Artist Paul Kuimet spoke with filmmaker Ingel Vaikla and researcher Jesse Cumming, curators of the Tallinn Photomonth 2019 film programme taking place 25 September to 16 October 2019 at Sõprus cinema. Among other topics they discussed the definition of artist’s films, the question of funding for experimental cinema and what constitutes an ethical approach to distributing artist’s films.
Paul Kuimet: The first question I have is basic – what do you think is artist’s film? If we were forced to create such a classification how would we do it? Obviously, there are two main kinds of criteria – one is as distinct from mainstream cinema, feature films and classic documentaries. And the other would be the dividing line between video and film installations, or moving image works that are meant to be shown primarily in exhibition spaces as opposed to a classic cinema setting.
Jesse Cumming: I have a mixed relationship with the term “artist’s film”. It’s more common in the UK and Europe than it is in North America. And I think I’ve always pushed back against it to some degree because it seems to suggest that there is nothing artistic about mainstream or narrative cinema, which in several cases is considered as artistic as work produced and exhibited in galleries or museums. That said, it is a handy term, and in the past several years it has kind of taken on its own distinct identity; I’ve grown to embrace it as a way to talk about moving image work that is very fluid and can exist in different places and different contexts, while being produced by artists from across disciplines.
Ingel Vaikla: I think it is interesting how you say that you have a bit of a problem with the term “artist’s film”, and I do agree with the way you elaborate on it. I, on the other hand, have a problem with the term “experimental film” – I feel that it’s such an open term that everything can be pushed under this one somehow. I think it’s a good question, Paul, but at the same time, I think we are living at a time when everything is kind of blending into one, but we still have the urgent need to label everything so we are constantly trying to define things that maybe are not necessarily definable. And in the end, we are making judgements based too much on these classifications and not on the works themselves.
During the 2017 Tallinn Photomonth film programme, there was a Q&A with artists and filmmakers Christina Stuhlberger and Rebecca Jane Arthur and there was a very interesting discussion on how they define themselves – as artists or as filmmakers. And I feel this is also a question about the terms artist film and experimental film. Christina was saying that she would never call herself an artist because the term is somehow too grand, and she is purely a filmmaker. And Rebecca was saying the exact opposite. And I think it often comes down to the space the works are being shown in – either a white cube or a “black box”. Nevertheless, there are festivals dedicated to artist’s films (IFFR, Courtisane, even our Photomonth film programme), which often bring works out of their initial context of an exhibition, for example, giving the audience a chance to experience the work in a completely different way.
JC: Earlier, we were speaking about the challenges that exist around funding in this type of work, that maybe isn’t exactly cinema and isn’t fine art in the traditional sense. And I think the embrace of the term artist’s film and the continued use of it in different contexts can be beneficial in a way to establish this type of work as a real, valid practice.
PK: Yes, because in Estonia, and probably it’s the same in many countries, there doesn’t seem to be an overlap between the art community and the film community. And I feel that this could be an area in which a more experimental approach to filmmaking could happen and could find some funding for itself. And then there is the question of distribution. In her 2011 essay “Indelible video” Chris Kraus writes how there is no longer a distribution system in place for non-narrative film and that “museums and galleries have become venues for works that two decades ago would have been screened as experimental cinema”.
IV: That’s a good point. Nowadays, you cannot just go to a cinema to see an experimental film programme at any random moment you want. Experimental films are always shown in the context of a festival. And then it has a very specific audience and very specific target. In Estonia, I think the art scene is more interested than the film scene, in having a space where experimental and/or artist’s films could be shown, discussed and so on.
PK: I’m not sure exactly what Kraus meant by a distribution system, but even if she was talking about New York or some other large city, I’m sure these screenings would have still taken place in smaller and more specific cinemas that have such programming and certainly not at a multiplex on Times Square.
IV: We don’t even have that kind of a cinema that would show these films. Our most alternative cinema is Cinema Sõprus, but the most experimental work they show is from European cinema which is not that “experimental” at all.
JC: …Art house cinema.
PK, IV: Yes, exactly.
JC: I think about 15 years ago there was the first big shift where filmmakers who made work for cinemas started to show their work in galleries. We are calling them artists now, but they were filmmakers before – like Harun Farocki or Chantal Akerman. And a lot of this move to the art world was guided by the funding. There is simply more money in the art world. I don’t mean to sound callous or cynical about this, and I’m not; they were artists and thinking very conceptually about the work they were doing in art spaces. But I think in recent years there have occasionally been filmmakers who work in narrative film that have shown work in a contemporary art context, which maybe isn’t the best environment for what they’re doing, to have films looped in a gallery when they would be better experienced in a linear fashion – sitting down and watching it from the beginning. This is often a question of curation as much as anything.
IV: Yeah, exactly. That’s an interesting topic – the whole question of the narrative and different ways of experiencing it – in the cinema the audience is more in a position of a passive observer and in the gallery space one could become almost a co-author by having the liberty to enter, move around and leave the gallery space as one wishes. Of course, we are aware that in different spaces different rules apply – in a cinema you can only work with a single screen, whereas in a gallery space you do not have that restriction. It really depends on what your work needs.
PK: Jesse, you mentioned that people like Farocki and Akerman moved from the film world to the art world because there was more money in the arts for that kind of work, and I find that very interesting because I haven’t really thought of it in that way. Generally, I would think it’s the other way around – that there would be more money in the film industry, whereas making moving image work as an artist with the funding available in the art context, it’s not that uncommon for artists to produce, film and edit the work themselves. They are doing three, if not more, jobs at once, whereas in the film industry you would have someone for each job. I feel like the film industry has a totally different system. But for Farocki and Akerman, as film makers of such stature, I can see how they would get their work produced more easily in the art context.
JC: Not to make this entirely about money, as the fine art context of course affords great artistic freedom in terms of conceptualization and execution (particularly with multi-channel work), but the move to the art world also has to do with the emergence of editioning, where artists and filmmakers are actually able to sell these pieces to museums for huge sums. This was less likely with individual film prints, which of course you could sell to some institutions and collectors, but not in the same way and not for the same amount.
PK: What do you think would describe experimental filmmaking right now? What are the trends that you see at festivals and screenings, and artists’ studios?
IV: It depends on which the part of the world you are more aware of. We were both at Rotterdam film festival, which is one of the biggest and most important festivals for experimental film. I feel that there were quite a lot of films dealing with colonialization, gender issues, but also technology, post-internet aesthetics. At the same time, there is a parallel line going more in a nostalgic direction with very personal films. And going back to analogue film. In Rotterdam, there was a lot of analogue film. I don’t know if it has always been like that, but I feel like it is going in that direction. In Belgium, being surrounded by a lot of filmmakers, I feel like that is a point where everyone ends up. There is a need for that, or some kind of yearning. And we also discussed with Jesse that there is a certain kind of a trend in working with a hand-held camera, an aesthetic which brings in more of a personal layer, making the filmmaker more present behind the camera.
JC: I think in the past few years it has become really easy to make a really good-looking, really slick film. One thing we see is a push back against that, whether it’s working with analogue materials, 8mm, Super 8mm, 16mm, but also a lot of lo-fi video, Hi8 and SD – standard definition video is very popular these days. I think it’s because of the fidelity and the texture that these have, and which sets them against these slicker, bigger-budget artist films.
IV: Indeed, and I think everyone has access to this expensive equipment. Everything is possible now. I feel artists are also letting go of the ownership – of wanting to own the making of these images. So, people often work with found footage, and archival images. It’s not so important to be the person who produced the actual images, it’s more a question of what you do with them.
PK: Jesse, you mentioned the revival of Hi8- and other lo-fi video formats and I feel like the revival of this aesthetic is a generational thing and that is also present now in street fashion for example. You see a lot of the 90s rave-look in clothing. And maybe it’s because I just saw a trailer for a Jeremy Deller documentary about rave culture in England between 1984 and 1992, and I’ve been thinking about this, but I find it interesting how we’ve come full circle from miniDV and Hi8, the kinds of video formats that earlier were just the cheapest means to make images, but are now being used for aesthetic reasons. I suppose the same thing happened to 16mm film in the 1990s. People were “over” video and started to look back for something and found a medium that 20 years earlier was used more as a cheaper way to record moving images than for its aesthetic quality.
JC: Absolutely. And also one that for the past 20 plus years has been considered ugly as the desire has always been for something cleaner and sharper. The lo-fi, low resolution – it’s a “poor image” – to do a crude job citing Hito Steyerl. I imagine she would be in praise of Hi8 video.
PK: Ingel, how do you balance your activities between curating film programmes and making actual work of your own.
IV: Creating these film programmes runs completely in parallel with my own creative processes of making films. Curating the programmes is somehow a continuation of research on the topics I deal with in my own practice. The creative process of making films can be extremely lonely, as I like to work on my films alone. It’s not so much a principle to do this – but often it’s the only possible way in terms of time, money, flexibility and the sensitivity of the topic. Curating the programmes is basically the opposite – a lot of communication, constant dialogue with the filmmakers and finally with the audience. I really enjoy that. It’s not really about curating these film programmes for myself, but I feel that there is also a need for that in Estonia. It all comes together when the filmmakers have had a chance to come over to Tallinn and the dialogue has continued here and with the audience. That is the most rewarding part of the whole process. Another important motivation lies in a need to contribute to an ethical distribution of artist’s films. As a filmmaker myself who shows her work quite a lot at film festivals, it makes me extremely sad how filmmakers are being treated. Often your work gets shown on the other side of the world and you never hear how it went – was there any audience, you don’t get much feedback. Not to mention the non-existing artist fees. You’re lucky if you have a chance to attend the festival, if you are invited, but more and more there is a tendency of not really caring from the festival side. They focus more on the visibles for the public – “the show” which is provided at the festival, but unfortunately the filmmaker is often completely left out.
PK: Well said. Jesse, a similar question to you. As I understand, you are not an artist or film maker yourself?
JC: I’m just an enthusiast.
PK: Do you have a specific ethos or what influences you in the choices that you make? And this would also be relevant in the context of the upcoming programme – how did you approach curating a programme that will be presented in Tallinn?
JC: Sure. I mean I always bring my own biases, unfortunately, but try to rectify any of those biases in the cinema programmes I curate. I try to be very conscious of my personal morals and principles in programming, which includes an awareness of the spaces that I occupy, in this position of privilege and power, as a gatekeeper, as someone who is able to make choices of what is shown and what circulates, and that’s something I take very seriously. When it comes to developing an individual programme, it’s nice to have a space – as is the case with Tallinn Photomonth – which is quite open, and there is room to start from an idea, from things I’ve been reading, or from particular films that have inspired me, and build from there. I think this is something that both Ingel and I have done. Having come from an experimental film background, where conversations can still circle back to questions of medium specificity or other dialogues that I don’t think are very relevant or very urgent, it’s nice to work in an interdisciplinary context. I find that in the contemporary art world, where artists move between mediums and formats and the conversations are really much more grounded in questions of politics, and when the questions of aesthetics do come up they are grounded in very real-world concerns, including meaningful discussions about representation and ethics. Working in a contemporary art context, something like Tallinn Photomonth, is really enriching and a good challenge.