Is Film Art?

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‘Is Film Art?’ in ‘Free Radicals: Cinema on the Wrong Side of the Tracks’

It’s a big day in the office with today’s opening of our latest suite of exhibitions. For me, this means celebrating three exhibitions: Pretty Good for the 21st Century, Free Radicals: Cinema on the Wrong Side of the Tracks and Glitch Envy: Experimental Films by Jodie Mack.

The Free Radicals exhibition is the larger exhibition here and features works by Rodney Charters, Bruce Conner, Steve Cossman, Oskar Fischinger, Richard Lomas, Len Lye, Jodie Mack, and the Parasitic Fantasy Band (Eve Gordon/Sam Hamilton). The title of the show is obviously via Len Lye, but the subtitle was taken from Pip Chodorov in his similarly titled documentary Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film, speaking of ‘cinema on the wrong side of the tracks’. Throughout the exhibition, we’re screening Chodorov’s film alongside the exhibition as well as Brecht Debackere’s EXPRMNTL documentary which explores the EXPRMNTL film festival held in Belgium between the 1940s and 1970s. It was here that Lye’s 1958 film Free Radicals won a prestigious 2nd place. Lye’s 1959 essay ‘Is Film Art?’ lamented the neglect of experimental cinema in the United States and declared he would no longer make experimental films.

Films of Jodie Mack

I’ve just wrapped up a new programme for the Len Lye Centre’s cinema, our next Projection Series. This is the first dedicated to a single artist (other than the regular Len Lye programmes we do) and celebrates the tenth in the series. Projection Series 10 is titled Glitch Envy: Experimental Films by Jodie Mack.

We’re running this programme every Saturday (1pm) from 12 May through 21 July alongside our larger exhibition concerning experimental cinema, Free Radicals: Cinema on the Wrong Side of the Tracks (Mack’s work features in the exhibition too).

You can view the brochure for this programme here. It includes a new essay on Mack’s work by film scholar Jennifer Stob from Texas State University.

Here are a couple of old but good interviews with Mack, by Stob and Daniel Kasman.

 

Len Lye at ‘Toi Art’, Te Papa

I was fortunate this week to have some time travelling in the South Island (including a rare visit to Dunedin to launch Tao Wells’ new publication EASIER).  Having a few hours free between connecting flights in Wellington I was able to get my first look at Te Papa’s new Toi Art exhibitions.

My professional interest in the new exhibitions comes with the inclusion of Len Lye, represented by four of his experimental films, one of which Kaleidoscope (1935) lends the title of one of the key permanent exhibitions, Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa.

 

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Len Lye’s ‘Kaleidoscope’ in ‘Kaleidoscope: Abstract Aotearoa’, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

 

Te Papa has a great painting by Lye in their collection (one of the best), however, most know Lye through his kinetic sculpture and experimental cinema so these films give Lye a fairly prominent place in the new Te Papa project. One of the great aspects of Te Papa’s display of Lye’s work here is what they have included with Tusalava (1929).

Lye’s first film, Tusalava generally screens without a soundtrack. The premiere screening at the London Film Society in December 1929 included a live, two-piano accompaniment composed by the Australian Jack Ellitt. The score was torn up by the temperamental Ellitt and, since it was never recorded, the film has remained silent except for an occasional use of Eugene Goossens’ Rhythmic dance for two pianos, op. 30 (said by Lye to be similar to Ellitt’s original piece). What this means is that Tusalava is often treated to new soundtracks by contemporary composers, such as Alcyona Mick and Harry Harrison. Te Papa is exhibiting Tusalava in its silent form along with three optional alternative soundtracks produced by Matatumua Opeloge Ah SamPoulima Salima and Matthew Faiumu Salapu (aka Anonymouz).

These three soundtracks were composed in 2013 as part of the exhibition Len Lye: Agiagiā produced by the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Mangere Art Centre (curated by James Pinker and myself). Roger Horrocks reviewed the exhibition in Art NZ #149 (From the Fringe to the Centre: Len Lye at Mangere Arts Centre) and Ema Tavola commented with disdain here. You can buy a copy of the catalogue here.

The new soundtracks featured as part of a public programme where three local (South Auckland) contemporary composers were invited to produce alternative soundtracks to the film, adding a new element to the Pacific character of Tusalava. Kelly Carmichael reviewed this event, noting

‘As public programmes go, New Compositions: Three Composers Respond to Tusalava was one of the most ambitious and successful examples of how cultural organisations can operate in an expanded field of practice.’

The soundtrack project within Len Lye: Agiagiā was driven by James Pinker. He and the three composers should be congratulated that the project lives on beyond a single public programme and now sits inside our national museum at a moment of celebration.

Te Papa has also included a further soundtrack option with Tusalava, an audio description for the visually impaired. This came about from an initiative at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery as part of our Len Lye programme and lead by Sarah Dalle Nogare. Tusalava was selected for a pilot project to see how audio descriptions for the visually impaired would work on pieces of experimental cinema. It seemed the narrative structure of the film would make this the most productive example to work with. Working with our partners at Ngā Taonga: Sound and Vision and Able we produced the descriptive soundtrack and then ran an audience workshop in New Plymouth to get feedback. The exhibition On an Island was the first opportunity to present Tusalava with this new audio and it seemed to integrate well into the exhibition. Hopefully, at Te Papa, many more visitors will make the most of this particular soundtrack. Meanwhile, we’ll be working on audio descriptions for further and the more challenging of Lye’s abstract films.

Len Lye’s Jazz

Today is the last day in the office this year (all things going to plan). Last week we opened our summer Len Lye exhibition, Big Bang Theory. This one’s quite special as Lye’s ‘myth’ paintings from the late 1970s are shown together for the first time in nearly 40 years. It’s been quite a while since  Andrew Bogle at Auckland Art Gallery curated Len Lye: A Personal Mythology, introducing this important series of works. More info on this exhibition is here and in 2018 following the exhibition we will be launching a new book concerning these works.

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‘Big Bang Theory’ at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre, 2017-2018. Photo: Bryan James

Another project seeing us through the summer holidays is the ninth in our Projection Series Programme. This is our (roughly) quarterly film programme concerned with short format cinema, based around the experimental films of Lye and his peers as well as that of contemporary filmmakers. Each Projection Series is accompanied with a brochure and short essay and we’ve just made all of these available digitally on the Gallery’s website. Grab them at the following links for some holiday reading:

Projection Series #8: The Long Dream of Waking
Projection Series #7: First as fiction, then as myth
Projection Series #6: A Little Faith
Projection Series #5: Once more – but different
Projection Series #4: Man Without a Camera
Projection Series #3: Syncopated Cinema
Projection Series #2: Six Artists Respond to the Poetry of Joanna Margaret Paul
Projection Series #1: Len Lye’s Colour Box

The programmes above featured: Jordan Belson, Luis Buñuel, Katherine Berger, Jordana Bragg, Mary Ellen Bute, Steve Carr, Bruce Conner, Maya Deren, Oscar Enberg, Oskar Fischinger, Rico Gatson, Christoph Girardet, Ane Hjort Guttu, Nate Harrison, Murray Hewitt, Karin Hofko, Ian Hugo, William E. Jones, Daisuke Kosugi, Kutiman, Sonya Lacey, Len Lye, Evelyn Lambart, Norman McLaren, Tracey Moffatt, Ursula Mayer, Matthias Müller, Peter Roehr, Nova Paul, Miranda Parkes, Martin Rumsby, Rachel Shearer, Barry Spinello, Martine Syms, Shannon Te Ao, Popular Productions and Peter Wareing.

Curators included Marc Glöde, Sophie O’Brien, Tendai John Mutumbu, Solomon Nagler, Frank Stark, Sarah Wall, Mark Williams and myself.

Projection Series #9: Len Lye’s Jazz begins screening daily on 30 December 2017. This programme is a quick survey of Lye’s association with jazz through his filmmaking. I invited Dr. Nicolas Pillai to write the essay accompanying this one which you can grab at the previous link. Pillai is the author of the recent book Jazz as Visual Language: Film, Television and the Dissonant Image.

One of the films featured in Projection Series #9 is Lye’s N. or N.W. (1938), produced for the G.P.O. Film Unit and presented here by the British Film Institute. Although not Lye’s typical abstract animation, N. or N.W. includes a very Lye-esque soundtrack featuring pieces by Fats Waller and Benny Goodman.

EXPRMNTL

I’m presently working on several of next year’s exhibitions, the big one being Free Radicals: Cinema on the Wrong Side of the Tracks (opening in April 2018). Looking at Len Lye’s experimental films as a gateway to the wider world of experimental cinema, I grabbed the title from a quote by Pip Chodorov in his Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film documentary.

As I’m slowly scratching away at details for this exhibition I was delighted to get a copy of the EXPRMNTL film directed by Brecht Debackere. EXPRMNTL is a documentary about the Knokke Experimental Film Festival held on just five occassions: 1949, 1958, 1963, 1967 and 1974 in the Belgian seaside town of Knokke-le-Zoute.

Nine of Len Lye’s films screened in the first festival in 1949; however, my particular interest in this festival is the second edition, held as part of the 1958 World Exhibition in Brussels. It was here that Lye’s Free Radicals (1958) was awarded Second Grand Prize (from a total of 137 participating films) by a panel of judges which included John Grierson, Man Ray and Norman McLaren. Lye’s financial gain from this win wasn’t enough to cover the costs of making Free Radicals and in the months following this win he decalared himself on strike, formally publishing notice of this strike in his 1963 Film Culture essay, ‘Is Film Art?’.

Check out the trailor for EXPRMNTL below and more details here.