Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Zagreb International Film Labs Meeting

Under the provocative title ‘Film Anarchy’, this year’s international labs meeting took place in Zagreb, where the new Croatian film lab Klubvizija hosted four days of discussions, workshops and screenings at the city’s student centre. Film labs from all over Europe gathered from 21 to 24 September to meet, share and discuss conditions of production, strategies of survival and future collaborations. Participants included, among many others, the indefatigable Nicolas Rey and Pip Chodorov from one of the oldest and most established labs, L’Aborninable in Paris, the Canadian Film Farm, which literally transformed an old barn into a film lab, the Australian Nanolab’s Richard Tuohy, whose unprecedented technical expertise was at the centre of many workshops, the FilmK00p Vienna, Rotterdarn’s Worm Filmwerkplaats, the expanded cinema group from Burstscratch in Strasbourg, Cinema Nova Brussels, Kinolab Columbia, the energetic Etienne Claire from MTK in Grenoble, the Wide-eyed crew from Labor Berlin – one of the youngest European labs – and from the UK Martha Jurksaitis of Cherry Kino Leeds and London’s, which was represented by James Holcombe, Kris Woods and myself.
It is difficult to do justice to the breadth of works shown at the daily screenings, but a definite highlight was a performance by the Strasbourg collective Burstscratch, a filmic choreography through death, heaven and hell. The audience was absorbed by the baroque images that magically merged narrative projections with the amorphous light reflections of a bowl. Experiencing this piece of contemporary expanded cinema raised questions about the separation between the film lab work and the canon of experimental film: why have Burstscratch never been mentioned at any of the academic expanded cinema conferences? In Charlotte Prodger’s beautiful 16mm Metalpleater, which was printed at, repetitive arm movements and intimate dose-up shots of shiny steel and sweaty skin come together in a rhythmic, erotic portrait of a female metal pleater. The short black-and-white film Pursuit of Sacredness by Ricardo Leite, a member of the Portuguese lab Atomo47, is a shocking abject homage to the radical post-colonial poet Sebastian Alba, who despite international acclaim lived (and died) in the streets. Noticeably, a number of post-war avant-garde. In Etienne’s Hand, Tuohy created a dynamic unfolding film by reprinting a simple hand gesture -the turning and opening of the fist of his friend and MTK member Etienne Caire – whose own live performance followed the tradition of Bicker psychedelia. Less abstract but equally trippy was Awe Shocks, a kaleidoscopic Rorschach spin through porn by Anja Dornieden and ]uan David Gonzalez Monroy from Labor Berlin.
While film lab meetings have taken place in the past- 1997 in Geneva and 2ooo in Grenoble – it was the 2005 gathering in Brussels that manifested a desire for closer collaboraîion whichled to a website and a more regular meeting schedule (the previous Elm labs meeting took place in 2008 in Rotterdam). The network now includes around 30 international film labs from Europe, North and South America, and Australia. It is interesting to note the timing of the resuscitation of the lab culture as it coincides with new threats to the medium, the first of which stems from the art industry where – a few exceptions apart – more polished, costly, pristine and tame films survive the commercial pressure of the art world. Film not only has to be ‘sculptural’ in order to produce commodity value, but most importantly there seems to be a strong safety net on the level of content. Currently celebrated contemporary works such as Rosa Barba’s, seen recently in Tate Modern’s Level 2 Gallery, and, to a certain extent, Ben River’s This is my Land, Rosalind Nashashibi’s The Quality and Daria Martin’s Harpstrings and Lava, repeat theoreticaland formal clichés, such as the installation of the projector as sculpture (Barba), the use of duration as a purely formal method (The QualityThis is my Land) and materiality as a strategy of sensual seducation (Harpstrings and Lava). These artists operate miles from the difficult and risk­taking images that can be created within a hands-on experimental lab where the artist is engaging directly with the apparatus of production, such as hand processing, and reworking their images on 16mm optical and colour printers appropriated or rescued from a dying film industry to disrupt the commercial aesthetic.
The second threat to analogue filmmakers stems of course from the gradual elimination of celluloid in the cinema industry, which is now generally shooting on digital media. Hollywood has announced the cessation of all 16mm prints by 2013 and in February this year the best-known commercial UK 16mm process and print lab Delux (formerly Soho Film Lab, formerly Soho Images) stopped 16mm colour printing of motion picture with a huge wave of redundancies, sparking a series of protests and critiques by well-known artists and filmmakers including Tacita Dean, who published an SOS in herGuardian article ‘Save celluloid, for art’s sake’. Her current commission for the Tate Modern Turbine Hall includes a website – - promoting labs in order to support this rare beast and save it from extinction.
However, what I am adamant to avoid here is an easy opposition between commercial versus not­-for-profit art, gallery artists versus lab filmmakers, industry versus grassroots agendas. While I discovered brilliant films in Zagreb that would send many art-­world filmmakers back to the clapperboard (for example Croatian Drazen’s Mercedes Dunavska, which was developed at L’Abominable), I realised that the fatality of formal and discursive cul-de-sac self-referentiality is equally at play in the film-lab world. For three days we collectively discussed practical and technical problems. Don’t get me wrong, questions around self-organisation, funding, access to and exchange of tools and equipment are important and key to the survival of this subculture, but as a film lecturer and curator I just could not get that excited about yet another round-table discussion about how to turn a 16mm Bolex camera or Steenbeck editing desk into a contact printer, where one can get hold of sulphuric acid, and what ASA you would prefer to rate with an obsolete Czech film stock like Fomapan. Access to cheap 16mm print stock such as Orwo, Kodak and Fuji was a recurrent concern: one of the Vienna FilmKoop members even claimed that, to ensure the survival of film priming labs, he regularly speeds while driving as Austrian speed cameras rely on black-and-white 16mm print stock.
Pragmatic problems seemed to be overemphasised in the face of the complete lack of theoretical discourse which made the 
how more important than the why. I found that this lack of self-criticality coupled with, in some cases, a clear resistance to tackling more fragile and existential questions that touch the very raison d’être of filmmaking, could swiftly turn the most grassrooted analogue filmmaker into the bourgeoisie of the analogue class. I have been fascinated by this beating-around­-the-­bush syndrome: does an unwillingness to verbalise what is outside language hinder us from talking about content; are we haunted by an inability to represent the (Lacanian) real, or is a simple lack of time part of the problem?
ln this light, it was extremely interesting to observe a clear divide between the continental labs and the UK organisations, namely Cherry Kino and The capitalist speculative market economy that fuelled UK contemporary art in the 1990′s and controls the industry today produces an intense pressure for production. On the downside this makes the life of labs incredibly precarious. On the upside, however, it demands an acute self-awareness of the labs’ relation to the political, economic, cultural and social frames in which they operate, including theory and discourse, identity issues (sex, race and class) and global ramifications. This 
urgency to contextualise one’s own practice is less pronounced on the continent where, on the basis of (former) socialist state structures, living costs are simply lower. Zagreb’s Klubvizija lab, for instance, is entirely funded by the state: the lab is free and open to professional artists and amateurs. The new Labor Berlin does not receive any funding, but the fact that it is able to survive on a voluntary basis is symptomatic of a flexibility enabled by a weaker economic grip and the safety net of the state that is impossible 
to imagine in London. On the other side, the ability to set up and run a lab without the extreme stress of and direct control by global and national economics appears to allow for a withdrawal into a self-enclosed world of cinéphiles. This became obvious as the continental labs advocated financial independence and artistic autonomy, a standpoint that can only be read as romantic spectre by any artist-run spaces in the UK.
Zagreb International Film Labs Meeting took place from 21 to 24 September 2011.
MAXA ZOLLER is an art lecturer.

Source: Maxa Zoller, “Zagreb International Film Labs Meeting,” Art Monthly no. 355, (February 12, 2012), pp. 36-37.

No comments:

Post a Comment