Thomas Beard Looking back on the films that have influenced me the most, it’s hard not to also think about where I first saw them. The contexts were as crucial as any individual work.
Ed Halter Beyond renting videos by people like John Waters and David Cronenberg as a teenager, I first saw experimental film and video in college, mostly in the context of film theory. Though I viewed works by Leslie Thornton, Yvonne Rainer and Bruce Conner in my courses, at the time I didn’t receive a larger story of how these works fit into the avant-garde. As I remember it, they were more used by my professors as illustrations of theoretical concepts. It wasn’t until after I graduated, living in San Francisco and working for Frameline (an organization that puts on the San Francisco Lesbian & Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Film Festival, as well as serving as a distributor), that I began to piece together this history for myself. Through the festival, during the height of the New Queer Cinema in the early 1990s, I first saw work by Sadie Benning, George and Mike Kuchar, Su Friedrich, Cecilia Dougherty and others. Working for festival directors Jenni Olson and Mark Finch completely opened my eyes to how film programming could be a creative practice unto itself. I read books such as Richard Dyer’s Now You See It (1990), Parker Tyler’s Underground Film: A Critical History (1969), P. Adams Sitney’s Visionary Film (1974), J. Hoberman’s collection Vulgar Modernism (1991), Stephen Koch’s book on Warhol’s films, Stargazer (1983), and an insightful guide that’s sadly often forgotten today, Sheldon Renan’s Introduction to the American Underground Film (1967). These tattered, second-hand paperbacks filled in what knowledge I hadn’t acquired before.
TB Working at a festival was formative for me as well. In 2002, just a few weeks after I’d moved to Austin, Texas for college, I started helping out at Cinematexas. There, deep in the heart of the Lone Star State, was one of the world’s most intrepid venues for film and video. That year alone the event was host to a Santiago Álvarez retrospective, a Forcefield performance and Video Data Bank’s early video series ‘Surveying the First Decade’ (1968–80), as well as new work by David Gatten, Seth Price, Walid Raad and Deborah Stratman, among many others. The experience completely reshaped my sense of how cinema could be made and presented. It continues to be a key inspiration, a project of massive curatorial ambition that maintained an intimate, human scale. The Alamo Drafthouse, which Ed once aptly described as ‘Austin’s movie house-cum-beer hall’, was also like a second home at that time in my life, both during Cinematexas and throughout the rest of the year, when it specialized in all manner of trash, exploitation and grindhouse fare. It was where I saw both Vidal Raski’s The Sinful Dwarf (1973) AND Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975)!
EH I also greatly admired Cinematexas’ programming; in its day it was the only experimental festival in the US that was truly international in scope. I ran the New York Underground Film Festival from 1996 to 2006, and visited Cinematexas many times during those years – I even programmed part of the final Cinematexas in ’06. One of the main lessons of running New York Underground for me was how to address the vital but fragmented film communities in the city. Many people remember the festival for its experimental programming, but we were also dedicated to adventurous documentaries, work from diy music scenes, and things that were just plain weird. Over time, we explored every imaginable permutation of ‘underground’ as a concept. Like the Drafthouse, we also drew from the legacy of exploitation and the midnight movie, running retrospectives of Doris Wishman, Joe Sarno, Stephanie Rothman and Andy Milligan. For me, these gutter-budget auteurs were as beautifully formalist in their own way as any members of the avant-garde.
TB Within the annals of film curatorship, you can probably trace that sensibility of pointed eclecticism back to figures like Amos Vogel, who, with his wife Marcia, founded legendary film society Cinema 16, which ran in New York City from 1947–63 and was very much at the front of our minds when we started Light Industry. Shrewdly dialectical, a typical Vogel programme might include an educational reel called Hypnotic Behavior (c.1949) alongside American Surrealist Sidney Peterson’s mesmeric The Petrified Dog (1948). Such catholic taste was also the hallmark of a second important historical model for Light Industry, The Collective for Living Cinema, which ran from the late ’70s through to the early ’90s in New York. As Annette Michelson, another hero of ours, once rightly noted, it ‘attempted to break down distinctions between industrial film and avant-garde film, between films that form part of a classical canon and those which are on the margins or periphery of canonical taste’. That’s practically our mission statement.
EH Michelson is also key for us in the way she expanded the way cinema could serve as the basis of an intellectual enterprise. Contemporary venues in New York have been equally important to us. Going to Anthology Film Archives has been a major education unto itself, for example – their programming has been the most consistently inventive of any theatre in the city. For years the Robert Beck Memorial Cinema on the Lower East Side had very memorable screenings – many of them one-person shows with visiting filmmakers – as did Ocularis in Williamsburg, for which Thomas served as the last programmer.
TB Those spaces certainly affirmed Parker Tyler’s line that, ‘provided a filmmaker is ingenious and creative enough, the marvelous can take place in an ordinary-sized room or a small studio set of obvious dimensions’. Both were kind of punk-rock endeavours, recognizing that the elements needed to constitute a cinema were quite minimal. In their design we recognize not only an influence, but an ideal: achieving autonomy by way of austerity, they were beholden to nothing and no one, neither state funders nor the largesse of the collector class, nor the vicissitudes of the art market. Although many of the organizations we’ve mentioned have closed, what that they represent – an implacable will to create a lively public forum for work that has few other homes yet an urgent reason for being – endures.
EH What all these venues also share is a vision of the cinema as a social space and a social experience, which is the essence of how we’ve conceived of Light Industry.
Thomas Beard and Ed Halter are the directors of Light Industry, a venue for film and electronic art in Brooklyn, New York, which they founded in 2008. They also curated the cinema programme for ‘Greater New York 2010’ at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center and, with LUX, are currently editing the forthcoming publication Artists’ Film and Video: An Anthology of New Writing.
First published in Issue 133