttmann, Fischinger). They recovered Kandinsky’s synaesthesia56 language and the Abstract Film from the 1920s, giving a straight correspondence between image and music. The filmmakers Harry Smith, the Whitney Brothers and Jordan Belson, had a common interest in mysticism and Kandinsky. Searching for a visual language to represent inner visions in a pictorial form. With the Vortex Concerts, Belson combined a “new and ethnic music (using innovative stereo tape recording) with large-scale projections of abstract imagery on the dome of a planetarium”.57 In Early Abstractions (1946-57), Harry Smith hand painted his films and described himself as a painter and not a filmmaker, considering that his visual language did not require obligatory musical supplement58 but, “often played his films as a sort of ‘light show’ with the live jazz performances.”59 The Whitney Brother’s60 manifested a particular interest by the synchronization of sound and image, resulting in a visual music experience.61 John Whitney was pioneering the computer film, experimenting with analogue and digital computers to generate images.62 His experiments opened a new field of innovative possibilities, technology and light-play, exploring the Dada dogma of chance.

Cinema action emerges from the creative process associated with Abstract Expressionism, the engagement with the process and act of making using spontaneous expression, self-reflexivity, accidents and mistakes, the action of the body itself and sensitivity to film’s materiality — cinema as an expressive device. Stan Brakhage explored and innovated the avant-garde film into a personal cinema, differing from the work of Lye or Ruttmann, which had everything under control. “For Brakhage, the painting model is important, for he is attempting to establish a similar relationship between the artist, the camera and the filmic image.”63 His attitude created a break with the conventional rigour and film objectivity. Brakhage “broke most radically with narrative to inaugurate abstract montage, was strongly influenced by Pound and Stein on compression and repetition in language”.64 Brakhage was an impressive artist, his works range “from 9 seconds in Eyemyth (1972), to 5 hours in The Art of Vision (1965)”,65 portraits of family and friends, autobiography, film-poems and landscape films. He focuses on the act of shooting and editing through the use of metric rhythms, camera-style and subject-matter demanding great attention from the viewers to create meaning. “His virtuosic painted films are quite different both in spirit and execution from those works, but similarly offer up some of the most challenging handmade films in all of cinema”.66 He has a personal style that is unique. By the use of overlapped printing, painting and scratches on film to represent and create visions, by inserting different kinds of ink and different densities in the application of colour, he was creating a new essence. “Brakhage repeatedly stated that his painted films were attempts to represent two kinds of seeing. The first is hypnagogic vision, or optical feedback that occurs from within the structure of the eye itself. Rather than responding to the stimuli of light on optic nerves, this closedeye vision is similar to what results when the retina is excited due to pressure put on the eyeball (from, say, rubbing one’s eyes)”.67 The film texture is no more limited to forms and objects, it challenges the viewers to question what they are seeing. At this time the avant-garde film is “very close to the process of viewing modern painting”.68 Later it was expanded into “gestural, mixed-media live art, pioneered by Jacobs, Smith and Warhol”.69 The Abstract Film influences are distinguished in such artists as José Antonio Sistiaga, Jennifer Reeves, Luther Price, Sara Petty hand draws, Larry Cuba’s computer graphics, among others.70

1.4. Postmodernism: 71 Underground and Structural Film

“No suspense! Only the now, as with paintings, with beginnings and endings far from one's thoughts. From the start there was the allure of the loop.” Ken Jacobs, 72

In the late 1950s, artists opposed to the institutionalisation of modern art such as “Modernism” by provoking a counterculture. Film turned marginal, anarchist and underground, “Aggressive and physical, they reduce the screen to found footage,73 raw colour and bursts of black and white frames. They kept art outside the museum and its rules, they looked back to earlier times (especially to Dada)”.74 In Europe the experiments happened between light-play, basic sound and montage, other artists used film in live performance. In America the period is marked by the Andy Warhol’s films and the film Scorpio Rising (1964) by Kenneth Anger. He uses found TV and film footage with stylized portraits to satirize the subject-matter with a contemporary rock music soundtrack, preceded by Bruce Conner’s film Cosmic Ray (1961). These ideas flowed into the mainstream and “led to the birth of the music video”.75 Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Jonas Mekas, Jack Smith, Andy Warhol, Bruce Conner or Ken Jacobs, shared the aspiration of being outside the mainstream. The Underground Film led to the Structural film movement. The New American Cinema was the avant-garde movement centred in New York City by the 1960s. P. Adams Sitney uses the term “Structural film” to differ these films from “Formal cinema”.

A structural film is composed of static shots, flicker effect, loop, re-shooting, creating a relationship between the film elements in a minimal approach — as seen in the work of Kurt Kren and Peter Kubelka. Distinguish from the formal films, films that explore the materiality of cinema — the style used by Stan Brakage and Andy Warhol.76 Malcolm Le Grice uses the expression “new formal cinema” to distinguish between the approach seen in Europe and the USA. “In the USA there was a reaction against Underground cinema, particularly against Warhol’s work, his intentions were not expressly formal but induced a provocative and neo-dada reaction.”77 In America, Michael Snow, Hollis Frampton, Kurt Kren and Ernie Gehr, shared an interest in the experience of time by the spectator and the represented time. The manipulation of time and space was equally a property of film form, so that editing could undermine the surface realism of cinematography to create a new language that was film’s alone.78 This representation presented a rupture in the complex temporality of films by Buñuel, Dali, Cocteau, Deren and Brakhage, which was concerned with perception, associated with the psychological circumstances of the spectator and not with the experience of time. In Europe, Peter Kubelka, Peter Gidal and Malcolm Le Grice approach was to continue the experiments of the 1920s. Peter Kubelka took to the extreme in montage construction and rhythm. In Arnulf Reiner (1960) he erases any kind of image, making alternations between black and white frames, creating an abstraction in cinematography independent of painting abstraction. He works through time abstraction without any transformed painting forms79 with the intention to illustrate abstract rhythms. “Structural film proposed that the shaping of film’s material – light, time and process – could create a new form of aesthetic pleasure, free of symbolism or narrative eliminating personal expression and eliciting the active participation of the viewer in the film.”80

“Cinema is not about movement. That’s the first thing. Cinema is not movement, but the projection of still images in a speeded rhythm. Giving the illusion of movement, certainly, but that’s a special cause and cinema was invented originally to that special cause. Cinema is the quick projection of light impulses (…) having the possibility to attribute to the light a dimension in time.” Peter Kubelka, 81 

By rejecting modernism, “artists return to subject matter outside film’s own material and ontological concerns”.82 A few avant-garde filmmakers were already working on publicity and advertising for commercial industries in the 1920s and since the youthful boom of consumerism during the 1960-70s the visual culture did not create new radical forms. Even the 1990s widespread of computer and mid-2000s Web 2.0 did not bring new innovative forms of expression. Postmodernism style no longer represents new approaches in art, artists do not invent new forms, instead they re-use past media and artistic styles resulting in a mix and combination of avant-garde styles and popular culture.

1.5. Electronic and video art

“Beginning in the 1950s, film artists such as Hy Hirsh, Mary Ellen Bute, Norman McLaren, and John Whitney had begun to experiment with new, non-filmic image-producing devices, so as to introduce new visual elements into their films.” Gregory Zinman, 83

Since the first computer experiments by John Whitney and his mythical abstract animations of the 1940-50s, artists have explored the electronic arts in such diverse fields as visual arts, music, dance, architecture and performance. The space between technology and art allowed artists to explore a new field of image construction and manipulation: “Just as abstract filmmaking had arisen from the art world and not the cinema world, so too was video art more directly influenced by arts other than film.”84 The context of early video art was combining performance and event, anti-object footage, constructing “an attack on high modernism and museum culture”.85 In the early 1960s video art was “a continuum of handmade moving-image practices that seek to paint in time as well as finding ways of developing personal image-making instruments”86. Scott Bartlett, Nam June Paik, Stephen Beck, Ture Sjo lander, Jud Yalkut made works with the intention not to be exhibited in the conventional cinema projection, but rather on installed screens in galleries and museums, the space allowed to make single-channel or multi-screen installations, allowing the viewers to participate in the artwork. “These artists’ experiments with cathode-ray oscilloscopes, designed to observe varying signal voltage, paved the way for artists’ interventions into the television screen: first via signal distortion, then via the construction of increasingly sophisticated artisanal devices that granted control over existing broadcast signals—and eventually created and synthesized new signals.”87 Artists saw video as a new form of painting88 and as an expansion of painting, allowing the achievement of painterly aspects (colour, texture, shape, motion, overlaying) by creating moving images with their own attributes. “The analogue computers of John Whitney and the video synthesizers of Nam June Paik and Steve Beck look back to abstract painting to make meaning while simultaneously pointing to the moving image’s continuing history of technological change and forecasting the increasingly democratic tendencies of moving-image production.”89

The video art innovations and developments happened along with the evolution of Moog audio synthesizer and electronic music. “Electronic music created a new type of space: it broke away from traditional instrumental performance, and consequently, also to a large extent from traditional concert halls.”90 Video artists liberated moving images “from recorded media and taking them to a deeper intermedia realm of improvisatory performance informed by both music and painting”91. This allowed collaboration between artists, real-time image processing, manipulating and mixing of television signals and video tape92, “using voltage control allows the user to manipulate in real time the parameters of the video signal—hue, chroma, luminance, horizontal and vertical sync—with signals generated by oscillators”93. From the 1960s to 1990s there was an expansion of video as a medium in the wider culture. In the 1970s artists were divided between experimental filmmakers and video artists, resulting from different ideals and generations. There was special interest from sub-cultures, resulting in video art, social documentary and installations, some requiring the viewer’s interaction, therefore making the viewer a collaborator and not a spectator. The real-time aspect of video provides a medium based in electronic signals differing from the photosensitive image such as film.94 These formal characteristics and conceptual aspirations made video a distinctive art practice separated from the avant-garde film.

“Cinema for me is one big tree with different branches that change. The novel, for example, is a main branch and then different writers come in, so there are changes within that one branch. Similarly, in film there are different branches that come in – video art and video filming – but they are still the art of the moving image. Technologically, filming with video cameras or producing work through computers is like painting using oil or watercolours. These are different varieties but still they’re part of what is called painting, part of what are called moving images.” Jonas Mekas, 95

Video gives direct access to image production and manipulation, and it is also cheaper than film. Brought new possibilities for performing and to cross between film, video and digital, creating hybrid editing. In the mid- 1980s, the British sub-culture of Scratch video96 emphasised the fast-cut editing and improvisation on the aesthetics of experimental film, influenced by Bruce Conner and Structural films. Video-makers used found footage and re-edited TV footage, based on low-tech 8mm and Super-8. At the same time the rise of music videos was spreading into new commercial rock culture. The experimental artists blended into the commercial sector, the youthful boom of consumerism made the young generation the market leaders of mainstream culture, “embracing the rise of media studies and valorisation of popular style”.97 Artists presented a post-modernist attitude, no more experimenting with the formal aspects of cinema. Artists like Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman explored multiscreen projection, art cinema, multimedia production, weaving text and digital collage. The British artists98 graduating in the 1990s took video straight to the mainstream gallery world. The material is often appropriated and remixed, “viewing is subjective ‘psycho’-logical act which owes nothing to self-expression”,99 excluding the idea of process. Choosing the gallery rather than cinema theatre audience, Sam Taylor- Wood, Gillian Wearing, Douglas Gordon, Mona Hatoum, Jayne Parker, John Smith, Kate Elwes, Kate Maynell and Judith Goddard, pushed the moving image to be embraced by the art world influenced by the Andy Warhol’s films. By manipulating image and time with conceptual values artists create new works “in a ready-made “duchampian” style using their images and what they represent in terms of popular culture as their own work and material composition”.100 Artists presented interest in events and space, live performance and installations rather than structure or perception, remixing appropriated material creating political and cultural appreciations or digital abstractions as well as mimicking experimental cinema effects. Electronic and video arts passed strong influences to the contemporary online remix culture of YouTube and VJ culture.

1.6. Digital media: Experimental cinema influences

“The digital, as notions of trial and error, personal style, aesthetics, collaboration, prosthetics (light pens and Wacom tablets rather than brushes and stencils), and problem-solving are as vital to understanding the techniques and underpinnings of computergenerated imagery as handmade cinema.” Gregory Zinman, 101

Digital media allows the combination of different kinds of media through computer interfaces. Digital technologies digitize and transform encoded information into binary data, stored in digital form. Malcolm Le Grice (1999) says that it is difficult to define digital media as a medium with its own distinct characteristics, although he distinguishes digital art from modernist art. Modernism rests on the physical properties of the medium in opposition to digital systems that have the ‘non-tactility’ characteristic – processes of zeros and ones.102 These processes are analysed and performed by software and hardware, responding to inputs and outputs given through interaction with artists or spectators. The avant-garde cinema techniques such as scratching, drawing and painting directly on film, velocity manipulation and live projection are the main influences in the appearance of such practices as VJ and Live Cinema, by manipulating images in real time, through audio-visual performance, relating cinema with space, time, projection, live montage and musical collaboration.103

“The idea proffered by Lev Manovich, Berys Gaut, and other contemporary new-media critics—that digital cinema represents a form of painting—in fact has clear roots in artisanal, analog experimental cinema.” Gregory Zinman, 104

Malcolm Le Grice (1999) noted four directions of the experimental film that are key for digital media.105 Firstly, the Abstract Film – abstraction of visual qualities from their representational function, bringing the concept and aesthetic of programmable principles through the computer, pioneered by John and James Whitney in the 1950s. Secondly, transforming image film by transforming the photographic image, as Man Ray and Len Lye did in their experiments, manipulating and transforming the real image, allowing the components of data and raw material to operate in a new form. Thirdly, Non-Narrative Film (structural and surrealist) – the cinematic non-linear models are related directly to the intrinsic feature of Random Access Memory in computers. And finally, Expanded Cinema – by using specific locations for performance or installation and demanding the involvement of the audience, Expanded Cinema created the concept of interaction. If Le Grice noted influences of experimental cinema on digital media, Manovich (2002) describes in the essay “Software as avant-garde” the transformation of the 1920s avantgarde techniques into software through the human-computer interface in the 1990s and changed into new paradigms. “The avant-garde strategy of collage re-emerged as a "cut and paste" command, the photo-collage as hundreds of image layers in a digitally composited video, the Dziga Vertov overlapped shots together in Man With a Movie Camera (1929) become a dozen windows opened at once on a computer desktop”.106Consequently, artists nowadays continue to mix the old techniques together, creating new combinations by manipulating, generating and transforming digital data. Artists are divided, into those that appropriate and manipulate cinematographic works in an electronic and digital form to create new cinematic experiences, and the artists that analyse the formal structure of analogue mediums in function to transform them in data bases exploring its characteristics and potentials by using computer-interface.107 Mia Makela (2008) defines “Cinema” as a term that now is “understood as embracing all forms of configuring moving images, beginning with the animation of painted or synthetic images”108, which makes the digital moving images a cinema practice.

1.7. Digital media as avant-garde: Structural digital video and Handmade digital cinema

“The paintbrush thus finds new life as a waveform knob on a synthesizer, and the canvas takes on new qualities as a screen.” Gregory Zinman, 109 Manovich claims that new media represents a new avant-garde, which differs from the traditional. The traditional avant-garde brought new forms and ways of representing reality and how to see the world. The new media as avant-garde is no more concerned with creating new ways of representing reality, it “is about new ways of accessing and manipulating information and its techniques are hypermedia, databases, search engines, data mining, image processing, visualization, simulation.”110 By media access, analysing, generation and manipulation, “existing media images are juxtaposed together in order to be analysed”111, new possibilities of moving image exploitation are obtained in a new territory, with the use of a computer interface. If, for the 1920s, the new medium was film, photography, new printing and architecture technologies, for the digital media society, the new media that represent radical innovation are the CD-ROM, DVD-ROM, Web sites, computer games, hypertext and hypermedia applications.112 The software codifies the old techniques of the 1920s avant-garde and allows new techniques of working with media that are “creating a new avant-garde for the metamedia society”.113 The traditional mass distribution of contents changed with the widespread use of the Internet, “music and films are streamed over Internet; MP3 music files to be downloaded and played using stand- video and Handmade digital cinema alone MP3 players; books to be downloaded into stand-alone electronic book devices”,114 individuals or small groups are producing and distributing their own contents over the Internet allowing a new widespread distribution, production and sharing, changing with social media. There are dedicated online DIY communities and forums, sharing knowledge, techniques and videos, promoting a personal artistic spirit and experimental practice. These media artists are much more concerned with the medium exploitation rather than just remixing imagery or simply generating visual effects.

“Structuralist practices and aesthetics were naturally carried over to a new generation of media equipment in the late-60s and early-70s.” Clint Enns, 115

The Structural Digital Video is a term adapted by Clint Enns and represents the continuation of Structural film practice towards digital media. Enns explains that the digital file is manipulated through software and explored by algorithm. Its aesthetic emphasizes the digital artefacts such as, glitch, noise, compression and feedback. Datamoshing, the practice that “aestheticizes artifacts of video compression, are structuralist visualizations of digital forms”116, offers a new visualization and exploitation of digital video. Artists such as Cory Arcangel, Nick Briz, Barbara Lattanzi, Rebecca Baron and Douglas Goodwin, work between algorithms and digital video, exploring the digital artefacts aesthetic to its limits. As happened with experimental film and video, this innovative technique pioneered by experimental media artists were ripped-off and imitated by mainstream culture as we see in Kayne West’s music video “Welcome To Heartbreak”.117 Mainly media artist’s philosophy concerns sharing. They build open source software and distribute their works on creative commons licence over the Web. Which make it easier for the mainstream to copy the latest innovative images and their techniques. Golan Levin (2012) calls new media artists the “unpaid R&D department of ad agencies”118.

Handmade digital cinema practice offers and pushes cinema into a new territory, it does not represent “a historical rupture with older forms of the moving image, but rather as the most recent manifestation of the desire to use moving-image technology to create new modes of vision”119. As Gregory Zinman (2012) notes, the contemporary artists are crossing between the analogue and digital mediums, they represent a continuation of the handmade techniques, giving emphasis to the material and abstract imagery providing new visions through employing digital technologies, software and hardware crossing with analogue technologies. Martha Colburn, Jennifer West, Jennifer Reeves, Steven Woloshen, Emmanuel Lefrant, Marcelle Thirache, David Rimmer, Ben Russell, Donna Cameron, Bruce McClure, Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder, and Eric Ostrowski, among others, use the digital technologies expressing new forms and visions, pushing moving image into a new territory.

“These aims and characteristics—first identified in the Futurists’ lost paint-on-film works, Ruttmann’s paint-on-glass apparatus, and Lye and McLaren’s direct animations—extended into the aural arena with the advent of the synthetic soundtrack, amplified by machines that make movies, and expanded into live moving-image performances, constitute a through-line in the development of cinema itself.” Gregory Zinman, 120 

As we shortly review in this chapter, the avant-garde and experimental cinema practice and its approach to painting emerged from the visual arts field rather than cinema. Visual artists extended their work to film, further, they dedicated exclusively to filmmaking as an artistic practice. By electronic live manipulation earlier video art appear from the arts field presenting a desire of creating live paintings achieving painterly aspects. The contemporary technique of digital handmade cinema carries on with the avant-garde and experimental cinema practice. Artists are crossing analogue and digital techniques exploring new possibilities with the use of software, offering new images and new possibilities. By testing the filmstrip resistance, the digital video qualities and programming capabilities, exploring the live action images, performance and collaboration, appropriating clips from internet, social media use, manipulating and processing images by means of software and hardware crossing with traditional analogue technologies, visual artists continue with the painterly aspects of moving images. Allowing a new field that combines the old medium techniques and offers new possibilities with the use of computer. If avant-garde and experimental cinema should be educated in the academic environment and university studies, noticeably that should be primordial in Fine Arts and Media studies than Cinema, where the main dogma is to continue the mainstream narrative scheme, traditional storytelling and storyline formulas, documentary and commercial animation and other clichés that became normalized such as “discontinuity”, “independent film” or “commercial music videos” without concerning and exploiting cinema as a medium of art, on the contrary to produce entertainment.


28 Ritcher, “Free Radicals – A History of Experimental Film”, 2010

29 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 75

30 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary

30 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 20

31 Marinetti, “Technical Manifesto of Futurist Painting”, 1911

32 Marinetti, Corra, Settimelli, Ginna, Balla, Chiti, ”The Futurist Cinema”, 1916

33 See more: “Rees, “A History of Experimental and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, (1999)”

34 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 41

35 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 44

36 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 44-49

37 See more: “Rees, “A History of Experimental and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, (1999)”

38 See more: “O’Pray, “Avant-garde film: forms, themes and passions”, (2003)”

39 Photogénie concept was introduced by Louis Delluc and expanded by Jean Epstein, it means the ability of the camera to transform what it portrays giving a augmented moral value

40 Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 94

41 Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 13, 85

42 Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 130

43 The project was interrupted and abandoned because of the beginning of the First World War— Le Rythme Coloré, Les soireés de Paris, 1914

44 Sitney, “Tableau historique”, “Une histoire du cinema”, 11

45 Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 101

46 See more: “Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, (2012)” and “WRO, From Absolute Cinema to Future Film”, (2009)”

47 Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 211

48 Krajewski, “The Waning of the Tape”, “From Absolute Cinema to Future Film”, 12

49 Expression used by Rees (1999) and O’Pray (2003) to describe Brakhage’s films. As well Ken Jacbos (2010) calls to his works ‘Action Cinema’: see his statement for the exhibition ‘Action Cinema’, July-Oct. 2010, at Solar – Galeria de Arte Cinemática, Vila do Conde, Portugal: http://www.curtas.pt/solar/index.php?menu=452&submenu=433&submenu2=435&lang=en (last visit June 2013)

50 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 71

51 O’Pray, “Avant-garde film: forms, themes and Film passions”, 48

52 Hess, “Astract Expressionism”, 2005

53 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 59

54 See more: “O’Pray, “Avant?garde film: forms, themes and Film passions”, (2003)” and “Rees, “History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, (1999)”

55 O’Pray, “Avant-garde film: forms, themes and Film passions”, 49

56 The Kandinsky’s theory concerns the existence of a straight analogy between colours and musical sounds. Synaesthesia is to produce a sense impression by stimulation of other sense. — Concerning the Spiritual in Art, Wassily Kandinsky, 1911

57 Moritz,!“The Absolute Cinema”, “From Absolute Cinema to Future Film, 56

58 Branco, “Cinema Abstracto: Da vanguarda europeia às primeiras manipulações digitais da imagem”, 41-42

59 Moritz, “The Absolute Cinema”, “From Absolute Cinema to Future Film: The Absolute Cinema”, 56

60 See more: “Youngblood, “Expanded Cinema”, (1970)”

61 Branco, “Cinema Abstracto: Da vanguarda europeia às primeiras manipulações digitais da imagem”, 44

62 Branco, “Cinema Abstracto: Da vanguarda europeia às primeiras manipulações digitais da imagem”, 45

63 O’Pray, “Avant?garde film: forms, themes and Film passions”, 63

64 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 58

65 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 67

66 Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 158

67 Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 156

68 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 67

69 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 66

70 See more: “WRO, “From Absolute Cinema to Future Film”, (2009)” and “Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, (2012)”

71 Modernism: approximately from the 1860s to the 1960s; or from Manet to Warhol: Manovich, “Software as avant-garde”, 8

72 Jacobs, “Painted Air: The Joys and Sorrows of Evanescent Cinema”, 2005

73 “‘Found footage’ was perceived in diverse ways; it was derived from the Dadaist techniques of photographic or painting collage; afterwards it was associated with Duchamp’s idea of adopting ‘ready made objects’ by art; nowadays we discover in it the archetype of the basic computer practices of sampling, remix, looping, digital deformation and transformation of images as well as the post-modern method of quotations and borrowings.”: Krajewski, “From Absolute Cinema to Future Film”, 66

74 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporarybritish pratice”, 56-63

75 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 62

76 Branco, “Cinema Abstracto: Da vanguarda europeia às primeiras manipulações digitais da imagem”, 49

77 Le Grice, “Abstract Film and Beyond”, 88

78 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 59

79 Branco, “Cinema Abstracto: Da vanguarda europeia às primeiras manipulações digitais da imagem”, 53

80 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 74 

81 Cited in: Branco, “Cinema Abstracto: Da vanguarda europeia às primeiras manipulações digitais da imagem”, 53; Quoted in: “An Interview with Peter Kubelka  by Jonas Mekas”, Film Culture, 44 (Spring 1967), 45

82 O’Pray, “Avant?garde film: forms, themes and Film passions”, 108

83 Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 458

84 Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 523

85 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 90

86 Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 50

87 Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 458

88 To learn more about you should check: “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode, Gregory Zinman, 2012”

89 Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 452

90 Krajewski, “From Absolute Cinema to Future Film”, 13

91 Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 497

92 See more: “WRO, “From Absolute Cinema to Future Film” (2009)”

93 Cited in: Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 506; Quoted in: Zack Lischer-Katz, “Available Machines: Remembering the Experimental Television Center, 1969-2011” Moving Image Source, July 13, 2011: http://www.movingimagesource.us/articles/available-machines-20110713 (last visit June 2013) 

94 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 112

95 Mekas, “Reflections on avant-garde cinema”, BFI, Georgia Korossi, 2013 

96 See more: “Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, (1999)”

97 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 98

98 See more: “Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, (1999)” and “O’Pray, “Avant?garde film: forms, themes and Film passions”, (2003)”

99 Rees, “A History of Experimental Film and Video: from the canonical avant-garde to contemporary british pratice”, 109

100 Nabais, “A autópsia digital do cinema: Um mapa pessoal dos encontros do cinema com o computador”, 5

101 Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 460

102 Le Grice, “Digital Cinema and experimental film – Continuities and Discontinuities”, 1999

103 Nabais, “A autópsia digital do cinema: Um mapa pessoal dos encontros do cinema com o computador”, 11, 31-32

104 Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 569

105 Le Grice, “Digital Cinema and experimental film – Continuities and Discontinuities”, 1999

106 Manovich, “Software as avant-garde”, 3-4, 8

107 Nabais, “A autópsia digital do cinema: Um mapa pessoal dos encontros do cinema com o computador”, 7

108 Makela, “The Practice of Live Cinema”, 1

109 Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 565 

110 Manovich, “Software as avant-garde”, 8

111 Manovich, “Software as avant-garde”, 9

112 Manovich, “Software as avant-garde”, 1

113 Manovich, “Software as avant-garde”, 11

114 Manovich, “Software as avant-garde”, 3

115!Ennes, “Structural Digital Video”, 2011

116!Ennes, “Structural Digital Video”, 2011

117!“Videographer Nabil Elderkin datamoshed for Kayne West’s “Welcome To Heartbreak” video” […] according to Briz, mainstream culture is “ignoring any call to real experimentation and exploration into the nature of the medium. On the other hand, in a community where technique sharing is the status quo, novelty of technique is less important than the interaction between content and form.”!Ennes, “Structural Digital Video”, 2011!

118 “Levin presents some tips for better advertisement agency practicing, “call to the artist”, “research the original author and do not re-interpret by hiring someone”, “show gratitude”, “cite it”, “share it”, “offer a licence fee”, “open source” and “donate money”. This procedure makes the cooperation between agencies and media artists possible!and is definitely a better path than just imitating artist’s original work.”!Levin, “Emerging Technology in Advertising”, 3, Golan Levin's  resentation from FITC's ETA Conference in Toronto, 19 October 2012: http://www.scribd.com/doc/110907265/Golan-Levin-ETA- 2012 (last visit June 2013)!

119!Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 570!

120!Zinman, “Handmade: The Moving Image In The Artisanal Mode”, 580! 

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