Lucas Ihlein: Mediating Experience in Expanded Cinema Re-enactment

The following is a contribution to ISEA 2013 – presented as part of this panel session.

The panel, organised by Brogan Bunt, was set up to address the broad notion of mediation – and to respond to his assertion that “artists themselves, in their practices, have begun to move fluidly between paradigms.”

“How,” Brogan asks, “does the experience of digital processes inflect work produced in the broader social field? How are issues of concept, process, event, participation and interaction remediated through intimate experience of digital media?”

I’ve attempted to answer these questions, in my rather folksy way, by thinking about the work that Louise Curham and I do as Teaching and Learning Cinema.

If you like, the text may be accompanied by a slideshow of images from our work in re-enacting expanded cinema:

When I’m asked to write short biographical texts about myself for press releases, I often write something along the lines of this:

Lucas Ihlein is an artist who works with social relations and communication as the primary media of his creative practice. His work manifests as blogs, participatory performances, pedagogical projects, experimental film and video, re-enactments, gallery installations, lithographic prints and drawings.

(Putting aside momentarily the necessary fabrication involved in writing such biographical statements) – if we take this statement on face value, we might notice first of all something rather obvious: here is an artist who considers social relations and communication as art media.

Furthermore – these are, for this artist, “top level” media, under whose umbrella we might then list a range of particular artwork-producing activities, or object-producing processes.

Presumably, this sub-list can continue to grow, without changing the basic principle that it is social relations and communication which are the primary media of this artist’s practice.

Such a claim is perhaps not as awkward as it might have been 20 years ago – at least within the mainstream artworld. Since the late-1990s when Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics was published, it has become largely uncontroversial to talk about “people” as an art medium: for example, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s often-quoted use of the term “lots of people” to describe one of the key ingredients which make up his installations.

The “early” period of relational art, as described by Bourriaud, encompasses the 1990s, and is characterised (or perhaps caricatured) as a turn away from the art market, and a move towards gallery-based attempts to “stitch together a social fabric which has been rent by capitalist operations in which every aspect of human interaction has been turned into a commodity” (here I’m crudely paraphrasing Bourriaud).

Simple activities like cooking a meal, or sewing together, or going for a walk, are framed by the artworld’s institutional context as works of art. These rather low-tech participatory artworks still stand as iconic examples of relational art – and it is perhaps this fact which has lead writers like Claire Bishop and Beryl Graham to criticise relational art for being anti- new-media and technology.

However, human social relations have always been mediated by technology. Just because many of the more visible examples of relationality in contemporary art have been low-tech, this does not mean that so-called “media artists” (ie, those who overtly reference or incorporate media and technology in their practice) have neglected the realm of the social.

More to the point: in 2013, it would be hard to find many artists working with “social relations and communication as their primary media” who do not also work with digital media at a fundamental level in their practice.

I’d like to discuss this issue, using an example from my own current work, which is carried out in collaboration with Louise Curham (as “Teaching and Learning Cinema” or TLC).

To give a little historical background – TLC evolved out of another collective called SMIC – Sydney Moving Image Coalition, which was formed in 2003. SMIC, for its part, was inspired by MIC – the Moving Image Coalition – based in Melbourne, and had evolved out of the Melbourne Super 8 Group.

SMIC was a film-lovers and film-makers club, which held sporadic screenings in inner-city warehouses, and encouraged its members to bring along and show things they had made. SMIC had a very DIY ethic, and during the early 2000s many of its activities involved Super 8 film-making – and encouraging members to make more films using Super 8.

Historically speaking, SMIC’s focus on Super 8 could perhaps be seen as a return to territory staked out by the Sydney Super 8 Group in the 1980s – a group which (in 1990) evolved into the less medium-specific Sydney Intermedia Network (SIN) – which itself evolved (in 2000) into dLUX Media Arts (the “d” presumably standing for “digital”).

[This organisational evolution is briefly summed up here.]

It could be said, somewhat wryly, that SMIC’s focus on the pre-digital represented something of a devolution. But I don’t believe that our interest in “old-media” was in any way anti-progress – nor was it a nostalgic old-technology-fetishists club. Admittedly, SMIC was in practice a sort of club (defined as an “association of two or more people united by a common interest or goal”)- one whose members were, on the whole, quite young.

One of the binding tenets of this club was the belief that it was important, in a moment when digital video had just begun to gain ubiquity, to spend some time with a medium which was well and truly on its way to becoming commercially redundant. Our screenings were peppered with discussions about the grain, colour-cast, and archival issues of Super 8 filmstocks – and these material qualities were compared, not just with video, but also with other celluloid media.

Time was also of the essence in these discussions: not just in the obvious sense – that a cartridge of Super 8 only afforded three precious minutes of footage – but also that it would take at least a month to have it processed. Such a slow turn-around (…and in a world that was on the cusp of YouTube!) necessarily expanded our discussions of materiality to encompass how cycles of creation and distribution in moving image making intersect with our experience of time in everyday life.

SMIC screenings also usually incorporated a segment we called “Primary Sources” – in which a film-maker or artist was invited along to show and speak about a work they had made in the distant past (usually the 1960s or 70s). These Primary Sources segments were an attempt to turn our self-made cinema into an ad-hoc classroom. It was the success of this aspect which led Louise and I to shift focus from the organisation of screening events, towards historical practice-based research into moving image performance – and to change our name to “Teaching and Learning Cinema”.

What we now do as TLC is to re-enact works of Expanded Cinema from the 1970s – the decade in which Louise and I were both born. Our impetus – as it was in the Primary Sources segments with SMIC – is to learn something by trying to connect with our forebears. In some cases, this has involved us becoming “custodians” of works of experimental film which involve a live (or “performed”) element – works which might (without our intervention) cease to exist once the originating artist dies. (To be precise – the works would exist just as much as their deceased authors will continue to exist – as memories and as documentation in archives – but their corporeal enactment will no longer be able to be directly experienced by others!)

Since the readily available current technologies for making moving image art in the 1970s included 16mm and Super 8 film, our re-enactments necessarily have to grapple with the issues of medium-specificity and authenticity.

Does it make sense to use celluloid in 2013 to recreate a work from 1971? The answer is “yes and no”.

Our contemporary media context makes the use of pre-digital technology seem like a deliberate technological “statement” (retro/nostalgic/luddite etc) – whereas in the 1970s, the use of film by artists may have seemed more “transparent” – a convenient carrier of audio-visual meaning. And yet the situation is not quite that simple.

Artists such as Malcolm Le Grice, William Raban and Guy Sherwin (whose works we have re-enacted) are all associated to some extent with the “Structuralist/Materialist” tradition in experimental film-making. Working in this tradition meant drawing attention to the specific qualities of the film medium, as well as the discourses that surrounded the proliferation and consumption of moving images in society. In other words, such works were already – in the moment of their execution and first performances – problematising the notion of medium and mediation.

Thus – to re-enact 1970s Expanded Cinema is not, we would argue, to produce a “cover version” – a lesser imprint of an “original” which retains its authenticity even in the face of its corporeal degredation – but rather it is to engage in an ongoing chain of mediation initiated (and indeed called into being!) by the work itself.

Re-enactment creates new layers of mediation – not only technological, but also, crucially, social (or perhaps it reminds us of the difficulty in regarding these two things as separate domains). Our research process brings us into direct contact with artists 30 or 40 years older than us. This inter-generational exchange involves learning – not only about how artworks were made before digital technology, but about what kinds of clubs were invented to serve the purposes of production, screening, and discussion. Expanded Cinema re-enactment, as conducted by TLC, is a (quietly) socially-engaged art practice inextricable from technological mediation.

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