Imagine an Audience

Arie Altena, semi-live report

Imagine an Audience Day 1, 31012011, a semi-live report

At 12:00 noon, on Monday, January 31, 2011, Florian Cramer starts off the conference "Imagine an Audience", by stating its general concept: to examine and discuss film in the context of a post-television and post-cinema world. What has changed for film, in a world in which television and cinema are no longer the only (or even the most important) channels of distribution for audiovisual content? Film has to imagine its own audience. So how exactly is it doing this? In the course of this conference, Florian explains, we will be talking about micro-cinemas; about using online distribution channels such as YouTube; about filmmaking in (and for) art spaces; and about the future of low-budget filmmaking. The general idea is to examine the future of filmmaking from a creative perspective -- rather than focus on funding and other economic issues, which could better be done at a business school.

As a second introduction, Simon Pummell (www.pummell.com), who co-organized the conference with Florian, tells us a story about bicycles. With the invention of the bicycle, the daily space in which people lived and travelled suddenly expanded, which brought them in contact with more and different people. As a result, the general genetic health of the population improved. The question is: could something which is true for genes, also be true for memes -- for cultural ideas? For film? Could such a Darwinian perspective also be valid in the field of filmmaking?

Micro-cinema I

The first panel is about micro-cinemas and other alternative means of film distribution. The first short presentation is by Paolo Davanzo, who tells his personal story of working with film, mainly in the context of activist filmmaking at the Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles (www.echoparkfilmcenter.org) -- which he runs together with Lisa Marr, and which has recently acquired a space which can fit up to 200 people. Besides showing films, Echo Park organizes various film events, and perhaps most importantly, offers a range of workshops and classes in filmmaking for a variety of groups. The Center is located in an area with a rich film history: many of the early silent movies were shot right around the corner. The focus is mainly (though not exclusively) on analogue and hand-made filmmaking, in the honourable tradition of avant-garde and activist film: anything from scratching celluloid, to making films for and with people marginalised by mainstream society. They do all this in the context of a film world increasingly focused on digital film. They also have a bus, the "filmmobile" (www.filmmobile.org), which is a travelling film school as well as a travelling cinema -- revisiting another honourable tradition, that of travelling cinemas. All of this is done in a way which is as ecologically sustainable as possible. Theirs is in many ways a classic "alternative" film centre, dedicated to all forms of alternative film culture.

Micro-cinema II

The next presentation is by members of the Kino-climates group (www.kino-climates.org), a network of alternative cinemas which is holding its fourth meeting at the IFFR 2011. Their goal is to create a platform for alternative cinemas -- still a work in progress. They start from the assumption (or fact) that more and more films are being made, while there are less and less permanent venues for showing these films. Cinemas exist within a context of three separate distribution circuits: blockbuster multiplexes, arthouse cinemas, and festivals -- whereas as in reality, there are many more alternative spaces and alternative modes of showing films. The Kino-climates network would like to improve this network's visibility; they also wish to put pressure on festivals (as well as film distributors) to make sure that the life cycle of a film shown at a festival does not end at the festival. In a sense, they hope to establish a "voice" for all independent cinema venues, many of which are quite small.

The cinemas that are part of this network all have a social space, a cafˇ (which begs the question how special that is -- I don't think I've ever been in a cinema that didn't have a cafˇ). They stress the importance of watching films as a social event, and they hope to make it possible for audiences to discover a broader range of films. Therefore, they put much effort into "contextualizing" film. (As they speak, they project some photos of various cinemas, one of which I recognize as the cinema of the Smart Project Space in Amsterdam, a centre for contemporary (visual) arts -- and which I know personally as a concert space.)

This all sounds like a sympathetic effort to bundle the activities of various small and alternative cinemas -- which show feature films and probably some avant-garde stuff, and which also function as social spaces for film enthusiasts (mostly artists and art students, I suspect). The network sounds mainly organizational in nature, with hardly any editorial function. In their presentation, I don't hear any specific idea or perspective on the future of film, nor any specific ideas on programming, and hardly anything on the relationship between these small cinema venues and the audience's viewing habits -- though I suspect they would have very definite ideas about this. Personally, I would have rather heard them speak on these subjects.

The question remains, the extent to which these venues -- how nice and important they may be -- cater to a very specific audience. I have nothing against this, but they seem to assume they are operating within a culture of "cinemas" -- they talk about festivals and multiplexes and cinema venues, but nobody on this panel has yet mentioned all of the ways in which the public actually gets their content to various home and mobile screens; nobody seems to recognize any real change in film culture. Probably for film buffs nothing indeed has changed: they still go to cinemas, and they still revere that experience. And they are right. But that's not where film at large is happening today. I hardly ever go to a cinema, and yet I see quite a few avant-garde movies, most of which come to me through digital wizardry of some sort. I have hardly seen any arthouse stuff lately, and no blockbusters at all… So the real question, according to me, is: how to program a cinema in a way that makes sense in the context of contemporary film culture, or contemporary viewing habits? In a way that makes it a valuable experience (for the public), and important for the artistic "health" of film culture?

True, in the last part of their totally improvised presentation they do say something about the importance of programming.

Vassily Bourkas of the Thessaloniki film festival (tiff.filmfestival.gr) points out that in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, such venues as in Western Europe do not exist at all -- except for festivals. He stresses that it is very important for these (often politically less stable) countries to have a network such as Kino-climates. For him, Kino-climates is valuable, and it's important to have a broad range of voices within any type of platform, so that it doesn't become just another "big" platform.

Micro-cinema III

The third presentation is by Mervin Espina (sealitblog.wordpress.com/tag/film), who works in Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines, and is involved in Cinema Veritas, the long-running human rights film festival. He presents an overview of micro-cinema initiatives throughout South-East Asia. (So we have covered Europe, North America and now South-East Asia.) He explains how the "education" of filmmakers in this area started in shops brimful of pirated DVDs. After 2000, filmmaking activity increased, thanks to DV cameras and pirated software, as well as pirated DVDs. This is an economical issue: film culture in S.E. Asia -- both as grassroots and experimental film, and film in general -- is a digital thing. But where are these films shown? There is a lack of institutional support; outdated laws regarding film and video; censorship; and the predominance of Hollywood fare in multiplexes. On the other hand, the general popularity of social networking and media-sharing sites has helped film communities to flourish. These are all factors that have boosted the need for alternative film venues.

Galleries such as Mag:net Katipunan (www.magnet.com.ph) (which later became a bar) have started showing films (Monday to Friday) as well as film and video installations. This created some problems, and in the case of Mag:net Katipunan led to a police raid in 2007. Other initiatives learned from this experience, such as Mogwai, Cubao X (www.cubao-x.com), a bar-theatre in the Philippines. Being a bar as well as a theatre and cinema means they are left alone by the government. Other cinema spaces are basically run in the living room of an artist -- sometimes also despite harassment by the government. Future Shorts Vietnam (www.futureeshorts.com/vietnam) is a festival which also operates mostly underground, and under constant scrutiny. It uses a variety of venues -- often the homes of expats, who are less at risk of harassment. Because of censorship in Vietnam, showing films is problematic. YxineFF (www.yxineff.org) therefore runs as an online festival. It has become quite popular, and premieres films online.

Peer-to-peer distribution also plays a role: people share films and sometimes organize a screening with the filmmaker present. Most of the (alternative) film culture in South-East Asia revolves around digital filmmaking and digital distribution. Discussions, and the general liveliness of film culture, is largely played out through online means. Censorship is avoided by uploading online, instead of showing the film at a public venue.

More at seaconference.wordpress.com and www.criticine.com.

This presentation for me was a healthy antidote to the talks by Kino-climates network members, who perhaps had too much of an IFFR-audience in mind -- instead of the present audience of new media artists, visual artists and filmmakers, which is much more of a mixed audience. At least now the current and real situation of the use of film has been acknowledged.

Micro-cinema IV, discussion

Florian Cramer starts by asking Mervin Espina about the seeming disappearance of the large Philippine film industry which existed until the eighties. Did all these directors go into television, or could it be that the Philippines actually experienced a shift to micro-cinema at a much earlier stage? Espina answers that many of the filmmakers of that era shifted to art film, but not necessarily as micro-cinema, as some of these directors received European grants to produce their work. Currently there is some form of financing for film in the Philippines, but not (yet) in a way such as it exists in Europe.

Simon Pummell asks if there is a potential in synchronizing alternative film events, to counter the overwhelming power of Hollywood. The Kino-climates people answer that as they see it, the urgency is to get together (around a film) and to focus on the importance of screening a film in a public cinema. Katia Rossini of Cinema Nova in Brussels stresses that the experience of watching films runs the risk nowadays of becoming a ephemeral one, which takes place at home, rather than at a public cinema.

Pummell rephrases his question, clarifying that the issue he was trying to raise is more publicity-related-- for example, coordinating screenings of specific alternative, art or avant-garde films to take place at various venues at the same time, in order to capitalize on the momentary attention of the public. Kino-climates explicitly criticizes this approach, since it basically amounts to creating one hype after the other.

Paolo Davanzo steps in here, also emphasizing the importance -- for film culture -- of people watching films together. Lisa Marr reacts as well, saying that for her it is about the process, about the moment, and not about getting a movie into the "canon" (Pummell mentioned the word "canon" in his question).

Florian Cramer raises the question: is it not more important that the venues gathered under the banner of Kino-climates actually combine the act of watching films with the act of making and producing films -- and thus bring filmmaking closer to people?

Vassily Bourkas agrees with that, but he is also adamant that what is most important for him is showing films -- as opposed to getting together socially. Therefore, he agrees with Simon Pummell that synchronicity is important. There is an urgency to show movies, and this also applies to films that are socially important.

Florian Cramer then challenges the panel to reflect on the hidden conflict within the panel: the European and Americans are interested in film as analogue celluloid, and hope to preserve something of the old cinema culture; whereas the Asian experience totally revolves around digital film. Davanzo nuances this: the Echo Park Film Center actually works using mostly digital means in its workshops, and embraces the possibilities of digital media just as much as it reveres the "old" film culture.

Micro-cinema V, discussion with the audience

Then it's time for some questions from the audience -- starting with questions about urban development and culture. Lisa Marr describes how the Echo Park Film Center operates as an itinerant cinema: without applying for permits, using a generator for electricity and Twitter for publicity -- they show the movie in a temporary space, have a drink, and leave. Mostly they've encountered no serious problems, the audiences are enthusiastic, and they feel they're doing something important for the neighbourhood.

Someone from Jakarta describes the situation of independent filmmaking in Indonesia. "We're living in the heaven of piracy", she says -- the film culture fares well thanks to piracy; acquiring rights is simply too expensive. They also translate "good films" in Bahasia Indonesian, strictly for educational purposes of course. Mervin Espina comments that Indonesia is actually the role model for the rest of South-East Asian cinema culture.

Renee Turner (Piet Zwart Institute) asks: how can you build a community which is sustainable? -- by which she means culturally sustainable. Bourikas, speaking as a curator who emphasizes the importance of independent programming, warns of the dangers of in-crowd favouritism: alternative spaces should not become venues that show mainly stuff produced locally. The idealism involved in keeping these spaces running is also mentioned.

Florian Cramer points out that "film culture" now takes place in either 3D multiplexes, micro-cinemas, or home screens. He wonders whether we are moving towards a situation where films are made specifically for one of these categories of spaces? Josephine Bosma replies that Florian is probably painting too bleak a picture, and mentions that there are many more modalities, such as beamers for mobile phones, or the Palm Top Theater currently being shown at V2_. She also wonders about how to sustain a culture, and the importance of educating an audience. Florian takes the criticism to heart, saying that the line between filmmaker and audience is getting increasingly blurry -- and this, he believes, is something that's really interesting.

These questions (which, according to me, address the truly interesting issues) are met with mostly silence from the panel -- who return to the importance of venues, mention the issue of formats (for example, cinemas which are now only equipped to run DVDs), and discuss how the cinema as a venue is changing. A venue could become something equivalent to a magazine, with its own editorial line, since programming means establishing a point of view. (I would say, yes, this is indeed what a good cinema should be doing. But it is something the Filmmuseum in Amsterdam (for instance) is indeed doing -- as well as many small cinemas.)

Pummell takes over from Cramer, asking how the panel regards crossmedia or transmedia publication of films -- a question which also addresses the issue: on which screens will you be showing the film, on what kind of screen does the audience actually get to see the film? Answer: this is not an issue yet for Kino-climates.

Luke Fowler (sitting in the audience) raises his hand and notes how ironic it is that we're discussing all this in an art school. He describes how our generation, who grew up with cinema as celluloid, naturally wants to pass this on to the next generation -- but we shouldn't force it upon them, because they might not want it. In Scotland, where he comes from, there was simply no alternative cinema. He says that we should not create a false distinction between filmmakers and artists making films. There are many more art schools than film schools, and film has such an important presence in the art world, that this should not be ignored as a part of cinema culture.

Bourikas responds by arguing that the contemporary arts circuit in his opinion is actually quite different -- culturally -- from the film circuit. He is interested in preserving the culture of watching films in a cinema.

This being one of the topics for the next day, the discussion is closed. There's a break.

15.00 – 17.30

No-budget video on the Internet is the focus of the second half of this afternoon. The "Internet thing" is deliberately presented separately from the "Cinema thing". This panel wishes to demonstrate what the Internet has to offer for filmmakers, but first of all it wants to get rid of the myth that every filmmaker using the Internet is by definition low-budget. The panel starts with Skype conversations with Bregtje van der Haak and Tommy Pallotta.

The Yes Men's Igor Vamos (www.theyesmen.org) was originally scheduled to speak about his experiences with their films. The first, which was internationally quite successful, managed to find its way into the independent cinema circuit, touring cinemas across the USA. This meant personally touring with the film, since cinemas only wanted to show the film if the makers were present -- such is the dire state of culture in the USA. They ended up losing money on it. Their second movie was co-produced by Arte, which meant signing a 100-page contract in French, and spending money on lawyers to understand the contract before finally signing another contract for a much smaller budget. (Was the problem that, since one of the Yes Men speaks French very well, they actually read the contract?) For their third movie, they decided to offer it free for download on the Internet. The Yes Men are quite famous; so what do these examples imply for an independent filmmaker who is not so famous…? Their experiences were, for Florian Cramer, one of the key reasons for organizing this conference.

Tommy Pallotta

Tommy Pallotta (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tommy_Pallotta) speaks to us via Skype, because he has to babysit his kid, who we can hear in the background. His experiences as a filmmaker started before the digital revolution -- and he decided later on to never make another movie that way again. He started working with computer animation, and produced "Waking Life". Eventually he found out that people from all over the world knew his movie, not from cinemas but from BitTorrent downloads. The same later happened with another film he produced, "A Scanner Darkly". He tells about a screening of this movie in South Korea, where everybody in the audience had already seen the movie -- downloaded through torrents. Something similar happened with "American Prince" -- much more of a low-budget movie. As a filmmaker he's not worried about this at all; although there is no business model, at least people get to see his movie.

A question by Simon Pummell moves the discussion towards the idea of "transmedia", and whether or not a certain content requires a certain form, or can be "translated" between different forms. For Pallotta, a specific content indeed requires a specific form.

Florian Cramer again asks whether we are moving towards a two-model kind of cinema: on one hand blockbusters for multiplexes, on the other hand low-budget for the Internet. Pallotta agrees, and sees this as a capitalist issue: the rich get richer while the poor get poorer -- but he also believes the current systems to be very dynamic, and points out the influence of computer games and mobile media. He is also positive about the possibilities of finding a middle ground, and finding ways of getting people to see your stuff.

A question from the audience: would you allow your work to be remixed? The answer: yes. He loves the idea of remixes, and acknowledges being influenced by the gaming and DJ cultures; and in fact, his work had been remixed several times. "Yeah, remix".

Bregtje van der Haak

We move on to the Dutch documentary filmmaker Bregtje van der Haak
(weblogs.vpro.nl/beingthere), speaking to us via Skype from Hong Kong. She shows a presentation called "new distribution for public television" about a few recent experiments. According to her, the Internet has made her job of getting a film out to its audience much easier (see for example: www.hollanddoc.nl/kijk-luister/documentairemakers/bregtje-van-der-haak.html). She released several documentaries (from her 2009 transmedia project on urbanization) under a Creative Commons license as a free download; these were also published as a DVD box, as well as being sold for TV broadcasting, and archived online. There were 45,262 downloads (from 183 countries), and after a year and a half there are still 5 downloads per day. The BitTorrent download was featured for several days on the main page of Mininova (www.mininova.org), which explains the high number of downloads. This means that more than 45,000 extra viewers could be reached, without having to spend any money on distribution. The second movie "Gurgaon" was downloaded less often, but is still being downloaded more than 20 times a day. (Although, when I checked, it had only 4 or 5 "seeds" on Mininova, whereas the other documentary mentioned had over 30.)

Distribution through BitTorrent is very successful -- and it is truly global distribution. Interestingly, there is no negative effect on TV or DVD sales (which shows that the audiences for these media are simply not the same as those on BitTorrent, I guess). There is an astounding amount of activity by users who add subtitles (and do translation). There are copyright issues, though -- for instance, the BitTorrent version of the third movie discussed here, "California Dreaming", doesn't include the famous song bearing the same title, because the rights were not cleared. Such copyright issues are thus a real obstacle to using BitTorrent for legal distribution.

Getting the audience to see the stuff

Florian Cramer plays the devil's advocate: van der Haak is in a comfortable situation, as her documentaries are financed by public television. She counters by stating that, precisely because the movie was made with public money, it is her obligation to get it out to as many people as possible. She is arguing from the (realistic) point of view that this public money is being handed out to create quality content; and not, as in the old days, strictly for "public distribution on the public television channel". And she is right -- but the question is, of course, how long will governments remain willing to put money into this kind of production? Hopefully, governments nowadays will understand that financing public content does not automatically translate into producing content to be shown exclusively on an old-fashioned public television channel.

Pummell stresses that, when you're funded with public money, the obligation is not to monetize your production, but to make sure that the content gets out there. On the other hand, it's true that torrents are largely an invisible and anonymous thing: all you can do is upload your documentary and then wait, until months later it's been downloaded 45,000 times, or only 5,000. So an essential question is: how to make the most of environments such as torrent sites?

Crowd funding

Next is Paul Keller's presentation (www.kennisland.nl/over-kennisland/mensen/paul-keller). Keller is, among other things, a key figure in the Creative Commons project in the Netherlands. (Also, something not mentioned here: he has unlimited "street cred" as a former bike messenger, one of the first in Amsterdam to use a track bike (aka "brakeless fixie") for the job (www.mediamatic.net/page/147474/en).)

He starts by showing the splash page of the Net Congestion conference, from almost ten years ago (net.congestion.org) -- which is still online. The panel was crucial for him at the time. Audience was irrelevant; all that mattered was the fact that it was finally possible to stream moving images. Only ten years ago, it was unimaginable to have an audience for online streaming of content.

The rest of his presentation focuses on the crowd-funding model for financing, which was used for animation films such as "Elephants Dream", "Sintel", and "Bick Buck Bunny" -- all created using open-source software called Blender (www.blender.org), with production closely integrated to software development. Blender is a great piece of software, and the movies are all well-crafted animations -- but they're hardly peaks of contemporary filmmaking. Yet they are certainly showcases in how to use BitTorrent for distribution, Creative Commons for licensing, as well as open-source software and crowd funding. Another example is "Steal this Film" (www.stealthisfilm.com/Part2), by Jamie King (www.jamie.com/about) who later started vodo.net, another torrent platform. Keller presents several examples of "pledging", which has been used successfully (in another medium) by the band Nine Inch Nails, and he shows how it functions on sites such as www.kickstarter.com. All interesting and valuable strategies for financing -- and there are many websites copying this idea, even the mainstream Amsterdam Fonds voor de Kunst, which has set up www.voordekunst.nl. Keller shows more examples of funding, such as www.flattr.com, a micro-payment service which until now has only caught on in Germany, where it is being used by blog platforms as well as the TAZ daily newspaper.

He also shows how a service such as www.mubi.com is not really functioning, as most of the films in its impressive catalogue can't be watched online from Europe. Which simply leads one to try and find the movie through, let's say, semi-legitimate underground channels. (Interestingly, there is still no legitimate "library" of online movies one can watch, though most of the stuff is easily downloadable through somewhat shadier channels.) He ends by showing a new service by the Dutch public broadcaster VPRO: an app for the Apple store.

All of this (together with this morning's presentations) leaves me wondering: how can all these services be deployed to foster a film culture? I know where to download what I want, but how does this become a valuable culture, beyond people swapping movies?

Pummell asks whether the financing models that Keller has been showing us, are scalable to larger productions -- most crowd-funded productions are in the 5,000 to 20,000 Euro range, which is very small for film. Keller thinks it won't be suitable for blockbuster production, but it is possible to get into the low end of big film production. The model of crowd funding is: get your financing first, then produce (just like books in the 17th century: a subscription model).

Florian asks the question that so many Blender fans hate to hear -- why Blender successfully deploys the open-source Linux model, only to produce what is essentially a copy of commercial blockbusters… Keller adds that as far as Blender developers are concerned, this is because they want to measure themselves to that standard: they want to show that their animations can be as good as Pixar's.

(Keller also mentions that he thinks public funding is important and necessary, which is why he is not so happy that the Amsterdam Fonds voor de Kunst has started a website for crowd funding.)

Turns out that kickstarter do some curating themselves -- not just any project can be posted up there. Which is a wise thing probably, otherwise it will just be a long list of failed projects… Currently, about 1/3 of the films on the list are successful (which I think is quite high). Josephine Bosma reminds us that it was actually RTMark (the Yes Men before the Yes Men) who were among the first to set up such a model, which they used for activism. She emphasizes that, unless you have a community "behind" you, your project will not be crowd-funded.

Wrapping up the first day

To wrap up, Cramer attempts to connect the two panels of the first day. His question is: one year from now, would we have to scrap the two panels, to bring them together as one panel? Someone from the audience responds by raising the question: does Internet distribution change the form and aesthetics of film -- for instance, for a filmmaker like Bregtje van der Haak? He also wonders, to which extent filmmaking has become an individual enterprise -- since using the Internet emphasizes an individual approach. Should we find a new aesthetics?

Finally, Paul Keller relates the characteristic frustration of the Internet user: picking up the programme of Cinema Nova in Brussels (part of the Kino-climates network) and seeing what he is missing -- loving the programme, and wishing it could be available online, so he could be a part of that culture… and being irritated that it is not. Putting such programmes online -- and of course settling the rights issues -- is something that has to happen soon… I agree. Curating and good programming are (still) crucial.

Imagine an Audience Day 2, 01022011, a semi-live report

The second day focuses more on filmmaking in the fine arts, and the strings attached to that… The first panel is moderated by Edwin Carels -- who worked on preparing the conference and came up with the title: Imagine an Audience. Many in the audience were not present yesterday, so Florian kicks off with a short recap of the first day.

On the panel are John Smith, Luke Fowler and Michel Chevalier. Each one does a short (10-minute) presentation, after which "the real discussion and fighting" can begin.

Luke Fowler

Luke Fowler (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luke_Fowler), (lux.org.uk/collection/artists/luke-fowler), (spikeart.at/index.php?option=com_magazine&func=show_article&id=104&lang=en), speaking with a beautiful Scottish voice, gives a brief introduction to his life as an artist. He has been quite fortunate to have his work shown both in art galleries and at film festivals. He has always resisted the new media -- the Internet -- as a way of distributing work.

One of his "seminal" moments as an artist was a friend giving him a videotape of "Wavelength" by Michael Snow. As he watched it alone in his flat in Dundee, he felt alienated, not knowing what to think of it -- knowing nothing about the film or its context. (VHS also not being the right format for this film.) To him, a community is essential if one is to understand new ways of dealing with audiovisual content. British public television in the '80s and '90s was also an influence, particularly the documentaries shown there -- in the days before the decline of television programming. He also saw the work of Douglas Gordon in Glasgow. At that time he was not involved in the discourse of video art -- not part of that community -- and he found much of video art self-indulgent. He was looking for a way of making film that was less solipsistic, and would relate more to life. This is when he made his film "What You See is Where You're At" about a psychiatric experiment -- a film constructed mainly from interviews, using archive footage. He wasn't particularly self-conscious about the form; because the film deliberately lacks a coherent narrative, it can be seen as challenging dogmatic ideas of documentary filmmaking.

Then his 10 minutes are over. He hasn't even said a word about his later films.

Fowler says that seeing a film in the right format, showing it in the intended way, is very important for the experience. This is why he refrains from digital distribution. He is totally right in that; speaking for myself, I would go to a good screening of his films, as I know the experience (especially in sound…) will be better than watching that digital copy of his "A Grammar for Listening" which I could see, thanks to some Internet magic and human intelligence.

John Smith

John Smith (www.johnsmithfilms.com) starts by showing a 1-minute movie. Smith started out at The London Filmmakers' Co-op in the seventies, at a time when many avant-garde artists were making multi-screen works. Most of his work is made with a screening context in mind, intended to be seen from beginning to end, not from middle to middle -- which is what often happens in art galleries. His first experience of having his work shown in a museum context in the seventies were not positive: brightly lit rooms, with the film played as a loop on a video monitor, making it impossible for a viewer to follow the unfolding and depth of the film.

When he was offered the possibility to show his work as an installation, his first impulse was to replicate a cinema "black box" in the gallery. It was a necessary inconvenience to show his work this way -- instead of in a cinema. It wasn't until 2004, when 15 of his films were shown as one exhibition in Magdeburg, that he changed his mind about this. He was worried about the 15 films playing as a loop and their soundtracks blending. When the exhibition was set up, he was pleasantly surprised with the blending effect (he calls it "stereophonic recomposition"). It made the films into a new experience. Until then his films had always been very precisely constructed, meant to be viewed from beginning to end, otherwise the experience would suffer. Afterwards his films became more open-ended.

He also revisited his older films; he tells of how he came to show one of his early, strictly materialistic and structural films again -- this time not as a 30-minute film, but as a two-screen installation at the RCA in London: it became a spatial rather than linear piece.

Edwin Carels asks: would you agree that you are now structuring installations and exhibitions, in much the same way as your early films were structural? Have you become also a curator of your own exhibitions? Smith answers yes -- and that he wishes to stay in control.

Michel Chevalier

The third presentation is by Michel Chevalier (www.targetautonopop.org) from Hamburg. He says he'll be taking a meta-perspective, and complementing some historical facts John Smith has mentioned. Like Smith, he's reading from a prepared text for the presentation. And he's going to kick some ass.

He criticizes the art world, and the liberal market situation which it is a part of, and on which it depends -- the fact that contemporary art puts itself at the mercy of a capitalist market. Okay, he does mention Fluxus and video collectives from the sixties and seventies, which tried to change the situation of art being a bourgeois thing for bourgeois people. Then in the nineties we had Bourriaud's rhetoric, rebranding (critical) art as relational art -- which actually, as another critic said, translates as "micro-utopias for the happy few". Emerging trends of filmmaking in the fine-arts field are (in his words) the theatre of sensibility (Barney), the Duchampian remix strategy, and the Good Conscience Generators. None of which are ever stepping on the toes of curators, or ever being truly critical or political -- and always end up being safely co-opted by neoliberalism. He mentions several well-known major artists -- who are indeed part of what I would call the art-market scene (Steve McQueen, Matthew Barney, Hito Steyerl). He criticizes the fact that art exhibitions often pretend to be critical, while they are actually complicit in the very political-economic system they claim to criticize. He fiercely criticizes the big curators and the fake and empty "curator speak" (right on!), the curators acting as meta-artists, hardly paying attention to local and political contexts -- and hardly being respectful toward the artists' work, exhibiting works in such a way that soundtracks of video pieces blend to the extent that one cannot even hear what the work is about. (He's being a bit unfair here: while there are indeed curators who are pretentious meta-artists, there are also other examples.)

Join the art world, he says, if you want to combine your technological art with traditional crafts; are ready to follow the galleries' guidelines and economical models; can stomach the denaturing of your work by meta-artist curators; will toe the ideological line and support the critical retrenchment that banks and millionaires desire; and will produce works that pleasantly integrate into the domestic interiors of art collectors.

Edwin Carels: So you're saying nothing has changed since the 18th century.

Michel Chevalier: That's right.

Personally, I'd say Chevalier is right on a lot of things -- but, hey, the world is not that one-dimensional. Also, he's mainly talking about a world of contemporary visual art galleries which are (or hope to be) part of the art-market system. And that system, the star system, does exist -- but it's only a small part of what art really is…

No fighting?

John Smith says he almost completely agrees with Chevalier, and it's an issue that really worries him. The question for him is: as someone who makes films, he just wants people to see his work, which is why he also shows it in the fine arts world. People do come to see the work; and it might open the eyes of a few in the audience. Television (channel four in Britain) used to have such a role: opening eyes.

Luke Fowler adds: sadly enough, what Chevalier is saying is very familiar to me. He enjoyed Chevalier's rant, though he thinks it was maybe a bit overdone. He is well familiar with the sociological work of Bourdieu -- whose ideas about "cultural distinction" he says Chevalier's polemic is based on. Fowler's point is that this critique basically reinforces the very organization of art which it criticizes -- and that it is falsely homogenizes the art world, thereby ignoring all the other strands that in fact do exist. Later he adds that Chevalier's picture is very bleak and not representative -- there are better ways of doing things, and he personally has had better experiences.

Chevalier responds that there is indeed another art world -- and that he too sells DVDs. His whole point is that he does not see in the art world a solution for the problem of film funding -- not at all. In the arts scene everything is about fashion, and thus film funding from the arts world can be no more than another flavour of the month. And yes, the problem he is really trying to address is capitalism. (He is right. And what he is in fact attempting here, is to make a case for an art which makes us see the world in a fundamentally different way, with other eyes -- instead of merely an art which plays by the rules of the forces of neoliberalism.)

More discussion

Someone (Pip) from the Film Gallery in Paris asks whether the film print could ever serve as a commodity, and how much it should be worth.

John Smith answers that some of his films (shot on celluloid) must be shown as film -- but that there are also many of his old films which he now actually prefers to show in a digital format. He is, as an artist, not particularly interested in selling "limited editions". But when a gallery does want to put out such an edition, he actually approaches this as an archiving opportunity: let the Tate keep a negative print, so that there's a copy preserved there (and not just in his own house).

Luke Fowler responds: there are no co-ops of artists, there are no regulations about how much a print should be paid for -- and sadly, there are at the moment no alternatives to the way in which galleries deal with this issue. It's a harsh world. It's not that there are no possible alternatives -- but currently, they simply do not exist.

Cramer summarizes the history of media and distribution, from the invention of movable type to the present day -- after which Carels mentions that the art world is currently the only place where 16mm celluloid and slide projectors are still being used. He also mentions how, for artists nowadays, use of media is a hybrid and fluid affair.

Someone from the audience says we need to talk about rights -- this is an area where the arts world has got to become smarter. There is a difference between the license for showing a film, and for selling it. And there is a celebrity culture in the art market which complicates this. So what really matters is not the material aspect (economic issues), but the immaterial side. I would have to say I agree.

Then there is more talk about crowd funding. A young filmmaker thinks that it can work, and mentions the example of two photographers who have each already published a book on Sotchi using crowd funding (I think one of the photographers he's referring to is Rob Hornstra (www.borotov.com)). The panel mentions several other examples of artists asking for money to produce their work: Brakhage (who was very poor) and Jean Renoir. Luke Fowler is sceptical about this, especially because it is not likely to favour critical, exciting or unconventional ways of art. Cramer also voices his scepticism: such uses of the Internet tend to favour a mainstream consensus.

The conventional funding of film is a world past

The final panel and round-table discussion is moderated by Simon Pummell. The panel consists of two speakers from the world of television and film, who start by giving a short presentation each. Pummell introduces Arte's Michel Reilhac (www.arte.tv/fr/70.html) and Keith Griffiths (www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/503319/), both producers with an interest in new and innovative forms.

Michel Reilhac

Reilhac starts by mentioning that, according to many people in the media world, there's no economy for independent filmmaking anymore. It's dead -- or it's become a hobby culture. This is particularly true in the USA. He believes that telling a story through moving images will never die, as it is part of what makes us human. So the problem is not in the content, but in the "interface". There is no economy for independent filmmaking -- it only survives in Europe thanks to sophisticated public funding. Europe can pretend that there's a viable economical environment for this, but it's an artificial system; this type of independent filmmaking takes place inside a bubble, and independent filmmaking worldwide -- with the exception of Europe -- operates in a vacuum.

Festivals are successful, because films are still best seen on the big screen, and they manage to draw enough audience (plus, a festival is often the only chance to see a movie in this optimal way). But economically, the whole model is simply not viable.

Also at Arte, he is witnessing a drastic decline in film funding. A production typically gets half the amount of money it would have gotten just a few years ago.

Reilhac is a big fan of transmedia storytelling, and not only because of its new aesthetic possibilities (transmedia approaches the making of the film, or narrative, for various platforms at a conceptual level -- as opposed to crossmedia, where the same narrative or film is merely presented in different forms and distributed through various formats). He also sees in the transmedia approach a solution to the problem of funding, as it enables tapping into different funding possibilities, especially branding (devising branding strategies with the industry, other than traditional advertising campaigns). As a producer he sees great possibilities in using transmedia for publicizing linear feature films.

According to me, the problem with this -- besides the talk about advertising and branding: any real transmedia production is more complex and larger than just a feature film… What we are talking about, I am afraid, is really crossmedia, where the story of (say) a computer game is also made into a feature film, or a television show -- or it is actually just a sophisticated marketing approach, making sure the merchandise is as good as the movie, or at least is well-integrated with it.

But it is of course an interesting approach -- and Arte France plans to set up a funding scheme for this. Reilhac sees it as a necessity, since the classic model is now "dead". The transmedia approach requires other partners, and new approaches -- because the Internet is now the major interface for introducing the public to independent films.

Keith Griffiths

Keith Griffiths runs a production company together with Simon Field, former director of the IFFR. He produced, for instance, most of the films by the Brothers Quay. He starts by saying he wanted Reilhac to talk first, since Reilhac is an utopian -- whereas he himself is rather old-fashioned and misanthropic. He comes from a television generation, and he says (rather humorously) that he still keeps the TV on all day. Once he heard someone on TV distinguishing 5 types of film: blockbuster (economically viable); commercial feature films (under threat); the "minefield"; the "real danger" zone; and low budget. At it's at this low-budget end that he sees endless possibilities…

He gives the example of how he went about producing a film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, by bringing together different "worlds": simultaneously with the release of the film, there was a published book, a short film on the Internet, and an installation in an art gallery. The budget was small (600,000 Euros) -- and because of the way they proceeded, the film was internationally a financial success.

He used the same approach (bringing together different "worlds") for later projects: teaming up with Time Out magazine, publishing a book, holding events at museums (featuring audience participation), etc. He also does something similar for the Museum of Loneliness -- which works exclusively with low-budget strategies. In this case the installation is a joint venture with the art world; the only real expense is for Flip cameras used in an audience-participation Internet project.

His final word: the conventional funding of film is a world past.

Reilhac reminds us of the fact that cinema owners still hold the balance of power in the film world. A film, we still seem to think, does not really "exist" until it has been shown in a cinema. And it takes 3 or 4 months after a theatrical release before a film can be offered through pay-per-view services on the Internet. It would be wise if we could stop dealing with film in this way -- and start doing things differently. And it is possible, but only at the cost of leaving the old cinema world behind, which is still a risky thing to do.

Griffiths agrees that this is a precarious situation. There won't be a US release of the Apichatpong Weerasethakul production until 9 months after its original release -- while the US is already flooded with pirated Korean DVDs of the film.

Discussion

The discussion panel is now expanded to include Echo Park Film's Paolo Davanzo and Lisa Marr, as well as Mervin Espina. Marr opines that these are interesting times for film, and that this is first of all because people now have access to film equipment as well as channels of distribution.

Griffiths speculates as to whether festivals should perhaps become smaller, "disassemble" themselves (as the Edinburgh festival has done under Tilda Swinton), and bring film closer to people, away from those few cities where the festivals take place.

Reilhac: nowadays filmmaking is a process, not a product. We now must consider each film as a step in the process of developing a vision -- it doesn't end with the one "product". This is particularly true of activist documentary makers. He also states that the film world must embrace the computer games world. (Hmm, true… But hasn't it done that already? If not, then that's really strange.)

There's again more talk of crowd funding. Funny, after two days it's starting to seem like we're living in a world of crowd-funding success stories. Several people have referred to successful projects -- but what's the percentage of these as opposed to all those that didn't make it?

Florian Cramer points out a problem with the term "transmedia" -- it is being used here in a quite different way than at the Transmediale festival (www.transmediale.de) which happens to be running simultaneously with the IFFR, and has pretty much no overlap whatsoever with anything being said at this conference. Another unfortunate confusion, according to him, is the grafting of the word "storytelling" to transmedia, as it negates the fact that most transmedia works are not narrative. (He has an important point here -- one which is being heavily discussed within the whole narratology-vs-ludology debate for instance, and boils down to the question of what constitute the limits of narrative. Some people will choose to call any type of sequence "narrative".)

Pummell steps in, and -- rightly? -- says that this is a subject for a different conference.

Someone in the audience gives another account of the state of affairs in South-East Asia. It's interesting to hear that in China, as illegal Internet downloading is being shut down, more and more cinemas are being built.

Michel Chevalier finds the presentations disquieting -- they are asking the film world to adapt to the economy, whereas he believes filmmakers should make their voices heard. Do not conform to market forces, he warns, but fight for public funding, for a democratic cultural policy and agenda. He believes the film world should cherish its critical independence -- and that everything we are hearing at this conference is going against that. (And, he adds, most transmedia efforts -- especially when they have to do with branding -- amount to infantilization of the audience.)

Michel Reilhac responds that Chevalier is right in principle, and that this situation is characteristic of the tensions of our times. Within Arte itself, neoliberalism is a powerful force, and Reilhac admits to being perhaps over-pragmatic in the way he deals with it; but he disagrees that filmmakers therefore should fall back to lobbying for public funding. It is simply a question of a different time span. And embracing the games culture is not necessarily infantilization -- the younger generation increasingly relates to storytelling via games, and Reilhac feels the need to take that reality into account. He simply cannot afford to remain in what he calls "my cinephile bubble". Also, almost no one is watches Arte's experimental film slot -- which is thus under constant threat of being shut down.

(On a personal note: I would like to watch Arte's experimental film slot, but it has no podcast or downloads which I in the Netherlands can watch. I have neither a satellite dish nor cable television, and no intention of getting either of these, since they offer hardly any interesting content -- and in the world of online content I can find plenty of other good stuff).

Pummell states that the whole "transmedia" discussion is about the possibilities offered by new forms, but also about new possibilities for branding and advertising. But the way the film world approaches transmedia, I'm afraid, mostly sounds like a marketing strategy which ends up heavily influencing the form and content of the audiovisual narrative.

Cramer responds that what he's hearing from this panel sounds like bad news for traditional filmmakers (and students of film academies) who are used to working with budgets above 100,000 Euros -- while on the other hand, micro-cinema is thriving. The problem is that this old-fashioned film world, or film industry (which in Europe goes on believing that it must compete with Hollywood) is still in place -- and this obscures the fact that what we are dealing with here is in fact a completely new situation.

Lisa Marr says that there are many different kinds of film, and it's up to us to find our own voices in filmmaking, in showing films, in celebrating the community of watching films.

Which, in the end, is what it's all about.

Pummell says that this panel represented in fact a middle ground of filmmaking -- neither overly commercial and catering to the crudest forms of global capitalism, nor purely centred on an idealistic community of filmmakers.

This is where the discussion should have been wrapped up, but instead it went on -- now discussing mostly matters of financing. Reilhac reminded us of the fact that about 50% of film producers can't make a living producing films. For him, the question for this panel was: how to develop a film culture that allows people to make a living out of making films -- including low-budget films. And trying to avoid slipping towards a situation where filmmaking becomes purely a hobby. (Well, most writers don't live from their writing, certainly not from their books -- and many artists don't live from their art, etc… So what's new?)

Perhaps this last panel was a bit too disconnected from the other three. And perhaps it should have tried to touch more on subjects such as transmedia production -- though in that respect, it sounded rather like a voice from the past, desperate to catch up with a world which has already changed. Like Pummell, I also have respect for the "middle ground", the "quality programming" for larger audiences, and I certainly deplore its decline; but I'm afraid this middle ground now hardly ever reaches the audience it could be reaching, or the audience it believes itself to be producing for. People watch other stuff -- some of it micro-cinema, some of it coming through BitTorrent. The "middle ground" seems in fact painfully lacking in cultural dynamism -- trapped in the prison of the past. There are plenty of filmmakers and collective initiatives which already evolved or adapted years ago. For sure, Griffiths approaches the production of film skilfully and creatively, using all the means at his disposal. The problems of how to fund the creation of content, how to fund art, will always exist… In the end, there was too much talk about funding; maybe if the last panel would have approached the issues from the perspective of content, from the artistic point of view, it would have sounded less like a voice from a declining culture, struggling to adapt to a changed world, to a film culture which has already been profoundly transformed.

Semi-live blog written for the Piet Zwart-conference Imagine an Audience, January 2011, part of IFFR. Edited by Joe Monk.

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