"Film or art?" was the first question I was greeted with upon arrival at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, a question essentially inquiring whether I was attending to watch "films" or "art" (i.e. video art) at the festival. But since no such demarcation really exists in the program, the question therefore expanded beyond its modest confines to provoke all kinds of immediately doubting self-inquiry such as: (1) Oh God, what if I'm here just for film?; (2) Wait, who says film isn't art?; (3) Is this person picking a fight?; and (4) How come no one asks me this in Cannes?
Still, it was a question I should have expected, since a festival dedicated to short moving image media—now; it had "just" films to consider—implicitly posits a number of questions about its chosen subject. As someone with a cinephile background in, let's say, traditional cinema, it is both frightening and invigorating to see the extensive territory gained by the art world in what was previously limited to a film-film festival event. Contemporary cinephilia—in contradistinction to whatever you would call near-obsessive passion for video art, if there is even such a term for such a person—while more open to the world than ever due to the tools of global online communication and exchange, rarely steps outside of itself. So it is in the North Rhine-Westphalian city of Oberhausen that one sees the abutment, overlap, merging, and divergence of a very general art form—motion pictures—which to many means "cinema" and to some implies "video art." A rare place, it seems, as only in often accidental instances do those who ascribe to the above determinist perspectives and definitions of the art actually meet in the same place.
Such a fusion can only be a good thing, when the format Oberhausen is dedicated to—the short—has been in a state of permanent crisis since the festival's founding 60 years ago. Without national quotas, without a theatrical distribution system that asks for short films to play alongside features, what else are short cinema films to be than testing grounds for students and calling cards for aspiring feature filmmakers? It seems inevitable that with the abandonment of the short format in traditional cinema theatres that a new distribution ecology would develop—the art gallery, and also possibly the micro culture of festivals devoted to experimental film—along with new interpretations of what could be done with the format. And now, of course, both the cinema space and the gallery space is challenged by a virtual space where films can be exhibited to anyone with an Internet connection, and questions of whether a "piece" is "cinematic" (meaning, bizarrely, that it can or should be exhibited in the time-and-light controlled environment of a cinema) or "not" (meaning, that it can or should be exhibited in a more free-form viewing experience of a gallery) is approaching moot and a piece is a piece is a piece is a piece, and we should ask, among many other questions, is it inquisitive, is it beautiful, how is it so, and what was it like experiencing thusly in the manner in which you watched it.
"No market, no red carpet." That's how Festival Director Lars Henrik Gass describes the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, now celebrating its 60th anniversary. The description isn't entirely true, as there is a market of sorts. Not the kind where productions are partially financed and distribution deals struck, but rather where curators and programmers come to see not only films selected by the festival, but also highlights from boutique experimental film labels like Light Cone, sixpackfilm, and Lux. Such a haven for the short certainly is needed in a contemporary era of the ubiquity of brief moving images, where click-throughs can lead any unassuming viewer or connoisseur down an entirely unpredictable path of snippets, supercuts, excisions, and excesses as algorithms crunch user data to perform the pseudo-curatorial role of recommendations. And yet, as Dr. Gass made clear, Oberhausen is a bastion protecting the expressiveness of a format so vague as to only require it take less time than something else, and it performs its role as a moving image redoubt admirably without the need for the business and glamour which so many of the world's best film festivals appear to feed upon. But again, that's the nature of this strange shorter-than-that format, that by its nature rarely entails fame and just as rarely translates to business. (In fact, one could argue it is only in the "art" side of the development of the format that notoriety and money have ascended to become a significant factor—perhaps closer to an accurate essentialist definition of video art, if such a thing is possible.)
Which is not to say Oberhausen is some kind of "pure" film event, devoid of the burdens necessary to get films made and ensure they are shown. The bland, generalist bureaucratic remarks that opened the festival by the mayor of the town, the state's cultural minister, and the government's commissioner of culture and the media (strange phrasing) suggested that local, regional, and national politicians, despite offering significant funding support, see little true vitality in or need for this particular film festival (let alone promisingly spy it as a social-cultural-political threat)—a sign perhaps either of the waning influence of film as a medium or short film specifically. Yet after these remarks, as happened at my last visit to the festival in 2012, the festival director leapt up to deliver impassioned opening remarks at once doom-laden about the disappearance of the theatrical experience of film and excited by staging a festival able to explore the forefront of a medium's evolution.
Like with any respectable festival, looking forward requires looking back as well. The retrospective programs of Oberhausen's theme this year ("Memories Can't Wait—Film without Film," programmed by Finnish artist and filmmaker Mika Taanila), its artist profiles (Wojciech Bakowski, of last year's wonderful, truly unclassifiable Dry Standpipe, Poland; Aryan Kaganof, South Africa; Mara Mattuschka, Austria; Deimantas Narkevicius, Lithuania), and archival highlights wove between the various competitions of new films (International, German, North Rhine-Westphalia [!], Children’s Films, and a music video section), grandly unifying the specific temporal in-betweenness of projecting films, staging both the new and the old in the present.
Taanila's thematic "Film without Film" program—surprisingly inconsistent in quality and sometimes confusing in curation, but completely invigorating and inspiring in its tone—was undoubtedly the most essential to the festival because of its need to be present. In a culture where films, short and long, can end up on DVDs or YouTube or hard drives—not all films of course, but truly a vast number—a festival event which asks for unique screening conditions such as audience participation and collaboration and live performances provides the most piquant, direct, and often risky version of the unique and fundamentally if subtly unreplicable experience of a person watching a film in a cinema.
The program opened with Ernst Schmidt Jr,'s delightfully playful Hell's Angels (1969), in which the film projector merely throws light on a blank screen—the first program being one dedicated to the blank screen. Through perhaps some covert plants in the crowd, audience members quickly became aware that the pieces of paper found on their seats—hilariously, March’s program of films at Lichtburg Filmpalast in which the festival is staged, including much mainstream Hollywood fare—are intended to be made into paper airplanes to throw about the theatre. Heaved across the the beam's projection, they not only create an oft-elegant, oft-herky-jerky storyless shadowplay of supreme unpredictability, but most importantly the flying paper planes activate the whole length of the theatre’s space, hitting the screen, careening off to the side aisles, tumbling down mid-cinema, all the while charming (and occasionally irritating) the audience with the skill and skill-lessness, the sudden knowledge of people behind and in front of you, the precision and erratics of motion objects and their attached shadows.
Next, a humble, straight-poised figure stood up nearly face to face with the screen, his back to the audience and a bright bulb between himself and the blank white foreground, and began placing small objects—a sectioned cube, a L-shaped piece of iron, a basket—between the bulb and the cinema screen. This was Tony Hill, who performed a variation of his 1973 piece Point Source which projected monumental, theater-consuming shadows up and over him and into the cinema space, confronting and even entrapping the audience with unexpected 3D shadows. Breaking the restrictions of the screen space and projected on a scale which took the objects into another dimension beyond their humble original shape and size—vaguely like a stripped down version of Ken Jacobs' Nervous Magic Lantern shows—Hill exposed the expansive magic of the cinema by moving the "projector" in front of the audience (and indeed, as he pointed out in the Q&A, his light serves both as projector and camera substitute), obscuring its source subject between itself and the screen, and then radically throwing its shadows in front, up and over itself to us all behind him. But crucially, it was just a guy with a light, a screen, and some things.
Over in the first of the four profiles section, which was dedicated to Austrian Mara Mattuschka, films were taking place on the screen, but they seemed no less full of vitality and fresh invention. Starring in all of the first program's films herself under the name "Mimi Minus," Mattuschka, whose short, breasty figure, hair usefully cropped wig-friendly short, and a doughy face expressive when it wants to be, resembled a cross between Mireille Perrier in Carax's contemporaneous Boy Meets Girl and Renée Jeanne Falconetti, Dreyer's Joan of Arc. Suggestive of a resistant if not militant but nevertheless serenely melancholy body and figure of historical femininity—stretching from the medieval of Joan to the Weimar homosexual androgyny of the 20s and into art-punk 1980s—the selection of some of Mattuschka's first works from the 80s, including the sepia-toned highlight Nabelfabel (1984) and transformative Ballhead (1985), show a director playing a woman bandaging herself up, putting on and tearing off masks (art-trash echoes of Teshigahara's paracinematic The Face of Another), masturbating often, bleeding blood and ink, marking the screen with both, and at once fascinated and frustrated by mirrors and the camera's lens itself.
Such provocations were unsurprisingly common in the presentation by the Filmoteka Muzeum of Warsaw's Museum of Modern Art (which has a great website full of things to watch), part of a series highlighting the recent restoration work of different film archives around the world. The Filmoteka’s work at Oberhausen focused on provocative film and video art from Poland in the early 70s to early 90s, and began with one of the festival’s big finds: the KwieKulik Group’s Forma Otwarta – Gra na twarzy aktorki (Open Form – Game on an Actress’s Face, 1971, viewable here) a vibrantly pastel-colored silent series of close-ups of the face of well-known and exceedingly beautiful television actress that is humorously and complicitly defaced by a series of off-camera artists. Each artist must base his or her “play” with the woman’s face on the previous artist’s gestures—painting, masks, colors, cigarettes, unnamable liquids—so her face, often impressively stoic, sometimes broken with unbridled laughter, bares a splattered chronology of experiments. Yet she remains empowered the whole time, lastingly, with both integration and resistance to the art, with humor and beauty.
The same can’t be said for the woman in another astonishing Polish archival short in the program, Zygmut Rytka’s Fiat 126p (1976, viewable here). The tiny, eponymous everyman car of Communist Poland is evoked in a wry, limited view of a repetitive series of sequences including flagrant male gearshifting next to a leggy woman as he thickly shifts close to and away from her bare thighs in shot after shot, the same young woman revealingly getting out of the car in shot after leggy shot, and the man brusquely entering the driver’s seat in first person camerawork, shot after shot. The Fiat becomes an art object akin to the face of Mattuscka’s “Mimi” and the KwieKulik’s actress, deployed sculpturally and explored cinematically, here as iconic pop object as hip and modern as the woman’s miniskirt but as male-dominated and politicized as the grunting gearshift and faux-leering camerawork. For these films, the cinema’s screen is the point of intersection between objects of the world and the artist’s intervention to reveal or blossom their shrouded powers and meanings.
The screen was the obvious central figure—absent and present—in the "Film without Film" program. Performing duo Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder were on hand to present two diametrically opposite explorations of the screen as window lit to a dynamic and abstract view. The first, Stations of Light: Installation for Two Movie Theaters, One Audience, and Musician, was an unfortunate variation on the performers’ pieces in which they apply mesmerizing, oscillating glass distortions to projected images. The piece experimented with using DCP projection rather than film—I wrote from the Viennale last year on a much more successful piece by the duo using a similar effect with film—and instigating the audience to move between two theaters and two different manipulations of separate films. Yet the group movement was a stilted opposite of the piece’s pure fluidity of image, and the sculptural engagement with the projector was made alienated and over-slick with the digital image, as if no longer touched with human hands. Far more tactile was Gibson and Recoder’s later dueling-banjo-like performance of a 2004 piece, On/Off, where each is given control of two filmless 16mm projectors pointed at a blank screen and engage in a 4-panel split screen dialog-game of turning them on and off. An aural sculptural piece—of whirring up and winding down projectors, each with its own particular tone—as much as a visual one, it also placed the performers in front of the audience rather than secreted away behind in the projection booth. With power strips in their hands, facing their call-and-response geometric rhymes and arrhythmia in black and white, it was the post-cinema piece which closest resembled a video game, albeit some post-video dystopic analog equivalent.
Also eerily dystopic was Peter Miller's almost ancient-seeming Projector Obscura, which hid its cleverness behind its images of the general shabbiness that is the contemporary theatrical experience. Miller turned various cinemas’ 35mm projectors into cameras, threading unexposed film through them and then running the film, photographing the revelation of a theatre's white screen—usually with the silent fanfare of raising or parting curtains. The bizarre, heretofore rarely seen viewpoint of the projector, almost that of an audience member but not quite, something subtly off in the vantage, the low light quality, the bygone 70s-era aesthetics of the theatre spaces, and the generally degraded appearance of the film itself—no doubt because, post-Lumière brothers, no projector is intended to also be a camera—make the empty theatres, the empty screens dead zones, locations of rituals and attentive communion half-forgotten.
Returning to Aiolou Street (Maria Kourkouta). Courtesy of the artist.
Elsewhere, the cinema is not only not forgotten, but fervently, almost desperately held aloft. In the International Competition was Greek director Maria Kourkouta's new film hand processed at the Paris lab L'Abominable (where Nicolas Rey works), a slowed and repeated montage of 1950s Greek cinema accompanied by music, each film extract paired with a reading of an extract of Greek poetry. Returning to Aiolou Street follows the Godardian line of pulling brief moments of favored cinema out of context, out of their narratives to not only forefront the aesthetic wonder and mysterious power of passing filmed movements, gestures, lightplay and details, but to re-cast cinema's monumental minutia in an expansive, poetically wide field by drilling down to these moments and holding them, trembling, alongside other cultural and political evocations. While the short seems to quietly lack a rigor somewhere in its midst, presumably, as in Godard, knowledge of the sources would serve the re-montage to cut even deeper. Shown concurrently to Mika Taanila's paracinematic programs, watching something as cinephilic—truly cinephilic, in love with film, celluloid, cinema, "We brought back these carved reliefs of a humble art"—as Kourkouta's work is to step into a shadow of sadness. With melancholy already evoked by its collection of flying, fleeing, dancing, anguished faces and bodies, it also expresses something increasingly, inherently sad about movies dedicated to movies, and celluloid dedicated to celluloid. "Return often and take me, beloved sensation, return and take me..."
In severe, playful contradistinction, back in Taanila's program, Josef Dabernig (who had a very nice short, River Plate, in another section) strips everything supposedly of cinema out of his ingenious performance piece Ticket Content (2014). Dabernig, along with "local supporters"—multi-lingual friends who happen to be attending Oberhausen—recited radio announcer-like all of the text printed on his collection of soccer tickets spanning the early 90s to mid 2000s. Read in Italian, Polish, Spanish, French, and Brazilian Portuguese by Dabernig and four assistants (including filmmaker Edgar Pêra and curator Olaf Möller) at amateur newscasters’ desks facing a sold out audience in the cinema, the endurance-and-patience testing recitation of factual detail and cultural-historical minutia turn into a live and dynamic "documentary," moving in time and space, meter and language, focusing on forgotten, seemingly useless detail only to skip over years and borders. Cinema without film or projection, who'd have thought?
Aryan Kaganof might disagree. This artist in profile needs the screen—the screen is a medium of conveyance through which the filmmaker can expose the audience, usher them into an intimate, brash and aggressive relationship with the world. Acerbically political, unflinchingly looking straight at the injustices and atrocities of his native South Africa, putting all his chips into an exact and exacting low production fidelity, Kaganof’s films have a former DJ's brilliant ear for wide-ranging musical and aural accompaniment (including a semi-musical about raping South Africa) and explosively potent, confrontational image content. I found one of his shorts unwatchable and another somewhat diddling, but three—Nicola's First Orgasm (2003), Western 4.33 (2002), and the 2014 competition entry Threnody for the Victims of Marikana—utterly raw, intelligent and convincing. While one section of the festival speaks to a future without cinema as it is conventionally understood, Kaganof's works immediately admit that the world has need for moving images yet, for as long as cruelties and beauties persist tools are needed to expose, understand and remember them.