Over three nights in early October, as the New York fall seemed to be taking its grip on the city, filmmakers, artists and film enthusiasts huddled outside Tribeca Cinemas and engaged in animated exchanges and heated discussions – excitedly picking apart the films of this year’s Video Art and Experimental Film Festival. Now in its fourth year, the festival once again presented a challenging and arresting program of short films, showcasing the diversity of moving image work being created today.
Following a record number of submissions, the festival curators carefully constructed a program which sought to reflect the current situation of video art and experimental film. In addition to focussing on certain recurring themes, such as sexuality and gender as well as politics, most notably with regard to human rights issues, it became increasingly clear over the course of the curating process that it was important to actively question what can be understood today under the term video art. The decision to include work intended or conceived for platforms and purposes extending beyond the confines of the art world was occasioned by a desire to expand definitions, while challenging perceptions. As a result, this year’s program comprised an eclectic selection of moving image work ranging in format, from fashion film and music video to more ‘traditional’ experimental pieces. Through pulling films intended largely to be viewed online and placing them into the theater, the program worked as a bridge between the ever-presence of the online and the immediacy of the festival experience. As works such as Marie Schuller’s dark fantasy-laden Visiting Hour came into dialogue with films like Pedro Lino’s viscerally potent experimental documentary TERRA, any distinctions between the different formats quickly dissolved to reveal the fluidity with which we have come to engage with moving image. As the program came together over the course of the festival, the setting of the festival allowed certain unexpected trends to percolate; as the pop-cultural inflections of films such as Eva Michon’s sugar-sweet Lollipop – a two and a half minute piece oozing with youthful, carefree vitality – established a dialogue with films operating on more recognizably ‘cinematic’ terms, such as Ruth Hogben’s Beyond The Glass. While the Hitchcockian references in Hogben’s film are readily apparent, it manages to rework such references in such a way as to almost defamiliarize them in order to create a palpable sense of unease which in turn allows the imagery to question how cinema creates and perpetuates a certain understanding of beauty.
This process of breaking down unproductive delineations and creating a vocabulary with which to grapple with the question of what can be understood as video art was present throughout the festival, offering the entire program a palpable vigor, though it was perhaps Thursday night’s screening, playfully dubbed ‘Beauty, Sex, Shame’ which most captured the exciting landscape of video art today. Beginning with Rino Stefano Tagliafierro’s BEAUTY – an elegiac reimagining of classic paintings which delights in the effervescence of beauty, luring us in with its promises before revealing its inherent ephemerality and inevitable decay – the program examined the seductive nature of images, throwing light on the perpetually fraught relationship between sex and death. In its masterful reappropriation of classic painting, Tagliafierro’s film set the tone for much of the program, as a common thread throughout the program was a kind of filmmaking which utilizes cinematic and art historical references with unabashed candor, repurposing familiar footage and well worn tropes to create refreshingly current work. With its knowing nods to the cinema of the French New Wave, Canada’s wonderfully tongue-in-cheek film, Crème Caramel, creates a highly stylized visual language allowing it to reference classic cinema, while simultaneously reconfiguring the often narrow view of sexuality and femininity which exists in these films. Similarly, Jennifer Linton’s Domestikia, Chapter 3: La Petite Mort – a surreal exploration of female sexuality – draws on a tradition of illustrated Japanese pornography often referred to as tentacle erotica, imbuing the film with an awareness of the inescapable darkness and perversion hiding beneath the glossy kind of beauty we are conditioned to consume. It was in this deviance that the program indulged, refusing to adhere to convention and instead presenting films such as Marie Schuller’s daring films, which, initially commissioned for groundbreaking online fashion film platform SHOWstudio, redefine our understanding of fashion image, as the movement breathes new life into clothing, allowing it to tell a story replete with the kind of tactility afforded by the moving image.
Completing the program, St. John McKay’s astonishingly candid Shame and Toby Dye’s music video for Massive Attack’s Paradise Circus, arguably two of the festival’s most provocative films, dealt with the often imperceivable line between desire and shame. Operating on the terms of a confessional piece, McKay, who spoke openly about his work following the screening, hopes that his film can perhaps relieve some of the stigma surrounding addiction and lead to more understanding for human fallibility. In the context of the festival, it was the issue of the viewing experience itself to which both films drew attention, as the circumstances in which these films were seen – in a dark theater, surrounded by others without the option of simply clicking away – forced the audience to confront their own transgressions and with this, to perhaps begin the kind of shift in perception McKay spoke about.
The question of the viewing experience also came to the fore during the panel discussion, which concluded this year’s festival. ‘I just want to jump in before Jason, because I know we have different opinions on this’ quipped Vimeo curator and film festival programmer Jeffrey Bowers, flying the flag for the enduring importance of the theater, especially when it comes to experimental short films. ‘A lot of these films are pretty subtle until the end…in the theater you’re more likely to give something the benefit of the doubt, whereas online there’s a lot of flipping around.’ While Bowers highlighted the role which film festivals continue to play in championing the work of filmmakers which would otherwise fail to reach the right audience, fellow Vimeo curator and Short of the Week co-founder Jason Sondhi, who along with producer and film agent Ziggy Levin completed this year’s panel, admitted to harboring little romance for the big screen. For Sondhi, the possibilities afforded by the internet over the past decade in terms of distribution have allowed filmmakers to have their work viewed on a scale unimaginable before the days when success could be measured in likes and shares. Disagreeing with concerns raised among audience members, that the sheer amount of content online rendered it increasingly difficult for artists to stand out, Sondhi pointed to a renewed interest in short form work thanks largely to the internet, and more importantly to sites such as Vimeo which comb the internet for exciting new work and actively curate online content.
Through actively engaging with the constantly evolving landscape of video art, this year’s festival entered into a dialogue that has emerged with the help of the internet, between filmmakers, curators and audiences as a result of which the once cultivated distance between artwork and viewer has been effectively demystified and replaced with a sense of urgency, and a desire to become active participants in the process of image-making rather than passive consumers of image. What is perhaps most exciting, is the way in which avant-garde sensibility – an approach to filmmaking which seeks to examine and probe not only the world around us, but the visual language with which we view it – is enjoying a resurgence through innovative filmmaking that continues to expand the definition of video art and as a festival, it is our aim to continue to engage in this dialogue.