Published in Sirp, April 17th, 2020.
The concept of artists’ film is predominantly related to British art and film history and the intersection of the two.
The origin of the concept is lost to memory. Paradoxically, even most of the people involved in its creation cannot pin down the precise moment it became commonplace. Its creation and entry into use can be dated between 2009 and 2012. Rather than the establishment of a new genre, it was impelled by a practical need for structures to support artists working with the medium of moving images and for a new definition to support these structures in turn.
The definition of the genre is credited to the LUX centre for the distribution of artists’ and experimental film, itself the successor to the London Filmmakers’ Co-Operative (LFMC, founded in 1966). Hence also the equivalence of artists’ film and experimental film in Great Britain, which is further justified by historical reasons and helps to provide a more thorough overview of the field.
While the LFMC was originally inspired by the activity of the New American Cinema Group (now the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, founded in 1962), the Brits took a slightly different approach to avant-garde and experimental film. The pioneers of LFMC such as Lis Rhodes, Malcolm Le Grice and John Smith had a background in art rather than film. The artist-filmmaker had no problem working in parallel in galleries and cinemas. After all, the two shared the same goal: contrasting to the conventional commercial film. But whereas Americans such as Stan Brakhage believed gallery viewings to be overly commercialised, the Brits felt no such constraint. Straddling the cinema and the gallery, experimental film has given rise to modern artists and organisations that largely provide artists with the freedom to define the genre of their cinematographic work.
In the Estonian context, local art galleries and institutions have never been founded on the kind of commercial basis criticised by Brakhage that would cast doubt on the ethics of experimental film. Quite the opposite: The Estonian art scene has been an excellent environment for moving images, as demonstrated by the fact that a very significant proportion of Estonian experimental and artists’ films are predominantly shown in galleries and museums.
Since genre boundaries can vary depending on specific regional and cultural contexts, we might as well ask whether labelling is an act of restriction. After all, discussions about artists’ cinematographic efforts, artists’ and experimental film in particular, are closely bounded by many other concepts such as video art, the concept of media art popular in Finland as mediataide, essay film, time-based media, hybrid documentary, expanded cinema, independent film, and, ultimately, author’s film. Where should we draw the line? Or: why draw a line at all?
Whether their background is in art or cinematography, filmmakers share a conceptual common ground which makes it sensible to consider the entirety of independent film as a whole and to focus on the needs facing the creators of author’s film.
In Great Britain, the establishment of the concept of artists’ film helped to highlight artists’ creative goals and the practical needs that follow. The term spread rapidly and entered common usage among institutions of thought in many other countries. The Film London and Artists’ Moving Image Network (FLAMIN), founded in 2009, proved to be a useful support structure. A key reason why artists find it easy to embrace the term “artists’ film” lies in the fact that rather than being defined by specific content or visual feature, the essence of the term is entirely expressed in the name: a film made by an artist. The definition of artists’ film depends primarily on the position taken by the filmmaker.
Artists’ Film as a Position Dependent on the Identity of the Filmmaker
It could be said that institutions of thought created new creative opportunities for artists. After all, artists’ grants and master’s chairs at art universities grew out of such institutions. The two-year master’s programme founded in 2013 by the late Stuart Croft at the London Royal College of Arts in London, led by the artist-filmmakers Aura Satz and Jordan Baseman, is a good example. It was not the first chair dedicated to moving images in this art university: the earlier “Film” curriculum, for example, was attended by John Smith among others. However, at the time Smith supervised me at the department of fine arts of the University of East London in 2008–2009, we never even talked about artists’ film as a phenomenon; nor did I encounter any dedicated columns in cultural magazines, eponymous events, nor even an artists’ film department in the British Film Institute book store, which now offers, among other things, biographies of Andrei Tarkovsky, Werner Herzog and Maya Deren. Yet, the proportion of the creation and consumption of moving images was increasing not only in exhibition spaces but also in everyday life.
FLAMIN was created as a department of the Arts Council, comparable to the audio-visual arts endowment of the Cultural Endowment of Estonia in the Estonian context. In Estonia, the visual and applied arts endowment is, in principle, also suitable for supporting artists’ film; however, many consider it unlikely to work due to this being an undivided field. Both endowments allow the artist to apply for project grants without collaborating with a producer or a dedicated production company, as this solution may not be optimal for the artist’s needs. The visual and applied arts endowment specialises predominantly in funding exhibitions; unlike with the audio-visual arts endowment, the funding of film-making raises the matter of paying salaries. At the audio-visual arts endowment, the artist competes against professional film directors and producers who have more experience with the format the expert committee is accustomed to. They possess another competitive advantage in
technical preparation, with which the artist’s means cannot compete. Often, experienced production companies submit well-developed classical draft scenarios and professional trailers previously submitted to the Estonian Film Foundation to the Cultural Endowment of Estonia competitions.
With both endowments, the freelance artist-filmmaker is left at a disadvantage with experimental films. Either the artist works on a shoestring budget without drawing a salary, or, in the worst case, falls in the grey area between the two domains and is rejected by both.
Any artist who sees the importance and potential of moving images recognises this as a bitter pill to swallow. Certainly, such film creation is extremely complicated. But how much was risked to apply for a grant?
Artist’s Film as a Movement
According to the director of LUX Benjamin Cook, moving images have reached a leading position in art during their century of existence. The strong representation of moving images at biennials and gallery exhibitions is obvious. However, it is equally obvious that artists are rarely able to pull off a miracle on a shoestring budget and that every truly grandiose work is backed by a commission or a sponsor. Countries with well-functioning support structures advance artists’ film more effectively, while also promoting culture in general. This reliable sign of advancement with times serves also as a reason behind film festivals’ increased interest in artist’s film over the recent years.
At the Kaunas International Film Festival of 2019, the curator Ilona Jurkonytė led the Baltic states’ most influential round table on artists’ film development strategies “Defining Artists’ Moving Image Production and Distribution”, attended by representatives of key Lithuanian cultural and funding institutions and international artists-filmmakers. I was invited to provide the Estonian perspective. The round table concluded that discussion on artist’s film must continue in order to find solutions to improve the means of creative persons, connect film and art organisations and promote international cooperation and cultural exchange.
Lithuania has given the international artists’ film movement more outstanding artists than Estonia. One of the reasons behind the Lithuanian success lies in the artist-friendly funding system of the Lithuanian Film Centre, likely under the influence of the image of the world-famous Lithuanian avant-garde artist and filmmaker Jonas Mekas.
Despite the difficult times ahead, Jurkonytė believes in a bright future for artist’s film; however, it requires a new approach to research, production, assessment systems and establishment of partnerships. On my part, I would like to highlight appreciation of distribution strategies as well as collaboration between the Baltic states, with the British LUX and Finnish AV-arkki as excellent examples.
A recent promising opportunity for Estonian film is provided by the establishment of the Estonian Film Foundation’s experimental film competition. In this context, Benjamin Cook led a workshop on pitching artist’s film at the Kai Art Center in cooperation with the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival in November 2019. It is particularly encouraging to see an Estonian art institution collaborate with a film festival in the spirit of the International Film Festival Rotterdam that brings together art and cinema. Artists’ Film as an Alternative Strategy for Production and Distribution At this year’s International Film Festival Rotterdam (22 January – 2 February), I talked to four artists-filmmakers: Ben Rivers, Lawrence Lek, Aura Satz and Basim Magdy. While not necessarily British, they are deeply involved and well-versed in the discourse and definition of artists’ film. For the film festival, they work in a very specific, narrow niche; for the art world, they straddle boundaries separating different media. While each takes a separate creative direction, they share a common way of self-positioning.
Ben Rivers is probably the best-known British artist known to the Estonian film community (by the way, his film A Spell to Ward off the Darkness 1 was partially shot in Estonia – ed.). Rivers’ film now, at last! 2 , depicting a sloth in different colour schemes, has recently been hotly discussed among Estonian artists, in particular in the FOKU artists’ film group. The work was commissioned by the São Paulo biennial, and hence, Rivers wrote a brief description of the project in lieu of a scenario submission, describing his motivation for creating the film rather than its content. The vision of the length and technical implementation was vague at the time, remaining, however, unrestricted by the pressure inherent in competitions. Rivers created a total of four films that year; however, it was for this one that he requested feedback from his friends and colleagues.
now, at last! was exhibited as an installation at Kate MacGarry in London, while also being part of the LUX collection. As such, it utilises two parallel distribution strategies: via galleries and cinemas.
Rivers himself has made films alone as well as in collaboration with the producer Jacqui Davies. Davies led an artists’ film seminar at the Kai Art Centre in December 2019. Rivers
describes their collaboration as a success, since finding a producer sensitive to the work in progress allows for spontaneous creative solutions.
Lawrence Lek’s Aidol was produced by the gallery owner Sadie Coles, who commissioned the work. He points out that in the context of exhibitions, expectations of the film may be limited to spatial entertainment, precluding the public from appreciating the scenario as an intricate whole. Cinema screenings circumvent this problem.
The works of Aura Satz could easily be classified as documentaries, and she lists numerous similar artists, such as John Akomfrah, Manon de Boer and Andrea Luka Zimmerman.
I would like to highlight the attitude of all four artists towards film festivals, which I, as a practising artist-filmmaker, very much share: it is the context of the presentation rather than the number of screenings that matters. This major difference between classical directors and artists must be understood by any organisation that supports the production of experimental or artists’ film. The number of film festival screenings is irrelevant to the majority of artists. Furthermore, as pointed out by Benjamin Cook, the majority of gallery owners prefer to omit film festival presentations in artists’ resumes.
A film festival must possess a very robust infrastructure to be able to successfully manage artists’ works, particularly a programme in the exhibition format. Nevertheless, there are famous film festivals that artists consider highly desirable. The leading festival for artists’ film is undoubtedly the International Film Festival Rotterdam; artists’ film is also well represented at Locarno, Berwick, Berlinale Forum Expanded and Oberhausen. Cannes is not among the festivals listed because the topics, starting point and priorities of visual artists engender a specific discourse that stands apart from the mainstream. However, this does not mean that artists are not open to opportunities.
While artists closely control the conditions for the screening of their work, they tend to welcome various opportunities ranging from social media to television. Rivers, for instance, who was exposed to film noir and Tarkovsky’s works at a tender age via Channel 4, supports showing artists’ films on TV. Magdy considers open access as a fundamental aspect of his work, hosting the short films on his website available to all. Magdy does not categorise his work.
His short The Dent 4 won the New:Vision Award at CPH:DOX Film Festival, Copenhagen, in 2014, but the art world does not substantially recognise this prize, just like his selection as Deutsche Bank’s Artist of the Year 2016 is overlooked by the film crowd. Free and unrestricted use of the disciplines of art and film alike is likely the reason that Magdy, similarly to many artists-filmmakers, does not find it useful to categorise his work. His M.A.G.N.E.T. 5 premiered at the IFFR, but Magdy uploaded it on his website immediately after the festival. Therefore, an artist like Magdy does not need a distributor.
Artists’ Film as the Future of Independent Film
Estonia would benefit from equating artists’ film to experimental film similarly to the UK: doing so would help identify and recognise films created for galleries, which currently tend to fall through the cracks. Furthermore, it would contribute to the enrichment of Estonian film that explores genre boundaries. Rather than a scarcity of experimental film, the problem lies in the insufficient identification of the existing material. It is a work-intensive process that needs to account for the interests and needs of the modern filmmaker. The western European model of the art market and institutional commissions may be neither realistic nor appropriate here. In Estonia, closer integration of art and film may give rise to an entirely novel support and launching structure to support the development of independent author’s film regardless of whether the filmmaker’s background is in art or film.
After all, artists’ film is ultimately an exceptionally alluring, magical, inspiring world well worth believing in and fighting for.