Blogs Crosscuts Mediatheque

Looking to the Margins: A Mediatheque Playlist by Gudrun Lock

“I looked for a counter to the dominant narratives of our hysterical moment.” In creating her new cinematic playlist for the Bentson Mediatheque, artist Gudrun Lock considered a question: How do these margins of life define what is central? A participant in the Bentson Local Scholar program, in which local artists are invited to critically engage with the Ruben/Benston […]

Paul Chan’s BAGHDAD IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER, 2003. Image courtesy of the Ruben/ Bentson Moving Image Collection.

Paul Chan’s Baghdad in No Particular Order, 2003. Image courtesy the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection.

“I looked for a counter to the dominant narratives of our hysterical moment.” In creating her new cinematic playlist for the Bentson Mediatheque, artist Gudrun Lock considered a question: How do these margins of life define what is central? A participant in the Bentson Local Scholar program, in which local artists are invited to critically engage with the Ruben/Benston Moving Image Collection and share their findings, interpretations, and concerns, Lock’s playlist, Looking to the Margins, will be screened at 7 pm on May 4 in the Bentson Mediatheque. It will continue to be available throughout the months of May and June on the self-select Mediatheque. Here, she discusses her thinking as she made her selections.

While exploring the Walker’s Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection, I looked for a counter to the dominant narratives of our hysterical moment. Paul Chan’Baghdad in No Particular Order (2003), Peggy Awesh’Beirut Outtakes (2007), and Jem Cohen’Blood Orange Sky (1999) stood out to me because they foreground the small narratives and the quotidian. Through them we glimpse things often deemed unimportant, but things that are, in fact, at the core of our collective lived experience. I sat in the dark and contemplated frayed and wobbly images of other times and other places and asked myself: how do these margins of life define what is central?

There is a fuzzy boundary between order and chaos in these films; a monkey is caged, women bear arms, celluloid is overwhelmed by debris and mold, all the while Mt. Etna fumes and oozes in the background waiting patiently, oblivious to human needs and desires. I see images of nature, war, marriage, rot. Ecstasy, boredom, machismo, longing. Light and shadow. Darkness and time. Silver twists of eel flesh, at once exotic and ordinary, glimmer in the shadows. People walk, talk, sing, dance, pray, smoke, eat, and share themselves with the camera. I take a breath. An oil tanker truck drives by. These films contain a truth that is located on the margins of dominant Western culture, and also on the margins of materiality.

Iraqis dance in run-down rooms and recite poetry on dusty street corners in Paul Chan’s pre-“Operation Iraqi Freedom” film, Baghdad in No Particular Order. He records these moments as proof of humanity’s continuity and as a last minute plea against U.S. invasion. Mundane life patiently flickers forward, often out of focus, but full of dignity. The fragmented style and rough edits ground us as viewers: we are not taken in by pretty pictures of a fictional world, but instead we are bumping along with him and his film crew as they insert themselves in the daily life of the people around them. The camera stares at the floor while the operator navigates a hallway and we sit on the living room couch as guests and talk; we also stand on a street corner in a jiggly encounter with a wedding party and rock back and forth at the repetitious beat in a mosque. The voiceover in Chinese, Arabic, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and English adds a layer of philosophical statements, humdrum facts and simple anecdotes about the city, its population, and its culture.

Peggy Ahwesh's Beirut Outtakes, 2007. Image Courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Peggy Ahwesh’s Beirut Outtakes, 2007. Image courtesy the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

In contrast, old American Westerns and Arabic language home appliance ads stretch and collide in Peggy Ahwesh’s Beirut Outtakes. The dramatic, virile fictions and feminine desires on view in the scraps of found footage barely hold up to the aggression of being dragged through a projector; scratches, squeaks and whines consume the multilingual narratives co-existing on screen. The abandoned fragments of film Ahwesh spliced together are moldy remnants of a middle-class lifestyle in one of the oldest cities in the world. “BEWARE! LET GOLD NOT BE YOUR GOD!” we are told, as a mummy, enacting a curse, lurches forward in some long forgotten American B movie. In Beirut Outtakes the marginal exists not so much in the content of the images but from time taking its course—it eats away at the material that was ditched when a Beirut cinema shuttered its windows. We are made aware of the fiction and temporality of filmmaking itself while we view the degraded images.

Jem Cohen's Blood Orange Sky, 1999. Image Courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Jem Cohen’s Blood Orange Sky, 1999. Image courtesy the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Another breath, and now I encounter Catania, in Jem Cohen’s Blood Orange Sky, where a tune, “The Vendor’s Lament,” effects a tenderness for a Sicily I have never known. I sit, watching and waiting for life to unfold as it does, on its own terms, in its own time. A major character in the film is the bustling market, where for perhaps thousands of years people have gathered to work, steal, barter, and talk. I find myself vulnerable to nostalgia, the washed out images full of loss. Teenage girls pose and giggle on a pre-EU cobblestone corner. We drive through the rain and grey streets of the ancient port town, while vignettes of marginal housing developments, smoking men, and the day’s end cut in alongside jarring scenes of a volcano huffing and puffing and glowing in the background, just as it has done since the dawn of time.

In all of these films there is a reminder that public life is dominated by men. But I put that aside, and try to glean some sense that we are not reducible to the ravages of war and nature. Through these films the margins reveal what is commonplace. But the edges and boundaries that line the screen prove fragile and as I walk out of the dark theatre, exposed again to the present moment, on the fuzzy border between order and chaos, I take a deep breath and I ask myself, is the child bookseller in Baghdad still calling out? Are there still fish in the sea? Do women continue to swing their hips in the glory of a cool breeze in Beirut? I wonder this to myself as we collectively careen into a precarious and hysterical future.

Hans Richter: Anti-Film and Radical Dada Abstraction

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 23 (1923). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection
Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 23 (1923). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 23 (1923). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

A screening of Hans Richter’s early films, including Rhythmus 21 and Rhythmus 23, will take place in the Bentson Mediatheque at the Walker Art Center on April 6 at 7 pm. This free public event is made possible by generous support from the Bentson Foundation.

“To accept the paradox that the genuine and sincere can walk hand in hand, foot to foot, foot in mouth, and hand to foot with the spoofy, nonsensical, that is what makes the understanding of dada difficult.”   —Hans Richter

One day in early 1918, Tristan Tzara, then living at the Hotel Limmatquai in Zurich, knocked on the thin partition that divided his room from that of Hans Richter: he wanted to introduce Richter to the Swedish painter Viking Eggeling. “Eggeling showed me a drawing,” Richter recalls. It was a revelation: “I ‘understood’ at once what it was all about.” An explanation: theretofore intoxicated by the anarchic fervor of his Dadaist companions, Richter had spent more than a year producing anti-art at a prolific rate, painting and drawing in a stark, abstract style, working from spontaneous impulse and in an almost automatic fashion. He had eventually reached a conceptual dead end and, after consulting the Italian composer Ferruccio Busoni, had started describing his compositions in terms of contrapuntal music. Now Eggeling’s experiments—his “dynamics of counterpoint,” which “embraced generously and without discrimination every possible relationship between forms” (Richter)—presented him with a way forward.

Richter and Eggeling lived and work together for the next three years, at Richter’s parents’ home in Klein-Koelzig near Berlin, producing countless drawings which they arranged and rearranged endlessly, trying to find relationships, trying to create rhythm. They arrived at what they called “scrolls,” and in the process developed, as Standish D. Lawder notes, “a new artistic syntax in which the eye traveled a prescribed route from beginning to end,” ultimately leading them to film, “the logical medium to extend this dynamic potential into actual kinetic movement.” Their efforts to secure funding and technical support for making films form a convoluted story, but in 1921 Hans Richter eventually realized Rhythmus 21. This, a landmark in avant-garde filmmaking, was so radical in its abstraction that it broke with almost every precedent of cinema, presenting the spectator with only rectangles of black and white in motion. (More on this later.) From his years with the reckless denizens of the Cabaret Voltaire to a long partnership with the almost absurdly regimented Eggeling (whose all-encompassing philosophy of “linear orchestrations” even prevented him from eating eggs and milk in the same meal: they were “too analogous”), Richter had achieved a balance between spontaneity and order. In Richter’s words, it was “a kind of controlled freedom or emancipated discipline, a system within which chance could be given a comprehensible meaning.”

Hans Richter’s Preludium, section of a scroll drawing (1919)

Hans Richter’s Preludium, section of a scroll drawing (1919)

This association with Eggeling is interesting in that a search for “comprehensible meaning” is not a topic that comes up very often in discussions of Dadaism. From very early on, Richter and his fellow Dadaists, in Zurich as well as in Berlin and elsewhere, presented Dada as a movement of negation, subversion, paradox, and agitation. “Dada not only had no programme, it was against all programmes” (Richter). The nihilism of Tzara’s “Dada means nothing” is perhaps the most potent distillation of Dada’s anti-everything stance, and the more iconic examples of Dada work—Duchamp’s urinal, a moustache on the Mona Lisa—serve to underline the ironic disruptions that were intended above all as a rejection of common sense, bourgeois taste, and the prevailing attitudes in contemporary art and literary criticism.

Beyond this initial reading, however, we can (perhaps) begin to discern some kind of cohesion; a deeper investigation reveals that this acerbic spirit of negation carried political implications, at least of some kind. In Berlin, John Heartfield and George Grosz proclaimed, “Down with art! Dada is on the side of the revolutionary proletariat!” In Zurich, Hans Arp declared that his tactics “were designed to bring home to the bourgeois the unreality of his world and the emptiness of all his endeavors, even including his profitable nationalism.” For his part, Richter saw Dada’s “provocations” as “a means of arousing the bourgeoisie to rage, and through rage to a shamefaced self-awareness.” And it is worth noting, as Richter does in his attempt to portray “the climate in which Dada began,” that in 1916, Lenin and his entourage were living across the street from the Cabaret Voltaire; the Zurich Dadaists repeatedly crossed paths with Lenin in the library, and Richter recounts seeing him speak in Berne. (Richter’s wry recollection: “It seemed to me that the Swiss authorities were much more suspicious of the Dadaists, who were after all capable of perpetrating some new enormity at any moment, than any of these quiet, studious Russians.”) Whether Lenin had any direct influence on Dadaist thought is, of course, unlikely. But the episode is illustrative of the broader intellectual climate of Zurich and indeed Europe: revolutionary leftist thought was not unknown to the Dadaists, and their proclamations and polemics seem to reflect this.

However that may be, it is clear in Richter’s case that an abhorrence of blind faith in rationality, and the wars that it engendered (Richter, it is worth noting, was injured and subsequently discharged from the army during the First World War), were a primary factor in his gravitation toward Dadaist practice. He explains at length:

Pandemonium, destruction, anarchy, anti-everything—why should we hold it in check? What of the pandemonium, destruction, anarchy, anti-everything, of the World War? How could Dada have been anything but destructive, aggressive, insolent, on principle and with gusto? In return for freely exposing ourselves to ridicule every day, we surely had a right to call the bourgeois a bulging haybag and the public a stall of oxen? […] We would have nothing more to do with the sort of human or inhuman being who used reason as a juggernaut, crushing acres of corpses—as well as ourselves—beneath its wheels. We wanted to bring forward a new kind of human being, one whose contemporaries we could wish to be, free from the tyranny of rationality, of banality, of generals, fatherlands, nations, art-dealers, microbes, residence permits and the past.

This, in effect a critique of modernity, goes a long way in explaining Richter’s attraction to anti-art. Raoul Hausmann: “Anti-art withdraws from things and materials their utility, but also their concrete and civil meaning; it reverses classical values and makes them half-abstract.” Objects of no value, garbage, shoe strings, a urinal—elevated to the canvas or the gallery wall they are ironically re-contextualized, given “meaning,” or rather the illusion of meaning, in an attempt to undermine received notions of taste and importance. However fleeting the effect, anti-art attempted to circumvent the mechanisms by which bourgeois society incorporated disparate artistic elements into narratives that painted over affronts to public decency and neutered threats to political stability: Dadaist art could never be a source of national pride; it could never be appropriated as state propaganda. (In the early days of the Cabaret Voltaire, retrospectives of earlier modernist artists—Klee, de Chirico, Feininger, Marc, and others—were made possible for the reason that Richter points out: “It was the always resourceful Tzara who discovered that the belligerent nations were only too anxious to compete with each other in neutral Switzerland, even if only in the field of culture […] From Italy, Germany and France Tzara received works which were normally almost unobtainable, post free, as propaganda material—and used them as propaganda for us.”)

Hans Richter’s Dada Kopf (c. 1918)

Hans Richter’s Dada Kopf (c. 1918)

What does this mean for the Dada film? After all, the most useful Dada expressions of anti-art—the ready-made, the found object, the newspaper advertisement, the impromptu happening—were also, perhaps not coincidentally, the most inexpensive to achieve and the easiest to disseminate to a broad public. The question of a Dadaist cinema is therefore immediately complicated by two concerns: the financial constraints of the technology and the limitations of the theatre space itself—in terms of visibility, accessibility, and possibilities for radical transformation or repurposing. Perhaps the most memorable illustration of the latter problem was the premier of René Clair’s Entr’acte in 1924. Screened during the intermission of Francis Picabia’s ballet Relâche, the artists (Clair; Picabia, who wrote the film’s outline; and Erik Satie, who wrote the score) intended for the film to be supplemented by the sounds of the audience coughing, talking, and mulling around in the theatre or exiting before returning for the second half. Greatly to their disappointment, the audience stayed seated and watched the film in attentive silence.

Though Clair was never a Dadaist, his Entr’acte was screened a year later in Berlin, in conjunction with Léger’s Ballet mécanique and Richter’s Rhythmus films, at what Thomas Elsaesser has called a “Dada film soirée.” The relative scarcity of such “Dada” film screenings, however, suggests that the Dadaists were simply more interested in other forms of expression (painting, poetry, music) and different modes of public exhibition. Moreover, the fact that the very category of Dada cinema is so tenuous—could film in fact be “Dadaist”?—is made all the more so by Richter’s repeated claims that during the early 1920s he had very little interest in film at all:

I didn’t really get into films until 1927, because I always considered films only an exercise, an extension, a realization of the problems which I had met in painting. In 1919, I realized the promise of movement in the scroll drawings. But I wasn’t interested in movement per se. I was interested in painting: but painting had led me to problems of dynamism, dynamism led me to kinetic problems, and kinetic problems could ultimately be realized only in film. Although I started making films in 1921, I still was mostly interested in them as solutions to the problems that I had met in painting. It took me a while to get into the films themselves.

What then, if anything, are we to make of Rhythmus 21?

In the first place, it is helpful to remember that Richter’s own definition of Dada was rather elastic, and certainly never dogmatic. The following comment is typical: “Though Léger was never a Dadaist, his Ballet mécanique is 100% Dada.” Likewise Richter’s summation of Entr’acte: “It bends over backwards to laugh over and with the paradoxical happenings, dada!” Manifestos aside, the film is Dada; never mind the context of its first screening, the scandal it may or may not have caused; forget the intentions of the filmmaker, if indeed the filmmaker was even a filmmaker: it is the film itself which is Dada. Unsurprising, then, that in his capacity as filmmaker, Richter’s Dadaisms, his negations, his playfulness, his critiques, took place entirely within the context of the medium. Unlike Picabia and Clair, he appeared uninterested in creating a spectacle around the film’s screening, in inviting the audience to disrupt or otherwise interact with the film. He did not sprinkle salt and pepper, or throw pins and thumbtacks, directly onto filmstrips (as Man Ray did), nor did he seem otherwise interested in unconventional manipulations of the technical apparatuses of the film. Richter, who was not a filmmaker, simply made films.

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Fitting, then, that Germaine Dulac has described Richter’s early films as “pure cinema,” and P. Adams Sitney has highlighted their “frank use of purely cinematic materials.” Whether or not Richter had intended to achieve cinematic purity, the aesthetics of Rhythmus 21 and Rhythmus 23 are so radically abstract that they force the viewer to confront the films precisely as light on a screen, i.e. precisely as cinema. Richter was clear about his intention: “The forms that emerge are neither analogies nor symbols nor means to beauty.” The black and white rectangles which expand and contract, advance and recede, which at times challenge the viewer’s very conception of the screen’s boundaries, do not stand in for anything. Rather, they express (as Richter calls it) a feeling, engendered by the tension of forms, the continual re-contextualization of cinematic space on screen. The fact that the viewer today can still feel the rhythm of Richter’s experiments is a testament to the expressive power of a cinema stripped bare, creating tension and movement with only the most elemental particles of the cinematic apparatus: dark and light, contrasted over time.

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 21 (1921). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Perhaps a more interesting speculation: it is through an understanding of the way in which film was commonly understood—as an art form and as a technology—that best explains Richter’s disinterested attitude toward the medium. Standish D. Lawder: “Like the other pre-war miracles of technology that signaled the arrival of the future—the automobile, the airplane, the wireless—the film too was regarded as a scientific wonder and, at the same time, a deeply poetic experience.” (Naturally one is skeptical to believe that Richter held the same opinion.) Lawder continues that the advent of the scientific film, pioneered by the likes of Marey, “extended the powers of vision into the normally invisible and the geographically remote,” happily contributing to the forward march of technological progress, medical innovation, and territorial conquest. What’s more, the larger film production companies in Europe and the United States soon picked up on the commercial appeal of such films; the public was fascinated by—to take one example—the success of the French microbiologist Jean Comandon, who in 1909 used microphotography to capture bacteria and microbes, presenting “images of organic forms in movement [which were] palpably real, that is, objectively verified by moving photographic images of a biological, if not spiritual, inner life.”

Keeping in mind Richter’s critique of modernity, is it such a stretch to see the link between these early experiments in microbiology and the devastating chemical weapons of the First World War? It is not for nothing that Richter singles out “microbes” (working here, one is inclined to think, as a metonym for science employed as a means to achieve destructive ends) in his litany of modern barbarities/banalities. Whatever the case may be, the fact is that in Richter’s abstract films, nothing is “objectively verified.” Neither the complexities of the microbial world nor the complexities of the combustible engine were of interest to Richter behind the lens. Quite the contrary: “My abstract films are as simple as can be. They are dances and, as such, very simple, naive ones.” Naïveté, simplicity, rhythm, feeling. Or, as Pitney observes, the films “articulate a purely cinematic temporality … which either excludes or subverts mimetic representation.” And is it not precisely the ultra-refined mimesis of scientific film, the hackneyed and moralizing mimesis of commercial narrative film, against which Richter unequivocally set himself and his anti-art? Writing of his abstract films, Richter makes the point clear:

Not to be content with picture-postcard views, not to find the usual love scene, the happy-ending with virtue rewarded, the same old arrangement of legs, arms, heads in plush drawing-rooms and royal courts—but, instead, to see movement, organised movement, wakes us up, wakes up resistance, wakes up the reflexes, and perhaps wakes up our sense of enjoyment as well.

In discarding photographic reality, Richter deprived his films of perhaps the one thing that moviemakers and moviegoers treasured most: the representation of external reality on screen. And in doing so, Richter was perhaps more subversive than even the most scandalous of Surrealist cinéastes. By reducing his films to simple geometries of black and white, to the building blocks with which representation is achieved (gradients of dark and light), Richter in effect exposed cinema as an illusion, discarded everything that might appeal to popular taste, rejected the notion of filmic “reality,” and yet still managed to create kinetic, highly dynamic cine-paintings whose titular rhythm is difficult not to detect—managed, that is, to create films whose “organised movement” would arouse a heightened awareness, activate critical faculties, and encourage resistance to the banal, the melodramatic, the insensitive.

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 23 (1923). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Hans Richter’s Rhythmus 23 (1923). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Abstraction, which for Richter arose as “a reaction to the general disintegration of the world around us,” is in these films employed in the most austere manner. But it must be remembered that the corollary to radical abstraction was, for Richter, the possibility for artistic advancements in the wake of the dismemberment of accepted forms:

This dissolution was the ultimate in everything that Dada represented, philosophically and morally; everything must be pulled apart, not a screw left in its customary place, the screw-holes wrenched out of shape, the screw, like man himself, set on its way towards new functions which could only be known after the total negation of everything that had existed before.

Whether Richter’s abstract films constitute a total negation of the history of cinema up until 1921 is, of course, impossible to state with certainty. But it is perhaps fair to contend that they come rather close to doing so. Even more likely is the notion that, having realized abstraction in film to such a radical degree, the artist freed himself to move into the realm of photographic reality, which indeed he did in the aptly titled Filmstudie from 1916. Richter continued to make films into the early 1960s and, over the course of a long life (eventually dying in 1976), he wrote endlessly, often reflecting on his Dada years, always insisting on the contemporary relevance of what the movement meant. Whatever bearing his early abstract films had on his later cinematic endeavors, it is clear that he brought to them his polemical spirit and an astute eye for subversive forms. Dismantlement and regeneration, he understood, worked dialectically: every so often a vicious, derisive laughter was needed to clear the air for new ways of seeing and new modes of expression.  “The spirit of dada, whatever it is called,” he wrote in 1957, “is bitterly needed today. Is needed to brace us against the fatal world we presume to understand when we blow it to pieces; […] against the new mystics and the older nonmystics; against the serious concrete-blockbuilders and against the busy cloud magicians; against the world planners and the plumbers, the cheaters and the humorless in art, in film-art, in everything.” A life-long Dadaist, it seems Richter never tired of asserting the importance of art’s ability to poke fun at anybody and everybody who took the world too seriously—an assertion that today seems as necessary as ever.

East, West, Home is Best: Cold War Animation from East Central Europe

A program of short animations and experimental film screening in the Walker’s Mediatheque on March 30 at 7 pm, East, West Home is Best is presented in conjunction with the University of Minnesota symposium “Remapping European Media Cultures During the Cold War: Networks, Encounters, Exchanges” (March 30–April 1). The story of Josef Kluge’s East, West, Home is […]

Josef Kluge's East, West, Home is Best (Všude dobře, doma nejlépe). Image Courtesy of the Ruben/ Bentson Moving Image Collection

Josef Kluge’s East, West, Home is Best (Všude dobře, doma nejlépe) (1969). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

A program of short animations and experimental film screening in the Walker’s Mediatheque on March 30 at 7 pm, East, West Home is Best is presented in conjunction with the University of Minnesota symposium “Remapping European Media Cultures During the Cold War: Networks, Encounters, Exchanges” (March 30–April 1).

The story of Josef Kluge’s East, West, Home is Best (1969) has little to do with the geopolitics suggested in its title. Indeed, the film—whose Czech title, Všude dobře, doma nejlépe, is an idiom literally translated as “I’m happy everywhere, but happiest at home”—is about a young chicken. Bored with the daily routine at the nest, the tiny protagonist ventures out, finds the world outside darker and more menacing than expected, and returns home.

Nevertheless, during the Cold War, the film played a role in the transnational movement of moving images between the “East” and “West” that is this symposium’s subject—movement that was complex, and often had to do not with a film’s subject or themes, but with its production and dissemination. Kluge’s film, for instance, was donated to the Ruben/Bentson collection from Film in the Cities, the renowned Twin Cities film-education program of the 1970s and 1980s, which had received the print from American avant-garde filmmaker Bruce Conner. It’s unclear how Conner got hold of the film, but the 16mm print bears opening titles in English, prepared by Czechoslovakia’s film-export company, Czechoslovak Filmexport.

Animation was an important component of media exports from postwar Eastern Europe, many of which were sent west. Usually short, colorful, and unburdened by heavy dialogue, animated films were eminently “translatable” and brought returns in the form of hard currency and prestige. As East, West, Home is Best makes clear, they also often had a helpful openness: one can read Kluge’s chicken as an allegory for Soviet post-1968 exile and return, or for adolescence, or merely in its own absurd terms. Witold Giersz’s Fire (Pożar) (1975), similarly—which, like Kluge’s film and Jan Lenica’s A (1964), is part of the Ruben/Bentson collection—is about the natural world, and as much about painting as it is about cinema.

Witold Giersz's Fire (Pożar). Image courtesy of the Ruben/ Bentson Moving Image Collection

Witold Giersz’s Fire (Pożar) (1975). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

The films in this program circulated beyond and within postwar Eastern Europe in multiple ways, one of which was television. The Our Sandman films that bracket the program are a case in point: Created by puppet maker and director Gerhard Behrendt for East German television in 1959, the films were adapted into children’s television in several Western European or neutral countries, especially in the Nordic region. Travel was a key theme of the films: adopting imaginative modes of transport, the Sandman visits children around Germany and other socialist countries, as well as beyond the socialist world. The films’ popularity in the Nordic countries probably inspired one of the films in this program (written by a Finnish scriptwriter), in which Sandman travels to Lapland.

Film festivals were another locus for East-West exchange. Of the films in this series, at least three were screened at Oberhausen, the West German short-film festival whose motto, “The Path to Neighbors” (“Weg zum Nachbarn”), signaled its cultural-diplomatic aspirations. In 1965, Lenica’s A was awarded the festival’s Grand Prize, and in 1977, Giersz won the Catholic Jury Prize for Fire. At the 1962 festival—the same year that he directed Weimar Republic Signs—Haro Senft originated the groundbreaking Oberhausen Manifesto, which called for a “new German cinema.”

Jan Lenica's A (1965). Image courtesy of the Ruben/ Bentson Moving Image Collection

Jan Lenica’s A (1965). Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

Yet Senft’s and Lenica’s careers underscore that East-West dynamics in Cold War media cultures are also traced in biography. Senft was born in Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland, in the city of České Budějovice, in 1928. Midway during the war, at the age of 15, he was drafted as a Luftwaffenhelfer (“assistant” in the German air force), and from May 1945 to May 1946 he found himself interned in the country of his birth, in camps for German expellees. He soon emigrated to Wiesbaden, West Germany, where he studied film.

Lenica, who was also born in 1928, started his career as a graphic artist and poster designer in his native Poland, and began collaborating on animated films with celebrated director Walerian Borowczyk in 1957. After encountering problems with his work’s distribution, he emigrated to Paris, then West Germany, where he taught animation in Kassel and poster design and graphic arts at the Berlin Hochschule der Kunste. Throughout his career, Lenica collaborated with playwright Eugène Ionesco, who, like Lenica, moved between Eastern and Western Europe (in Ionesco’s case, Romania and France); A is an adaptation of themes from Ionesco. If film prints and television broadcasts moved through space, then, so did people, with Senft’s and Lenica’s careers offering two different models for emigration: one forced by World War II’s cataclysmic geopolitical shifts; one rooted in the often-constricting nature of East European media industries.

This constriction is both the subject and the condition of possibility for Helke Misselwitz’s Tango Dream (1985). Here, Misselwitz, a key director in East Germany’s DEFA Studio for Documentary Films, depicts an East German filmmaker confronting the question of how she can make a film about Buenos Aires and Montevideo without being able to travel there. Movement, in the film, thus occurs through other means: as the film’s title suggests, in dreams and in sound, the latter a means of transmission to which physical and geographic borders mean little.

Contemportentary: The Archive Is a Port in the Squall

CONTEMPORTENTARY is a playlist curated by Hannah Piper Burns from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection and on view in the Walker’s Bentson Mediatheque during the months of January and February. It is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Joanne Klein, who liked to say, “Has the mind you expanded shrunk to fit the times?”  We […]


Antoni Muntadas, Video is Television?, 1989. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

CONTEMPORTENTARY is a playlist curated by Hannah Piper Burns from the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection and on view in the Walker’s Bentson Mediatheque during the months of January and February. It is dedicated to the memory of Dr. Joanne Klein, who liked to say, “Has the mind you expanded shrunk to fit the times?” 

We need cinema right now, because we need a moment. And not just any moment: We have been in the streets, with candles and signs, and sometimes tear gas and broken glass. We have been in public, sizing each other up and/or just trying to blend in, weaponizing our small talk and surveilling each other’s tantrums. We have been in the feeds with our index fingers like inchworms infinitely scrolling and clicking, and clicking, and sharing, peripatetic, our tabs proliferating in the windows. We have been on either side of the protest lines, screaming and brandishing conflicting signs. Now we need a moment in the dark to be alone together, in a different kind of covenant, with a different kind of discourse. In a way, we are all alone in the dark together already.

I need a moment. I have whiplash from the breaking news cracking across my timelines, and I can’t tell if I’m being served or summoned by the algorithms. I’m really starting to feel differently about the arc of history and I know it’s not just me, baby. I’m coming down with a bad case of that time warp feeling. Things seem like they are moving very, very quickly, but we’re hurtling towards an inevitability, rather than a possibility. These are times characterized by bombardment—of opinions, emotions, narratives, calls to action, commodities—within greater systems of control that operate in various states of visibility. This demanding abundance grating against the creeping, camouflaged austerity is the white noise whine that we have had to learn to live with.


Miranda Pennell’s You Made Me Love You, 2004. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

I turned to the archive with a mind to find works that might whine back, in the key of my own emotional maelstrom. I have been curating film and video for the better part of the last decade—programming film festivals and touring with screenings—but I have never made selections from a repository like the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection at the Walker Art Center. I approached the archive as I would an oracle, looking for new ways to look at my own reality. I came away with an array of movies that echo my processing of this post-truth, casually brutal, winkingly authoritarian, rapidly accelerating present tension. At first, I framed my selections in hauntological terms:

Each of these movies is a ghost that haunts our contemporary condition. As a collection, they zigzag across the decades and conjure the morass, the cacophony, the nihilism, the absurdity, the dissonance, and the violence that we have internalized. That we have normalized. The howl of the wind is the growl of an engine is the groan of orgasm is the moan of anguish. The gaze refracts back. The body is a political act. The ghosts are screaming through the screen. Can you hear them?

But then I started thinking about the energy I felt moving through the works, the charge I was trying to harness, the breath behind that screaming. It was pain. Ghosts can be seen as pure pain made manifest. The body may rot away, but suffering is what anchors a spirit to the material world. This playlist is about fitting the suffering of the now into the continuum of cinema, with movies that act as the medium between the now and the then as well as between ourselves and others.


Kenneth Anger, Scorpio Rising, 1964. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

So if these works are challenging, discomforting, or destabilizing, it is because I am discomforted and destabilized. We all should be. Comfort gets us nowhere anymore, and by the way, there is just as much comfort to be found in outrage as there is in pleasure.


Tony Oursler, Grand Mal, 1981. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

If they are absurd, it’s because reason has no place in our new resonance-based economies of attention, so why shouldn’t we just push through the low-level tragedy of irony and into the glorious, discordant realm of the absurd? Absurdity is the alchemy that transforms anguish into resistance. It’s the epiphany that when meaning can no longer be made, it must be un-made.


Leslie Thornton, Strange Space, 1992. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

If they are vulnerable almost to the point of confrontation, it’s because so many vulnerabilities have been reified and revealed. The zeitgeist openly mocks open vulnerability, lumping it in with its dismissal of “special snowflakes,” “safe spaces,” and “political correctness.” That bullying impulse has now ascended to the highest echelons of power, so it’s a considerable act of courage to turn the other cheek or roll over to show off a soft underbelly in the face of it.


Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn, The Deadman, 1989. Image courtesy of the Ruben/Bentson Moving Image Collection

If they are profane, like Kenneth Anger’s flashy fashy fashionable fetishizing of toxic masculinity or Peggy Ahwesh and Keith Sanborn’s stripped-down, balls-to-the-wall adaptation of a Bataille text (complete with unsimulated sex), it’s because I think it’s time to Make Cultural Gatekeepers Disgusted Again. Turnabout is fair play. The grants aren’t going to be coming through anymore anyway and besides, the more threatened they feel by unrepentant, revolting resistance, and the more they debate and try to legislate the perceived obscenity and blasphemy in art, the less time they have to otherwise destroy the world. Artists can and should push their envelopes into public art spaces with their abject, unapologetic, indecorous best, because in order to keep freedom of expression for all and not just for some, we need to keep putting it to the test.

In the cinema, there is no clickbait. There are no think pieces; there is no comments section. The discourse is not at your itchy, angry fingertips here in the dark, away from the targeted ads (and the target audience) and the endless superlative listicles and the weirdly distributed network of everyone you know, and the deluge of their banalities and their extremes. It’s a space to feel your subjectivity again, unhooked from the monetizable response industrial complex. It’s a space to let media mediate, between you and your core, without the roar of commentary. It’s a space to process individual and collective pain, so that when the lights come back on, it has transformed for us.

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