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Identity Crisis: Experimental

Film and Artistic Expansion*


The radical transformations that took place in the arts after the Second
World War reached a crescendo in the 1960s. The nature and possibilities of each
art form were fundamentally rethought, while the idea that these art forms could
be clearly distinguished from one another gave way to intensive experimentation
with cross-fertilization and mixing. Recall Allan Kaprows statement, The young
artist of today need no longer say I am a painter, or I am a dancer. He is simply
an artist.1 Or this definition by Joseph Kosuth:
Being an artist now means to question the nature of art. If one is
questioning the nature of painting, one cannot be questioning
the nature of art . . . Thats because the word art is general and
the word painting is specific. Painting is a kind of art. If you
make paintings you are already accepting (not questioning) the
nature of art.2
In the visual and performing arts, this period is described using terms like
expanded arts, dematerialization, intermedia, and, more recently, the post-
medium condition.3 The parallel term in film is expanded cinema. Put simply,
it refers to cinema expanding beyond the bounds of traditional uses of celluloid
film, the medium that had defined it for over six decades, to inhabit a wide range
of other materials and forms.4

* This essay is dedicated to the memory of Adolfas Mekas.

1. Allan Kaprow, The Legacy of Jackson Pollock, Art News 57 (October 1958), p. 57.
2. Joseph Kosuth, Art After Philosophy, in Art After Philosophy and After: Collected Writings,
19661990, ed. Gabriele Cuercio (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991), p. 18. Art After Philosophy
originally appeared in Studio International (October 1969), and Kosuth first made this statement in
Arthur R. Rose, Four Interviews, Arts Magazine 43 (February 1969), p. 23.
3. The term is Rosalind Krausss. See Two Moments from the Post-Medium Condition, October
116 (Spring 2006), pp. 5562, and A Voyage on the North Sea: Art in the Age of the Post-Medium Condition
(London: Thames and Hudson, 2000).
4. I will use celluloid film to refer to all the physical components of the film medium taken
together, as traditionally employed by filmmakers: camera, lenses, photochemical filmstrip, projector,
and screen. I will use standard uses and traditional practices to refer to conventional filmmaking,
as opposed to expanded-cinema practices in which the physical components of the film medium are
multiplied, rearranged, replaced with other materials, abandoned, and/or used outside of the typical
theatrical screening context.

OCTOBER 137, Summer 2011, pp. 2350. 2011 October Magazine, Ltd. and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

As originally described by critics like Gene Youngblood and Sheldan Renan,

expanded cinema included video and television, light shows, computer art, multi-
media inst allat ion and per formance, kinet ic sculpture and theater, and
holography, to name a few forms. It encompassed everything from mass-market
theatrical films (Youngblood discusses Stanley Kubricks 1968 film 2001: A Space
Odyssey) to experimental film (e.g., Michael Snows Wavelength and the films of
Andy Warhol) to kinesthetic happenings and performances that employed no
moving-image media whatsoever. As Youngblood had it, When we say expanded
cinema we actually mean expanded consciousness . . . Expanded cinema isnt a
movie at all: like life its a process of becoming, mans ongoing historical drive to
manifest his consciousness outside of his mind, in front of his eyes.5
The expansion of cinema was often characterized as liberating filmmakers
from tradition and convention. As Renan wrote in 1967, expanded cinema
rejected the idea that motion pictures should be made to universal specifications
on given machines under given and never changing conditions.6 Cinema was now
liberated from the concept of standardization.7 Like Youngblood, Renan con-
ceived of cinema in the broadest possible terms. Any material that could be used
to control or manipulate light and timemetal, magnetic tape, plastic, glass, the
human bodycould be a cinematic material.
But if this liberation of cinema from the confines of the standard uses of cel-
luloid film opened a door onto an exciting world of possibilities, it also raised
concerns among filmmakers about the very identity of their art form. And it was
specifically within experimental film that this expansion reverberated most force-
fully, given that worlds proximity to (which is not to say its inclusion in) the art
world. While many filmmakers and sympathetic critics felt some of the same skep-
ticism toward traditional practices with media that animated the expanded arts in
general, they must also have had reservations about the implications of cinemas
expansion. A belief in and commitment to the specificity of film had been key to
the assertion of cinemas autonomy within the pantheon of the arts and, as impor-
tant, to experimental cinemas articulation of its identity as an artistic tradition.
To cast off the film medium was to risk losing a connection to a tradition with
which contemporaneous experimental filmmakers identified as artists and earlier
generations had labored to build and nurture.
That the exploration of new intermedia forms in the name of expanded cin-
ema dovetailed with the sudden surge of interest in the moving image in the art
world only complicated matters. As cinema expanded in the direction of other
arts, these other arts reached toward cinema for a way to extend their major aes-
thet ic interest s, much as they had done in the 1920s. Together, the t win
phenomena of expanded cinema and the proliferation of moving images in the

5. Gene Youngblood, Expanded Cinema (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co., 1970), p. 41.
6. Sheldon Renan, An Introduction to the American Underground Film (New York: E.P. Dutton and Co.,
1967), p. 227.
7. Ibid., p. 227.
Identity Crisis 25

museum and gallery introduced cinema to new spaces and forms, and brought to
bear upon it new discourses: expanded cinemas language of new media, interme-
dia, and synesthesia, on the one hand, and the art worlds post-Minimalist
theorizing, on the other hand, wherein cinema became sculptural, performa-
tive, conceptual, and, in a more contemporary theoretical formulation,
An early expression of concern over these developments was Annette
Michelsons critically important essay Film and the Radical Aspiration, first pub-
lished in Film Culture in 1966. According to Michelson, the erasure of boundaries
between the arts and the ethic of intermedia at the heart of expanded cinema
threatened to derail radical filmmakings quest for autonomy and drain cinema of
its potential power:
The questioning of the values of formal autonomy has led to an
attempted dissolution of distinctions or barriers between media. . . .
Cinema, on the verge of winning the battle for the recognition of its
specificityand every major filmmaker and critic in the last half-
century has fought that battleis now engaged in a reconsideration
of its aims. The Victor now questions his Victory. The emergence of
new intermedia, the revival of the old dream of synesthesia, the
cross-fertilization of dance, theater, and film . . . constitute a syn-
drome of that radicalisms crisis, both formal and social.8

In this essay, Michelson chastised certain experimental filmmakers for uncriti-

cally parroting the rhetoric of other art forms (for example, Brakhages association
of his films with Abstract Expressionism, or action painting). Michelson acknowl-
edged the possibilityindeed, the necessityof film drawing upon the other arts.
But for artistic cross-fertilization to bear fruit, each of the interacting art forms
needed to be secure in its respective ontologies.9 As the youngest art form, cin-
emaits sense of ontological identity still maturingwas the most susceptible to
losing its independence by borrowing the forms and ideas of the other arts.
Though Michelson did not make the point explicitly, one implication of her
essay was that experimental cinema was especially at risk of losing its identity and
independence in the context of cinemas expansion. It may indeed have been that
every major filmmaker and critic in the last half-century had contributed to cin-
emas struggle for autonomy, but experimental film lacked the high-cultural
profile and well-established economic and institutional infrastructures of more
mainstream cinematic modes such as Hollywood cinema and the international art
filmnot to mention the other arts. Moreover, experimental film was historically,
aesthetically, and institutionally interconnected with the other arts in ways that

8. Annette Michelson, Film and the Radical Aspiration, in The Film Culture Reader, ed. P. Adams
Sitney (New York: Cooper Square Press, 2000), p. 420.
9. Ibid., p. 420.

Hollywood and the art cinema werent, making it more difficult to define against
the backdrop of the media-focused expanded and inter-arts practices of the
period. Michelsons essay, therefore, was an important intervention in that it saw
the question of cinemas identity not solely in aesthetic terms but in institutional
(i.e., economic) ones as well. As we shall see, her concerns were felt by filmmakers
at the time, and remain relevant today.
Expanded cinema and the embrace of the moving image by the art world thus
threatened two intertwined endeavors undertaken by filmmakers and critics for
decades: the definition of their art form and the establishment of its autonomy
and therefore its worthamong the other arts. Once cinema stepped beyond the
bounds of standard practices with the physical medium that had embodied it for
over sixty years, how was it to be defined, or even recognized? If cinema could be
made from so many other materials, what made the resulting forms distinct from
those of the other arts? As it entered the gallery and museum, what, if anything,
secured its status as cinematic as opposed to sculptural, painterly, or something in
the gray zones in between? In short, if cinema could be anything, what was to pre-
vent it from becoming nothing, from dissolving into the generalized mass of
synesthetic intermedia art, the return of the Gesamtkunstwerk? The question was no
longer what is cinema? but what isnt cinema?
Thus, simultaneous with cinemas expansion was a concentrated program of
medium-specific filmmaking in the form of Structural and Structural-materialist
film; many filmmakers engaged in this kind of work had come to experimental
cinema from the other arts, often continuing to produce work in these other
mediums while making films that aggressively asserted the materiality of the cellu-
loid-film medium and it s uniqueness. This paradox went to the root s of
experimental cinema, which had, after all, begun with the cinematic experiments
of avant-garde artists such as Fernand Lger, Hans Richter, Salvador Dali, Marcel
Duchamp, Lszl Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray, etc.
The expansion of cinema, then, reanimated some of the fundamental ques-
tions and paradoxes of experimental cinemas history; these have continued to
vex artists and scholars into the present day. Nearly ten years after Film and the
Radical Aspiration, Michelson, in an essay on Paul Sharits, wondered about the
nature and limits of Sharitss locational film works (gallery installations featur-
ing film loops on multiple projectors) and their relationship to sculpture: that is,
the ontological consequences attending films move into the gallery space.10 In
1984, well past the period of Structural and Structural-materialist films concen-
trated study of celluloid films specificity, the filmmaker Michael Mazire could
still lament, Unfortunately experimental film often remains largely dependent
on more established fine arts practices, unsure of its context.11 He concluded,

10. Annette Michelson, Paul Sharits and the Critique of Illusionism: an Introduction, Film Culture
6566 (1978), pp. 8789.
11. Michael Mazire, Towards a Specific Practice, in The Undercut Reader: Critical Writings on Artists
Film and Video, ed. Michael Mazire and Nina Danino (London: Wallflower Press, 2002), p. 43.
Identity Crisis 27

The quest is still for a language which can describe, define, propose and question
the issues at work [in experimental film] without being purely derivative of other
practices, a space where new terms are engendered through, by and with a film
practice confident of its specific independence.12
The last decade or so has seen a resurgence of critical interest in the issues
raised by expanded cinema and the art worlds turn toward the moving image.
The questions posed by earlier generations of artists and scholars seem all the
more pressing and confusing today, surrounded as we are by a new surge of mov-
ing-image art in the gallery (by Matthew Barney, Shirin Neshat, Tacita Dean,
Rodney Graham, and others) and the rapid proliferation of new media forms
the spread of digital moving-image technology that is ushering in a new chapter
of cinemas expansion. But once again, the difficulty of defining expanded cinema
presents itself, as does the related problem of pinning down cinemas specificity
within an ever-widening field. The place of experimental cinema, too, is still a
question to be reckoned with.
As Chrissie Iles noted in a talk at the Tate Moderns controversial conference
on expanded cinema in 2008, the challenge of defining expanded cinema stems
from fact that cinema itselfpre-expansion, as it werewas so heterogeneous
that the label expanded seems redundant; the cinema, that is, was always
already expanded. Iles thus offered a distinction between Expanded Cinema
(capital E, capital C, as she put it), which had been a specific historical
moment growing out of Structural and Structural-materialist film, and an ongo-
ing expansion and contraction of the cinema that could be traced back to the
pre-cinematic pastat least as far back as experiments with anamorphism during
the Baroque period. Expanded Cinema (capitalized) was simply one momentif
an especially rich and important onein the more generalized process by which
cinemas ontology is always being redefined and re-historicized, a process that con-
tinues into the present moment of new, digital media.13
Iless phrase expansion and contraction speaks to a give-and-take between
a radically expanded ontology that projects cinema across a multiplicity of forms
and materials, on the one hand, and a narrower, medium-specific ontology that
seeks to differentiate cinema from the other arts, on the other. Iless suggestive
distinction, including her identification of a historically specific Expanded
Cinema tied directly to the tradition of experimental cinema, is worth pursuing
further. The increasingly unwieldy mass of forms and materials placed under the
heading of expanded cinema has rendered the term, capitalized or not, bloated to
the point of near meaninglessness. The all-encompassing generality of the term

12. Ibid., p. 44.

13. Chrissie Iles, Inside Out: Expanded Cinema and Its Relationship to the Gallery in the 1970s,
(paper presented at Expanded Cinema: Activating the Space of Reception, Tate Modern, London,
April 1719, 2009), _2_-CI.html.
(accessed May 9, 2011). The filmmaker Bradley Eros employs the same distinction between expand-
ed and contracted cinema in There Will Be Projections in All Dimensions, Millennium Film Journal
43/44 (Summer/Fall 2005), p. 66.

loses sight of all manner of specific practicesdistinct artistic currents that once
flowed into expanded cinema and have since flowed out in new directions.
For instance, it seems unlikely that most of the artists represented in
Youngbloods landmark book Expanded Cinema thought of their work in terms of the
cinematic. Instead, expanded cinema named a cluster of nascent art forms that
have subsequently become more distinct: video art, media art and activism, perfor-
mance art, moving-image installation, experimental and alternative television,
kinetic art, light art, and the electronic arts and new media more generally (includ-
ing the earliest stages of computer art and the precursors of Internet art). In the
moment that all of these new media and forms were appearing, expanded cinema
was a handy catchall for any work involving moving images, electronic media, light,
time, etc. But it could only be a temporary designation; as time passed, these embry-
onic art forms specified their practices and developed their own histories defined by
major artists and works, supporting institutions, and distinct critical languages and
concepts. Moving-image work in the gallery, too, distinguished itself from cinema
by invoking the language of the other arts, particularly the sculptural, a category
that had radically expanded. That distinctionbetween the sculptural moving-image
art of the gallery and the cinematic work of the theater (the white cube and the
black box)remains with us today.14
Experimental Cinema (capital E, capital C, if you like) was distinguishing
itself in much the same way during the same period. Though its history could be
traced to the films of the European avant-garde of the 1920s, it only crystallized as
a mode of film practice during the post-WWII period in places like New York, San
Francisco, and London. This crystallization took place not only around key figures
and dominant critical discourses but around institutions as well: co-ops, exhibi-
tion venues, journals, and structures of distribution and exhibition that continue
to define the tradition. In short, experimental cinema was struggling for its iden-
tity and independence just like the other young artistic movements of the 1960s
and 70sat the very moment when the preoccupation with intermedia and artis-
tic expansion seized the art world.
It might seem counterintuitive to subject expanded cinema to a categoriza-
tion of the specific media and practices contained within it when it seems so
manifestly about the subversion and disintegration of such categories. But a tax-
onomy of expanded cinema recognizes what the more generalized and
accommodating conceptions cannot, such as the unique communities, critical
vocabularies, and institutions that constitute the histories of, say, experimental
cinema, video art, and alternative TV. Moreover, such a taxonomy does not
require absolute, inflexible boundaries between art forms, nor does it need sys-
tematic notions of the specificity of each relevant medium (e.g., film, video),
though it must recognize that the discourses of specificity and independence

14. For a discussion of this, see Jonathan Walley, Modes of Film Practice in the Avant-Garde, in Art
and the Moving Image: A Critical Reader, ed. Tanya Leighton (London: Tate Publishing/Afterall, 2008),
pp. 18299.
Identity Crisis 29

were certainly as significant to the art of the time as the ethic of expansion and
boundary-breaking. In fact, the conception of expanded cinema I am proposing
recognizes the interplay between generality (in which differences among art
forms dissolve) and specificity (where each art forms distinctness and autonomy
are asserted, explored, sustained): between expansion and contraction.

One way to address this distinction is in terms of the perceived relationship

between the art of cinema and the medium of film. The assumption that cinema
and film were identicalthe former an art form embodied in the latterwas the
idea that expanded cinema countered. Medium-specificity, then, is understood as
being directly opposed to the inter-arts generality of expanded cinema, an opposi-
tion mirrored in the other arts.
Throughout its history, however, experimental cinema had produced more-
complicated meditations (in both theory and practice) on the nature of film and
its relationship to the ontology of cinema. In this context, there were no simple
distinctions between a medium-specific film practice and expanded conceptions
of cinema. For example, the critic Deke Dusinberre suggested in 1975 that the
materialist emphasis of European experimental cinema was leading in an unex-
pected direct ion: some filmmaker s, scrut inizing films mater ials in their
investigations of cinemas fundamental principles, had produced work that aban-
doned the medium of celluloid film entirely. Dusinberre referred to Anthony
McCalls Long Film for Ambient Light (1975), Tony Hills shadow performance Point
Source (1973), and work by Valie Export and Peter Weibel. A paradox emerges,
he wrote. The very emphasis on the material nature of the cinema . . . leads to
immateriality.15 Expanded cinema and materialist filmmaking, seemingly two
entirely opposite enterprises, were in fact interconnected.
Looking back on this period from a contemporary perspective, Rosalind
Krauss has argued that the medium-specific inclinations of experimental filmmak-
ers in the 1960s produced a sophisticated ontological modelone that was
suggestive to other artists:
The rich satisfactions of thinking about films specificity at that
juncture derived from the mediums aggregate condition, one
that led a slightly later generation of theorists to define its sup-
port with the compound idea of the apparatusthe medium
or support for film being neither the celluloid strip of the
images, nor the camera that filmed them, nor the beam of light
that relays them to the screen, nor that screen itself, but all of
these taken together, including the audiences position caught

15. Deke Dusinberre, On Expanding Cinema, Studio International 190 (Nov.Dec. 1975), p. 224.

between the source of the light behind it and the image pro-
jected before its eyes.16

In Krausss view, Structural films aim was one of producing the unity of this
diversified support in a single, sustained experience.17 Krauss suggests that
Structural filmmakers demonstrated the interdependency of their mediums com-
ponent elements through the use of metaphors. For example, building upon
Michelsons seminal phenomenological analysis of Michael Snows Wavelength
(1967), Krauss interprets that film as an abstract spatial metaphor for films rela-
tion to time.18 This was a metaphor of pure horizontal thrust built out of the
films famous forty-five-minute zoom-in, the illusory depth of the loft space, the
suspense generated by the unfolding narrative action, and the slow rising of the
sine wave on the soundtrack.19 This metaphor provided a unifying framework
through which the viewer could apprehend the interdependence of the film
mediums elements. Snows own comments on his film support Krausss appara-
tus-inflected interpretation:
I was thinking of planning for a time monument in which the
beauty and sadness of equivalence would be celebrated, thinking
of trying to make a definitive statement of pure Film space and
time, a balancing of illusion and fact, all about seeing. The
space starts at the cameras (spectators) eye, is in the air, then is
on the screen, then is within the screen (the mind).20

This conception of film as a network of interrelated components was far subtler

than the reductive commonplace of modernist film criticism: that each Structural
or Structural-materialist film was simply about the frame, or about flatness, or
about flicker.21
As Snows comments suggest, Krausss itemization of the distinct yet inter-
connected components of film echoes a common tendency among experimental
filmmakers and critics, particularly in the 1960s and 70s (and later in writing
that makes reference to the films of that period). Attempts to isolate the

16. Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea, pp. 2425.

17. Ibid., p. 25.
18. Ibid., p. 26.
19. Ibid.
20. Snow, quoted in P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-Garde, 19431978, 2nd ed.
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 375.
21. It should be noted that along with Michelson, P. Adams Sitney and Deke Dusinberre interpreted
Snows film, and Structural film in general, in metaphorical terms of this sort. In both cases, the
metaphoric interpretation counters the reductive, literal understanding of these films as being
about nothing more than the film medium itself. Indeed, for Dusinberre, North American Structural
films like Snows solved a problem that confronted European Structural-materialist film: that a purely
reflexive, medium-specific aesthetic rendered films literally meaningless, unable to provide any fur-
ther insight into . . . processes of cognition and comprehension, isolated in a closed circle of pres-
ence and self-reference. See P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film, pp. 37880, and Deke Dusinberre, St.
George in the Forest: The English Avant-Garde, Afterimage 6 (Summer 1976), pp. 1415.
Identity Crisis 31

medium-specific in film frequently produced laundry lists of films basic materials

and physical properties. This tendency is perhaps best represented by David
Jamess account of Structural film, which, he argues:
variously emphasized the material nature of film and the separate stages
of the production processfrom script, through editing and projection,
to reception by the audience. Thus: flicker films . . . are about the opti-
cal effects of rapidly alternating monochromatic frames; Michael
Snows Wavelength (1967), Back-Forth (1969) and La Region Centrale
(1971) are about the effects of camera zoom, panning, and 360-
degree rotation; Barry Gersons films are about the ambiguous
space between legibility and abstraction and thus draw attention
to the dependence of representation on focus, framing, camera
angle, and so forth. . . . And on through the list, it is possible to
map out a periodic table of all structural films, all possible struc-
tural films, by positing a film constructed to manifest each
moment in an atomized model of the entire cinematic process.22

The filmmaker Malcolm Le Grice mapped out just such a periodic table of
Structural films, including films based on concerns which derive from the cam-
era, concerns which derive from the editing process, concerns which derive
from the physical nature of film, concern with duration as a concrete dimen-
sion, and concern with the semantics of image and with the construction of
meaning through language systems.23 Paul Sharitss essay Words Per Page maps
out an intensive study of film (a program of study he named cinematics) that
ranged from emulsion grains and sprocket holes to processes of intending to
make a film and processes of experiencing [a film].24
What is striking about these laundry lists of uniquely filmic elements is not
how often such lists have been formulated, but how much they vary and how many
different types of elements they incorporate, ranging from the resolutely material
(emulsion grains, sprocket holes, the shutter) to the elusively ephemeral (light, time,
ideas, and spectatorial experience). One might expect the itemization of film-specific
elements to be a simpler matter: just list the parts of the film stock, camera, and pro-
jector, ident ifying these as the neutral mater ial ground upon which a
medium-specific aesthetic can be based. But once a list of films specifics begins, it
quickly proliferatesexpands, in factsuggesting, once more, that cinema is always
already expanded. In doing so, these ontologies open up onto much more heteroge-
neous conceptions of cinema than one would anticipate from a medium-specific
theory or practice. Sharits, for instance, closes his essay by stating, It may be that in

22. David James, Allegories of Cinema: American Film in the Sixties (Princeton: Princeton University
Press, 1989), p. 243.
23. Malcolm Le Grice, Thoughts on Recent Underground Film, Afterimage 4 (Autumn 1972),
p. 83.
24. Paul Sharits, Words Per Page, Film Culture 6566 (1978), p. 37.

limiting oneself to a passionate definition of an elemental, primary cinema, one

may find it necessary to construct systems involving either no projector at all or more
than one projector and more than one flat screen, and more than one volumetric
space between them.25 And Jamess atomized model of the entire cinematic
process slides seamlessly from cameras, lenses, flicker, and framing to a conceptual
cinema, much like Bazins myth of total cinema, existing in a primordial state in the
pre-cinematic period of Muybridge and Marey.26
Within the world of experimental film, then, there was no easy distinction
between a medium-specific film practice and an expanded one, just as Dusinberre
observed. The atomized conception of film provided the basis for a body of work
that was expanded without losing its connection to the medium. Film, that is, was
heterogeneous enoughinternally-differentiated, to use Krausss term.27 There
could be an expanded cinema that was, at the same time, distinctly filmic.
But where Krauss claims that the aim of Structural film was to unify the
mediums component parts, the expanded work of filmmakers like Sharits signals
a different path. Once film had been so atomized, filmmakers could intervene at
any point in its table of elements; these elements could be multiplied (as in works
that utilized multiple projectors and/or screens), rearranged, and/or replaced
with alternative materials. Filmmakers could even abandon certain elements com-
pletely, the better to concentrate on the remaining ones, such as Sharitss systems
involving . . . no projector at all, or Tony Conrads series of unprojectable film
objects made by cooking, twisting, or hammering raw film stock. Rather than
producing the unity of this diversified support, filmmakers working with this
atomized model produced its disunity, dismantling the medium, breaking the
interdependent elements of the apparatus apart and subjecting them to all man-
ner of permutations to increase its diversity. Or, putting it a different way, it was
the elemental conception of the film medium that unified these works, providing
an abstract model that individual instances of expanded cinema could reference,
even at many levels of remove. Indeed, the process could go as far as those filmless
works by McCall and Hill that puzzled Dusinberre and referenced the physical
medium conceptually or metaphorically.
Hollis Framptons idea of the film machine is one version of this expanded
ontology. Though he used the term in only one essay, For a Metahistory of Film:
Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses, the idea reverberates through many of his
other writings. In Framptons view, film could not be reduced to the celluloid
strip, the camera, or the projector; it was, rather, the sum of all these things
taken together:
We are used to thinking of camera and projector as machines, but
they are not. They are parts. The flexible filmstrip is as much a

25. Ibid., p. 43.

26. James, Allegories of Cinema, p. 243.
27. Krauss, A Voyage on the North Sea, p. 30.
Identity Crisis 33

part of the film machine as the projectile is part of a firearm. . . .

Since all the parts fit together, the sum of all film, all projectors,
and all cameras in the world constitutes one machine.28

Defining film in this way allowed Frampton to imagine a filmmaking process that
replaced or simply removed some of the parts without sacrificing the resulting
works legibility as a film:
If filmstrip and projector are parts of the same machine, then a
film may be defined operationally as whatever will pass through a
projector. The least thing that will do that is nothing at all. Such a
film has been made. It is the only unique film in existence.29
The only unique film in existence to which Frampton referred was the com-
poser Takehisa Kosugis performance piece Film and Film #4 (1965). In it, Kosugi
made rectangular cuts of increasing size from a paper screen lit by the beam of an
empty 16mm projector (starting with a small cut at the center of the screen and
working his way out until there was, in effect, no screen left, and the projectors
beam hit the rear wall of the space). Though it employed no celluloid, Film and Film
#4 makes very clear references to the material conditions of filmmaking. Its alterna-
tions of white (the screen, the beam of light) and black (the darkened space, the
growing hole in the screen), which Kosugi extended to the clothing he wore during
the performance, invoke black-and-white photography, and positive and negative
imagery. The alternations made to the screen suggest such filmic elements as fram-
ing, zooming, cutting (of course), and change over time.
In Framptons 1968 Hunter College lecture, an empty projector runs while a
text by Frampton on the nature of film plays on a tape recorder at the front of the
screening space. During the lecture, the projectionist makes four films by insert-
ing objects into the projector gate or by placing a hand or colored filter over the
lens. It seems that a film is anything that may be put into a projector that will
modulate the emerging beam of light, Frampton wrote, once again alluding to
Kosugis piece.30
Al Wongs Moon Light (1984), a film installation with performer, employed
an empty projector, moonlight, sunlight, and fire to fill the installation space with
light and shadow. The performer used a mirrored disk to reflect light from the
various sources around the space. Like Kosugi, Wong saw the interaction of light
and shadow in filmic terms, as positive and negative imagery.
Empty-projector performances like these represent one branch of a group of
expanded works that collectively dismantle the film machine, displacing its compo-

28. Hollis Frampton, For a Metahistory of Film: Commonplace Notes and Hypotheses, in On the
Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters: The Writings of Hollis Frampton, ed. Bruce Jenkins (Cambridge,
Mass.: MIT Press, 2009), p. 137.
29. Ibid.
30. Hollis Frampton, A Lecture, in On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters, p. 127.

nents with substitute materials and actions. Here, celluloid film itself is replaced by
another object that modulates the projector beam: the performer him/herself. The
distinction between film production and exhibition is thereby collapsed, a move that
was characteristic of much materialist film and expanded cinema of the same period
(particularly in Europe). Such works conceive performance in essentially cinematic
terms, making it a fundamental ontological element of cinema rather than an alien
form (i.e., theater). In so doing, they place film into a position of parity with the
rich and expansive field of performance-based art, but they also maintain an associa-
tive link with the materials of film and the inherently filmic aesthetic qualities or
traits that medium-specific filmmaking favored.
Another group of expanded-cinema works inverted the empty-projector per-
formance, retaining the filmstrip but eliminating every other component of the film
machine, frequently rendering the strip unprojectable and thus necessitating alter-
native modes of presentation. Among the best-known examples is the series of films
that Conrad produced from 1973 to 1975, which he made by subjecting filmstrips to
such processes as frying, roasting, hammering, and electrocuting, making them
unprojectable. Sharits and Peter Kubelka created installation versions of their
flicker films, including the formers Ray Gun Virus (1966) and the latters Arnulf
Rainer (1960), in which the films were cut into strips of uniform length and
mounted between Plexiglas. Conrad made a similar film object called Flicker Matte
(1974), a mat (as in doormat or place mat) made by weaving together clear and
opaque 16mm filmstrips, a joke on the flicker films he had produced in the previous
decade. Takahiko Iimura has recently revisited a series of film installations he pro-
duced in the 1970s that were intended to reveal what he called the film-system.31
Like Frampton, Iimura conceived of film as the sum total of interrelated elements,
which he put on display in installation form. In 2007, he issued a limited edition of
twenty-four-frame (one second) strips of clear or opaque 16mm film spliced into
tiny loops and encased in transparent plastic boxes.
These film objects are exhibited in ways that call to mind painting (the
Sharits and Kubelka films) or sculpture (Conrad and Iimura). But their makers
consistently described them in the language of experimental-film culture, some-
times going so far as to explicitly distinguish them from other art forms. Conrad,
for instance, saw his film objects as a logical endgame to the materialist practices
of contemporaneous experimental film,32 as well as an attempt to liberate film-
makers from an unexamined reliance on (and therefore unwitting collusion with)
the corporate manufacturers of film technology, such as Kodak.33 Employing non-
temporal, sculptural forms, Conrad could radically extend the exploration of

31. Takahiko Iimura, On Film-Installation, Millennium Film Journal 2 (Spring 2002), pp. 7476.
Also see Walley, Modes of Film Practice in the Avant-Garde, in Art and the Moving Image, p. 195.
32. Tony Conrad, Is This Penny Ante or a High Stakes Game? An Interventionist Approach to
Experimental Filmmaking, Millennium Film Journal 43/44 (Summer/Fall 2005), pp. 103104.
33. See Conrads statement in a piece entitled Montage of Voices in Millennium Film Journal
16/17/18 (Fall/Winter 198687), pp. 25657, and Yellow Movies in Tony Conrad: Yellow Movies, a cata-
logue published by Galerie Daniel Buchholz and Greene Naftali Gallery, 2008, p. 22.
Identity Crisis 35

Takahiko Iimura. One Second Loop

(=Infinity): A White Line in Black. 2007.

extreme duration that was characteristic of his work and that of many other
experimental filmmakers of the period. Similarly, Iimuras film boxes, like the
installations with which they are associated, invoke a duality that shaped the work
of a number of other filmmakers, including Sharits and Frampton: that film is at
once a static physical object and an ephemeral temporal experience. The loop,
identified by Sitney as one of the four characteristics of Structural film, is a device
that was used to extendsometimes indefinitelythe duration of experimental
films and installations.34 But Iimuras loops are so small they cannot be projected,
a playful expansion on the loops indeterminate temporality that turns them into
non-temporal, static objects. The ephemerality of film in projection suggested by
the reference to looping meets the physicality of film-as-object.
Conrads film objects can be interpreted comically, as parodies of materialist
filmmaking practices that play with notions of processing, chemistry, cutting,
etc., humorously substituting domestic activities like cooking and weaving for con-

34. P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film, p. 370.


ventional production and postproduction processes. But all of these film objects are
ironic, referencing the film machine and the conventional experience of film in pro-
jection precisely by subverting and stubbornly resisting them. In this way, such
objects represent cinema at its most expanded and most contracted. They are mater-
ial(ist) to the point of objecthood, a contraction of cinema to a single physical
element. But this degree of contraction results in a form that could be called sculp-
tural (hence expanding cinema beyond the bounds of its conventional format) or
conceptual (inasmuch as they are artifacts that call to mind other processes and
experiences not present in the works themselvesthose of the film machine).
I will return to the notion of conceptual cinema, a phenomenon at the fur-
thest reaches of cinemas expansion in the 1960s and 70s. To get there, however,
requires looking at another variation of expanded cinemas dismantling or reor-
ganization of the film machine: the replacement of the parts of that machine
with alternative parts, a process of creative substitution that mobilized all sorts of
other materials in the creation of cinema. Just as any of films elements could be
removed, as in empty-projector performances or unprojectable film objects, or
multiplied, as in works using multiple screens and projectors, they could also be
swapped out for other materials. These materials become legible as cinematic
via a metaphorical association with the specific film elements they replace, an
association made possible by the overarching notion of the always already

Alan Berliner. Cine-Matrix. 1977.

Identity Crisis 37

expanded cinema: the heterogeneous, component ontology of film at large in

experimental-film culture.
Conrad and Alan Berliner both made variants of paper films (Berliners
term, it is in part a reference to the means by which early films were registered
with the Library of Congress) in the 1970s. 35 Conrads Yellow Movies series
(197375) replaced both filmstrip and screen with a rectangular sheet of paper
cut to proportions of 1.33:1 (the pre-widescreen Academy ratio) and painted
with cheap commercial house paint. Conrad referred to the paint as emulsion
and the paper sheets as both base and screen; he claimed that the slow pho-
tochemical changes that took place over decades, causing the white paint to turn
yellow, constituted not only a production process but also each works running
time. As a production professor at the University of Oklahoma from 1977 to
1979, Berliner, rather than making traditional projectable films, produced a
series of cinematic works on paper, cardboard, and photographic scrolls. These
include Cine-Matrix (1977), a grid of 156 images on pieces of cardboard, and
Three Years (1978), a paper scroll made from three years worth of calendar pages
tape-spliced end to end. I never stopped thinking of myself as a filmmaker,
Berliner has said in reference to these works. And, looking back, I still believe
that not making films in Oklahoma ultimately made me a better filmmaker.36
These works eliminate the need for a projector, but another strain of expanded
cinema replaces the projector with specialized, nonstandard projection machines,
usually fashioned by the filmmakers themselves. The best-known example of this is
Ken Jacobss Nervous System, which Jacobs has used in live-projection performances
since the early 1970s. The Nervous System is made from two synchronized 16mm
analytic projectors fitted with a giant external shutter (like a whirling fan blade).
The two projectors are loaded with identical film prints, aimed at the same spot on
the screen (rather than side by side as in other multi-projector films), and run in syn-
chronization, the external shutter alternately blocking the light of one and allowing
the light from the other to pass. Jacobs loads each projector so that the two film
prints are a few frames apart. This results in slight differences between the two
images the projectors cast onto the screen. The rapid, flickering alternation of two
slightly varied images creates a pronounced 3-D effect without the need for special
glasses, a phenomenon Jacobs has explored further with his Nervous Magic Lantern,
constructed in the early 1990s. Unlike the Nervous System, Nervous Magic Lantern
performances utilize no film. Transparencies and objects are placed between a
bright light source and an assortment of lenses, producing three-dimensional
moving images with the aid of an external shutter similar to that of the Nervous
System.37 As early as 1965, Jacobs began working with 3-D shadow play as a type of

35. See Scott MacDonalds interview with Berliner in his A Critical Cinema 5: Interviews with
Independent Filmmakers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), pp. 15758.
36. Ibid., p. 157.
37. For further descriptions of the workings of the Nervous System and Nervous Magic Lantern (the
latter of which Jacobs had previously been secretive about), see Optic Antics: The Cinema of Ken Jacobs, ed.
Michele Pierson, David E. James, and Paul Arthur (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 273.

cinematic practice (one that didnt require nearly the outlay of capital that conven-
tional filmmaking did). He has referred to such work, which evolved into the
Nervous System and Nervous Magic Lantern performances, as paracinema.38 An
equivalent cinema, Jacobs has explained, created by other than filmic means or by
using film in other than standard ways; equivalent, or parallel to, is what I had meant
to convey.39 This idea of equivalency is another expression of the relationship
between the film machinethe medium in its familiar, conventional stateand
works of expanded cinema that dispense with some or all of that machines parts
without losing a connection to it.
A variant of this strain of expanded cinema combines standard film projection
with additional devices that modulate the projector beam or directly affect the film-
strip. In David Dyes Western Reversal (1973), the filmmaker projects a reel from a
1950s Western through a device consisting of sixteen tiny, movable mirrors, breaking
the onscreen image into a grid of sixteen separate frames that can be shifted about
individually. Dye moves each square around the screen like so many puzzle pieces,
first dismantling the image then reconstituting it, a process that he must complete
before the reel ends. Another example might be Annabel Nicolsons Reel Time (1973),
also a projection performance, in which an enormous film loop passed through both
a projector and a sewing machine (operated by Nicolson). The filmstrip was dotted
with more and more perforations with each pass through the loop, producing an
increasingly abstract image and eventually weakening the strip to the point that it
broke, bringing the performance to an end.
Another group of works retain conventional projection but employ alternative
screens. A number of practitioners of expanded cinema explored steam, haze,
clouds, etc., as surfaces for projection, as in Stan VanDerBeeks Steam Screens (1969),
Anthony McCalls solid light films (e.g., Line Describing a Cone [1973] and Conical
Solid [1974]), and Liz Rhodess Light Music (1975). Still others incorporated the
human body into their work as a kind of screen, as in Malcolm Le Grices Horror Film
#1 (1971), in which the filmmaker stands between a bank of 16mm projectors and
the screen and interacts with both the projected imagery and his own multiple shad-
ows. Tapp und Tast Kino (Touch Cinema, 1968), a notorious expanded-cinema
performance by Valie Export and Peter Weibel, explored the political resonances of
the body as screen, fiercely critiquing the film industrys use of images of female

38. The term paracinema has been used to refer to expanded-cinema works, such as Jacobss,
Berliners, and Conrads, that entirely abandon the elements of the film medium with alternative mate-
rials. It has frequently been employed by Ken Jacobs, who seems to have been the first to use it, along
with Larry Gottheim, as a faculty member at SUNY Binghamton in the 1970s. In addition to Jacobs,
Gottheim, and Berliner, the filmmakers Barry Gerson, Kerry Laitala, and Bradley Eros have used the
term to describe their expanded work. See Jonathan Walley, The Material of Film and the Idea of
Cinema: Contrasting Practices in Sixties and Seventies Avant-Garde Film, October 103 (Winter 2003),
pp. 1530. For the first use of the term in print (as far as I have been able to determine), see Lindley
Hanlon, Kenneth Jacobs, Interviewed by Lindley Hanlon ( Jerry Sims Present), April 9, 1974, Film
Culture 6769 (1979), pp. 6586.
39. Ken Jacobs, Painted Air: The Joys and Sorrows of Evanescent Cinema, Millennium Film Journal
43/44 (Summer/Fall 2005), p. 40.
Valie Export and Peter Weibel. Tapp und Tast Kino. 1968.
Courtesy Charim Galerie, Vienna.

sexuality to reproduce and reinforce ideological norms governing that sexuality.

In this performance, Export wore a cardboard box over her naked torso, as Weibel
encouraged onlookers to reach into the box (understood as a miniature movie
theater, complete with a set of makeshift curtains at the front) to touch Exports
bare breasts.
Export and Weibels expanded-cinema performances and installations consti-
tute a veritable catalogue of possibilities in the disintegration and displacement of
the film machine and of the implications of the varied new forms expanded cin-
ema could takeperformative, sculptural, painterly. Export and Weibel negotiated
between the pure physical materiality of the film medium and reality in the spirit
of the mixing of art and life that was practically the definition of expanded art.
But they did so without sacrificing a connection to films specificity. Their work also
illustrates how filmmakers could continue to assert the autonomy of their art form
without cutting it off from the other arts. Export has stated that her use of natural
materials such as water, light, and the body created unexpected and yet funda-
mentally illuminating connections with minimal art, land art, arte povera.40
Export has described her works with Weibel as constituting a large-scale project
of breaking up the commercial-conventional sequence of filmmakingshooting,
editing . . . and projection.41 Their work often eliminated these elements of the
medium, which were replaced by reality in order to install new signs of the
real.42 She writes:
The expansion of our film work proceeded initially from the
material concept; thus the illusion film was transformed into
the material film, and in this way the foundations of the film medi-
um were reflected. . . . The formal arrangement of the elements
of film, whereby elements are exchanged or replaced by others
for example, electric light by fire, celluloid by reality, a beam of
light by rocketshad an effect which was artistically liberating
and yielded a wealth of new possibilities, such as film installations
and the film-environment. In the production of the film medi-
um, celluloid is only one aspect that could (also) be deleted.43
Two examples of Exports deletion of filmic elements, and her exchange of
these for others, are Abstract Film No. 1 (196768) and Instant Film (1968). The former
featured flashlight beams casting light on mirrors covered in various liquids, which
reflected the light onto a nearby screen. The latter was simply a piece of transparent
PVC foil, which Export has referred to as screen, projector, and camera all in one44

40. Valie Export, Expanded Cinema as Expanded Reality, Senses of Cinema 28 (September/October
2003), 2003/28/expanded_cinema/ (accessed May 9, 2011).
41. Ibid.
42. Ibid.
43. Ibid.
44. Ibid.
Identity Crisis 41

and which could be used by the spectator in any number of waysdisplayed on a

wall, cut or perforated and peered through, etc.
It should also be noted that Export combines two different meanings of
material in her phrase material film. Though the work is rooted in the mater-
ialas in literal, physicalelements of the film medium, the replacement of
these with real bodies and actions rather than illusory ones leads to another kind
of materialist cinema. Material, in this sense of the word, extends beyond the
raw materials of film technology to the routinized practices and institutions of
filmmaking, exhibition, and spectatorship that had coalesced over seventy years of
cinema history. Hence, Export and Weibels expanded cinema was intended as
much as an intervention into the dominant patterns of cinema spectatorship as it
was as an investigation of films medium-specificity. The attack on the continuity
of the phases of production, Export claimed, robs the production companies of
their conventional success.45
Whats more, Export extends the project of dismantling the film machine
into a temporal dimension. That is, the component elements of the medium are
understood as not only spatially discrete (projector here, screen there, etc.), but as
temporally discrete as well: first the filmstrip is exposed in the camera, then
processed, edited, and finally projected. The temporality of production and exhi-
bition could be alteredexpanded or contractedin the same manner as the
individual parts of the machine. By this logic, the long duration of works like
Warhols Empire (1964) or McCalls twenty-four-hour installation Long Film for
Ambient Light (1975) greatly expand one temporal phase of film production
and/or exhibition (the extreme duration Conrad attributed to his Yellow Movies
and film objects is another, more radical example). Similarly, live film-based per-
formances such as Kosugis, Le Grices, and Export and Weibels contract normally

45. Ibid.

Export. Abstract Film No. 1.

196768. Courtesy Charim
Galerie, Vienna.
Tony Hill. Point Source. 1973.
Identity Crisis 43

distinct phases into a single moment: the viewer experiences simultaneously the
making and viewing of the work.
Such was also the case in Conrads Film Feedback (there were at least two
realizations in 1974), a private performance that merged the processes of image
making, chemical processing, and projection. Conrad made the film with a team
of students dispersed through three rooms: a projection booth with a large win-
dow, a screening room facing the booth on the other side of the window, and a
small room next to the booth. In the projection booth, in place of a projector,
was a 16mm camera aimed at the screen in the screening room. A small lighted
candle sat in front of the screen, with a projector placed behind it for rear-
screen projection. Under normal shooting circumstances, the camera would
have been closed to prevent the film inside from being exposed to light. In this
case, however, the projector booth was darkened, allowing the back of the cam-
era to be left off so that the film passed out of the camera (running at five
frames per second), over a series of rollers, and under the door to the adjacent
room. In this room, also darkened, the exposed film was passed one foot at a
time through a tray of developer, another of fixer, wiped off, then run over a
second series of rollers into the screening room, where it was fed into the rear-
screen projector. As the images began to appear on the screen, the camera in
the projection booth recorded them and the process began again. The result
was a feedback loop of nested images of the candle and screen; it can be viewed
now as a 16mm printan artifact of the filming/processing/viewing experience
that made up the performance.
Exports idea of the exchange of film and reality, and the projects she and
Weibel made that enacted this idea, reveal just how far expanded cinemas disintegra-
tion and/or displacement of the film machine could go. The result could be
material or filmic works that eliminated every component of the medium with-
out , however, losing their associat ion with that medium. Jacobss shadow
playsthose works he named paracinemaare one instance of a completely film-
less expanded cinema. Works like these have been described as reducing cinema to
essentials like light and time, but in fact they maintain deeper and more complex
associative links with the film machine. McCalls Long Film for Ambient Light, a twenty-
four-hour installation consisting of nothing more than a loft space, a bare lightbulb,
and diffused windows, was described by its maker in terms of its relationship to the
customary photochemical and electro-mechanical processes and the presupposi-
tions behind film as an art activity.46 In Tony Hills 1973 performance Point Source,
the filmmaker shines an intense point-source light through an assortment of house-
hold objects, casting massive shadows onto the surrounding walls (the piece is
sometimes performed in a film theater, other times in galleries). Hill identifies his

46. Anthony McCall, Two Statements, in The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, ed.
P. Adams Sitney (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1987), pp. 25354.

non-filmic materials in filmic terms: a small bright light is the projector, several
objects are the film and the whole room is the screen.47
The logical next step in this process (allowing that the logic of the expanded
arts was highly creative and idiosyncratic) would be to substitute the material compo-
nents of the film machine for the idea of these components. Dusinberre referred to
Export and Weibels work as having taken the fundamental first principles of cinema
out of their specifically filmic context to deal with them conceptually (e.g., the
idea of projection).48 If the parts of the film machine could be replaced by other
materials, including reality itself, then concepts could serve as equally acceptable
replacements, resulting in a cinema that was purely conceptuala mental or,
maybe, a discursive form. Conrads Yellow Movies could be taken as one example, a
strange cross between a resolutely material film object and a conceptual film. While
Conrad made explicit associations between the paint and paper he used and the cus-
tomary materials of photography, he has also described these works as imaginary;
their extreme durationstill screening after nearly 40 yearsmeans that our
direct contact with them is so brief compared to their actual running times that the
majority of our contemplation of the Yellow Movies takes place in the imagination.49
In a major reconsideration of Structural film written ten years after its hey-
day, Paul Arthur claimed that this act of exploding the fixed boundaries of
image-duration was a central feature of experimental films exploration of alter-
native modes of film-viewer relations.50 For Arthur, Warhols Empire was, like
Conrads paracinema, a landmark in the history of this process. That films
extreme duration encouraged fragmentary contact between viewer and film, so
that the experience of the film was as much imagined as real. Moreover, the form
and image-content of the film are so immediately open to paraphrastic statement
that one can construct a distinct impression of what its experience entails.51 And
by the time Arthur wrote his essay, Empire (like all of Warhols films) had been
removed from circulation by its maker and was thus only accessible at a level of
removethrough descriptions, analyses, and interpretations. Indeed, according
to Arthur, the films existence as an imagined object in consciousness has become
its essential condition, its locus of meaning and influence.52 Though one might
object to Arthurs claims on the grounds that Warhols films were never as simplis-
tic and minimal as the discourse addressing them (and replacing them) said
they were, Arthur was correct that the films exerted influence more through dis-
courseword of mouth, critical writings, theoretical abstractionsthan through

47. Hill, Tony Hill Films, Point Source, (accessed May 10, 2011).
48. Dusinberre, On Expanding Cinema, p. 220.
49. Tony Conrad, Yellow Movie 2/1626/73 (1973), audio file,
multimedia/audios/53/1024 (accessed May 1, 2011).
50. Paul Arthur, Structural Film: Revisions, New Versions, and the Artifact, Millennium Film Journal
1/2 (Spring 1978), p. 12.
51. Ibid., p. 5.
52. Ibid.
Identity Crisis 45

actual encounters with the film in projection. Hence, Arthur refers to Empires
de-centering and emptying not only of image-content and means but of projec-
tion as the ontological requirement for films status as artifact, and concludes,
At last, the first conceptual film.53
The term conceptual film has been used to describe films made by
Conceptual artists, often to document performances or events that could not oth-
erwise be reproduced. Arthurs usage, however, suggests a film that exists solely as
a mental entity and which therefore can only take the form of thoughts or words.
This usage, though more obscure than the others, was not uncommon during the
period of which Arthur writes. The idea of a conceptual cinema, existing as
intention, belief, thought, or discourse, appears in various forms throughout the
1960s and 70s and has been consolidated by more recent scholar ship on
Structural and related film, including that of Arthur and David James. James
argues that Structural films
search for an entirely literal film language . . . goes further and
further back through the archaeology of early cinema, past the
reflexive audience confrontation and the movable shot in The
Great Train Robbery, past the almost schematic analysis of illusion
in Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show, and so to the premonition
of Warhol in the earliest preserved film, John RiceMay Irwin Kiss.
Eventually the search falls away in the filmstrips of Muybridge, in
the enumeration of the components of a possible cinema, and in
the speculations in which the idea of film was first broached, the
first conceptual film created.54

By this logic, Structural films and expanded works, in different ways, mirror
the earliest ideas of the possibility of cinema, crystallizing these concepts into a
more recognizable form. This notion that the avant-garde cinema of the 1960s
and 70s restarted film history, often by going back to the period of pre-cinema to
mine the territory of the idea of film, was a creatively generative one for a num-
ber of filmmakers and an important interpretive schema for many critics. During
the initial explosion of expanded-cinema activity in New York and San Francisco,
for instance, Jonas Mekas produced the following paean to the dream of cinema
in his Village Voice column:
We are only one step from the absolute cinema, cinema of our
mind. For what is cinema really, if not images, dreams, and
visions? We take one more step, and we give up all movies and we
become movies: We sit on a Persian or Chinese rug smoking one
dream matter or another and we watch the smoke and we watch
the images and dreams and fantasies that are taking place right

53. Ibid., p. 6.
54. James, Allegories of Cinema, p. 242.

there in our eyes mind: we are the true cineasts, each of us, cross-
ing space and time and memorythis is the ultimate cinema of
the people, as it has been for thousands and thousands of years.
This is all real! There are no limits to mans dreams, fantasies,
desires, visions. It has nothing to do with technological innova-
tions: It has to do with the boundless spirit of man, which can
never be confined to screens, frames, or images. It jumps out of
any matter of any dream imposed upon it, and seeks its own mys-
teries and its own dreams.55

An undated, unrealized piece called Blackout, described on a note card in

the Hollis Frampton file at Anthology Film Archives, makes comic reference to
experimental films demand for mentally active and participatory spectators, an
idea transposed into physical activity in real space in installations like McCalls,
Iimuras, and Exports. The card reads:
Scene from new Arlis Grampton film, Blackout , in which
Grampton graphically demonstrates his theory of cerebral cine-
ma by pulling plug out of projector and allowing audience to sit
in dark, silent room for 2-and-a-half hours. Audience is thus
obliged to fall back on own resources rather than relying on imag-
ination of an individual we designate as a filmmaker to enter-
tain us. Audience members at first react by thinking There is no
movie, but gradually come to realize through Gramptons subtle
artistry the obvious fact that the movie is and always has been
what is going on in their own minds.

It is likely that Blackout was written by someone other than Frampton and
given to the filmmaker, perhaps as a playful homage.56 But it resonates with
Framptons belief, elaborated more fully in his extensive theoretical writings, that
cinema was as much a conceptual phenomenon as anything elsethe product of
the mind, not just the medium. Some of these writings read like an avant-garde
reimagining of Bazins The Myth of Total Cinema.
Frampton, writing a couple of decades later and in the midst of a period
of radically expansive ontological thinking, took Bazins creative historicism to
an extreme, claiming cinema as an ancient art form first manifested in music
(and, with a sweeping reductiveness characteristic of his writing, Frampton
traced the history of music back to the sounds of insectsorganized sound for

55. Mekas, Movie Journal: The Rise of a New American Cinema, p. 146.
56. According to Marion Faller, Framptons widow, Blackout was probably not Framptons but
an homage that he kept. She adds that the index card was originally attached, in the lower left
corner, to a sheet of black construction paper. My assumption is that the piece dates from some time
after A Lecture (Oct 1968). Marion Faller, email to author, June 21, 2011. Ken Eisenstein, who has
done significant research on Frampton and to whom I am grateful for making me aware of
Blackout, concurs.
Identity Crisis 47

the purposes of expression).57 In For a Metahistory of Film, he proposes an

infinite cinema:
A polymorphous camera has always turned, and will turn forever,
its lens focused upon all the appearances of the world. Before the
invention of still photography, the frames of the infinite cinema
were blank . . . then a few images began to appear upon the end-
less ribbon of film. Since the birth of the photographic cinema,
all the frames are filled with images. . . . A still photograph is sim-
ply an isolated frame taken out of the infinite cinema.58

This creative historicism is one more example of a kind of theorizing that enabled
and explained expanded cinema, a theorizing wherein cinema is an idea manifest
across a plurality of forms that are imagined by contemporary experimental film-
makers in the terms of the film medium (Framptons polymorphous camera and
endless ribbon of film). That is, despite the polymorphous nature of cinema,
its specificity is protected against loss amidst a limitlessly heterogeneous field by
reference to its home medium of film and the major animating concepts of
experimental-film culture. Further defense of cinemas specificity is provided by
the historical reversal Frampton proposes; though the motion pictures were pre-
dated by still photography, a state of affairs reflected in Framptons own artistic
career, film, by this way of thinking, exists before photography.
And before every other art form, as well. In a 1973 letter to Donald Richie, then
curator of film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Frampton wrote, I ven-
ture to suggest that a time may come when the whole history of art will become no
more than a footnote to the history of film . . . or of whatever evolves from film.59

The categories of expanded cinema I have surveyedcinema as perfor-

mance, as object, as concept, as any alternative material that could serve as
projector, filmstrip, screen, etc.are unified by the elemental conception of the
film machine that has come out of the ontological thrust of experimental cinema
across its history. Film in its conventional form is thus placed in a privileged posi-
tion vis--vis expanded cinema. The film machine becomes the central reference
point for the expanded works I have discussed, as do the aesthetic qualities or
traits that that machine represents (those kinds of sensory and cognitive experi-
ences that have been privileged in experimental-film practice and discourse, such
as those produced by flickering, or editing, or flatness). In retaining allusions to
the film medium in its conventional state, such works extend the medium-specific
investigations of materialist film even though they take on apparently hybrid

57. Hollis Frampton, Hollis Frampton: Three Talks at Millennium, Millennium Film Journal
16/17/18 (Fall/Winter 198687), pp. 277 and 292.
58. Frampton, For a Metahistory of Film, p. 134.
59. Hollis Frampton, Letter to Donald Richie, in On the Camera Arts and Consecutive Matters, p. 160.

forms, even the immaterial or dematerialized ones of paracinema. Hence, while

certainly expansive, expanded cinema resisted the loss of films identity among
intermedia practices and hybridity. It allowed filmmakers to negotiate between
the strict limitations of medium-specificity and the completely open field of
expanded-arts possibilities.
The last two decades have seen a new environment of intermedia practices
and ideas emerge, and with it the familiar vexations for cinemas identity and
independence. The spread of digital technology and attendant notions of media
convergence, the so-called death of film (especially small-gauge film), the pre-
dominance of moving-image art in the gallery, and the increasing emphasis on
interdisciplinarity and skepticism about medium-specificity among cinema-studies
academicsall these mark a new period in the history of cinemas ongoing expan-
sion and raise familiar questions about the nature and future of the art form.
Once again, experimental cinema finds itself in a unique position relative to
these historical developments. The cautionary tone Michelson sounded in 1966 is
being echoed by contemporary filmmakers and critics. For example, writing in
2003, the artist and critic Barry Schwabsky argued that the art worlds fascination
with cinema actually contributed to experimental films marginalization:
. . . What has been peculiar about this recuperation of arts rela-
tion to film is that, in terms of the film or cinema part of the
equation, it has consistently sidelined the kinds of film that would
on the face of it appear most relevant to late-modern and contem-
porary artistic practicethat is, the various forms of avant-garde,
experimental, poetic, materialist and structuralist cinema that
have eschewed the conventions of the narrative feature. Instead,
the focus has been precisely on narrative features, primarily of
the Hollywood variety, secondarily those that arose in the wake of
t he Nouvelle Vague t he cinema of Godard, Antonioni,
Fassbinder and so on.60

The description of a recent symposium on the relationship between art and film
expressed a similar sentiment: even today the experimental film has been unable
to develop its own discursive power within the gravitational fields of art and cin-
ema.61 That is, the merging of art and filmin the contemporary moment as in
the 1960s and 70sposes a threat to the identity and vitality of experimental cin-
ema. The situation demands that experimental-film culture find a way to seize
discursive power and assert itself in the world of moving-image art, new media,
and media convergence.

60. Barry Schwabsky, Art, Film, Video: Separation or Synthesis?, in The Undercut Reader, p. 2.
61. From the description of the symposium From Close and Afar: The Interweaving of Art and
Cinema Around 1970, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, Germany,
ludwig/default.asp?s=3045 (accessed May 1, 2011).
Sandra Gibson + Luis Recoder. Light Spill. 2007.
Image courtesy Robischon Gallery.

Expanded cinema, I have suggested, was a way for experimental filmmakers

to do just that in the 1960s and 70s. Not surprisingly, then, a new surge of
expanded cinematic practices have appeared in the experimental-film world, as
has scholarly interest in historical Expanded Cinema and the question of the rela-
tionship between experimental film and the other arts. Without abandoning the
mult imedia, non- specific concept ion of expanded cinema at the heart of
Youngbloods still crucial book, it seems to me, to say expanded cinema today is
to refer specifically to the kind of work I have discussed here, which is still being
produced by contemporary self-designated experimental filmmakers. Such work,
while expanded, has nonetheless been informed by narrower conceptions of the
specifically cinematic, though not so narrow as to frame out inter-arts references
and intermedia forms. This is because the question of the nature and possibilities
of the specifically cinematic has become all the more urgent given the historical
In the wake of digital medias ascendency, the dismantling of the film
machine may no longer be an artistically generative metaphor for expanded cin-
ema, but a realit y that threatens an ent ire art ist ic tradit ion. In response,
contemporary expanded cinema has emphasized and celebrated film as a still
viable alternative to digital that needs to be protected from extinction.62 One
form this response continues to take is the creative reimagining of film in such a
way that it can absorb other art forms, or at least interact with them while retain-
ing its legibility as film. About their film installation Light Spill (2006), in which
hundreds of feet of decommissioned 16mm film footage is dumped onto the
gallery floor by a projector with no takeup reel, Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder
write of the art of cinema, yes. But more timely: the becoming cinema of art.
That is the coming attraction for us.63 Like Frampton, Gibson and Recoder sug-
gest a reversal of the history and the logic of cinema in the house of art. The
ongoing expansion of cinema, including its exploration of the territory of the art
world, need not be seen as a crisis in the art of film, but as a means for experi-
mental film to resolve the multiple crises it faces in the new millennium.

62. For more on this, see Jonathan Walley, Not an Image of the Death of Film, in Expanded Cinema:
Art, Performance, Film, ed. David Curtis, A.L. Ress, Duncan White, and Steven Ball (London: Tate
Publishing, forthcoming 2011).
63. Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder, Artist Statement: Light Spill, University of Wisconsin-
Milwaukee Art History Department Web site,
2011/lightspill_0111.cfm (accessed May 5, 2011).